The Overlooked Nativity Character

An old girlfriend once told me that the groom was just “a prop” at the wedding. The focus of the entire ceremony is supposed to be the bride. In a lot of ways, that’s true. We have bridal showers (I don’t acknowledge the abomination that is the “couple’s shower”). Even baby showers tend to be all about the mom and the baby. The guy really is just background scenery to the larger narrative. And, in case you were wondering, no, I didn’t marry her.

In the story of Jesus’s birth, there is an oft-overlooked person that deserves a bit more attention: Joseph. If we are honest with ourselves, Joseph comes across as a prop in the story. On the surface, he’s a one-dimensional figure. We give more attention to the shepherds and the magi bringing gifts than we do to Joseph. He has no lines of dialogue in any of the Gospel accounts. Joseph is only referenced 13 times in the Gospels—Mark doesn’t mention him at all.

Last year, I wrote about our misconceptions of the nativity story and how we miss some essential messages as a result. This year, I’d like to give some attention to Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph. His part in the birth and life of Jesus is vitally important.

Catholic and Orthodox traditions state Joseph was a widower that was engaged to Mary. According to these traditions, Joseph had other children with his first wife before he took Mary to be his wife. Is this tradition accurate? Maybe. The first mention of this tradition seems to be in the Protoevangelium of James, a document written around 145 CE. Early church historians, like Eusebius, classify it as a “dubious” document. With all love and respect to my Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters, this tradition seems to have grown out of a desire to reconcile the fact that Jesus had brothers and sisters with the theological idea that Mary remained a virgin her entire life. While it might be plausible, there are plenty of textual clues that go against the Orthodox tradition.

Joseph the Tekton

Most English translations state that Joseph was a carpenter (Matt 13:55). The Greek word translated as carpenter is Tekton (τέκτων). This is a very poor translation. Craftsman would be a better translation. A Tekton worked with whatever local building materials were available. In the area of Nazareth, there were very few trees. The building material of the area was limestone. The Tekton was often responsible for setting the cornerstone and door frame of a house. He provided a framework for other, less-skilled workers to build upon. In essence, the Tekton was the ancient equivalent of a structural or architectural engineer. It was a skilled occupation. A Tekton probably made a decent living.

Luke 2:24 states that after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph brought the required sacrifice for a poor couple—two doves or pigeons. Since a Tekton was a skilled profession with commensurate pay, this could indicate that Joseph was not fully established in his career. If he were older and more established, he would have likely been able to afford the regular sacrifice: a yearling sheep and a dove (Lev 12:6-8). This indicates that Joseph was probably in his mid-20’s, while Mary was likely no older than 16.

Life Begins at…Adoption

Another line of thinking concerning Joseph seems to be that Joseph isn’t that important because he wasn’t really Jesus’ father. Maybe you’ve thought that. I’ll admit that I have. However, let’s think about that statement carefully. A few years ago, my brother-in-law adopted three children. Even though he’s not their biological father, he is their real father, and they consider him as such. To think that Joseph was not considered to be Jesus’ father is as offensive as me telling my brother-in-law that he isn’t the true father of his adopted children. 

Consider what would have happened if Joseph had divorced Mary, as he was planning to do. Mary would have been sent back to her parent’s home (in shame). Jesus would have still been born and (probably) raised within that family. Presumably, Jesus could have still grown up and fulfilled his destiny. Why was it so important that Joseph not reject Mary? I think it was because Joseph had an important role to play in Jesus’ upbringing.

The most striking thing about Joseph is what he did when Jesus was born. In the ancient world, life did not begin at birth. Life began at adoption. As the head of the family, Joseph had the authority to accept or reject the baby (legitimate offspring or otherwise). If he rejected the child, it would be taken out of the house and placed in a field to die of exposure (or be taken in by someone else). Joseph had the legal power of life and death over the newborn.

Joseph’s response in this situation cannot be overstated. He didn’t take the easy way out. Joseph decided to accept the child as his own. By doing so, he saved the life of Jesus and formally made him part of his family. With that adoption came all the responsibilities and obligations of a father to his son. Joseph was responsible for Jesus’ upbringing and education. It is not out of bounds to think that Joseph may have contributed significantly to Jesus’ religious education as well.

Yakob Levy references a later tradition in the Talmud where a man entered a town looking for a rabbi. When he learned that there was no rabbi in the town, he asked if there was a tekton. From this tradition, it seems that a tekton was the best option for interpretation of Torah if a rabbi was not available. If this same tradition continued back to the first century, then it is quite possible that much of Jesus’ Torah education came from Joseph.

Even though the gospels don’t give a lot of attention to Joseph, he plays a vital role in the early life of Jesus. As we celebrate Immanuel this holiday season, let’s take some time to recognize the important role of his father, Joseph.

2 thoughts

  1. As always, thoughtful and good.

    But…aside from “the ancient world”, abandoning an infant to the elements wasn’t an option to God’s people, right?

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    • Hey Kevin! There is no example in the Bible that I can think of where a person abandoned their baby to the elements. Hagar placing Ishmael under a bush and then moving away from him is probably the closest example in the OT. However, the practice was ancient (pre-Roman) and is well-attested in the area all around Israel.

      As such, I think it is well within the realm of possibilities that the practice was not unheard-of–even among God’s people. That is not to say that God approved of it. However, with as much other local cultural adoption that Israel did (much of it even worse) this practice would not have been unheard of.

      Had Joseph not been a righteous man, he would have legally been within his rights to do this–As horrific as the practice seems to us today–and also to the early church.

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