No man played a more important role in Jesus’ life than Joseph. Though not Jesus’ biological father, Joseph adopted Jesus as his son. Joseph protected him, provided for him, taught and mentored him.
We don’t often hear about Joseph because there is relatively little in the Gospels about him. They contain only a handful of stories about him around the time of Jesus’ birth, and a couple of references to Jesus as “Joseph’s son” later in the Gospels (the Gospel of Mark doesn’t mention him at all). Nor will you find anything about him in the Acts of the Apostles or any of the Epistles.
So we have to read between the lines to fill in the picture of Joseph’s life, and to some extent, we must use our imagination to connect the bits of information we do find in the Gospels. As we do this, we will find that there’s more than meets the eye in the New Testament accounts of Joseph’s life.
In Matthew 13:54-56, Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth, and some were offended by his teaching. They asked, “Isn’t he the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother named Mary? Aren’t James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas his brothers? And his sisters, aren’t they here with us? Where did this man get all this?”
Mary is named in this passage, as are the brothers. The sisters are not named, but it is mentioned that they were living in Nazareth. Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, is not named, likely indicating that by the time Jesus was pursuing his ministry, Joseph had died. Nevertheless, Joseph’s occupation was remembered and mentioned: he was the carpenter.
The people expressed surprise at Jesus, and not in a good way. You can almost hear the snide tone when they asked: “Where did he get this wisdom? Where did he get the power to work miracles? Isn’t he the carpenter’s son?” (vv. 54-55). The mention of his father’s profession seems clearly aimed at discrediting Jesus, saying in effect, “How can a lowly carpenter’s son have such wisdom and power?”
In Mark’s Gospel, by the way, the people described Jesus not as a carpenter’s son but as a carpenter himself. That tells us that Jesus was trained by Joseph to follow in his trade. It seems likely that Jesus worked as a carpenter, first in his father’s shop and then on his own, from the time he was a small boy until his baptism at age thirty.
If Joseph was a carpenter (and in turn Jesus as well), let’s consider what that tells us about him. The Greek word translated as carpenter is tekton. The word can mean a variety of things, but it seems most often to have meant someone who worked with wood. Because wood was in short supply in Galilee, the area where Jesus grew up and conducted most of his ministry, most houses there were built of stone or mud brick. Though a tekton could be a house builder, there was a different word in Greek specifically for stonemasons. Someone who worked with wood would have made the doors and shutters for a house. But it is likely that much of the work of a tekton involved building furniture, chests, and tables along with farm implements, tools, and yokes for oxen.
Greek also had a word for master builders— architekton—from which we get the word architect. An architekton was a master craftsman and usually had others working for him. But Joseph was described in Matthew not as an architekton, a master builder, merely as a tekton.
Joseph, Jesus, and You
What does it tell us about God that he chose Joseph to serve as Jesus’ earthly father and raise Jesus as his own son? Why didn’t God choose a priest, an educated scribe or lawyer, a physician or successful businessman, or even an architekton? Why did he entrust the job to a humble carpenter?
You may remember the wonderful story (1 Samuel 16:1-13) in which, a thousand years before the birth of Jesus, God sent Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s sons to be Israel’s next king. Jesse brought out the oldest, tallest, strongest, and most handsome of his sons and Samuel thought, He must be the one! Yet God said, “Not that one.” Jesse brought forth his second-oldest son, and once more God said, “Not that one.” Jesse did this with all but one of his sons. Finally, when God had rejected all the other sons, Samuel asked, “Do you have any more sons?” Jesse said there was one more, his youngest son, David, who was out tending the sheep.
Samuel demanded to see David, and when David was brought in, God said to Samuel, “He’s the one!” God said to Samuel, “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (v. 7 NRSV). In the end, the one chosen was, by outward appearances, the least impressive of Jesse’s sons—the youngest and scrawniest. With Joseph, God continued that pattern, looking at the heart and choosing an unlikely hero for the important mission of raising the Messiah.