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Foster-father of Christ and husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary, died in the 1st century. All that is known of him for certain is contained in the Gospels: Matt. 1–2 and 13: 55; Luke 1–2 and 4: 22. He was of Davidic descent, but his trade of carpenter shows that he was impoverished. He was betrothed to Mary at the time of the Virgin Birth: his doubts about her conception, the decisions to go to, and return from, Egypt were all the objects of angelic admonitions in sleep. It can be said that broadly Matt. 1–2 represents Joseph's point of view and Luke 1–2 that of the BVM concerning the events connected with the birth of the Lord.

The apocryphal Protevangelium of James makes him an old man at the time of his betrothal to Mary, but the duties implied in the protection of the Holy Family and in the upbringing of Jesus Christ make this unlikely. A Greek document called the History of Joseph the Carpenter (5th–6th century) was influential in creating a liturgical cult of Joseph, which probably originated in the East but reached its full development in the West much later. Martyrology entries date from the 8th century (Rheinau) and the slightly later Irish martyrologies of Oengus and of Tallacht, but the feast of Joseph was celebrated in England before 1100 at Winchester, Worcester, Ely, and other centres. It seems that insular devotion long preceded any general cult of Joseph, although later medieval saints such as Vincent Ferrer, Bridget of Sweden, and Bernardino of Siena all propagated his devotion, partly in reaction against medieval mystery plays, in which he is a channel for comic relief. Carmelite breviaries of 1480 onwards give his feast, as does the Roman breviary of 1482 and the Roman Missal of 1505. But the diffusion and popularity of his feast at a high rank in the Roman Church was due in great part to Theresa of Avila, who dedicated the mother-house of her reformed Carmelite convents at Avila to the saint and frequently recommended devotion to him in her writings. Ignatius of Loyola also propagated his cult. Gregory XV made his feast a Holiday of Obligation, but this is not widely observed today. In 1714 Clement XI composed a new office for his feast; in 1870 he was declared ‘Patron of the Universal Church’ by Pius IX who also encouraged his ‘Patronage’ (later ‘Solemnity’) feast on the third Wednesday after Easter. This feast was replaced by that of ‘St Joseph the Worker’ on the significant day of 1 May by Pius XII. His name was added to the Canon of the Mass by John XXIII in 1962.

Joseph is patron of fathers of families, of bursars and procurators, of manual workers, especially carpenters, and of all who desire a holy death. This last devotion, which has become widespread since the 17th century, is probably based on the imaginary account of Joseph's own death in the History of Joseph the Carpenter. This document makes Joseph fearful of death and filled with self-reproach, comforted by the words of Mary and Jesus, who promised protection and life to all who do good in the name of Joseph. Many churches, hospitals, and religious congregations are dedicated to Joseph; the very frequent use of Joseph as a Christian name is some evidence of his widespread popularity. In medieval art he seldom appears alone, but nearly always with Mary or Jesus: later Murillo and Zurbaran produced the most famous paintings of him. In the New World, Canada (especially Montreal) is the most notable centre of devotion of Joseph. Feast: 19 March and 1 May.


Subjects: Christianity.

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