Ode To Joseph


Joseph is one of those characters that has always intrigued me. His is an apparently strange story in the nativity, and we hear little, if anything about him afterwards. But behind the scenes he is quite an extraordinary figure.

He is engaged to Mary, probably about 14 or so. Who gets pregnant. What the?!! And then claims "God did it." But he sticks by her… Pretty much. She’s farmed out to a cousin for a while perhaps. But he does then take her to Bethlehem to register with him in the Augustine census.

I’ve been lucky enough – if you can call it that – to go to Bethlehem with The Amos Trust and spend some time with Palestinian Christians. It was a powerful 10 days, as Jonny has testified with his Backbone CD. These are people who’s families have been Christians, living and working and dying in the same soil as Christ himself, for thousands of years. They are the ‘living stones’ scattered among the old ruins of the religious sites. Both need tending to preserve our future.

One of the most amazing parts of the trip was a visit to the Church of the Nativity. As our Palestinian guide explained, Bethlehem is such a short trip from Jerusalem, with nothing of any significance further south, there would never have been an ‘inn’ there. Plenty in Jerusalem. And if Joseph was coming to register in his family’s town, he would naturally have stayed with family. But there was ‘no room’. In other words, his family chucked him out. He’d brought a pregnant girl with him out of wedlock to the biggest family reunion in years, and frankly that was totally out of order. They appeared to have sheltered in a cave under the house where the animals were kept. This wasn’t generousity on the part of some kindly innkeeper. This was savage neglect on the part of a family who dare not entertain disrepute.

This, for me, makes Joseph an extraordinary figure. Not only was he prepared to accept Mary and her unlikely story, he was prepared to take her to his family, to publicly announce his faith and acceptance of her. And then to uproot his family for years to protect them.

It’s unclear what his family later made of him, or Jesus. But if we are to believe the family tree as presented in the gospels, it’s pretty clear that plenty of his forebears had had some pretty alternative relationships too. This is God’s bloodline: messy, different, challenging… but faithful, trusting and ox-strong. It’s an inheritance Jesus must have been thankful for.


6 responses to “Ode To Joseph”

  1. I’ve been to the nativity church too. Bethlehem is a weird place. Given what the current culture in the area think about pre-marital sex (which may or may not be related to the gospel times), I’d say your analysis is very likely to be accurate.
    If that happened today, Joseph and/or Mary would have a good chance of being killed by angry family members.

  2. Thanks for this Kester. Having linked to it I’ve heard of a few people who’ve found it an interesting perspective.

  3. What about the testimony of the Bible? Luke 2:7 seems to be the one verse that mentions the word “inn” in most translations – the Greek is “katalumati” but I’m not enough of a scholar to know the significance of that word. Young’s Literal Translation suggests “guest chamber”, which could fit with this “family home” theory. However, I’d like to hear if there is more evidence than theories passed on by a tour guide?

  4. I think the “Guest Chamber” translation is a very good one. As you point out on your blog on this, it would be highly unlikely – given the culture etc. – that Joseph could return to his home town with a pregnant wife in tow and not find a place to sleep with some relatives.
    It was very interesting last night at a carol service where, in one of the pieces, Mary’s character announced that they had to go to Bethlehem with ‘thousands of others’. Perhaps the census did demand that a lot of people had to go there, but it would have been a very small place, not the bustling minor-city that so many pictures make it out to be. Perhaps this accounts for the ‘no room’ theory, but still leaves big questions given the tight-knit families that existed.
    You also seem skeptical about this being ‘only the testimony of a Palestinian Guide.’ Actually, these people are incredibly well educated, trained and thought out. It’s not an easy job to get, and their knowledge of the linguistics side is extremely good. The site of the Church of the Nativity is perhaps one of the most historically accurate in Christendom – there being a temple dedicated to Christ on the ‘cave’ that still exists in the crypt from only a few years after Christ’s death.

  5. I’ve had thoughts on our traditional understanding of the Nativity story too. I’ve wondered why Joseph HAD to take Mary with him on the journey to Bethlehem. Surely the presence of women wasn’t required to register for taxes in those male-dominated times – wouldn’t it have been just the head of each household that needed to register?
    If this is so, maybe Joseph needed to take Mary with him, despite her late stage of pregnancy because it would be unsafe for her to remain home alone? Those in Nazareth that would have stoned her for “unfaithfulness” could have had opportunity to take action on this if Joseph went away? Obviously I don’t have any Biblical evidence for this thought – it’s just a wondering of mine, but to me it would seem to fit the nature of the times quite well!

  6. Thanks for this Kester, I found a link over at Cartoon Church and was intrigued having written piece on Christmas interpretation and the word ‘katalumati’ or ‘katalyma’ a week or so ago over at http://www.notashamed.co.uk/onmebus/2005/12/where-was-jesus-born.html. As Wulf points out this is the word used in the Greek, it is only used on two other occasions in the New Testament in Mark and again Later in Luke, both times referring to the ‘upper room’ or ‘guest room’ used for the last supper, its interesting to see how tradition and interpretation give us what we believe, although much of it is speculation and perhaps doesn’t tie in all that well with the actual text.