Joseph and Mary’s relationship, including their betrothal and marriage, is one of the most iconic in the Bible. Mary is young, devout, and contemplative. Joseph is humble, obedient, and protective. Together, they were the earthly parents of Jesus. Bible readers have a lot of questions about the holy couple. One of them concerns how old Joseph was when they married.
Joseph may have been as young as 18 to 20 and as old as 36 to 42 when he married Mary. Since the Bible doesn’t mention how old he was, it may be possible to use specific historical and cultural factors to estimate an age range. Also, some unsupported traditions imply that Joseph was in his 80’s or 90’s.
What Christian traditions mention Joseph’s age? What was the average life expectancy during the Roman Empire? Other possible factors in determining Joseph’s age range? What does betrothal mean in the Bible? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and more.
Also see How Old Was Joseph When Jesus Was Born? to learn more.
What Christian traditions mention Joseph’s age?
The Christian traditions that mention Joseph’s age don’t agree on the number. As readers will see below, it was common to claim Joseph was an older man. However, there is no biblical basis for the claim that Joseph was elderly. Instead, this belief is rooted in the idea that Mary was a virgin her entire life.
The Gospels teach that Jesus had half-siblings. Many believe they were born to Joseph and Mary after Jesus was born. but, of course, this would be impossible if Mary were a life-long virgin.
Therefore, some argue that Joseph must have been married before he knew Mary and had children. To allow for the number of years this theory would require, some people speculate that Joseph was elderly in the Gospels.
The Gospel of James
The first document that mentions Joseph’s approximate age, The Gospel of James, was written in the second century after Jesus. However, the fictional document doesn’t mention Joseph’s exact age, only that he was an older man. It reports that Joseph was chosen by lot (cf. Prov. 16:33) to be Jesus’ earthly father. It also says Joseph was previously married and had children who were Jesus’ half-siblings.
Another document that mentions Joseph’s age is called The Panarion by Epiphanius, who was the bishop of Salamis about 400 years after Jesus. Like The Gospel of James, the document imagines that Joseph was married before he met Mary. Jesus’ half-siblings were the result of that marriage. Joseph didn’t marry Mary until he was 80 years old.
History of Joseph the Carpenter
Another document that mentions Joseph’s age dates from 500 to 600 years after the New Testament. The fictional History of Joseph the Carpenter reports that Joseph died when he was 111. It also imagines that Joseph was about 90 years of age when Jesus was born.
Also see Why Was Jesus Born In A Manger? to learn more.
What was the average life expectancy during the Roman Empire?
Like in other ancient cultures, the infant mortality rate was high in first-century Rome. Historians estimate that about one-third of all babies died before their first birthday.
The infant mortality rate can skew data related to the average life span. Therefore, it’s more helpful to determine the average life span of those who survived infancy.
As the Gospels reveal, Joseph was an adult man of marrying age when Jesus was born. To state the obvious, he survived infancy. So how long was he expected to live?
- When the infant mortality rate is factored out of data related to average life expectancy, a person was expected to live to the age of 35-42. “Infant” refers to the first year of birth. 25-33% of all babies died in infancy.
- When the child mortality rate is factored out of the data, a person was expected to live around 40–45 years. 35-45% of all children died before they reached the age of five.
- If a child made it to the age of 10, they were expected to live to 45 and 50 years. About 50% of all infants lived 10 years in first-century Rome.
- If they did, if a young person lived until their middle teens, their life expectancy was 48-54 years. 46-49% of infants lived until their middle teenage years. 
Since Joseph was probably older than a middle teenager when he married Mary, and if his life conformed to the cultural law of averages, he would have died at the age of 48 to 54.
If 48 to 54 is correct, or even close, it would mean that Joseph wasn’t elderly when he married Mary.
Since Luke mentions that Joseph was alive when Jesus was 12, he would have been 36 to 42 if he died within the range of average life expectancy.
Luke 2:41-42 reads, “Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom.”
Also see What Is the Gospel of Jesus Christ? to learn more.
Other possible factors in determining Joseph’s age range
Jewish tradition related to marriage and fertility data may arguably provide some insight into Joseph’s age when he married Mary.
Is Jewish tradition helpful in determining Joseph’s age? Rabbinic tradition may help approximate Joseph’s age when he married Mary. Some rabbinic traditions teach that 18 is the optimal age for marriage.
Additionally, there were ramifications if a person turned 20 and wasn’t married. Spiritually, people believed that God had cursed them. Legally, a court could compel the person to marry. 
Historians can’t confirm that Joseph was aware of any teaching similar to these rabbinic traditions. If he had exposure to them, or something similar, he was likely younger rather than older when he married Mary.
Can fertility data shed light on Joseph’s age? Insight into male fertility rates is a consideration when estimating Joseph’s age, but whether or not it’s a helpful metric is open to interpretation. The Bible teaches that Mary’s conception of Jesus was supernatural, which means that Joseph’s fertility isn’t relevant to her pregnancy. But Jesus’ half-siblings might be.
One challenging aspect of determining the relevancy of fertility data is that Christians have debated for centuries who fathered Jesus’ siblings. Some believe they were Joseph’s from a previous marriage. Others think Joseph and Mary had them after Jesus was born.
If Joseph and Mary had more children after Jesus was born, perhaps knowing some general information about male fertility would help approximate Joseph’s age.
Scientists today report that male fertility begins to decline at 35 years old. It decelerates after the age of 40. Men 45 years of age and older take five times longer to conceive than those who are 25. 
What does this mean with regard to Joseph? Maybe nothing. But if Joseph was like other men, his fertility would have decreased as he got older. If he and Mary had children after Jesus was born, he might have had them before the age of 45. If he had multiple children before 45, then he and Mary would have married when Joseph was in his late teens, twenties, or thirties.
Also see Why Was Jesus Christ Crucified? to learn more.
What does betrothal mean in the Bible?
Luke 1:27 not only teaches that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, but that she was betrothed to Joseph at the time. Not all English Bibles translate the word as “betrothed” as some render it according to its definition, saying that she was pledged to be married.
|to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.
|To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.
|to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.
|to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
|to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David.
In addition to 1:27, Luke also mentions Mary’s betrothal to Joseph in Luke 2:4-5: “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child” (ESV). The Greek word translated “betrothed” is mnesteuo.
|to espouse, betroth
New Testament scholar, I. Howard Marshall explains: “Betrothal could take place as early as 12 years old and usually lasted for about a year. Although it was regarded as equally binding as marriage, the girl having the same legal position as a wife, it was not normal for intercourse to take place during this period.”  As to Mary’s exact age, Marshall adds, “We do not know how old Mary was.” 
What was the purpose of betrothal? The betrothal period had practical purposes for the families whose son or daughter was getting married and for the bride and groom as well. One historical reason for the betrothal phase was to help families prepare for losing their son or daughter’s labor, such as on a farm. There were also three practical purposes for the individuals involved as well.
- First, it allowed the bride and groom to get to know each other as first-century marriages were often arranged.
- Second, it allowed the families time to prepare for the couple’s wedding.
- Third, it allowed time to confirm the bride’s chastity, which reflected her commitment to her husband and their marriage.
Are there examples of betrothal in the Bible besides Mary and Joseph? Several. These include Lot’s daughters and their husbands (Gen. 19:8-14), Isaac and Rebekah (24:50-67), Jacob and Rachel (29:18-21), Samson and his Philistine wife (Judg. 14:1-20), and David and Michal (1 Sam. 18:27; 2 Sam. 3:14).
Betrothal is also used figuratively in Scripture (e.g. Isa. 54:5; Hos. 2:19-20; Matt. 9:15; Eph. 5:25-27; Rev. 19:7; 21:9). Revelation 19:7 is an example: “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready.”
Also see How Old Was Jesus When He Started His Ministry? to learn more.
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