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A modern dictionary of Catholic terms, both common and obscure. Find accurate definitions of words and phrases.


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Spouse of the Virgin Mary and foster father of Jesus. His name is an abbreviated form of the Hebrew Jehoseph, "may Jahweh give an increase." He was a descendant of David and natural relative of Mary, but the degree of kinship is not known. His father is called Jacob, though he is also said to have been the son of Heli, perhaps by some kind of adoption. Hegesippus in the second century identifies one of his brothers, Cleophas, who is called the "uncle" of Jesus. We do not know where Joseph was born. It may have been at Bethlehem, as the Apology of Justin the Martyr suggests, or Nazareth, where Mary lived.

According to the Evangelists, he was a workman (Greek tekton), which tradition has interpreted to mean carpenter, although he may have engaged in other kinds of labor, too, as circumstances in a Jewish village would require. The Proto-Evangelium of James and other apocrypha, wishing to safeguard Mary's virginity and explain the term "brethren of the Lord" (Matthew 13:55), present Joseph as an old man and widower with children by a previous marriage. But the exertions demanded for supporting a family and for making long journeys practically exclude old age. The "brethren" of Jesus are explained as relatives, either on the side of Cleophas or of a sister of Mary.

Joseph's marriage took place before the Incarnation, since he and Mary are called spouses before the Annunciation. When the Gospel says that Mary was a "virgin promised," this refers to Jewish matrimonial rights, which distinguished espousals (regarded as true marriage) from the bride's entering the house of her husband. When Joseph became aware of Mary's pregnancy, he thought of putting her away privately, without exposure, until an angel revealed the mystery to him. He received Mary into his home and acquired the parental right of naming the infant to be born of her.

The census decree of Emperor Augustus sent Joseph with Mary to Bethlehem, where he probably owned a small field, since the law required enrollment in the place where land was held. When the shepherds came to visit the Christ Child, they found him with Joseph and his mother. Forty days after Jesus was born, Joseph accompanied Mary and her Son at the presentation in the Temple, and through angelic direction fled into Egypt to escape the anger of Herod. Twice the Evangelist Luke says that Christ lived in Nazareth with Joseph and Mary; first after the presentation and again when Jesus, at the age of twelve, was found in Jerusalem among the doctors after being lost for three days. After this the only references to Joseph in the Gospels are to identify him as the reputed father of Jesus and a workman whose humble origins scandalized the critics of his putative Son. Very probably Joseph died before Christ finished his hidden life, since he is completely absent from the public life, whereas Christ's mother and "brethren" are mentioned more than once. The title "Son of Mary," which the people occasionally used of Christ, also intimates that Mary was a widow by the time her Son began his public ministry.

All items in this dictionary are from Fr. John Hardon's Modern Catholic Dictionary, © Eternal Life. Used with permission.

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