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Did Joseph, Foster Father of Jesus, Really Exist?

Artifact offers possible evidence

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In 2002, an extraordinary artifact made its first public appearance at a Toronto museum: a limestone ossuary, or bone box, that purported to hold the bones of the apostle James, a leader of the early Christian church. What made this find so extraordinary was the inscription on the outside: "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." The box, now known as the James Ossuary, may not provide incontrovertible proof that Joseph existed, but it has focused new attention on him and his role in the story of Jesus.

Joseph the Protector

Christian tradition holds that Joseph was formally engaged to Mary when she was found to be pregnant "by the Holy Spirit." In those days, betrothal was more than today's private agreement between a man and a woman that they will wed. Betrothal in Joseph and Mary's time was a formal, binding contract with specific rights and responsibilities. When Mary turned up pregnant, Joseph would have been within his rights under Jewish law to have Mary charged with adultery and stoned to death. Instead he chose to marry her and accept legal responsibility for the child she carried.

In other words, Joseph's role as protector saved both Mary and her unborn child from death under Jewish law. In historical context, this was an unusual action on Joseph's part because the Jews kept strict control over sexual relations for the purpose of assuring the purity of their bloodlines. The Gospel of Matthew says that Joseph struggled over what to do about Mary until an angel prompted him in a dream to go ahead with their marriage.

According to the Gospel of Luke, Joseph also saved Jesus' life when he took the infant and Mary to Egypt to save them from Herod the Great. The timeline of Herod's life and rule sets his death in 4 B.C., so recent timelines have been revised to set Jesus' birth sometime in the period of 7 - 4 B.C.

Seen amid these settings of Jewish religious authority and oppression by the Roman Empire's vassal Herod, Joseph's actions take on a new courage and importance.

Joseph As Carpenter and Family Man

Joseph's profession of carpentry also played a role in Jesus' identity, since Jesus often has been identified as a carpenter or the son of a carpenter. What has puzzled historians is why Joseph, if the family were safe in exile in Egypt, would undertake a second arduous journey back to Nazareth. One answer now suggested by archaeologists and historians makes sense: Joseph took his family back to Nazareth to find work in a nearby city, Sepphoris.

Today the ruins of Sepphoris lie about four miles from Nazareth, which in its time was a tremendous city in the Galilean hills. Archaeologist James Strange of the University of South Florida in Tampa has been excavating Sepphoris for 30 years. He supposes that Joseph and Jesus could have been among the dozens of workers hired to help rebuild the city after Herod the Great's son, Herod Antipas, had it razed because of a revolt there.

Unfortunately, none of the gospels record anything that Joseph said or when he died. Luke's gospel says that Joseph was still living when a 12-year-old Jesus taught theology to the elders in the Temple in Jerusalem, but after that Joseph fades from view.

The Inscription on the Bone Box

So what about the startling inscription on the James Ossuary? Scholars have debated for centuries whether Joseph and Mary had sexual relations after Jesus' birth. Catholics in particular insist that Mary remained a virgin. Historians say it would have been highly unusual for Joseph and Mary to refrain from sex because Jewish culture placed a high emphasis on having children. Other scholars speculate that Joseph could have been married previously. Therefore, any brothers and sisters ascribed to Jesus then would have been his step-siblings from Joseph's previous marriage. Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55 name Jesus' siblings as James, Joses, Judah, Simon, and unnamed sisters.

Unfortunately, the James Ossuary provides no clues to whether James was Jesus' older step-brother or younger brother. What the box does claim is that James and Jesus were related in some way through Joseph. The little-known foster father may yet be proven by archaeological evidence to be an important link in Christian history.

Sources:

  • Matthew 1:16-2:23; Luke 1:22-2:52, The Oxford Annotated Bible with The Apocrypha, New Revised Standard Version.
  • "'Excavating Jesus': Some sites mentioned in Gospels yield clues," by Bill Broadway, The Seattle Times, Dec. 23, 2007.
  • [ seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2001824216_jesus27.html ]
  • Joseph - Earthly Father of Jesus, by Mary Fairchild, About.com Guide to Christianity.
  • "Joseph (father of Jesus)," New World Encyclopedia [ www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Joseph_%28father_of_Jesus%29 ]
  • Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts, by John Dominic Crossan & Jonathan L. Reed; HarperOne: 2001.

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