Jesus, Jewish Big Brother: Gospel Truths about Jesus’s Family Hidden in Plain ViewAuthor: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Family, James, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Jude, Mark
The Gospels plainly talk about many things but because of the massive cultural gulf between then and now go right over our head (as the saying goes).
It comes as a surprise to many that Jesus is Jewish. I was in a discussion about Jesus with a non-practicing Jew recently and he was stunned to learn Jesus is a Jew. Plenty of Gentile believers are just as surprised. Then we have those that “know” he is a Jew but that reality has not been processed.
It also shocks some when they realize that Jesus had brothers and sisters. He lived in a typical Jewish family in a small back woods village. Jesus was the “son” of a carpenter, and a carpenter himself. As such Jesus was not at the bottom of the economic scale therefore not a “peasant” but certainly familiar with the notion of trusting in God to provide daily food. He was part of the working class. He Joseph, and his brothers could have worked in Sepphoris which was a massive construction zone for most of Jesus’s life.
But what was it like to grow up with Jesus? We have to be very careful to avoid piously reading things back into the text that simply were never there. What was it like to have a brother that claimed the things Jesus did for himself? The Gospels are not are not silent on this matter.
1) We know that Jesus/Yeshua, and his siblings, were raised in a very pious and proud Jewish family. The Gospels tell us this in a variety of ways but one is thru the names of Yeshua’s brothers. Of course Jesus himself is named for the hero in the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e. Joshua/Yeshua) that lead the children of Israel into the Holy Land in the book of Joshua/Jesus. But Mark 6.3 tells us that Yeshua’s brothers were named, “James, and Joseph and Judas and Simon …” Here is a sign lit in neon lights
that we, modern westerners, simply pass over. First we miss the significance because translators are notoriously conservative (some people think conservativism is fruit of the Spirit but it often blinds us). the name James is actually Jacob. Joseph and Mary name the second oldest (seems like a family name too) in honor of the Patriarch whose name is symbolic of Israel itself. Joseph is not only “dad’s” name but the father of the other two tribes, so between “Jacob and Joseph” you have the entire nation of Israel. Some may wave their magic wand and dismiss this as insignificant if not for what is next. Jesus has two more brothers named “Judas” and “Simon.” Now because modern evangelicals usually know next to nothing of the Apocrypha they completely miss the point. But Jesus’ brothers are named after two of the most famous Maccabean war heroes! (See 1-2 Maccabees on Judas and Simon). Clearly, Israel’s heritage was something that was celebrated in the home Jesus/Yeshua grew up in. I grew up in the South. If someone’s parents named you Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee or Nathan Bedford (and I have met every one of these) there was a reason they did so!
2) We know little (nothing) of Jesus’ relationship with his siblings until after his ministry begins at age 30. If Joseph, Mary’s husband, had passed away then the responsibility for being head of the family would have fallen on Jesus/Joshua as the eldest son. It seems however that Jesus’s ministry directly affected his family relations. We notice that he made Capernaum rather than Nazareth his home base. A first century Jew would have asked why? If Jesus had taken up public ministry in place of being head of the family this would radically affect the entire family. James/Jacob would become the defacto head of the family. When we read in Mark 3.20, 30-35 that Jesus’ “family” comes to “restrain” him there is no mention of Joseph – very odd if he were still alive. First, the community thought Jesus was “beside himself.” The family in 3.20 is acting in a manner to protect the family honor from shame. Jesus’ public behavior is interpreted as dishonor and the family – Mary and the brothers – would be responsible for reigning the Maverick in. It is beyond reasonable doubt they have serious concern for Jesus’ behavior.
3) Coupling Mark 3 with John 7.2-5, we have more support for a growing rift between Yeshua and his siblings. This is completely understandable in a “traditional society” where honor and shame (as Jewish society was) are among the ultimate cultural values. John 7.5 states point blank that James/Jacob, Joseph, Judas and Simon – the brothers – did not believe. We learn at least two things from this text. First, Jesus’s family remains devout Jews making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem as a unit (7.10). And second, they knew Jesus had a following and had supposedly performed some signs and they attempt to goad him into revealing himself publicly. John, knowing his readers are as steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures as Yeshua and his brothers, cannot help but see the haunting parallel of sibling rivalry here displayed on the pages of Jesus between the 11 brothers and Joseph (Genesis 37). Ben Witherington has suggested that John 7 also represents a “good faith effort” on the part of James/Jacob to bring Jesus back into the family fold – since he is now the defacto head of the family.
4) Probably nothing demonstrates the frayed relations between Yeshua and his family as his death. the Gospels do not hide this. Rather for those in tune with the culture of first century Palestine it is glaring. Even estranged brothers and sisters will show up for a funeral! But Jesus’s family, save Mary, is to be found nowhere near Jesus when he is crucified and buried. The issue here is, again, honor and shame in that culture. If Jesus was perceived to have already shamed the family during his ministry, that he died in the most shameful of all ways possible in the ancient world would simply be “the straw that broke the camel’s back” as they say. James/Jacob is not there. Judas is not there. Simon is not there. Joseph is not there. John has prepared us for this rather shocking development by telling us Jesus’ brothers were not believers. When Jesus’s body is removed from the Cross and buried, it is not family that claim him or bury him in the family grave. He is buried in the cave of a stranger – Joseph of Arimathea.
5) Something happened to Jesus’s family. I am convinced that James/Jacob, the Lord’s brother (as Paul refers to him), rejected Jesus because he abandoned his place as head of the family and thought he had shamed the family. Thus he was not a believer. John 7 seems to indicate the brothers even thought Jesus was a self-seeking individual who wanted his name in lights. I do not think they thought those things before Yeshua’s baptism and ministry. Something happened to change that point of view. Shame is a very tall hill to overcome in a traditional society. But Luke tells us that Mary “and his brothers” were among those gathered with the 120 in Jerusalem. Clearly a massive shift has taken place. Brothers who wanted nothing to do with the shame of the cross are now among his followers. The Gospels never tell us. Acts never tells us. But Paul does. “Then he appeared to more than five hundred … then he appeared to James/Jacob, then to all the apostles [not the Twelve]. Last of all … he appeared to me” (1 Cor 15-3-8). I suspect that Jesus probably appeared to all his family but Jacob is singled out probably because he became the most influential man in the first century Way.
6) Yeshua’s brother Jacob – Ya’akov in Hebrew – went on to become the most important and influential person in the early church before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. This may surprise Evangelicals since for them Paul is sometimes the only person in the New Testament (seemingly!) besides Jesus. But in Paul’s own day, James was much more influential and seems to have more influence than the Twelve themselves. Though Peter was the first to proclaim the inclusion of Gentiles into God’s renewed Israel, it was James that lead the Council of Jerusalem to accept Gentiles because this was the fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures themselves had prophesied.
7) Jesus’ other brother Judas, named for Judas the Maccabee, also became a leader in the Way. His little book tucked away in the NT just before the book of Revelation bleeds with traditional Jewish images and references.
When we become attune to the cultural setting of Jesus’ ministry played out on the pages of the Gospels we notice things that have been there all along. We just did not not have eyes to see. The writers do not hide the fact that Jesus was himself a scandal. He was a maverick. He was on a mission. His ministry caused a rift, and I am sure it was a painful one for him, in his family. We see his Jewish roots run deep. We see his family reject him. We see they practically disown him in his death. But we see finally the very brother that rejected him willing to die in his name. I will close with sort of a lengthy quotation from Josephus, the Jewish historian, says about the death of the by then very famous James/Jacob the Just. Josephus will have the last word … be blessed …
“The younger Ananus, who as we have said, had been appointed to the high priesthood, was rash in his temper and unusually daring. He followed the school of the Sadducees, who are indeed more savage than any of the other Jews, as I have already explained, when they sit in judgement. Possessed of such a character, Ananus thought that he had a favorable opportunity because Festus was dead and Albinus was still on the way. And so he convened the judges of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the Law and delivered them up to be stoned. Those of the inhabitants of the city who were considered to be the most fair-minded and who were strict in observance of the Law were offended at this. They therefore secretly sent to King Agrippa urging him, for Ananus had not even been correct in his first step, to order him to desist from any further such actions. Certain of them even went to meet Albinus who was on his way from Alexandria, and informed him that Ananus had no authority to convene the Sanhedrin without his consent. Convinced by these words, Albinus angrily wrote to Ananus threatening to take vengeance upon him. King Agrippa, because of Ananus’ action, deposed him from the high priesthood which he held for three months” (Antiquities of the Jews, 20.199-203).
Texts to read: Matthew 13.55; Mk 3.20, 30-35; Mk 6.1-3; Jn 2.12; Jn 7.1-5, 10.