Why do we know so little about Saint Joseph?
It is a fact that our knowledge about Saint Joseph is limited. But that is true of many other holy people in the New Testament - including the Blessed Virgin. Even our knowledge of Jesus’ life - especially the years before his baptism by John - is “limited”.
The reason for this is that no evangelist sat down to write a life of Jesus. The Gospel writers did not intend to write biographies of Jesus. Matthew and Luke do speak of the events concerning the birth and infancy of Jesus. But then they leap forward to the preaching of John the Baptist in the desert and the baptism of Jesus at the Jordan. Mark says nothing of Jesus’ childhood but begins with John the Baptist preaching. John, after his theological prologue, also begins with the Baptist’s appearance and preaching.
This is not because the evangelists wished to trivialize the early years of Jesus or counted Mary and Joseph as of no real importance. The Gospel writers were concerned with the meaning of Jesus especially his meaning for the churches for which they were writing many years after his death and Resurrection: What did Jesus say and teach? How did that apply now? They wanted to show that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies, that he was the Saviour, the Messiah, the awaited one. They wanted to show that Christians are redeemed by Jesus, that they are called to share in his death and Resurrection. They wanted to recall what Jesus said and taught about prayer and living in the love of God.
Few details are given about any of the apostles or disciples of Jesus. Our knowledge of any of those who were near and close to Jesus is only fragmentary. These Gospels are, after all, rather brief accounts of what Jesus said and did. Joseph’s role in the life of Jesus and God’s plan is finished before the public life of Jesus begins. He vanishes from the accounts of Matthew and Luke rather quickly. He is barely mentioned in Mark and John. That does not mean that the evangelists wished to trivialize or count Joseph as of no importance. Neither does the church. Nor should Christians. Joseph has been declared patron of the universal church, a model for fathers of families, protector of workers, patron of social justice.
Pope Leo XIII declared that Joseph’s preeminent sanctity places him next to the Blessed Virgin among the saints. The church recognizes and grants indulgences for a litany in honour of Saint Joseph. We celebrate the feasts of the Holy Family, Joseph the Husband of Mary and Joseph the Worker. Pope Paul VI added the name of Joseph to the Eucharistic Prayer. As recently as August 15, 1989, Pope John Paul II issued an Apostolic Exhortation on the Person and Mission of Saint Joseph in the Life of Christ and of the Church in which he reﬂects for us on
(1)the Gospel portrait of Joseph,
(2) Joseph as the guardian of the mystery of God,
(3) the just man and husband,
(4) work as an expression of love,
(5) the primacy of the interior life and
(6) Joseph as the patron of the church in our day.
Some other references you might be interested in include Joseph the Just Man, by Rosalie Marie Levy; Joseph: The Man Closest to Jesus, by Francis Filas, s.j.; and Discovering Saint Joseph, by Andrew Doze.