The imaginary siblings of Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Brothers of Jesus
Brothers of Jesus; Image by djking via Flickr

The Gospel narratives provide strong positive evidence for why their authors chose to write about Jesus’ siblings. They explicitly meet a clear and specific requirement for the portrayal of a man of God who is to both follow and emulate the prophets who came before him. They also serve to illustrate a moral instruction of Jesus in the Gospels. These are positive reasons for thinking the family of Jesus is most probably a creation of the narratives’ authors.

Cain killed righteous Abel; chosen Isaac was persecuted by Hagar and Ishmael; Esau threatened the life of Jacob who was forced to flee; Joseph was disbelieved, scorned and cast out by his brothers; Jephthah was rejected by his tribe; David was also mocked and dismissed by his brothers. The theme of rejection of the righteous and godly man by those close to him, including his own kin, is one of the most pervasive of themes in the Jewish scriptures, including the Psalms and the Prophets.

The dismissive family serves as a foil to enhance the image of the divine calling and godliness of the hero. It is a trope probably as old as folklore itself. There is nothing embarrassing at all about their inclusion in the narrative. The rejection of Jesus by his siblings serves to enhance the readers’ sympathies for Jesus and places him squarely in the literary tradition of the way and the fate of all the godly.

So the narrative itself contains the reasons for the inclusion of the siblings of Jesus. They are portrayed as disbelievers who isolate Jesus on account of his real (hidden) identity.

When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:21)

The Gospel authors also taught the need for a devotion to him that was so total that it excluded room for the affections of normal family relations (Mark 10:29-30). So they presented Jesus as the ideal type illustrative of such an attitude, and delivering teaching on the new affections that were to replace the old:

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.

Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35)

In all of this we can see how the authors find a narrative or theological reason for introducing the siblings of Jesus. We can say that the appearance of Jesus’ siblings is plot-driven.

The memorable scene of Jesus’ rejection in the earliest Gospel echoes several other rejection narratives in the “Old Testament”.

Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.

“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

Jesus said to them, “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith. (Mark 6:1-6)

Again the author has explicitly stated that the reason for introducing this narrative detail about the family of Jesus is to illustrate a prophecy, or at least to place Jesus firmly within the prophetic tradition.

We cannot appeal to later traditions about the siblings of Jesus as evidence for their historicity since these most likely were born out of the Gospel narratives. (And the Josephus reference is worthless as evidence, for reasons summarized here.)

What, no James?

I think that the quick assumption that Galatians 1:19 is “proof” that Jesus had a physical brother is linked to some extent with our familiarity with the memorable (negative) role of Jesus’ brothers in the later Gospel narratives.

If the passage in Galatians referring to James “the brother of the Lord” was really written prior to the Gospels, and if this indeed spoke of a physical blood relationship, and if this same James became the head of the Church itself in Jerusalem, the Gospel authors have chosen to suppress any interest in this James or his destined conversion and future lead role.

I am tempted here to drop in the obvious argument from incredulity, “Why would they not contain a hint of any of this?”,  but I won’t say it (again). It is hardly necessary. We have no evidence at all to justify thinking there was a historical basis to the siblings of Jesus. But we do have strong narrative reasons for assuming they are literary creations.

But given the fact that the presumably later Gospel authors do not demonstrate any knowledge of a brother of Jesus destined to become the leader (or one of three leaders beside Peter and John) of the Church after the death of Jesus, and given the fact that there is no external witness to Galatians 1:19 till the time of Origen (3rd century) despite its apparent potential usefulness in arguments against Marcionites by “orthodox” representatives such as Tertullian (second century), and given the fact that Paul used ‘brothers’ most commonly metaphorically, and given the fact of demonstrated layers and intentional and accidental editings in both biblical and nonbiblical writings of the time, to insist, in the face of these facts that Galatians 1:19 alone is “proof” of the historicity of Jesus, shows more courage than discretion.

(There are other speculations about possible motives for giving Jesus siblings, and these relate to doctrinal disputes over the physical or immaterial nature of Jesus at the time the Gospels were being composed. But I have opted not to discuss these since they also stray from the evidence at hand. It is worth noting, however, that at least such conjectures are based on known evidence. The assumption of the historicity of the siblings is based on no evidence at all. It is entirely a piece of unsupported but highly charged cultural heritage.)

James & Jesus
The historical James & Jesus; Image by trixie via Flickr
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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “The imaginary siblings of Jesus”

  1. The author of Luke/Acts does not even state that Jesus had a brother called James.

    And the brothers of Jesus get a mention in Acts 1:13-14

    ‘Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew,Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James……and with his brothers.’

    Amazingly, this most important James does not need to be identified,although one of the brothers was allegedly called James.

    How can this important James have been one of the brothers of Jesus, when the brothers are mentioned separately?

    It is like reading a book which states that ‘Michael,Peter, Donny ,and the Jackson 5 were present’, and claiming that everybody knew this Donny had been one of the Jackson 5.

    Although Acts 1 mentions the brothers of Jesus, no James is even on the shortlist for the raffle to see who could be called a witness of the resurrection.

  2. I should add that, as Paula Frederickson says in another context,

    Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly: Perhaps the whole scene is Mark’s invention.

    In other words, the siblings of Jesus make appearances for one reason only, an obvious narrative/theological reason.

    There is not the slightest trace of evidence that there was any real history or brother involved with the Jesus story destined to become his successor in the Church. There is clear evidence that the siblings of Jesus met a theological or plot need of the authors of the Gospels.

  3. Have you ever wondered whether James/Jacob=Israel might simply be the post-70 cipher of pre-70 Judaism that is seen as the Jewish roots of Christianity? The head of the Jerusalem church just happens to be called Jacob=Israel. Granted, it’s not an uncommon name, but it looks like a perfect name to pick for the Jewish roots in an origins story for Christianity. This might not be such an odd idea given that Cephas (the ‘rock’ or ‘stone’ on which to build the new faith) is also so likely to be a made-up name by post-70 Christians.

    1. It’s interesting. And scholars have made something of quite a few of the main names at some time, but of course it can only be frustratingly speculative. If – only if, it could all be a mirage – such details are fossils of a metaphorical or symbolic stage (and Mark seems to use names symbolically) would that be another reason to date much more of the NT into the second century? Or is it all shapes in the clouds?

      1. Yes, and it’s interesting that so many pre-70 apostles and disciples managed te become martyrs before the revolt and the Jerusalem Christians are lucky to get out of Jerusalem some years prior to the revolt. Come on, early Christian authors, there’s something you guys aren’t telling us 🙂

  4. This might not be such an odd idea given that Cephas (the ‘rock’ or ’stone’ on which to build the new faith) is also so likely to be a made-up name by post-70 Christians.

    Well if Mark’s gospel was written first, he seems to translate “Cephas” literally. But for what reason? It would certainly confuse people if someone said that Jesus quotes the Book of Dove; proper names are usually rendered as phonetically as possible.

    Mark gives Simon the name “Peter” for no reason (3:16). And then, the first parable that Jesus has to explain to his boneheaded disciples is the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:14-20). In this parable, the “word” gets thrown on the “rocky” surface and can’t take root: “Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away” (from Mark 4:16-17).

    Peter received the word with joy at 14:29;31 and then he quickly falls away when trouble starts (14:66-75). Peter is literally “rock” in Greek. This seems to me to be the reason why Mark translates the name Cephas literally – for literary/allegorical reasons. Of course, Matthew didn’t like this discreditation and elevates Peter (Matt 16:18) using the same pun on the name.

    1. I agree that Mark uses Petros in this way (this is from Mary Tolbert’s ‘Sowing the Gospel’ and I think she is right), but I suspect whoever created the Cephas/Petros character probably had something like Matthew’s 16:16 in mind (just my guess of course – no way of knowing).

  5. The author of Matthew either doesn’t grok the Parable of the Sower as it is used symbolically in Mark, or he’s hostile to the interpretation.

    Naming, too, as Neil says above, is a central theme in Mark, though when I try to make some conceptual sense out of just exactly how the author symbolically uses names and the act of naming, I get a headache. There’s something to named versus unnamed incidental figures in the story, though. Like, why are Simon of Cyrene (complete with the names of his sons for further identification!) and Joseph of Arimathea named, for instance, when The Syrian woman and the Centurion at the crucifixion are not? And how far does the author take the act of naming to hold magical power? In the synagogue exorcism, the demon is clearly trying to name Jesus in this way, as Son of the Most High, and Jesus turns the tables on Legion by asking his name, but is this a symbolic scheme we’re supposed to be paying attention to, or just a part of the author’s worldview? And is the Centurion’s proclamation at the cross another act of naming: “this man was the son of God”?

  6. It is Mark’s allegorical use of Isaiah 22:16 for the tomb of Jesus/Temple of Jerusalem and its associations with Rock (foreshadowed in the paralytic let down through the torn out roof) that sometimes set me to imagining “Mark” looking back on a lost city (70 or 130’s?) and finding solace in a new spiritual/heavenly city/Israel in its place. But what preceded Mark? There do seem to be indicators he was redacting some pre-existing stories. Or should that be ‘indicators that the Gospel of Mark had been heavily redacted before arriving at its current version’?

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