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Story of Joseph: A Jewish perspective (in
Rev. Dr. David M. Neuhaus sj
Pontifical Biblical Institute
This brief paper seeks to examine the figure of Joseph in the Christian sources, the New Testament and the Church Fathers in order to explore a particular Christian reading of the Joseph story. The first part of this paper will deal with how Joseph has been traditionally understood as a prefiguration of Jesus, emphasizing the themes in the lives of these two figures that are most often put in parallel. Here the sources are primarily the writings of the Church Fathers. The second part will deal with an analysis of the Joseph story in the light of the presentation of St Joseph, fiancé of the Virgin Mary, in the Gospel of St Matthew. I will suggest that the Old Testament figure of Joseph is a model for the New Testament Joseph. The tools used in this section are those of modern literary analysis of common themes. Finally, briefly in conclusion, I will present Joseph as a model for the Christian believer.
New Testament and Christian authors read the Joseph story in the Old Testament as providing a particular understanding of the specifically Christian meaning of the story i.e. how the story of Joseph prepares us for the coming of Jesus Christ in the sacred history of salvation. Late apocryphal Jewish (pre-Christian) literature had already developed the figure of Joseph as an example of the suffering of the innocent just one and a text like the one in Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs makes the Christian assimilation of the model of Joseph to that of Jesus more comprehensible:
My brothers hated me but the Lord loved me. They wanted to kill me but the God of my fathers preserved me. Into a cistern they lowered me, the most High raised me up. They sold me into slavery, the Lord of all set me free. I was taken into captivity, the strength of His hand set me free. I was overtaken by hunger, the Lord Himself fed me generously. I was alone and God came to help me. I was in weakness and the Lord showed His concern for me. I was in prison and the Savior acted graciously on my behalf. I was in bonds and He loosed me. Falsely accused, and He testified on my behalf. Assaulted by bitter words of the Egyptians, and He rescued me. A slave, and He exalted me (Testament of Joseph 1:4-7)
Some have suggested that this text has certain later Christian interpolations.
In the New Testament, the story of Joseph is most explicitly presented in the writing of St Luke. In chapter 7 of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke presents the long speech of Stephen before his death by stoning, a death that is almost identical with that of Jesus’ own death by crucifixion. Stephen says to his audience of Jews:
The patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him, and rescued him out of all his afflictions, and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharoah, king of Egypt, who made him governor over Egypt and over all his household. Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan and great affliction and our fathers could find no food. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent forth our fathers the first time. And at the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharoah. And Joseph sent and called to him Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five souls (Ac 7:9-14).
Interestingly, in this long passage the explicit christological reading of the Joseph story is not emphasized. However, a theme that is very important in the christological reading, the theme of jealousy, is the framework for the entire story. In fact, the term “jealous” in Acts 7:9 is used three other times in Acts, always describing the jealousy of the opponents of the disciples as regards the success the disciples have in gathering around them many people who come to believe in Jesus (see Ac 5:17, 13:45, 17:5).
The only other explicit mention of Joseph in the New Testament is in the Letter to the Hebrews where Joseph is mentioned in the illustrious list of ancestors who have had faith:
By faith, Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his burial (Hb 11:22).
I will now seek to examine certain themes in the Joseph story that provide the hermeneutic framework for understanding the story of Jesus in the New Testament and early Church writings.
1. Jealousy and betrayal
Undoubtedly the major theme in the Joseph story that is identified by the Christian writers is the one of jealousy and betrayal (as we have already seen in Acts). The christological reading of the story emphasizes the thematic of: one among many brothers, rejected by his brothers and yet saved by God. Jesus, like Joseph before him, was condemned by his brothers and yet God raised him up to be the judge of his brothers.
This theme is implicitly evoked in the parable of the murderous tenants in the vineyard. This parable is repeated in all three synoptic gospels and is an important key to understanding how Jesus’ rejection and death is to be understood (see Mt 21:33-46, Mk 12:1-11, Lk 20:9-19). The evil doing tenants plot and kill the son of the vineyard owner, saying “This is the heir; come let us kill him and the inheritance will be ours” (Mt 21:38, Mk 12:7, Lk 20:14). The words of the tenants are an exact echo of the words of Joseph’s brothers as they plot to kill Joseph: “Come, let us kill him and throw him in the well”.
The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, a very early Christian writing, focuses on the component of jealousy in the history of sin. The writer’s reflection begins with the jealousy of Cain for Abel (another important precursor of Christ in the christological understanding of the Old Testament, another innocent killed because of jealousy). The same jealousy is mentioned with regard to Joseph:
Jealousy made Joseph be persecuted until death and to come into bondage (ch. 4).
Tertulian (145-220), the important Latin Church Father, made explicit the christological reading in his Answer to the Jews, adding the element of betrayal to that of jealousy:
Joseph himself was made a figure of Christ in this point alone, that he suffered persecution at the hands of his brethren, and was sold into Egypt on account of the favor of God. Likewise, Christ was sold by Israel according to the flesh, by his brethren, when he is betrayed by Judas (7, 10).
One of the most developed patristic parallelisms concerning Jesus and Joseph is in the Treatises of Aphraat the Persian, a Father of the Syriac tradition. In his Treatise on Persecution, he states clearly:
Joseph persecuted is the image of Jesus persecuted (21,9).
He follows this up with no less than eighteen parallels between Joseph and Jesus in order to drive the christological reading home. Joseph in fact is the first of twelve such Old Testament parallels on the same theme of persecution (the other parallels being with Moses, Joshua, Jepthah, David, Elijah, Hezekiah, Josiah, Daniel, Hananiah and his brothers and Mordechai). However the parallel with Joseph is the most developed. These parallels include:
1. Joseph, his father dressed him in a tunic of many colors; Jesus, his Father dressed him in a body taken from a virgin.
2. Joseph, his father loved him more than his brothers; Jesus is the beloved and preferred one of His Father.
3. Joseph had visions and dreams; Jesus fulfilled visions and the prophets.
4. Joseph was a pastor with his brothers; Jesus is the chief pastor.
5. Joseph, when his father sent him to visit his brothers, they saw him and planned to kill him; Jesus, when his Father sent him to visit his brothers, they said, “This is the heir, come, let us kill him”.
6. Joseph, his brothers threw him into a cistern; Jesus, his brothers made him descend among the dead.
7. Joseph ascended from the cistern; Jesus ascended from the dead.
8. Joseph, after he ascended from the cistern, received power over his brothers; Jesus, after his resurrection from among the dead was given a great and excellent name by his Father so that his brothers were submitted to him and his adversaries were placed under his feet.
9. Joseph, having revealed himself to his brothers, they were ashamed, trembled and were amazed by his greatness; Jesus, when he comes at the end of time to be revealed in his greatness, his brothers, who crucified him, will be ashamed, will tremble and will be terrified before him.
10. For Joseph was sold into Egypt on the advice of Judah; and Jesus was handed over to the Jews by the hand of Judas Iscariot.
11. Joseph did not utter a word to his brothers when they sold him; Jesus did not utter a word to the judges when they judged him.
12. Joseph was unjustly handed over to prison; Jesus was unjustly condemned by the sons of his people.
13. Joseph gave up his two garments, one to his brothers and the other to the wife of his master; Jesus gave up his garment to the soldiers and they divided them.
14. Joseph, at the age of 30 years presented himself before the Pharoah and became master of Egypt; Jesus, at the age of 30 years, came to the Jordan to be baptized, received the Spirit and went out to preach.
15. Joseph gave bread to the Egyptians; Jesus gave bread to the entire world.
16. Joseph took to himself a wife who was the daughter of an impious and idolatrous priest; Jesus took to himself the Church from impure peoples.
17. Joseph died and was buried in Egypt; Jesus died and was buried in Jerusalem.
18. Joseph, his brothers brought up his bones from Egypt; Jesus, his Father resurrected him from the dead and brought his body up to Him, incorruptible, into heaven (21.9).
A similar development of parallelisms, which also uses the Hebrew place names in the Old Testament Joseph story, is to be found in the Sermon LXXXIX of Caesar of Arles (a 6th century Church Father).
2. False witness
A closely connected theme to the one of jealousy in the Joseph story is the theme of false witness. Aphraat mentions this in his 12th parallelism. Although it is not his brothers who bear false witness against Joseph as is the case with Jesus, Joseph is indeed victim of the false witness borne against him by the wife of Potiphar. Accused of sexual impropriety, Joseph is pure in thought and deed and yet falsely accused. Accused not of sexual but rather of religious and political impropriety, Jesus too is falsely accused. In both stories the role played by the false witnesses is an important narrative element. The wife of Potiphar bears false witness against Joseph both before the members of her household (Gn 39:14-15) and before her husband (39:16-19). Jesus too was the object of false witnesses both before the Sanhedrin (Mt 26:60-62, Mk 14:55-59) and before Pilate (Mt 27:12-14, Mk 15:3-5). Caesar of Arles explains this in his Sermon XCII:
Because of the plotting and accusation of the wife of his master, Joseph was sent to prison, like Christ who was crucified because of the plotting and the accusations of his enemies, and he deigned to descend into Hell like into a prison (XCII, 5).
3. Salvation and empowerment
Cast into prison, Joseph is nonetheless redeemed by God. Likewise, Jesus cast into prison, killed and entombed in the realm of death, will be liberated from the chains of death by God in the event of his resurrection.
Joseph’s emergence from prison and empowerment by Pharoah also echo in Jesus’ emergence from his passion and death into the fullness of new life in the resurrection. Here too we can find implicit links in the two Biblical narratives. In Gn 40:14, it is Joseph who asks the imprisoned chief cup bearer not to forget him when he is released and reinstated at court. Joseph says to him: “Be sure to remember me when things go well for you”. In the same words, the penitent thief, crucified alongside Jesus, says to Jesus, recognizing the injustice of Jesus’ own punishment: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42). Both Joseph and Jesus will emerge from darkness into light.
The disciples do not believe that Jesus is alive, resurrected from the dead, when the women announce this news to them on the Sunday after his death: “But these words seemed to them an idle tale and they did not believe them” (Lk 24:11). Likewise, Jacob is stunned and unbelieving when his sons announce to him that Joseph is alive: “But he was as one stunned for he did not believe them” (Gn 45:26). When Jacob does finally see Joseph alive he is ready to die and exclaims, “Now I can die, now that I have seen you again, and seen you still alive” (Gn 46:30). These words are echoed by Simeon the Elder, awaiting the Messiah in the Temple. When he finally perceives Jesus, recognizing him as the long awaited Messiah, he takes him from his mothers into his own arms who exclaims, “Lord, let your servant now depart in peace according to your word. My eyes have seen your salvation” (Lk 2:29-30).
Also striking is the fact pointed out by Aphraat that Jesus was 30 years old (Lk 3:23) when he began his public life and Joseph was 30 years old when he was empowered by Pharoah (Gn 41:46). This parallelism is noted also by Origen in his Homilies on Genesis (II,5). The confidence that the two figures inspire is also underlined in both narratives. When the famine arrives and the grain runs out in Egypt, Pharoah tells the Egyptians: “Go to Joseph and do whatever he tells you” (Gn 41:55). Likewise, Mary tells the servants to do what Jesus tells them to do when the wine has run out at the marriage feast in Cana: “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5).
4. Forgiveness and reconciliation
Another dominant theme in the Joseph story is that of forgiveness and the final reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers. This too is echoed in the Jesus story. Interestingly, Aphraat does not mention this in his parallelism but Caesar of Arles does, in his Sermon XC:
He embraced them one by one and shed tears over each one of them. Watering the neck of each one of them, who feared him, he washed away the hate of his brothers by the tears of his love (XL, 4).
Joseph’s dramatic revelation of his true identity to his brothers and their reconciliation is the dramatic peak of the Biblical story (Gn 45:1-15). No less surprising, the crucified Jesus on the cross says, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). The model of mutual reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers remains eschatological for the reconciliation of Jesus with his brothers, those who have rejected him. This is what Paul explains to the Gentiles regarding those among the Jews who have not believed in Jesus. “For if you have been cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these natural branches be grafted back into their own olive tree” (Rm 11:24).
The Church Fathers restricted their focus to the parallels between Old Testament figures and Jesus, underlining how the persons of the Old Testament prepared for the coming of Jesus in the New Testament. However, modern literary analysis provides other possibilities for understanding more implicit re-readings of the Old Testament stories in the New.
I believe that at least for the Gospel of Matthew there is another formative reading of the Joseph story. Matthew’s portrayal of Joseph, the spouse of Mary, is intricately modeled on the figure of Joseph in the Old Testament. I think that one may indeed dare to suggest that the Joseph of the New Testament, pure and holy fiancé of Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, was named for his predecessor Joseph in the Old. It is interesting to note that in Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph is son of Jacob just as the Old Testament Joseph is (this is not so in Luke’s Gospel where Joseph’s father is Heli). Thus we might say that the figure of Joseph in the Old prepares us for the figure of Joseph in the New and the figure of Joseph in the New sheds light on Joseph in the Old. In both Old and New Testaments, Joseph is the pure and chaste one, the dreamer and the father-non-father.
1. Seduction and purity
Clearly the first parallelism between the two Josephs concerns the theme of sexuality. The Old Testament Joseph becomes a model of sexual propriety in the later commentaries. In early Christian apocryphal literature the figure of St Joseph is further developed. In both the Protevangelium of James and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, St Joseph is falsely accused of having had sexual relations with the Virgin Mary before their marriage. Arrested by the religious authorities, he is forced to submit himself to a test to prove his purity. The Old Testament Joseph shares in this resistance to the accusations of sexual impropriety. Joseph’s refusal of the seductive ruses of the wife of Potiphar make him a model of the sexual purity that many of the Church Fathers praised. Origen writes:
Joseph, refused to give in to passion, despite the entreaties and threats of the one who was legally his mistress … Joseph preferred prison to the loss of his chastity (Against Celsus IV, 46).
In this sense, he is a man who resists the seduction of a woman, making amends for the sin of Adam who was tempted by Eve. Origen, in fact, links Joseph’s future domination of Egypt with his earlier domination of his body:
Joseph, whom no sensual passion was able to vanquish, became lord and master of all Egypt (Homilies on Genesis XV,3).
St Joseph is often seen as a model of this same purity, noble fiancé of the Virgin Mother, who herself corrects the fault of Eve, reaching perfection as mother.
Of course the dreams of Joseph in the Old Testament are well known. He himself becomes an interpreter of his own dreams and the dreams of others. It is therefore not surprising that the dream of St Joseph in the New Testament provides an echo with the dreams of Joseph in the Old. In fact, the dreams of both Josephs lead them and their families into Egypt. Thus, because of these dreams, God calls both Israel and Jesus out of Egypt as an initiating act of salvation (Hos 11:1 and Mt 2:15).
3. His sons become his brothers
A final parallelism is more complex. St Joseph is the earthly father of Jesus but in fact the child Jesus is not really his son but engendered rather by the Holy Spirit. Joseph is a father who is not a father. He names the child but has not engendered him. The Old Testament Joseph story also has a complex paternity issue. When Jacob, the father of Joseph, finally joins his lost son in Egypt, together with the rest of his sons, he insists on adopting the two sons of Joseph as his own. “Now your two sons, born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, shall be mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be as much mine as Reuben and Simeon. But with regard to the children that you have since them, they shall be yours and they shall be known by their brothers’ names for the purpose of inheritance” (Gn 48:5-6). Both Josephs are thus fathers only in a certain sense, their paternity limited by the needs of the history of salvation.
In conclusion, the virtues of Joseph are those that should also be practiced by the Christian. One can find many references to this in Christian literature, for instance in Sermon XCII, of Caesar of Arles:
Let us imitate blessed Joseph in perfect love and concern for chastity, refusing to return evil for evil to our enemies (XCII,6).
However, an extraordinarily beautiful example can be found in Sermon XCI of the same author:
That which Joseph accomplished with regard to his brothers, is that which we also should realize in relation to those who sin against us. It is not they but their sins we should detest, having the will to reprimand them according to the measure of their fault … and pardoning those who sin against us so that God will also pardon us all the times we sin against Him (XCI,7).
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