On Not Being Mary’s Baby’s Daddy

There should be a support group for teenagers who grew up in the nineties before the Internet and Dish Network came along to provide a wider array of wholesome entertainment outlets during the long summer afternoons when you had nothing else to do but turn on the television and watch the major networks’ star-studded 3pm-5pm lineup of pre-Dr. Phil talk shows: Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, Geraldo Riviera (before it became just Geraldo), Ricki Lake, and whatever that lady’s name was who looked like she was on the Golden Girls.

Of the many psychologically damaging things one could observe on those shows – which, I suppose, in an odd way anticipated the bizarreness of most “reality” shows today in how they exposed the worse of the human condition on live-ish TV – the most prevalent was the paradigm for how a baby-daddy should respond when the paternity test comes back implicating him. (Note: I believe that is the only time in recorded history that “paradigm” has been used with reference to Jerry Springer). The formula involves (a) denial, (b) yelling, (c) name-calling, (d) more denial, (e) attempted punch by the baby-mommy who is restrained somewhat too late by the security professionals, (f) swearing, (g) scurrilous accusations by the baby-mommy’s friend or sister or cousin, who is also on stage, (h) booing from the audience, (i) cut to commercial break, (j) some ridiculously forced reconciliation by the show host and / or someone storming off set, whichever comes first.

The emotional scarring of my mid-90s adolescence aside, this all makes me think of how Joseph must have reacted when he found out that “before they came together Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:18).

[Yes, believe it or not, with that high-class introduction, this is a Christmas-themed post after all.]

The biblical account of Joseph

"Saint Joseph with the Infant Jesus," Guido Reni, 1634
“Saint Joseph with the Infant Jesus,” Guido Reni, 1634

The gospels are pretty light on details when it comes to Joseph. We know he fits in the Davidic lineage (son of Jacob, grandson of Matthan, etc. in Matt 1:1-16), though there is obviously much debate about how to relate some of the details of the genealogy of Matthew with that of Luke. We know he was a carpenter or some sort of skilled craftsman (“Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary?” Matt 13:35), as was Jesus (“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” Mark 6:3). He received dreams regarding Mary’s condition before the first Christmas (Matt 1:20), and in the subsequent event that never shows up in nativity plays, he is warned to escape Herod’s murderous rampage to Egypt with Mary and Jesus (Matt 2:13–18). He faithfully followed the Torah in worshipping God (Luke 2:39,41), and he cared deeply for his son (Luke 2:48).

Lastly, e get a brief snapshot about how Joseph responded when he found out that his fiance Mary was pregnant – not by him, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. Matthew records that (a) Joseph pondered or considered the matter seriously (1:20), and (b) “being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, [he] resolved to divorce her quietly” (1:19).

It is a short statement that is fully in line with the broader portrait of Joseph as an upright follower of God. Why, exactly, the divorce of Mary would have protected her reputation and solved the issue is an issue demanding much longer discussion. The point for now, however, is simply to point out that the Bible gives us some important details about Joseph (lineage, vocation, character), but that is pretty much the extent of it. Did he get mad at Mary? Did he have an existential crisis about the virgin birth? Did he take Jesus fishing? Was he a devoted father? God has deemed it wise not to have the gospel writers record more information about Joseph than what we have in the texts, however interesting it might be to our present day curiosities. Joseph is, in fact, rarely mentioned after the birth stories, while Mary repeatedly shows up through the very end.

A fascinating non-biblical account of Joseph

As I mentioned in a prior post about non-canonical birth narratives, the Christian communities that came about after the apostolic era were very interested in the idea of filling (or, in most cases, fabricating, but not with evil motive necessarily) in the details that the canonical Bible did not record. Beyond the “Infancy Gospel of Thomas” (a.k.a., The Harry Potter Jesus), another of the most popular “infancy gospels” was the Protevangelium of James.

The Protevangelium, as the title suggests, is a “Gospel before the Gospels” and focuses on the events leading up to and following the birth of Christ. Given that the gospel narratives do a thorough job describing Jesus’s birth itself, this text focuses instead on Mary and Joseph. As there would be in a modern biography, there was interest back then to understand what Jesus’ parents were like, how they got engaged, whether they were good parents, and so forth. The Protevangelium is a (mostly fictional, though the portions shared with the gospels are obviously accurate) attempt to fill in those gaps.

It is dated to roughly the end of the second century, and judging by the 150+ manuscripts available (Greek, Coptic, Syriac, Ethiopic, Armenian, Georgian, Latin, and Slavonic), it may have been the most popular apocryphal work in existence at the time – even more than the Gospel of Thomas.

Notably, the Protevangelium was so popular that it unofficially became the official source for a handful of Roman Catholic dogmas concerning Mary. It is one of the only textual sources for such ideas as the perpetual virginity and the sinlessness of Mary, which is a central part of Catholic “Mariology” even today (though the Bible speaks nothing of either).

The Protevangelium basically runs as follows. Mary’s mother and father, Anna and Joachim, were infertile until an angel appeared to them and promised them a child. Anna gives birth to Mary, and they take her to the temple where she is cared for by the priests. When she is old enough to be married, another angelic vision reveals to the chief priest that Joseph shall be her husband, despite the fact that he’s old and has children by a prior wife (note: these prior children would be James and the other siblings of Jesus the gospels mention; this allowed the Catholic church to maintain that Mary never had any other children, though the biblical data suggest that Mary did, in fact, have other children). Before Mary becomes pregnant, she weaves the temple curtain (yes, the one that is later torn in two at Jesus’ death). At age 16, Mary conceives by the Holy Spirit, and she conceals it from Joseph until she hits 6 months. Joseph is angry and wants to divorce her, and the priests are also shocked. From here, the story basically overlaps with the Matthean and Lukan accounts apart from a variety of details, such as Salome’s incredibly bizarre post-partum examination of Mary that reveals that she is “still” a virgin.

So there’s some interesting stuff here, but the work was never treated in any way as equivalent or on the same level as the canonical gospels, though it was obviously popular as devout half-fiction / half-non-fiction.

The Recapitulation of Adam

For me, the most fascinating passage is found in chapter 13, when Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant. The text reads:

Striking his face he cast himself to the ground on sackcloth, weeping bitterly and saying, “How can I look upon the Lord God? How can I utter a prayer for this young girl? For I received her from the Temple of the Lord God as a virgin, but I did not watch over her. Who has preyed upon me? Who has done this wicked deed in my home and defiled the virgin? Has not the entire history of Adam been summed up in me? For just as Adam was singing praise to God, when the serpent came and found Eve alone and led her astray, so too has this now happened to me.” (Prot. James 13:1)

This account, which attempts to elaborate on Matthew 1:19, provides pretty good insight into what Joseph might have been thinking. He is justifiably upset, since he does not yet know the important detail about the Holy Spirit’s involvement. But note that he is not upset with Mary. He is instead upset at the perpetrator, whomever it might be. He is angry because he has been duped – not by Mary, but by someone taking advantage of her innocence. This squares quite nicely with the Bible’s account that he held Mary in high regard. He sees her as the victim (not the criminal), and ultimately he blames himself for not taking care of her well enough. This is great insight into how we should respond when we are wronged: not lashing out to blame someone else (the Jerry Springer paradigm), but looking at ourselves to see where OUR sin might be located. For therein lies the path to repentance – the path that leads to the Lord God himself.

The underlined portion, however, is the most interesting to me. He describes the whole event as a recapitulation of Adam. He explains himself by saying that, just as Adam failed at protecting Eve, thus allowing the serpent to tempt Eve in a sense behind Adam’s back, so also Joseph has experienced someone bringing down his wife behind his back (and it was ultimately his own fault). Now, in subsequent chapters (and in the Bible, of course) we find out that Joseph is actually wrong for thinking this, since it was not another man (or Satan) who has brought this on as a sinful thing, but rather it is the Holy Spirit who accomplished this great miraculous thing.

But the response of Joseph, when he lacked these important details, is still instructive. I want to suggest that there’s a deeper significance to the phrasing that Joseph uses that, in fact, connects to a rich and important theme pertaining to Jesus Christ and Adam.

The Greek text for the underlined portion above reads: μητι εν εμοι ανεκεφαλιωθη η ιστορια του Αδαμ. The underlined word has been translated in the above excerpt as “summed up.” That’s a fine rendering, and the sense is something like “to be brought together under some organizing principle.” Strikingly, this same word is used twice in the NT, in two important passages:

Eph 1:10 – to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth

Rom 13:9 – For the commandments,  “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word:  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

In light of these verses, I suggest that Joseph’s statement about the “history of Adam” being “summed up” or somehow united under a single organizing principle in his own life bears remarkable truths (even in an apocryphal work!):

  • Joseph reflects how we are all recapitulating the fall of Adam until we are redeemed in Christ. Joseph states that everything that happened to Adam has now happened in his own life. The sin cycle and repercussions of Adam in the garden has just been re-lived in Joseph’s own life. This is a great way of expressing a core Christian truth. Joseph, like all fallen sinners, is “in Adam” – that is, part of the fallen part of humanity that fell with Adam in his “history” – until he becomes “in Christ.” Adam’s sin and fall and punishment, which Joseph refers to has his “history,” is repeated in principle in every single human being’s life who has ever lived. The history of Adam’s fall into sin is recapitulated or united in all of us from birth; all of us like Joseph bear the “summing up of Adam’s history” in our very beings … in the sinful state, at least. It is only when a different “history” – that of the death and resurrection of Christ – is “summed up” in us that we escape the punishment we inherit from Adam and receive the grace of salvation in Christ. In other words, I find that this phrase “the history of Adam summed up in me” is a profoundly biblical way of expressing how we are all born into sin due to the historical fall of Adam and the depravity it has brought on all who descend from him.
  • We can also see how the “history of Adam” is also “summed up” in Jesus Christ, the son who would be born to Joseph and Mary through this amazing intervention of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is presented in the Bible as the “second Adam” (Rom 5:15–17; 1 Cor 15:20–28). He takes on flesh as the new, perfect man (after Adam had fallen and brought sin and death upon man), but he offers a great interchange. He takes on our sin – he takes on the “history of Adam” that we have all inherited – and instead gives us a new “history.” On the cross, the entire history of all the sins of God’s people were “summed up” or “brought to a head” on Jesus Christ himself, and through his death he quenched God’s wrath for those sins. By his resurrection, he then gives to us a new “history” that puts us in a position of favor and acceptance with God. Why? Because now the “history of Christ” is “summed up” in us. Because Christ, the “second Adam,” has borne the entire history of Adam’s sin in his own flesh, we now have a new history: Christ’s own. What a marvelous substitution!
  • Finally, the passage in the Protevangelium only works if Joseph saw Adam as a real person with a real history. What else could he mean by “Adam’s history being summed up” or recapitulated in his own life if Adam, Eve, the serpent, the garden, and the temptation were not, in fact, historical events. In an age where even conservative Christians are increasingly questioning the historical Adam, this passage provides another data point for how the early Christians perceived the issue. The gospel writers obviously saw Adam as a real person (hence Luke’s genealogy in 3:38), and Paul most certainly hangs much of his theology on the factual nature of Adam’s existence: he preceded Moses (Rom 5:14), his fall impacted us all (1 Cor 15:22; 1 Tim 2:13), and he formed the pattern for Jesus Christ, the “second Adam” and true “spiritual” man (1 Cor 15:45). The author and, presumably, the readers of the Protevangelium saw Adam the same way: a real person, with a real history, who is intricately connected to Jesus Christ. In Paul and in this text, the same principle holds true: if the “history of Adam” is not a real history that can be repeated or summed up in me, how then can the “history of Christ” work the same? If Adam was not a real person, how can he represent me? If Adam’s representation is some sort of myth or metaphor, does that mean Jesus’ representation is too? Does that mean Jesus is just a metaphor? In short, the gospel offer of a way in which I can move from being “in Adam” to being “in Christ” requires that it actually mean something to be “in Adam” – something just as historically rooted as being “in Christ” requires of Christ.
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