How Joseph was piously invented to be the “father” of Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Georges de La Tour. St. Joseph, the Carpenter
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This post continues from the previous one about John the Baptist’s parents. It’s a sharing of my reading of John Shelby Spong’s Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes . . .. I covered in that earlier post the rationale for searching the Old Testament scriptures for an understanding of the Gospel author’s choices of names and narrative episodes.

Spong begins his discussion of Joseph by reminding readers how “shadowy” he is in the Scriptures. Much legend has accrued around him since the Gospels were written, but the New Testament has very little to say about him at all.

The earliest Christian evidence

Neither he nor Mary appears at all in Paul’s writings.

At the very least, we can state that to the degree that Paul represented Christianity in the fifth, sixth, and seventh decades of this common era, there was no interest in Jesus’ origins or his parentage at that stage in the development of the Christian story.

. . . Paul’s writing gives us no indication that he had ever heard of or had any interest in the miraculous birth traditions. (p. 202)

Spong emphasizes the indications in Paul’s letters that Paul thought Jesus’ birth was quite normal. He points to Galatians 4:4 (“born of a woman”) and Romans 1:3 (from David “according to the flesh”). Others have noted, however, that one does not naturally refer to anyone’s birth as being “of a woman” or “according to flesh”! I would expect to get strange looks if in any conversation I managed to explain that I or anyone present was “born of a woman”! That such apparently obvious truisms are made explicit does raise questions about the intent of such phrases in Paul’s letters. But I’ll continue here with Spong’s explanation.

The next Christian evidence

The first gospel written, Mark (those who question this chronology of Mark can play quick mind re-calcuations here), does introduce “slight biographical data about the family of Jesus” for the first time.

But Joseph does not appear in this data.

Mark’s first mention of Jesus family portrays them as coming to “take Jesus away” because it was being said that he was “out of his mind”, insane. (This image hardly sits with an author who thinks that this mother had given birth as a virgin to this son.) Religious leaders were accusing him of being demon-possessed.

Jesus responds by disowning his natural family.

Mark 3:20-35

20 Then the multitude came together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread. 21 But when His own people heard about this, they went out to lay hold of Him, for they said, “He is out of His mind.”

22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebub,” and, “By the ruler of the demons He casts out demons.” . . . .

28 “Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; 29 but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation”— 30 because they said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

31 Then His brothers and His mother came, and standing outside they sent to Him, calling Him. 32 And a multitude was sitting around Him; and they said to Him, “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are outside seeking You.”

33 But He answered them, saying, “Who is My mother, or My brothers?” 34 And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother.”

But the significance of this earliest appearance of any information about Jesus’ family is that the mother is nameless and no earthly father appears.

Next Exhibit

The second reference in Mark to the family of Jesus gives us, for the first time in the Christian record, the name of his mother and brothers. Sisters are also mentioned.

But no father is mentioned. Joseph is still an unknown. There is no hint in the record up to this point that anyone had heard of Joseph.

Mark in fact hints at a scandal here.

To call a Jewish man, in this era, the son of a woman was to suggest that his paternity was in question or at least unknown. (p. 205)

For Mark, Mary, the mother of Jesus, held no noteworthy status. The only two times Mark mentions her he places her in a negative relationship with Jesus. She does not appear at the crucifixion or at his tomb afterwards.

Mark 6:1-6

1 Then He went out from there and came to His own country, and His disciples followed Him. 2 And when the Sabbath had come, He began to teach in the synagogue. And many hearing Him were astonished, saying, “Where did this Man get these things? And what wisdom is this which is given to Him, that such mighty works are performed by His hands! 3 Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And are not His sisters here with us?” So they were offended at Him.

4 But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house.” 5 Now He could do no mighty work there, except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them. 6 And He marveled because of their unbelief. Then He went about the villages in a circuit, teaching.

There was another Gospel, John, that also contained no narrative of a virgin birth, and that, like Mark, also brought up the suggestion of Jesus’ birth being tainted with scandal:

John 8:40-41

But now you seek to kill Me, a Man who has told you the truth which I heard from God. Abraham did not do this. You do the deeds of your father.”

Then they said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father—God.”

The evidence of the later Gospels — Matthew and Luke

Joseph appears in these gospels only in their respective birth narratives.

Take away from Matthew and Luke the birth stories, including the story of the boy Jesus being taken up to Jerusalem at age twelve, and Joseph disappears from these gospels. So Joseph appeared to play a role on the stage of these gospels only as a character solely identified with the late-developing miraculous birth tradition. Outside those birth stories, Joseph was not referred to by name in either gospel. (p. 206, my bold)

Unlike Mark, Matthew does not contain any narrative in which Jesus’ family appear hostile to Jesus.

Mark’s second appearance of Jesus’ family contained a hint of scandal by identifying Jesus with reference to his mother and not his father. Mark had also said Jesus himself was “a carpenter”.

Contrast Matthew’s account. Rather than identify Jesus by his mother, he introduces Jesus’ earthly father, known from the earlier birth narrative by the name Joseph, into the scene of Jesus returning to his hometown and being. In so doing Matthew shifts the carpentry profession from Jesus to Joseph. Where Mark wrote “Is not this the carpenter?”, Matthew wrote, “Is not this the carpenter’s son?”, and continued with, “Is not his mother called Mary?”

This is the sole indicator that Joseph was ever a carpenter. It is generally seen as an editorial re-writing of Mark’s description of Jesus as a carpenter as part of Matthew’s attempt to remove the whiff of negativity associated with Jesus’ birth in Mark’s gospel.

From this single Matthean editorial addition has come the image of the earthly father of Jesus being a carpenter, and pictures of Jesus helping his father in Joseph’s carpentry shop entered the world of medieval art. (p. 207)

Matthew 13:54-58

54 When He had come to His own country, He taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished and said, “Where did this Man get this wisdom and these mighty works? 55 Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas? 56 And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this Man get all these things?” 57 So they were offended at Him.

But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house.” 58 Now He did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief.

John’s Gospel

Joseph only makes two “oblique references” in John’s Gospel. (In both it is assumed he is the natural father of Jesus.) See John 1:45 and 6:42.



There is not a single appearance of Joseph (apart from a reference to his name) in any Gospel in relation to the adult life of Jesus.

Almost everything we know about Joseph comes out of the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. (p. 208)

And these birth narratives appear in Gospels that do not appear until the last decades of the first century.

This means that since Joseph appeared nowhere in Christian writings before the ninth decade, he as clearly neither an original nor an early part of the Christian story. So a new . . . question begins to invade our consciousness. Was Joseph a legendary character developed by the tradition to fill in an enormous blank in the story that existed as the virgin birth tradition was developed? Was he a fictitious character created first by Matthew and then incorporated by Luke? That possibility becomes larger and more focused as these data accumulate. (p. 208)

Joseph in Matthew’s Birth Narrative

Who was Joseph for Matthew? (See Matthew 1:16-2:23)

  1. Husband of Mary of whom Jesus the Christ was to be born (1:16)
  2. Son of Jacob (1:16)
  3. A just man unwilling to shame Mary on discovering she was with child, and resolving to divorce her quietly (1:19)
  4. A recipient of divine messages through dreams (1:20; 2:13; 2:19; 2:22)
  5. In one dream he was addressed as “son of David” (1:20)
  6. Divine origin of the baby was revealed in a dream, and the text that prophesied this (1:22, 23)
  7. A dream revealed the name by which the baby was to be known (1:21)
  8. In a dream he was warned to flee to Egypt to save the child’s life (2:13)
  9. In a dream he was ordered to return from Egypt (2:20)
  10. In a dream he was warned not to settle in Judea but to move to Galilee (2:22)

Each action, the virgin birth of Jesus, the flight into Egypt, the return, and the choice of Nazareth as a home, was done in order “to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet,” and the scriptural allusion was implied, driving readers into the Hebrew texts (Isa. 7:14, Hos. 11:1, Isa. 11:1 or 4:3, Judges 16:17). (p. 209)

Also noteworthy is that Matthew always portrays Joseph as obedient to divine instructions:

  1. He took his wife (1:24)
  2. He rose and took the child and its mother to Egypt (2:14)
  3. He rose and took them back to Israel (2:21)
  4. He went and dwelt in Nazareth (2:23)

Joseph was also said to have “not known” his wife until she gave birth to Jesus (1:25 — compare Gen. 4:1). The earliest appearance of Joseph thus precedes the time when the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity was being developed.

The Joseph that we meet in Matthew is always responsive to the direction of a text from the Hebrew scriptures. . . . Is it possible not only that Matthew invented Joseph, but also that we can discern the Jewish midrashic methods that he employed to accomplish this literary task?

If so, Spong asks if we can suggest a reason for the choice of the name of Joseph, and what details are found in other Josephs that match Matthew’s portrait.

Choice of the name “Joseph”

The geopolitical choice

Biblical Israel was divided into two kingdoms. The northern Kingdom of Israel or Samaria was predominantly made up of the sons of Joseph, and sometimes called “Ephraim”, the firstborn of Joseph. The southern Kingdom of Judah was the original base of the dynasty of King David. It was here, in Bethlehem, that the Messiah was prophesied to be born.

The Christ was to come from David, and hence from Bethlehem in Judah. But Matthew’s Jesus was also living and working in Galilee, the remnant of the northern kingdom of Joseph.

Moreover, the authors of Chronicles addressed the question of the royal line being through Judah, and relationship between the two kingdoms of Judah and Joseph, and concluded that the birthright belonged to Joseph.

1 Chronicles 5:1-2

1 Now the sons of Reuben the firstborn of Israel—he was indeed the firstborn, but because he defiled his father’s bed, his birthright was given to the sons of Joseph, the son of Israel, so that the genealogy is not listed according to the birthright; 2 yet Judah prevailed over his brothers, and from him came a ruler, although the birthright was Joseph’s

The name “Joseph” would thus serve the purpose of acknowledging the northern origin of Jesus. And if Joseph was also the son of David, the southern origin of Jesus was also acknowledged. Thus the dual origins of Jesus would be recognized in the parentage of Jesus. The Chronicles passage may, furthermore, well have been interpreted as stating that the birthright of the Messiah was to be Joseph’s. If so, this could be symbolized by the choice of the name Joseph.

(Spong does not refer to the evidence suggesting the possibility that there was also a belief in another Messiah to come from the northern kingdom prior to the advent of the Messiah from David, and known as Messiah  ben [son of] Joseph.)

The genealogical choice

Joshua (the Hebrew form of the Greek Jesus) means “God is salvation”, a most apt name for a saviour.

The name was common enough among Jews, but only two Joshuas have a significant part to play in the Hebrew Scriptures. The first one was the Joshua who succeeded Moses.

Connections between this Joshua and Jesus are easily recognized:

  1. Joshua fulfilled the promise prepared for by Moses; Jesus fulfilled the promise prepared for by John the Baptist.
  2. Joshua created extra daylight to fulfil his task (Josh. 10:12-14); Jesus fulfilled his task as extra darkness covered the earth (Matt. 27:45), and became the source of eternal light of the world.
    • Not alluded to by Spong, but the same story of the extra daylight culminated in the burial of five kings in a cave that was sealed with stones; the kings were later brought out alive, executed and then hung on trees, and then resealed in the cave. Crossan and others have observed the link between this passage and the Gospel story of Jesus’ burial in a “cave” that was sealed by a large stone.

But for our purposes, it is significant that this Joshua belonged to the tribe of Joseph. He was given an inheritance and buried in the tribal area of the first son of Joseph, Ephraim: Josh. 19:49-50; 24:30.

So this first Jesus (Joshua) was also a son of Joseph.

The second renowned Joshua in the Hebrew Bible is discussed in the prophetic books of Zechariah and Haggai. As pointed out in the previous post, this Joshua (Jesus) was in Zechariah 4:14 described as one anointed by God, meaning he was a “messiah” or “christ”.

The father of this second Joshua was the son of Jehozadak (Haggai 1:1, 12), or Jozadak, or Josedech or Josedek.

I submit that this is too close to Joseph to be ignored. So the two primary biblical figures in Jewish history who bear the name Joshua/Jesus were both related to a paternal figure named Joseph or to a variation of that name. When these facts are added to the suggestion in 1 Chronicles that the “birthright” belonged to Joseph, the case becomes firmer. These Hebrew sacred traditions could have constituted sufficient justification for the author of Matthew’s gospel to add this bit to the fulfillment of the scriptures by suggesting that the earthly father of Jesus, who was called Christ, would be named Joseph. (pp. 213-4)

Joseph’s Character and Experiences

Matthew described Joseph as a “just” or “upright” man who planned a compassionate and merciful alternative to having Mary publicly shamed or executed. Deuteronomy 22:23-25 decreed that a betrothed virgin who was violated in the city was to be executed (if she had cried for help she could have been rescued) but a betrothed virgin violated in the country (and out of earshot) should be allowed to live, but the marriage cancelled. Joseph was thus presented as a wronged man who did not seek revenge or justice.

Spong compares this with the famous Joseph of Genesis 37-50. He had been wronged by his brothers but nevertheless took action to spare them and to save their lives once he attained power in Egypt.

This same Genesis Joseph was also famous for his ability to interpret dreams, and for the way his life was led by revelations that came to him (or others) in dreams. Dreams led him to understand that he would be the ruler over his brethren, and it was his dreams that led others to hate and love him.

Matthew had his Joseph also be guided at each point of his life by dream revelations from God.

Spong writes: “Embrace the similarities!”

  1. Both the Joseph in Genesis and the Joseph of Matthew had fathers named Jacob
  2. Both Josephs had lives and careers marked by dreams
  3. Both Josephs played dramatic roles in salvation history
  • The Patriarch Joseph saved his family by bringing them down into Egypt
  • Matthew’s Joseph saved Jesus and Mary by bringing them down to Egypt

Then when God wanted to send Joseph back to Israel, he came to Joseph in a dream and said: “Those who sought the child’s life are dead” (Matt. 2:20).

This was the same word God spoke to Moses when he wanted him to return to Egypt: “For all the men seeking your life are dead.” (Exod. 4:19)

The textual similarity served Matthew’s later task of identifying Jesus with Moses in a midrashic manner. (p. 215)

Luke’s Disagreements with Matthew

Luke found meanings in other scriptures, and accordingly wrote a different view of Jesus from Matthew’s.

One resulting difference of was for him to give Joseph a different father from the one assigned by Matthew. Matthew had, in imitation of the Patriarch Joseph’s father, named his own Joseph as the son of Jacob. But Luke’s Joseph was said to be the son of Heli. See Matthew 1:16 and Luke 3:23.

Luke’s nativity story was largely woven out of the story of Hannah and Samuel (1 Samuel 1-3):

God announced through a priest to Hannah that she would have a child (1 Sam 1:17) God announced through an angel to Mary that she would have a child
Hannah responded: “Let your maid servant find favour in your sight” (1 Sam 1:18) Mary responded: “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your will.” (Luke 1:38)
Hannah’s song began: “My soul exults in the Lord and my strength is exalted in the Lord.” (1 Sam. 2:1-10) Mary’s song began: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit exults in God my savior” (Luke 1:46-55)
Hannah and her husband took Samuel to the Temple when he was of age (1 Sam. 1:22) Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the Temple when he was twelve (Luke 2:41-50)

Now the priest Samuel served was Eli, and old enough to be his grandfather.

So Luke, continuing to lean for his details on the Samuel material, made the father of Joseph, or Jesus’ grandfather, bear the name Eli; but since he did it under the Greek spelling, Heli, few people grasp that connection quickly. It was another clear midrashic use of ancient sources by the gospel writers and signals rather loudly that we are not dealing with history in these gospel narratives. We are, in fact, dealing with the midrashic interpretations by Jewish people seeking to process their experience of God in Jesus of Nazareth in a traditional Jewish way. (p. 216)

The deadly alternative

People who have read the Joseph narratives as history have generally attempted to explain his disappearance from the Gospels right after the birth scenes by saying he must have died early.

Not that Spong alludes to this, but this “knock ’em off” explanation is the same rationale some (even learned scholars) use to explain the contradictory name-lists of the apostles. Some died and were replaced by new names throughout Jesus’ one or three-year ministry.

A better explanation, Spong offers, is that Joseph “never existed.”

Joseph, I believe, was a product of a midrashic Jewish use of their sacred scriptures that created a narrative out of the Jewish past to interpret biblically the meaning of the presence of God that had been met and experienced in Jesus of Nazareth. The concern of Jewish writers was not to relate biographical facts, but to interpret within the framework of their faith tradition the meaning of the experience that they had with the living God. So Joseph as Jesus’ earthly father, patterned after the Joseph of the book of Genesis and symbolized by the fathers of the two major Joshua/Jesus figures of Hebrew history, entered the Christian story in the ninth decade from the pen of the Jewish/Christian scribe who wrote the book we call Matthew. (p. 217)

I covered in my previous post how Spong explains why this understanding was lost after the church became predominantly gentile.

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Neil Godfrey

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24 thoughts on “How Joseph was piously invented to be the “father” of Jesus”

  1. Spong’s arrival at the conclusion that Joseph never existed after being unable to make sense of all the alternative explanations presented in the various gospels, together with the fact that Paul never discussed Jesus’ parents, certainly seems to make Doherty’s hypothesis that Paul was writing about a Jesus that never lived on earth all the more reasonable. And the fact that some thought Mary must have been a woman of ill-repute suggests that the idea of a virgin birth wasn’t very credible at the time, even though there had been plenty of them in prior mythology.

    1. What I found curious in Spong’s explanations was how he could see the case for the “midrashic” inventions of one Gospel character after another, and so many of his explanations even pointed along the way to the same sorts of evidence for the same origin of the central character himself, Jesus!

      He has two chapters discussing how Christ was “crucified according to the scriptures”, and, like Crossan, shows how every detail is drawn from the scriptures. Yet, also like Crossan, he insists that the one certain historical fact is that Jesus really was crucified.

      It seems that the degree of conviction for historicity is in direct proportion to the amount of evidence pointing the other way.

      1. I gather it’s their unshakable faith that allows them to dismantle the New Testament but still believe. Blessed are they who have not seen and still believed. Even more blessed are they who have proved the evidence to be false but believe even more strongly.

  2. Neil Said; He has two chapters discussing how Christ was “crucified according to the scriptures”, and, like Crossan, shows how every detail is drawn from the scriptures. Yet, also like Crossan, he insists that the one certain historical fact is that Jesus really was crucified.

    Neil, the religion industry has a primary function. To give christian supernaturalists the feeling that there are professionals that confirm there is a historicity to their supernaturalistic beliefs. If the industry backs away from giving supernaturalists excuses to feel their belief in at least jesus is justified, the industry will serve no purpose, and will loose it’s funding, and many of the professionals will loose their jobs.

    Broaching the topic of that the historicity of jesus is possibly incorrect, is the LAST issue that the industry wants to deal with. They will stay as far way from it as possible for as long as they can. They have nothing to gain, and everything to loose. Don’t look for the religion industry to deal with this issue.

    Advances in the field will come from outside the religion industry, the religion industry will attempt to fend them off as long as they can.

    Cheers! RichGriese@gmail.com (use for responses)

  3. Wow. I have never seen it explained in so much detail like the Heli/Eli thing. Ingenious of you to see that. And speaking of these sorts of “pius” inventions, you have got to check out Huller’s recent post about the artificiality of the 318 bishops at Nicea having to do with the numerical name of Eliezer with a quotation from “St.” Hilary demonstrating it to boot. Looks like midrash goes beyond the New Testament stories to the fictional stories of the church councils too.

    1. The Heli/Eli thing is not my insight. I was sharing the good (now retired) Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong’s insight.

      Maybe I should do so with a twinge of guilt, since Spong’s purpose in publishing this sort of thing was to enable enlightened moderns who know the Bible is nonsense when read literally to understand how it was written so they, too, could have faith.

    2. Yes, I just finished reading a fascinating book on the Dioscuri in Christian legend and it appears to show pretty convincingly that the Acts of Thomas (3rd Century) is simply a baptism of the Dioscuri into Christianity.

      Apparently in the 3rd century, Christians had no concern about telling legends of Jesus that cast him in the role of Polydeuces, the immortal twin, opposed by Didymus Judas Thomas, the mortal twin Castor.

  4. Re “To call a Jewish man, in this era, the son of a woman was to suggest that his paternity was in question or at least unknown. (p. 205)”

    If part of your message is “this guy is a god” it seems reasonable to ask where he/it came from, no? So, there would be speculation either heard by Paul or anticipated by Paul when he wrote that.

  5. Mary’s mother Hannah (Anne) in the apocryphal Protevangelium of James perhaps also suggests this midrash that is drawing from the narrative of Hannah and Samuel. Which is to say that Hannah isn’t Mary’s biological ‘mother’ but that the Samuel narrative of Hannah is a primary midrashic ‘source’ of the Mary story?

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