What Do We Know About Joseph?

The New Testament doesn’t give us an awful lot of information about Joseph but we do know a few things from what we have in Matthew, Luke and John.

First, we know that Joseph was Jewish and a descendant of David and originally from Bethlehem. Matthew tells us that in his genealogy in Matthew 1. This is vitally important to the messianic hope because the messiah was to be Jewish (a descendant of Abraham) and of the lineage of David due to the prophesy in 2 Samuel 7 where God promises David an eternal heir on his throne. Joseph was of the tribe of Judah whose hometown was Bethlehem but who lived in Nazareth (a small town in Galilee of roughly 200 people [1]) at the time Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph’s family was originally from Bethlehem it is more likely that their visit there for the census and eventually the birth and even the first year or two of Jesus’ life that they went looking to stay at a guest room with relatives rather than at an inn. Archaeologists do not believe Bethlehem had any inns at this period of history and the word Luke uses is typically translated guest room, not inn.

We also know that Joseph was a carpenter (Matt 13:55, Mark 6:3). This can mean someone who builds things with wood. It can also mean someone who builds things with stone. In Jesus’ day it was typical for a son to learn the trade of his father just as we see with the sons of Zebedee fishing in their father’s boat. It is likely Jesus learned something about his father’s trade. Some believe it is also likely that Joseph would have had a role in building projects in the much larger, much more Hellenized nearby town of Sepphoris, which was the “district capital of Galilee”. [2]

Next, we know that Joseph was a righteous, Torah-observant man. Matthew tells us that in Matthew 1:19,

Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

Ironically, strict faithfulness to the Torah would have had him take another route because the Torah had provisions for this situation that Joseph could have followed. The result would have been disastrous for Mary (Deut 22:20) and it seems Joseph was not only religiously righteous but also compassionately righteous…trying to do what is right by the Law while also being understanding of the lives of the people he loves.

We also see Joseph’s righteousness in his direct obedience to all the angel tells him. The angel gives Joseph numerous commands and Joseph immediately does everything he is told to do. We also get a glimpse of Joseph’s faith in the names he gives his children: Jesus (Joshua), Judas (Judah), and Simon (Simeon) were the names of the Patriarchs of the twelve tribes and the one who brought God’s people into the promised land. If you go back a generation (Matt 1:16) you will notice that Joseph’s father was Jacob, just like the Jacob in the Old Testament. It was Joseph, in the Old Testament, who went down into Egypt just as Jesus and his family will do due to Herod.

Even though they were engaged, in this time and place betrothal/engagement was to legally enter into the marriage covenant. To break off the engagement required divorce. So engagement was legally entering into marriage but the marriage was not consummated and cohabitation didn’t occur until after the wedding ceremony. That could be a year after their engagement.

By not exercising his legal rights to divorce her, Joseph was potentially giving up the dowry. The dowry was a gift given to the new couple by the father of the bride to ensure their new son-in-law took care of their daughter. If the man broke the marriage covenant, the dowry was lost and her family kept it. If she broke the deal, he was entitled to the dowry. So we have Joseph who legally was entitled to the dowry, possibly giving that up through a quiet divorce to reduce her shame and repercussions.

Joseph legally accepted Jesus as his own son. Matthew connects his genealogy of Jesus to David and Abraham via Joseph. The only issue here is that Joseph wasn’t his dad in a biological sense. What we often miss in the story is missed because of cultural differences between first century Palestine and today. When Joseph names Jesus he is legally and socially accepting Jesus as his very own son. Boys were named on the day of their circumcision (8 days after birth). The naming of the child was formal acceptance by the father of accepting the child as his own. We would call this adoption but it is more than that. Joseph had the opportunity to reject Jesus as his son by not naming him but Joseph went all in by naming and accepting Jesus in Matthew 1. Jesus was Joseph’s son by their standards but not biologically because we know that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. This helps make sense out of how Jesus fulfills the divine promise given to David in 2 Samuel 7 that his heir/descendant would be on the throne forever. Jesus’ world understood Jesus to be Joseph’s son. We see that in the Gospels on several occasions (Matt 13:55, John 6:42).

The last time Joseph shows up in the Gospels is in Luke 2:43 when they lose him in Jerusalem and have to go back and find him. Joseph isn’t named after that. The next thing we have is Jesus beginning his ministry at age 30 (Luke 3:23). It is possible Joseph died between Jesus being 12 and 30. Joseph isn’t found at the foot of the cross either whereas Mary is. We don’t know what happened to Jesus. We do know that men married at an older age to younger women (often in their teenage years) so it is entirely possible that Joseph would have been 70 by the time Jesus started his ministry which is beyond life expectancy in those days.

What do we learn from Joseph in what little we get about him?

First we learn God is to be trusted. Things are not always as they seem and God is up to more than we can conceptualize or realize in this life. Joseph is an example of someone who tried to do what is right and accepted God’s corrective steps along the way. We always find Joseph doing what God tells him to do without hesitation.

Second we see that earthly fathers truly matter. God could have just stuck with Mary and let Joseph go about his merry way. Instead, God put Jesus into a nuclear family. Jesus needed an earthly daddy just like people do today. That is not to bring shame or reproach on anyone who didn’t have this. That is not the point at all.

Last I believe Joseph was a man who was willing to sacrifice everything he had for his family. He stuck with Mary even though he would have also been subject to the stigma. He took his family all the way to Egypt for some years which wouldn’t have been an exciting thing to do. It wasn’t a great career move. There wasn’t anything in it for Joseph except sheer obedience and trust in God. We can learn from what we know of Joseph. We often talk about Mary finding favor in the eyes of the Lord and in a sense Joseph did as well. What an awesome responsibility he carried on his shoulders until the day he died. Something tells me he lived out his life faithfully to what God called him to do.


1 – Jesus and the Gospels “Archaeology and Geography”, p. 36

2 – ibid

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