How Old Was Joseph When Jesus Was Born?


Joseph, the husband of Mary and the earthly father of Jesus Christ, is depicted in the Gospels as humble, law-abiding, and obedient. In many Christmas scenes, such as in displays of the manger, he is portrayed as being about the same age as Mary. Is this true? Was Joseph the same age as Mary, older than her, or a lot older when Jesus was born?

The Bible doesn’t say how old Joseph was when Jesus was born to Mary. However, synthetizing data from Jewish tradition, first-century Roman culture, and the Gospels, a broad estimate of Joseph’s age is that he was between 18 and 54 years old. Some traditions say he was much older, but this is unlikely.

What does Christian tradition say about Joseph’s age when Mary gave birth? Could the average life expectancy in ancient Rome help determine Joseph’s age at Jesus’ birth? Can Jewish tradition shed any light on the topic? Can fertility data be used? Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.

Joseph and Mary
Why does tradition imagine Joseph to be so old? See below

What does Christian tradition say about Joseph’s age?

Before learning what tradition says about Joseph, it’s essential to know what the Gospels say about him. Neither Mark nor John mention Joseph. Paul doesn’t mention him either. However, Matthew and Luke testify to Joseph’s presence in Jesus’ life and the crucial role he played when Herod decreed the death of all infants under two years old (Matt. 2:13-19).

What do the Gospels confirm about Joseph?

Joseph was the husband of Mary and the earthly father of Jesus (Matt. 1:16; Luke 3:23). He was Jewish, a descendant of David (Matt. 1:20; Luke 2:4), and observed the Law (Matt. 1:18-25). Joseph was a carpenter (Matt. 13:55) and lived in Nazareth (Luke 2:4).

The Gospels don’t mention Joseph after Jesus’ youth. The reference to him in Matthew 13:55 — “Is not this [i.e. Jesus] the carpenter’s son?” — doesn’t reveal whether Joseph was living or dead. Because the Gospels don’t mention him after this, many scholars believe that he died of natural causes before Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

What does tradition say about how old Joseph was at Jesus’ birth?

As a central figure in Jesus’ birth story in two of the Gospels, Christians over the centuries have been understandably intrigued with Joseph. Sometimes, tradition attempts to provide information about Bible characters that Scripture doesn’t. Below are three examples.

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, but only that he was an old 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.

The Panarion: 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 years old. It also imagines that Joseph was about 90 years of age when Jesus was born.

Why does tradition imagine Joseph to be so old?

In some traditions, Joseph’s life before Mary is significant in order to account for Jesus’ half-siblings. Why does this matter? Why couldn’t Joseph and Mary have more children after Jesus? Some traditions fiercely protect Mary’s perpetual virginity, so they look for other ways to explain Joseph’s children.

Christmas manger
When did men usually die in first-century Rome?

What was the average age of death in first-century Rome?

Knowing the average age of death in the first century of the Roman Empire doesn’t definitively pinpoint Joseph’s age at Jesus’ birth. However, the information reveals what is more or less likely even though there are verifiable exceptions to the averages. For example, if adults usually died at the age of 40, people could conclude that Joseph was probably not older than that when Jesus was born.

How long did people live in ancient Rome?

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. [1]

Since Joseph was probably older than a middle teenager when Jesus was born, 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 Jesus was born.

Joseph and Mary
Does the science of fertility provide any helpful information on Joseph’s age? See below

Does Jewish tradition help determine Joseph’s age?

Rabbinic tradition reflects strong views about marrying age. To the degree that these views align with the Bible, which people debate, they could help approximate Joseph’s age when Jesus was born.

Joseph was a law-abiding Jewish man. While there is no evidence that Joseph’s life intersected with any rabbinic traditions, it’s possible that he was exposed to some version of them in the first century. However, because there is no historical evidence to make a trustworthy connection, these ideas are speculative at best.

Rabbinic tradition pinpoints the age of 18 as optimal for marriage. It teaches that children are ready for marriage whenever they are physically capable of reproducing, which is generally the age of 13 or 14. Rabbinic law forbids Jewish parents from giving their son or daughter in marriage before puberty.

There were spiritual and legal ramifications if a person turned 20 years old and wasn’t married. Spiritually, many people believed that God had cursed the person. Legally, a court could compel the person to marry. [2]

If this rabbinic tradition has biblical roots, which isn’t clear, it may shed light on how old Joseph was when he was betrothed to Mary and when Jesus was born.

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 where Jesus’ siblings came from. 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. [3]

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 his first child, Jesus, would have been born when Joseph was in his late teens, twenties, or thirties.

References:
[1] Source
[2] Source
[3] Source

Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see the About page for details.

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