Saturday, October 3, 2015

Joseph Revealing Mary

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.



  1. As MB said, many of us entered class with an idea of Mary as a poor and humble servant of God. However, in addition to the evidence of wealth mentioned above, the temple imagery in Protoevangelium of James describing the virgin birth and the fact that Mary herself is an immaculate conception indicate that she is special not only in her Earthly circumstances but also her divine significance. I completely agree with MB that the way we pictured Mary is actually more akin to the descriptions of Joseph. If Mary is the temple, then perhaps Joseph is the steward. He may offer insight into whom Mary is but, alternatively or additionally, he might be a model of how a steward of the Church should behave. He obeys God, marrying Mary against his own instincts and moving his family multiple times. Joseph is devoted; in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew when Mary says she is fatigued he “quickly” leads her to shade (95). Interestingly, when Mary professes hunger, Joseph worries about getting water for his family as well as his cattle; and when Jesus grants their wishes, he grants Mary’s for her sake but asks the tree to give water for them all. Perhaps, as a steward, it is not Joseph’s role to want for himself but for the group. Whoever wrote this text may have envisioned Joseph as a model of how a steward of the Church – perhaps a community leader or even Priest – should behave.

    -J Keroack

  2. It is true that in the Gospels and in our selections of Apocrypha, Mary is not portrayed as economically disenfranchised. However, I would not be as quick as MB to dismiss the so-called “handmaiden” tradition as scripturally unfounded.

    Luke 1:38 reads, “Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’” [emphasis mine] (NSRV). In many translations – notably the KJV – “servant” is translated as “handmaiden.” Such is the case also for Luke 1:48, the second verse of the Magnificat. It reads, “for he as looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. / Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed” [emphasis mine] (NSRV).

    The Magnificat borrows heavily from the Song of Hannah: 1 Samuel 2:1-10. The Song of Hannah focuses on the exaltation of the lowly and the oppressed, just as is done in Luke 1:48 (as well as Luke 1:52-53). While this lowness and oppression is not purely economic, Luke 1:53 and 1 Samuel 2:8 invoke “the rich” and “the poor,” respectively.

    This is not to suggest of course, that Mary was poor. It is also not suggest that Mary was rich. Not unlike the way in which Jacobus de Voragine inherited (in part from The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and The Protoevangelium of James) an understanding of Mary as rich, we have inherited the “handmaiden” tradition at least partially due to the prevalence of the KJV, a particular reading of it, and the Reformation idea – which we briefly discussed in class – of the “housewife Mary.”

    Further, I would also not be so quick to dismiss Mary as being devoid of internal humility in the Gospels or Apocrypha. If Joseph is humble for submitting to God’s word and marrying Mary against his prior judgment, it seems to me that Mary would be considered quite humble for allowing herself to be the vessel of God. It is in fact right after the Annunciation that she presents herself as God’s servant in Luke 1:38.

    A. Fialkowski

  3. The Apocryphal tradition of Christianity allows for a more in depth look behind the curtain of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and far more. The influence of who Mary is and where she comes from on how the rest of the New Testament cannot be understated. Though Joseph may appear to be the demure, humble, and holy man that does not deter from who Mary is. That is the one issue MB has run into in the above post. By relying on Joseph’s goodness to show Mary’s familial prosperity would be to use him as a mirror of her life. But they are two separate people, alternating in the Protoevangelical James and the Pseudo-Matthew as being either both house of David or at least one of the same house. But the same house does not mean that there are the same standards to be held up to each of these individuals in the story.

    Mary was born as many of the founding forces in the Old Testament were: a child promised by God through an angel to move towards fulfillment of prophecy. Abrahamic and Davidic traditions come to fruition in the relationship between Joseph and Mary must assuredly however, in Mary alone could both be fulfilled. She is the one born immaculate, without stain of original sin, and she alone can bear to be both mother and follower of Jesus because of her faith. No other person can degrade or be compared to such a person because of this distinction, no description of parental wealth matters when she partakes in none of it in the same manner that Joseph’s faith cannot be negated due to Mary’s own. That is why these Apocryphal writings are able to be used to enlighten rather than to cover Mary because they describe her uniqueness and her importance.

    A. Graff

  4. The observation that Joseph reveals Mary's nature is a good one and, I think, a trope that we would be wise to keep an eye on throughout our readings. It may even be that there is even more being revealed here as well. The apparent contradiction between Mary as humble handmaid and queen strikes me as similar to a tension that often exists within depictions of Christ and hagiography as well, a mixture of humility and royalty that is ultimately reflective of the Incarnation itself. Just as Christ is a king who has chosen to make himself humble, so too is Mary a queen who moves from the sacred confines of the temple into the simple, "in the world," dwelling of Joseph. Thus, these stories point not only to Mary's distinctive and exalted place within the order of things, but also to the central paradox which lies at the heart of Christianity itself, the union of divine and human. Perhaps this foreshadows the Christological controversies which would become centered upon the personage of Mary and Christ's relation to her. Mary reveals God through giving birth, she reveals God in the tension between her royal nature and humble life with Joseph, and she reveals the connection between God and humanity in her very being.

  5. And, to follow on dyingst's comment, Joseph reveals Mary, as MB (I think) rightly argues. The fascination here is of a series of unveilings: the Word becomes flesh so that the glory of the Lord may be revealed (John 1:14), Mary declares herself the handmaid/servant/steward of the Lord in bearing the Son of the Most High (Luke 1:38), Joseph serves Mary as the one who gives birth to the Lord. All of this works with the temple imagery we have been discussing, pointing both to the importance of serving the Lord and to the mystery of the Lord's becoming present and passing through the veil of the temple into the world (Hebrews 6:19-20 and passim). RLFB

  6. I appreciate the attention that MB has brought to the fact that in these early sources Joseph’s apprehension heightens the weight of Mary’s significance by pointing to his humility in the face of Mary’s “extraordinary” nature. Later tradition emphasizes the "augmenting" function that Joseph plays as well, so I could not help but connect this articulation of their relationship to the thoughts of a later writer. In particular, the passage in the homilies of St. Bernard of Clairvaux that treats the Mary-Joseph relationship echoes this observation, even as St. Bernard employs the disciple known most widely for his less than laudable behaviors for the analogy. Namely, St. Bernard describes the manner in which Joseph augments the gravity of Mary’s role in salvation by comparing his apprehension to the doubt of the apostle Thomas. In this parallel, St. Bernard sees Joseph’s function in his apprehension - highlighting the divine mission entrusted to Mary - as serving the same end as Thomas’ doubt of the Resurrection which highlights the miraculous quality of Christ’s victory over death. For whatever reason the story of Thomas’ doubt was included in the Gospel of St. John – whether to correct an early theory that Christ was not bodily resurrected or even resurrected at all – we may suppose that the decision to understand Mary in the Protoevangelium or the Gospel of Pseudo Matthew through Joseph is an intentional one. Perhaps, Joseph has appeared in these texts to assure our understanding of the only proper response to our encounter with the Mother of God: humble obedience.

    - W.K.