Everyone knows about Mary and Joseph’s trip to Bethlehem. After all, the birth of Christ has been widely celebrated for 2,000 years. But the Bible offers comparatively few personal details about Christ’s earthly parents – requiring us to seek out additional sources. And once put in historical context, the all too human struggles of Mary and Joseph have modern parallels with the troubles of poor, rural people in the global south today.
20. Mary and Joseph lived in times of strife and hardship
Mary and Joseph were desperately poor like nearly everyone else in Nazareth, which was then an insignificant and largely overlooked Galilean hamlet. Mary – whose Hebrew name was Miriam – was born into the peasant classes, which made up 90 percent of the local population. Joseph hailed from the more exclusive artisan classes, but his income was probably even worse than that of a peasant.
Christ’s parents struggled to get by on a daily basis, and this was helped in no way by a hefty tax burden. In fact, Mary and Joseph were liable for big levies: one for the temple, which demanded one tenth of their annual harvest; one for Rome; and another for Herod the Great. This figure – then the King of Judea – had despotic tendencies and was a client ruler answerable to the Roman Emperor.
19. Mary and Joseph probably lived with extended family
Nuclear families were not at all common in ancient Judea. And it is very likely that Mary and Joseph raised Jesus in an extended family alongside uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents and other relatives. It was normal and customary for a newly married bride to join the household of her husband, which was usually the domain of his parents.
Experts believe that Joseph’s living quarters probably resembled a warren-like compound with three or four small houses overlooking a courtyard filled with domestic animals. Shared amenities would have included an oven, a cistern and a millstone. Mary would have spent many hours a day toiling in this environment: cooking, cleaning and washing for the whole household.
18. Joseph may not have been a carpenter
The earthly father of Jesus was long ago identified as a carpenter, but many scholars believe that this is untrue. The misunderstanding apparently derives from a mistranslation of the Greek word tekton, which appears in Matthew 13. It more accurately means “craftsman” or “builder,” and this re-examination of the word overturns centuries of common assumptions.
Of course, carpentry is simply a specialized form of craft and it is quite possible that Joseph worked with wood. Though forest resources in ancient Judea were relatively scarce, and this is reflected in the predominantly stone-built houses of Nazareth and around. So, it may be more accurate to describe Christ as the son of a stonemason, or even a simple builder.
17. Mary wasn’t a blue-eyed, blond-haired Madonna
Artists throughout the centuries have tended to portray Mary in idealized terms. She appears as a pious, porcelain-skinned woman with blue eyes and blond hair. However, the real Mary was a robust peasant girl and her daily life was dictated by drudgery and physical labor. Furthermore, she would have resembled a typical Palestinian woman with brown eyes, dark hair and an olive complexion.
There is also no evidence that she was even physically attractive – let alone divinely beautiful. And the whitewashing of Mary and other Biblical characters tell us more about European ideas of racial superiority than the reality of ancient Judea.
16. Mary was probably a child when she was betrothed to Joseph
In times past, it was customary for women to be married at the onset of puberty in order to make the most of their childbearing years. As such, Mary was probably betrothed to Joseph at around the age of 13. She became pregnant during this time, so Mary was almost certainly a fresh-faced adolescent when she gave birth to Jesus, too.
The patriarchal laws of the day likely dictated that Mary and Joseph’s marriage would have been arranged by their fathers in the first instance, with their mothers influencing matters behind the scenes. Ultimately, marriage in ancient times was a contractual arrangement. According to Matthew 1:20 and Luke 1:27, its terms included a negotiable “bride price” payable to Mary’s family – mainly to compensate for the loss of her labor.
15. Mary was betrothed to Joseph for a full year before they married
Betrothal was tantamount to marriage in ancient Judea and it could only be annulled with a divorce. Joseph and Mary were not properly wed for a whole year, during which time they were forbidden from consummating their union. Apparently, this customary engagement or “cooling off” period allowed time for planning.
But as the actor Woody Allen once reportedly said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” Which is to say that Joseph and Mary’s betrothal was barely a few months old when it hit the skids. According to Biblical accounts, Mary had become pregnant, and Joseph was not the father. Moreover, her cover story about God being the daddy was hardly convincing.
14. Joseph nearly broke if off with Mary – but an angel may have made him reconsider
Mary’s unplanned pregnancy would have been utterly scandalous – rather than a cause for celebration. Bride prices had been agreed and the wedding preparations were underway, so her infidelity probably drew both families into conflict. Joseph – who bore ultimate responsibility for the betrothal – would have been under immense pressure to divorce her. And that is exactly what he decided to do, according to the Book of Matthew.
But everything changed after an “angel of the Lord” visited Joseph in a dream. The apostle Matthew claims the angel told him that Mary was pregnant with the son of God – the latter of whom was a great spiritual leader who would one day “save his people from their sins.” As such, it was imperative that Joseph “take Mary as his wife.”
13. Mary and Joseph may have been stoned to death if he had divorced her publicly
If Joseph had decided to divorce Mary then they may well have been stoned to death for the latter’s transgressions. The Book of Deuteronomy – which describes in detail the ancient laws and customs of ancient Israel – clearly states that in the case of extramarital affairs “both the man and the woman are to be stoned.”
But according to Matthew, Joseph “was a righteous man and unwilling to disgrace her publicly.” He thus “resolved to divorce her quietly.” Indeed, Matthew portrays Joseph as a man of high ideals and admirable character. Furthermore, Joseph did not seek the revenge he was entitled to under law, even though he had been wounded and humiliated by Mary.
12. The immaculate conception never happened
Science tells us that it is biologically impossible for a woman to become pregnant without intercourse. It is therefore quite possible that Mary was not expecting when she married Joseph. Alternatively, it is possible that he was the biological father of Jesus, or that the latter was instead the product of an illicit affair. But God the father stretches all credibility.
The story of the immaculate conception is narrated by just two apostles: Matthew and Luke. And they probably made it up for theological reasons, according to The Guardian. They may have reasoned that a virgin vessel is a pure one – as the mother of God should be. Indeed, the concept of a virgin mother was so powerful that some early Christian thinkers regarded Mary herself as the daughter of an immaculate conception.
11. Mary gave birth to Jesus at home in Nazareth
The Nativity is one of the best known tales of all the Biblical stories. But did it really happen? Some scholars think not, and the Bible itself is far from clear on the issue. Neither the gospels of John, Mark, or Paul’s letters make any reference to any trip to Bethlehem.
It’s largely believed that Mary gave birth to Jesus at home in Nazareth. Of course, this would mean that neither Joseph nor Mary knew quite how special and different their son was – at least initially. It would also imply that all the ritual and celebration associated with Christ’s birth never actually happened.
10. Mary was variously cast as a hairdresser and a prostitute at one point
Some anti-Christian commentators in the second century rejected the notion that Mary was a virgin mother. Instead, they cast her a tawdry hairdresser who had a fling with a Roman trooper called Panthera – the presumed biological father of Jesus Christ. Some scholars claimed that she was a sex worker, while others said that she was the victim of rape.
New Testament lecturer at the University of Edinburgh Helen Bond speculated that the aforementioned stories may in fact derive from very early Christian traditions. She wrote in The Guardian in 2002, “… Are these stories counter-claims to Christian traditions? Or do they preserve an even older tradition in which Jesus was illegitimate, a tradition which was taken up and transformed by the gospel writers into the story of the virginal conception?”
9. Mary spoke Aramaic with a Galilean twang
Mary would have spoken a local dialect of Aramaic, which was then the most popular and widely spoken language among Middle Eastern Jews. Today, just a handful of Christian communities in Syria and Iraq continue to speak Aramaic, but it was once the region’s lingua franca. And the language is quite ancient – having originated with the Aramean people in the 11th century B.C.
Meanwhile, it is not known whether Mary spoke any other languages. But she certainly would have been exposed to them – suggesting that Mary may have picked them up, as her son apparently did. Rabbis, for example, were fluent in Hebrew – the language of the Torah. Merchants and scholars often spoke in Greek, while the Roman occupiers, of course, used Latin in their daily affairs.
8. Mary probably could not read or write
It is unlikely that Mary knew how to read or write, because literacy among the poor was uncommon in ancient Judea. However, her Jewish heritage included rich oral traditions including songs, stories and poems. Indeed, the Torah is partly composed of an Oral Law known as Torah Sheba’al Peh, which recounts the laws of Moses among things.
The Torah Sheba’al Peh was passed through the generations from father to son, until finally it was written down by Rabbi Juddah the Prince around 1,800 years ago. It seems plausible, therefore, that Joseph instructed Jesus in matters of Jewish spirituality, and that the latter’s flair for telling stories may have begun in the home.
7. Joseph may have fathered other children and lived to 111
According to some accounts, Joseph was an old widower and the father of several other children when he met Mary. Others argued that he lived to the ripe old age of 111 before finally dying in 18 or 19 A.D. But such stories are apocryphal and are not included in the Bible.
The apocryphal texts were largely written in the fourth century and include the “History of Joseph the Carpenter” and the “Gospel of the Nativity of Mary.” These writings contain a litany of historical errors, but they do reflect the mainstream religious discourses being promulgated at the time. For example, some apocryphal legends assert that Mary was raised by priests in the Temple of Jerusalem – thus reinforcing the church’s claim that Mary was a pure and spiritual being.
6. Mary may have been a firebrand
Mary has often been depicted as the embodiment of feminine obedience – a gentle and generous soul exalted by her tenderness and motherly love. However, according to some thinkers, the true, historical Mary may well have been a fighter and a revolutionary. The image of a tough and spirited woman who championed the rights of the poor stands in contrast to the mild Mary commonly represented by artists.
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer – who was subsequently executed by the Nazis – made the case for a firebrand Mary to his flock in 1933. He said, “The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”
5. Joseph taught Jesus professional skills
Comparatively little is known about Christ’s childhood and adolescence. But it is believed that he may have spent at least some years working and studying as an apprentice to his father. Some historians also think that, the two of them might have helped to construct the town of Sepphoris – now known as Zippori – just a few miles from Nazareth.
In fact, King Herod had selected the town – which was conveniently situated close to a stone quarry – for development and beautification. As such, he probably recruited nearly every available craftsman in the land. In the end, Sepphoris was so handsome that the Jewish historian Josephus called it “the jewel of all Galilee.”
4. Jesus had a very close relationship to his mother
Jesus was probably very close to his mother – like most other Jewish boys from Galilee. We can only speculate what she might have taught him, but Mary’s compassion for the poor and downtrodden may well have rubbed off on Christ.
Equally, Mary is sometimes called the first disciple on account of her intense spiritual devotion to Jesus. As Pope John Paul II remarked in 1987, “Separation did not… prevent the mother from spiritually following her son, from keeping and meditating on his teaching as she had done during Jesus’ hidden life in Nazareth. Her faith in fact enabled her to grasp the meaning of [his] words before and better than [Christ’s] disciples.”
3. Joseph and Mary could not afford a sacrificial lamb for Christ’s dedication in the Temple
According to the Law of Moses, all mothers should undergo a purification rite after childbirth. And all first-born sons should be presented to the Temple in Jerusalem for rituals of “redemption.” The standard fare for such ceremonies is a sacrificial lamb. However, Joseph and Mary were too poor to buy one.
Fortunately, the Book of Leviticus makes an exception for parents who can’t afford a lamb – they should instead present a “pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” So, the couple traveled to Jerusalem some 40 days after their son’s birth – as custom demanded – and presented him. Christ’s Presentation in the Temple continues to be celebrated today and it is held 40 days after Christmas.
2. Joseph’s death is a mystery, but he may have died happy
Joseph is a veritable mystery compared to his wife Mary, who is mentioned in detail in several Biblical passages. Indeed, the Bible contains just a few references to the earthly father of Christ and not a single verbal utterance is attributed to him. So, it is perhaps no surprise that his death is a puzzle, given that there are so few details about his life.
Joseph was not present at the Crucifixion, therefore it is quite possible that he was long dead by then. Some have taken this reasoning further – speculating that Joseph died peacefully in the arms of Jesus and Mary. For this reason, Saint Joseph is sometimes called the patron saint of happy deaths.
1. Joseph and Mary’s Nazareth home may have been identified
In 2015 British archeologist Dr. Ken Dark announced that he may have located Joseph and Mary’s family home. The remains of the house were situated in a limestone hillside and are made of stone and mortar. The structure includes several rooms, a stairway and part of its original chalk flooring. Apparently, it had been on the radar of archeologists since 1880.
Dark explained in the Biblical Archaeological Review that that the building had been included in Byzantine era churches. He wrote, “Great efforts had been made to encompass the remains of this building. Both the tombs and the house were decorated with mosaics from the Byzantine period, suggesting that they were of special importance, and possibly venerated.”