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Reasons St. Joseph was probably a young man when he married the Blessed Virgin Mary

4 min • Digitized on February 25, 2022

From The Life and Glories of St. Joseph, in file "The Life and Glories of St. Joseph", page 132
By Edward Healy Thompson, M.A.



We must pause here awhile to give a few words of consideration to the disputed question as to the age of Joseph at the time of his espousals with Mary.

Three opinions have been held; one of which would make our saint far advanced in years.

This opinion was accepted by some of the Fathers and ancient ecclesiastical writers, chiefly Greek; and in support of it has been urged the custom prevailing among painters of representing St. Joseph as an aged man, sometimes as almost decrepit.

This view has, however, been strongly opposed, not only because it had no other ground to rest upon than the statements of Pseudo-Gospels which were current in the third and fourth centuries, and were coupled with the assertion that Joseph was a widower with many children, an assertion forcibly condemned by St. Jerome and a host of other Fathers and theological writers down to the present time’s, but also as in itself presenting insuperable difficulties.

As we have already observed, these apocryphal writings, while probably recording some true traditionary facts, are entirely devoid of authority, and contain, moreover, much that we naturally reject as both improbable and unbefitting.

In the absence, then, of any authentic document on the point, it is reasonable to have recourse to arguments drawn from suitability and decorum.

Now, when the tender age of Mary at the time of her espousals is considered, and the providential object of that marriage, which was to shield her reputation and to hide for a time the mystery of the Incarnation; to provide her also with a fitting companion and protector, who was to be an aid and a support to her, especially during their flight into Egypt and in all the labours and sufferings which their exile must have entailed; it would seem surprising, not to say incredible, in the absence of any solid proof, to suppose that it pleased God to select for her husband a man weighed down by the burden of years.

Again, as regards the evidence to be drawn of Joseph’s great age from pictorial representations, we may say that it has become quite valueless ever since patient research has brought to light monuments of much earlier date in the sculptures and paintings of the very first centuries.

St. Joseph, the Cavaliere de Eossi tells us, is portrayed in the most ancient marbles and ivories as very young and almost always beardless. Later on, he was given a thick beard and a more mature and even aged appearance.

Of the youthful representations he mentions many examples, one of which is even supposed to belong to the sixth century. However, it was in about the fifth century that the habit of depicting the saint of, at least, a mature age seems to have commenced.

Clearly, then, as De Eossi observes, the most ancient monuments, those of the third and fourth centuries, are so far from following the apocryphal legend that, on the contrary, they picture to us the spouse of the Virgin in the flower of his youth.

In the fifth century, when, without peril to the canonicity of the four Gospels, artists might be at liberty, if they pleased, to approximate to some apocryphal traditions, the practice of Christian art to which allusion has been made began to prevail.

No argument, then, can be based upon this change; or rather, in the absence of any authoritative document, the tradition of the early Church, as gathered from the monuments of Christian art, is entirely unfavourable to the belief that Joseph was an old man.

Thus they furnish support to those reasons to which we have just adverted, drawn from the unsuitability of supposing our saint to have been far advanced in years at the time of his espousals with the Blessed Virgin.

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