In the biblical drama of Christ's birth, Joseph seems almost to be a bit player as the story focuses more on the Virgin Mary and the Christ child.

But biblical scholars say that Joseph is an important figure in the Christmas story and in God's plan to have Jesus raised by human parents.The Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell of Mary receiving word from God that she would bear a son by supernatural means. Joseph, troubled by his espoused wife's pregnancy, considered divorcing her in a discreet way.

But an angel explained the matter to him in a dream and Joseph changed his mind. The rest of the story of Christ's birth is well known, as are the doings of Jesus and Mary afterward.

Little is recorded of Joseph, however, other than the brief mentions. From the few details provided by the Gospel writers, we learn that Joseph was a descendant of King David, from whom the Messiah was to come. We also learn that Joseph was a carpenter, a trade that he likely passed on to Jesus.

Although Christian teaching emphasizes the poverty of Joseph and Mary, Pauline Viviano, associate professor of theology at Loyola University of Chicago, said carpentry was a craft of the middle class. That doesn't preclude their being poor, but they had some social status in their community, she said.

"Matthew calls him a just man, and that probably indicates he kept the Mosaic law," said W. T. Edwards, Samford University professor of Bible studies.

Joseph's reaction to Mary's pregnancy also tells us something about the man. "Joseph wanting to put her away privately revealed his love for her and his respect for women," Edwards said.

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In those days, the act of adultery, particularly by a woman, was punishable by death.

Joseph's musings about divorce may have been understandable but shortsighted, said Beverly Gaventa, a professor of New Testament studies who is writing a book on Mary.

"I think it's an example, frankly, of the fact that even when we do the best we can do, it still comes out wrong," Gaventa said. "And even if Joseph is doing the best he knows how to do, it still takes God to stop him from doing it."

The Bible presents Joseph as a man who thought through matters before making decisions. But he was quick to obey God, Rev. Andrew Doze wrote in "Saint Joseph: Shadow of the Father," a book that traces devotion to Joseph. Doze cites as an example Joseph's decision to flee in to Egypt with his family when God warned of King Herod's plot to kill the baby Jesus.

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