Did you know that Joseph, husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is never mentioned in the gospel of Mark? Since Mark is our earliest gospel that seems all the more striking. Mark has no account of the birth of Jesus whatsoever, much less any story of the virgin birth. When Jesus is identified in Mark by paternity he is called “the son of Mary,” (Mark 6:3).
We all tend to read our New Testament Gospels “backwards,” meaning many of us have years and years of “stories” in our heads about Jesus, Joseph, Mary, the Disciples, and so on, but with no sense of where any of them came from in terms of Mark, Matthew, Luke, John. Just imagine if Mark was ALL we had with no father even mentioned much less named for Jesus, with Jesus being called “son of Mary” in the only text that identifies him in terms of his family. What a difference that would make. Everyone tends to just “fill in” the name “Joseph” wherever it is missing. There is clearly more to this phrase–son of Mary– in Mark than immediately meets the eye.
Given Jewish culture, then and now, in which children are referred to as “X son of X,” naming the father, this is all the more jarring. I remember for years in flying into Israel we would have to fill out the visitors visa form on the flight as it landed. Under name one had to give “father’s first name.” So even as a non-Jew I became, legally speaking, “Jimmy Dan Tabor son of Elgie,” my birth name and my father’s first name! I remember reading the trial brief for Oded Golan, owner of the James ossuary who was accused and subsequently acquitted of forgery charges, the only Israeli trial brief I have ever read, and he was referred to as Oded Golan, son of his father–with his father’s first name given. I am convinced that the complete absence of Joseph from Mark’s record, plus the reference to “the carpenter, the son of Mary,” is a subtle admission by Mark, that Joseph was not the father of Jesus and at least by the time Jesus was an adult, he had likely died.
On the other hand, Tal Ilan has shown that when a male is known as son of the mother it often indicates that the mother is very prominent. I believe that was the case with Jesus’ mother Mary and I argue that in detail in my forthcoming book, The Lost Mary, which should be out in English as soon as the publisher Knopf can fit me into the jammed up Covid-19 schedule that many publishers are dealing with right now.
Interestingly, when Matthew does his “rewrite” of Mark, his main narrative source, he changes Mark’s reference to the “son of Mary” significantly to read: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary?” (Matthew 13:55). And of course Matthew is our earliest source for the “virgin birth” of Jesus, in which it is asserted that Jesus had no human father.
What we do know with any certainty about the paternity of Jesus is precious little with lots of blank spaces to fill in. If Joseph was the father of Jesus we would surely expect Mark say so in this critical passage set in Jesus’ home town of Nazareth. For more on what we know, don’t know, and might responsibly determine see my series of posts here on the “Unnamed Father of Jesus.”