Did Jesus’ Mother and Brothers Lose Faith in Jesus?

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by Tim Widowfield

Max Zerwick
Max Zerwick

He said, she said, they said

Sometimes I like to lull myself to sleep at night by reading obscure books about Biblical Greek. I recently picked up a real snore-fest by Maximilian Zerwick called Biblical Greek: Illustrated Examples. Early in the book Zerwick talks about a phenomenon in Greek, which also exists in English, in which the third person plural refers to some general, anonymous group, usually best translated as “they say” or “people say.”

In German and French, there’s a singular form (“man sagt” and “on dit“), but in English we have the same sort of thing as in Greek. For example:

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance. –Terry Pratchett (Equal Rites, emphasis mine)

As Zerwick rightly points out, we usually see the indefinite plural with verbs of telling, hence in Latin: “dicunt, ferunt, tradunt.” It’s possible that indefinite plurals were common in Aramaic, which Zerwick suggests may have influenced Mark. He writes:

This is perhaps why it occurs with especial frequency in Mk, often, in parallel passages, corrected by Mt, and still oftener by Lk. . . . [I]n Mk (3,21) we read a text which seems offensive to the honour of the Mother of God: ἀκούσαντες οἱ παρ’ αὐτοῦ ἐξῆλθον κρατῆσαι αὐτόν, ἔλεγον γὰρ ὅτι ἐξέστη [akousntes hoi par’ autou exēlthon kratēsai auton, elegon gar hoti exestē]. These παρ’ αὐτοῦ [par’ autou] are later (v. 31) said to be “His mother and his brethren.” Were they necessarily the ones who thought Jesus was deranged? (Zerwick, 2011, p. 2)

In most English translations, the meaning seems to be that Mary and Jesus’ brothers thought he had come unhinged.

And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:21, ESV)

His family heard” . . . “they went out” . . . “they were saying.” Simple, right? 

Not at all. The verb ἔλεγον [elegon] may be taken as an indefinite plural: “they said,” i. e. (“people said,” “it was being said”) that He was deranged. It is moreover easier, with this interpretation, to understand why “His own” went forth; for the mere fact that the crowd pressed about Jesus does not explain their preoccupation or a notion on their part that He was deranged; their preoccupation is accounted for by the fact that “it was being said” that He was deranged. (Zerwick, 2011, p. 2)

Now I’m starting to suspect a bit of Catholic apologia at work. Many Catholics find the thought that Mary could have sinned extremely troubling.

Yet, at the same time, I want to give this idea a fair shake. What about the surrounding verses? What’s the context? In the previous verse, the crowd is pressing around Jesus and his disciples such that they can’t even eat a meal. And in the following verse, the scribes from Jerusalem are passing a vicious rumor that he was possessed by a demon.

Zerwick writes:

That the evangelist is in fact speaking of such a rumour is suggested by the fact that, by a ready association of ideas, he opposes to this popular rumour another one, put about by the scribes: καὶ οἱ γραμματεῖς . . . ὅτι Βεεζεβοὺλ ἔχει [kai hoi grammateis . . . hoti Beezeboul echei]. From what we know of Mark’s manner of expressing himself it may be taken as certain that the stress is on the subject οἱ γραμματεῖς [hoi grammateis, the scribes] as opposed to others; and here the only apt opposition to the scribes, with their view concerning Jesus, is to be found in the other rumour, the popular one. (Zerwick, 2011, p. 2)

What did Mark mean to say?

As it turns out, this is the typical Catholic explanation for Mark 3:21, a point that the Catholic Edition of the NRSV makes clear for the faithful reader.

When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” (NRSVCE, emphasis mine)

That said, I don’t want to dismiss this analysis out of hand. It has an appealing overall logic. The crowd presses against Jesus; things are getting out of control. Rumors begin to fly. “He’s mad!” says the crowd. “He has a demon!” whisper the scribes.

So I think it boils down to two questions. First, what is the correct meaning of the word “seize” (κρατῆσαι | kratēsai) in this case? Were Jesus’ family interested simply in taking hold of him to ensure his safety (i.e., from the crowd), or were they seeking to take custody of him, because they feared he had lost his mind?

While discussing this passage, Morna Hooker insisted that the word always has violent connotations (Hooker, 1991, p. 115), citing 6:17 and 12:12. And while it’s true that its use in these verses refers, respectively, to Herod’s arrest of John the Baptist and to the Jerusalem authorities’ plans to arrest Jesus, it’s also used in the following verses, with more placid connotations:

He came and raised her up by gently taking her hand. Then the fever left her and she began to serve them. (Mark 1:31, NET, emphasis mine)

So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. (Mark 9:10, ESV, emphasis mine)

Second, what is the meaning of 3:31-35? It appears that Jesus’ family has arrived in order to check up on him, and in the ensuing conversation Jesus says that his disciples are his mother and brothers, concluding with:

For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother. (3:35, KJV)

I would argue that this saying most likely comes from later Christians, expanding on Paul’s doctrine of the brotherhood/sisterhood of all Christians. There is no special class of the “Brothers of the Lord,” and any relatives (if they existed) of Jesus have no unique status. Hence, probably nothing in Mark 3:20-35 reflects any authentic Jesus tradition at all, but merely serves to concretize various early Christian religious concepts, such as the relationship of believers to one another, and the process by which Jesus supposedly cast out demons.

Why would anybody make it up? ©®™

Did Mark have “a positive ethos with regard to the family”? Did John? Did their communities? Many scholars have argued persuasively that Mark didn’t even have a positive ethos about the Twelve, let alone the family of Jesus.

While Catholics have a vested interest in keeping Mary from sinning by losing confidence in Jesus, Protestant historicists also have a stake in the matter. Here’s what Gerd Theissen and Dagmar Winter had to say on the subject:

Moreover, early Christianity developed a positive ethos with regard to the family. Contrary to this tendency, however, it preserved the memory of a conflict between his Jesus and his family. According to Mark 3:21, Jesus’ “own” come to Jesus and want to seize him as though he were out of his mind. This can not [sic] possibly have been invented! After Easter, members of Jesus’ family belonged to the early Christian community and were disciples of Jesus. (Theissen and Winter, 2002, p. 175, emphasis mine)

Careful readers of the New Testament will immediately recognize that T&W have harmonized two gospels (Mark and John, whose authors seem to have bad things to say about the way Jesus’ family treated him) with the Acts of the Apostles, which passes on the legend of Jesus’ family joining the disciples (after which they disappear from history).

Thoughtful students of Christian history will note that T&W have imagined a unified early Christianity with consistent beliefs across the board. And yet we know that pre-Nicene Christianity was far more diverse than it is today. Did Mark have “a positive ethos with regard to the family”? Did John? Did their communities? Many scholars have argued persuasively that Mark didn’t even have a positive ethos about the Twelve, let alone the family of Jesus.

Logic devotees will have issues with the assertion that Mark 3:21 cannot have been an invention. Of course it could have been invented, especially if one of Mark’s primary emphases was to show how everyone in Jesus’ life let him down, even his mum. Further, while Christians may have preserved the gospel of Mark, the authors of Matthew and Luke did not preserve these verses when copying Mark. Neither fact can prove or disprove the historicity of the passage.

So while we might fault Catholic exegetes for harmonizing the gospels with the later tradition of Mary’s sinlessness, we must also acknowledge the fact that today’s historicists have latched onto the idea that Mark 3:21 retains a real “memory” from the life of the historical Jesus. They both have underlying reasons for wanting their interpretations to be correct.

People will talk

I’ve been trying to think of parallels in Mark that might help us understand his original intent. The best I could find is in 6:14, wherein we have a similar case of a “they said” or “they were saying” instance that confused later copyists. The KJV retains a reading of the Greek from the Textus Receptus.

And king Herod heard of him; (for his name was spread abroad:) and he said, That John the Baptist was risen from the dead, and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him. (6:14, KJV, emphasis mine)

Some manuscripts have ἔλεγεν (elegen, “he said“), while others have ἔλεγον (elegon, “they said“). The current consensus holds that the original reading was the plural (Metzger, 2007, p. 76). And so the NASB reads:

And King Herod heard of it, for His name had become well known; and people were saying, “John the Baptist has risen from the dead, and that is why these miraculous powers are at work in Him.” (6:14, NASB, emphasis mine)

Later scribes were confused as to the antecedent for elegon and presumed it was a misspelling of elegen. But in fact, the people who were passing rumors about John the Baptist are implied, and they are in opposition to the “others” in the next verse:

But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” (6:15, ESV)

Matthew and Luke are two of the earliest known copyists of Mark. And when they came to this story, they removed the ambiguity. For example, Luke writes:

9:7  Now Herod the tetrarch heard of all that was happening; and he was greatly perplexed, because it was said by some that John had risen from the dead, 

9:8  and by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the prophets of old had risen again. (NASB, emphasis mine)

He removes all doubt by using the passive voice [λέγεσθαι (legesthai)] in a subordinate clause.

Some were saying . . .

Zerwick cites another example in Mark 14:1-2. He writes:

[A] certain awkwardness disappears and the state of affairs is clear, if ἔλεγον γάρ [elegon gar] be understood as an indefinite plural. The text reads: “It was now two days before the Passover and the feast of the Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him; for they said (ἔλεγον γάρ [elegon gar] here Mt has δέ [however] instead of γάρ [gar]), ‘not during the feast, lest there be a tumult of the people.'” (Zerwick, 2011, pp. 2-3)

So what exactly is the problem with Mark’s choice of words?

Here Mark’s γάρ [gar] indicates the reason for the deliberation how to take Him with guile, for it is here that the stress seems to lie. If however the verb has the same subject as the preceding one (“they deliberated . . . for they said . . . “) we would expect an opposition to “with guile,” such as “Not openly . . .” or “Not by force . . . ” instead of “Not on the feast-day.” (Zerwick, 2011, p. 3, emphasis mine)

Exactly how would this different interpretation make more sense?

The text is however readily understood if ἔλεγον [elegon] be taken as an indefinite plural expressing the objection raised by some member or members of the assembly: they deliberated how to take Him with guile “for it had been said” that He could not be taken on the feast-day for fear of a riot. (Zerwick, 2011, p. 3, emphasis mine)


I suspect that when Matthew and Luke read Mark 3:21, they were as perplexed as I am. Did Mark mean to say that Jesus’ family thought he was out of his mind, or did he mean to say that “people were saying” that Jesus was out of his mind? In they end, they determined it best to focus on Jesus’ true (and by that I mean almost certainly fictional) foes, the Pharisees (in Matthew) or the some people in the crowd (in Luke) who accuse Jesus of casting out demons with the aid of the chief demon.

I’m not sure what Mark meant, and probably the other synoptic evangelists weren’t either. I’m inclined to guess that Mark was relating two rumors, one from the crowd (“He’s crazy”) and the other from the scribes (“He has a demon”), based largely on the similar construction in chapter 6. Herod hears rumors about Jesus. Some said he was the resurrected Baptist; others said he was Elijah, etc.

However, there’s clearly room for doubt. And given that uncertainty, it’s sheer nonsense to think one could make a strong case for the authenticity of the Fickle Family based on Mark 3:21. After all, they say blood is thicker than water.

Metzger, Bruce M.

A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Dt. Bibelges./United Bible Soc., 2007

Hooker, Morna D.

The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Baker Academic, 2011

Zerwick, Maximilian

Biblical Greek: Illustrated By Examples, Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2014

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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4 thoughts on “Did Jesus’ Mother and Brothers Lose Faith in Jesus?”

  1. In the Healing of the Paralytic, Mark 2:1-12 seems to be related to 2 Kings 1:2-17. In Mark 1:6, describing John the Baptist, Mark references Leviticus 11:21 about eating locusts, 2 Kings 1:8 about Elijah’s leather belt and hairiness, and Zechariah 13:4 relating prophesy and hairiness.

    Mark 3:22 makes a reference to Beelzebul who is only mentioned in the 2 Kings 1:2-17 passage. Since Mark was most likely looking at 2 Kings 1 and Zechariah 13 in Mark 1:6, he may have had them in mind while writing the Mark 3:21-22 passage and Zechariah 13:3 (NRSV) says:

    3 And if any prophets appear again, their fathers and mothers who bore them will say to them, “You shall not live, for you speak lies in the name of the Lord”; and their fathers and their mothers who bore them shall pierce them through when they prophesy.

    That would favor that Mark was saying that “they” meant the family of Jesus who were out to get him.

  2. As Zerwick rightly points out, we usually see the indefinite plural with verbs of telling, hence in Latin: “dicunt, ferunt, tradunt.” It’s possible that indefinite plurals were common in Aramaic, which Zerwick suggests may have influenced Mark.

    Did Zerwick consult with any rabbis on this possibility?

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