Joseph of Nazareth: The Man Closest to Christ


Today is the Solemnity of Saint Joseph. Last year, Ignatius Press released a Region 1 DVD of Joseph of Nazareth: The Man Closest to Christ (2000), an Italian production from Lux Vide and Mediaset billed as the first feature film on the story of St. Joseph. The film is the first in a series of four “Close to Jesus” films, though I understand it’s by far the most biblical, and certainly the Gospels give us more of a story-arc for Joseph than for the other three subjects, Mary Magdalene, Thomas and Judas Iscariot.

Matt Page of Bible Films Blog has a review of Joseph of Nazareth as well as an interesting post analyzing the notable similarities between Joseph and The Nativity Story, which also focuses significantly on St. Joseph (many of which I noticed also).

My take on Joseph of Nazareth is pretty close to Matt’s. I watched it with my family this Advent, and it was a nice change of pace from The Nativity Story, though regrettably it’s nothing like the definitive birth of Christ movie we’re still waiting for.

To start on a positive note, I don’t often discover a new angle on a biblical text from a Bible movie, but Joseph of Nazareth suggests an attractive approach I had never before considered to a deceptively knotty passage in St. Matthew’s Gospel, namely, the passage in Matthew 1 in which Mary has been found to be with child by the Holy Spirit, and Joseph resolves to “divorce her quietly.”

The passage is full of hidden ambiguities. When St. Matthew tells us that Mary was “found to be with child by the Holy Spirit,” is that final prepositional phrase Matthew’s aside to the reader (she was found to be with child — but it was by the Holy Spirit)? Or does it suggest that the divine origin of Mary’s condition was part of the discovery, at least for some? Does “being a just man” have conjunctive or disjunctive force — that is, was Joseph “unwilling to expose Mary to shame” because he was a just man, or in spite of being a just man? Was it the resolution to divorce her, or the decision to do so quietly, that is related to his “just” status? Does “just” here bespeak primarily observance of Torah, or a broader sort of righteousness?

Most concretely, what exactly is meant by “divorcing her quietly” and not “putting her to shame”? Divorce was a public act; there would seem to be no way to abandon Mary in her pregnant state, however undramatically, without “putting her to shame.” I remember puzzling over this passage in scripture studies classes at St. Charles Borromeo.

I was struck, then, by Joseph of Nazareth’s portrayal of Joseph deciding to go through with the wedding and then divorce Mary quietly after the birth of the child. As far as I know, the usual assumption is that the “divorce” in question refers to breaking off the betrothal, a bond with marital force. Movies often depict Mary’s pregnancy coming in the middle of a year-long betrothal period in which Joseph and Mary are pledged to one another but have not yet come together, as Matthew tells us.

On the other hand, Matthew also indicates that Joseph took Mary into his house immediately after the dream of the angel. Thus, the prospect of going through with the wedding and then divorcing Mary quietly afterward would seem to be a viable option. The child would be assumed to be Joseph’s, and Mary would not be shamed. It’s so simple I don’t know why I never thought of it before. That doesn’t make it the correct solution, of course, but as far as I know it could be.

On other points, Joseph of Nazareth’s suppositions and conceits are sometimes less attractive. The melodrama of Joseph being such a notable craftsman that Herod has him working on the expansion of the Temple, and that Herod comes to know him by name, to honor him as “the best craftsman in the world,” and even to have him identified by name as the father of the Child of Bethlehem, is contrived and unconvincing. The notion (shared with The Nativity Story) that during the census Herod’s troops were on the lookout for anyone of Davidic lineage traveling to Bethlehem seems doubtful, although Joseph’s defense here is a nice dramatic touch.

Those pious souls unable to accept Joseph’s “sinful” flash of anger and frustration in The Nativity Story would be apoplectic over the shouting fit that he has here when the reality of Mary’s condition sinks in; I can’t understand this difficulty myself. I am frustrated, though, by Mary’s half-explanations, which unnecessarily delay Joseph’s confrontation with the reality of what has happened.

As Matt notes, Joseph of Nazareth nods to varying, sometimes competing traditions around St. Joseph, sometimes with odd results. One ancient tradition holds that St. Joseph was an old man, a widower and a father whose sons became the foster brethren of Jesus. Another tradition holds that Jesus’ brethren were simply close kin of one sort or another. Joseph of Nazareth has bits and pieces of both: Joseph is significantly older than Mary, but far from elderly at 37, and while he is a widower, Jesus’ brethren are not his sons, but his nephews. (Matt also points out that the most prominent of Jesus’ brethren, James, isn’t mentioned at all, while two others, Jude and Simon, are killed long before Jesus’ ministry.)

Despite these and other flaws, Joseph of Nazareth offers an attractive, appealing depiction of the man chosen by God to be the paterfamilias of the Holy Family, the husband of the Blessed Virgin and the father of the Son of God. I like the way Joseph’s distaste for the state of the Temple prefigures Jesus’ dramatic action there. His resistance to early zealotry, too, anticipates Jesus’ refusal of military means.