The Straight Dope

Go Back   Straight Dope Message Board > Main > General Questions

Reply
 
Thread Tools Display Modes
  #1  
Old 12-08-2010, 07:29 AM
HeyHomie HeyHomie is online now
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Sep 1999
Location: Springfield, IL
Posts: 8,290
How Old Were Mary and Joseph?

Google Image results for Mary and Joseph

Note how, excluding cartoons and other silliness, they're consistently portrayed as adults. However, more than once I've heard it suggested that Mary & Joseph were probably in their teens, on the basis that Palestinian Jewish girls in the Roman era were married off as soon as they were of child-bearing age.

Were Mary a well-nourished, hormone-laden-beef-and-chicken-fed North American girl, she could have gotten her first period at 11 or even earlier. But obviously things were different 2000 years ago, and AFAIK girls before the modern era didn't start menstruating until age 14 or thereabouts. And even then, this assumes that the idea that she'd have been married off at her first period is true; does scholarship support that idea?

And what of Joseph? If the custom was to marry off girls as soon as they were of child-bearing age, would she have been married off to a grown man? Or would she have been paired up with a teen boy her own age?

Obviously, we can't know for certain. But given what we do know about ancient Jewish marriage customs, is it possible to come up with a reasonable guess?
Reply With Quote
Advertisements  
  #2  
Old 12-08-2010, 08:11 AM
Blake Blake is offline
Member
 
Join Date: Mar 2001
Posts: 10,207
Quote:
Originally Posted by HeyHomie View Post
And even then, this assumes that the idea that she'd have been married off at her first period is true; does scholarship support that idea?
It does and it doesn't.

Girls could be married off young. As soon as they developed breasts and pubic hair. Very desirable girls from poor families were probably married young as a way of obtaining money for the parents. However the bride was also supposed to be aid a dowry by her parents. In more recent cultures that often results in younger, less desirable daughters of poorer parents marrying later because the parents have to save for the dowry of successive daughters.

Quote:
And what of Joseph? If the custom was to marry off girls as soon as they were of child-bearing age, would she have been married off to a grown man? Or would she have been paired up with a teen boy her own age?
Men were expected to be able to provide for their wives. So most men would have married later than women, though that probably meant early 20s, rather than necessarily middle aged. Since Joseph was poor and landless he would almost certainly have had to save to afford a wife. Many much older men would have married younger women of course, so we can't rule out a much older Joseph.

The only vague hint we have is that Joseph is dead by the time Jesus reaches 33. If we assume, for no real reason, that the died of old age then he was probably over 30 when he married.


Quote:
Obviously, we can't know for certain. But given what we do know about ancient Jewish marriage customs, is it possible to come up with a reasonable guess?
Not really. Mary would almost certainly have been under 20, but how much younger we can't tell. Joesph could have been any age.
Reply With Quote
  #3  
Old 12-08-2010, 08:24 AM
Jonathan Chance Jonathan Chance is offline
Domo Arigato Mister Moderato
Moderator
 
Join Date: Apr 2000
Location: On the run with Kilroy
Posts: 16,540
Well, I just looked up the average age of death during the Roman Empire and it show 20-30 years of age. So, even discounting for a high child mortality rate I'm not sure that counting on Joseph to make it into his 60s would be a safe bet.
Reply With Quote
  #4  
Old 12-08-2010, 08:34 AM
Giles Giles is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Apr 2004
Location: Newcastle NSW
Posts: 11,987
Quote:
Originally Posted by Jonathan Chance View Post
Well, I just looked up the average age of death during the Roman Empire and it show 20-30 years of age. So, even discounting for a high child mortality rate I'm not sure that counting on Joseph to make it into his 60s would be a safe bet.
Even with an average age of death like 20, if someone gets to the age of 30 they might have a life expectancy of 30 years. An average age of death below 30 is generally caused by very high infant mortality rates.

Last edited by Giles; 12-08-2010 at 08:34 AM..
Reply With Quote
  #5  
Old 12-08-2010, 08:47 AM
Blake Blake is offline
Member
 
Join Date: Mar 2001
Posts: 10,207
Quote:
Originally Posted by Jonathan Chance View Post
Well, I just looked up the average age of death during the Roman Empire and it show 20-30 years of age.
As Giles notes, that figure is based on childhood mortality. When most people die before they reached 5, that tends to drag the average down.


Quote:
So, even discounting for a high child mortality rate I'm not sure that counting on Joseph to make it into his 60s would be a safe bet.
Who is talking about the odds of Joseph making it to his 60s? The comment was that if he died of old age, he would have been over 60.

You can't die of old age at 30.
Reply With Quote
  #6  
Old 12-08-2010, 08:59 AM
CalMeacham CalMeacham is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: May 2000
When I was a kid, Joseph was often portrayed as an Old Man. The reason for this is probably that lots of people wanted to hold that Mary was "ever virgin" (despite the Biblical references to Jesus' "brothers and sisters". It is arguable that the Greek words refer to "cousins" instead. To me it seems a reach, but it is defensible.), and that Joseph and Mary never had sex. The easiest way to account for this was to make Joseph an old guy, past his sexual prime. You can see lots of old Josephs in, for instance, Bosch and Brueghel. But he's there in lots of other works, from the Renaissance on up.

It's not universal, though. Our church's art had a Young Joseph.



Mary is, of course, shown pretty young, typically late teens/early 20s. She'd have to be, in order to bear children. I've never seen a really young (12 years or so) Mary in any art.


Curiously enough, I've seen Old Mary. Pier Paolo Pasolini, in his film the Gospel According to St. Matthew, gave us a circa 20 year old Mary when Jesus is conceived and born, but at the Crucifiction he used his own mother to play Mary, and she looks a lot older than 50.
Reply With Quote
  #7  
Old 12-08-2010, 09:14 AM
Blake Blake is offline
Member
 
Join Date: Mar 2001
Posts: 10,207
Quote:
Originally Posted by CalMeacham View Post
The reason for this is probably that lots of people wanted to hold that Mary was "ever virgin" .... The easiest way to account for this was to make Joseph an old guy, past his sexual prime.
Which makes little sense, since he was engaged to Mary before she became pregnant. Presumably he thought he was going to get something from the marriage. Moreover an ability to provide children was one of a husband's duties in Jewish culture, so it's doubtful if anyone would have approved of the marriage of an impotent old man.

Quote:
Mary is, of course, shown pretty young, typically late teens/early 20s. She'd have to be, in order to bear children.


Women can bare children safely from the age of 14 to the age of 50 and plenty have done so across that age range. Many have done so outside that range as well, but those ages are all "normal".

So why does Mary need to be in her late teens? Could a 15yo Mary or a 35 yo Mary not bare a child? Especially given that conception was a miracle?
Reply With Quote
  #8  
Old 12-08-2010, 09:15 AM
Polycarp Polycarp is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Aug 1999
Location: A better place to be
Posts: 26,718
Okay, first there is absolutely no information given, either in the Bible or any other reliable source, that answers the question definitively. Everything we can say is purely inferential.

Mary was most likely in her mid-teens at the time of her pregnancy and delivery of Jesus. The logic here is that she was betrothed ("espoused" in some translations) to Joseph but the wedding feast and formalized marriage had not yet been held. This accounts for her being 'married' to Joseph in terms of commitment but still (according to Scripture) a virgin. And no suggestion is made that this situation was unusual -- which implies that she was the age when girls were normally betrothed. Modern usage is not clear on the Jewish custom at that time -- a betrothal was much stronger than a modern engagement. Essentially they had contracted marriage with each other, but to be actually entered into at some future date. Compare two modern businesses entering into a contract in March for delivery and final payment in September -- each can rely on the other to carry out the terms of that contract come autumn, and failure to do so would be a breach with attendant liability. You would not go far wrong in paraphrasing it that they were "married but not living together yet." So we infer that Mary was of an age when she might, without it being regarded as unusual, be betrothed but not yet married -- which would be her mid-teens by the customs of the time.

Joseph was likely older, fully adult and likely in middle age. There are at least four contributing factors to this inference:

1. Joseph plays a major role in the Infancy Narratives, the Flight into Egypt, and then, save for Luke's brief note of the visit to the Temple when Jesus was 12, vanishes utterly from the story. Even when Jesus shows up in Nazareth early in His ministry, there's no sign of His (human) father. The inference is that Joseph has died during the time between when Jesus was 12 and the start of His ministry, noted as "when he was about 30." This is further bolstered by Jesus's giving of Mary into John's care on the Cross -- which would be entirely right and proper for a dying man providing for his widowed mother, and entirely out of line in the behalf of a woman with a living husband. (The Mary/John thing has a second relevance; see 4 below.)

2. When Jesus is back in the Nazareth area, Mark calls Jesus "the carpenter" -- though Matthew says "the carpenter's son." The implication is that He, not His father, was the tradesman in charge of the family business, i.e., that his father had passed on. Modern scholars tend to prefer Mark's readings over Matthew's, the latter seemingly having used Mark as the source of the frame story on which he hangs his teachings narrative. This again implies Joseph as dead and out of the picture (or else too enfeebled to work).

3. The Matthew Infancy Narrative, told from Joseph's perspective, portrays him as a ca;m, judicious, mature man at the time of the Annunciation. The portrayal of his character prior to the angel's message is of a man who truly loves someone who has hurt him, and is looking to do the morally right thing by her, not exact what the Law entitles him to do.

4. The Nazareth passage referenced in 1 and 2 above makes reference to four named adelphoi and unnamed adelphai of Jesus. Without stirring up a tangential hotly-disputed question, let's note that adelphoi and -ai most commonly means "brothers" and "sisters" in the literal sense, but equally correctly and not uncommonly means "cousin" or "close kinsman." While many regard these as Jesus's younger brothers and sisters, Joseph and Mary's later children, the idea of Mary's Perpetual Virginity is one that is attested very early in Christian teaching -- and note that in the cultural context, virginity is not a Big Deal: Mary would not somehow be 'polluting herself' by engaging in sex with her husband. Those who hold to this view most commonly see Joseph as a widower with at least six children, entering into a second marriage with Mary -- another ground for seeing Joseph as an older man. The alternate reading sees them as the orphaned children of relatives, most likely Alphaeus and his wife (perhaps also named Mary), whom Joseph and Mary had adopted or fostered. (This equates "James bar Alphaeus" in the list of the 12 with the "James the Just, brother of the Lord" who became head of the Jerusalem Church after the death of James bar Zebedee and traditionaly wrote the Book of James.) In support of the latter view, people point to the John/Mary thing noted above -- the idea being that if Mary had surviving adult children, her care would fall to them, not to John.

5. (or 4a.) Tying into the "second marriage" concept mentioned above is the consistent description of Jesus as Mary's firstborn son. Modern readings of the use of "firstborn" here draw exactly the wrong conclusion here: they see "Mary's firstborn" as implying that she had other children (which is reasonable, considering that his adelphoi are named as accompanying her). However, the proper inference is different, and relates to traditional Jewish inheritance: a man's firstborn son inherits the 'birthright' from him, much like British male primogeniture. Jesus, conceived by a betrothed woman, would be the legitimate heir of his father, and be Joseph's firstborn -- which He is not described as. Mary's virginal conception of Jesus (according to Scripture) would not affect this -- he would still be Joseph's legal heir as firstborn. To describe a baby boy as his father's firstborn rathr than the mother's in Jewish usage has the same matter-of-fact quality as assuming a child born in wedlock is going to get his father's surname in our society. The implication is that one of the adelphoi, probably James, is Joseph's firstborn.

In any case, there are logical reasons for seeing Mary as quite young and Joseph as substantially older, even though all are completely inferential
Reply With Quote
  #9  
Old 12-08-2010, 09:58 AM
Exapno Mapcase Exapno Mapcase is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Mar 2002
Location: NY but not NYC
Posts: 23,643
Fascinating summary, Polycarp.

Given that much is made of Jesus' heritage, which includes a recitation of Joseph's line of descent, but not Mary's, IIRC, what is modern scholarship's thinking of why as important an issue as his family and his place in it is left entirely to inference?
Reply With Quote
  #10  
Old 12-08-2010, 11:29 AM
CalMeacham CalMeacham is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: May 2000
Quote:
Women can bare children safely from the age of 14 to the age of 50 and plenty have done so across that age range. Many have done so outside that range as well, but those ages are all "normal".
nitpick -- "bear" children. Women can bare children at any age.


And this was her first (and, by some lights, only) child. It's extremely unlikely that she'd be having that at an advanced age. More than likely, Mary was a young mama.
Reply With Quote
  #11  
Old 12-08-2010, 12:02 PM
Gary T Gary T is offline
Member
 
Join Date: Mar 2002
Location: KCMO
Posts: 9,524
Quote:
Originally Posted by Exapno Mapcase View Post
Given that much is made of Jesus' heritage, which includes a recitation of Joseph's line of descent, but not Mary's, IIRC, what is modern scholarship's thinking of why as important an issue as his family and his place in it is left entirely to inference?
My understanding is that the important issue is that Jesus is descended from David (legally if not biologically), as prophesied in scripture, hence the attention to his lineage. While you consider details of his nuclear family beyond his parents to be important, they were immaterial to the message of the Gospel writers.
Reply With Quote
  #12  
Old 12-08-2010, 12:12 PM
KneadToKnow KneadToKnow is offline
Voodoo Adult (Slight Return)
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Jul 2000
Location: Charlotte, NC, USA
Posts: 24,046
Quote:
Originally Posted by CalMeacham View Post
Women can bare children at any age.
Mary Kay Letourneau, for instance, was about 34.
Reply With Quote
  #13  
Old 12-08-2010, 02:20 PM
robert_columbia robert_columbia is online now
Guest
 
Join Date: Oct 2009
I've heard the theory that Joseph was older than Mary and that Jesus's "brothers and sisters" were Joseph's children from a prior marriage. If this were true, this could make the Bible consistent with the Catholic position of Mary's perpetual virginity. This age difference also could explain why Joseph is apparently nowhere to be found during Jesus's ministry (generally accepted to have started when Jesus was 30). If we suppose that Mary was 13 and Joseph was 30-40 (old enough to have a few children), then at the Crucifixion, Mary would have been in her 40's, and Joseph's age would have been past 60, and might have already died. If Joseph was already dead, this could explain why he didn't attend Jesus's execution and why Jesus had his mother adopt one of his disciples (because she would have been alone otherwise).
Reply With Quote
  #14  
Old 12-08-2010, 02:24 PM
Chronos Chronos is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Jan 2000
Location: The Land of Cleves
Posts: 54,824
Thank you for that in-depth post, Polycarp. I'd never before seen the argument pointed out that Jesus putting Mary into John's care was an indicator that she didn't have any other children.
Reply With Quote
  #15  
Old 12-08-2010, 02:34 PM
The Great Sun Jester The Great Sun Jester is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Mar 2004
Quote:
Originally Posted by KneadToKnow View Post
Mary Kay Letourneau, for instance, was about 34.
*sigh* I'll just take a seat over here by the window. When's the bus leaving?


(And wild applause to Polycarp)
Reply With Quote
  #16  
Old 12-08-2010, 04:58 PM
kunilou kunilou is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Apr 1999
Posts: 17,556
I'd heard the broad outlines of what Polycarp said, but never with that detail and clarity before. Bravo!

There are two passages (Matthew 13:55 and John 6:42) that appear to speak of Joseph in the present tense during Jesus' adult life. But the passage commiting Mary to John (John 19:26-27) pretty clearly implies that by the time of the crucifixion, Mary had no husband (or other children) to care for her.
Reply With Quote
  #17  
Old 12-08-2010, 05:38 PM
Blake Blake is offline
Member
 
Join Date: Mar 2001
Posts: 10,207
Quote:
Originally Posted by robert_columbia View Post
If this were true, this could make the Bible consistent with the Catholic position of Mary's perpetual virginity. .. If we suppose that Mary was 13 and Joseph was 30-40....).
40 year old men are almost all impotent?

Even if Joseph was 40, Mary wouldn't have remained a virgin unless Joseph consented to that. And if Joseph consented then it doesn't matter what age he was.

The idea makes no sense under Jewish law and custom or even under commonsense. Joseph was already engaged to Mary before she became pregnant. Under Jewish law and custom, a man was obligated to provide children with is wife. This was as much for her sake as his, since children were the only social security available, and men almost invariably died before their wives. A man who was unable to impregnate his wife was essentially condemning her to a slow death by starvation when he died.

As Polycarp notes above, we can discern some things because they are not mentioned as being unusual. A girl's parents marrying her to man who was physically incapable of of fathering children would have been highly unusual, not to mention cruel. Yet no such statement was made about Mary's engagement. It seemed perfectly normal and mundane.

So we can assume that everyone, including Mary and Joseph, believed that Joseph would father her children. If he did not, then it was because he agreed to leave her untouched, not because he was physically incapable or had no desire to do so. He obviously desired to do so when he became engaged to her.

And if he willingly chose not to do so, then his age was irrelevant since a man of any age could make that decision.

But of course the whole concept has no basis aside from traditions invented at least a hundred years after Jesus was dead. Once again, as Polycarp notes, unusual things tend to get noted. It would have been highly unusual for a poor Jewish woman to have only one child and just as unusual for anyone to be an only child. Yet no such note was ever made. So for the same reasons that we can conclude that Mary was young we can conclude that she gave birth to numerous children.
Reply With Quote
  #18  
Old 12-08-2010, 07:37 PM
UDS UDS is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Mar 2002
I don't think the suggestion is that Joseph couldn't father children; it's that as an older man who already had a family he didn't have the same religious, social or personal need to father children. His primary motive in marrying again may have been for companionship, and to secure a stepmother for his motherless first family, and this is consistent with the idea that either he never intended a sexual relationship with Mary, or that he came to that view after she was conceived of the Holy Ghost - which, let's face it, is the kind of altered circumstance that might cause a fellow to reconsider the terms of his relationship.
Reply With Quote
  #19  
Old 12-08-2010, 08:11 PM
Blake Blake is offline
Member
 
Join Date: Mar 2001
Posts: 10,207
Quote:
Originally Posted by UDS View Post
... this is consistent with the idea that either he never intended a sexual relationship with Mary..
Once again, this would have been the worst crime against a wife conceivable in those days. To intend to leave her with no children. It would paint Joseph as a complete bastard as well as being so unusual as to be worth mentioning.

Quote:
.. or that he came to that view after she was conceived of the Holy Ghost - which, let's face it, is the kind of altered circumstance that might cause a fellow to reconsider the terms of his relationship.
Exactly as I said above. And as likely to prompt the reaction in a man of 18 as in a man of 40.
Reply With Quote
  #20  
Old 12-08-2010, 10:27 PM
BigT BigT is online now
Guest
 
Join Date: Aug 2008
Quote:
Originally Posted by Blake View Post
Exactly as I said above. And as likely to prompt the reaction in a man of 18 as in a man of 40.
Not if the man has a legal and social requirement to have children.

Don't get me wrong--I think the perpetual virgin thing is just an attempt to deify Mary. The entire basis, as I understand, has to do with the Immaculate Conception and the idea that having sex is evil, neither of which being biblical concepts. Heck, I still don't understand the need for the Immaculate Conception theologically: if God can make a woman sinless who was born from human parents, why can't he make himself sinless being born from only one human parent? Why do the two miracles need to be separated by a generation?
Reply With Quote
  #21  
Old 12-08-2010, 10:51 PM
BaneSidhe BaneSidhe is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Jun 2007
Quote:
Originally Posted by Gary T View Post
My understanding is that the important issue is that Jesus is descended from David (legally if not biologically), as prophesied in scripture, hence the attention to his lineage. While you consider details of his nuclear family beyond his parents to be important, they were immaterial to the message of the Gospel writers.
I was under the impression that because society back then was patriarchal, there would be more more importance placed on the paternal lines than the maternal lines.

Polycarp, excellent summary. I learned a lot---a lot more than I ever did in church.
__________________
Life without horses is possible but pointless.
Reply With Quote
  #22  
Old 12-08-2010, 11:14 PM
Uncertain Uncertain is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Oct 2007
Quote:
Originally Posted by Polycarp View Post
1. Joseph plays a major role in the Infancy Narratives, the Flight into Egypt, and then, save for Luke's brief note of the visit to the Temple when Jesus was 12, vanishes utterly from the story.
The infancy narratives are tacked on from separate sources, so this contrast is not very informative.
Reply With Quote
  #23  
Old 12-08-2010, 11:54 PM
TriPolar TriPolar is online now
Guest
 
Join Date: Oct 2007
Quote:
Originally Posted by Blake View Post
As Polycarp notes above, we can discern some things because they are not mentioned as being unusual. A girl's parents marrying her to man who was physically incapable of of fathering children would have been highly unusual, not to mention cruel. Yet no such statement was made about Mary's engagement. It seemed perfectly normal and mundane.
Ok, so anything not identified as unusual would be usual.

I don't know much about this subject, but the latter part of the gospels relate first hand accounts, while these parts are relating the accounts of others. I would assume what is included would be everything known (or accepted to be true), and the age of Mary and Joseph aren't known, nor are any of the circumstances that weren't mentioned. Otherwise, if its not everything known, then these would be the parts considered unimportant for others to know for some reason. In that case, the age of Mary and Joseph weren't considered important, even had they been known.

So yeah, if anything related was unusual, an explanation would probably be included. But the unusual might just be excluded. That doesn't move any closer to answering the question, unless you accept a subset of (unknown, omitted, irrelevant) as the answer.

It is interesting to see the ways that every nuance is examined to find a clue though.

Last edited by TriPolar; 12-08-2010 at 11:56 PM..
Reply With Quote
  #24  
Old 12-09-2010, 01:57 PM
Chronos Chronos is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Jan 2000
Location: The Land of Cleves
Posts: 54,824
Quoth BigT:
Quote:
Heck, I still don't understand the need for the Immaculate Conception theologically: if God can make a woman sinless who was born from human parents, why can't he make himself sinless being born from only one human parent? Why do the two miracles need to be separated by a generation?
IIRC, the official Church answer to this one is "It's a mystery". Which I agree isn't very satisfying.
Reply With Quote
  #25  
Old 12-09-2010, 02:14 PM
Scathach Scathach is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Jan 2007
nm: misread
Reply With Quote
  #26  
Old 12-09-2010, 02:39 PM
TriPolar TriPolar is online now
Guest
 
Join Date: Oct 2007
Quote:
Originally Posted by TriPolar View Post
Ok, so anything not identified as unusual would be usual.

I don't know much about this subject, but the latter part of the gospels relate first hand accounts, while these parts are relating the accounts of others. I would assume what is included would be everything known (or accepted to be true), and the age of Mary and Joseph aren't known, nor are any of the circumstances that weren't mentioned. Otherwise, if its not everything known, then these would be the parts considered unimportant for others to know for some reason. In that case, the age of Mary and Joseph weren't considered important, even had they been known.

So yeah, if anything related was unusual, an explanation would probably be included. But the unusual might just be excluded. That doesn't move any closer to answering the question, unless you accept a subset of (unknown, omitted, irrelevant) as the answer.

It is interesting to see the ways that every nuance is examined to find a clue though.
Ugh, this should read '...these would be the parts considered IMPORTANT...'
Reply With Quote
Reply



Bookmarks

Thread Tools
Display Modes

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is Off
HTML code is Off

Forum Jump


All times are GMT -5. The time now is 06:54 PM.


Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.7
Copyright ©2000 - 2014, vBulletin Solutions, Inc.

Send questions for Cecil Adams to: cecil@chicagoreader.com

Send comments about this website to: webmaster@straightdope.com

Terms of Use / Privacy Policy

Advertise on the Straight Dope!
(Your direct line to thousands of the smartest, hippest people on the planet, plus a few total dipsticks.)

Publishers - interested in subscribing to the Straight Dope?
Write to: sdsubscriptions@chicagoreader.com.

Copyright 2013 Sun-Times Media, LLC.