The Church Fathers on Saint Joseph



Thanks for joining us for this special Year of Saint Joseph presentation from Relevant Radio: 19 on 19th. A 19-minute talk on St. Joseph on the 19th of the month – the day dedicated to St. Joseph.

Hello and welcome! I’m Patrick Madrid, host of The Patrick Madrid Show on Relevant Radio. And I’m going to take you on a brief tour of the Church Fathers’ writings about St. Joseph, the Most Chaste Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Foster Father, Guardian, and Protector of the Christ Child.

In this Year of St. Joseph, we reflect in a special way on his life of heroic virtue, and his unwavering faith in and obedience to God as revealed to us in the Holy Bible and the Tradition of the Catholic Church.

Even though the biblical details of St. Joseph’s life and his role in God’s plan of salvation are not very extensive by comparison to the details revealed about the apostles, what we do know of him by divine revelation paints a portrait of a good and just man who always put God first, and whose quiet life of service to Our Blessed Lady and to Jesus Christ was marked by a quiet reserve and the humility one would expect from the head of the Holy Family.

Naturally, since the early Church Fathers were steeped in the Old and New Testaments, and as they spent the better part of their lives studying, meditating upon, and writing learned treatises about God’s revelation in Scripture, we can expect them to have spent at least some time focusing on St. Joseph. And so they did.

Since the Bible doesn’t provide us with many details about St. Joseph, it’s not surprising that the Fathers concentrated their commentaries about him on his role as the foster father of the Son of God, the Most Chaste Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and as the head of the Holy Family.

One particular area of focus by the Church Fathers was St. Joseph’s virginal relationship with Our Lady. Now here, I’m indebted to the scholarship of Florent Raymond Bilodeau, who in a 1957 Licentiate of Sacred Theology thesis at St. Mary’s University in Baltimore, provides research into what the Church Fathers said in their commentaries about St. Joseph. And this led him to say the following:

“We find no general tradition in the Latin Fathers on the question of St. Joseph’s virginity. In fact, the material on St. Joseph in their writings is comparatively scant. Very few speak at any length about St. Joseph. Our information, save a few scattered references, is practically confined to Sts. Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine.

Refutation of heretics, sermons, scriptural commentaries, especially on the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, make up the general area from which knowledge pertaining to St. Joseph may be obtained.

On the specific question of Joseph’s virginity, their writings bring out four points with varying degrees of clarity.

1) Joseph did not generate Jesus.
2) He never had intercourse with Mary.
3) He was not married before his betrothal to Mary.
4) He always remained a virgin.”

And this, I think, may be of great surprise to many people. There are different theories that have arisen as to who, for example, the ‘brothers of the Lord’ might be. And in a few minutes you’ll see what these Church Fathers had to say about that.

But Bilodeau, the scholar to whose efforts I am greatly indebted in bringing you this conversation about the Church Fathers and what they had to say about St. Joseph, he says:

“That Joseph did not generate Jesus is clearly stated in many places by Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine, and not a few Greek Fathers.

Saint Ambrose (d. 397) restates in a more pointed manner Saint Luke’s idea that the belief that Joseph was the natural father of Jesus was limited to the Jews of that period.”

According to St. Ambrose, “First of all, no one should be surprised at the text, ‘who was thought to be the son of Joseph’. For rightly was this a just supposition because by birth (Christ) was not (the son of Joseph), but the supposition existed because Mary who had brought Him forth was espoused to ‘Joseph her husband.'”

So his point here is that the phrase in the Bible where it says that He was thought to be the son of Joseph, that would be easily explained because not everybody understood the details of the virgin birth.

St. Jerome, according to Bilodeau, he brings out the idea that the reason Joseph was called the father of Jesus was to protect Mary’s reputation. So he says:

“The Evangelists call Joseph a father, Mary calls him ‘father.’ Not that he had been truly the father of Jesus, but that he was thus considered by all in order to safeguard Mary’s reputation.”

Continuing, Bilodeau says that in his Sermon #51 St. Augustine vigorously defends both St. Joseph’s role as Our Lady’s Most Chaste Spouse, as well as the fact that he was truly reckoned as the foster father of Jesus. This is St. Augustine speaking:

“Here is another of their niggling objections. Christ’s ancestry, they say, is traced through Joseph and not through Mary. They say it ought not to be traced through Joseph. Why oughtn’t it? Wasn’t Joseph Mary’s husband? No, they reply. Who says he is? Well, Scripture says he was her husband, on the angel’s authority. Don’t be afraid, it says, to take Mary as your wife. For what is conceived of her is of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:20-21)

He is also told to give the child a name, even though it was not born of his own seed. ‘She will bear a son,’ it says, ‘and you shall call His name Jesus.’ Scripture does, of course, deliberately state that he was not born of Joseph’s seed when Joseph, anxious about how Mary came to be pregnant is told of this by the Holy Spirit, and yet is not deprived of his paternal authority since he is told to give the child’s name.

And in any case, the Virgin Mary herself, perfectly aware that she had not conceived Christ by Joseph’s conjugal embrace, still calls him Christ’s father. When the Lord Jesus Christ was 12 years old as a human being, since as God He is before all time and beyond all time, He stayed behind in the Temple when they left and went on engaging His elders in discussion and winning their admiration at His teaching.

They were returning from Jerusalem and looked for Him in their company, that is among those they were traveling with. When they didn’t find Him they went back, very worried, to Jerusalem and found Him there discussing things in the Temple with the old men, when He was, as it was said, 12 years old. But He said, ‘Why be surprised? The Word of God is never silent, though He is not always heard.’

So, He is found in the Temple and His mother says to Him, ‘Why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been very worried looking for you. And He said, ‘Did you not know that I have to be about my Father’s business?’ (Luke 2:48-49)

He said this because He was the Son of God in the Temple of God. That Temple, after all, wasn’t Joseph’s but God’s. So there you are, somebody says, He didn’t agree that He was Joseph’s son. Now, just a little more patience please, brothers, because we haven’t much time and we want it to last through this sermon.”

Just to pause a bit here. St. Augustine is preaching this to the people. Keep in mind that this is a sermon — one of his very important sermons where he emphasizes the true fatherhood of St. Joseph of Jesus, not as His biological father but as His legal father. So he continues talking about this passage in Luke’s Gospel, saying:

“When Mary said, ‘Your father and I have been very worried looking for you,’ He answered, ‘Do you not know that I have to be about My Father’s business?’ Because He was not willing to be their son in such a way that they didn’t realize He was the Son of God. The Son of God is always the Son of God, the one who created them, after all.

But as Son of Man, born in time of the Virgin, without seed of her husband, He still had each of them as a parent. How do we prove this? Mary has already said, ‘Your father and I have been very worried looking for you.'”

Now, Bilodeau in his commentary says, “Showing St. Joseph as an example of a man who did not despise servile work, Augustine tells a group of monks that ‘this just man, chosen to be a witness of perpetual conjugal virginity, he to whom was espoused the Virgin Mary who brought forth Christ, was a carpenter.’

After saying that St. Joseph could not possibly have broken the bond of marriage when he saw that Mary was pregnant, St. Augustine adds that Joseph ‘did not judge the bond of conjugal faith to be broken thus, because the hope of sexual intercourse was absent.'”

St. Augustine also eulogizes St. Joseph’s great purity, saying:

“Let his greater purity confirm his fatherhood; let not holy Mary reprimand us, for she was unwilling to place her name before that of her husband, but said, ‘Thy father and I have been seeking thee sorrowing.’ Therefore, let not perverse murmurers do what the virginal wife did not do. Let us count (the generations of Christ) through Joseph, because as he was a virginal (chaste) husband, so was he a virginal (chaste) father.”

In another text from St. Augustine we are given the idea that St. Joseph himself was also a virgin. St. Augustine said:

“Preserve, O Joseph, together with Mary your wife, the virginity of your members, for out of virginal members is begotten the power of angels.  Let the spouse Mary be the mother of Christ in the flesh, by preserving her virginity; you, however, are also to be the father of Christ by safeguarding her chastity and honor.”

So Bilodeau says, with regard to this bearing on Mary’s perpetual virginity and the related issue of the brethren of the Lord (so-called), he says:

“So far we have but expressed in greater detail, and with more precision two ideas from the gospels: Joseph was not the natural father of Jesus, and his marriage with Mary was a virginal union.  One would logically ask whether or not the Latin Church Fathers speak of Joseph’s life before he was betrothed to the Blessed Virgin.  Here many Fathers and ecclesiastical writers denied Joseph’s virginity by their declarations that the ‘brethren of the Lord’ were his children from a former marriage.  They are Origen, Epiphanius, Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril of Alexandria, Theopylact, Theodoret, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Hilary of Poitiers.

This list, at first sight, might seem to outweigh the evidence we have just presented, however, a closer look at the statements of these men gives us a different impression.  First of all, it is important to note that most of them, save Ambrose and Hilary of Poitiers, were Greek Fathers.  The Eastern Fathers were highly influenced by the Apocrypha, a group of writings of a religious character which at times made pretensions to divine authority. These writings elaborate on St. Joseph. Very little of what they say is of historical value.  The Apocrypha, however, are significant in that they represent an attempt to supplement the comparatively few details of the gospels on the subject of the hidden life of Christ.  They attest to the fact that devotion to St. Joseph was alive in the first centuries.  All of them, save the gospel of the Nativity of Mary, ascribe to St. Joseph children from a former marriage.

Under the influence of these spurious writings, many subscribed to the idea that the ‘brethren of the Lord’ were the children of Joseph by a previous wife.  It is important to note that none are emphatic in holding this point.” This, by the way, is Bilodeau speaking.

He said: “They adopt it because it is an easy solution to the thorny question of explaining the relationship between Our Lord and His so-called ‘brothers,’ for example, James, Joseph, Simon, and Jude. Another reason why they take up this view is to safeguard the perpetual virginity of Mary.

Origen, for example, states that it is precisely in order to protect Mary’s virginity, that some call the ‘brethren of the Lord’ sons of Joseph:

Induced by the report of the Gospel named after Peter or the Book of James, some affirm that the ‘brethren of Jesus’ are sons of Joseph by a former wife whom he wedded before Mary.  However, those who make this assertion ultimately wish to safeguard the dignity of Mary’s virginity in order that the body chosen to minister to the Word… might never know man’s consortship.

Ambrose incidentally alludes to the ‘brethren of the Lord’ as being most probably the sons of Joseph, but he finds ample proof of Mary’s virginity in the fact that the word ‘brother’ can also signify ‘cousin’.

The ‘brethren of the Lord’ could have been born from Joseph and not from Mary.  This indeed anyone will find if he looks at the question more diligently.  We have not thought to investigate those things because the name ‘brother’ is evidently common to many.”

Bilodeau says, “St. Jerome, with his usual directness and energy, refutes the tales of the Aprocrypha and says that the Scripture indicates that the word ‘brethren’ signifies ‘cousin’.

Certain people who follow the ravings of the Apocrypha, fancy that the ‘brethren of the Lord’ are the sons of Joseph from another wife and invent a certain woman, Melcha or Escha.  As is contained in the books which we wrote against Helvidius, we understand as ‘brethren of the Lord,’ not the sons of Joseph, but the cousins of the Savior, children of Mary – The Lord’s maternal aunt – who is said to be the mother of James the Less and Joseph and Jude, who, as we read, were called the ‘brethren of the Lord’ in another passage of the gospel.  Indeed all Scripture indicates that ‘cousins’ are called ‘brethren’.

St. Jerome mentions in the above text that in scriptural usage ‘brethren’ may refer to ‘cousins.’  He adduces many examples from both the Old and the New Testaments to illustrate this point:  notably the idea that Abraham is called the brother of Lot while we know that the latter was his nephew, and the fact that James and Jude, two of the ‘brethren of the Lord,’ are clearly referred to in the gospel of Saint Mark as sons of Mary who is evidently the sister of the Blessed Virgin.

He also shows by means of examples taken from the Scripture, that the word ’till’ designates a length of time up to which a condition shall continue, prescinding from all notion of change thereafter.  He then adds that the word ‘firstborn’ merely refers to the male child who opens the womb, not necessarily to him who has brothers. From the preceding evidence, we can accept the general conclusion of Jerome as the ‘brethren of the Lord’ not being sons of Joseph either before or after he was betrothed to Mary.”

So there we see just a survey of some of the comments that were made by major Church Fathers, and some of the more minor Church Fathers, about the role of St. Joseph. And just to reprise that, we notice that because there was such a paucity of information given to us about the great St. Joseph in the gospels, the Church Fathers did not have that much to go on.

So, as we saw, they concentrated primarily on his role in the Holy Family as the head of the Holy Family, as the foster father of Jesus, as the protector of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and as her husband. But not her husband in the sense that married couples typically live together.

Mary is a perpetual virgin, and the Church Fathers were very intent upon defending this doctrine. They wanted to make sure that nobody misunderstood this. Indeed, St. Jerome, when he found out that a certain Helvidius had written a tract saying that Mary had other children besides Jesus, he attacked that vigorously with his response known as ‘Against Helvidius’. And he cites St. Joseph as an example of the protector of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s virginity.

And this is, I think, to be understood. St. Joseph was a very humble man, extremely virtuous. He was focused on God and the things of God. He did not seek the limelight for himself. And this is why we don’t see much about him in the gospels. What we do see about him in the writings of the Church Fathers is focused on his role as protector and defender of the Holy Family.

Well, in this year of St. Joseph let’s join the Church Fathers in extolling St. Joseph’s great virtues and asking him to pray for us and to help us to follow his example as ones who love Jesus Christ and love the Blessed Virgin Mary. And who, like St. Joseph himself, will spend our lives doing everything we can to make everyone know about Jesus.

Thank you very much for spending this time with me. God bless you.

Thanks for joining us for this special Year of St. Joseph presentation from Relevant Radio. Invite your friends and family to sign-up to receive these monthly talks at or on the Relevant Radio App.

Patrick Madrid is an acclaimed public speaker and has authored or edited 26 books, which have sold over a million copies worldwide, including foreign-language editions. He hosts The Patrick Madrid Show daily on Relevant Radio.