New Testament Joseph was having a masculinity crisis! How emasculating it must feel to have a pregnant fiancee with a child that isn’t yours? To not have been that one to assert your dominating masculinity over your submissive female partner through intercourse? How could the “genealogical” father of the new Messiah exist within the feminine structure that the New Testament constructs for him?
Say no more, various men of the 2nd to 5th centuries CE created what is considered the New Testament Apocrypha, or the collection of “lost gospels” that were excluded from publication in today’s New Testament. These narratives filled in many of the gaps that arise from the often inadequate detailing in the four gospels. As common in the Jewish practice of midrashim, or rabbinic interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, these major figures of the emerging Christian tradition, including St. James and St. Thomas, wrote background and tangential stories of primary biblical characters in order to make sense and influence interpretation of the bible, such as with the Infancy Gospels. While not all of these apocryphal stories are accepted as truth in today’s Christian practice, they nonetheless provide us with valuable insights into how people of the time were interpreting the New Testament and the ways in which pioneers of the Christian tradition were hoping to direct the faith, especially given contexts of gender, virginity, and bodies. By investigating characterizations of Joseph briefly in the Gospel of Matthew and largely in The History of Joseph the Carpenter, we can begin to see the constructed context of Virgin Mary, considering Joseph was her espoused guardian. Today, we will investigate the masculine characteristics given to Joseph, and whether these set up an empowering of suppressing environment into which Mary will emerge.
Joseph, like his Mary, appears rather infrequently in the New Testament; he is only prominent in the infancy and burial narratives of the Gospel of Matthew, for example. Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy of Jesus, starting with Abraham, tracing through King David, and eventually to Joseph. Genealogical lines are of great importance in Jewish tradition, and such an introduction of the Messiah rhetorically gains credence by virtue of demonstrating the divine lineage that led to the creation of the Son of God; moreover, by highlighting Jesus’ genealogical connection to powerful men,m such as David and Abraham, Matthew plays into the masculinized notion of the regeneration of God’s image, thereby implying the genealogical masculinity, and therefore perfection from which the human God is born. However, there arises a break in the lineage, as Joseph is not actually the man to impregnate the mother of the Son of God, which challenges the true masculinity of Joseph. Without the New Testament’s explicit mention of Joseph’s other children and later implications of Mary’s perpetual virginity, Matthew could possibly be implying that Joseph never participated in the masculine process of life-generation through penetration and impregnation, thereby feminizing his character.
Continuing, Matthew works within the cultural construction of men, as rational beings to further create ambiguity to Joseph’s masculinity. Matthew details: “[Jesus’s] mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” (Mt. 1:18-19) It is only after that Joseph is given a holy prophecy verifying the Holy conception of his spouse that Joseph understands the situation and agrees to stay with and protect Mary and their future, messianic child. Joseph is given other holy prophecies in his dreams later in the initial few chapters of Matthew, all which give him insight to dangers and direct him in ways to fulfill his “fatherly duty” of protecting his family. Despite Joseph being “just” and “faithful to the law” (dikaios), he seems to innately lack a rationality that is necessary for overcoming challenging concepts and understanding situations, a rationality that is characteristically masculine. Moreover, Matthew establishes a motif of salvation through masculinization, as Joseph secures his spot in the divine lineage by becoming more rational and choosing to stay as the genealogical father of the newborn Messiah. Similarly, Matthew develops this idea that masculinization is a process that cannot be performed by our human selves, but rather a divine, external entity must be the active creator of such masculinity. In ways we will explore in future posts, Joseph’s character manipulations serve to foreshadow the journey of salvation through masculization upon which Mary will embark in her virginal birth and apocryphal characterizations.
The writer of The History of Joseph the Carpenter ‘s (HJC) aggressive attempt to depict Joseph as a quintessentially masculine character serves as a model for masculinization through faith, justice, and obedience. Firstly, the writer of HJC puts emphasis on the impressive, superhuman age that Joseph to which Joseph stays alive: “one hundred and eleven years his age being prolonged to its utmost limit;” (10) this obsession with Joseph’s late age gives Joseph an air of immortality and thus masculinity. Continuing, the speaker details how although he was able to perform the masculine expectation of labor, he never experiences “bodily weakness, nor had his sight failed, nor had any tooth perished from his mouth.” This falls perfectly within Hippocratic philosophy on the male’s ability to achieve a state of physical perfection (see Wet and Dry Dichotomy). (10) Even Joseph’s constructed job, as a carpenter, evokes imagery of generation and creation which are both masculine processes by ancient Mediterranean medicine. The writer of this section of the NT Apocrypha speaks in Jesus’ voice, and detailing of Jesus’ absolute obedience with Joseph is reminiscent of the submissive/dominant power dynamic of ancient medicine that aligns Joseph with the phallic masculine (I say “phallic” in the metaphoric sense here). Finally, in Joseph’s death, Jesus makes his genealogical father incorruptible, meaning that his body will not endure the feminizing process that his physical decay, thereby gifting him an eternal sense of masculinity.
One must remember that HJC is a memoir and the past-tense nature of the narrative outlines the masculinity that results from divine salvation. With this, it is difficult at times to see Joseph’s trend from feminine to masculine that the gospel of Matthew outlines. Nonetheless, in section 17, Joseph reflects on the (feminine) ignorance that he had before the divine prophecies fell upon him. Similarly, the speaker is quick to remind us of Joseph’s incomplete masculinity in his inability to penetrate the Virgin Mary: “[Mary] brought me forth on earth by a mystery which no creature can penetrate or understand, except myself and my Father and the Holy Spirit.” Moreover, Joseph’s human status prevents him from reaching the ultimate masculinity of the Holy Trinity, despite him reaching the suggested humanly limit of masculinity through his physicality, job, and relationship with Jesus. This pivotal passage as suggests a beautiful quality of the word “conception,” in that the most masculine will be able to break woman’s bodies in the way they would break an impossible mystery; in both the physical and mental penetrations, conception results. This is a rhetorically powerful moment, as it feminizes the entire audience in their inability to conceive the way in which Mary was impregnate, which thus encourages them to support Jesus, in the way that Joseph did, in order to gain their respective masculinizations.