In The Name Of The Father

il perugino - marriageToday, 19th March, is Saint Joseph’s Day — Joseph, husband of Mary: that one. There is a body of information which Christians “know” about Joseph, but almost none of it comes from the Bible. Joseph is mentioned in two of the gospels, Matthew and Luke, in the account of the Nativity, although the story given in each is substantially different.

In the Greek of the original gospels, Joseph is described only as a “tekton”, or craftsman, although there is a long tradition of his being specifically a carpenter, and many translations of the bible use “carpenter”.

In Matthew, Joseph is a citizen of Bethlehem who marries the pregnant Mary and takes her and the newborn child to Egypt to escape Herod’s massacre. When it is safe, the come back to Palestine and settle in Nazareth. In Luke, the couple originate in Nazareth, but travel to Bethlehem before the birth to register for a census. No massacre or visit to Egypt is mentioned. They just go home to Nazareth.

Both gospels say that Joseph was descended from David (because the Messiah had to be) but they give different information. Luke names Joseph’s father as Eli, but Matthew says he was Jacob.

The last mention of Joseph in the Bible is when Jesus is 12 years old and goes missing in Jerusalem, to be discovered discussing theology with the rabbis in the Temple. After that, Joseph is conspicuously missing when Mary is referred to, leading to the supposition that he must have died.

The gospels left Christians with some problems. Jesus is referred to explicitly as “Joseph’s son” and “the carpenter’s son” in the Bible, and Joseph’s descent from David is stated to show that Jesus was of the house of David, as was required of the Messiah. But that contradicts the idea of the Virgin Birth.

It was left to later Christians to suggest that Joseph was merely the “legal” father of Jesus whose descent from David covered the house of David requirement for the purposes of Jewish law (as if that was important); while his “real” descent from David must have been through his mother.

Some time during the first centuries of Christianity, the belief arose in the movement that sex was evil. Mary’s virgin birth was no longer enough. It was decided that she could not possibly have had a physical relationship with her husband. This meant that the awkward issue of the brothers and sisters of Jesus, as mentioned in the gospels, had to be explained away.

One early attempt to resolve the puzzle was a Christian text called the Protoevangelium of James. This purported to be a history written by James, called in the gospels “the brother of Jesus”, although in reality it’s a much later document. This “James” says that Joseph was an elderly widower when he married Mary, and that he mimself, “James”, and the other brothers and sisters were the children from Joseph’s first marriage.

The ideas of Joseph being an old man with an existing family have been absorbed into Christianity, even though no church takes the Protoevangelium to be scriptural. Eating your cake and having it, I’d say.

Joseph’s feast day was celebrated on the 19th of March from medieval times. In the mid 20th century, there was an attempt by the Catholic church to impose a new saint’s day of “Saint Joseph the worker” on Mayday to compete with, or perhaps confuse, the secular celebrations of the nasty communists and socialists, but it didn’t catch on.

In fact, the actual Saint Joseph’s Day is only a significant festival in a few places, most importantly Sicily (and where there is a significant Sicilian diaspora, such as New York and New Orleans). In Sicily, they eat the sugar-frosted doughnuts called zeppoli, and less enticingly, fava beans. In Italy and several other traditionally Catholic countries, Saint Joseph’s Day is also when Fathers’ Day is celebrated (most other countries have it as the third Sunday of June).


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