According to the gospel of Mark, (see Mark 6:3), Jesus of Nazareth had four brothers and at least two sisters.
That raises the question of how, exactly, these siblings were related to Jesus. Over the centuries, people have suggested three theories:
- They were children of Mary and Joseph.
- They were children of Joseph by a previous wife.
- They were cousins of Jesus.
I discussed all this in a previous blog post, Mother’s Day With Jesus, so I won’t go over that ground again.
My own opinion is that the four “brothers of Jesus” were biological sons of both Mary and Joseph.
But Jesus, according to two of the gospels, wasn’t.
Jesus, the Son of Mary
The gospels of Matthew and Luke say explicitly that Jesus was the biological son of Mary, but not of Joseph.
Matthew 1:16-20 tells us that Mary was found to be pregnant before she was legally married to Joseph, and that Joseph knew the child was not his.
Luke 1:26-34 tells us that an angel told Mary she would become pregnant while still unmarried. And Luke 2:4-7 says that Jesus was born before Joseph took Mary as his wife.
But if Jesus was not the biological son of Joseph, the village of Nazareth must have raised a question about the legal status of Jesus. Because when there’s a scandal, people will talk.
We can see hints of this in Mark 6:3, where Jesus is referred to contemptuously as the “son of Mary.”
We see another hint of this in John 8:41, in the middle of a debate between Jesus and certain Pharisees, when his opponents make the odd remark that they are not illegitimate children. They may well have been implying that Jesus was. It’s hard to know for sure, because they don’t make an explicit charge of illegitimacy against Jesus. But the innuendo is there.
So questions of legitimacy seem to have dogged Jesus for much of his life.
But ultimately, the question must have been decided in favor of Jesus.
Jesus, the Legal Son of Joseph
The gospels imply that, when all was said and done, Jesus was accepted as the legal son of Joseph.
Luke 3:23 tells us that Jesus was thought to be the son of Joseph.
Matthew 13:55 calls him the carpenter’s son.
None of these passages really tackles the issue head-on, but they appear to be telling us that in the end, people accepted Jesus as the son of Joseph for legal purposes. And this would only happen if Joseph himself accepted Jesus as his legal son. (My novel, Son of Mary, explores all this in great detail.)
Friction Among the Five Sons of Mary
And yet there was a problem among the five sons of Mary, and Mary was mixed up in it.
John 7:1-5 tells of an incident just before the annual feast of Tabernacles, probably about half a year before the crucifixion of Jesus. The brothers of Jesus were telling him that he should go to the feast (in Jerusalem) and make a name for himself. But Jesus told them he didn’t intend to go.
And the episode ends with the crucial line that even his brothers didn’t believe in him.
That’s pretty harsh. In a tight-knit culture like ancient Galilee, when your own family doesn’t believe in you, you’ve lost all credibility.
The incident doesn’t say what Mary thought about all this, but we can guess.
That Time Mary Thought Jesus Was Crazy
Because this was not the first time we hear about conflict in the family.
In Mark 3:31-35, Matthew 12:46-50, and Luke 8:19-21, we read three different accounts of a day when Mary and his brothers came looking for Jesus. He was in a house talking to people, and he refused to come out to see them.
Certainly, Jesus had his reasons. He was doing God’s work. But even so, it’s easy to guess that Mary and her other sons felt hurt by this. They wanted to see him quite desperately, because they’d heard a rumor that he had gone crazy.
Yes, really. Mary, the mother of Jesus, and all his brothers thought he was crazy. Only the gospel of Mark tells this part of the story, in Mark 3:20-21.
Alone at the Cross
Even though the brothers of Jesus didn’t think he would amount to anything, the authorities thought otherwise. I blogged about this recently in my article Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
The chief priests in Jerusalem thought Jesus was about to raise an insurrection, so they turned him over to Governor Pilate. But Pilate didn’t care if the charge was true or not. For him, all that mattered was that people thought Jesus was about to raise an insurrection. Rumors must be quashed.
So Pilate ordered the crucifixion of Jesus. But it seems that none of his four brothers had the guts to show up. How do we know?
John 19:25-27 tells us that Mary stood with Jesus while he was on the cross, along with a few other women. But only one male friend was there, “the disciple Jesus loved.” (None of the gospels says exactly who this disciple was, but ancient tradition says it was John, the son of Zebedee.)
This passage tells us implicitly that none of Jesus’s brothers were there. If they had been, Jesus would have asked them to take care of his mother. But they weren’t, so he gave her into the care of the only man with the courage to stand with him at the end.
Mary, Mother of Jesus
When you think about it, being the mother of Jesus was a tough, tough job.
- Mary got pregnant before she was married, and the whole village knew it.
- Even her intended husband thought she had cheated on him, and he almost broke off the marriage before it began.
- Rumors about her son’s legitimacy dogged him for most of his life.
- Mary’s other sons didn’t believe Jesus would amount to anything.
- When she heard Jesus had gone crazy and went to check up on him, he refused to see her.
And yet, at the end of all things, when Jesus was hanging naked on a cross, charged with treason, dying in agony, Mary was there.
The rest of his brothers refused to show up, but Mary was there.
Waiting for her son to die, hoping she could see he got a decent burial, Mary was there.
Because that’s what mothers do.