In the last several notes, I have been looking at the main Gospel traditions involving the family and relatives of Jesus. These early traditions occasionally put Jesus’ relatives in something of a negative light—suggesting a certain misunderstanding of who he is and the nature of his mission, and, at times, even reflecting opposition toward him. Such traditions soon would disappear; we can actually see this process at work, by noting that there is nothing corresponding to Mark 3:20-21 in either Matthew or Luke—the episode described briefly in those verses has ‘dropped out’ of the Gospel Tradition. At the same time, Jesus’ family came to achieve a revered position and status in the early Church. While we know virtually nothing of Jesus’ sisters (mentioned in Mk 6:3), his mother (Mary) and at least some of his brothers began to feature prominently in early Christian tradition by the end of the first century. Something of this is reflected already in the New Testament, and must, on objective grounds, go back to authentic (historical) tradition. Here I will briefly examine the New Testament references (1) to Mary, (2) to James, and finally (3) the important Lukan description in Acts 1:14.
1. Mary, the mother of Jesus
It is scarcely necessary to mention the revered position of Mary, as Jesus’ mother, well-established (with traditions full of fabulous details), by the early 2nd century A.D. It has always been somewhat surprising to Christians that the New Testament, on the whole, has so little to say about her. If we separate out the Infancy Narratives of Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2, she is mentioned by name in just one passage—Mark 6:3 (par Matt 13:55). In several other places she is referred to as “his mother”, or otherwise indirectly (Mark 3:31-32ff par; John 2:3ff; 19:25-27; Gal 4:4). Given the importance of the virgin birth for Christians past and present, it is worth pointing out that even the birth of Jesus is scarcely mentioned in the New Testament, apart from the Infancy narratives.
Mary appears in the Matthean Infancy narrative , but it is really Joseph who is featured most prominently in those passages (1:16, 18-25; 2:13-15, 19-23). On the other hand, in the Gospel of Luke, Mary takes center stage. It is she who receives the Angelic message (1:26-38), is honored by Elizabeth (1:39-45), utters the Magnificat hymn [according to most MSS] (1:46-55), has a central place in the birth scene (2:5-7, 16-19), and in the purification ritual that brings the family to the Temple (2:22-24), and is addressed directly within Simeon’s oracle (2:34-35). I have discussed the Infancy narratives in considerable detail in several study series for Advent and Christmas season (“And you shall call His Name…“, “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus“); here I will point out several verses in the Lukan narrative which indicate Mary’s faith, and, if we may say, her spiritual growth:
- At the Angel’s initial appearance and greeting (1:28-29), Mary is thoroughly disturbed (vb. diatara/ssw) but also “gathers things through” (dialogi/zomai), i.e. in her mind. This use of dialogi/zomai is significant.
- Following the Angel’s message, Mary responds with trust and obedience—”See, (I am) the slave-girl of the Lord; let it come to be for me according to your utterance [i.e. your word]” (v. 38)
- Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary contains the declaration: “and happy [i.e. blessed] (is she) the one trusting that there will be a completion [i.e. fulfillment] to the (thing)s spoken to her (from) alongside the Lord” (v. 45). Again, this indicates Mary’s faith/trust in God.
- After the birth of Jesus, and following the visit of the shepherds announcing the miraculous things they had seen and heard (i.e. Angels’ message, 2:10-14), it is said of Mary in verse 19, that “she kept all these (thing)s (close) together, throwing (them) together, in her heart”. This suggests that Mary is beginning to ponder the true nature and identity of the child born to her. The two verbs used here are parallel to the two in 1:29, following the Angel’s announcement:
- diatara/ssw (pass. “[be] stirred/disturbed through[out]”)
dialogi/zomai (“gather [i.e. consider] [things] through”)
- sunthre/w (“keep [things] together”)
sumba/llw (“cast/throw [things] together”, i.e. in one’s mind)
- diatara/ssw (pass. “[be] stirred/disturbed through[out]”)
- In 2:21-24, along with v. 39 and 41ff, Mary and Joseph are depicted as faithful in observing the religious requirements and regulations set down in the Old Testament/Jewish Law.
- The statement by Simeon, in his oracle, addressed directly to Mary (in v. 35a): “and a sword also will come/go through your heart”. As I discussed in an earlier note, this declaration may possibly allude to Ezekiel 14:17, and the sword of God’s Judgment that will pass through the land. If Mary represents the people of Israel, at the transition point between the Old and New Covenants, then the sword that separates and divides (cf. the context of vv. 34-35) will also pass through Mary (her own heart). She, too, will have to come to terms with Jesus’ identity.
- In the following episode (the child Jesus in the Temple, vv. 41-50), it is illustrated that Mary still does not fully understand who Jesus is—his true identity (as God’s Son) and the nature of his mission (to be in/among “the things of God”), cf. verses 48-49.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ mother (not mentioned by name) appears in two episodes. The first is the miracle at Cana (2:1-12), in which she requests Jesus to perform a miracle for the wedding party. This narrative, on objective grounds, has all the earmarks of an early (authentic) tradition, though one which is unique to John. There are also certain similarities between this episode and that of Luke 2:41-50. Each includes a question/request by Mary, and a response by Jesus, illustrating that his mother does not truly understand the nature and purpose of his mission. The second scene occurs at the crucifixion (19:25-27). Critical scholars are more likely to question the historicity of this tradition, since it would seem to have the (apologetic) purpose of giving prominence to the “disciple whom (Jesus) loved”, and is otherwise absent from the well-established Gospel traditions surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus. It is sometimes thought to have symbolic significance—e.g., Mary as the “mother” of the disciples (i.e. the Church, represented by the beloved Disciple). However, I find it much more likely that the significance is literary, in terms of the overall structure of the Fourth Gospel. The two episodes involving Jesus’ mother are set at the very beginning and end of his ministry on earth, respectively—his first public miracle (in Galilee) and his death (in Jerusalem). In view of the portrait of Jesus in this Gospel—as the eternal Son of God who was sent to earth (as a human being)—Mary was only his mother during the short time of his incarnation and earthly ministry. At the time of Jesus’ death, it was necessary to transfer that (human) sonship to another—the one closest to him, the beloved Disciple.
2. James, the Brother of Jesus
In Mark 6:3 (and the parallel in Matthew), four of Jesus’ brothers are named, including Ya’aqob (Heb. bq)u&y~), transliterated into Greek as Ia/kwbo$, and into English as “Jacob” (the corresponding James comes into English through the Latinized form Iacomus). This is the only mention of James in the Gospels. It is not certain if he is to be counted among the brothers of Jesus in Mk 3:31ff par, or the ‘relatives’ in 3:21 (cf. the earlier note on these traditions). Jesus’ brothers are also part of the tradition recorded in Jn 7:1-9 (also discussed in an earlier note). If James was among the brothers mentioned in these passages, it would indicate that he did not understand or believe in Jesus, at least during the Galilean period of ministry.
The earliest New Testament tradition regarding James would appear to be Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15:7, of a resurrection appearance by Jesus to James. Paul cites this as a well-established tradition, passed down to him (vv. 1-3ff), and the way he phrases vv. 3-7 would indicate a relatively fixed (traditional) formula, in place by at least 50 A.D. (if not earlier). In Galatians, Paul does not cite traditions but (his own) memory of recent events in Jerusalem and Antioch. The date of the letter, and the events recorded in chapters 1-2, have varied somewhat among commentators. Style and subject matter suggests a date (for the letter) around the same time as Romans and 2 Corinthians (i.e. early-to-mid-50s). At around 50 A.D., James was an important leader in the Jerusalem Church (1:19; 2:9), whom Paul associates with his Jewish(-Christian) opponents at Antioch and elsewhere (2:12). This generally relates to the controversy addressed at the so-called Jerusalem Council (in Acts 15). In Gal 1:19, Paul refers to James specifically as “the brother of the Lord”.
In the book of Acts, probably written around 70 A.D., but certainly containing many older (historical) traditions, James is mentioned as a leader of the Jerusalem Christians in 12:17. He is also featured in the Jerusalem Council episode (15:13-21), and is associated directly with the letter sent to believers in the region around Antioch (vv. 22-29). What is noteworthy for the author of Acts (trad. Luke) is that Peter and James both speak out in favor of allowing Gentile coverts to be considered part of the Church without requiring their observance of the Old Testament Law (with the exception of the points made in vv. 20-21 and 29). James thus plays a central role in the central episode of the book. After chapter 15, the Jerusalem Church gives way in the narrative to Paul’s missionary work. James does appear in one more episode (21:17-25), which confirms the validity of Paul’s work, but yet still declares the validity of the Law for Jews (and, by extension, Jewish believers). I have dealt with this topic extensively in my earlier series “The Law and the New Testament” (cf. the articles on Paul’s view of the Law, and the Law in Luke-Acts [soon to be posted on this site]).
Later Christian writers preserve additional traditions regarding James, who was surnamed “the Righteous/Just”. Eusebius (Church History 2.1, 23) cites a (lost) writing by Hegesippus which recorded several such traditions, including (a) the great virtue of James, (b) that he was a Nazirite, (c) spent time in the Holy Place of the Temple (dressed in priestly clothing), (d) that Jesus gave special instruction to him following the resurrection appearance (cf. 1 Cor 15:7), and (e) that he was clubbed to death on the parapet of the Temple sanctuary. James’ death is also reported by Josephus in his Antiquities 20.200. Both Eusebius and Jerome (Lives of Illustrious Men 2) consider James to have been Jesus’ half-brother (cf. Mk 15:40 par), and regard him as the first bishop of Jerusalem. James the brother of Jesus is also thought, by most commentators to be the “James” of the New Testament letter, whether such attribution is considered genuine (the traditional-conservative view) or pseudonymous (most critical scholars). Similarly, the “Jude” of the New Testament letter, called “brother of James”, is thought to refer to another of Jesus’ brothers (Mk 6:3 par).
3. Acts 1:14
That at least some of Jesus’ brothers (whether full-brothers, half-brothers, or cousins) had achieved a level of prominence in the early Church is indicated by Paul’s references in Gal 1:19 and 1 Cor 9:5. The latter reference indicates that they were thought of as distinct from the apostles (the Twelve, and others). Yet the brothers of Jesus appear in just one passage of the New Testament, outside of the Gospels—in Acts 1:14. Verses 12-14 are a narrative summary which serves as a transition between the ascension of Jesus (vv. 8-11) and the assembly of the (120) disciples in Jerusalem (vv. 15ff). We read that the disciples who witnessed the ascension returned to Jerusalem, to the (upper) room in which they were staying. Those present were: (a) the Twelve (minus Judas, i.e. Eleven), (b) the women who followed Jesus (cf. Lk 8:2-3; 23:49, 55), (c) his mother Mary, and (d) his brothers. These are precisely the characters who appear in the key section 8:1-21 of the Gospel (vv. 1-3, 19-21). In that passage, Jesus mother and brothers were contrasted with the (close) disciples of Jesus (in vv. 1-3ff). His mother and brothers want to come to Jesus, to meet him and be with him, but are unable to enter the room where he and his disciples are gathered (vv. 19-20)—they remain outside. In Acts, this situation has changed. Now the disciples of Jesus and his family (mother/brothers) are inside, together in the same room. The Jesus’ disciples and his natural family together form a single unified family of faith, a most beautiful picture which essentially fulfills the words of Jesus in Lk 8:21—”my mother and my brothers–these are the ones hearing and doing the word of God!”