Question: St. Joseph could not be that old when Christ was crucified. He was 20-25 when he married Mary. Where was St. Joseph when Christ was crucified? How old was St. Joseph when he died?
— Joseph Ricciardi, via email
Answer: It is not certain that Joseph married the Blessed Mother as a young man. While most men wed in those days at about age 16, there is a tradition that Joseph was older and a widower when he took Mary for his wife. An ancient document of the second century called the Protoevangelium of James, while not Scripture, does give us some of the back story of Mary’s early life that circulated in the early Church, either as legends or stories. It records that she served the Temple from age 3 until she was 12. According to the text, certain chosen young girls did this, caring for the sacred linens and other needs of the Temple. When she was 12, the high priest had a vision from God that Mary should be wed and placed in the care of an older widower whom God would indicate. The high priest gathered a number of widowers from that region and from the staff of one of them, Joseph, came forth a dove. Joseph is described as being an “old man” with children. If this story is accurate, though not all scholars accept it as so, then it helps explain Joseph’s early death and the mention of Jesus’ brothers and sisters. They are either Jesus’ cousins or stepchildren of Mary from Joseph.
While the death of Joseph is not recorded in the Scriptures, it seems certain he had died prior to Jesus’ public ministry and probably after Jesus was old enough to care for his mother. Mary followed Jesus about during those three years and does not appear to have other duties back at home in Nazareth. Historically this is about the best we can do, and it is not certain that the Protoevangelium of James is authentic or accurate. Nevertheless, it likely reflects the stories that circulated among early believers.