Older Men, Younger Women and the Virgin Birth

Last summer I was visiting my daughter and her family in Raleigh, North Carolina.  One night we went to a restaurant for dinner and as I gazed out across the room I noticed a very well dressed couple sitting at a table in the corner.  The beautiful young woman could not have been more than thirty and the handsome well dressed man no less than sixty.  At first I thought; that is so nice for that man’s daughter to have dinner with him; it must be his birthday or perhaps her birthday.  It was soon apparent that these two were not father and daughter.  And, from their smiles, their fond gazes and their body language it was very clear that these two were very much in love. And, from their conversations with the waiter and the rings on their fingers it was clear they were quite married.

Most folks might find this unsettling, maybe even shocking, and maybe most fellows would be a little envious.  As for me,  I couldn’t stop thinking about a painting which I had just seen earlier that day at the North Carolina State Museum of Art. The painting was by Guido Reni pictured on the left and titled Saint Joseph and the Christ Child (Cir. 1690) with which I also viewed the portrait of Saint Joseph painted by the same artist shown here on the right.  I remember thinking “why is he being portrayed as such an “old man”?  Perhaps, I thought, the artist was really trying to portray Abraham and Isaac and cataloguers became confused concerning the title?  But alas and alack a study in the art history books verified the provenance.  Thus the nagging question remained and all efforts to resolve it failed time and again. But as luck would have it the answer came to the fore just last evening as I slugged my way through another chapter of Bishop John Shelby Spong’s latest work: Biblical Literalism, a Gentile Heresy.

The chapter I was reading was titled “Joseph: Myth or History”.  The focus of the chapter was  whether Saint Joseph ever really existed or was he just a mere creation of Matthew.Bishop Spong points out some interesting facts here: First ,that there was no mention of Saint Joseph in the Christian tradition until the middle of the ninth decade, and second,  the earthly father of Jesus does not appear in any of the gospel accounts of Jesus adult life except for a couple of brief references in Matthew (13:55) and John (1:45 and 6:42).  For all intents and purposes Joseph appears in the birth narratives and then disappears sort of like a bit player walking on doing his “bit” scene and then disappearing never to appear in the play again.

So what gives? The most popular theory was simply that Joseph had died sometime between Jesus birth and his reaching adulthood.  This idea was further supported by the typical appearance of Joseph in Christian art as a man much older than Mary. But how did that all get started.  The art of deduction has its limits and the use of artistic portrayals is hardly the basis for solid explanation.

Turns out there was a book: The Proto-Evangelium of James which appeared in the early to middle years of the second century (about 115 CE) which sheds light on this question. This book, which as we know did not make it into the canon of scripture we call The Bible, purports to tell the story of the childhood of Mary and how she was prepared from her birth for her sacred call to be the bearer of the Christ child.

In the story as told by this book Mary was raised from infancy by a group of holy women who assisted her in the fulfillment of her holy vocation. The problem came when she entered puberty.  In the Jewish society of her day every woman had to come under the protection of a male as a cultural necessity.  Obviously this role was normally played by a father or a husband. The Proto-Evangelium does not mention a father figure in its narrative. One appears  much later in Luke’s gospel with the mention of Anna and Joachim but there is no mention of them in the Proto-Evangelium   So the holy women had to find a husband who could complement the sacred calling of Mary to conceive and bear a son as a virgin. Therefore the search was conducted among elderly men and widowed men who had already raised their children.  The chief qualification being men who were so old they had lost all interest in sex.  Bishop Spong quips at this point that: “I don’t know how old that is, but it’s old”. It is a good thing that this was before the days of Strom Thurmond (having children at sixty) or the wonder drug Viagra and its progeny. (pun intended)

Thus this older man named Joseph whose staff spouts leaves and flowers (explaining another artistic rendering) is chosen as having been designated by a sign. This then is the historical origin of the idea that Joseph was a much older man. And, having been so well established it lent credibility to the idea that Joseph might have died when Jesus was still an infant or a very young child.

The next portion of the chapter delves rather seriously into the question as to whether Joseph actually existed at all. Having just finished witnessing a bruising presidential campaign I will omit the details of this discussion as sometimes “discretion is the better part of valor”.  But I will say this; Spong points out that he feels Matthew was attempting to link the patriarch Joseph of Genesis with Joseph the father of Jesus.  As it was the role of Joseph bar Jacob to save the Jewish people from death by starvation, it was the role of the Joseph of the gospels to save the Christ from extinction at the hands of Herod.

Well, ’nough said lest I strike my foot against a stone. Suffice it to say this idiot-layman-lawyer’s question about that old man with the baby in the painting has been answered to the extent he is now able to comprehend why the artists rendered him as they did.

As for the couple eating at the restaurant: they finished their meal and happily walked arm in arm past our table and out of the building glancing at us as they passed with an ever so slight smile akin to that of the Mona Lisa herself.














I have just been reminded by a scene in a television show of the words of a speech made by President Theodore Roosevelt which I offer tonight as a tribute to all the happy, and not so happy, warriors who participated in the recent presidential election as candidates, workers, or simply as voters.   Winners, losers, participants lend me your ears as we are all winners.  We are winners not because our particular candidate won but rather because (to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt) we have spent ourselves in a worthy cause; and for those whose efforts resulted in a winning candidate they best know the triumph of high achievement, and for those whose efforts resulted in a losing candidate they at least have failed while daring greatly.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.[1]

As for those of us who have been disappointed let us never surrender our principles.  Let us respect the Office of President while at the same time advocating vigorously for what we believe to be the best way to achieve a great America.  An America in which the poor, the sick and the helpless have nothing to fear, in which all are afforded the opportunity to prosper and engage in the pursuit of happiness regardless of race, religious affiliation, or ethnicity and in which greed and overreaching by the powerful and wealthy is regulated and held in check.  To this end I enlist your continued advocacy for those principles in which you truly believe.  To add emphasis to this urging I employ the words of another great statesman: Sir Winston Churchill quoting from the peroration[2] portion of his speech of 16 June 1940:

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender. [3]

I urge that you apply the stirring words of this speech “metaphorically”.  I am not making a call to war or physical violence but war in the sense of advocating for heartfelt principle via peaceful lawful means.

Respect the President elect and grant him the opportunity to rule and be the kind of President who represents all of the United States and who does so in a manner worthy of respect here and in the world community.  But, also, in the words of Sir Winston “…go on to the end” advocating for your heartfelt principles and your vision of what government should be never surrendering to bullying or trick.

May the Lord Almighty bless this land and bring it to its true promise.


[1] “The Man in the Arena” an excerpt from the speech “Citizenship in a Republic” Delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on 23 April, 1910 by President Theodore Roosevelt.

[2]  The peroratio (“peroration”), as the final part of a speech, had two main purposes in classical rhetoric: to remind the audience of the main points of the speech (recapitulatio) and to influence their emotions (affectus). The role of the peroration was defined by Greek writers on rhetoric, who called it epilogos; but it is most often associated with Roman orators, who made frequent use of emotional appeals.

[3] Winston Churchill, Peroration of his 4 June 1940 to the House of Commons delivered while  Prime Minster.

Dying into a way of thinking and being

I am sharing the Daily Devotion from the Living Church for today which was written by Lucas Crossland.  Mr. Crossland touches on something I have felt many times before and about which  I have gained a new perspective due to his devotion.  So often have I experienced a “conflict” of priorities within my own and extended family that I often wondered if this is what was meant in the passage from Saint Luke.  Seeing the “hating” of one’s own family as metaphorical  speaks to me. We are not called to really hate our families but rather to love them through Christ as we make living through Christ as our true priority.


Daily Devotional is a ministry of the Living Church Foundation.
Image licensed via Creative Commons.
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Come and Die
Daily Devotional • November 8
By Lucas Crossland
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Indeed, through our baptism we are baptized into Christ’s death. While some find this passage challenging, it makes sense.

In order to follow Jesus, we must leave behind our old ways. Just as Jesus will flip things on their heads at the eschaton, so too does he flip our lives upside-down now. To follow Jesus, we must say goodbye to life as we know it to be — we must die to that life — and then we are free to become a new creation, as St. Paul says.

I don’t think Jesus is actually telling us to hate our family, but to reorient our lives so that Jesus is at the center, Jesus is our priority. Sometimes putting Jesus at the center of our lives can have a cost, which is the main focus of the reading today. Will we hear the call? And most important, will we respond?

Luke 14:25-35Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. 34“Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? 35It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”