One of my favorite movies about the birth of Christ is The Nativity Story, released in 2006. One of the reasons is that it has more about the character of Joseph than most nativity movies.
There’s not much we really know about Joseph. He was a carpenter in Nazareth, engaged to marry Mary. After learning she was pregnant, he resolved to divorce her. The text in the Gospel Matthew says he wanted to divorce her quietly and not expose Mary to public disgrace, “because he was a righteous man.”
But then he has a dream, and an angel of the Lord explains what’s happening. The account is not as lengthy as that of the angel and Mary in the Gospel of Luke, but it’s clear that Joseph does exactly what Mary did: he obeys. He “did what the angel of the Lord commanded him to do” and takes Mary into his home as his wife. And when the baby is born, it is Joseph who obeys once again and names the baby Jesus.
He takes the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem for the census, and he was most likely with her when the baby was born and may, as the movie suggests, have helped deliver the baby (there wasn’t anyone else around in the manger). Eight days later, he and Mary bring the baby to the temple “to be consecrated to the Lord,” required for every firstborn male.
While the timing isn’t exactly certain, we know he was with Mary when the Magi visit and present their gifts. And then Joseph has another dream, where the angel of the Lord warns him that Herod is out to kill the child and to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. After Herod dies, Joseph has a third dream, and an angel tells Joseph to return to Israel.
We can deduce that Joseph taught Jesus to be a carpenter. We know that Jesus had half-brothers, and that Joseph would have been the father (whether you believe Mary was their mother depends upon whether you accept Protestant or Catholic teaching). But we do not know anything else about Joseph – his age, when he died, what he thought about raising Jesus, whether he had doubts like Mary seemed to have at times, or what his personality was like. And nowhere does Jesus mention or refer to Joseph.
We know he was a righteous man. We know he obeyed what he was commanded to do – three times. We know he trained Jesus in his trade, as any father would have done at the time. His job, one that he accepted in rather unusual circumstances, was to protect Mary and the baby, and then to raise the child as his son. He protected his family from both physical harm and the shame that would have attached itself to an unmarried mother and illegitimate child, especially in a small town like Nazareth.
He was an ordinary carpenter who was called to do extraordinary things, and he obeyed.