Before he married Mary, that is.
This question came up in the feedback I got about the presentation I did on Mary and Joseph's virginity. So I did some reading to find out more about it.
First, this is not a matter of faith; as Catholics we can hold that Joseph was or was not a widower when he married Mary. It's a speculative question that we can't really answer with absolute certainty. But the ancient sources are interesting.
The idea that he was a widower first came up in the Proto-evangelium of James.That's one of the apocryphal Gospels, so it's not a reliable historical source but it shows what early Christians thought. The reason he's portrayed as a widower is to explain who Jesus' "brothers" are. In this theory they would have been Joseph's children by an earlier marriage. There's another writing in Coptic called History of Joseph the Carpenter. That work said he was 91 when he received Mary!
In the Eastern Church, the idea that Joseph was a widower was more prevalent, thanks especially to the writings of Epiphanius of Salamis (end of the 4th century). In the West, however, the indomitable St Jerome vigorously defended the idea that Joseph was always a virgin throughout his entire life. Augustine, too, followed Jerome on this. So the influence of these two "heavy-weight" doctors of the Church made that view prevalent in the West. In the Middle Ages it became the common teaching of almost all Western Church writers.
Personally, I like to think of Joseph as a young man when he married Mary. He had to support her and Jesus through his work, so it doesn't seem likely to me that he would have been so old he couldn't have done that.What do you think?