Monday, April 20, 2015

Josephology Part 6: Jerome Contra Patres

“Good job, James!”
 “Anyone who speaks about St. Joseph in the early Church should begin with a warning to his hearers: don’t expect too much. For the first millennium of Christianity, St. Joseph was all but ignored in preaching, liturgical celebrations, martyrologies, and theological writing.... To our knowledge, no Father of the Church ever preached a homily on St. Joseph.” –Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J., St. Joseph in Early Christianity
I will be relying somewhat on Fr. Lienhard’s short work throughout this post. He was a strong promoter of Josephite devotion, and he has scoured the patristic era for even the slightest hint of positive writings on St. Joseph. Likewise, the Oblates of St. Joseph have a similar collection of texts, beefed up with endless commentary on their website. Promoters of the “young and pure” version of St. Joseph are at a loss to find their beliefs in the early Church, but will stretch any inch into a mile.

When Joseph is mentioned at all in patristic texts, it is almost always as an ancillary character in their Nativity sermons. A few of the Fathers go out of their way to argue that Joseph was the true husband of Mary, and not just her betrothed or her protector (e.g., Irenaeus, Ambrose, Augustine), although some argue explicitly against theirs being a true marriage (“She is called the mother of Christ... not the wife of Joseph, for that she was not” –St. Hilary, Commentary on Matthew). The Fathers are, however, unanimous in stating that Joseph and Mary never shared marital relations, and that Mary remained virginal in all their time together.

Those few Fathers who did write about Joseph were largely in agreement about his great age and his previous, fruitful marriage. The OSJ website gives this list of Fathers who wrote that the “brethren of the Lord” were Joseph’s natural children from a former marriage: Origen, Epiphanius, Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril of Alexandria, Theopylact, Theodoret, Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Hilary of Poitiers.  A few selections from these theologians follow:
“They thought, then, that He was the son of Joseph and Mary. But some say, basing it on a tradition in the Gospel according to Peter, as it is entitled, or The Book of James, that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honour of Mary in virginity to the end.... And I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the first-fruit among men of the purity which consists in chastity, and Mary among women; for it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the first-fruit of virginity.” –Origen (c. 184-253), Commentary on Matthew, 17. 
“If there had been sons of Mary who were not rather produced from a previous marriage of Joseph’s, Mary never would have been transferred to the apostle John as his mother at the time of the Passion.” –Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300-368), Commentary on Matthew, 1.4. 
“And in Bethlehem he came to a house with his own mother and Joseph, who was an old man but was Mary’s companion.” –Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 310-403), On the Incarnation, 1.5.
“Joseph took his first wife from the tribe of Judah and she bore him six children in all, four boys and two girls, as the Gospels according to Mark and John have made clear.” – Epiphanius, Against Antidicomarians, 7.6.
“The ‘brethren of the Lord’ could have been born from Joseph and not from Mary.  This indeed anyone will find if he looks at the question more diligently.” –Ambrose of Milan (c. 340-397), On the Birth of the Virgin and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, 6.43.
“But as he considered that he had a share in the august titles of the Apostles, he exalts himself by honoring James; and this he does by calling him the Lord’s brother, although he was not by birth His brother, but only so reputed.” – John Chrysostom (c. 349-407), Homily 1 on Galatians.
“The reputed brethren of the Saviour not yet recognizing God the Word indwelling in His Holy Flesh, nor knowing at the time when they are saying these things, that He was made Man, have still petty conceptions of Him and think far too little of the grace and excellence that is in Him, seeing nothing more than the rest, deluded by the common opinions of Him, thinking that He too was in truth begotten of their father Joseph, and not seeing the hidden provision of the Mystery.... Very watchfully did the Prophet [Jeremiah], having named His brethren, profitably add, ‘The house of Thy father,’ lest they too should be supposed to have been of the blessed Virgin, rather than of His father Joseph alone.” –Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376-444), Commentary on John, IV.461-2.
“The Lord had brothers and sisters, the children of Joseph which he begat by the wife of his brother Cleopas. For when Cleopas died childless, Joseph took his wife in accordance with the law and had six children by her, four boys and two girls, Mary, who was called the daughter of Cleopas, in accordance with the law, and Salome.” – Theophylact (c. 1050-1108), Explanation of the Gospel of Matthew, 13.54-57.
“‘Mary the mother of James and Joses’ means the Theotokos, the Virgin Mother of God, for James and Joses were the sons of Joseph by his first wife. And since the Theotokos was called the ‘wife’ of Joseph, she is rightly called the ‘mother’ of his children, meaning ‘stepmother.’ The mother of the sons of Zebedee was named Salome. They say that she also was a daughter of Joseph.” –ibid., 27.54-56.
All these patristic witnesses are supposedly swept away by the authority of St. Jerome (c. 347-420) in one tract he wrote defending the virginity of Mary, Against Helvidius:
If we adopt possibility as the standard of judgment, we might maintain that Joseph had several wives because Abraham had, and so had Jacob, and that the Lord's brethren were the issue of those wives, an invention which some hold with a rashness which springs from audacity not from piety. You say that Mary did not continue a virgin: I claim still more, that Joseph himself on account of Mary was a virgin, so that from a virgin wedlock a virgin son was born. For if as a holy man he does not come under the imputation of fornication, and it is nowhere written that he had another wife, but was the guardian of Mary whom he was supposed to have to wife rather than her husband, the conclusion is that he who was thought worthy to be called father of the Lord, remained a virgin. (21)
But this must be taken in context, for Jerome was writing in response to an outrageous heretic who was claiming all manner of impropriety against Our Lady: to wit, that she had engaged in marital relations with Joseph and had herself borne many more children, who are listed in the Gospels as the “brethren of the Lord.” Jerome’s tone is over the top in its counterclaims, and this is evident even from his first paragraph:
It is a difficult matter to maintain the truth and refute an ignorant boor who has scarce known the first glimmer of learning.... There was the further consideration that a turbulent fellow, the only individual in the world who thinks himself both priest and layman, one who, as has been said, thinks that eloquence consists in loquacity and considers speaking ill of anyone to be the witness of a good conscience, would begin to blaspheme worse than ever if opportunity of discussion were afforded him.... The axe of the Gospel must therefore be now laid to the root of the barren tree, and both it and its fruitless foliage cast into the fire, so that Helvidius who has never learned to speak, may at length learn to hold his tongue. (1)
His anger is well-founded, but in his zeal to defend Mary’s honor he invents many arguments for the “brethren” to be the cousins of Christ (thus giving Mary a wide berth), attacks events from the Proto-Gospel of James as “the ravings of the apocryphal accounts” (10), presumes that this book is the only reason for the belief in Joseph’s previous marriage, and then discards the belief itself entirely. Much in the way that modern-day Josephites claim that belief in Joseph’s previous marriage and older age was concocted merely in order to preserve Mary’s virginity, so does Jerome remove it in order to preserve the very same thing! He wants the “brethren” a safe distance away in the family tree, and so eliminates the necessity for Joseph to have been married previously, making him a virgin at his betrothal to Mary.

Thus does Jerome create a virginal St. Joseph out of thin air.

There is no clear evidence that St. Augustine (354-430) agreed with Jerome, in spite of claims to that effect. However, in his Exposition of the Epistle to the Galatians he writes that “James the brother of the Lord should be taken either as one of the sons of Joseph from another wife or as one of the relations of Mary his mother” (8.5), thereby leaving open the possibility that the “brethren of the Lord” were not the sons and daughters of Joseph. That seems to be the closest thing to agreement that Jerome found among his patristic peers.

Needless to say, the East was unchanging in the tradition that Joseph was a widower and a father before his betrothal to Mary. In the survey by Fr. Florent Raymond Bilodeau on the OSJ website, however, we get a bit of Latinizing peevishness in this regard:
This list [of Fathers], at first sight, seems to outweigh the evidence we have just presented. However, a closer look at the statements of these men gives us a different impression. First of all it is important to note that most of them, save Ambrose and Hilary of Poitiers, were Greek Fathers. The Eastern Fathers were highly influenced by the Apocrypha, a group of writings of a religious character which at times made pretensions to divine authority. These writings elaborate on Saint Joseph. Very little of what they say is of historical value. (source)
It is unfortunate to see an apologetical work treat the Eastern “lung” of the Church as a bunch of gullible chumps. There may be an Eastern theologian here or there who speculates on the possibility of the Lord’s brethren having sprung from someone other than Joseph, but the overwhelming majority retain the traditional belief to this day. If for no other reasons than ecumenical ones, we should take that seriously.

Next time, we will make a survey of those few theologians who were convinced of Jerome’s novelty before it was more widely popularized by St. Thomas Aquinas.

St. Joseph, bemused by all this attention, pray for us!


  1. Another wonderfully edifying post. Thank you!

  2. Thanks for this informative and good spirited contribution!

  3. Well, the East has always been known for making things up ... such as attributing Apostolic origin to many of their sees or patriarchates when it can be proven without a doubt that that was not true (the main one being the See of Constantinople). Plus, the East will always keep as a "pious traditional belief" whatever may seem to differ from what the West holds as traditional pious belief.

    Where was this family (children of the extremely old Joseph) during the flight into Egypt and throughout the entire life of Christ?

    1. That's alright. At least "the East" (a huge misnomer) never made up silly devotions that restricted devotion to the Theotokos and Christ to their cardiovascular organs alone. At least "the East" never portrayed Christ as a boy-faced transvestite.

      Read the Protoevangelium if you want to know what happened to Joseph's kids. James skedaddles out of Jerusalem as Herod slaughters the innocents and Joseph flees into Egypt. Supposing that it's true, they were adults and perfectly able to care for themselves.

      If Christians throughout the centuries and the Fathers of Old say one thing and then some uneducated pious holy rollers say another thing eighteen centuries later, I know which one I'm more inclined to believe.

    2. The less that's known for sure about an Apostle, the more certain it is that he would be claimed by all sorts of places as their founder, especially when that Apostle was the brother was the Prince of the Apostles. St. Andrew is claimed in the East by Byzantium and in the West by Scotland (!) and Cyprus. Those would have been some hefty missionary journeys, for sure.

      The ancient West never held the virginity of Joseph as a traditional pious belief, as I have shown. It was invented by Jerome as a rhetorical-apologetical tactic.

    3. "The ancient West never held the virginity of Joseph as a traditional pious belief, as I have shown. It was invented by Jerome as a rhetorical-apologetical tactic."

      And then it was taken literally over a millenia later in the Counter-Reformation / "Enlightenment" eras (a dark time for Western Christianity, to be sure).

  4. Well, I do not think that using "the East" here would be classified as a misnomer given that many Eastern sees (Catholic, Orthodox, or the independent ones) do claim an Apostle as their founder, even when there's historical proof that that is not the case.

    The Catholic west has had devotion to the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart but not in the way in which you mention. That is actually what Protestants accuse the Catholic Church of doing... are you a Protestant?

    The protoevangelium, by the way, does not form part of the canon of approved biblical books. So, regardless of what it says, that does not, in itself, give support to the Eastern idea of the age of St. Joseph, of his possible previous marriage, and his other many children, etc.

    1. A protestant? Me? That's certainly a new accusation.

      "Dogs have four legs. My cat has four legs. Therefore, my cat is a dog."

      I was raised and reared entirely in Latin Mass circles. I am well aware of the cardiovascular devotions.

      What I mean by "the East" being a misnomer is that there is no such thing as "the East". There is such a thing as "the Western Church" and its most ancient practices oftentimes overlap with some of the other churches more than those churches do one another (for instance, the Armenian and Byzantine Rites have more in common with the Medieval Roman Rite than they do with the Nasrani and East Syrian Rites). "East" vs. "West" truly is a false dichotomy that should be avoided in any serious discussion of these matters.

      Since you are against the protoevangelium, are you against the feasts of Sts. Joachim and Anna (which is where they come from)? The protoevangelium is unique among the apocrypha in that its contents are considered generally reliable and part of tradition, being put among apocrypha only because James was not the author. However, there is good reason to believe it was written by disciples of James from traditions he had passed down to them orally. That is certainly far more reliable in the way of tradition than the "young virginal immaculately conceived and assumed into heaven" crowd has concocted.

      Also, isn't rejecting something just because it isn't "in the Bible" the very crux of Protestantism?

      As for the East and inventing Apostolic Origins, the only real offenders in this seem to be the Byzantines (and I say this as a Byzantine). Peter most certainly was in Antioch, Mark definitely went to Alexandria, Matthew probably ventured into Ethiopia, and Thomas without doubt went to Persia and then Kerala.

    2. I still remember when I discussed this topic on an Italian traditional blog and was accused of being Protestant, too. If I remember well, the main objection was the origin of the belief in the Protoeuangelium, which would have been condemned by a Pope in sometime in the first centuries. So I suppose that, in his maximalist view of the Papacy, my accuser thought that it meant that the Protoeuangelium had been infallible condemned as a heretic and pernicious book.

      Why does this topic become so conflictive everytime it is discussed?

    3. Mr. 1983, have you read the post you're commenting on? There is patristic support for Joseph's previous marriage quite outside of the Proto-Gospel of James, even from such a great Doctor of the Church as St. Augustine.

  5. You are really asking two major separate questions, (1) whether Joseph was an old man, (2) whether he had biological children by a previous marriage. Since the Church does not propose either as a binding article of faith. I am happy to remain an agnostic on both points, and refrain from ridiculing people who believe either. However, I am going to have to side with Latinmass1983 here, since your analysis is so lopsided. You are holding these writers to a double standard. First, in general, these writers are only engaging in speculation on the basis of Scripture, not repeating apostolic tradition believed by all, at all times in all places. Second, not even all of these have any bearing on your argument.

    Origen gives the opinion that the "brethren" are children of Joseph by another wife merely as "a tradition in the Gospel according to Peter, as it is entitled, or The Book of James," Origen gives the opinion no firmer endorsement than "I think it in harmony with reason." You are only proving Jerome's point (if not in the conclusion, at least in the basis of his argument) since Origen explicitly gives these apocryphal writings as the foundation for the tradition.

    Hilary says, "If there had been sons of Mary who were not rather produced from a previous marriage of Joseph’s..." Logically, his argument is that Christ giving his mother to John at the cross proves that the brethren of the Lord were not biological children of Mary. Therefore, he says, they must be children of Joseph by a previous marriage. This is not an argument from apostolic tradition, but an interpretation of Scripture, so his argument is based on no more authority than Jerome. Furthermore, Jerome proves that the word "brother" has a broader meaning in Semitic speech than we are accustomed to, and so does not necessarily imply that if not children of Mary, they must still be children of Jospeh, which is what Hilary assumed.

    Epiphanius says, "Joseph took his first wife from the tribe of Judah and she bore him six children in all, four boys and two girls, as the Gospels according to Mark and John have made clear." Again, he is not arguing from tradition, but from the text of the Gospels, and most scholars would disagree with Epiphanius on that point. It is most definitely not clear.

    St. Ambrose: "The ‘brethren of the Lord’ could have been born from Joseph and not from Mary. This indeed anyone will find if he looks at the question more diligently." I agree. The brethren could be Joseph's children. They could also be more distant relations, like Jerome said. Ambrose was likely unaware of the solution. Again, this is not an authoritative statement that everyone everywhere has always believed St. Joseph was an old widower and father of all the brethren of the Lord. He is starting from the belief that Mary was Ever-Virgin, and proposing an explanation.

    1. Chrysostom says, "he was not by birth His brother, but only so reputed." This does not support your contention at all. In fact, Chrysostom says that he is not the son of Joseph, saying in the same place that this James is the son of Cleophas.

      Cyril of Alexandria supports the hypothesis on the basis of a verse applied to Jeremiah (Jer. 12:6, "For even thy brethren, and the house of thy father, even they have fought against thee"). Trying to establish Joseph's parenthood on the basis of this verse alone would be like offering Psalm 68:9 (I am become a stranger to my brethren, and an alien to the sons of my mother") as definitive proof that Mary had other children after Christ.

      Theophylact is so far separated from this time period that you might as well have cited St. Thomas Aquinas, who you dismiss. It should also be noted that all the other authors (with the exception of Origen) are more or less contemporaneous (give or take a Century) and St. Jerome is not the last of them. There can be no argument from antiquity on the basis of these authors.

      So in reality, all these texts examined, the holders of "Jospeh, father of the brethren of the Lord" are of no greater force than Jerome, since they are reasoning only from the text of Scripture, as Jerome did. If Jerome did it better, his opinion should be taken over those of all the others. And, again, realize that none of these authors dismissed Jerome's opinion, it just didn't occur to them, probably because they lacked Jerome's expertise in Hebrew language and culture.

      Among other things, the explanation given by the father's is simply inadequate. For example, consider that the first chapter of Acts gives the disciples in the Upper Room as the Apostles, the women, "persevering with one mind in prayer with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren." Then Luke states that there was about 120 people there. Presumably, the bulk of these 120 would have come from Jesus' brethren. Were all these step-brothers from Joseph's previous marriage? This is easily explained by reading "brethren" as something more like kinsmen, like Jerome says. So to easily explain this passage, we have to propose Jerome's solution to explain at least some of the brethren, proving that the reasoning of the other authors above was incomplete.

    2. Mr. Bob,

      I am asking many questions beyond Joseph's old age and his natural patrimony, and especially about some of the more bizarre claims of modern-day Josephite apologists. Most importantly, I'm establishing patterns of belief and devotion in the early Church, and examining how and why they changed over time.

      As to some specifics:

      Chrysostom says that the James mentioned in Galatians was the son of Cleophas, but was also reputed to be the brother of Christ by birth. Since Christ was reputed to be the son of Joseph, this would make no sense unless either Cleophas and Joseph are the same person, or if Joseph married Cleophas' widow in a Levirate marriage and raised his children as his own. Both possibilities were actually suggested by patristic commentators.

      Theophylact is quoted here because he was referenced in the list on the OSJ website. I'm not sure why Fr. Bilodeau listed him among the Fathers, but I thought I should offer a selection for the sake of thoroughness.

      The other Fathers you're dissecting are not arguing straight out of Scripture, but from the context of an existing Tradition, even if they are not explicitly acknowledging that Tradition. Otherwise, how could they all be coming to the same conclusion, based solely on the rather thin evidence of Scripture? The belief that Joseph was an elderly widower--first written down in the Proto-Gospel of James, but too widely accepted to have originated there--was not doubted until Jerome. Scripture commentators frequently argue from the text for a traditional belief without explicitly stating that there is an existing Tradition.

      Jerome is surely right that the term "brethren" is used in a multiplicity of ways in Scripture (referring to relationships of nature, kindred, race, or love). He does not adequately demonstrate that the usage in the reference to the "brethren of the Lord" referred to "kindred" instead of "nature" in the eyes of the Jews. The crowds most likely thought these brethren were such by nature (that is, half-brothers), while in fact they were so by kindred (since Joseph was not Christ's father, but Mary was kindred to Joseph, thus making Christ biological kindred to Joseph's sons). But because Joseph was Christ's legal father or stepfather, it is not wrong to refer to this group as brethren by way of nature in that regard. Hebrew adoption bonds were often considered to be as strong as blood.

  6. You make a strong point in quoting many Church Fathers here, i do however have a little thing to say about the quote of Origen talking about the tradition of the"Gospel according to Peter, as it is entitled, or The Book of James" but, they are apocryphal and therefore false books, correct?

    1. The Proto-Gospel of James is not canonical, but it does not follow that it is simply false. It may still contain some aspects of an oral tradition of the Holy Family that would otherwise have been lost.

  7. In all honesty, I think the most likely scenario is that the “brethren of the Lord” is a mixture of step-siblings from Joseph’s previous marriage AND maternally (at least, if not also paternally) related cousins.

    As to which camp St, James falls into, one part of me wants to side with Jerome (and also apparently Chrysostom, thank you “J.”!) because this would actually be able to be pieced together from the testimony of Scripture, it’s a very reasonable inference when you look at the biblical data. OTOH, if tradition as a whole gravitates towards being one of St. Joseph’s children and being Our Lord’s stepbrother, I am at no liberty whatsoever to say this view is wrong.