The age of Joseph when he married Mary has been a topic of debate among some Christians. The traditional view is that Joseph was likely in his teens or 20s when he became betrothed and eventually married to Mary. However, some have proposed that Joseph was as old as 90 years old based on interpretations of apocryphal writings and legends. In this post, we’ll examine the evidence both for and against the claim that Joseph was an elderly man when he took Mary as his wife.
Mary’s young age and virginity when she conceived Jesus is clearly stated in the gospel accounts (Luke 1:26-38). However, Joseph’s age at the time of their betrothal and marriage is not explicitly given in the canonical gospels. This has led to speculation over just how old Joseph might have been when these events transpired.
Proponents of the elderly Joseph theory point to passages from apocryphal writings like the History of Joseph the Carpenter and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew that describe Joseph as an old man when he married Mary. They also argue that an elderly husband would better protect Mary’s vow of virginity and reinforce the miraculous nature of her conception.
Critics counter that these apocryphal sources are late and historically unreliable. They also argue that there is good reason from Scripture and tradition to believe Joseph was much closer to Mary’s age when they married. An elderly husband would be highly unconventional for a young teenage girl in first century Jewish culture.
In this post, we will survey the evidence surrounding Joseph’s age when betrothed and married to Mary. We cannot be dogmatic, but we can evaluate the relative merits of the different positions. Regardless of his precise age, the testimony of Scripture indicates Joseph was a righteous man chosen by God for his role as Jesus’ earthly father.
- The canonical gospels do not explicitly give Joseph’s age at the time he married Mary.
- Some Christian traditions based on apocryphal writings propose Joseph was as old as 90 years old.
- Critics argue these apocryphal sources are late and historically unreliable.
- Scripture and Jewish custom suggest Joseph’s age was likely much closer to the teenage Mary.
- While unclear, Joseph’s righteousness and godly character shine through in his actions.
The Theory of an Elderly Joseph
Where does the tradition of Joseph being an elderly man at the time of his betrothal and marriage to Mary originate? Let’s survey some of the key apocryphal writings put forth as evidence.
The History of Joseph the Carpenter is a later apocryphal work that presents Joseph as an elderly widower with grown children at the time he is betrothed to Mary. In this account, Joseph explains his old age to the high priest:
I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years. (History of Joseph the Carpenter 8)
The History also describes Joseph as a wise, respected elder in his community:
my trade is with the hammer and the tongs, and with all such things as appertain to building; and I have made no little progress in the building art, so that men call me wise, for I am useful both to kings and princes; and I am sought for to advise, because I know the laws of the building of houses, and the rules of right living in regard to them. (History of Joseph the Carpenter 8)
The late 2nd century apocryphal text the Infancy Gospel of James also presents Joseph as elderly and “advanced in years” when he is chosen as Mary’s husband:
When the priests left the Temple, the angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah and said (…) It happened that the lot fell on Joseph, that righteous old man. (Infancy Gospel of James 8:2, 9:1)
The slightly later Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew likewise describes Joseph as “an old man” when taking Mary into his home:
Mary was held in admiration by all the people of Israel; and when she was three years old, she walked with a step so mature, she spoke so perfectly, and spent her time so assiduously in the praises of God, that all were astonished at her, and wondered; and she was not reckoned three years old, but twelve. (…) Therefore Joseph, that righteous old man, took her into his house. (Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew 4,8)
Based on these accounts, some Christians have claimed that Joseph was between 80 to 90 years old at the time of his marriage to Mary. An elderly husband would help explain why Joseph and Mary never consummated their marriage and had marital relations (Matthew 1:25). It would also reinforce the virgin birth narrative and add greater theological meaning if Mary conceived Jesus while wed to a husband physically incapable of fathering children.
Additionally, some proponents cite later Christian traditions in art and iconography that depict Joseph as an old man alongside the young virgin Mary. While not conclusive proof, these artistic depictions were widespread by the Middle Ages and reflect an early understanding of Joseph as elderly and perhaps a widower when he became betrothed to Mary.
- Some apocryphal gospels describe Joseph as old and “advanced in years” when betrothed and married to Mary.
- An elderly husband would help explain Mary’s continued virginity and add meaning to the miraculous conception.
- Later Christian art often depicts Joseph as old alongside the young Mary.
Problems with an Elderly Joseph
Despite these apocryphal sources, there are significant problems with the theory that Joseph was an elderly man of 80 or 90 years old when he became betrothed and eventually married to Mary. Let’s examine some of the counter evidence.
First, the canonical gospels provide no explicit support for an elderly Joseph at the time of his betrothal and marriage to Mary. The relevant Bible passages are as follows:
Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. (Luke 1:26-27, NKJV)
Neither passage indicates Joseph was elderly or advanced in age when betrothed to Mary. The Bible focuses on Mary’s virginity, not Joseph’s age, in these accounts.
If Joseph were 90 years old, it seems highly unlikely this fact would not be mentioned explicitly when contrasted with Mary’s youthfulness. The advanced age of a betrothed spouse would be just as remarkable as the virginity of the bride in this cultural context. Yet the canonical gospels are completely silent on Joseph’s age and say nothing about him being elderly, old or advanced in years when betrothed and eventually married to Mary.
Second, the available historical evidence indicates that huge age differences between spouses were extremely rare in first century Jewish culture. Both the traditional Jewish betrothal (engagement) and subsequent marriage involved young brides and grooms closer to each other’s age.
According to the Mishnah, the minimum age for betrothal of girls was 12 years and 13 years for boys:
The Rabbis taught: A girl three years and one day old is betrothed by intercourse (…) A boy nine years and one day old is liable for intercourse. (Niddah 44b, 45a)
Jewish girls were typically betrothed shortly after reaching the minimum age of 12, and married soon after to start bearing children. Boys were generally less than 20 years old at marriage. Jewish custom greatly disfavored huge age gaps between husbands and wives during this time.
Scholars also note it was uncommon for older Jewish men to marry teenage brides. One survey found the average age difference between Jewish brides and grooms was only 3-6 years during this era. While exceptions occurred, marriages between teenage girls and elderly men were extremely rare.
Given this cultural context, it is highly dubious Joseph could have been in his 80s or 90s when betrothed and then married to the teenage Mary, who was likely 12-14 years old herself at the time. This enormous 60+ year age gap would be seen as absurd and scandalous in first century Judea.
Third, the apocryphal sources promoting an elderly Joseph originated long after the New Testament period and are considered historically unreliable. Dating is difficult, but documents like History of Joseph the Carpenter and the Infancy Gospel of James appear to have been composed in the mid-to-late 2nd century at the earliest. The artistic depictions of an elderly Joseph also arise hundreds of years after the events in question.
Due to their late dates and embellished, fanciful narratives, most scholars dismiss these apocryphal works as having little value for reconstructing the historical setting of Joseph and Mary’s betrothal and marriage. At best, they preserve some kernels of earlier tradition wrapped in legend. They do not present strong evidence about Joseph’s actual age relative to Mary’s.
- The canonical gospels do not indicate Joseph was old or elderly when betrothed/married to Mary.
- Jewish custom greatly disfavored huge age gaps between teenage brides and older husbands.
- The apocryphal sources for an elderly Joseph originate too late to be historically reliable.
The Case for a Younger Joseph
Having surveyed problems with the elderly Joseph theory, what evidence supports Joseph being closer to Mary’s own age when they wed? Here are some key points in favor of a younger Joseph:
First, a younger Joseph best aligns with what we know of first century Jewish betrothal and marriage customs. As mentioned earlier, it was highly unusual for older Jewish men in their 60s-90s to marry teenage brides in their early teens. While not impossible, such extreme age differences went strongly against cultural preferences at that time and place.
Given Mary’s likely age of 12-14 years old at betrothal and marriage, it is most reasonable to conclude Joseph was close to her own age, probably in his teens or early 20s at most. This smaller 3-7 year age gap would align perfectly with typical Jewish marital customs for their day.
Second, a younger Joseph makes most sense of the Bible’s portrayal of Joseph’s travels and actions. After Mary’s conception, Joseph traveled with her to Bethlehem for the census (Luke 2:4-5), fled with her to Egypt after Jesus’ birth (Matthew 2:13-14), and later returned with her and Jesus to Nazareth (Matthew 2:19-23). This undertaking would have been long, arduous and dangerous. An elderly man in his 80s or 90s would face immense physical difficulties accomplishing all this movement and refuge seeking alongside a young mother and infant child. A younger husband in good health and vigor fits the scriptural depiction much better.
Third, despite some later artistic depictions, the earliest Christian writings after the New Testament never describe Joseph as an old or elderly man. The Protoevangelium of James from around 150 AD is the first source promoting an aged Joseph, but this view is absent from earlier Christian leaders like Irenaeus (~130-200 AD) and Ignatius (~50-117 AD).
While only an argument from silence, the complete lack of any mention of Joseph’s age or elderly status in the earliest Christian works suggests there was no awareness of this tradition in the first generations after the apostles. It arose later, perhaps under influence from gnostic and ascetic ideas elevating celibacy.
In conclusion, the cumulative evidence favors Joseph being a younger man close to Mary’s own age when they became betrothed and eventually wed. The theory he was in his 80s or 90s, while possible, faces substantial difficulties from Scripture, history, and the Jewish cultural context. Regardless of his precise age, the Bible upholds Joseph as a righteous man chosen by God for his faithful protection and care of Mary and Jesus.
- A younger Joseph aligns better with typical first century Jewish betrothal and marriage customs.
- Joseph’s actions fit a younger man more than an elderly one.
- Early Christian writings show no awareness of an aged Joseph tradition.
The question of Joseph’s age when betrothed and eventually married to Mary remains open for debate. The biblical evidence alone does not definitively settle the issue either way. Apocryphal sources and later traditions supporting an elderly Joseph are questionable on historical grounds.
With the limited information available, a younger Joseph close to Mary’s own age of 12-14 years old is most plausible. This fits the Jewish cultural context and aligns with everything Scripture reveals about Joseph’s character and actions.
At the same time, an extreme elderly interpretation cannot be absolutely ruled out either based on the extant records. Perhaps new archaeological or textual evidence may shed further light on this question someday. For now, we cannot be dogmatic.
Regardless, Joseph clearly stands out as a godly man chosen to serve a special purpose in God’s redemptive plan. Joseph obeyed the Lord’s directions despite the social scandal it brought. He protected Mary and Jesus at critical junctures, providing invaluable early nurture and support. Joseph lived out his earthly fatherhood role with wisdom, sensitivity and faith.
Through his actions big and small, Joseph gives us a powerful example of what it means to walk in righteousness before the Lord. May we all emulate Joseph’s humble obedience and courage, whether the Lord calls us to great things or simple daily faithfulness in the small.