Joseph’s world

Daily Reading for March 19 • St. Joseph

It is a common assumption that the New Testament clearly states in several places that Joseph and Jesus were carpenters, but that is not the case. There are only two references to their trade. Mark refers to Jesus as a carpenter (6:3), and Matthew calls him “the carpenter’s son” (13:55). . . . Many scholars believe that “carpenter” is an inaccurate translation, although it has become a deeply rooted tradition. The word that Matthew and Mark both use is tekton, which means “worker in hard substances.” Its use more often means stonemason or sculptor. A carpenter would be able to eke out only the poorest living in a place like Nazareth. A stonemason, on the other hand, would not only have work in Nazareth but would also have a great deal of work in the nearby city of Sepphoris, only about an hour’s walk from Nazareth (a reasonable distance to commute by the standards of those days). Sepphoris had been destroyed after a revolt, and the Romans were having it rebuilt as a stone and marble Roman city, hiring local craftsmen to do the work.

We frequently hear comments to the effect that when God took humanity upon himself he came as a peasant. This is a highly inaccurate representation. Carpentry and stone masonry were respected trades and would have been the equivalent of a middle-class occupation in ancient times. Although Joseph and his family would have lived in poverty by modern standards, Joseph would have had a comfortable home and a decent income by the standards of his day. . . .

Although the Bible tells us nothing about Joseph’s personal life, it entirely possible that he was considerably older than Mary. Most scholars believe that Mary was at the most about fourteen or fifteen years old when Jesus was conceived. This was a very respectable marriageable age in those days. It is also quite possible that Joseph had children by a previous marriage. The tremendously high rate of death in childbirth left large numbers of widowers, who were generally considered very desirable husbands. They were experienced in caring for a family and had an already established business or trade. . . . Two second-century works, the Protoevangelium of James and the Gospel of Thomas, as well as the fourth-century History of Joseph the Carpenter, all tell that Joseph was a widower with children when he was betrothed to Mary. The first two, having been written within a century of Jesus’ life, may have been based on a valid oral tradition.

From “Joseph the Husband of Mary” in All the People in the Bible: An A-Z Guide to the Saints, Scoundrels, and Other Characters in Scripture by Richard R. Losch (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008).

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