One common belief that many came into the first day of class holding was that Mary, the Mother of God, was a lowly and humble handmaid of the Lord. Very quickly this was dispelled as tradition that has arisen and not as something that can be known from the gospels. In the gospel narratives of Luke and Matthew there is no mention of any activity or status that would indicate Mary’s interior humility or exterior poverty. In the apocryphal texts that we read concerning Mary, the opposite is true.
The apocryphal texts emphasize that Mary came from a background of status and wealth. In The Protevangelium of James we are told that Mary’s father Joachim “was a very rich man” and would use his excess wealth to make offerings to God on behalf of the whole people. Even when Anna is mourning over her bareness her maid tries to give her a headband which is more fitting for Anna because it “bears a royal cipher”.
Some of Mary’s earliest experiences recounted in The Protevangelium also reveal the wealth and pomp that surrounded her. Mary, when she was sixth months old, was put into a special sanctuary in her bedroom and was attended to specially by “the undefiled daughters of the Hebrews”. Joachim also held a great feast to celebrate Mary’s first birthday inviting the most important people: the chief priests, scribes, elders and the people of Israel. These guests didn’t come just to celebrate. They all took turns praising Mary and asking God to bless her eternally. This does not fit the picture of humble and poor origins that many of us were used to ascribing to Mary.
Even when Mary is grown and after her years living in the temple she is still associated with wealth and royalty, rather than poverty. When she casts lots to see what she will weave Mary ends up with purple and scarlet, colors most often associated with royalty.
The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew paints the same picture. We are told that Joachim doubled his offerings to God and God in turn increased his wealth. A detail told here not recounted in The Protevangelium is that Mary was sought after by the son of the priest Abiathar and that many gifts were offered to her in this effort. In Pseudo-Matthew when Mary’s lot assigns her to work on the purple veil the other virgins in her company are quick to tease her and call her “Regina virginum”. An angel quickly comes and rebukes them for this because it will be true. These experiences do not indicate humility or poverty and could rather be used to develop the opposite traits in Mary.
The person who is portrayed as humble and who thinks little of himself in these accounts is Joseph. In The Protevangelium Joseph is first introduced as an obedient man. He “threw down his adaze” and went running to the meeting summoned by the heralds of the priest. In the test to find who will take charge of Mary, Joseph is given his rod last and when the dove lands on Joseph and chooses him he protests. Joseph does not want to take charge of Mary. He thinks he is unfit because of his age, but he is also concerned about how he will appear to the other sons of Israel. Joseph in the end submits, revealing his humility to accept the will of God and his fear of the Lord. This is proven again when Joseph discovers Mary’s pregnancy and wants to put her away. As soon as the Lord confirms that Mary’s child is of the Holy Spirit Joseph praises God and continues to guard Mary despite how the situation might appear to the Israelites.
Again, in Pseudo-Matthew a similar story is presented. This time, Joseph did not even initially present his rod in the test to see who would take charge of Mary. He did not think he was fit to do so and so when the dove appeared indicating Joseph as the Lord’s choice Joseph resisted. Also in Jacobus’s The Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary we are told that Joseph withheld his branch in the test because he thought his age and situation made him unfit to take Mary in his care. This recounting of Joseph’s election takes up more space than the one sentence that is added to the end of a paragraph to tell us about the annunciation.
So why all this concern about Joseph when we are interested in Mary? Joseph’s reactions only add to the mounting evidence that goes against the image of Mary as a lowly, humble peasant. This is exactly the point. The authors of the apocryphal texts are concerned with portraying Mary as the mother of God, the first place on earth where God will come to dwell. Mary is the perfect place for God to dwell because she is so uncommon and special. Joseph’s God-fearing reactions show his humility and obedience to God but also reveal Mary as someone who is different, who is extraordinary.
While Christ does spend his first moments after birth (and the rest of his life) in the most common and simple of circumstances the emphasis on Mary is made because she is the vehicle through which God enters the earth and joins our human existence and this is no small thing. So we can give credit to Joseph for his reactions and behavior because they show to us who Mary is and why she ought to have the status she is given. The important details about Joseph in the apocryphal texts can guide how we think about Mary and in kind interact with God.