History of Joseph the Carpenter

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The History of Joseph the Carpenter (Historia Josephi Fabri Lignari) is a compilation of traditions concerning Mary (mother of Jesus), Joseph, and the Holy Family, probably composed in Byzantine Egypt in Greek in the late sixth or early seventh centuries, but surviving only in Coptic and Arabic language translation[1] (apart several Greek papyrus fragments[2]). The text bears witness to the belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary.

It is one of the texts within the New Testament apocrypha concerned with the period of Jesus' life before he was 12.


The text is framed as an explanation by Jesus on the Mount of Olives concerning the life of Joseph, his stepfather. Agreeing with Mary's continued virginity, the text proclaims that Joseph had four sons (Judas, Justus, James, and Simon) and two daughters (Assia and Lydia) by a previous marriage.

Death of Saint Joseph, Pedro Alexandrino de Carvalho

After this basic background, the text proceeds to paraphrase the Gospel of James, stopping at the point of Jesus' birth. The text states that Joseph was miraculously blessed with mental and physical youth, dying at the age of 111. His oldest sons (Justus and Simon) get married and have children, and likewise his two daughters get married and live in their own houses.

Joseph's death takes up a substantial portion of the text. He first lets out a significant prayer, including in his last words a series of lamentations about his carnal sins. About 50% of the work is an extension of the death scene, in which the angel of death, as well as the archangels Michael and Gabriel, appear to him. At the conclusion of the text, Jesus affirms that Mary remained a virgin throughout her days by addressing her as "my mother, virgin undefiled."

The text says "And the holy apostles have preserved this conversation, and have left it written down in the library at Jerusalem."

Age and surviving versions[edit]

Some information indicates the text was written in Egypt in the fifth century. Two versions survive, one in Coptic, the other in Arabic, with the Coptic version likely being the original. Much of the text is based on material in the Gospel of James.

There exists also Ethiopic, Greek and Syriac manuscripts.[3] The first English translation of the Ethiopic manuscript was published by E. A. W. Budge in 1896 (The Life and Exploits of Alexander the Great, vol. 2, pp. 555-584), while the first English translation of the Greek manuscript was published by W. A. Craigie (The Narrative of Zosimus Concerning the Life of the Blessed, ANF 10, pp. 220-224).[3] A translation of the Syriac manuscript into French was edited by François Nau in 1899 (Légende inédite des fils de Jonadab, fils de Réchab, et les Îles fortunées, Revue sémitique, pp, 136-146).[3] The first translation of the Syriac manuscript into English has been published by James H. Charlesworth in 1985.[3]

Correlation with third-century apocryphon[edit]

The early third-century apocryphal "First Apocalypse of James" from the Nag Hammadi library states: Jesus speaking to James, "For not without reason have I called you my brother, although you are not my brother materially."[4] This adds an additional record of Mary's relationship to Jesus' brothers, allowing the explanation of her perpetual virginity.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bart D. Ehrman, Zlatko Pleše The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations Oxford University Press, US 2011 p 158, quote "In its present form, the History of Joseph the Carpenter is thus a compilation of various traditions concerning Mary and the "holy family," most likely composed in Byzantine Egypt in the late sixth or early seventh century."
  2. ^ G. T. Zervos, History of Joseph (prior to the Fourth Century A.D.). A New Translation and Introduction, in James H. Charlesworth (1985), The Old Testament Pseudoepigrapha, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company Inc., Volume 2, ISBN 0-385-09630-5 (Vol. 1), ISBN 0-385-18813-7 (Vol. 2), pp. 467-468. Quote: "The History of Joseph is partially extent on several Greek papyrus fragments which are preserved in the British Museum; the Bodleian Library, at Oxford; and the Louvre. Descriptions and complete transcriptions of the two fragments belonging to the British Museum have been published in Milne's Catalogue of the Literary Papyri in the British Museum (pp. 187-190) under numbers 226 and 227 (hereafter referred as A and B, respectively). Milne's transcription has been reproduced in A.-M. Deni's Fragmenta Psuedoepigrapharum Quae Sunt Graeca(PVTG 3; Leiden, 1970; pp. 235f.). Facsimiles of A verso and B recto may be found in F. G. Kenyon's Greek Papyri in the British Museum (London, 1893; vo0l. 1, pp. 225, 227, under numbers 113 [13a] and 113 [12b]. [...] Transcriptions of three more papyrus fragments belonging to the History of Joseph and, in all probability, to the same manuscript of this document as A and B have been published by W. M. Lindsay The Athenaeum (Number 3019; Sept 5, 1885; p. 304). [...] The fact that they are written in the same scripts and have a common place of origin (Fayum of Egypt) support the possibility that fragments A, B, C, D, and E originally belonged to the same manuscript. A single unpublished papyrus fragment, which represents a different copy of our document, is preserved in the Louvre under catalogue number E. 7738a (hereafter F). [...] F, for the most part, does not preserve enough writing to add significantly to the text of our document. However, the recto of this fragment contains some lines which occur also in B recto and can therefore be used to correct and supplement the text of that document.
  3. ^ a b c d James H. Charlesworth (1985), The Old Testament Pseudoepigrapha, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company Inc., Volume 2, ISBN 0-385-09630-5 (Vol. 1), ISBN 0-385-18813-7 (Vol. 2), pp. 443-444. Quote: "Significant variants [are] in B (Syr. 235 [olim Ancien fonds 144] of the Bibliothéque Nationale, of the 13th cent., and of paper), in C (Syr. 234 [olim Ancien fonds 143, Colbert 5137.], also of the Bibliothéque Nationale, of the 13th cent., and of paper), and in D (BM Add. 12174 of the British Museum, of the 12th cent., and of vellum)
  4. ^ (First) Apocalypse of James[permanent dead link]