Who was Joseph?
Joseph - husband of Mary and father of Jesus - plays a very important role in the four gospels. The New Testament doesn't reveal a lot about him, but it is clear that he was a man of great character. Joseph was a carpenter (Matthew 13:55). He is described as a "just man" (Matthew 1:19 the King James Version), who belonged to Nazareth (Luke 2:4). He was of Davidic descent (Matthew 1:20; Luke 2:4), the son of Heli (Luke 3:23) or Jacob (Matthew 1:16), the husband of Mary (Matthew 1:16), and father of Jesus (Matthew 13:55; Luke 3:23; 4:22; John 1:45; 6:42), according to the New Testament.
The Gospel of Matthew and Mark alone give any detailed reference to Joseph and the birth of Jesus, and their accounts vary in part. Luke begins with the Annunciation to Mary at Nazareth (Luke 1:26-38). Overwhelmed with the tidings, Mary departed "with haste" "into the hill country, .... into a city of Judah," to seek communion with Elisabeth, with whom she had been coupled in the Annunciation by the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:39-55). After abiding with her about three months she returned "unto her own house" (Luke 1:56 the King James Version).
The events recorded in Matthew 1:18-24 probably took place in the interval between this return and the birth of Jesus. During Mary's visit to Elisabeth, Joseph had likely remained in Nazareth. The abrupt and probably unexplained departure of his espoused wife for Judah (compare the phrase "with haste"), and her condition on her return, had caused him great mental distress (Matthew 1:18-20). Though his indignation was tempered with mercy, he was minded to put her away "privily," but the visitation of the angel in his sleep relieved him from his dilemma, and he was reconciled to his wife (Matthew 1:24).
The narrative is then continued in the Gospel of Luke. While Joseph and Mary still abode in Nazareth, "there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled" (Luke 2:1). "And all went to enroll themselves, every one to his own city" (Luke 2:3). Being of the house and lineage of David, Joseph went up with Mary, who was "great with child," from Galilee, "out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem" (Luke 2:4,5), and there Jesus was born (Luke 2:7; compare Matthew 2:1).
The two accounts now diverge considerably. According to Lk, the Holy Family remained for a time at Bethlehem and were there visited by the shepherds (Luke 2:8-20). After a sojourn of 40 days for the purification (compare Luke 2:21,22; Leviticus 12), Joseph departed with his wife for Jerusalem "to present" the infant Jesus "to the Lord" and to offer up sacrifice according to the ancient law (Luke 2:24).
There he was present at the prophesying of Simeon and Anna concerning Jesus, and received the blessing of the former (Luke 2:34). After "they had accomplished all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth" (Luke 2:39). Every year, at the Passover, they made this journey to Jerusalem (Luke 2:41). The care and solicitude of Joseph and Mary for the boy Jesus and their grief at His temporary loss aye also recorded (Luke 2:45,48,51). There is evidence that, though Mary "kept all these things in her heart," Joseph at least had no understanding then of the Divine nature of the charge committed to his care (Luke 2:50).
Matthew's AccountBut according to Matthew it was from the Wise Men of the East that Jesus received homage at Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-11). There is no further mention of the dedicatory journey to Jerusalem, or of the return to Nazareth. Instead, it is stated that on the departure of the Wise Men from Bethlehem, Joseph was warned in a dream of the impending wrath of Herod, and escaped with his wife and the infant Jesus into Egypt (Matthew 2:13,14). Upon the death of Herod, an angel appeared to Joseph, and he returned to the land of Israel (Matthew 2:19-21). His original intention was to settle once more in Judea, but on learning that Archelaus, the son of Herod, was ruler there, "he withdrew into the parts of Galilee, and came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth" (Matthew 2:22,23).
The Sequence of the Narratives
The narrative of Mt would thus imply that the Holy Family had no connection with Nazareth previous to their return from Egypt. It has, however, been suggested by Ramsay that Mt merely reports what was common knowledge, and that Lk, while quite cognizant of this, supplemented it in his own Gospel with details known only to the Holy Family, and in part to the mother alone (compare Sir W. Ramsay, Was Christ Born at Bethlehem? 78-79). A comparison of the two Gospel narratives makes it clear that the visitation of the Wise Men fell on a later date than that of the shepherds. The latter took place immediately after the Nativity (compare Luke 2:11,15,16, "is born .... this day," "let us now go," "and they came with haste"). On the other hand, when the Wise Men came to Jerusalem, Christ was already born (compare Matthew 2:1).
Time was required for this journey to Jerusalem and the consultation of Herod with the chief priests (Matthew 2:4); and during this interval the events recorded in Luke 2:8-39 had taken place. That there was sufficient time for this is attested also by the fact that Herod's decree was directed against children up to two years of age (Matthew 2:16). Thus it was after the return of the Holy Family to Nazareth, and on a further visit to Bethlehem, implied by Mt but not recorded by Lk, that the infant Jesus received the adoration of the Wise Men. Jesus being born in 6 BC, this took place in 5 BC, and as Herod died in 4 BC, Joseph may have missed only one of the Passovers (compare Luke 2:41) by his flight into Egypt. (For a full discussion, compare Ramsay, op. cit.) As no mention is made of Joseph in the later parts of the Gospels where the Holy Family is referred to (compare Matthew 12:46; Luke 8:19), it is commonly supposed that he died before the commencement of the public ministry of Christ.Character
If a type is to be sought in the character of Joseph, it is that of a simple, honest, hard-working, God-fearing man, who was possessed of large sympathies and a warm heart. Strict in the observance of Jewish law and custom, he was yet ready when occasion arose to make these subservient to the greater law of the Spirit. Too practical to possess any deep insight into the Divine mysteries or eternal significance of events which came within his knowledge (compare Luke 2:50), he was quick to make answer to what he perceived to be the direct call of God (compare Matthew 1:24).
Originally a "just man" (the King James Version), the natural clemency within his heart prevailed over mere justice, and by the promptings of the Holy Spirit that clemency was transferred into a strong and enduring love (compare Matthew 1:24). Joseph is known to us only as a dim figure in the background of the Gospel narratives, yet his whole-hearted reconciliation to Mary, even in the face of possible slanderings by his neighbors, his complete self-sacrifice, when he left all and fled into Egypt to save the infant Jesus, are indicative that he was not unworthy to fulfill the great trust which was imposed upon him by the Eternal Father.Source
The following article is excerpted from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain. C.M. Kerr International Standard Bible Encyclopedia