The History Of The Blessed Virgin, Translated From The French By The Very Rev. F. C. Husenbeth, D.D., V.G. Part 20.

Chapter 7
Marriage Of The Virgin. Part 2.

Disdaining the advantages of youth, beauty, high rank, fortune, and the glory of arms, the priests who were guardians of the Blessed Virgin, and the ancients of her house, fixed their choice upon a man advanced in age, 1 a decayed patrician, whose fortune had been absorbed by the political revolutions and religious wars of Judea, as a drop of rain is swallowed up in the sea, leaving him only his tools and his arms for labour; this man of low condition, though of great family, who was a widower, 2 according to the Proto-Gospel of St. James, and a bachelor according to St. Jerom, whose opinion has prevailed in the Church, was Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth.

When we reflect on the rare beauty of Mary, the education which she had received in the temple, the great alliances of her family, her position as a heiress, which made her, among the Jews,—who portioned their wives, and received hardly anything from them, 3—a desirable, and even brilliant match, we might well be astonished at this family decision, if the fathers had not assured us that Joseph was chosen by lot, and by the express manifestation of the divine will. 4 An ancient tradition, recorded in the Proto-Gospel of St. James, and mentioned by St. Jerom, relates that the candidates, after having prayed to Him who presides over the lots, deposited over-night in the temple each one his rod of almond-tree; and that the next day the dry and dead branch of Joseph, the son of Jacob, the son of Mathan, was found green and in blossom, like that which had before confirmed the priesthood to the sons of Aaron. The history of Mount Carmel testifies that at the sight of this prodigy, which destroyed his hopes, a young patrician, belonging to one of the most powerful families of Judea, and the possessor of a great fortune, broke his rod with every sign of despair, and ran to shut himself up in one of the caves of Carmel with the disciples of Elias. 5

When the choice of the guardians was determined, it was announced to Mary, and this admirable young woman, accustomed to elegant occupations, brought up in the midst of the perfumes, melodious strains, and fairy magnificence of the holy house, did not hesitate to devote herself to a life of obscurity, to low and common employments, and painful cares, with the humble artisan presented to her by her relations. A divine inspiration, it is said, had made known to her that this just man would be to her no more than a protector, a father, a guardian of her chastity; 6 what more did she desire ? The Lord had heard her prayer; by leaving her faithful to the vow which she had made, he gave her, over and above, the merit of obedience.

The marriage proposed between Joseph and Mary must have caused some surprise at Nazareth and at Jerusalem; for there was but little correspondence in the age, fortune, and condition of the future pair. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that this union, which appears so strangely incompatible, was considered in Jewish society— a society of simple and primitive habits—as any flagrant, ill-sorted alliance. Without holding any distinguished rank in the state, the profession of an artisan was neither abject nor degrading in Israel. 7 We see in the genealogy of the tribe of Juda one family of workers in fine linen, and another of potters, whose memory is in honour; and the Scripture has handed down to posterity the names of Beseleel and Hiram. We know that St. Paul, brought up to the study of the law, the famous Pharisee doctor Hillel, and after them a great number of doctors, who, in the emphatic language of the rabbins, " sowed light amidst the holy nation," applied themselves to mechanic arts of a kind the least brilliant, and were not ashamed. Nay, more: every Israelite was an artisan; for every father of a family, whatever might have been his social position, was bound to make his son learn a trade, unless, said the law, he wished to make a robber of him. 8

The Jews, whose patrimony was locked up in the hands of foreigners, had no alternative, while waiting for the grand epoch which was to re-establish their fortunes, but to expatriate themselves, or to live in a poor way by the labour of their hands, in the bosom of their native mountains. Those who were led by the love of their country to adopt this latter expedient did not act in any way contrary to their dignity, and remained well fitted for any sort of employment. Israel had no castes, like Egypt and India; all its pride arose from its religious belief and its descent from the patriarchs. " To be descended from Abraham according to the flesh, " says the eagle of Meaux, "was a distinction which naturally raised them above all others."

1 The Proto-Gospel of St. James, c. 2, and the Gospel of the Nativity of Mary, c. 8, books of which the contents have been approved, for the most part, even by the fathers of the Church, merely say that he was already old. St. Epiphanius gives Joseph eighty-years at the time of his marriage; F. Pezron, fifty; and the Histoire divine de la Vierge, of Mary d'Agrada, thirty-three. The supposition of St. Epiphanius does not bear examination; it is, moreover, solemnly refuted by the law of the Hebrews, which forbids the alliance of a young woman with an old man, and classes it with things the most disgraceful.—(Basn., liv. vii. c. 21, Hist, des Inst, de Moise.) Neither the high priests nor Joseph would have been willing to do a thing condemned by the law. The age attributed by Mary d' Agrada to St. Joseph does not agree with the opinion of the fathers: there remains that of F. Pezron, which appears the most probable.

2 Several fathers have thought that St. Joseph was a widower when he was espoused to the Blessed Virgin. The Proto-Gospel of St. James, and the Gospel of the Nativity of the Virgin, assure us that he was a widower; St. Epiphanius says that he had four sons and two daughters; St. Hippolytus of Thebes calls his first wife Salome: Origen, Eusebius, St. Ambrose, and many other fathers, have adopted the same opinion. Nevertheless, this opinion is the least followed, and it is commonly believed that St. Joseph had lived in virginity. This is the opinion of St. Jerom, who expressly says, writing against Helvidius: "We do not anywhere read that he had any other wife than Mary: aliam cum uxorem habuisse non scribitur. St. Augustan leaves the question undecided; but St. Peter Damian affirms that the whole Church believes that St. Joseph, who passed for the father of our Saviour, was a virgin like Mary.

3 At the time of contracting marriage, the wife received from her relations only things necessary for her attire. It was the husband who furnished the dowry.—(Salvador, Institutions de Mofee, t. ii. cl.)

4 Evangel, de Nativ. Mar., c. 7: Protev. Jac, c. 8; Hier. in Dam., lib. iv. c. 5; Greg. Naz., horn, de S. Nat.; Niceph., lib. ii. c. 7.

5 This young pretender to the Virgin, who is said to have been named Agabus, became afterwards celebrated for his sanctity, and a Christian.—(See Hist, da Carmel, c. 12.)

6 Vie de la Sainte Vierge, by Descoutures, p. 49; Vie de Jesus Christ, by P. Valverde, t. i. p. 71.

7 Artisans are still held in distinguished estimation in Judea. "In Palestine and in Syria," says Burckhardt, "the companies of artisans are almost as much respected as they were in the middle ages in France and Germany. A master artisan is quite on a level there, in rank and consideration, with a merchant of the second class; he may take a wife of the respectable families of the city, and has generally more influence in his locality than a merchant whose fortune is three times as great as his own."—(Burckh., Voyage en Arabie, t. ii. p. 139.)

8 Every man who does not give his children a profession, says the school of the Pharisees, prepares them for an evil life. " Be not a burthen to any one .... never say, I am a man of a quality, this employment is not suitable for me. Rabbi Johanan had learnt the trade of a skinner; Nahum that of a copyist of books: another Johanan made sandals; and Rabbi Juda knew the trade of a baker." —(Talmud, Tract. Kidouschim. Pessarh, Aboth; Soto.)