Jesus’s Earthly Father: A Historian’s Account


whihte statue Jesus with Joseph and Mary Main

The Bible tells us that Jesus had two dads, including his human father, Joseph. Historians are more comfortable discussing Joseph. The religious doctrine goes beyond the job description of the secular historian. We can learn basic facts about Joseph, including his hometown, profession, and family life. Religious works provide history if we read them carefully.  

Jesus Had Two Dads?

Many people believe that Jesus had a divine birth. It was common for people in those days to think special people had a miraculous birth. Historians are wary about dealing with miracles. 

Joseph played a significant role in the stories of his birth. Jesus was repeatedly recognized as the son of a human father. Certain people might say “also” the son of a human father. 

What do we know, in a historical way, about Joseph? 

Historical Sources 

The earliest sources that provide information about Joseph are the gospels in the Christian New Testament. Jesus died about 30 CE. The gospels came late in the first century. 

We should be wary of historical sources that came generations after the people discussed. Nonetheless, we know extremely little about most people in the first century. The gospels provide us with four different sources about Jesus and the early years of Christianity.  

We can also know basic things about the different types of people who lived in the past. In this fashion, we can learn many basic facts about how someone like Joseph lived. 

Gospels Are Not Historical Books 

The gospels do not provide a complete biography of Jesus. The gospels are religious works with a specific mission to make various religious points. They speak of miraculous events that a secular historian cannot accept. A miracle is something supernatural. It is a matter of faith. 

The gospels (like many non-religious works) also contain supposedly historical events that are not likely to have occurred. For instance, an empire-wide census that required a long trip ending in Bethlehem. The details have religious purposes that help us understand the gospels. 

We should not dismiss religious works as totally unreliable. Religious works provide information about the past in many ways. If we carefully analyze the material, we can reasonably determine historical facts. We need not, should not, merely treat them as the literal truth.

Other sources can also provide additional context and clarity. For instance, the Bible discusses the Babylonian Conquest of Jerusalem. We also have other non-biblical sources.  

Joseph of Nazareth 

The gospels tell us that Jesus grew up in a small, insignificant backwater in Roman Palestine named Nazareth. People sneered, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” 

Two gospels (Matthew and Luke) tell different faith-based stories, which would have been easier if Jesus did not live in Nazareth. Multiple details are historically unlikely. The historian has good reason to simplify things and assume Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth. 

What Was Joseph’s Job?

Matthew tells us that people were amazed a “carpenter’s son” was so wise and performed miraculous deeds. As the son of a carpenter myself, I might be a tad bit upset about the first part.  Nonetheless, the Greek term used is “tekton,” which is somewhat different.

Joseph could have been a basic handyman, using wood, iron, or stone. He would have done simple jobs such as fixing yokes used for oxen. Early Christian accounts understood him this way.  

Some scholars argue, however, that Joseph could have been a more successful general contractor type. There was a nearby major city (Sepporis) where he could have got work.  

When Did He Marry Mary? 

Matthew and Luke wanted us to understand Joseph was a descendant of the great Jewish king David. The gospel writers are less concerned about basic information about Joseph himself. For instance, they give different names to his father (Jacob or Heli).  

We do not know how old Joseph was when he married Mary, which the gospels place in the time of King Herod. Herod died in 4 BCE.  Eighteen was a typical ideal age for boys to marry, while girls married at thirteen. Many men married later, including as old as thirty.  

(The gospels reference various social and religious practices present at the time in the narrative. For instance, the betrothal period that took place before marriage.) 

Religious Details 

A second-century Christian account, not included in the New Testament, portrayed Joseph as an old widower. The siblings of Jesus listed in the gospels now were from Joseph’s first marriage. 

Historians recognize this as a mythical account that assumes that Mary was a virgin. Mary’s virginity, angelic visits, wise men following stars, and all the rest are religious accounts unlikely to reflect actual events. They each provide religious lessons, including how Jesus’s birth was a miraculously divine event akin to other ancient great personages.  

These symbolic accounts regularly are not intended by their writers to be taken literally. Likewise, religious accounts provide information on the people who wrote and believed them. What is important to them? What do they believe? How do they live their lives? 

Joseph’s Later Life 

Luke tells us how the family (Joseph included) went to Jerusalem twelve years later. Jesus amazes people with his wisdom. Joseph might be in his thirties at this time. 

We learn a few more things about Mary, including after Jesus dies. A few references are made to Jesus being “Joseph’s son.” Nonetheless, Joseph appears no longer to be living. Later accounts try to fill in details, but we should treat them as faithful forms of historical fiction. 

The public ministry of Jesus begins when he is about thirty. Joseph would have been about fifty or older at that time. Joseph dying sometime before this time is quite likely

Rinse/Repeat 

The techniques used here can be applied to other biblical figures. It can be applied to other religious works. The historian seeks out material wherever they can find it. 

A careful historical analysis results in more rich understanding of religious materials.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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