Unasked questions: What happened to Joseph?

One of the signs of a great story is the listener’s question, “What happened next?” In the National Geographic for March 2012 the cover article is “The Journey of the Apostles”, detailing the lives and teachings of not just the original Twelve, but also others such as Mary Magdalene, after Jesus’ crucifixion.  We have stories about what happened to all of them, and to many others associated with Jesus. Not all the stories are believable, but where there is no fact there is plenty of speculation and legend.

Except in the case of Joseph, the (step)father of Jesus.

This is strange. If his fate was unknown, we would have legends and rumors. Search for “What happened to Joseph of Arimathea?”, for example, and you find him traveling all over the place, carrying the Holy Grail, settling in Britain, you name it. But search for “What happened to Joseph the father of Jesus?”, and you find nothing about him after his last mention in the Gospels, going up to the Temple in Jerusalem with Mary and Jesus when Jesus was 11 or 12.

Mass crucifixions after an uprising

But suppose his fate was a) not something that the early Church wanted to talk about, and b) so well-known that no one could make up an alternative narrative without having the whole thing dragged out into public discussion again. Therefore silence. No narrative, no legends, nothing.

The interesting event that happened around that time (probably later in the same year that Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem, but the timing is uncertain) was an uprising led by Judas of Galilee with an attack on Sepphoris. (Sepphoris is the Roman name; the Hebrew name is Zippori.) This was Herod Antipas’ capital city in Galilee, 4 miles north of Nazareth. Probably a lot of men from Nazareth were in the uprising. The uprising was crushed by the Romans, and the Romans crucified 2,000 Jews outside Sepphoris.

And after that, we don’t hear anything about Joseph in the Bible, or in legends or stories.

Jesus, however, retains a remarkable father-fixation all his life, and is himself crucified after leading an attack on the Temple in Jerusalem, having tried to claim the messianic kingship of Israel.

So… what happened to Joseph? And why didn’t anyone want to talk about it in the early Church, as they tried to make Christianity acceptable throughout the Roman Empire?

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Jesus’ outbursts of anger

Did Jesus ever get angry?

It’s certainly not the image presented to children. Our foundational understanding of Jesus is “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”, mixed in with Baby Jesus, Jesus healing people, Jesus feeding people, and all sorts of “God is love” stuff.

Gentle Jesus, or man of violence?

Well, but he whipped the money-changers out of the Temple. And when he was in a synagogue on the Sabbath, he looked round at the congregation “in anger” (Mark 3:5) before healing someone. And there are other places that he gets angry, yells at his disciples, etc.

So there is nothing unlikely about his being connected in with the Zealot insurrection, or in having a Sicariot and Simon Zealotes among his closest disciples.

In other early writings, contemporary with the canonical Gospels, there are accounts of Jesus’ childhood in which (along with magical stories of his making lumber longer or shorter to help Joseph with the carpentry) there are disturbingly violent incidents. In one version he pushes a boy off a roof and kills him, but brings him back to life. In another he curses a boy who has either bumped into him or thrown a stone at him, and the boy falls dead. In yet another he kills a teacher who has reprimanded him.

These extremely negative stories are not the sort that followers normally make up to glorify their deceased master. They are more likely to be reflections of rumors about his childhood that couldn’t be shaken off, and could only be palliated by adding “and then he brought him back to life”. But if you only wanted to show his early powers of healing, you wouldn’t normally start with having him doing the killing himself…

But as the bastard son of, perhaps, the Roman legionary Pantera – looking unlike Joseph – with some resentment on Joseph’s part – teased by other children because of the rumors… we can make an easy case for his having a lot of anger in him. Add in that Joseph disappears from the narrative when Jesus is 12, in the year of the failed uprising by Judas of Galilee with 2,000 Jews crucified by the Romans four miles north of Nazareth…

And we have the makings of an angry, conflicted, anti-Roman young man.

Forget the “meek and mild” – it’s nowhere in the Gospels.

Unashamed commercialism…

Pantera, a Roman legionary, remains a plausible biological father for Jesus

You have only minutes left to get an interesting gift – a stocking-stuffer for an intelligent, literate, argumentative teen, say.

You could order them a copy of The Gospel According to the Romans for $14.95 here, or from Amazon.com

or you can send it to them as an e-book for 86p in the UK, or 99 cents in the US, or EUR 0,99 at one of Amazon’s main European websites (for example Germany, but you can substitute other country letters for the ‘de’), where you/they can also get a free Kindle app for reading it (look on the right-hand side)

or you can simply point them at this blog, http://robinhl.com, where they can enjoy random religious rants and sniping year-round!

(Discussion of Pantera is at https://robinhl.com/2011/11/06/jesus-son-of-pantera/, fyi. And Merry Christmas!)

Best guess at Jesus’ family

When she married Joseph, Mary was pregnant with Jesus by someone else. Rumor had it that the father was a Roman soldier called Pantera, but the rape (or affair) was covered up. Joseph originally intended to divorce her (Matthew 1: 19), but changed his mind and left Galilee to go back to his family in Judea for Mary to have the child.

Joseph and Mary on the way to Bethlehem

The couple subsequently had several more children. In his 30s Jesus preached in his hometown of Nazareth, and people dismissed his claims to authority, saying “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?
Aren’t all his sisters with us?” (Matthew 13: 55-56). None of Jesus’ half-brothers should be confused with other followers of his with those names, other than James who became the leader of the disciples in Jerusalem some time after Jesus’ execution.

Some Christians deny that “brothers” and “sisters” means that they were Mary’s children – though clearly from the context it’s a nuclear family. Catholic and Orthodox Christians, especially, profess the perpetual virginity of Mary, and have created a backstory of Joseph having had an earlier marriage to a woman named Salome. She died, leaving Joseph with half a dozen children for him to raise. You have to wonder why the older kids are never part of the creche scenes of the baby Jesus in the manger… Mary, Joseph, Kings, Angels, Shepherds, farm animals… but no brothers and sisters?

No, Jesus had at least six siblings, and they were all younger.

“Jesus, son of Pantera”

About 177 AD the Greek philosopher Celsus, in his book ‘The True Word’, expressed what appears to have been the consensus Jewish opinion about Jesus, that his father was a Roman soldier called Pantera. ‘Pantera’ means Panther and was a fairly common name among Roman soldiers. The rumor is repeated in the Talmud and in medieval Jewish writings where Jesus is referred to as “Yeshu ben Pantera”.

Pantera's gravestone is the one on the left

In 1859 a gravestone surfaced in Germany for a Roman soldier called Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera, whose unit Cohors I Sagittariorum had served in Judea before Germany – romantic historians have hypothesized this to be Jesus’ father, especially as ‘Abdes’ (‘servant of God’) suggests a Jewish background.

Tib(erius) Iul(ius) Abdes Pantera
Sidonia ann(orum) LXII
stipen(diorum) XXXX miles exs(ignifer?)
coh(orte) I sagittariorum
h(ic) s(itus) e(st)
Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera
from Sidon, aged 62 years
served 40 years, former standard bearer (?)
of the First Cohort of Archers
lies here

The gravestone is now in the Römerhalle museum in Bad Kreuznach, Germany.

It appears this First Cohort of Archers moved from Palestine to Dalmatia in 6 AD, and to the Rhine in 9 AD. Pantera came from Sidon, on the coast of Phoenicia just west of Galilee, presumably enlisted locally. He served in the army for 40 years until some time in the reign of Tiberius. On discharge he would have been granted citizenship by the Emperor (and been granted freedom if he had formerly been a slave), and added the Emperor’s name to his own. Tiberius ruled from 14 AD to 37 AD. Pantera’s 40 years of service would therefore have started between 27 BC and 4 BC.

As Pantera would probably have been about 18 when he enlisted, it means he was likely born between 45 BC and 22 BC. He could have been as old as 38 or as young as 15 at the time of Jesus’ conception in the summer of 7 BC.

In 6 AD when Jesus was 12, Judas of Galilee led a popular uprising that captured Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee. The uprising was crushed by the Romans some four miles north of Nazareth. It is possible (and appealing to lovers of historical irony) that Pantera and Joseph fought on opposite sides. As Joseph is never heard of again he may well have been killed in the battle, or have been among the 2,000 Jewish rebels crucified afterwards.

So Tiberius Iulius Abdes Pantera is indeed a possibility as Jesus’ father. The only thing we know for certain is that Mary’s husband Joseph wasn’t the father, and that Mary was already pregnant when they married. It could have been rape, or Mary may have been a wild young teen who fell for a handsome man in a uniform, even if he was part of an occupying army. It happens.

Jesus and the dangers of being illegitimate

The issue of Jesus’ father was problematic for his attempt to be recognized as Messiah – just as it was for his parents before he was born.

Mary is described by a word which can mean either ‘virgin’ or ‘girl of marriageable age’ – but strongly carries a meaning of ‘not married’.

The Gospels state that Joseph discovered that Mary was already pregnant when he married her, and, being a just man, decided to divorce her quietly rather than make a public example of her. But, after dreams changed his mind, he chose another reasonable solution: go to a different town (Bethlehem, where his own family was from) for a few months, let her have the baby where no one knew when they had married, and then return home (Nazareth) where no one knew when the baby had been born. That way the fiction of Jesus’ legitimacy could be maintained.

Stoning people to death for sexual misconduct is an ongoing tradition of monotheism

It was important for a child to have been conceived within marriage. Even if the parents subsequently married, if the child was conceived outside marriage it was considered a bastard. The laws in Deuteronomy are clear and harsh:

  • married woman has sex with another man, both stoned to death
  • betrothed virgin raped in a town, both stoned to death (she, for not having called for help)
  • betrothed virgin raped in the countryside, only the man stoned to death
  • unbetrothed virgin raped, the rapist has to pay the victim’s father fifty silver shekels and marry her.

So, depending on quite how young Mary got pregnant, her life was in danger. Assume Joseph loved her – he needed to be creative to protect her.

The problems of illegitimacy came up again when Jesus was making his play for Messiah and King. As Deuteronomy 23:2 states: “A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the LORD.”

Not surprising, then, that his followers grasped at whatever unlikely explanations they could think of, in order to explain away the embarrassing rumors!

No room in the kataluma

In ancient farm households in many parts of the world, animals are kept under the house in the winter or at night. The advantages are that it keeps them safe, and that they provide heat for the family above.

Sheep kept under the house in a modern small farm

In the ancient Greek world, the upstairs living and dining area was called the ‘kataluma‘. This is the word used in the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospels, but commonly translated into English as ‘inn’.

When Joseph went to visit his family in Bethlehem towards the end of Mary’s pregnancy, there was ‘no room in the kataluma‘ – and no privacy for childbirth either – so naturally Mary had the baby downstairs and put him in a manger. Again, the manger was a logical choice: off the ground, and away from the animals that were out in the fields with the shepherds (and angels…) It wasn’t winter, or the sheep would have been inside; it was the spring lambing season, or the shepherds wouldn’t have been so attentive.

A fairly substantial traditional farming house: kataluma upstairs, manger in a room underneath

And if anyone has better pictures of a kataluma, please share!