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St. Joseph’s early artistic depiction and very young do not prove that he was very young

3 min • Digitized on February 28, 2022

From The Life and Glories of St. Joseph, in file "The Life and Glories of St. Joseph", page 136
By Edward Healy Thompson, M.A.

Should it be objected that in the first three or four centuries a different idea and type was adopted in depicting St. Joseph, and that he was represented as very young, our answer may be gathered from what has already been said. This difference arose most probably from a desire to protest against the apocryphal legends of the saint’s extreme old age.

As an argument against any such view the fact is certainly good, but we must not strain it beyond its apparent object. It would not, therefore, be fair to consider it also as a disproof of what has been the persuasion of later ages and of the present time, namely, that St. Joseph had already attained to mature years, and was near to or not very far short of forty, when he was espoused to our Blessed Lady.

The protest of the first centuries was clearly a negative one; it was a protest against the assertion that the spouse of Mary was in the decline of his days; and, as it might be difficult to draw the precise line where maturity approaches to decline, these early sculptors and painters would be led to give to St. Joseph an unmistakable look of youth in order to reject and condemn the fables concerning his advanced age, which, we must remember, included also the denial to him of his aureole of virginity.

For those passages in the apochryphal writings which ascribe to Joseph so advanced an age assert also that he was a widower with children, an idea equally repulsive to Catholic feeling and opposed to the tradition of the Church, both East and West, which from St. Jerome to our own day has united in declaring that Joseph, like Mary, was and remained ever a virgin. 1

1 F. Coleridge is of opinion that these writings were “very considerably tampered with by heretical adulterations. On this account,” he continues, “the class of literature to which the Apocryphal Gospels belong was under great suspicion, and it is most probable that, so to say, the innocent suffered with the guilty in the proscription which followed, and many a genuine morsel of ancient tradition was neglected and perished because it could not easily be discriminated from the spurious matter which had grown up around it. The word apocryphal is not in its proper meaning a word of necessarily bad import, for it may be applied to writings of the most perfect orthodoxy and the most complete veracity. But on account of the many dangerous and heretical works which had been put in circulation by the enemies of the Church, we find the Fathers speaking more severely of the whole class than some of its members deserved. It is clear that to a writer, for instance, like St. Jerome there was a great temptation to reject and proscribe the whole of a literature which might still contain many precious historical traditions.”—The Preparation of the Incarnation, p. 234. (See also Mgr. Gaume, Life of the Good Thief, M. de Lisle’s Translation, pp. 9-12.)

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