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BY Steven D. Greydanus
I don’t often discover a new angle on a biblical text from a Bible movie, but Joseph of Nazareth: The Man Closest to Christ (available on DVD from Ignatius Press) 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” and not “put her to shame.”
What exactly does this mean? 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.
But Matthew 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.
Although 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.
Joseph of Nazareth nods to varying, even 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. (What’s more, 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.
Note: A longer version of this post is available at Decent Films.