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.