Bible Question:

What do we know about the life history of Joseph?

Bible Answer:

The biblical record related to the life of Joseph starts with Jesus’ birth and ends some time during Jesus’ youth. There is a previous question and answer titled “What do we know about the father of Jesus Christ?” that you might want to read before proceeding. The biblical record related to the life of Joseph starts with Jesus’ birth and ends some time during Jesus’ youth.

It is important to note that ancient writers did not value the early years of a person’s life. A biographical sketch of an individual’s life was avoided. They usually focused on only important events in the life of the person. The early years were growth and development, but the final years characterized the real person. How a person died was considered to be of greater value in assessing the character of a person than the early or middle years. Maturity says it all.

So it is not surprising that the youth of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are almost completely ignored, and only the later years are mentioned. If we collect all of the information that we can find in the Bible and put it in chronological order, the life of Joseph looks something like this.

Joseph’ Beginnings

Joseph’s father was named Jacob according to the Apostle Matthew.

Jacob was the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, by whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah. (NASB) Matthew 1:16

Jacob was a descendent of King David, the greatest king of Israel. Almost 1000 years had passed since King David died when Joseph was born. Matthew tells us that Joseph was born into the royal line of David. The scriptures had predicted that the Messiah would be born of the royal line of David. Jesus was a legal descendant of King David.

They Met In Nazareth

We know very little about Mary’s or Joseph’s youth. The first information that we have about Joseph and Mary is that they lived in the city of Nazareth during their youth (Luke 2:4).

Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David . . . (NASB) Luke 2:4

Both the gospel of Matthew and Luke then reveal that Mary and Joseph were engaged to be married.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. (NASB) Matt. 1:18

. . . in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him . . . (NASB) Luke 2:5

Joseph’s and Mary’s marriage would have been arranged by their parents. Both of them might have been asked for their opinion about the marriage before the agreement was made. We read in Gen. 24:57-58 that Rebekah was asked for her consent before she married Isaac. Once the marriage was arranged, the couple had to wait one year in order to see if the young bride had had sexual relations with another man. If she was not pregnant at the end of the year, the contract would be fulfilled and they would be married.

The Righteous Compassionate Man

Joseph must have been in great inner turmoil when he discovered that Mary was pregnant. This was a personal insult to Joseph and a great public embarrassment to both sets of parents. The first glimpse of Joseph’s character is the manner in which he handled this situation. Matthew says that he was a righteous man and that he wanted to show compassion to Mary. So he planned to “put her away secretly.”

. . . before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. (NASB) Matt. 1:18-19

An angel came to their rescue and told Joseph that the child was from God and that he was to marry Mary.

And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus. (NASB) Matt. 1:24-25

Joseph believed in God and responded by obeying. This reveals Joseph’s heart toward God. Most of us would have “been practical” and not proceeded with the marriage, but not Joseph, for he was righteous, compassionate, and obedient to God. Joseph was a godly man. What a great example he is to us.

The Step Father

Joseph married Mary, took her to Nazareth for the census required by Rome, and there Jesus was born. The wording in Matthew 1:16 is unusual. Normally, Jewish genealogies refer to males being descendants of males and not females. But in this verse we are told that Jesus came from Mary. This is a clear indication that Matthew is telling us that Jesus’ birth was abnormal.

We should also note that Matthew 1:16 indicates that Joseph was not the father of Jesus. In fact, Jesus did not have an earthly father according to both Matthew, a former tax collector, and Luke, a medical doctor. Both men, because of their professional training, would have paid great attention to detail.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. (NASB) Matt. 1:18

In this verse we find that Joseph and Mary did not have sexual relations before she became pregnant. The Apostle Matthew was very clear that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus. Joseph was a “step father.” The medical doctor Luke adds this,

When He began His ministry, Jesus Himself was about thirty years of age, being, as was supposed, the son of Joseph, the son of Eli . . . (NASB) Luke 3:23

Joseph was assumed to be the father of Jesus, but he was not the actual father. We also discover in the Luke passage that Eli was Jesus’ grandfather.

The Carpenter

We know that Joseph was not a professional man but a carpenter, since some people made this comment.

Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? (NASB) Matt. 13:55

Joseph was poor at the time that Jesus was born; the offering he made at the temple at the time of Jesus’ circumcision was the offering of a poor man (Luke 2:24). Joseph gave to God even when he did not have much to give. Joseph was self-sacrificing. He was not selfish. Joseph might have been wealthier later, but scripture does not give us a clue.

The Real Father

Joseph loved and cared for Jesus, as was evident at the time they visited Jerusalem on Jesus’ twelfth birthday (Luke 2:41-51). When they left, Jesus did not follow them but remained in Jerusalem and talked with the religious leaders about scripture. His parents thought that He was with them, but several days later discovered that He was not. So they went back.

When they saw Him, they were astonished; and His mother said to Him, “Son, why have You treated us this way? Behold, Your father and I have been anxiously looking for You.” (NASB) Luke 2:48

This event reveals that Joseph really cared for Jesus even though He was not his biological father. Joseph was a wonderful dad. Everybody considered Jesus to be his son (Luke 4:22).

Conclusion:

That is the last glimpse we have of Joseph. He is not mentioned at the cross when Jesus died, but Mary was there. Scripture says absolutely nothing. Why? The answer is probably found in the fact that gospels are about Jesus and no one else – not his mother, brothers, or sisters. But what God does say about him, I hope is what God sees in me. Joseph believed God. He was righteous, compassionate, obedient, caring, loving, a great father, and a man who financially supported his family. It appears that Joseph was not consumed with himself. He was a godly man who followed God.