Christmas Myth 1: Joseph was an old man with kids.

I’ve decided to do a few post this week about Christmas myths leading up to Christmas. This time of year you’ll hear all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories especially about “Christmas is a pagan holiday.” Sure, sounds good. However, I just want to address a few, and truth be told, there’s no definite answer to most of these myths. There is just not enough adequate historical information, and both sides make conjectures. Therefore, my goal is to make a conjecture that seems more reasonable (at least to me) about these myths.

I grew up in a Roman Catholic home and also received a Bachelor of Arts degree in theology from a Roman Catholic college. One of the defining dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) is the perpetual virginity of Mary. The Perpetual Virginity of Mary is a dogma that is de fide, meaning you must believe it to be a faithful Roman Catholic. This teaching teaches that Mary was a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Jesus, and Mary remained celibate and thus a virgin her whole life. Now, most of the Marian Dogmas of the Catholic Church come from later sources that date far after the time of Jesus, his Apostles, and the eyewitnesses, most of which came from groups that were condemned as heretical. I only tell you this so that I can set up where the idea of Joseph was an old man with kids came from.

Because the RCC holds to the perpetual virginity of Mary, they must come up with ways to explain away (1) Joseph never having sexual relations with his wife, and (2) Jesus having brothers and sisters. They do this in either one of two ways. First, they say that Joseph was an old man and the siblings of Jesus are stepbrothers and stepsisters from a previous marriage. Secondly, they say that the siblings of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels are cousins, not brothers and sisters and saying there is no word for cousins in the original languages. In this post, I’ll be dealing with the prior.

The idea of Joseph as an old man with kids from a previous marriage first appears in 150 AD with the Protoevangelium of James. Then in the 5th century AD, the apocryphal work History of Joseph the Carpenter was written and designated the age of 90 to Joseph. In this work, Joseph has four sons and two daughters and is then given custody of a twelve-year-old girl named Mary. Mary lives in Joseph’s household, raises the youngest son James the Less for two and a half years until she is of the age to be married. Joseph dies at age 111. This work designates Joseph as a caretaker, not a husband, and spends the majority of the time asserting Mary’s perpetual virginity. Another work called The Panarion, by Epiphanius, the bishop of Salamis, also claimed that Joseph had a previous wife and children, and it wasn’t until he was eighty that he married Mary.

All of this is conjecture by people long after the time of Joseph, Mary, Jesus, the Apostles, and the eyewitnesses. They are all works trying to promote this idea that Mary was a perpetual virgin and never had other children. They are ahistorical, anachronistic, and non-authoritative. However, it does promote this idea of Mary as a perpetual virgin, Joseph as an old man with kids, and now many people, both Catholic and Protestant, hold to this belief today because of the de fide dogma of the RCC. To finish this post, let me just give us some biblical conjecture and also some cultural norms to support that both Mary and Joseph were younger in age, that they did have children together, and Jesus was the oldest brother.

First, most of the people who wrote these later documents about Mary and Joseph weren’t Jewish, and thus didn’t understand the Jewish customs of marriage. The Jewish Talmud actually prohibits such a large age gap between two spouses as purposed by the writings listed above.[1] Furthermore, this act of marrying a teenaged Mary to a man in his 80s would’ve been declared as reprehensible as prostituting one’s daughter.[2] Even if these are not scribed until after the time of Jesus, it is very likely that these would have been the social norms in Israel. Too often, we ascribe the cultural norms of the Roman Empire to client states like Israel. However, since Mary and Joseph were devout Jews, it is highly unlikely that Joseph was an old man who married a teenage girl. It is more likely that they were both relatively young, both virgins, and therefore no children. The story found in Matthew 1:18-25 only makes sense in light of Joseph and Mary eventually coming together in sexual union.

Matthew 1:18: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”

Matthew 1:25: “…but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”

In light of these two scriptures, a plain reading of the text tells us that Mary and Joseph intended to have sexual relations, had sexual relations, and had other children (Mark 6:3; Matthew 13:55-56; Galatians 1:19). If all of this is true, then it is highly unlikely that their age gap was as wide as once believed in light of the Talmud’s teaching. In actuality, they were probably both young virgins excited about the idea of marriage.

But if Joseph was young like Mary, then why does he disappear from the Gospels after Jesus’ birth? Answer, we don’t know. He might have died, and probably did. It wouldn’t have been that uncommon for a man to die before his fifties in that time period. The New Testament writers didn’t see it as a key component to the story of Jesus. Joseph is remembered by that Nazareans when Jesus returns to his hometown: “Isn’t this the carpenter/stoneworker’s son?” What they didn’t ask: “Isn’t this the illegitimate child of the old widower who took in that young promiscuous girl?”

There is also the fact that Luke was such a meticulous historian. If Joseph had been an old man, or that he had other children from a different marriage, I find it hard to believe Luke left that out of his gospel. I have to believe that when he tells of Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem and registering in Luke 2:5 that he would have also told us about the other children. Either that they were traveling with them, or they met them there in Bethlehem. However, Luke never mentions the idea of Joseph having other children.

Finally, I know that some of the great Protestants heroes of the faith held to the belief that Mary was a perpetual virgin such as Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Wesley, and even John Calvin thought it was possible but not reliably drawn from scripture. However, both Martin Luther and Zwingli were ordained as Roman Catholic priest, and John Calvin studied to be one. Therefore it is easy to understand why they held to this belief. John Wesley came from a tradition that never truly split from Rome over theological issues and still had RC theological influence. I believe that Calvin takes a step in the right direction and is where I would probably land. Is it possible? Yes, it’s possible. It says in the Gospel of Luke: “For nothing will be impossible with God.”[3] However, the scriptural evidence for the perpetual virginity is inconclusive. This is where I would depart from Calvin and go a step further and say that I believe scripture actually teaches that Jesus had younger brothers and sisters.

In conclusion, I believe that Mary and Joseph were a young, devout, Jewish couple who were excited to get married to one another. Joseph wasn’t some old man who had already been married, had children, and then decided to marry a teenage girl. Is there any clear evidence to either side? Not really. But where does your idea that Joseph was an old man come from? Did you get that from reading scripture or did someone tell you that belief? I never thought that Joseph was an old man until someone told me. Then I read the scriptures, researched that belief, and came to the conclusion I have presented here. Can you believe that Mary was a perpetual virgin and Joseph was an old man and still be a good, faithful, believing Christian? Yes, Luther, Zwingli, and Wesley all proved that. However, that belief is extrabiblical and not derived from the scriptures themselves. So if you believe that Joseph was old, as you read the Christmas story this season maybe ask yourself: “Where did I get this belief from?” My hope and prayer is not that I would change your mind or make you lose faith, but rather become faithful to the story of Christmas laid out in scripture: Jesus was born of the virgin Mary (Luke 1-2), and Joseph was faithful to both Mary and God (Matthew 1).

Marry Christmas, and may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you!

 

[1] Yevamot 44a.

[2] Sanhedrin 76a. 

[3] Luke 1:37, ESV.

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