The mysterious “brothers of Jesus” are mentioned several times in the New Testament. Were they really his brothers? Or something else?
That’s a much more complicated question than it looks. I think a good starting point is with the gospel of Mark.
Most New Testament scholars believe that the gospel of Mark was the first of the four gospels to be written, sometime around the year AD 70.
There’s an interesting story in Mark chapter 6, verses 1 to 6, about Jesus going to his hometown after he’d gotten somewhat famous in the rest of Galilee. You can read it here.
Take a look at verse 3, in which the people of Nazareth complain about Jesus: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him.” (KJV)
There are a lot of interesting points in this one verse. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
What We Learn About the Family of Jesus
Here are four things we learn from this text:
- Jesus was a “carpenter.” This is the only verse in the Bible (other than the parallel verse in Matthew 13:55) that tells us what Jesus did for a living. The Greek word is “tekton” which is a broad term that can include people who work in wood, metal, or stone. So we don’t actually know for sure whether Jesus was a carpenter, or a metal-worker, or a stone-worker.
- Jesus is called “the son of Mary.” That’s rather odd. We know that Mary was married to Joseph. So why isn’t Jesus called the “son of Joseph?” You can probably think of several possible reasons, but we don’t know which is right. We can guess, but we don’t know with certainty.
- Joseph is not mentioned at all in this verse. Most scholars think it’s because Joseph was dead. This seems likely to me, but again, nobody knows for sure.
- Four brothers of Jesus and at least two sisters are mentioned. The brothers are named James, Joses, Judah, and Simon. The sisters aren’t named, and we don’t know how many there were.
What Does it Mean by “Brothers?”
Scholars have debated for centuries what the words “brothers” and “sisters” mean. You might think it’s “obvious” what these words mean, and it certainly would be obvious if the Bible was originally written in English. But the New Testament was originally written in Greek, and it’s about people who spoke Aramaic. So there’s always the possibility that something got lost in the double-translation from the Aramaic story world to the Greek texts to the English translations.
It’s worth noting that there are several other New Testament texts that refer to these “brothers.” We’ve already mentioned Matthew 13:55, which is Matthew’s restatement of the text in Mark. In Mark 3, Matthew 12, and Luke 8, there are three parallel stories about Mary and the brothers of Jesus coming to look for him. Also, the apostle Paul talks about “James, the Lord’s brother” in Galatians 1:19. And Paul also mentions the “brothers of the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 9:5.
The elephant in the room is that there is an ancient tradition that says Mary was a perpetual virgin. Maybe you don’t believe the tradition, and maybe you do, but the point here is that many people over the centuries have believed it. And, for them, that means these “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus can’t be born of Mary.
Three Theories on the Brothers of Jesus
So here are the three main options that Christians have come up with over the years on the brothers (and sisters) of Jesus: (These theories are discussed in more detail in a Wikipedia article here.)
- Joseph was married earlier to another woman, by whom he had four sons and at least two daughters. This first wife died and then Joseph married Mary, who was already pregnant with Jesus. (This view is common among modern Eastern Orthodox Christians.)
- Joseph married Mary, who was already pregnant with Jesus, and Jesus was the only child in this nuclear family. The four “brothers” and the “sisters” were actually cousins of Jesus, born to his uncle Clopas and aunt Mary. Either this uncle Clopas was the brother of Joseph, or this aunt Mary was the sister of his mother Mary, or both. (This view is common among modern Catholics.)
- Joseph married Mary, who was already pregnant with Jesus, and then they later had four more sons and at least two more daughters. (This view is common among modern Protestants.)
And there are other theories held by various Biblical scholars which I won’t go into, because it gets complicated very quickly. My friend, Prof. James Tabor, has written extensively about this on his blog and in his books. (James is one of the directors on the archaeological dig I’ve worked on several times. We agree on many things and disagree on many things, and we can have a spirited discussion without getting angry.)
Which Theory is Right?
Large groups of Christians have defended each of these major options. Various of the early church fathers supported each of these options.
Which theory is right?
That’s a loaded question. There are some strong theological opinions bound up here, and sometimes people get extremely angry.
I think we don’t all have to agree on the answer. We can discuss it without getting emotional. Different people have different beliefs and we can respect other people’s beliefs, even if we don’t agree. The reason I’m blogging about it here is that not everyone is aware that there actually are different viewpoints. I was raised not knowing that Options 1 and 2 existed. I had an email from one of my fans not long ago who didn’t realize that Option 3 existed.
The main point of this blog post is to point out that there are several live options, and that people of good will can disagree on which is right.
I was raised Protestant, and grew up believing Option 3 is correct. (As I mentioned above, for a long time, I didn’t know there even were Options 1 and 2. I thought everyone believed Option 3.)
My view is that we can’t know for certain which option is correct. It looks to me like most historians and New Testament scholars believe that the “brothers” and the “sisters” are best understood as being sons and daughters of both Joseph and Mary, as in Option 3. But not all historians. Not all New Testament scholars. History is fuzzy.
How a Novel is Different from History
Historians often will lay out all the evidence and then make a list of the possible interpretations of the evidence, the way I did above. Usually, they say which interpretation they think is most likely. But they leave open the possibility that one of the other interpretations could be right.
It works fine to keep our history a bit fuzzy. None of us knows everything. We have to always remember we could be wrong.
But fuzziness doesn’t work so well in writing a historical novel.
If you’re writing a novel about Jesus, and if all the members of his family are important characters in the novel, then you can’t dither around by quoting probabilities. You have to make a definite choice and stick with it, even though you know the choice might be wrong.
Because a novel is not fuzzy. A novel is written in sharp focus.
I’m currently polishing up Book 1 in my Crown of Thorns series on the life of Jesus. I had to decide early how to refer to these “brothers” of Jesus—James, Joses, Judah, and Simon.
I decided to write them as biological children of Mary and Joseph. Some people will agree with this choice. Some will disagree, but they’ll realize that it’s just a story, which means I make no claim to be exactly right on things we can’t know for sure. And I suppose some will disagree and be angry about it.
No matter which option I choose, somebody somewhere would disagree, so I might as well just choose the one that makes the most sense to me.
So that’s what I’ve done. If I catch a little heat for it, that’s okay. Heat comes with the job.
We’ve all seen paintings of Jesus. He always looks pretty much the same—long hair that hangs to his shoulders, parted in the middle, with a neatly trimmed beard. He normally gets a bleached white flowing robe that reaches his ankles, although sometimes it’s blue and sometimes it’s red. Often, he also gets some sort of mantle or whatever that hangs over one shoulder or drapes over his head.
There are a lot of minor variations, but there’s one basic theme. If you went to a costume shop and asked for a Jesus costume, you’d be pretty sure what you were going to get. And you could be very sure that anyone who saw you wearing it would instantly recognize it as a Jesus costume.
But Is That Real?
The obvious question to ask is whether that Jesus costume would look anything like the real Jesus who walked around on real roads in Galilee and Judea in the early part of the first century.
And since we don’t have any paintings or statues of Jesus, how would we know?
There’s a recent book titled What Did Jesus Look Like? that I’ve found very helpful in nailing these questions down. The author is Prof. Joan Taylor, and she does a very nice job of pulling together all the info we have. The main sources of info from the middle east in the first couple of centuries are these:
- Paintings and statues of various people.
- Documents describing or mentioning clothes.
- Actual clothes found in archaeological digs.
As usual, we don’t have as much info as we’d like, but we have enough to get a fairly clear idea.
Jesus most likely wore the same clothes as other poor people of his time—a tunic, a belt, a pair of sandals, a light cloak (in cool weather), and a heavy cloak (in cold weather). Let’s talk about all these in more detail. First, the basics …
A man’s tunic was made of wool and hung down to just below his knees. It could be unbleached wool, or it could be dyed in various colors—yellow, red, green, blue, purple, and even orange. Purple and red were generally colors worn by rich people. But a poor man could wear any of the other bright colors, if he wanted.
A woman’s tunic was similar, but it hung down further, reaching her ankles.
But these tunics were not bleached white, as they are in all the modern pictures. (Essenes wore white clothes, made of linen, but Jesus was not an Essene.)
For both men and women, the tunic was terribly unstylish. Imagine a rectangle made of wool, almost a yard wide and three yards long. Cut a hole in the exact center for your head to poke through. Put your head through the hole and drape the rest over your body so that half hangs down in front and half in back. Now sew the front and back together to make seams running most of the way up both sides, leaving room for your arms to hang out. That’s very roughly how a tunic was made.
The belt could be a rope or leather string or a broad strip of cloth. You just wrapped it around your waist and then tied it loosely to keep your tunic from billowing out. If it was a strip of cloth, you could fold it a couple of times lengthwise and it would hold a few coins or a short knife or whatever other small things you might want to carry. (Your tunic didn’t have pockets, so you needed somewhere to put your car keys, right?)
Sandals were made of flat soles of leather cut to the shape of your foot, with leather cords that looped around the back of your ankle and fastened to the sole at three points—one on each side of your ankle, and one between your toes. Archaeologists have found sandals at Masada and Qumran that look surprisingly modern.
During the summer, Israel can be very hot, and the tunic with belt and sandals would be all you’d need. (It appears that people didn’t wear any sort of headgear.) But when the temperature dropped a bit, you’d need another layer, or more than one …
In cooler weather, you could add a light cloak on top, which was basically just a rectangle of wool. By tradition, this had blue and white tassels at each of the four corners. (The tassels were called tsitsit in Hebrew. In the story where a woman touched the “fringes” of Jesus’s cloak to be healed, those fringes are exactly these tsitsit.)
It can get cold in Israel in the winter. It rains either a little or a lot, depending on where you are. It can even snow occasionally at the higher elevations. (Jerusalem is a couple of thousand feet above sea level, and it snows there sometimes.) When it’s cold, you need something more than a tunic and a light cloak. You need a heavy cloak.
The heavy cloak was quite large. It was rectangular in shape and was maybe a yard and a half wide, and two and a half to three yards long. You could wrap it around yourself and get reasonably warm. And it made a primitive sleeping bag when you were traveling. You could just roll yourself up in your heavy cloak and sleep on the ground. That’s exactly what poor people did.
And … what about underwear? I emailed Prof. Taylor to ask about that, since her book didn’t mention underwear. In paintings of the crucifixion, Jesus usually gets a loincloth, so I asked whether Jewish people in the first century wore loincloths. She wrote back to say no, it doesn’t look like they did. It’s possible, of course, and we can’t be absolutely sure, but some of the Dead Sea Scrolls have a discussion about the fact that if your tunic is poorly made, it’ll expose your nakedness. And that’s only possible if you’re not wearing a loincloth. (In any event, when Romans crucified a man, they stripped him completely naked, so the loincloths in the paintings are not accurate. Crucifixions were all about total humiliation.)
Hair and Beards
And what about hair? Did Jesus wear his hear long, like in all the modern paintings?
We have a number of paintings of people in Egypt from the time of Jesus. Men wore their hair short, and they trimmed their beards fairly short also. The main exception we know of was quite rare—people who had taken a lifelong Nazirite vow never cut their hair. John the Baptist is the most obvious example from the first centry. But Jesus was not a Nazirite, so there’s no reason to think he wore his hair long.
It would be nice to have a few photos of Jesus and his family and his disciples. But we don’t have that.
When you’re doing ancient history, you put together fragments of information from a lot of different sources. You can’t be sure you get it 100% right. All you can do is your best.
For now, this is the best I’ve been able to find.
In the first scene of my novel Transgression, my heroine Rivka finds herself at the back of a mysterious cave in Jerusalem. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s traveled back in time through a wormhole to the year AD 57.
When she comes out of the cave, she looks up and sees the Temple Mount rising in front of her. But it’s not the Temple Mount she remembers from the tour she took in Jerusalem on a hot summer day in the twenty-first century.
The Temple Mount she’s looking at is clean. Spotless. New.
And she begins to realize that something very weird has happened.
Rivka goes on to have an adventure in first-century Jerusalem. She meets some new friends and makes some dangerous enemies. She finds some surprises that challenge what she thought she knew. And, oh yeah, she saves the life of the apostle Paul.
Late in the novel, she ventures back to the cave where it all began, because that’s her ticket back to the 21st century. And something happens there that changes everything for her and her new friend Ari. (If you’ve read Transgression, you know what I’m talking about.)
The Cave is Real
By the way, the cave is real. I’ve never mentioned this fact publicly before, but the cave in the novel is real.
You can visit the cave today. I went there myself in the summer of 2016.
But I already knew the cave existed way back in the summer of 1997, when I wrote that first scene of Transgression.
How did I know the cave existed?
Because I read about it in the July/August 1995 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Prof. Joan Taylor wrote an article about the cave that captured my imagination.
What’s special about this cave?
The cave may very well be the exact spot where Jesus was arrested on the night he was betrayed.
Why This Cave Might Be Where Jesus Was Arrested
The cave is at the base of the Mount of Olives, right next to the traditional Tomb of the Virgin, and less than a hundred yards from the traditional “Garden of Gethsemane.”
As Prof. Taylor points out in her article, the cave would be a perfect spot for Jesus and the Twelve to camp out during the Passover season. You could build a small fire inside and keep the whole place reasonably warm. You’d be protected from the elements. You’d be safe from the prying eyes of the authorities—unless one of your friends turned traitor on you.
And there’s a notch in the wall that used to hold the end of the beam of an olive press. That’s important, because the word “Gethsemane” is just a transliteration of the Aramaic word “Gat-Shemanin,” which means “oil-press.” The cave is right next to a grove of ancient olive trees. In the first century, the owner of the olive grove pressed his olives into oil in that cave. The olive harvest comes in the fall. In the spring, (at Passover time), the owner wasn’t using his cave. He may well have rented it out to visitors for the feast of Passover.
The cave is about 60 feet long and 36 feet wide and could easily have held a few dozen people.
The reason you can visit the cave today is because there’s a long tradition (going back to at least the fourth century) that this was the site of the arrest of Jesus. So they built a small chapel in the cave, and it’s been there ever since.
What The Gethsemane Cave Looks Like Today
If you visit the cave, you’ll see a small plaque at the entrance that says this might be the place where Jesus was arrested. Here’s a picture of the plaque:
The place is an actual chapel, so they hold religious services there to this day. When my wife and I visited in the summer of 2016, we sat down in the chapel, took out our phones, opened our electronic Bibles, and read the accounts of the arrest of Jesus in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.
If you ever visit Jerusalem, I recommend that you do that too. You’ll get an amazing sense of the reality of the story. Because that reality will be all around you.
Here’s a photo of the cave that I took:
As you can see, the cave today is an odd mix of ancient and modern. That’s typical in Jerusalem. I’ve been to a restaurant in the Old City where part of the wall was originally a stone in the city wall in the first century. I’ve been to another restaurant and sat at a table right next to a small monument to the Tenth Legion (the one that destroyed the city in AD 70). Wherever you go in Jerusalem, you’ll find the very old sitting cheek-by-jowl with the very new.
More On The Gethsemane Cave In My Next Novel
I’m working on a new series of novels about Jesus of Nazareth right now, with the working series title Crown of Thorns. You can bet the cave will show up in these books. Because I’m pretty sure Jesus knew the owner of this cave and spent time here when he needed a quiet place.
So when you read Crown of Thorns (the first book in the series will be coming out next year), watch for the cave!
Some interesting things will happen there.
I’m creating this post mainly because my blog is empty right now and the blog page has been giving an error message.
This blog is about my books and related stuff. So I’ll talk about first-century Jerusalem, history, archaeology, early Christianity and Judaism. I’m not a theologian and I won’t be talking much about theology. But I will occasionally blog about the history of theology, especially in the first century.
Why the first-century and why Jerusalem? Because three big things happened in that place and time, and they’ve set the course for the last twenty centuries of western civilization.
The first big thing was the Jesus Movement, which began in the early 30s and grew into Christianity. It’s obvious that our world would have been very different without two thousand years of Christianity. But there would have been no Christianity without the Jesus Movement.
The second big thing was the Jewish revolt, which ended with the burning of the Jewish Temple in the year 70 and ended with the disaster on Masada, in either the year 73 or 74. As a result of this catastrophe, the Jesus Movement cut itself off from its Jewish roots and turned into something different. You can decide for yourself if this was good or bad, but without the Jewish revolt, history would have turned out very differently.
The third big thing was the birth of rabbinic Judaism, shortly after the Jewish revolt. Historians have usually given Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai the credit for founding rabbinic Judaism, although it’s probably more complicated than that. Modern Judaism goes back to rabbinic Judaism, so if you are Jewish, then rabbinic Judaism matters to you. If you are Christian, then you should be aware that we would not understand either the New Testament or the Old Testament very well if rabbinic Judaism had not survived.
I write novels set in the first century, in and around Jerusalem. My City of God series is of course named after Jerusalem, and features some time-travelers from our century who go back to Jerusalem shortly before the Jewish revolt. Bad stuff happens. They see it all.
Right now, I’m working on what I’m planning to be a four-book series titled Crown of Thorns. It’ll cover the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.