The age difference between Mary and Joseph has been a topic of much discussion and speculation among Christians throughout history. Some claim that Joseph was much older, while others argue that the two were close in age. What does the Bible reveal about their respective ages, and what lessons can we draw from this today? Let’s explore this issue and see what Scripture tells us.
Mary and Joseph occupy central roles in the nativity story. Mary was likely a teenager when the angel Gabriel appeared to her, while Joseph was already a grown man working as a carpenter. Though we cannot state their exact ages definitively, the age difference between Mary and Joseph raises some important considerations.
Here are some key takeaways we will cover in this post:
- The Bible does not explicitly state the ages of Mary and Joseph
- Historical and cultural context provides clues about typical marriage ages
- Mary may have been as young as 13-16 years old when betrothed to Joseph
- Joseph was likely in his late teens or 20s when betrothed to Mary
- A large age gap was common in this culture, though not without issues
- God may have chosen a mature Joseph to protect Mary
- The heart attitude of Joseph and Mary matter more than the age gap
- We must avoid judging their culture by modern Western standards
Looking at this issue in depth can help us think through how we apply biblical principles to questions around relationships and marriage in our modern context. Though some aspects of ancient Jewish culture are unfamiliar to us today, Scripture still has much to teach us.
The Bible Does Not Explicitly State Their Ages
The first thing to note is that the Bible does not definitively state Mary and Joseph’s ages. The New King James Version refers to Mary simply as “the virgin” (Luke 1:27) and Joseph as “just” or “righteous” (Matthew 1:19). No specific numbers are given, likely because exact ages were not considered significant to include. We can, however, try to estimate plausible ages based on what we know about the cultural context.
In Luke 1:36, we read that Mary visited her relative Elizabeth soon after the annunciation from Gabriel. Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John the Baptist at the time. Earlier in Luke 1:7, Elizabeth is described as “well advanced in years” along with her husband Zechariah. Based on this, it is reasonable to assume Mary was still a youthful teenager during the events of the nativity.
With Joseph, we have less textual evidence for his age. Matthew 1:18 notes that Mary was “betrothed” but found to be pregnant before coming together with Joseph in marriage. This implies Joseph was old enough to have entered a legally binding betrothal, making him at least a young adult rather than a child himself. Beyond this, we cannot say more from Scripture alone.
Historical Context on Marriage Ages
Looking at ancient Jewish marriage customs can shed more light on typical marriage ages for girls like Mary and men like Joseph. According to cultural historians:
- Girls were often betrothed or married as young as 12-14 years old
- Boys were typically not considered men until age 13 per bar mitzvah
- Men often married in their late teens or 20s when financially able to support a family
Based on this historical context, Mary was likely between the ages of 13-16 when she became betrothed to Joseph. As an older adult, Joseph may have been 18-25 years old at betrothal. Some Jewish traditions suggest Joseph was significantly older, but this is harder to reconcile with the young child Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel.
Clearly a substantial age gap existed between Mary and Joseph by modern standards. However, this matches Jewish customs at the time for betrothal and marriage.
Was the Age Gap Problematic?
Given our modern sensibilities, such an age difference can seem troubling today. We often hear about young women in their early teens matched with much older men and rightly cringe at the power imbalance. Some question whether God would assign a teenage girl to marry a grown man.
First, we must remember the cultural setting and avoid projecting 21st century Western values onto a 1st century Eastern context. While such young betrothal ages were common historically, a number of factors mitigated potential issues:
- Jewish law prohibited consummation before marriage
- Betrothal lasted about a year before steps toward marriage
- Mary and Joseph both exhibited maturity and godliness
- God initiated their miraculous circumstances
Additionally, God may have providentially chosen an older, godly man like Joseph to protect Mary physically and reputationally. As her betrothed, Joseph shielded her from disgrace and punishment when she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph’s maturity and compassion toward Mary in that situation was crucial.
So while unusual to us today, the age gap itself does not appear to have been inherently problematic given the historical and biblical context. Scripture presents both Mary and Joseph as righteous and devout. Most importantly, they both honored the Lord in their decisions and actions.
Lessons for Us Today
When we encounter issues like age gaps in marriage, we must take care not to impose our own cultural standards on those in different eras and settings. Some aspects of ancient betrothal practices may unsettle us today, but we should avoid judging what Scripture does not forbid. Timeless principles like seeking the Lord’s wisdom, pursuing maturity and godliness, protecting the vulnerable, and submitting to God’s providence remain relevant.
In our modern context, we have more flexibility around when and who we marry. Wisdom is still needed to make those decisions, and Scripture should guide us. For example, we read in the New Testament that a church leader should not be a recent convert or a novice (1 Timothy 3:6) and that marriage should be “in the Lord” between believers (1 Corinthians 7:39). So while specific age gaps are not prescribed, biblical priorities like spiritual maturity and compatible faith should direct our relationships.
Above all, as we see modeled in the lives of Mary and Joseph, our relationship choices should be rooted in pursuing Christ and trusting in God’s goodness. If we choose mates wisely and walk in obedience to God’s Word, the Lord can use any union for His glory. The more we become conformed to the image of Jesus, the less other factors like age difference will matter.
In the end, the Bible focuses on who Mary and Joseph were on the inside rather than their numeric ages. Their story challenges us to emulate their obedient faith and virtuous character. The exact age gap between Mary and Joseph remains uncertain. But clearly God entrusted them, in their specific cultural context, with incredibly important roles in His divine plan. Just as the Lord used an unlikely young woman and a righteous older man to become earthly parents to Jesus, He wants to use each of us in whatever state He has called us (1 Corinthians 7:20). Our duty is to surrender to His will, trust His wisdom, and find our identity in Christ alone.