Richard J. Bauckham on The Relatives of Jesus

R. J. Bauckham, “Relatives of Jesus,” in Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids, eds., Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (1997), pp. 1004-1006.

Various relatives of Jesus are the subject both of historical traditions and of legendary imagination in early Christian literature. Historical traditions attest the important role they played in the leadership of the early Christian movement. Legendary developments focus especially on Jesus’ mother.
1. The Known Relatives of Jesus
2. The Brothers and Sisters of Jesus
3. The Relatives as Early Christian Leaders
4. Mary and Joseph

1. The Known Relatives of Jesus.
From the NT and other reliable early sources, especially the second-century writer Hegesippus, who preserves Palestinian Jewish Christian traditions, the following relatives from the generation of Jesus’ parents onward are known:

Jesus’ mother Mary and adoptive father Joseph.

Joseph’s brother Clopas (Hegesippus, quoted in Eusebius Hist. Eccl. 3.11; 3.32.6; 4.22.4). “Mary of Clopas” (Jn 19:25) is probably his wife. He may well be the same person as Cleopas (Lk 24:18). Clopas is a Semitic name and Cleopas is a Greek name; Jews of this period frequently used both a Semitic name and a Greek name that sounded similar.

Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, was a relative of Jesus’ mother, Mary, according to Luke 1:36 (the precise relationship is not specified).

Jesus’ four brothers: James, Joses (or Joseph; Joses is an abbreviated form), Judas (or Jude, an English variant of the name that is sometimes used for this brother of Jesus) and Simon (Mt 13:55; Mk 6:3).

Jesus’ sisters (at least two: Mt 13:56; Mk 6:3). Later sources, perhaps correctly, name them Mary and Salome (Protev. James 19.3—20.4; Gos. Phil. 59.6-11; Epiphanius Haer. 78.8.1; 78.9.6).

Simeon (Simon) son of Clopas (Hegesippus, quoted in Eusebius Hist. Eccl. 3.11; 3.32.6; 4.22.4).

Zoker and James, two grandsons of Jesus’ brother Jude (Hegesippus, quoted in Eusebius Hist. Eccl. 3.19.1-3.20.7; 3.32.5–6; and in Paris MS 1555A; Bodleian MS Barocc. 142).

Abris, Abraham and his son James, three descendants of the family of Jesus. They are named in medieval chronicles, which may preserve early sources, as bishops of Ctesiphon-Seleucia in central Mesopotamia in the second century.

Conon of Magydos, martyred in 250–51, was probably a descendant of the family of Jesus (Martyrdom of Conon 4.2).

2. The Brothers and Sisters of Jesus.
Since the terms brother and sister could be used of relatives other than full blood siblings, the precise relationship of these persons to Jesus has been debated. The issue has been closely connected with the traditional belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary, which can be found already in early second-century Christian literature. The three major views have come to be known by the names of their fourth-century proponents: Helvidius, Epiphanius and Jerome. The Helvidian view, which most modern exegetes hold, is that the brothers and sisters were children of Joseph and Mary, born after Jesus. The Epiphanian view, which is the traditional view in the Eastern Orthodox churches, is that they were children of Joseph by a marriage prior to his marriage to Mary (and therefore Jesus’ adoptive siblings). The Hieronymian view, which through Jerome’s influence became the traditional Roman Catholic view, is that they were first cousins of Jesus (usually considered children of Clopas). The last view depends largely on identifying Jesus’ brothers with other persons of the same names (Mt 10:3; 27:56; Mk 3:18; 15:40, 47; 16:1; Lk 6:15–16; 24:10; Hegesippus, quoted in Eusebius Hist. Eccl. 4.22.4) but is rendered improbable by the fact that the brothers of Jesus are invariably called “the brothers of the Lord” in early Christian literature. If they were cousins of Jesus we should expect them to be occasionally so described, as Hegesippus describes Simeon son of Clopas (Eusebius Hist. Eccl. 4.22.4).

It is much more difficult to decide between the Helvidian and the Epiphanian views. Nothing in the NT provides decisive evidence either way, while the only works from an early period that are unambiguous about the relationship take the Epiphanian view. These are the Protevangelium of James, the Gospel of Peter and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, probably all from second-century Syria. In the Protevangelium of James the perpetual virginity of Mary is also implied, and so a belief that it was inappropriate for the mother of Jesus also to bear other children may have produced the Epiphanian view of Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Alternatively it may be that these prominent early Christian leaders were known from tradition to be children of Joseph but not of Mary and that belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary was possible only for this reason.

The apostle Thomas, known in east Syrian Christian tradition as Judas Thomas, is considered in some east Syrian Christian literature to be the twin brother of Jesus (Acts of Thomas 11; 31; 39; Book of Thomas 138.4, 7, 19), presumably identified with Jesus’ brother Jude. The tradition stems from the fact that the name Thomas means “twin” (Jn 21:2) and probably at first indicated a relationship of spiritual rather than physical twinship with Jesus.

3. The Relatives as Early Christian Leaders.
There is good evidence that a considerable number of members of the family of Jesus, from the earliest period of the church down to the early second century, were prominent leaders in the Jewish Christian movement in Palestine and perhaps also were missionaries outside Palestine (see Jewish Christianity). Jesus’ brother James, whose importance as a Christian leader of the first generation is equaled only by that of Peter and Paul, quickly became prominent in the leadership of the Jerusalem church and then its unique head until his martyrdom in 62. Since the Jerusalem church was the mother church of all the churches and by many early Christians accorded a central authority over the whole Christian movement, James played a key role throughout the Christian movement. In the letter of James he writes from this position of central authority in Jerusalem to Jewish Christians throughout the Diaspora. Many references to him (e.g., Gos. Thom. 12) and works associated with him in early Christian literature outside the NT also attest the remarkable impact he made.

After James’s death (whether immediately or after 70 is unclear) his cousin Simeon son of Clopas succeeded him as leader of the Jerusalem church. Simeon occupied this position for at least forty years, until he was put to death by the Roman authorities on a charge of political subversion, since he belonged to a Davidic family (either between 99 and 103 or between 108 and 117; Hegesippus, quoted in Eusebius Hist. Eccl. 3.11; 3.32.6; 4.22.4). It is possible but not certain that the third leader of the Jerusalem church, named in the Jerusalem bishops’ lists as either Justus or Judas, was also a relative of Jesus.

While James occupied the position of central authority in Jerusalem, the other three brothers of Jesus and perhaps also his sisters were traveling missionaries. Paul’s reference to them in this role (1 Cor 9:5) is revealing, since it shows that they, along with Peter, were the obvious examples for Paul to cite, even when writing to Corinth, of people well known as traveling missionaries, whose right to the support due to apostles was unquestionable. The letter of Jude can be understood in relation to the implication of 1 Corinthians 9:5 that Jude the brother of Jesus was a very well-known Christian leader.

Paul’s reference correlates with the later testimony of Julius Africanus, who lived at Emmaus in the early third century and derived his information from a Palestinian Jewish Christian source. He says that the relatives of Jesus, who were known as the desposynoi, “from the Jewish villages of Nazareth and Kokhaba traveled around the rest of the land” (quoted in Eusebius Hist. Eccl. 1.7.14). The term desposynoi, meaning “those who belong to the Master [or Sovereign: despoteœs],” is not known from any other source and must be the term by which members of the family of Jesus were known in those Palestinian Jewish Christian circles in which they were revered leaders. It demonstrates that not only “the brothers of the Lord” but also a wider circle of relatives (including, for example, Clopas and his wife, Mary) played a prominent leadership role. Kokhaba is a village close to Nazareth. Evidently the traditional Galilean homes of Jesus’ relatives remained the base from which they traveled and exercised leadership elsewhere in Jewish Palestine.

Among those who were prominent in the leadership of the Christian movement at the end of the first century were the two grandsons of Jude. This at least must be a reliable inference from the somewhat legendary account that Hegesippus gives about them. He says that, like Simeon son of Clopas, they came under suspicion, since they were descendants of David, and were brought before the emperor Domitian himself. As evidence that they were not politically dangerous, they pointed out that they were merely hard-working peasant farmers, farming only 39 plethra of land (quoted in Eusebius Hist. Eccl. 3.19.1—3.20.7; 3.32.5–6). The precise figure suggests an accurate knowledge of the size of the family’s small holding in Nazareth, which had passed down to Zoker and James and would have been well known to Palestinian Jewish Christians.

4. Mary and Joseph.
From the second century onward Christian literary and legendary imagination gave much attention to Jesus’ family background and especially to his mother, Mary. From the early second century onward, not only Joseph but also Mary was considered a descendant of David (Ign. Eph. 18.2; Ign. Trall. 9.1; Ign. Smyrn. 1.1; Asc. Isa. 11.2; Justin Dial. Tryph. 45.4; 100.3; Protev. Jas. 10.1). The mid-second-century Protevangelium of James tells of the birth of Mary to her parents Joachim and Anna, her childhood spent in the temple, her marriage to Joseph, already an aged widower with children who takes her into his house as her guardian, and the birth of Jesus in a miraculous manner, leaving Mary’s virginity unimpaired. The work seems designed especially to celebrate the role of Mary as pure virgin and instrument of God’s salvation. The miraculous birth of Jesus also appears in Ignatius (Ign. Eph. 19.1), the Ascension of Isaiah (Asc. Isa. 11.2-14) and the Odes of Solomon (Odes Sol. 19).

Later birth and infancy gospels follow the model provided by the Protevangelium of James, but only the Coptic History of Joseph the Carpenter (probably fourth or fifth century) focuses on Joseph, featuring especially an account of his death narrated by Jesus. Of Mary’s life after the ministry of Jesus the NT gives only a very early glimpse in Acts 1:14. According to later tradition, reflected in the Assumption literature (fourth century onward), she stayed in Jerusalem, where this literature describes her death and burial and the assumption of her body to heaven. That she moved to Ephesus with the apostle John (cf. John 19:27) and died there is an alternative later tradition with no support in the earlier Christian traditions associated with Ephesus.

BIBLIOGRAPHY. R. J. Bauckham, “The Brothers and Sisters of Jesus: An Epiphanian Response to John P. Meier,” CBQ 56 (1994) 686–700; idem, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1990); idem, “Mary of Clopas (John 19:25)” in Women in the Biblical Tradition, ed. G. J. Brooke (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1992) 231–55; W. A. Bienert, “The Relatives of Jesus” in New Testament Apocrypha, ed., W. Schneemelcher and R. McL. Wilson, (2 vols.; rev. ed.; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1991) 1: 470–91.

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