During the Middle Ages, Joseph, the husband of Mary, was the butt of many jokes. Medieval theater and art often depicted him as something of a buffoon, decidedly marginal to the gospel story. In part, this was the unfortunate obverse of the exaltation of Mary; any man would suffer by comparison with such a being as Mary was supposed to have been. In modern times, especially among Protestants, the attitude toward Joseph has shifted from mockery to outright indifference. No history of the Church can be written without extensive discussion of the place of Mary in medieval piety, but the same histories scarcely mention her husband.
Yet, it should be obvious that Joseph (as well as Mary) played an absolutely unique role in the history of redemption. Though we know little about Jesus’ childhood, it seems incontrovertible that no other man was so directly involved with the early life of our Lord as was Joseph. Joseph’s role is especially noted in Matthew’s gospel. Luke writes his birth narrative from Mary’s viewpoint, recording the annunciation to Mary, her visit to Elizabeth, and her psalm of praise. Joseph is almost completely in the background. Matthew, by contrast, makes Joseph more central in the birth narratives than Mary (though Mary is not absent, of course). Thus, Matthew writes the story of Mary’s conception from Joseph’s viewpoint, emphasizing Joseph’s initial reaction to Mary’s conception, and in Matthew Joseph, not Mary, is visited by angels and receives special revelation. (Of course, both Matthew’s and Luke’s versions are historically accurate.)
What is Joseph’s theological role in Matthew’s gospel? It should be noted, first, that Joseph is explicitly called a “righteous man” (Mt. 1:19). His righteousness, moreover, is implicit throughout the first chapters of the gospel. He responded to the angel’s explanation of Mary’s pregnancy by marrying her, as the angel had instructed (1:24-25). When commanded to leave Bethlehem to flee to Egypt, he “arose and took the CHild and His mother by night, and departed for Egypt” (2:14). When told to return to Israel, he returned, despite apparent misgivings about the safety of the return (2:19-23). Joseph, like Mary in Luke’s gospel, responded with immediate submission and obedience to the command of the angel of the Lord.
Second, Joseph is identified as Mary’s husband (1:16, 19). A husband in Scripture is a priest. God Himself is the Husband of His people (Is. 54:5; Ezk. 16:32; Eph. 5:22-33), and the priest, as His special officers and images, are to share in the husbanding task of protecting the bride. Joseph’s importance as the priest-husband comes into sharper relief when we recall that Mary, the Virgin, represents the faithful remnant of Virgin Israel (cf. my essay, “The Virgin Birth: A Redemptive-Historical Interpretation”). If Mary represents the virgin remnant in the midst of prostituted Israel, Joseph represents the faithful remnant of priests within Israel.
Joseph thus showed how Israel’s leaders should have acted if they had been righteous husbands of the Bride. He fulfilled his role as priest-husband in two ways. First, when he found that Mary was pregnant, like Eli the priest when he saw Hannah praying, he suspected the worst. This was hardly surprising, given the condition of Israel at the time. In the context of Matthew’s genealogy, Joseph’s suspicion are given an additional dimension: the women of the genealogy were all in some way scandalous (with the exception of Ruth). Joseph suspected that Mary was a Tamar or a Bathsheba. In response, Joseph plans to put Mary away privily to avoid shame. Instead of exposing the “nakedness” of his (supposedly) unfaithful bride, he seeks to cover her nakedness (cf. Ezk. 16:8; Hos. 2:8-9; Rev. 3:18).
In Joseph’s action, we see the righteous priest protecting his supposedly fallen bride from utter shame and defeat, thereby providing a pattern for faithful priest-husbands. Marital unfaithfulness in Scripture is an image of idolatry. Thus, we can make this application: the husbands of Israel should have guarded the Bride from the shame that resulted from idolatry; instead, they uncovered the Bride’s nakedness to every passerby. To Joseph’s surprise and delight, he found that his bride was not an adulteress, but a true virgin. At this key transition point in Israel’s history, the Lord visited the virgin remnant of His prostituted people, and provided her with a faithful husband-priest.
In Joseph’s action, we also see an image of Christ’s redemption of His Bride. Like Joseph, Jesus took steps to rescue His Bride from shame and disgrace. Like Joseph, Jesus rescued His Bride despite her infidelities. The difference is that the Bride of Christ is, by nature, a harlot. Jesus, the Great Priest-Husband of His people, did not merely cover the nakedness of a virgin, but by His death and resurrection accomplishes the justification of the ungodly.
(It should be noted that Joseph’s actions do not imply a cover-up, as if Joseph intended to excuse what he believed to be Mary’s adultery. On the contrary, Joseph intended to end the engagement. But, his decision was tempered with mercy; though he intended to end the engagement, he did not intend to subject Mary, whose pregnancy he doubtless believed to be the result of a temporary indiscretion, to life-long misery.)
Joseph’s task as husband involves not only the protection of the bride from disgrace, but her protection from the attack of the serpent. This is the theological foundation to the series of three stories in Matthew 2:13-23. In this series of events, Joseph, guided by the word of the Lord (as are all true priests), rescues his bride and her Child from the attack of the Pharaoh-like King Herod. These stories may be understood in the light of the dragon’s attack on the Woman and her Child in Revelation 12. What is missing from Revelation 12, however, is the presence of the husband, whose obedience to the Lord’s command provides a way of escape.
Again, Joseph’s actions can be seen as the actions of a faithful priest. The priests were to know the Word, and to guide the Bride according to its precepts. By their faithfulness to the Word, they would protect the Bride from the crafty seductions and the vicious attacks of the serpent. Thus, priests protect the Bride from shame and defeat by protecting her from the serpent. The leaders of Israel failed to fulfill this duty, but instead became liars and murderers, sons of their father the devil (Jn. 8:44).
It is traditional, and I believe Scriptural, to see Mary as a New Eve. Mary is the mother of all who will live eternally; Mary remains a virgin, undeceived by the craftiness of the serpent; Mary’s seed crushes the serpent’s head. But if Mary is a New Eve, then Joseph may be characterized as a New Adam. Like Adam, Joseph was charged with the protection of his bride from the shame of sin and from the attacks of the serpent. Unlike Adam, however, Joseph was a faithful husband who sought to protect his Bride from shame and who enabled her to escape the serpent’s attack. Joseph was a righteous husband. The gospel of the Kingdom is the good news of a Savior. Mary and Joseph stand at the beginning of the gospel as a preliminary sign of what the Savior would accomplish.
Peter Leithart is president of Theopolis Institute.