The subtext of Jesus’ family relationships — (1)

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by Neil Godfrey

Unlike Greek saviour-type heroes such as Achilles (and even Socrates), not once in the canonical gospels is Jesus shown to have had a healthy relationship with a normal loving woman, not even at birth. And is there a complementary dark significance to the absence of any hint of a relationship with his presumed stepfather, Joseph? What follows is my extrapolation of some thoughts brought to the surface by Richard Holway in his discussion of the mythology and psychology of Achilles and Socrates in his article Achilles, Socrates, and Democracy published in Political Theory, Vol. 22, No. 4. (Nov., 1994), pp.561-590.

First, to clear aside some immediate objections:

  • Mary Magdalene expressed her love for Jesus when she went to his tomb, but note Jesus’ response to her when she wanted to hold him. He denied her any bodily contact. “Don’t touch me! I have not yet ascended to my Father!”
  • Jesus is said to have loved Martha and her sister Mary. But this relationship is a theological setup. The claim of love is “demonstrated” by Jesus allowing the women to suffer the agony of losing their brother Lazarus in order to prove his own miraculous powers. Only the most theologically minded can see “normal human love” in such an act.
  • Jesus does allow an emotional woman to touch him, and to even let her tears fall on him, but only in the servile act of washing his feet.
  • Similarly, many women are said to have followed him, particularly those who had been ill and possessed. But note their job description: (1) to follow him and (2) to keep him supplied with his physical needs from their own (presumably well-to-do) substance. (Luke 8:3; 23:49)
  • On the cross Jesus takes care of his mother by assigning her to the guardianship of an unnamed disciple (John 19:25-27). Accepted, that is a positive at that moment. It also introduces the first section of this set of blog essays (blossays?):

Jesus’ mother

The New Testament opens with Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus that associates Jesus’ mother with two prostitutes (Tamar and Rahab), a gentile who introduced herself into the Davidic line via a practice of at least debatable interpretation (Ruth – cf Ruth 3:7) and an adulteress (Bathsheba). That genealogies do not normally refer to women, and that only these four women are singled out, has led some commentators to suspect this genealogy was originally composed as an attempt to justify the birth of Jesus to a woman of questionable character.

This first gospel then juxtaposes this genealogy with Jesus being born to a woman who conceives without the process of loving, passionate, sexual embrace with the father. The father who impregnated her did not love her, or even touch her, physically. There was no union between the father and mother at all. This is the parentage of Jesus.

Compare Achilles. He was also son of a divinity and a human, only the roles were a reversal of the Jesus myth: the mother was the divinity, the goddess Thetis, and the father was the mortal, Peleus. Peleus loved Thetis and passionately conceived Achilles in her. There was a distance, however, again on the part of the divinity. Thetis did experience a humiliation in being obliged to marry below her status. Thetis nonetheless gave Achilles warmth, understanding, comfort in his moments of sorrows and pains. She encouraged him to become a great credit to her, and to remember his mother was a goddess. And Achilles did deeply love and honour his mother. Yes, there was a serious psychological flaw in the parental relationship, as there are in many relationships. Despite the tensions between the mortal and the divine parents there was nonetheless a “normal physical loving” relationship by the standards of many real-life marriages — and certainly something more positive than the Christian story of a father who never touches the mother and abandons her to insidious rumours about her virtue.

But the tensions between his parents do not take away the fact of Achilles and his mother being bonded respectably and honorably. In this respect Achilles deserved his place as a worthy role-model.

Compare (again) Jesus. When 12 years old Jesus absented himself from his parents without notice by staying behind in the Temple after all others returned home from a Passover festival. His panicked stepfather and mother frantically raced back searching all over for him, and when they found him, he coolly admonished them for failing to acknowledge that he belonged to someone greater than either of them.

Even at age twelve, Jesus was following his father’s footsteps in alienating himself from his mother.

And that sense of feeling he had no part with either of his parents never changed — until his dying moments on the cross. At a wedding he coldly rebuffed his mother when she asked him to help at the wedding. He even addressed her as “Woman” and then questioned what he had to do with her! We read that as a theological statement, as a metaphor, so the sting is removed. But read it as a son addressing his mother and it is cruel. The author is writing a theological narrative so he does not address the mother’s feelings. He probably did not even think of her feelings at all since he was in his mind using the characters as metaphors. The time when he would have something to do with her was at the final “wedding” where his literal blood and water from his side would replace the wine and water at Cana. (A well-known motif in Hellenistic fiction was the image of a funeral of a young one or a premature death being a symbolic “wedding” the person failed to experience in their too short life.)

And again, when his mother came to seek him, worried about his welfare, Jesus did not stoop to reassure her of his soundness of mind, but publicly declared that she was not his real mother at all. And the author of the second gospel concurred. At the burial of Jesus Mark described the attendance at the tomb of Mary the mother of James and Joses (two of Jesus’ brothers) but not as the mother of Jesus himself.

Honour thy father too

And what of the father, if only a stepfather, who surely in his early years worked to support and assist in the rearing of Jesus? Again, Jesus can only deny him and remind all that he only knows his “real” father in heaven. The father who remained distant, who never physically touched his mother, who adopted him out to be raised by others. Did they deserve no love, no acknowledgment, no gratitude? Jesus denied them both. His theology was too important to give them any recognition. Or was it his need to assert his own divine status (his bond with his absent father) to the point of complete denial of his own mother and stepfather?

And his followers?

What sort of divinity is this with whom believers are told to identify, whose life they are told to allow to “live in them” too?

Jesus did tell his followers to hate their father and mother if they wished to be accounted worthy to follow him. He set the example. His followers are to deny themselves, to crucify their fleshly passions. Does that mean to so love both Jesus and his heavenly father that by comparison they in effect deny love for parents along with sexual passions?

No doubt Jesus taught to love one another. To even love our enemies. He even told the rich man that if we wanted to live forever he should keep the commandments including the one to honour father and mother. But was this statement of the same force as Paul’s rhetoric that said the law could only give life if you kept it perfectly — implying that it could not give life because none could keep it perfectly? Because when the rich man said he had always kept the commandments (and thus presumably already had in effect attained eternal life) Jesus said he had to do something else: give up everything in this life and follow him. We know from elsewhere that when Jesus enjoined such a condition he meant to leave mother and father too — just as surely as the sons of Zebedee left their father in an instant when called. (Some will object that the scenarios would not have been so stark like that, but this blossay is based on the narratives as we have them.)

Loving one’s neighbour will work for one’s parents if they are considered neighbours, and the Good Samaritan parable suggests they would be. But the relationship has clearly been downgraded by comparison with the total devotion one is obliged to have for the Jesus who knew no human sexual passion and who denied parents who did.

What must be the impact on the mind, the emotional and mental development of followers who take Jesus seriously as their guiding light? Even where one does love their parents and where parents do love each other physically, can there fail to be some other element hidden behind the curtains of such people’s minds and feelings?

Even the pagan Greeks had a healthier role model.

But will look in more detail at the specific psychological comparisons between Achilles and Jesus in my next blossay on this topic.

Continued in The subtext of Jesus’ Family Relationships – (2)

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “The subtext of Jesus’ family relationships — (1)”

  1. When Jesus told the rich man to sell everything and give it to the poor, there is more to it then just this, Jesus knew what was in this man’s heart, He knew what came first to this rich man, his richness came first because this rich man did not follow Jesus. Second thing, in Jesus’ line from Mary, there are a lot of people, women AND men, some of these men did some very bad things, yet they, with the help of God, changed, so instead of pointing to the shady past of these women, we should see what became of them, which is what following Jesus is and should be completely about. We should also be pleased with this, because if these women are special to our Father, we, who are also sinners, can have His mercy and grace too.

  2. When Jesus commanded the rich man to get rid of everything he had he was commanding him to even give up any ability he had to care for his parents. You may think this was not the case, and if so, that is good. It means you have a higher moral standard than what this particular scripture teaches.

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