The story of Mary and Joseph is beautifully told in the New Testament, but to appreciate it we must know something of their lives and recognize some special circumstances.
It is fundamental to know that Mary is the earthly mother of Jesus, and that Joseph is Mary’s husband. Consider the implications of Mary and Joseph as the earthly parents and guardians of Jesus. Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the Father in the spirit, his Only Begotten in the flesh, and the central theme of the scriptures. Prophets, beginning with Adam, testified of him and his mission. He was Jehovah in the premortal spirit existence, and was chosen by our Heavenly Father to be the Savior of mankind.
In his capacity as Savior, he represented the Father in all things pertaining to the salvation of man. He was the creator of worlds, and he personally visited ancient patriarchs and prophets to make gospel covenants with them. He was known and worshipped by Adam, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Nephi, Alma, and many others. He was mighty and powerful, all-wise and all-knowing, kind and merciful. He was and is the “Holy One of Israel,” the God of the whole world.
Just as Jesus was selected for his redeeming mission in the premortal world, his prophets were also preappointed for their earthly missions, according to their faithfulness. (See Abr. 3:22–23; Alma 13:2–10.) It was in the premortal life that faithful sons and daughters of God received their first lessons in righteousness and became followers of Jesus. Some were foreordained to be prophets; others no doubt were appointed to be the fathers, mothers, and wives of prophets.
There is no impropriety, then, in believing that Mary and Joseph were selected in those ancient councils by the Father to be the earthly guardians of Jesus. Mary was given the unique privilege and responsibility of bringing the great Jehovah into the world, in which he would obtain a body of flesh and bones, experience mortality, and continue his mission for the redemption of mankind.
The significance of this mortal birth was more critical than we often realize. It was not an experimental thing, nor an event that was optional in the plan of salvation. The coming of a part-divine part-mortal Jesus into the world, Son of Mary and Only Begotten of the Father, was an absolute necessity. The human family could be saved in no other way. Only the Lord himself, by coming into mortality, partaking of the nature of man, living a sinless life, atoning with his blood for the sins of men, dying, and rising from the dead with his physical body could bring about redemption. (See Alma 34:8–16; Mosiah 7:27.) Eternal justice would admit no other way. Without this procedure and this Redeemer, all people, as soon as they were dead, would become “devils, angels to a devil, to be shut out from the presence of our God, and to remain with the father of lies, in misery, like unto himself. …” (2 Ne. 9:9.)
The earliest scriptural allusion to Mary is found in the writings of Moses. The Father, speaking to the serpent in the Garden of Eden after the transgression of Adam and Eve, says: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, between thy seed and her seed; and he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” (Moses 4:21; compare Gen. 3:15.)
A direct reference to the Savior’s earthly mother was made by Isaiah about 700 B.C.: “… Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” (Isa. 7:14.) The New Testament identifies this as a prophecy referring to Mary and the birth of Jesus. (See Matt. 1:22–23.)
The Nephites communicated in even plainer language. About 600 years before the birth of Jesus, Nephi said:
“… I beheld the city of Nazareth; and in the city of Nazareth I beheld a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and white.
“And it came to pass that I saw the heavens open; and an angel came down and stood before me. …
“And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.
“And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms.
“And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father!” (1 Ne. 11:13–15, 18, 20–21.)
Later, 124 years before the birth of the Savior, King Benjamin explained that an angel had visited him and explained that the Redeemer should “be called Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Father of heaven and earth, the Creator of all things from the beginning; and his mother shall be called Mary.” (Mosiah 3:8.)
Still later, about 80 years before the Lord’s birth, Alma taught the people: “And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God.” (Alma 7:10.)
Such specific details about Mary couldn’t have been known so long beforehand unless she had been appointed to that calling in the premortal life.
There is another factor inherent in the selection of the Lord’s mortal parentage. He was to be born of the family of David, and be the heir to the throne of David. Hence he would literally be the king of the Jews by their own law. Isaiah touches upon this matter:
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
“Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever.” (Isa. 9:6–7. See also Isa. 11:1; D&C 113:1–2.)
Since Jesus was not begotten by mortal man, his descent from David would, by necessity, be through his mother. Thus, when Mary came to earth, she was born into that royal lineage so she could transmit it to her son Jesus. That Mary was of Davidic descent is plainly set forth in the scriptures. Jesus was frequently addressed as “Son of David”; he did not disclaim that title.
Paul made it clear that Jesus was of royal blood in his earthly lineage. To the Roman saints he wrote: “… Jesus Christ our Lord … was made of the seed of David according to the flesh.” (Rom. 1:3.) And to Timothy he said: “Remember that Jesus Christ of the seed of David was raised from the dead.” (2 Tim. 2:8. See also Acts 13:22–23 and Acts 2:30.)
That Joseph also was descended from David is likewise set forth in the New Testament, which states that Joseph was of Bethlehem and “of the house and lineage of David.” (Luke 2:4. See also Luke 1:27; Matt. 1:16, 20; Luke 3:23–31.)
So Jesus, though not a blood descendant of Joseph, inherited legal status as a son of David through him.
At that time, the Jews were ruled by Rome, and the rights of the royal Davidic family were not recognized. Herod, king of the Jews by Roman appointment, was not even an Israelite.
“Had Judah been a free and independent nation, ruled by her rightful sovereign, Joseph the carpenter would have been her crowned king; and his lawful successor to the throne would have been Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” (Jesus the Christ, p. 87.)
Of course, Mary lost the conscious memory of her premortal existence and appointment when she was born. But when the time drew near for the advent of the Only Begotten, Mary was born at the right time, in the right place, and in the precise lineage whereby she could fulfill her mission.
In Luke we find an account of the words of the visiting angel Gabriel to Mary as follows:
“… Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women … for thou hast found favour with God.
“And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.
“And he shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:
“And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” (Luke 1:28–33.)
A few days later, when visiting her cousin Elisabeth (who was soon to become the mother of John the Baptist), Mary said:
“… My soul doth magnify the Lord,
“And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
“For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
“For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.
“He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;
“As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.” (Luke 1:46–49, 54–55.)
Mary’s words reveal her character and her knowledge of Israel’s history. Mention of “low estate” probably has reference to the humble circumstances of her life. Although she and Joseph were heirs to the throne of Israel, they were not privileged to exercise that honor, and Joseph was apparently not a man of wealth or political status.
Although Mary didn’t retain the memory of her high calling, we wonder how much the Spirit had whispered in her early years. Of great spiritual capacity and naturally inclined toward righteousness and meditation, she reflected her knowledge of the Old Testament and God’s covenant and promises made to Israel. She was no doubt serious-minded, as befitting one called of God as she was. No doubt Mary was the product of years of obedience to the laws of the Lord, her mind and character molded by the Holy Ghost working in her since early childhood.
As Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Council of the Twelve has observed: “As there is only one Christ, so there is only one Mary. And as the Father chose the most noble and righteous of all his spirit sons to come into mortality as his Only Begotten in the flesh, so we may confidently conclude that he selected the most worthy and spiritually talented of all his spirit daughters to be the mortal mother of his Eternal Son.” (Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, Bookcraft, Inc., 1965, vol. 1, p. 85.)
Apocryphal writings of the early Christian era present a significant and recurring theme about a substantial period of spiritual preparation in Mary’s life in the years before she conceived Jesus. They speak of her being tutored by angels and having other spiritual manifestations. (See Chapters 1 and 4–9, The Lost Books of the Bible, New York, The World Publishing Company, 1926. See also “The Gospel of Bartholomew,” part 2, The Apocryphal New Testament, M. R. James, translator, Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1969, pp. 170–72.) These manifestations were also said to have occurred prior to the visit of the Angel Gabriel.
Many details of these writings assuredly are not accurate; even so, the idea is probably correct that Mary received spiritual preparation and education for some time prior to the personal manifestation of the Father to her.
Though Jesus was the literal Son of God, as a young child he needed to be taught and cared for much like other children. This would be necessary because a veil was drawn over his mind at birth, temporarily obscuring memory of his premortal existence. Luke speaks of Jesus increasing in wisdom as a youth (Luke 2:52), and the Doctrine and Covenants indicates that in the flesh he received “not of the fulness at the first, but received grace for grace.” (D&C 93:12. See also Acts 8:33.) This is also the position taken by Elder James E. Talmage: “Over his mind had fallen the veil of forgetfulness common to all who are born to earth, by which the remembrance of primeval existence is shut off.” (Jesus the Christ, pp. 111–112.) President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., also dealt with this concept in his “Wist Ye Not that I Must Be about My Father’s Business?” (Deseret News Press, 1947, pp. 9–10, 12, 74, 81.) This factor could only make more intense the responsibility upon Mary and Joseph.
When we consider the strong influence that a mother has on the personality and attitude of a young child in the home, we sense the responsibility that our Heavenly Father gave Mary by entrusting her with the rearing of his chosen and Beloved Son. This would require the adequate training of Mary, both as a premortal spirit and as a young woman in mortality. Notwithstanding her preearth assignment, Mary would not have been worthy to bear the Son of God and give him a body of flesh and blood unless she was clean and pure in mortal life.
And what of Joseph? What kind of a person would the Father select as the husband of Mary and the guardian and earthly model for Jesus? The scriptures are not entirely silent, although direct references are few. Because the father is to teach correct principles by precept and example and be a counselor, we must conclude that our Heavenly Father made careful selection in his choice of Joseph. That Joseph was spiritually sensitive and of a kindly disposition is reflected in the scriptural record. He was susceptible to divine guidance through the ministrations of angels and by dreams (see Matt. 1:20; Matt. 2:13, 19, 23); he wished not to bring embarrassment upon Mary nor to “make her a publick example” (Matt. 1:19). In addition, we would expect to find in Joseph certain moral, intellectual, and social qualities befitting his important assignment.
Mary and Joseph were careful to observe all the commandments that had been given them. The law of Moses required many performances and ordinances, including the rule that male children were to be circumcised when eight days of age as a token of the covenant the Lord made with Abraham. Furthermore, 40 days after the birth of a son (80 days in the case of a daughter), the mother was to offer a special sacrifice—a lamb or two turtledoves or pigeons.
The law also stipulated that firstborn male children were sanctified to the Lord and were to be presented to him, not in sacrifice, but to his service. (See Ex. 13:1–2, 11–15.) Another stipulation was that every man was to go frequently to the place of the temple to bring sacrifices and offerings and to worship the Lord. (See Deut. 12:5–7, 11–14.)
The New Testament indicates that Joseph and Mary attended to all of these things. They circumcised Jesus at the age of eight days, “And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord.” (Luke 2:22.) That Mary offered turtledoves instead of the lamb is indicative of her meager financial status and “low estate.” And we read further:
“Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the passover.” (Luke 2:41.) Thus we gain an impression of the obedient and spiritual disposition of Jesus’ earthly parents and guardians.
It was at the Passover that the “just and devout” Simeon met Joseph and Mary in the temple. This man knew by the power of the Holy Ghost that the child Jesus was also the Christ, and he said to Mary:
“… Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;
“(Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34–35.) Mary must often have reflected upon the meaning of these words, both before and after she witnessed a fulfillment of them by seeing Jesus hang upon the cross and a spear actually pierce his side. But it was not all to be experienced in one day or by one event. Even though she was a special spirit, the Father did not shield her from the pains or natural consequences of mortality; Mary knew the hardships, disappointments, and struggles that are characteristic of mortal life.
In many ways Joseph and Mary lived in hard times. Judah was in bondage to Rome, and the Herods were harsh and cruel monarchs. The Jews were in apostasy and were burdened by rigid formalism and spiritual wickedness. Jewish religious leaders of that time are characterized as “the more wicked part of the world … because of priestcrafts and iniquities.” (2 Ne. 10:3, 5.)
It was in these circumstances that the tender, pure, and chosen Mary, protected and attended by the spiritually receptive and kindly Joseph, brought forth her firstborn son and laid him in a manger. The unpretentious circumstances of this little family blessed with the special holiness of the child Jesus were in strong contrast to the spiritually barren and parched condition of a people led by proud and insistent Pharisees, sumptuous Sadducees, exclusive rabbis, and learned scribes conquered by a pagan empire. Isaiah knew of this contrast and had predicted that the Messiah would grow up “as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground.” (Isa. 53:2.)
We know little for certain of the home life and childhood of Jesus, but there are many indications. We have already observed that Joseph was a carpenter, and we know that Jesus followed the same occupation. (See Mark 6:3.) The atmosphere of the home was one of obedience to the Lord as commanded in the divine law. It was at home that Jesus probably received his first lessons about the history of Israel and of past deliverances of his people by the hand of the Lord; here he also undoubtedly learned of the hopes and expectations for the future, as written in the scriptures. The preparations of his parents each week to observe the Sabbath, their attendance at the synagogue, their observance of feast days, and their preparations and conversations each year as they made ready to go up to Jerusalem for the Passover would be impressive object lessons to the young Jesus.
We don’t know how many other children there were in the family, but the New Testament names four boys and lists some sisters. The Greek manuscripts are helpful here. Matthew speaks of “all” (Greek: pantai) his sisters (Matt. 13:56), suggesting more than two. The Greek term hai adelphia (the sisters) is used in the manuscripts, signifying a plurality—that is, three or more sisters. If the record had intended to convey that there were only two sisters, it is probable that the word pantai would not have been employed, but, instead, the word amphoterai, meaning “both,” would have been used.
Thus the household of Joseph and Mary apparently numbered at least five boys (including Jesus) and at least three girls—eight children—in addition to the parents.
There are two lines of thought as to the identity of these other children. Some hold that they were children of Joseph by a former marriage and not the children of Mary at all. In this case, Jesus would be younger than they, and of no close blood relation. This is a popular concept in the Christian world today, and illustrations of the “holy family” therefore generally picture Joseph as much older than Mary.
Another view is that these were actually the children of Joseph and Mary, and were half-brothers and sisters to Jesus, he being the eldest. Both of these views have their advocates and there are hints in the scriptures that can be interpreted to favor either point of view. However, Jesus is termed Mary’s “firstborn” son, which is indicative that she later gave birth to other children. (See Luke 2:7.) A more compelling reason for believing that these are Mary’s children is that Joseph’s firstborn son from his first wife would have been the heir to the Davidic throne instead of Jesus.
Mary may have lived a number of years as a widow. The last mention of Joseph is at the Passover in Jerusalem when Jesus was 12 years of age. At the wedding feast at Cana, when Jesus was about 30, specific mention is made that Mary and Jesus were present, but no mention is made of Joseph. (See John 2:1–10.) Finally, at the time of the crucifixion, Mary is said to have stood at the cross with other women, but again no mention is made of Joseph. At this time Jesus gave his mother to the care of his beloved disciple, John. (See John 19:25–27.) The record of these events suggests that Mary was widowed sometime after Jesus was 12 years old and before he began his ministry. (See also Matt. 12:46.)
An apocryphal source tells, overdramatically, of Joseph’s death and of Mary and Jesus discussing the matter.
There is a poignancy in the prospect of Mary’s widowhood with a family of children, all younger than Jesus. If this assumption is correct, it may be that Jesus was confronted with the responsibility in early life of providing for a widowed mother and several younger brothers and sisters. This makes most meaningful the scriptural statements that say the Lord is especially mindful of the widow and is a father to the fatherless. (See Ps. 68:5; Ps. 146:9; compare James 1:27.)
We do not worship Mary, but we do regard her very highly. She is among the most worthy and noble of women—the most privileged of all mothers. And while Mary is not typical, she is an example to all mothers.
If we listen we can still hear the echo of the angel’s words: “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, … blessed art thou among women.” (Luke 1:28.) And likewise we hear Mary’s own exclamation: “… My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
“For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. … from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” (Luke 1:46–48.)