The apocryphal writings like the Protoevangelium of James and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew give the background story of Joseph and Mary. Since these writings are non-canonical books, they may be true or myth. However, they help us connect the gaps in the life story of Jesus.
According to these writings, Joachim and Anne were childless for a long time. Joachim was rich and used to offer a double offering in the Temple. Childlessness was a shame and lack of blessing from God because the lineage of the family could not persist to the next generation through children. According to the old concept, one’s life continues after death through his children and the fame of his good works.
Childlessness was discouraging for Joachim based on widespread belief and his own study of the Scriptures. He went to desert and lived in a tent fasting for 40 days, seeking God’s mercy to have a child similar to one God gave to Abraham at his old age. Anne also prayed in the garden under a tree, seeking God’s intervention for a child as He gave to Sarah. Then an angel of the Lord appeared to Anne and informed her she would have a child who “will be spoken of everywhere people live.” Anne said, “As the Lord God lives, whether I give birth to either a male or a female child, I will bring it as an offering to the Lord my God and it will be a servant to him all the days of its life.” Angel also informed Joachim about the same promise. Anne gave birth to a baby girl whom they named Mary.
When Mary was three years of age, her parents presented her in the Temple for God’s service, as Anne had promised. Zachariah was in charge of training Mary in the Temple. She studied religion and scripture there. As she grew up, Mary made a vow of lifelong virginity. When she was 12 (15), she could not continue in the Temple. Children could not remain in the Temple from puberty so that they will not defile the sanctuary of the Lord. Mary’s parents might have died by that time. So, she was to be entrusted to a dependable person who would marry her while keeping her virginity.
According to the apocrypha, when Joseph was 40 years old, he married Salome (Melcha or Escha). They lived for 49 years together and had four sons and two daughters. The youngest was James the Less, also known as “the Lord’s brother.” This story helps us to understand the connection of perpetual virginity of Mary, and the siblings of Jesus mentioned in the gospels (Mk 6:3; Mt 13:55-56). “A year after his wife’s death, as the priests announced through Judea that they wished to find in the tribe of Judah a respectable man to espouse Mary, then twelve to fourteen years of age. Joseph, who was at the time ninety years old, went up to Jerusalem among the candidates; a miracle manifested the choice God had made of Joseph, and two years later the Annunciation took place” (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08504a.htm).
While the high priest was praying for a way to find a guardian for Mary, an angel of the Lord appeared and told him to gather the widowers in the area and let them bring a staff to the Temple. All the widowers, including Joseph, gave their rod to the High Priest who took them to the Temple and prayed. When he returned the staff, a dove came out of the Joseph’s rod and stood on his head. Another version of this story is that Joseph’s staff bloomed into flowers and a dove descended from heaven and landed on it. It was a divine revelation that Joseph was to take Mary as his spouse. This is the reason for the artists to depict a wooden stick with blooming flowers on the pictures and statues of Joseph.
This legend is an imitation of an event described in Numbers 17:16-26. Israelites were grumbling against Moses for having Aaron as the high priest. God instructed Moses to ask the leaders of the twelve tribes to bring their staff, along with the staff of Aaron, to the Tent of God. The next day, only Aaron’s staff flowered and produced almond fruits, proving Aaron as the God’s selected high priest.
The aged Joseph had a vow of chastity after he became a widower and Mary had a vow of virginity. She was married to Joseph not to bear children, but as a protector of her life and virginity with a covenantal relationship. However, God called him also to be the foster father of the redeemer.
Joseph became the father of Jesus, not by adoption, but by his marriage to Mary, the mother of Jesus. But unlike other stepsons, Jesus had no human father. That made Joseph’s relationship with Jesus more intimate. Besides, Joseph knew he was protecting and nurturing the God incarnate who had created him and had been protecting him.
JOSEPH, COMPARISON WITH OLD TESTAMENT JOSEPH
Joseph, the eleventh son of Jacob in the Old Testament, and Joseph, the husband of Mary in the New Testament, have similarities.
1. Both Josephs were from the lineage of Abraham, the father of faith.
2. Joseph of the Old Testament was the favorite son of Jacob, his father. Joseph, the husband of Mary, was the favorite son of God.
3. Both Josephs were dreamers. Joseph, the husband of Mary, had four dreams with messages from the Angel of the Lord (Mt 1:19-25; 2:13; 2:19-20; 2:22).
4. Both Josephs were chaste and righteous men. The Bible presents the moral integrity of the first Joseph in Genesis chapter 39, where he overcame sexual seduction from Potiphar’s wife even though he knew she would give him misery for not yielding to her.
5. Both had occasion to put their family to shame but did not. Joseph of the Old Testament could take revenge on his brothers, or at least put them to public shame when they came in front of him in Egypt searching for food. Instead, he treated them well and consoled them, “You intended to do me harm, but God intended to turn it to good to bring about what is happening today – the survival of numerous people. So have no fear! I will provide for you and your little ones” (Gen 50:20-21). Joseph in the New Testament is also a favorite son of God the Father. He inherited the holiness and righteousness of his forefathers, especially Joseph of the Old Testament, who also wanted to deal honorably with Mary.
6. Both Josephs protected their family.
Joseph of the Old Testament and the foster father of Jesus were righteous people. God chose them to protect their families. However, they had to face hardships in life. Let us learn from the lives of these holy men to be non-judgmental and righteous in our dealings with others.