The Brothers and Sisters of Jesus

Rae Litting, New South Wales Regional Meeting

I believe that religious art has influenced the way we imagine Jesus more than we realise.  If we read the Bible, it is clear that Jesus came from a large family.  But we never see images of Jesus surrounded by brothers and sisters.  We see him mostly in paintings of the Madonna and Child, or paintings of The Holy Family (mother, father and child).  If we find a painting that includes another child, this usually turns out to be John the Baptist.  Much of this religious art is very beautiful, but I believe it distorts our image of Jesus in an unhelpful way.

Madonna and child, by Raphael

There are two key passages about Jesus’ family in the Gospel of Mark.  The first is in Chapter 3, 31-35:

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived.  They stood outside the house and sent in a message, asking for him.  A crowd was sitting around Jesus, and they said to him, “Look, your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, and they want you.”

Jesus answered, “Who is my mother?  Who are my brothers?”  He looked at the people sitting around him and said: “Look!  Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does what God wants is my brother, my sister, my mother.”

This passage makes it clear that apart from his family of followers, Jesus had a natural family.  Some commentators dismiss them as a bad lot who did not support his ministry, but considering the fate of John the Baptist I think they were right to be worried about him.  The other passage from Mark is in Chapter 6 1-3:

Jesus left that place and went back to his home town, followed by his disciples.  On the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue.  Many people were there; and when they heard him they were all amazed.  “Where did he get all this that has been given him?  How does he perform miracles?  Isn’t he the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon?  Aren’t his sisters living here?”  And so they rejected him.

Again, the family do not get a good rap, but they are plainly his natural family, and not disciples.  Mark is the earliest gospel, probably written around 30 or 40 years after Jesus’ death.  The gospel does not contain any birth stories, and probably predates the doctrine of the Virgin Birth.

The gospels of Matthew and Luke have Virgin Birth stories.  Matthew has the story of Jesus’ family looking for him (probably sourced from Mark), but he omits the sisters.  However he mentions the sisters in the story of Jesus preaching in Nazareth – in the Good News Bible the translation is “Aren’t all his sisters living here?” which sounds like at least three.

Luke also has the first story, without the sisters.  He has the story of Jesus being rejected in Nazareth, but without the brothers and sisters.  Instead, people say “Isn’t he the son of Joseph?”

Matthew and Luke seem to believe that the birth of Jesus was miraculous, but that Mary and Joseph then produced other children in the usual way.  This was the belief of some early church leaders, and also of some Protestants today.

Although the gospel writers represent Jesus’ brothers as rejecting his teaching, the brothers turn up among his followers in the book of Acts.  In Acts Chapter 1 verses 12-14 we are told that, after Jesus ascended into heaven:

Then the apostles went back to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, which is about a kilometre away from the city.  They entered the city and went up to the room where they were staying: Peter, John, James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Patriot, and Judas son of James.  They gathered frequently to pray as a group, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and with his brothers.

The Holy Family.  Anthony van Dyck

Paul also makes references to these brothers, especially James, in his epistles.  In Galatians 1, 19 he records that he did not meet the original followers of Jesus until 3 years after his conversion when:

I went to Jerusalem to obtain information from Peter, and I stayed with him for two weeks.  I did not see any other apostle except James, the Lord’s brother.

In 1 Corinthians, 7 Paul lists those to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection, ending with:

Then he appeared to James, and afterwards to all the apostles.

And there is a tantalising little complaint in 1 Corinthians 9 3-5:

When people criticise me, this is how I defend myself:  Haven’t I got the right to be given food and drink for my work?  Haven’t I got the right to follow the example of the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Peter, by taking a Christian wife with me on my travels?”

Although there seems to be a whole industry trying to prove that Jesus had a wife and possibly a child, no-one seems to have any interest in his nephews and nieces who must have been numerous.  The Greek historian Eusebius does recount a story of two grandsons of Jude who were arrested by the emperor Domitian, but released because they were peasants “of no account”!

While the brothers of Jesus were active in the early church there was probably no belief in the virgin birth.  In any case the Jewish tradition does not put much value on virginity as a sign of spiritual excellence.  The belief in the virgin birth comes from the gentile church.  Greek gods were given to impregnating human women, and Rome had a tradition of vestal virgins whose purity protected the Roman state.  As the belief in Mary’s lifelong virginity became dogma, it was necessary to explain away the brothers and sisters.  One way of doing this was to suppose that they were the children of Joseph by a previous marriage.  This is the belief of some Orthodox churches.  Those who follow this teaching generally depict Joseph as much older than Mary, which makes him a safe spouse for a committed virgin.

The Catholic tradition usually explains away the brothers and sisters as cousins.

It seems to me that these attempts impoverish our understanding of Jesus.  In the first place, they give us the Holy Family (2 virgins and a perfect child) as a model for ordinary Christians.  This is not a helpful model, and no couple embark on a life together with any intention of copying it.

The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple; William Holman Hunt, 

The only story we have of Jesus as a child is the story from Luke Chapter 2 41-51 in which the family visit the temple in Jerusalem and leave without Jesus, not noticing that he was absent until “they travelled a whole day”. The historicity of this story is doubtful.  There is no mention of other children, and it is strange that these perfect parents do not miss their child for a whole day.  At the end of the story:

Jesus went back with them to Nazareth, where he was obedient to them”.

Actually by wandering off on his own he was not obedient to them, but then Jesus’ supposed obedience is stressed in the church’s teaching to children. “Christian children all must be/ Mild, obedient, good as he” according to the Christmas carol.  To a child this means “Shut up and do as you are told”, and offers no challenge or inspiration.

The Holy Family would appear to provide a good upbringing for a Holy Hermit, but Jesus was not a hermit.  He was a sociable man, who always travelled with friends.  We often hear of him being entertained in people’s houses.  He was comfortable in the company of a great range of people, from the teacher of the Law who asked “what must I do to receive eternal life” to tax collectors, peasants and fishermen.  He was a man who had brothers.

In Matthew 18 21-22 Peter asks Jesus how many times one should forgive one’s brother.  Seven times?  Jesus replied, “No, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”  Is this the reply of a pious man who never had a brother, or the reply of a man who shared a small sleeping space with 4 brothers, all treading on each other’s toes and borrowing each other’s possessions?  Surely seven acts of forgiveness would hardly get you through the week. Forgiveness is one of the key planks of Jesus’ teaching, and is central to the Lord’s Prayer.

Jesus is also comfortable in the company of women.  He was not fazed by the “woman who had who suffered terribly from severe bleeding” (Mark 5 25-34) or the woman taken in adultery (John 8 1-11) or the woman of poor character who anointed his feet with perfume (Luke 7 36-50).  He was a man who had sisters, and I suspect they were women of some character!

It is of course true that Jesus spent time alone in communion with God.  I do not want to underestimate that aspect of his life.  But whatever divine insights he received had to be tested in the rough and tumble of family life, before being also tested during squabbles among his followers.  What a pity no great artist has supplied us with images of Jesus’ brothers and sisters.

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