The next topic to be discussed in this section, on the Galilean Ministry of Jesus (cf. the Introduction), are the traditions involving Jesus’ family and relatives. This is a simpler study, in that only a very few passages in the Gospels relate to it. However, it is most interesting for our study of the development of the Gospel Tradition, since it demonstrates how traditions, expressing a different point of view or emphasis, can develop alongside one another.
In the early Church, Jesus’ natural family—his brothers and mother (Mary)—held a prominent and revered position, which, by the first half of the 2nd century, had become quite well-established. This is indicated already in the New Testament in several places (1 Cor 9:5; Acts 1:14; Luke 1:26-56), especially with regard to the position of James among the Christians in Jerusalem (Gal 1:19; Acts 12:17; 15:13ff, etc). However, the early Gospel tradition tells rather a different story. There are scant references to Jesus’ family and relatives, but those which have come down to us are characterized by misunderstanding, even hostility, to Jesus’ ministry. There are two main passages to be discussed:
- Mark 3:20-35 (vv. 20-21, 31-35) and parallels
- The Episode at Nazareth (Mark 6:1-6a par)
According to the method I have adopted in this series, I begin with the Gospel of Mark as representing the basic Synoptic tradition. This is not to say that Mark’s account is always the earliest or simplest version, but it generally shows fewer signs of (secondary) development, compared with Matthew and Luke.
As it happens, this section follows directly after the calling of the Twelve (Apostles) by Jesus (3:13-19), as discussed extensively in the prior notes. In the Markan narrative this provides a clear and distinct contrast between Jesus’ relatives (his natural family) and his followers (his true/spiritual family). Two episodes are brought together in this section—verses 20-21 and 31-35, respectively. In the middle of these we find the “Beelzebul controversy” (vv. 22-30), a (hostile) encounter between Jesus and certain ‘experts’ on Scripture (the Law/Torah) who have come down from Jerusalem to see him. This controversy scene centers on the healing miracles performed by Jesus (cf. the immediate context of verses 7-12 & 15), which involved the exorcism (casting out) of the (semi-)divine beings (daimons), or spirits, understood as being responsible for many diseases and ailments.
According to the monotheistic view of Israelites and Jews, true deity only existed in God the Father (El/Yahweh [YHWH]). As a natural consequence, all other ‘lesser’ deities, recognized by the surrounding nations, were relegated to the position of evil spirits. The famous Canaanite deity of Baal (i.e. the “Lord/Master”, Haddu), so well-known from ancient tradition, was fittingly viewed as the “Prince” of these daimons (or “demons”). This designation was preserved in the Gospels, transliterated in Greek as Beelzebou/l (Beelzeboúl, “Baal-Zebul, originally “Baal [the] Exalted [One]”).
The thematic connection between the Beelzebul episode and verses 20-21 is important to note. Consider the sequence of events narrated in these two verses:
- A crowd of followers has gathered around Jesus at the house where he was residing (v. 19b-20). No doubt this was due to the many healing miracles he had been performing (vv. 7-12).
- Certain friends/relatives/acquaintances of Jesus (lit. “the ones alongside [of] him”), hearing about the miracles, and, it would seem, shocked by the sensation caused by his ministry, respond dramatically (v. 21):
(a) they went out to “grasp hold” of him (i.e. seize him)
(b) they declared “he stands out of (himself)”, i.e. is “out of his mind”
To cite a modern parallel, Jesus’ relatives and/or acquaintances wish to have him taken into custody (committed) on the grounds of insanity. In the ancient world, such “madness” was typically seen as being caused by the presence of divine beings/spirits (daimons, or “demons”). This was essentially the claim made by the religious experts in verses 22ff—that Jesus “holds Baal-Zebul”, and so performs healing miracles through the power of “the prince of demons”. Jesus’ response in verses 23-27 takes the form of a parable, illustrating the practical impossibility of such a claim. This leads into the famous saying on the Holy Spirit in vv. 28-29. The Gospel writer makes the connection clear by the explanation in verse 30—the religious leaders claimed that Jesus worked miracles through a demon-spirit rather than the Holy Spirit of God. This fundamental lack of understanding regarding Jesus’ ministry provides the setting for the episode in verses 31-35.
Here, Jesus’ mother and brothers are mentioned (also his sisters in v. 32 v.l.), creating a more specific and detailed situation than that of vv. 20-21. This also establishes a more direct contrast—between Jesus’ natural family and his true family (of followers/believers). The contrast is clear enough by the repeating elements of the verses in sequence:
- His mother and brothers come (seeking him) (v. 31)
- Jesus’ asks: “Who is my mother and [my] brothers?” (v. 33)
There is a possible play on words in v. 31, where it is said that Jesus’ mother and brothers were “standing outside” (e&cw sth/konte$), i.e. outside of the house/room where Jesus and his followers were gathered. Etymologically, this expression is related to the verb used in v. 21, where Jesus’ relatives declare that “he stands out of (himself)” (e)ce/sth); on this, cf. above. Note that this passage also contains certain vocabulary that alludes back to the calling of the Twelve in vv. 13-19:
- In vv. 13-14, Jesus calls the Twelve toward [proskalei=tai] him, and they come toward [pro/$] him, so that he might send them forth [a)poste/llh|] as his representatives (i.e. apostles)
- Jesus’ mother and brothers come to him, and send forth [a)pe/steilan] messengers toward [pro/$] him, calling [kalou=nte$] him (v. 31)
- In v. 14, Jesus makes [vb. poie/w] the Twelve to be his close followers, to be with him (i.e. as his true family)
- The context in v. 15 of Jesus and the Twelve casting out daimons (vb. e)kba/llw)
All of these parallels serve to emphasize the contrast established between Jesus’ natural family, and the true family made up of his faithful followers (disciples). The subsequent passage, the parable of the Sower and its explanation (4:1-9, 10-20), confirms this point. In verse 11 Jesus’ disciples are contrasted with “the ones outside [e&cw]”, just as his mother/brothers are “standing outside [e&cw]” the room where Jesus and his disciples are gathered.
As we shall see (in the next note), the Gospels of Matthew and Luke have each handled this episode in a different way, both adapting the core tradition and expanding the narrative with other traditional material. One point in common is that neither Matthew or Luke includes anything corresponding to Mk 3:20-21. There are two possibilities; either (a) both Gospels have omitted it from Mark (or a similar Synoptic source), or (b) Mark has added the verses to the core Synoptic tradition. In either case, the Matthean and Lukan narratives omit any reference to actual hostility by Jesus’ natural family toward his ministry in this scene. This reflects a general tendency within the Gospel Tradition to downplay or eliminate details which cast Jesus’ family members in a negative light.