Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Was St. Joseph Previously Married?

by Phillip Bellini


Was St. Joseph married before? Did he have other children? Phillip Bellini examines the pseudo-evidence and the sources to see if these arguments hold true.

Publisher & Date

Phatmass, 2002

1. Introduction

Ever since the finding of the alleged ossuary which supposedly contained the bones of St. James the Less, there has been an old error revived, but it has been stamped with a new label. This alleged ossuary (which many scholars are beginning to believe is a hoax) has written on the outside, "James, the brother of Jesus." Since this finding, some Catholics have been at a loss to explain this. True, in no way does it affect the dogma of the perpetual virginity of Mary, but the argument given is fallible, for in order to explain this so-called brother of Jesus, the argument used is that St. Joseph was married before and had children previous to his betrothal to Mary. At the time of his betrothal to Mary, Joseph is presented as a man of old age. Where does this information come from? Was Joseph married before? Did he have other children? Let's examine the pseudo-evidence and see if their arguments hold true. How was this picture of St. Joseph conceptualized? In the apocrypha. Before we get to that, let's first examine what the apocrypha is.

Originally, the word "apocrypha" did not mean something spurious, but rather something concealed or hidden and therefore esoteric, as revealed to a chosen few. In general, the apocrypha respecting St. Joseph possess praiseworthy orthodox tendencies. They have little in common with the mass of counterfeit documents produced by the Gnostics of early centuries in order to justify and propagate their heretical errors. The apocrypha that dealt with St. Joseph flowed from a different source.

The origin of these documents is not too difficult to explain. Details of the early life of Jesus were lacking. The Gospels were deliberately silent on the subject of Jesus' hidden life, but some devout lovers of Jesus were not going to be swayed from trying to learn all. Extremely curious to pierce the veil of obscurity, these people easily welcomed any tales on the subject as they passed from mouth to mouth. The stories grew by constant repetition. Possibly, at first, some basis of true tradition might have under laid parts of this pious gossip. However, with the passage of time and particularly with the embellishment which oral tradition received as each new story was set down in writing, little was finally left that might be deemed even remotely authentic.

Nonetheless, the apocrypha are not without any value. They reveal precious information about the background of early Catholic beliefs, for they suppose the knowledge of certain Catholic doctrines to be already formed in their readers. In fact, they often make exaggerated efforts to be conformed to such doctrines. An excellent example of this occurs in the eagerness of the apocrypha to be considered on a par with the accounts of Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

There are six apocryphal sources from which virtually all the legends of St. Joseph ultimately emanated.

The oldest one is the Protoevangelium of James, which dates some time after 130A.D. It has seventeen varying titles in as many manuscripts, and is supposedly written by the apostle St. James the Less, first bishop of Jerusalem, but no scholar today would dream of believing this.

The Gospel of Thomas. Approximately the same age as the above. It's a short collection of stories of Christ's childhood, from his fifth year through the hidden life. It should not be confused with another Gospel of Thomas known as apocryphal as early as 230 A.D. and claiming to contain the "secret words which the living Jesus spoke, which Didymus Judas Thomas has written down."

The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. Fifth century. An unknown compiler combined two previous works, "Protoevangelium of James and the Gospel of Thomas, and issued them under a new title. The author added to the borrowed two-thirds of the narrative and a large amount of information that came from probably his own imagination. It is supposed to be the work of the first Evangelist himself, supposedly written in Hebrew, and then translated by St. Jerome into Latin. It exercised great influence in the Middle Ages.

Gospel of the Nativity of Mary. A re-worked version of #3. This is the most beautiful of the apocrypha. It is reverent. It was warmly embraced in the Middle Ages. It showed Mary's purity and Joseph's nobility.

Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of the Savior. The date of composition is uncertain. This represents the opposite of #4. It is the extreme. It was possible written around the seventh century. This so-called Gospel is composed of variations on St. Matthew and St. Luke, the Protoevangelium of St. James, the Gospel of Thomas, and a mass of tales of magic and fear and vengeance. There is nothing sacred in this text. It is legend.

Coptic History of Joseph the Carpenter. It deals primarily with St. Joseph. It speaks of Joseph's death independently, and at great length. It appeared in Egypt between the fourth and sixth century.

It is IMPORTANT to remember that the apocrypha are NOT part of Sacred Scripture or Sacred Tradition.

The story of Joseph the Widower (as is stated again in 2002 A.D.) did not come about spontaneously. It was an attempt to give an orthodox explanation to the so-called perplexing verses where the Gospels refer to the "brethren of the Lord."

Some of these verses are: Mt.13:55-56, Mt.12:46, Mk.6:3, Lk.8:19, Jn.2:12, Jn.7:3-5, Acts 1:14, 1 Cor. 9:5 and Galatians 1:19.

Certainly, one might first consider these "brothers" and "sisters" as blood relatives of Jesus, from the same mother and father. On the other hand, overwhelming evidence both from the texts of the Gospels and from unanimous early Catholic Tradition argues against such a conclusion. The words "brother" and "sister" are to be understood in a wider sense, namely, as cousins or even more distant relatives.

Here are the main facts why "brethren" cannot have been blood brothers of Jesus, and born of the same parents. The verse, "He did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn son" (Mt.1:25) cannot justly be alleged. The only thing that can be said about it was that Joseph was not the physical father of Jesus. Similarly, the use of "firstborn" (Lk.2:7 & Mt.1:25) refers to the first male child according to Scriptural usage (Ex.13:2 & Num.3:12). At the age of twelve, Jesus appears again as an only child (Lk.2:41). He alone is referred to as the "son of Mary." (Mk.6:3); the "brethren" are never called sons of Mary or sons of Joseph. Finally, on Calvary Jesus confides Mary to the care of St. John. Not only does this imply Joseph was dead, it also implies that no other children existed in the Holy Family, who would have been the logical ones to take care of Mary. Nor can we claim that these older "brethren" would have deserted her, for the later text in the Acts of the Apostles (1:14) shows a continuing bond of intimacy.

The conclusion is that the "brethren of the Lord" were at least cousins of Jesus, "brothers" in a wide sense of the word. At the foot of the cross, it is said Mary of Clopas was there. Who was Clopas? Clopas is recorded as Joseph's brother; Mary of Clopas the wife of Clopas. Accordingly, James and Jude (two of the "brethren") are sons of Mary, wife of Clopas. So this would have been the nephews of St. Joseph and cousins of Jesus. So the apocrypha took as easy way out and described "brethren" as Joseph's children from another marriage.

It was recently quoted in Crisis magazine that a possible answer to Jesus' "brothers" is that Joseph had children from a previous marriage. This in response to the alleged ossuary of "James, brother of Jesus" that was found as I mentioned in the opening paragraph. It is now proving out to be a hoax, but the same error of the apocrypha is still being applied to Joseph. Quoting from the "Protoevangelium of St. James" Crisis magazine uses the apocrypha to answer the problem of Jesus' "brothers." They quote this part, "I have children, and that Joseph wanted to register his sons for the census and that he left his two sons with Mary in the cave at Bethlehem while he went to search for a midwife.

The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew adds that Joseph is a widower and grandfather as well. The Gospel of Thomas speaks of James, the son of Joseph. The Coptic History of Joseph the Carpenter names Justus, Judas, James and Simon as Joseph's sons, and Assia and Lydia as his daughters.

In the Gospel of the Nativity of Mary, it does mention Joseph's great age, but is silent concerning his marriage and his children. Since the life of Mary was widely circulated during the Middle Ages, as much as, if not more than any other apocrypha, its silence may well have been one of the outward reasons why the medieval faithful were so strongly inclined to accept the belief that Joseph as well as Mary preserved their virginity.

It is unfortunate that numerous Fathers of the Church believed the tale of Joseph's first marriage. Epiphanius, Gregory of Nyssa in the East, and Hilary in the West. St. Ambrose's comments are ambiguous. Even St. Ephrem (379 A.D.) seems to have accepted the story of Joseph's children.

There is something interesting to point out here. If we take a look at all the writings up close, an important fact emerges. When speaking of the children of Joseph by a previous marriage- it is important to note that this comment was used only as a means of refuting the heretical insinuation that the "brethren" of Jesus were children of Mary. This is more an incidental theory rather than absolute historical fact-except, of course, in the case of uncritical borrowing from the apocrypha.

Origen, writing in the 3rd century, clearly states that the theory looks to Mary's protection. He states that those who say Joseph had children from a previous marriage are trying to protect the dignity of Mary's virginity in order that She who was to give God a human nature might never know man's consortship. Origen stated that "only the four Gospels are approved, from which are to be taken the dogma's concerning the Person of Our Lord and Savior…In this matter we approve of nothing except what the Church approves, that is, only four Gospels are to be accepted."

The great doctor of the Church, St. Jerome (420 A.D.) is the outstanding defender of Joseph against the apocrypha and their early marriage, and states emphatically, "Certain people who follow the ravings of the apocrypha fancy that the brethren of the Lord are sons of Joseph from another wife…W e understand the brethren of the Lord NOT as sons of Joseph but the cousins of the Savior, children of Mary (the Lord's maternal aunt) who is said to be the mother of James the Less and Joseph and Jude…indeed, all Scripture indicates that cousins are called brethren."

Against the heretical interpretation of the text, "An He did not know her till she brought forth her firstborn son" (Mt.1:25), Jerome staunchly defends the mutual perpetual virginity of Joseph and Mary. Jerome states, "…it is customary in holy Scripture to call "firstborn" not him from whom brothers follow, but him who is first begotten. (Jerome, In Mt.1,25 (Pl 26:25). Likewise, the word "till" denotes a state or action up to a certain point, but does not necessarily denote a change thereafter, as in St. Paul's quotation from Psalm 109:1, "For He must reign 'until' He has put all enemies under His feet.'" (1 Cor.15:25)

And now, in one of the most beautiful tributes to St. Joseph to be found anywhere in the literature of the Church, Jerome proceeds to affirm that Joseph, like Mary, was perpetually virginal: "…we can contend that Joseph had several wives because Abraham and Jacob had several wives, and that from these wives the brethren of the Lord were born - a fiction which most people invent with not so much pious as presumptuous audacity. You say that Mary did not remain a virgin; even more do I claim that Joseph also was virginal through Mary, in order that from a virginal marriage a virginal son might be born. For if the charge of fornication does not fall on this holy man, and if it is not written that he had another wife, and if he was more a protector than a husband of Mary, whom he was thought to have as his wife, it remains to assert that he who merited to be called the father of the Lord remained virginal with her." (Jerome against Helvidius, 10-PL23:203). Jerome perceived that there were no historical reasons for supporting the tale of Joseph's wife and children; therefore, he constructed this magnificent argument on grounds of so-called congruity or propriety. This argument doesn't lead to certainty, but it is highly probable, and can be relied on for more than the manufactured legend which it opposes. "Either Joseph had other wives, or he committed adultery outside of marriage, or he lived virginally with Mary. But the idea of other wives can be dismissed because its sole claim to fame is its origin in an unreliable source; the charge of adultery can be rejected because he was a holy man; therefore, we can accept only the final possibility, namely, that Joseph lived virginally with the Mother of God, as her husband. Also, for Joseph to have been a widower with several children, it would have been necessary for him to have reached at least middle age when he took Mary into his keeping; but all the evidence for his marriage to Our Lady at the normal age would show that he was not old enough to have raised such a family."

Even St. Augustine, though he was not clear early in his life, on five occasions describes the "brethren of the Lord" as blood relatives of Christ through Mary. All the evidence regarding St. Augustine, points to the conclusion that Augustine did not accept the supposition of the earlier marriage of St. Joseph. Joseph's earlier marriage was quoted far more in the Eastern Church. It was taught widely, and it was widely accepted. There were only eight among the outstanding Greek writers who did not teach the story of Joseph's earlier marriage. Hegesippus, St. John Chrysostem, Theodoret & Photius believed that the "brethren" of the Lord were relatives of Jesus. Irenaeus, Didymus the Blind and St. John Damascene never seemed to discuss the question, as also seems the case with St. Cyril of Jerusalem.

Bede and Alcuin state that Joseph, as guardian of Mary's virginity, always withheld himself from any marital act. St. Peter Damian's reference to Joseph is monumental; it was written about the middle of the 11th century, it states: "If it does not suffice for you that not only the mother is a virgin, there remains the belief of the Church that he who served as the father is also a virgin. (P.D.OP.17 de coeleb sacred.) Concerning Joseph's virginity, at least, the effect of the apocrypha on Western theology was definitely nullified. St. Bridget of Sweden (1373) in narrating her private revelations affirmed that he was, "dead to the flesh and to the world." Fortunately a poem of the 14th century entitled "The Rythmic Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary and of the Saviour" was most influential of all. It was a tribute to Joseph's chastity, and it was copied and imitated widely throughout Europe. Peter Lombard believed that Joseph as well as Mary had resolved to live a virginal life unless God disposed otherwise. (Lib. Sent. IV dist.26, cap.2). St. Albert the Great in his commentary on Matthew's Gospel simply said, "Joseph is called Mary's husband. By his solicitude he was like a father; by his espousal he was like a husband; by his protection of chastity, he was the guide of virginity." (Albertus Magnus, In Matt.1, 19). Peter Damian also stated that Joseph's virginity has long been the belief of the Church.

The crowning theological opinion was that of St. Thomas Aquinas, he stated: "We believe that just as the Mother of Jesus was a virgin, so was Joseph, because He placed the Virgin in the care of a virgin, and just as he did this at the close of his earthly life, so he did do it at the beginning [of his earthly life]. If the Lord was unwilling to commend His Virgin Mother to the care of anyone except a virgin, how could He have born the fact that her husband had not been a virgin and remained as such." (TA. In Matt.12:46 & In Gal.1:19)


Let's get right to the facts. The only sources for the age of St. Joseph are the apocryphal accounts previously quoted. They are just as unreliable in this instance too. The apocryphal stories were not meant to portray Joseph as old and senile, but basically to safeguard the universal belief in Mary's virginity in the face of heretical opposition and insinuations. They adopted old age for Joseph to symbolize deadened passions, and to certify Mary's absolute continence with Joseph. Again, they made "brethren of the Lord" children of a former marriage to avoid problems. So they had to give Joseph advanced years to generate these children, then to become a widower, and only after that period to take Mary into his charge as her guardian.

When this unfounded supposition is rejected, we will have more reason to justify his youth at the time of his marriage with Our Lady. Also, to reply to the apocrypha on his senility, I reject it because it was so unique a marriage as ever existed between two people so holy as Joseph and Mary. God's grace is more than sufficient to observe virginity if such be God's will.

Above all, the idea that St. Joseph would be an old man of eighty or more years stands in direct contradiction with the requirements of his vocation. Joseph was to appear publicly as the husband of Mary and the father of Jesus, at least to safeguard the honor of Mother and Son. Yet how could a man of patriarchal years be considered capable of fatherhood? A decrepit, senile guardian of Mary would open the door to public suspicion of adultery and illegitimacy. Again, hard work and trying situations of all sorts beset the Holy Family. How could such an old man perform duties that called for a robust provider and protector? The general feeling of the Gospel points to the conclusion that Joseph was of an age customary for marriage, and that age was certainly not advanced to the twilight years of life. Granting the truth of St. Joseph's virginity, and therefore the falsity of any tales of his earlier marriage, could we hold that a devout Jew would remain unmarried until extreme old age in defiance of the customs of his day? We have to assume that Joseph lived during the major portion of Christ's life at Nazareth, as would appear from the text of St. Luke, "He was subject to them." (Lk.2:51)

Therefore it is safe to assert that Joseph must have been espoused to Mary when he was in the prime of life. There's no way to discover his age more exactly than to study the customs of his times, and determine if possible, what the normal marriageable age must have been. The Dead Sea Scrolls indicates such an average age when the male was considered marriageable. The Essene community wished its members to delay marriage (if they were to marry at all) until well after the customary time, and a man in his twenties was considered beyond that time. So the normal age for a man was in the middle to late teens. In such a hypothesis, Joseph would have been about 17-19 years old at the time of his espousal. Joseph died most likely in the latter part of the hidden life of Jesus, and certainly before the public life and passion of Our Lord. Joseph was father at Nazareth for sometime since Jesus was "subject to them." He would have been at Cana if living. Otherwise its difficult to explain the subsequent text that Jesus left Cana and went to Capharnaum, "He and His mother and his brethren and his disciples."(Jn.2:12). No mention of Joseph. Again, when Christ's fellow citizens attempted to refute Him by naming His living relatives, they omitted to mention His supposed father. (Mt.13:55) Jesus commended Mary to St. John while He hung on the cross. Joseph was the official protector of the Blessed Virgin because he was her husband. If Joseph was living, there was no reason to commend Mary to John. By giving Mary to John's protection, Our Lord was assuming guardianship of Mary. Therefore Joseph had already died. This was important because Our Lord was making His Mother the Mother of the Church at this point, and she became the mother of all the living in the order of grace.

Therefore, the process of clearing away the dross of the apocrypha came to an end, and the untarnished luster of St. Joseph's virginity was revealed to all. From the 15th century to the present, it has been acknowledged by all the Catholic faithful. That is, until this alleged ossuary of James (brother of Jesus) appeared recently. This has allowed apocryphal teaching to re-emerge as an explanation of "brethren of the Lord."

Theologians have not been lax in imitating the example of Suarez, who composed a special defense of St. Joseph's dignity and holiness, and vigorously rejected the legend of Joseph the widower. (Suarez, In III,q.28,a.3,disp.5,sect 4, n.9)

Are Catholics obliged to accept the virginity of St. Joseph as revealed by God and contained in the deposit of faith confided to the Church? No. No theologian has made this claim. The correct theological note is that it would be rash for a Catholic to deny it, although strictly speaking, no Catholic is bound to accept it as part of official Catholic doctrine. In 1889 Pope Leo XIII wrote in his Encyclical "Quamquam Pluries" "that virgins can look to him [Joseph] for their pattern and as the guardian of virginal integrity."

In this age of a disastrous sexual revolution, let us once again echo the praises of the virginal integrity of St. Joseph and ask him to bring sanity and common sense to a materialistic and sex obsessed world. If the answer to error is truth; if the answer to hate is to love; then the answer to impurity is purity and chastity. Let St. Joseph be our guide, and may he and our Immaculate Mother lead us once again out of slavery to sin to our freedom in Christ Our Lord. Amen.

Joseph most chaste, pray for us. Blessed be St. Joseph, her most chaste spouse!

© Phatmass

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