Was Mary a young girl, barely a teenager, when she had Jesus? That is what many people believe. But that tradition is the result of a thousand years of medieval myths and mixture with pagan Greek ideas about how a god or demi-god should be born. For the Greeks and Romans, demi-gods were born of the intercourse of Zeus/ Jupiter who disguised himself and seduced some young girl. For the truth of the birth of Jesus we must stick to the Bible and understand what Hebrew and Jewish customs were.
Firstly there is a misunderstanding about the the term 'betrothed' in the gospels.
Is it equivalent to modern 'engagement'? Or does it mean marriage?
Jews in the first century usually had arranged marriages that were decided between the parents of the young couple when they were still children. The children were often quite young infants when these discussions began to take place. Sometimes the families were helped by an experienced wise person who knew how to make the backgrounds and personalities match for a long term marriage. Personality shows in young infants. Agreement on religious matters is important for family harmony. The children might therefore come from geographically separated communities who held the same beliefs.
However this was not the primary consideration. That was the longevity of the family line and its adherence to the laws of God. So religious belief and solid character were seen as contributing to this major duty.
This choice was even more pronounced when it came to two sorts of families: those belonging to the priestly line and those of the royal line. The first had to show real understanding of the instructions that had to be fulfilled in the worship in the Temple. The royal family had to have sound judgement to rule a nation.
When it comes to Joseph and his wife it was especially delicate because both aspects, the priestly and the royal, were involved. Joseph was of the royal line of David, as Matthew chapter one shows. His wife was of the priestly line of Aaron as Luke chapter 1 verse 36 and verse 5 show. She was a cousin of Elizabeth who was defined as a daughter of Aaron.
So how old were they when the parents decided they were a fitting couple for the future? That could be any age before adolescence. Their ages may have been similar but usually the male is older. According
to Hebrew custom and law, parents would then make a formal agreement that a young girl was promised to a young boy. They were then excluded from making any further arrangement for their children.
grown up the children have the right to decide whether to go through with this arrangement. The age of manhood for a boy, that the the age he was able to make this decision, was a minimum of thirteen years old. That does not mean they married immediately but that the deal had been set. The girl, still usually premenstrual, had also to give her consent.
The ceremony is called betrothal in many Bibles. In Hebrew custom it is called sanctification, kiddushin. The boy and girl are sanctified, set apart, for marriage. This betrothal was solemnised by a gift like a ring signifying the ‘purchase’ of the bride.
She agrees by accepting and the young man becomes her husband at that moment. This ceremony celebrated between the families is called erushin.
This is equivalent to marriage in the modern, western world. Both the couple and the families have given their solemn agreement. It is a public ceremony and the communities are there to witness.
But this is not all. The bridegroom is still young, as is the bride. They do not have independent means. So the bride can stay with her parents while the bridegroom prepares a home for his wife. They have started on a life of total commitment to each other.
So now we come to the Home-coming. When the husband feels that all his ready for his wife, he sends a party out to the parents' house to say they may all come and he is ready to receive them. That is described in the NT.
Once he brings the wife over the threshold of his new home they have arrived at another stage in life. That is the nisu'in. This is a celebration and should not be considered a legal requirement or condition. The bridegroom welcomes the bride to the new home and usually the whole community is in festive mood. The parable of the ten virgins, Mt 25, who wait for the bridegroom shows that the nisu'in was still part of first century custom. And it is important in the whole theology of the Bible, about God's relationship to his people as a wedding and marriage.
What if the building of a house by the husband is not necessary? Then the couple are still considered married. They are free to have children but the bride must leave the shelter of her parents. To show that this erushin or 'betrothal' of the KJV is fully marriage, Jews in the first century and Jews today need a divorce, called a get, if they break up. Betrothal is not the equivalent of modern engagement.
Let us return to the original question: how old were Joseph and his wife when they had Jesus?
birth of Jesus to Mary or Mariam (her name in Greek NT) was miraculous. Not
because she was young. But because she was old! The NT scriptures say the couple were betrothed. That is they were fully married. If she were young and she became pregnant it would hardly be a miracle.
So what was behind the miracle? The first thing to notice is that the NT does not say that they were young. It says the opposite. They were very old!
Luke starts by describing the miraculous birth of John the Baptist to his aged parents, Zacharias and Elizabeth. He also describes Anna the prophetess in her old age and her marriage.
Luke 1:38 says that both Mariam and her cousin Elizabeth (Elisheva in Hebrew), mother of John the Baptist,
became pregnant when in ‘old age’ (Greek 'in their gera' — the term used in
geriatrics). Both had been married for many decades — they were old and the ‘betrothed’ of the KJV
means ‘married’ in Jewish/ Hebrew law and custom. Cousins are usually around the same age.
Miracles of conception to women in their advanced years show God’s power and
the direction of his plan for mankind: Sarah, Abraham’s wife, Rebecca Isaac’s,
Rachel mother of Joseph, Hannah, mother of Samuel the Prophet, who anointed
David. Mariam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, also had children in her old age.
Sarah was in her menopause and convinced she could not have children and said
so to God’s messenger!
Given that Mariam, Joseph’s wife was advanced in years, Joseph too would be old, or most probably older, at the time of the birth. Then they not only had Jesus but probably 7 children as
well, many named in the NT and secular sources, like Josephus and Eusebius,
That is the miracle. It was one everyone could see.
If this contradicts with modern beliefs that Mary (BVM) was 14 years old or so, and that she was impregnated by a person called the Holy Ghost, that is because in many pagan traditions had gods descending and impregnating
young virgin girls. But that is not what the Bible and secular sources of the
first centuries say. Becoming pregnant at such an early age was not part of Hebrew
tradition. It is part of pagan Greek and Roman culture.
In Hebrew custom, the couple may have become betrothed at that age but they did not live together immediately. The Bible, Jewish tradition and secular sources such as Josephus say that another process had to take place.
Rule out Hollywood
In Hebrew culture, marriage is not like some Hollywood concept of romantic love of incompatible persons. Young children were promised to each other and got to know each other for years before they were married. The purpose of marriage was quite different from the self-centered Hollywood idea.
It was a covenant-based custom based on centuries-old relationship between God and Israel.
It is a means to have children and show the fulfilment of God's promises to Israel. So a bride had to show she was healthy and fit to have children before copulation took place.
This involved showing that she had regular periods. This was recorded because after each period she had to wash ceremonially in a bath called a mikvah. These periods had to be regular. The Esseans (or Essenes) of the first century said that the wife had to have at least three regular periods before she was considered fit for even joining her husband in his home.
In practice that meant that the wife had to show she was mature and healthy. Thus it was likely that childbirth did not take place before the wife was around 17 or in her late teens.
It is speculative to say that because Joseph was not mentioned later he died.
His life was also threatened by the high priestly and Roman authorities. He was
not only the son of David and the heir to the throne of Israel but also had
priestly (Aaronic) blood and could serve in the Temple.
Early sources like Eusebius record that some of his family were long-lived.
For example Jesus’s cousin Simon who followed James the brother of Jesus, as
Bishop or Superintendent of the ekklesia or Legislative Assembly in Jerusalem,
lived more than 100 years old and was then martyred for his firm, unbending
belief in Christ. Essenes were also known for their longevity.
Simon was martyred at 120 years old. He was just one of a long series of leaders of the ekklesia so it was probable he died early in the 70s. His birth would have been around 50 BCE. But remember he was the nephew of Joseph. Joseph was the elder son. Simon was the cousin of Jesus, but Simon was much older because Joseph was very late having Jesus as a child. Joseph, Simon's uncle would have been born a generation earlier.
So both Joseph and Mariam might have been 70 years or older when Jesus was born.
The family of Joseph and Mariam
For Simon to be the Sagan or Superintendent would mean that he had been trained for that highly complex post. At the time the Sagan was in charge of the Temple and had to be familiar with all the rites and know all the duties of all the thousands of priests there. But Joseph was first in line and after him his son. But apparently as we have discovered, Joseph did not have a son until his old age.
Simon was not the youngest son of his father, Alpheus or Cleopas. Joseph would have been born several years before Cleopas. Simon would have been born some years after the marriage of Cleopas to his wife Mary.
So Joseph might have been born around 70 BCE. That would make sense. His wife Mariam would also be about the same age. They would both be around 70 years, maybe older. Abraham was approaching 100 when he and Sarah had Isaac. Both Mariam and Sarah would be considered to be in her 'old age' that is completely unable to have children because she had passed her menopause.
Meaning of 'Virgin'
The other significant factor would be that in Jewish custom an old woman would also be considered to be a virgin! In Hebrew the main significance of the term 'virgin' is either pre-menstrual or post-menstrual. It does not signify, as the Greek term in the NT, intactness.
The term 'virgin' revolves around the laws of the Torah which specifies what happens when a woman has a period. That way of thinking is far from the Greek one. It is also far from the modern ideas that some commentators wrongly apply when expounding on the Gospels. First rule is to put the text in its historical and traditional context.
The laws of Niddah are set out in Lev 19:15 and throughout the Bible.
So when a woman is described as a 'virgin' it can mean one of three things.
- She is young and has not had a period.
- She is old and no longer has periods.
- She has a physical deficiency and has never had a period.
So both Joseph and Mariam would have been in their seventies at the time of the birth of Jesus.
How long would it have been after the marriage of Joseph and Mariam that it was obvious they were not going to have children right away? Five years? Ten years? Twenty years?
If Joseph had married at just before or around 20 years of age, it would not have been obvious that Mariam was not able to have children for some time. Then it became many decades. That infertility and miraculous birth parallels the births of Isaac, of Jacob, of Samuel and others whose fervent prayers were not only fruitful but a sign to all the world.
issues are dealt with in detail in the book, “Jesus, James, Joseph and the past
and future Temple” (available also as a free eBook zt academia.edu/43233588).