An often-repeated mischaracterization about St. Joseph, especially in films depicting the Holy Family, is that he initially thought that the Virgin Mary had committed adultery before their betrothal. According to St. Matthew: “When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child, of the Holy Ghost.” The confusion begins when St. Matthew writes that Joseph “was minded to put her away privately.” Why? Recently, a popular erroneous belief maintains that Joseph wanted to put Mary away privately because he thought she had had sex with another man and thus became pregnant. But Joseph was described as a “just man.” Therefore, how could such a man even suspect that a woman immaculately conceived in her mother’s womb was capable of such a transgression? Joseph did not have these doubts. In the fourth-century homily from St. Basil:

“Joseph discovered both Mary’s pregnancy and its cause, namely, that it was of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, he feared to be called the husband of such a wife, and wished to put her away privately since he did not dare to reveal what had taken place in her. Yet because he was just, he desired a revelation of the mystery.”

The humility of St. Joseph is confirmed in the “apocrypha” which describes the selection of Joseph as the future husband of Mary – when the high-priest of the Temple ordered all the men of the house of David to bring forth their staffs to the altar; the staff of Joseph miraculously flowered. This also seemed to fulfill a prophecy from Isiah: “And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root.” (Is. 11:1)

Since there is a very limited amount of information relating to St. Joseph in Scripture, the story of Joseph from the Book of Genesis can serve as a model in terms of St. Joseph’s commitment to humility and chastity; particularly when Joseph fled the attentions of Potiphar’s wife. In the Litany of St. Joseph, he described as: “Guardian of virgins…Solace of the wretched…Terror of demons.” Hence, among those who have a devotion to St. Joseph, this phrase from the Old Testament – “Go to Joseph” (Gen. 41:55) or “Ite ad Joseph” has a significant meaning. According to St. Thomas Aquinas: “Some saints are privileged to extend to us their patronage with particular efficacy in certain needs, but not in others; but our holy patron St. Joseph has the power to assist us in all cases, in every necessity, in every undertaking.”

“It was needful that Mary be affianced to Joseph, since the vigilance of her betrothed would thus safeguard both her chastity and her public repute. What could more befit the wisdom and dignity of God’s providence? By this providential arrangement there was someone to be entrusted with Heaven’s secrets, the Enemy was kept at bay, and the good name of the Virgin Mother was protected from slander. It is written, ‘Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wishing to expose her to reproach, was minded to put her away privately.’ Being a just man he was rightly unwilling to expose her to reproach; he would not have been a just man had he connived to known guilt, much less had condemned proven innocence…But why did he want to put her away? Here again I ask you to listen, not to opinion, but to the voice of the Fathers. Joseph wanted to put Mary away for the same reason that made Peter seek to put away the Lord, when he said: ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’ (Luke 5:8); so, too, the centurion: ‘Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof’ (Matt. 8:8). In like manner Joseph, feeling himself to be sinful and unworthy, thought to himself that he could no longer live in familiar companionship with one whose holiness and marvelous destiny filled him with awe.” (pages 58-9; “St. Joseph” By Henri Rondet, S.J., 1956)

“It was the opinion of Origen, St. Remigius, St. Bernard, and many of the Fathers, that St. Joseph never entertained any unhappy suspicion concerning Mary. They were of the opinion that he was enlightened as to what had taken place in her and the dignity to which she had been elevated, but he deemed it presumptuous for him to remain at her side as her husband and act as if he had been the father of Him who was to be born to her.” (page 73; “Discourses on St. Joseph” By Fr. Nicholas O’Rafferty, 1951)

It was the vocation of Joseph to protect the honor of Mary and of her child, and to support them during the years which preceded the public life of Our Lord.”
“To summarize, Francis de Sales pictures our Lord as the fruit of the virginal marriage. The marriage protects the honor of our Lord and our Lady, and by reason of it Joseph can be called an intimate co-operator in the circumstances of the Incarnation. In God’s plan he was necessary in order that Jesus might be born of the Virgin Mary within the bonds of the true marriage.”
“…Jesus was to be born of a virgin who was married. It has been relatively easy to discern in this providence the means of protecting the honor of Mother and of her Son; the fact has been strongly emphasized in Church tradition.”
(pages 5; 101; 137; “Joseph and Jesus: A Theological Study of Their Relationship” By Francis L. Filas, S.J., 1952)

“O just man, who knows how to temper justice with mercy! How worthy thou art to become the husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary! ‘Mercy and truth have met each other: justice and peace have kissed’ (Ps. 84:11). Joseph seems to have no doubt of Mary’s innocence. ‘Let it not be imagined that this is merely a pious explanation which owes its origin to an increasing veneration of the Mother of Jesus. It is St. Jerome’s own explanation, and none of the Fathers were so versed in the Scripture as he. ‘How could Joseph be called just,’ he asks, ‘if he concealed his wife’s crime? The truth is that his silence is a witness of Mary’s innocence: for Joseph, knowing her chastity and at the same time astonished at what had taken place, conceals by his silence the mystery which had not been made known to him’ Those critics who are so fond of looking everywhere for stories of virgin birth (parthenogenesis, as it is called) ought to be first to admit that the thought of such a thing would come to the mind of Joseph.’” (page 360; “Mary and Joseph” By Fr. Denis O’Shea, 1949)

“The Evangelist says that she ‘abode with her about three months, and then returned to her own house.’”
“Others would never have supposed that she had conceived by Divine Power, but would have recognized in her condition nothing but the natural fruit of a lawful marriage. Not so her spouse Joseph. He was well acquainted with the inviolable virginity of Mary. He also knew well her unapproachable sanctity. He knew that she lived and angel’s life on earth. What wonder, then, if what he beheld should have suggested to him the thought that possibly she was the destined mother of the Messias, the Virgin foretold by the prophet Isaias, who was to bring forth the Emmanuel! Joseph, we must remember, was deeply versed in the Divine Scriptures, and, according to St. Francis de Sales, was wiser than Solomon. Not he alone, but others far less enlightened than he was were anxiously looking out at that period for the coming of the Redeemer. All knew that he was to be of the tribe of Juda and of the house of David, and all who were familiar with the prophecy of the Isaias must have known that He would be born of a virgin. Moreover, Joseph must have recalled all that had proceeded and accompanied his espousals with Mary; and that which had taken place in the house of Zachary, whom he had heard declaring by the movement of the Holy Ghost that the child miraculously given to him was to go before the face of the Highest, must have been fresh in his memory. Does it not, then, seem most highly probable that all these signs and tokens combined must have brought wonderful evidence to the mind of Joseph concerning the mystery attaching to Mary’s state” And not only must we feel this to be highly probable, but it is even difficult to imagine that it could have been otherwise. A thought which in other men might have awakened feelings of self-complacency, pride, and exultation, in the most humble Joseph caused such confusion, and what we may call dismay, that we may imagine him repeating to himself words such as these: ‘The mother of God my spouse! The Son of the Most High born in my house!’ No, such an honor was not for him.” (pages 187; 194-95; “The Life and Glories of St. Joseph” By Edward Healy Thompson, 1891)

“The first writer to offer an explanation why Christ was born of an espoused virgin was Origin, the third-century pioneer of Scripture study. This was his belief: ‘Lest the external semblance of virginity would reveal sin if the pregnancy of the virgin were noticed, Christ had to be born of a virgin who not only was espoused, but, as Matthew writes, was already entrusted to a husband even though that husband did not know her.”
“Several fathers discerned in the espousal God’s care to safeguard Mary’s honor both as a virgin and as a mother. In the words of St. Ambrose, ‘The Lord preferred that some people should doubt His own origin rather than His mother’s honor. He knew the delicate modesty of the Virgin as well as the insecure reputation of virginal honor.’ That St. Joseph was to be more than the protector of the Blessed Virgin’s honor. He served preeminently as an impeachable witness to certify her virgin birth.” (pages 62-3; “The Man Nearest to Christ” By F.L. Filas, S.J., 1944)

“We state the reasons as given by St. Thomas, and add some explanations as far as they are deemed necessary or helpful.
‘It was fitting that Christ should be born of an espoused virgin; first, for His own sake, secondly, for His mother’s sake; thirdly, for our sake.
‘I. For the sake of Christ Himself. We can adduce four reasons: the first is that He should not be rejected by unbelievers as an illegitimate child. Wherefore Ambrose says: ‘What blame could be put on the Jews and Herod if they seemed to persecute one born of adultery? To understand the full import of this first reason given by St. Thomas it is sufficient to call to mind how little prepared the Jewish and pagan contemporaries of Christ were to accept with a sincere and humble faith a mystery so singular and wonderful as the virgin birth of the savior. They would certainly have considered Him illegitimate and would have heaped ignominy and obloquy on Him. The wisdom of divine Providence, therefore, chose to cover up the mystery by this marriage as by a veil until the time when, through the miracles of Jesus and especially His resurrection and ascension, Jews and pagans were prepared to open their minds also to the message of the Savior’s mysterious and wonderful entrance into this visible world.”
“With the shining immaculate purity and holiness of the divine Child, that of His mother is necessarily connected. Therefore to keep her holiness above all suspicion, the marriage with Joseph was provided for. Any taint attaching to the conception and birth of Christ would be utterly irreconcilable with the holiness or providence of God. It would have rendered the hearts of men loath to go along with God’s plan of redemption, might have frustrated it. Moreover the singular love of God for the immaculate Virgin could not permit that her absolute freedom from every sin, that of unchastity above all, could be questioned in any manner whatsoever. This is what St. Ambrose means when he says: ‘The Lord would rather have some people entertain doubts about His origin than about the purity of His mother. For he knew how sensitive was the modesty of the Virgin and how delicate a thing the reputation of a pure woman, and He did not think that the belief in His own origin should be built up at the cost of disgrace to His mother.’”
(pages 72; 76; “The Fatherhood of St. Joseph” By Fr. Joseph Mueller, S.J., 1952)

“…we are certain that no public shame was attached to Mary or later to Jesus. In all the pages of the gospel, the hatred of Christ’s enemies manifests itself in all sorts of insults, among them being the charge that Jesus was of lowly origin. They never so much as hint that Jesus might have been conceived in adultery.”
“A very small minority interpreted the doubt in an unfavorable light and attributed to Joseph sentiments of rage, jealousy, incredulity, and revenge. The majority of the commentators discerned exalted nobility of character, deep prudence, and unswerving zeal for justice in Joseph’s conduct.”
“…it was hardly consonant with Mary’s purity that the guardian and the very witness of her chastity would have ever harbored a definite evil suspicion of her…Therefore, Joseph could not have been convinced that Mary had been unfaithful to him and to God. His perplexity indicates the force of his conviction that our Lady was immaculate.”
“…Jesus was to be born of a virgin who was married. It has been relatively easy to discern in this providence the means of protecting the honor of Mother and her Son; the fact has been strongly emphasized in Church tradition.”
(pages 136; 138; 143-44; 295; “Joseph: The Man Closest to Jesus” By Francis L. Filas, S.J., 1962)

“If God willed that the Incarnate Word should be born of a Virgin, who should be espoused to Joseph, in order that thus both she and her Son should be sheltered from all semblance of scandal, how can we at the very beginning assert that both she and He were subjected to the false suspicions of Joseph? It is a veritable contradiction to fancy that the great Mother of God should have been the object of open distrust when to protect her from this very evil, God directed that she should be united in true matrimony to Joseph!” (pages 68-9; “The Carpenter” By David P. McAstocker, S.J., 1934; 2001 Edition)