This question has indeed baffled many throughout the centuries, including some of the best Scripture scholars in the world. Based upon all of the writings we have, it is almost universally agreed upon that by the time Jesus began His public ministry Joseph had already died and, thus, would not have been present at the crucifixion.
Most of what we know of the life of Joseph comes to us from two of the four Gospels, those of Matthew and Luke, but they are for the most part silent about his death. The very last we hear of him is in Luke’s account of the finding in the Temple (Luke 3: 41-52). At this time, as we know, Jesus was twelve years old. Nothing more is said of Joseph except when Jesus is referred to as his son later in the Gospels (Jn 1:45; 6:42; Lk 4:22; Mt 13:55). For that matter, no more is said of Jesus’ life from that moment until the beginning of His public ministry either. These are referred to as “the hidden years.” One fact we clearly notice of course is that Joseph seems to no longer be present when the gospel again takes up the life of Jesus at about the age of thirty.
The major reason that biblical scholars today agree on the probability that Joseph had already died by the time of Jesus’ crucifixion comes from the narrative in the Gospel of John, which tells us that from the cross, our Lord gave His mother Mary to the beloved disciple John. We learn that that “from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (Jn 19:27). Why would Mary have been entrusted to John and taken into his home if her husband Joseph had still been living?
Another of the factors that support the belief that Joseph had already died when Christ experienced His Passion and death is the fact that it has generally and consistently been accepted and believed that Joseph was much older than his wife Mary and, therefore, would have probably died much earlier than she did. There is a possibility that this could be based on the details given about Joseph’s life in some of the other early writings, which, although not later included in the accepted canonical books of Scripture, had a wide circulation in the early years of the Church. These are known as the apocryphal (hidden) literature. Even though their trustworthiness and authenticity cannot by any means be totally relied upon, they do provide details that lend some support for what we believe regarding the death of Joseph occurring before the Passion of Christ.
While these writings carried no real authority, they nevertheless acquired in the course of ages some popularity. We can see that in them some of the truth was contained, but because the Church did not later accept them as inspired writings, some of the details found in them have to be questioned seriously. It could be that early Church writers were seeking answers to certain difficult biblical passages. Despite the fact that they are contrary to all probability, as well as to the tradition witnessed by old works of art, these writings have done much in retaining the belief that St. Joseph was an old man at the time of marriage with Mary, the Mother of God.
In the end, we must say that we do not know with any certainty when or where Joseph died. The important thing is to know that God chose him, a good and “just” man, for the very special mission and role of caring for and protecting the mother who was to bring forth the long-awaited Savior into the world. His marriage to the Blessed Mother was a holy and virginal one. He fulfilled his call from God faithfully, and, therefore, he deserves our honor, respect, and devotion.
© Copyright 2004 Grace D. MacKinnon
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Grace MacKinnon holds an MA in theology and is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine. Her new book Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith is available in our online store. If you enjoy reading Grace’s column, you will certainly want to have this book, which is a collection of the first two years of “Dear Grace.” Faith questions may be sent to Grace via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also visit her online at www.DearGrace.com.