Joseph, Father and Protector of Jesus

Because of his true marriage to Jesus' mother, Mary, Joseph is truly Jesus' father, although not in a natural, biological sense. Due to the inaccuracy of the terms "adopted" or "foster" father, it has been suggested that Joseph be called "matrimonial father," in that he acknowledges the legitimate offspring born to his wife; or "virginal father," since he is father in every way except by physical generation. His legal fatherhood is certainly key to Matthew 1, and it must be understood that in semitic thought such fatherhood was considered as no less real than biological fatherhood, so much so that phrases such as "descended according to the flesh" can be used without any incompatibility with the virginal conception (cf. Rom 1:3; 9:5).

Besides passing on a name in the line of David, Joseph also gives the faith name "Jesus," meaning "Savior" (Mt 1:20,25). This data leads one to assert that Joseph's affection for Jesus could not be less than that of any father for his natural child. To all appearances Jesus is known as Joseph's "son," so much so that people have difficulty imagining that he could be anything more (Mt 13:55). An examination of Matthew 2 will provide further information on Joseph and his exercise of fatherhood.

I. 4.1 Problems with Nazareth

Whereas chapter one of Matthew explains the human parentage of the divinely conceived child and his connection with the line of David, chapter two explains why he was associated with Nazareth, another issue regarding his identity. The fact that Jesus was said to be "of Nazareth" (Mt 21:11; 26:71) in Galilee seems to have been a problem for some. Peter's Galilean accent associated him with Jesus of Nazareth whom he tried to deny (Mt 26:73). Galilee in general was not held in high esteem, and Nazareth was not a place from which the Messiah would be expected (Jn 1:46; 7:41-42,52). "Nazareth" and "Nazarene" are often mentioned in contexts of hostility, as if the name carried an element of prejudicial scorn (Mk 1:24; 14:67; Lk 4:34; Acts 22:8; 24:5; 26:9). The people of Jesus' own country are unbelieving and take offense at him (Mt 13:53-58; Mk 6:1-6; Lk 4:16,22-29). Matthew 2 thus introduces itself with "Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea," the city of David, and then quickly shows the opposition of Jerusalem, followed by a geographical movement through Egypt that ends up in Nazareth.

I. 4.2 The Gentile Magi

In chapter two the emphasis is less on showing that the child is the "Son of David," the Messiah for the Jews, and more on his mission to the gentiles. The chapter can be said to develop the title "Son of Abraham," since Abraham is known as the father of many nations. In the first episode (Mt 2:1-12) of the chapter, gentile wise men from the East are the first to come pay homage to the child. They are looking for the newborn "king of the Jews" (Mt 2:2; 27:11,29,37), a title understood in Jerusalem to mean the destined descendent of David, whom the Jews were awaiting to establish God's kingdom, which was seen to imply the liberation of Israel from the foreign domination (Acts 1:6). That domination was then in the hands of the dynasty of Herod, which was under Roman control. Herod considered himself the only "king" (Mt 2:3) and was jealously and violently angered by any possible pretender to his throne. The Jewish chief priests and scribes in Jerusalem, who knew the prophecies, were in conspiracy with Herod and uninterested in seeking out the newborn king, while the gentile magi joyfully found and rendered homage to the child. Herod plotted "secretly" (Mt 2:7), in malevolent contrast to the earlier benevolent consideration of just Joseph to "secretly" separate from Mary (Mt 1:19); the same Greek word is used in each case.

This episode of the magi is the only one of Matthew 1-2 in which Joseph is not a principal player and not even mentioned by name. We do learn, however, that Mary and Joseph had a house in Bethlehem, at least by the time the magi arrived. On entering they found "the child and his mother," a phrase that almost spontaneously leads one to think also of Joseph, since it occurs four other times in the chapter, always in connection with him (Mt 2:13,14,20,21). What is more, both the geography and the characters introduced in this scene flow into the following passage in which Joseph is again the protagonist. God has already begun to foil the threats from the Jerusalem authorities, by warning the foreign magi in a dream (Mt 2:12).

I. 4.3 Saving and Protecting the Child

In the section which follows (Mt 2:13-23), Joseph is the visible protagonist who thwarts Herod in his intention to destroy the child. In this he exercises the protective role of father necessary for the survival of the child. Twice explicitly and once implicitly, it is again Joseph whom the angel of the Lord addresses for what regards the family (Mt 2:13,19,22). Both child and mother are mentioned in a passive role, entrusted to his care. As Joseph was a "just" or "upright" man of faith in accepting his role of father in Matthew 1, so now is he an upright man of faith in exercising that role by immediate, trusting, and unquestioning obedience to the three divine commands to flee by night to Egypt with Mary and Jesus, to return to Israel, and to move to Galilee where he settled at Nazareth. In the first two of these examples as in the initial dream in Matthew 1, Joseph's response is described in words that repeat almost verbatim the words of the angel. This absolute and exact faithfulness to God in fatherly concern for the welfare of the child makes Joseph God's instrument of liberation and fulfillment. Humbly and quietly he saves the Savior's life and establishes earthly residence for him.

I. 4.4 Joseph's Fatherhood

Five Scriptural fulfillment quotations are used to punctuate the episodes of Matthew's infancy narrative. Each shows in some way that Jesus fulfills the prophecies, and that Joseph's son is also God's Son. The first four refer to specific Old Testament texts (Is 7:14, Mic 5:2-3, Hos 11:1, Jer 31:15, quoted respectively in Mt 1:23; 2:6,15,18).

The fifth quotation closing the narrative, "He shall be called a Nazarene" (Mt 2:23), has no clear referent in the Old Testament. Some have suggested that the variant word used for "Nazarene" is a metaphorical combination of similar sounding Hebrew words nzîr, "holy" or "consecrated" like Samson from his conception in his mother's womb (Jgs 13:5; 16:17), and ner, a "branch" sprouting from the stump of Jesse, David's father (Is 11:1), two words which are combined in Isaiah 4:2-3. Whether or not that be the case, what seems evident in the context of the whole of Matthew's Gospel is that an explanation is being given for Jesus' coming from Nazareth in Galilee. His dwelling in Nazareth was in order that "what was spoken of by the prophets might be fulfilled" (Mt 2:23). This was a common phrase that could be applied to situations in continuity with God's saving plan throughout history, without always needing to refer to a particular literal verse, much as we today apply the phrase "in the spirit of Vatican II" to particular instances not specifically mentioned in any Council document. The citation answers the Nazareth problem by showing Jews as well as gentiles how this came about, and that it was in fulfillment of God's plan, as was being born in Bethlehem, the city of David.

Joseph's fatherhood is the instrument for the Son of God to be called "Son of David" (Mt 1:1,20), "Jesus" (Mt 1:25), and "Nazarene" (Mt 2:23). That fatherhood is real, human, legal, affectionate, protective, and also educative, as shall be seen in a later comment on "the carpenter." It is "matrimonial" and "virginal," since it begins during betrothal without sexual intercourse. It is in accord with fulfillment of the prophecies, and therefore is distinct from but obediently collaborative with the paternity of God, whom Jesus will later call his "Father."