“The Virgin Mary,” Ephrem the Syrian said, “is the figure of the Church.” This expresses a nearly universal view among the Church fathers, one rooted deeply in Scripture.

Peter J. Leithart Mary is the last of the barren women whose miracle sons save Israel. Mary is another Rebekah and Rachel and Hannah, all of them figures of “barren Israel” waiting for the Lord’s rescue. Gabriel’s greeting to Mary, “Rejoice” (Luke 1), echoes prophetic exhortations to “daughter Zion” (Zephaniah 3:14; Zechariah 9:9). She’s a tabernacle, a dwelling place for God, over which the Spirit broods (Luke 1:35), as the Lord’s cloud hovered over the tabernacle (Exodus 40; cf. Genesis 1:2). Still in the womb, John dances before her and her unborn son like David before the ark.

“Blessed among women,” Mary is another Jael, who is also “most blessed of women” (Judges 5:24). Jael was the woman who pounded a tent peg through the skull of Sisera, a Canaanite general, in one of the many head-crushing episodes in the Bible. Mary is a greater Jael because she is the new Eve, whose seed will crush the serpent’s head with his heel (Genesis 3:15). In this too Mary is a type of the Church, the people who “trample Satan underfoot” (Romans 16:20).

Joseph hasn’t received nearly as much attention as Mary over the centuries. There are no lengthy debates about whether Joseph is a co-redeemer, and no one to my knowledge has entertained the possibility that Joseph was perpetually celibate. Yet Joseph is as critical to the Christmas story as Mary. Consider the counterfactuals: What if Joseph had not intended to put Mary away quietly but instead pressed for the full weight of the law? What if Joseph had not obeyed the angels? Mary said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me even as you will.” Joseph made the same confession by his actions: “Behold the servant of the Lord; I am ready to suffer any inconvenience, any scandal, any danger or threat, to see the Lord’s promises fulfilled.”

Joseph’s story is as rich in typology as Mary’s. The whole family is typical. Like his namesake from Genesis, Joseph receives direction through dreams (Matthew 1:20; 2:13, 19, 22). By biblical standards, this is a mark of royalty: Priests consult oracles and prophets see visions, while kings dream dreams. It’s no accident that Matthew’s Davidic genealogy ends with “Joseph the husband of Mary, by whom was born Jesus.” Bloodthirsty Herod is another Saul and Joseph another David, slipping through the king’s nets.

Joseph’s story covers both ends of the exodus. Like the Old Testament Joseph, he is a son of Jacob who takes his family to Egypt (Matthew 2:13), but Joseph’s flight from Israel is also an exodus. By the time of Jesus’ birth, the world has gone topsy-turvy. Israel has become Egypt, ruled by a Pharaoh-like baby-killer, and Egypt has become a promised land. Other hints of exodus come up in Matthew. Midwives deceive Pharaoh to preserve the male infants of Israel, and the magi deceive Herod to protect Jesus. When the Israelites leave Egypt, they plunder treasures, and Joseph flees from Israel-Egypt with the gold, frankincense, and myrrh brought by the wise men. On Sinai, Moses pleads with Yahweh to go “with us” to the land; Joseph is assured of the Lord’s presence because the baby Mary carries is “Immanuel.”

So Joseph is both another Joseph and a Moses figure, rushing his family out of “Egypt” by night, and he is like Moses again when he brings his family back to the land where infants are slaughtered (Matthew 2:19–23; Exodus 4:20). (Painters have often pointed to the parallel by importing the donkey from Exodus 4 into depictions of the flight to Egypt.) Guided by angels, Joseph takes the role of the Lord’s angel, who leads God’s son Israel from the house of bondage (Exodus 4:23; cf. Matthew 2:15). All this dense typology is a set-up for Jesus, whose life story recapitulates Israel’s history. In Matthew, the narrative trajectory of Jesus’ life is set not by Mary but by Joseph.

Joseph is a “righteous man” (Matthew 1:19) who doesn’t neglect what Jesus later calls “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23). Before Jesus preaches from the mountain, Joseph already displays a righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees (cf. Matthew 5:20). Jesus does what he sees his heavenly Father doing, but he has another paternal model closer to hand.

A Joseph and two Marys return at the end of Matthew, when Jesus dies (Matthew 27). Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for Jesus’ body, and Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” watch at his tomb. The original holy family has become typical of a new holy family, the family of disciples: For “whoever does the will of my Father, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:48, 50). With another Joseph taking center stage, the burial of Jesus is Christmas all over again, because this tomb—a “new tomb,” a virgin tomb—is ready to become a womb that gives birth to the “firstborn of the dead.”

Peter J. Leithart is president of Trinity House . He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History , forthcoming from Baylor University Press. His previous articles can be found here .

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Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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