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Should We Call Joseph the Father of Jesus?

Steve Ray

There is more than one opinion today on Joseph’s relationship to Jesus. Here are some you may have heard:

  • Joseph was possibly the biological father of Jesus, but the Gospels deny it, claiming that Jesus was the product of a virgin birth, making him more than a man.
  • Jesus was really the product of a rape, and Joseph stepped up to the plate and helped Mary and her baby.
  • Joseph was not the father of Jesus because Jesus had no biological father; he was born to the Virgin Mary by the miraculous overshadowing of the Holy Spirit.

So what is the truth? Is it theologically and historically correct to call Joseph the father of Jesus? The answer is both yes and no.

Don’t Confuse the Matter

First, let’s look at the reasons against calling Joseph the father of Jesus. One argument is that it’s not prudent given the current widespread theological confusion. Some influential modern theologians contend that the Gospels do not communicate the historical truth of Jesus but only pass on the wishful thinking or prejudices of early Christians. Skeptics now frequently question claims that have been made by the Bible and accepted by Christians for millennia. The Virgin Birth of Jesus often is denied in modern theological circles.

Many writers and theologians try to “rethink” the birth of Christ in order to make it consistent with modern sensibilities. Luke Timothy Johnson gives a biting analysis of such theologians:

“They conceive of their chore in therapeutic terms. They seek to help those still enthralled by faith to find their way to the condition of enlightenment enjoyed by the authors. Each writer also follows the predictable path of rationalist reduction. Historical difficulties in the texts as we have them are construed as hopeless obstacles, which must lead inevitably to skepticism. The void of skepticism is then filled with inventive speculation. The speculation is not a reasonable alternative reading based on the available evidence but a complete reshuffling of the pieces, yielding a picture more satisfying to the aesthetic or religious sensibilities of the authors” (The Real Jesus, HarperSanFrancisco, 32).

So what do these skeptical theologians have to do with Jesus and Joseph? They reject the possibility of miracles, so they necessarily reject the possibility of the Virgin Birth.

Here are just two examples:

  • John Shelby Spong in his book Born of a Woman (HarperSanFrancisco) speculates that Mary was a teenager who bore a child conceived by rape and was later taken under Joseph’s wing.
  • In his popular book Jesus: the Evidence (Regnery), Ian Wilson says that in his Gospel, Matthew “tries to justify Jesus’ apparent divine origin” (46).

In this skeptical environment, many people would misunderstand if they heard someone call Joseph the father of Jesus. They would think he was his natural, biological father. Even within the Church, many of the poorly catechized would misunderstand the words to mean that Jesus was the result of sexual relations between Joseph and Mary. They might interpret the phrase “father of Jesus” as a denial of the Virgin Birth of our Lord.

Of course, any person of good will can g.asp that a Creator who can create a universe ex nihilo (out of nothing) certainly can arrange a virgin birth, and the Church has held to this teaching firmly and unshakably. The Nicene Creed states: “By the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary and became man.”

But given the widespread confusion about this central Christian doctrine, if we call Joseph the father of Jesus, we need to explain clearly what we mean: As Scripture and Tradition inform us, Joseph is not the biological father of Jesus because Jesus was born of a virgin without the participation of a man. Joseph is the father of Jesus through adoption, by the choice of God, and by marriage to Mary. Scripture and the earliest Tradition of the Christian faith are clear. Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus’ birth and afterwards, and Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary without sexual relations. As such, Joseph was the foster father of Jesus, the legal, adoptive father of our Lord—the chosen father, specially chosen by God himself (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 532).

But with all of this understood, we still must ask: Is it biblically and theologically correct to refer to Joseph as the “father of Jesus”? To answer that, let’s look at several respected authorities.

What Scripture Says

First, Luke informs us that when Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple to be circumcised, “his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him” (Luke 2:33). Luke does not add the words adoptivefoster, or legal. He simply calls Joseph “his father.” The same Luke who had written about the Virgin Birth now calls Joseph the father of Jesus.

Second, when Mary and Joseph turned back to Jerusalem looking for Jesus and found him in the temple questioning the doctors of the law, Mary asked, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously” (Luke 2:48).

It is certain here that Mary is using the word father to refer to Joseph and not the heavenly Father. Based on this scriptural precedent we are on solid ground.

Augustine and Aquinas

In his Summa Theologiae, Thomas writes, “According to Augustine (De Consensu Evangelistarum ii), Joseph is called the father of Christ just as ‘he is called the husband of Mary, without fleshly mingling, by the mere bond of marriage: being thereby united to him much more closely than if he were adopted from another family. Consequently that Christ was not begotten of Joseph by fleshly union is no reason that Joseph should not be called his father, because he would be the father even of an adopted son not born of his wife’” (ST III:28:1 ad 1).

Pope John Paul II

“And while it is important for the Church to profess the virginal conception of Jesus, it is no less important to uphold Mary’s marriage to Joseph, because juridically Joseph’s fatherhood depends on it. Thus one understands why the generations are listed according to the genealogy of Joseph:

“‘Why,’ St. Augustine asks, ‘should they not be according to Joseph? Was he not Mary’s husband? . . . Scripture states, through the authority of an angel, that he was her husband. Do not fear, says the angel, to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. Joseph was told to name the child, although not born from his seed. She will bear a son, the angel says, and you will call him Jesus. Scripture recognizes that Jesus is not born of Joseph’s seed, since in his concern about the origin of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph is told that it is of the Holy Spirit. Nonetheless, he is not deprived of his fatherly authority from the moment that he is told to name the child. Finally, even the Virgin Mary, well aware that she has not conceived Christ as a result of conjugal relations with Joseph, still calls him Christ’s father.’

“The Son of Mary is also Joseph’s Son by virtue of the marriage bond that unites them: ‘By reason of their faithful marriage both of them deserve to be called Christ’s parents, not only his mother, but also his father, who was a parent in the same way that he was the mother’s spouse: in mind, not in the flesh.’ In this marriage none of the requisites of marriage were lacking: ‘In Christ’s parents all the goods of marriage were realized—offspring, fidelity, the sacrament: the offspring being the Lord Jesus himself; fidelity, since there was no adultery: the sacrament, since there was no divorce.’

“It is to Joseph, then, that the messenger turns, entrusting to him the responsibilities of an earthly father with regard to Mary’s Son” (Guardian of the Redeemer 3; cf. Augustine, Sermo 51, 10, 16: PL 38, 342; De nuptiis et concupiscentia I, 11, 12–13: PL 44, 421).

True Fatherhood

Fr. Larry M. Toschi, O.S.J., an expert on Joseph, concludes that “because of his true marriage to Mary, Jesus’ Mother, Joseph is truly Jesus’ father, though not in a natural, biological sense. . . . His legal fatherhood is certainly key to Matthew 1, and it must be understood that in Semitic thought it was as real as biological paternity. . . . Besides passing on a name in the line of David, Joseph also gives the faith name Jesus, meaning ‘Savior’ (cf. Matt. 1:20, 25). . . . To all appearances Jesus is known as Joseph’s ‘son,’ so much so that people have difficulty imagining anything different (cf. Matt. 13:55)” (Joseph in the New Testament, Guardian of the Redeemer Books, 38).

Despite the scandal of those who deny the Virgin Birth, we should not deny Joseph his proper place and title as Jesus’ father. It is very clear that within a proper context of Jesus’ divine origin and Virgin Birth—and by rejecting the secularism and skepticism of our current age—we can understand the phrase “Joseph the father of Jesus” as completely faithful to Scripture, Catholic Tradition, the Doctors of the Church, and Pope John Paul II.

With Mary we acknowledge Joseph as the legal father of our Lord—the father chosen by God himself. What a marvelous man he must have been; what a wonderful father he proved to be; what an example for all fathers today.

St. Joseph, pray for us.

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