Things took a turn for the religious in the bizarrely still-ongoing scandal that is the Roy Moore political campaign for U. S. Senate last week. In a defense of Moore’s alleged sexual contact with minors, Alabama state auditor Jim Zeigler compared Moore’s predatory exploits to the relationship between the Virgin Mary and her husband Joseph. In what would amount to a major plot twist in the current format of the nativity story, Zeigler told the Washington Examiner, “Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.”
To be sure this is a pretty atrocious reading of a biblical story that is entirely predicated upon the fact that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus, but for Protestants who do not subscribe to the Roman Catholic belief that Mary and Joseph never had sex there’s still the question of the nature of their relationship after the birth Jesus. There are a number of passages in the Gospels that refer to Jesus’ siblings and a man known as “James the brother of Jesus” plays a key figure in leading the church in Jerusalem. Roman Catholics argue that these were either older step-siblings or cousins (who were often raised together in the ancient world) but Protestants are happy to read these passages literally, as evidence that Joseph and Mary had children after the birth of Jesus.
It’s in this context that the ages of Joseph and Mary come to be relevant to the Moore debacle. Zeigler is not alone in thinking of Joseph as an adult or even geriatric carpenter, everyone from Zeferelli to Christmas card artists does the same, but how much do we actually know about the ages of Mary and Joseph? Neither the Gospel of Luke nor the Gospel of Matthew, the only canonical Gospels to include infancy stories, tell us how old they were.