"That's not St. Joseph," exclaimed the wry and sly fellow who comments on this blog under the revealing pseudonym "J." "That's one of St. Joseph's children from his first marriage come over to baby sit!"
The context of this conversation was the unveiling of a new painting of the Holy Family at the FSSP parish in Irving, a painting that depicted the stepfather of Jesus as a young, strong, virile, brown-haired man with a passive disposition. Fashion in the last few centuries dictates a youthful, potent Joseph with a bright future as a physical laborer and strong protector of the Holy Family. This halcyon St. Joseph is, however, not the St. Joseph of the Church's tradition.
Joseph was, according to the earlier sources, previously married and widowed with children. His vocation from God to wed the Virgin Mary and guard the Son the God made Man came late in life after much experience raising a family and earning a living. Indeed, the protoevangelium of James, a non-canonical book which the Church has trusted for historical information in outlining her tradition, states:
"And Joseph, throwing away his axe, went out to meet them; and when they had assembled, they went away to the high priest, taking with them their rods. And he, taking the rods of all of them, entered into the temple, and prayed; and having ended his prayer, he took the rods and came out, and gave them to them: but there was no sign in them, and Joseph took his rod last; and, behold, a dove came out of the rod, and flew upon Joseph's head. And the priest said to Joseph, Thou hast been chosen by lot to take into thy keeping the virgin of the Lord. But Joseph refused, saying: I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl. I am afraid lest I become a laughing-stock to the sons of Israel. And the priest said to Joseph: Fear the Lord thy God, and remember what the Lord did to Dathan, and Abiram, and Korah; how the earth opened, and they were swallowed up on account of their contradiction. And now fear, O Joseph, lest the same things happen in thy house. And Joseph was afraid, and took her into his keeping. And Joseph said to Mary: Behold, I have received thee from the temple of the Lord; and now I leave thee in my house, and go away to build my buildings, and I shall come to thee. The Lord will protect thee."
Were Joseph an elderly man when he married the Blessed Mother his death would have been expected by the time Jesus began His public ministry around age thirty.
Another interesting passage is Matthew 13:55 onward:
"Is not this the carpenter' s son? Is not his mother called Mary, and his brethren James, and Joseph, and Simon, and Jude?"
The Douay-Rheims Bible as revised by Challoner has a footnote on Matthew 13:55: " His brethren: These were the children of Mary the wife of Cleophas, sister to our Blessed Lady, (St. Matt. 27. 56; St. John 19. 25,) and therefore, according to the usual style of the Scripture, they were called brethren, that is, near relations to our Saviour."
This footnote is one explanation of Jesus' "brethren," a term used in Semitic languages at the time to mean anyone a half-cousin or closer, but there is another possibility, too. These "brethren" may have been St. Joseph's children, but not Mary's. Jesus is identified with Mary and Joseph—who is dead presumably at this point, but the "brethren" are not identified with Mary—who is still alive. James "the brother of the Lord," James the Just, mentioned by St. Paul in Galatians may well have been an older stepbrother of the Lord. It has been suggested that while the average parish is a hopeless case, traditional communities could perhaps indirectly re-introduce the Church's tradition with regard to St. Joseph by beginning a devotion to St. James the Babysitter.