The Scriptures are often sparse in the details they give. We receive just enough of the story to wonder, “What else happened?” The timing of St. Joseph’s death is one such event that God chose not to reveal directly. But He did leave us certain clues in the Scripture and tradition for us to make an educated guess.
Let’s begin with what we do know with certainty. St. Joseph is last mentioned in Luke 3:41-52, which describes Mary and Joseph losing Jesus for three days before finding Him in the Temple. The passage concludes, “And He went down with them (to Nazareth) and was obedient to them,” which indicates that Joseph certainly did not die immediately upon their return to Nazareth. After that point, we do not encounter Joseph again, although he is referenced in John 6:42 as a way of identifying Jesus by his family relations.
A number of Church Fathers infer that Joseph died before Jesus’ public ministry began. This seems to be the most reasonable inference for three reasons. First, during the significant events in Jesus’ infancy, Joseph and Mary are always mentioned together in their journeys (Luke 1-2). Yet later in the Gospels, Mary alone is mentioned at significant events in Jesus’ public ministry — namely the wedding feast at Cana, the crucifixion and Pentecost — while Joseph is not mentioned.
Second, during Jesus’ public ministry we hear of Mary and “Jesus’ brothers” (likely cousins) coming to Him while He is teaching, without a mention of Joseph. It would be remarkably strange in Jewish culture for a woman to travel without her husband, especially the man who had been commissioned by an angel to protect her! Finally, in the passage you mention, it speaks of Joseph in the present tense, “whose father and mother we know.” This statement was likely first made in Aramaic, which does not have the same nuances in verb tenses that we enjoy in English. The presence of the present tense could also be due to the fact that Mary was still living and “we know” refers to both her and Joseph.
My best inference is that the tradition from the Church Fathers is true — that St. Joseph died peacefully sometime during those 18 years between the finding in the Temple and Jesus’ public ministry. Yet this is one of those questions about which the Church has not spoken authoritatively, so others are more than welcome to examine the evidence as well and to come to a different conclusion.
Father Archer is associate pastor of St. Peter Parish in Kirkwood.