Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Period, Pt 2 (Acts 1:14 etc)

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)
  • 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!”

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Period, Pt 2 (Mk 6:1-6)

The second primary tradition in the Gospels related to Jesus’ family and relatives is the episode at Nazareth, recorded in all three of the Synoptic Gospels—Mark 6:1-6a, Matthew 13:53-58, and Luke 4:16-30. There are a number of unique elements in Luke’s account, and it occurs in a different location—at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. These differences have led some traditional-conservative commentators to posit two separate events—that is, two visits to Nazareth, harmonizing the chronology of Luke with Mark/Matthew. However, there is no real basis in the text for such a harmonization; the Gospel writers each know of only one such visit by Jesus to his home town. The basic similarity of the episode makes it all but certain that the Synoptic accounts derive from a single historical tradition. Even though, at the historical level, Jesus conceivably could have made any number of trips back to Nazareth, the Synoptic Gospels record just one visit. I begin by looking at the core (Synoptic) narrative regarding this episode, as found in the Gospel of Mark.

Mark 6:1-6a

The episode recorded in Mk 6:1-6a is rather straightforward:

  • V. 1—Narrative introduction, with two important details:
    (a) “he comes into his father(‘s) land” (i.e. his home territory and village)
    (b) “his learners [i.e. disciples] (are) follow(ing) him”
  • V. 2a—Jesus begins to teach in the Synagogue, and the people who hear him are amazed (lit. “laid out [flat]”)
  • Vv. 2b-3—A summary of the people’s reaction(s), presented as their words, in two parts:
    (1) “From where (did) these things (come) to this (man)?”—”these things” are clarified:
    —”What (is) th(is) wisdom given to this (man)?”
    —”(How is it) these (kind)s of powerful deeds come to be through his hands?”
    (2) “Isn’t this the craftsman [i.e. carpenter], the son of Maryam…?”
    With the concluding narrative statement, “And they were tripped up in [i.e. by] him”
  • V. 4—Saying by Jesus: “A foreteller [i.e. prophet] is not without honor, if not [i.e. except] in his father(‘s) land…”
  • Vv. 5-6a—Narrative conclusion emphasizing two points:
    (a) Jesus was only able to perform a few healing miracles there, and
    (b) “and he wondered through [i.e. at, because of] their lack of trust”

We see referenced here the two main components of Jesus’ ministry—teaching/preaching and performing healing miracles—which are described and narrated throughout the Galilean period in the Synoptic Tradition. This was depicted, in seminal form, in the early episode of Mk 1:21-28 par, which also happens to take place at a local Synagogue (sunagwgh/, lit. a place where people “are brought [or come] together”). These same two aspects are also central to the townspeople’s initial reaction of amazement—the wisdom (i.e. of his teaching, v. 2a) and his powerful deeds (miracles).

The second part of the people’s reaction is significant as it mentions the names of Jesus’ family:

    • his mother Maryam (i.e. Mary)—”is this not the son of Maryam?”
    • four of his brothers—”the brother of…”—listed by name:
      (1) Ya’aqob (Jacob/James), (2) Yoseph (Joseph/Joses), (3) Yehuda (Juda[s]), and (4) Shim’on (Simon)
    • his sisters, mentioned generally—”are not his sisters here toward [i.e. with] us?”

Apart from Mary and Jacob/James (to be discussed in an upcoming note), very little is known of Jesus’ family. There has been much (rather idle) speculation and debate regarding whether Jesus’ “brothers” (and sisters) were full blood brothers, half-brothers, or perhaps even cousins. Much of this has been due to traditional doctrine(s) related to the veneration of Mary and a belief in her perpetual virginity (virginitas post partum, after giving birth [to Jesus]). Most Protestants have little problem with the idea that Joseph and Mary had other children together. Joseph himself is not mentioned here, but Jesus is referred to as “the craftsman/carpenter” (some witnesses read “the son of the craftsman/carpenter”, as in Matt 13:55), and, according to early Christian tradition, Joseph was a carpenter. In the Lukan version of this scene (4:22, cf. the next note), Jesus is called son of Joseph, as also in Jn 6:42. Here, Mk 6:3 (with the Matthean parallel) is the only mention of Mary by name in the Synoptic Gospels outside of the Infancy narratives. It is the people of Nazareth in general, rather than Jesus’ relatives specifically, who exhibit lack of belief/trust in him. We do not know the attitude of his family toward him from this particular account (cp. Mark 3:20-35 par, discussed in an earlier note).

What of the significance of this episode within the narrative context of the Markan Gospel? Its proximity to the subsequent mission of the Twelve (vv. 6b-13) is surely important. The two scenes are juxtaposed with one another, just as the episode(s) in 3:20-35 are with the calling of the Twelve in 3:13-19. The lack of faith/trust exhibited by Jesus’ relatives and hometown acquaintances is contrasted with that of his chosen (and close/faithful) followers. Consider the structure:

  • Calling of the Twelve—with authority to proclaim (the coming Kingdom) and work healing (exorcism) miracles (3:13-19)
    • The response of his relatives/acquaintances to his miracles, etc (3:20-35)
      Jesus’ Galilean ministry: teaching (4:1-34) and miracles (4:35-5:43)
    • The response of his hometown to his miracles, etc (6:1-6a)
  • Mission of the Twelve—authority to preach and work healing (exorcism) miracles (6:6b-13)

When we turn to the (proverbial) saying of Jesus in verse 4

“A foreteller [i.e. prophet] is not without honor, if not [i.e. except] in his father(‘s) land and among his relatives [lit. those b(orn) together with (him)] and in his (own) house!”

a significant point to note is that he refers to himself as a prophet. This association, in the context of his ministry activity—as one who proclaims the Kingdom and works miracles—will be developed further in Luke’s version of this scene. Jesus as a prophet, in connection with his identity the Anointed One (Messiah) of God, will feature prominently in two of the scenes (the first and last) which make up the remainder of the Galilean ministry period in Mark’s narrative—Mk 6:14-15ff and 8:27-30.

Matthew 13:53-58

Matthew’s account follows that of Mark very closely. The differences are slight, and there is no evidence of any “Q” material being included—i.e. no sayings or details shared by Luke but not found in Mark. Overall the narrative is a bit simpler and smoother compared with Mark’s version. Here, then, we have a dual presentation of what I would call the core Synoptic tradition. Luke’s version of the scene, on the other hand, differs considerably at several points, which I will be discussing in the next note.

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Period, Pt 2 (Matt 12:46-50; Lk 8:19-21)

In the previous note, I discussed the two episodes in Mark 3:20-21 and 31-35, in which Jesus’ natural family and relatives are contrasted with the true family of his faithful disciples. I mentioned how Matthew and Luke do not contain anything corresponding to the first episode, but each has a version of the second—in Matthew 12:46-50 and Luke 8:19-21, respectively.

Matthew 12:46-50

Matthew’s version has a very different setting. Not only is the scene from Mk 3:20-21 absent, but the “Beelzebul controversy” episode (12:22-32) is kept separate from the scene contrasting Jesus’ natural and true family (12:46-50). This is the result of the ‘insertion’ of three sections of teaching (vv. 33-37, 38-42, 43-45) in between. The last two sections are part of the so-called “Q” material, found also in Luke, in a slightly different location and order (Lk 11:29-32, 24-26). Overall, the inclusion of vv. 22-45 makes the section function as a condemnation of the faithlessness and wickedness of the Age—including the cities and towns (of Galilee) in which Jesus has been preaching and working miracles. This narrative block begins with verses 15-21, and the Scripture citation of Isaiah 42:1-4 (vv. 18-21), which holds a similar place in Matthew’s narrative as does the citation of Isa 61:1 in Luke 4:17-21. Many people have not responded as they should to God’s Chosen One, who has been marked (and anointed) by the Spirit. It is by the Spirit of God that Jesus works miracles and casts out demons (12:28). This emphasis in v. 28 is one of the Matthean additions (Q material, cf. Lk 11:20) to the core Synoptic tradition, along with verses 22-23 and 30. They also give the section a stronger eschatological orientation—i.e., Jesus’ miracles are a sign that the Kingdom of God has come.

We can see how these additions, along with their distinctive emphasis, has modified the sense of the episode in verses 46-50 as well. There is the same contrast as in Mark—Jesus’ natural family vs. his true/spiritual family—but it yields a different implication in the Matthean context. The idea seems to be that not even Jesus’ own (natural) family will escape the Judgment, on the basis of their family ties; rather, only those who follow him faithfully (to the end) will be saved. There is an echo of this teaching (with a similar contrast) earlier in 10:34-39, and it is almost certainly implied in vv. 46-50 as well. Matthew’s version of the scene is presented in a more public, dramatic fashion; note some key differences (compared with Mark’s version):

    • Jesus is speaking to the crowd (v. 46a); this serves to join the narrative to the ‘inserted’ blocks of teaching in vv. 33-45.
    • It is narrated specifically that Jesus’ mother and brothers were seeking him out to speak with him (v. 46b).
    • The double use of the pronoun ti$ (“who”) in Jesus’ rhetorical question (v. 48) gives it a more solemn, formal sound.
    • Jesus delivers an emphatic gesture—stretching out his hand to those around him (v. 49, Mk has “looking around”). The gesture is also directed specifically toward his disciples.
    • In the final declaration (v. 50) Jesus uses “My Father (in the heavens)” instead of “God”; this gives added emphasis to the family aspect of the scene (cp. Lk 2:48-49).

Luke 8:19-21

The Lukan narrative context is different again. Not only is the scene of Mk 3:20-21 absent, but the “Beelzebul controversy” episode has been set in an entirely different location, at a later point in the narrative (Lk 11:14-23). As in Matthew, this episode is connected with the teaching on the “return of the unclean spirit” (vv. 24-26; Matt 12:43-45) and the “sign of Jonah” (vv. 29-32; Matt 12:38-42), and may reflect a traditional ordering of the “Q” material used by both Gospels. In any event, the Beelzebul scene, with its hostility toward Jesus’ ministry, has been removed completely from the context of 8:19-21. Another major change is that the parable of the Sower has been placed ahead of the scene in 8:19-21, contrary to the (Synoptic order) of Mark/Matthew. Luke has also added the important narrative summary in 8:1-3. Let us see how these changes have altered the outline of the narrative (in relation to vv. 19-21):

    • 8:1-3—Summary of the ministry work of Jesus (preaching the Good News and working healing miracles), and of the close disciples (the Twelve and others) who are following him. Luke uses the very language of Mk 3:14 (the calling of the Twelve), stating that these disciples were with him (met’ au)tou=).
    • 8:4-15—The Parable of the Sower, including the traditional elements:
      —vv. 4-8: The parable itself
      —vv. 9-10: The statement that the “secrets of the Kingdom” are only given to his (close) disciples
      —vv. 11-5: An explanation of the parable
    • 8:16-18—The Parable/illustration of the Lamp, with the two-fold (eschatological) warning in vv. 17-18
    • 8:19-21—The Scene/Saying regarding Jesus’ mother and brothers

Very little remains of the stark contrast presented in Mk 3:20-35; instead, the emphasis is primarily on the disciples of Jesus, their faithfulness to him, and the reward that will result from it. Several small, but significant, changes to the episode in 8:19-21 follow this general theme:

    • In verse 19, Jesus’ mother and brothers themselves desire to come to Jesus and meet with him (using the vb. suntugxa/nw). They are physically unable to reach him “through the crowd”.
    • Luke retains the image of Jesus’ mother and brothers “standing outside”, but their purpose is not merely to “speak” to Jesus, but to meet/be together with him (v. 19) and to see him (v. 20). The motif of seeing Christ is important in the Gospel of Luke (2:26, 30; 3:6, etc), as also in the Gospel of John, and frequently has theological/Christological significance.
    • The formulation of Jesus’ declaration (v. 21) is different. In Mark/Matthew, Jesus looks/motions to his disciples, and says regarding them:
      See, (here are) my mother and my brothers!” (Mk 3:34).
      The saying in v. 35 follows:
      [For] whoever would do the will of God—this (one) is my brother and sister and mother

Luke’s version of the climactic declaration, on the other hand, has largely removed (or has avoided) the basic contrast between Jesus’ natural and true/spiritual family, through a simple modification/abridgment of the saying:

“My mother and my brothers—these are the ones hearing and doing the account [i.e. word] of God”

This allows one to understand the saying to include Jesus’ mother and brothers as being among the faithful ones. We will see how this relates to the overall portrait of Jesus’ mother (Mary) and brothers in Luke-Acts in an upcoming note.

Luke 11:27-28

As it happens, there is a parallel saying of Jesus in Luke which preserves a bit more of the original contrast found in Mk 3:20-35 par. In Luke 11:27-28, a simple tradition is recorded, in which a woman utters a blessing (macarism) to Jesus (v. 27):

“Happy the belly [i.e. womb] carrying you and the nipples that you (have) sucked!”

Jesus responds with a blessing of his own (v. 28):

“(Indeed) but then (all the more) happy (are) the (one)s hearing the account [i.e. word] of God and guarding (it)!”

The woman’s blessing refers to Jesus’ mother in a concrete physical/biological sense. While Jesus does not exactly reject this statement, he certainly downplays its significance and redirects it. This is done with the compound particle menou=n(ge), which is rather difficult to render in English; it probably should be understood as something like “yes, but then all the more…” or “indeed, but now, truly…” Natural family ties mean relatively little compared with faithfulness to God (and Jesus). It is possible that the expression “the account [i.e. word, lo/go$] of God” from this saying, along with the specific idea of hearing the word of God, has been used to modify the (Lukan) form of the earlier, parallel saying in 8:21. A version of the saying in 11:27-28 has also been preserved in the “Gospel of Thomas” (§79), which likely is derived from Luke (along with 23:29).

Before proceeding to the episode at Nazareth (Mk 6:1-6a par), it is necessary to examine one rare passage in the Gospel of John which seems to have some relationship to the Synoptic traditions in Mk 3:20-21 and 31-35 par. This will be discussed in the next note.

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Galilean Period, Pt 2 (Mk 3:20-34)

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:

    1. Mark 3:20-35 (vv. 20-21, 31-35) and parallels
    2. 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.

Mark 3:20-35

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.

Mark 3:31-35

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)
    • A crowd of followers is sitting around him (v. 32a)
      • Messengers report about his mother and brothers (v. 32b)
  • Jesus’ asks: “Who is my mother and [my] brothers?” (v. 33)
    • He looks at the followers round about him (v. 34a)
      • Declaration of his (true) mother and brothers (vv. 34b-35)

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)
    • Jesus’ statement that the one who does [vb. poie/w] the will of God is (or becomes) part of his true family (v. 35); compare the reference to his (natural) ‘relatives’ as those who are alongside of him (v. 21)
  • The context in v. 15 of Jesus and the Twelve casting out daimons (vb. e)kba/llw)
    • This is also part of the narrative setting of vv. 31-35—verses 22ff, with the repeated used of 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.