March 18 – Joseph of Nazareth

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Joseph of Nazareth, Witness to Jesus

Although Christian tradition tends to refer to Jesus as ‘son of Mary’, the Gospels also preserve a clear indication that he was also known to be the ‘son of Joseph’ (Luke 4:22; John 1:45; 6:42). Joseph appears primarily in the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. There he is named as the ‘husband’ of Mary through betrothal (Matthew 1:16, 18, 20). His importance for the gospel writers lies initially in his Davidic ancestry (Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:27) which indicates that Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, is seen as a part of the Davidic line (see Luke 1:32). This claim underlies the most famous story involving Joseph: the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in response to a purported imperial census. The story is only told in Luke 2:1–7, but an association with Bethlehem is presupposed by Matthew 2:1–6. In addition to supporting the notion that his son is to be Israel’s Messiah, Joseph is portrayed as a person who is faithful to the Jewish law (see Luke 2:27, 39). On hearing the news of Mary’s pregnancy, his concern to secure a quiet divorce is regarded as the action of a ‘righteous man’ (Matthew 1:19). However, it is his obedience to the revelation from God about Mary’s pregnancy by the Holy Spirit that marks Joseph out as faithful: ‘he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him’ (Matthew 1:24). As a recipient of dreams, Joseph is aligned with his Old Testament namesake, as does his exile to Egypt in the face of Herod’s violence (see Matthew 2:13–15, 19–23). The other mentions of Joseph in the New Testament associate him with Jesus’ upbringing in Nazareth (see Luke 2:51–52; Matthew 2:23), a village of around two thousand people, where it is likely that Joseph plied his trade as a ‘woodworker’, a broader and more appropriate term than the more usual ‘carpenter’ (see Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3, noting the variant reading). Joseph’s relative absence from the rest of the Jesus tradition is usually explained by the suggestion that he had died by the time Jesus began his public ministry, but our sources are silent.

Thus, whatever the historical or biological realities behind the Gospel accounts, Joseph of Nazareth is there remembered as a central character in the story of God’s saving purpose. His faithfulness to God, not least in the face of tyranny and violence, ensures that Israel’s ‘mighty saviour from the house of his servant David’ (Luke 1:69) is kept safe and is able to ‘increase in wisdom and in years’ (Luke 2:52).

Rev Dr Sean Winter