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Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
All Christians are familiar with the story of the
birth of Jesus. In Luke—s Gospel we read the story of Joseph and
Mary traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census. In Matthew,
we read of wise men from the East consulting with King Herod about
the place of the Messiah—s birth.
Matthew then tells us that Jesus— parents took
him to Egypt and remained there for about two years before returning
to and settling in Nazareth.
We learn no more until Luke tells us about an incident
when Jesus was 12 years old and got lost in the Temple at Jerusalem.
Jesus returns to Nazareth and we hear nothing again until he is
30 years old and starts his public ministry.
Brothers, Sisters and Cousins
Luke—s Gospel refers to John the Baptist being
a cousin. We hear nothing about siblings in the infancy narratives.
It comes as a surprise, then, when we read in Mark—s Gospel: —His
mother and his brothers arrived and as they stood outside they
sent word to him to come out— (Mark 3:31). Later we are told that
their names are James, Jude, Simon and Joses; sisters are also
Two letters in the New Testament purport to have
been written by brothers of the Lord. Where did they come from,
particularly if Mary was a virgin, as Catholic Tradition teaches?
St. Jerome, in the fourth century, refers to these
four as cousins of Jesus. It is not unusual in the Middle East
to refer to cousins who grew up together as brothers and sisters.
Orthodox tradition proposes that they were children of Joseph
by a former marriage. Jesus apparently grew up in a lively household
Nazareth was a small hamlet in Galilee. Archaeology
testifies that it had about 120 inhabitants at the time of Jesus
and was occupied from about a hundred years prior to his birth.
Between 700 B.C. (the time of the conquest by the
Assyrians) and 100 B.C., Galilee was occupied by non-Jewish tribes.
In fact, it was known and referred to by Isaiah as —Galilee of
the Gentiles.— But the land was conquered in 120 B.C. by one of
the Hasmoneans, John Hyrcanus. He issued an order that all people
who lived there either become Jews by circumcision or leave the
place. Naturally many opted for the latter. An invitation was
then issued to Jews who were still living in Babylon after the
Exile to return to Galilee. At this time, it is believed, the
family (tribe) of Jesus returned from exile.
We learn from the writings of the early Church
historian, Eusebius, who quotes from a letter written in 200 A.D.
by Julius Africanus to Aristides, that the blood relatives of
Jesus had settled in Nazareth and in Kochaba, which lies on the
east side of the Jordan River, on the pilgrimage route between
Babylon and Jerusalem.
This clan considered themselves the —royal family.—
They preserved their Davidic genealogies. The names they gave
to their villages are significant. In Hebrew, Kochaba means
—star of— (David) and Nezer means —shoot of— (Jesse). These
people considered themselves to be the legitimate descendants
of King David (son of Jesse).
There were expectations of the coming of a Messiah,
and the main qualification was that he be a descendant of David.
We notice in Matthew—s Gospel the importance of connecting Jesus
with David and the many references to him as —son of David.— It
is of interest that King Herod had tried to alter his own genealogy
to connect himself to David.
The Gospels tell us that Joseph and presumably
his sons (since trades were usually passed down the generations)
were builders. The word techton in Greek is more akin to
—master builders.— They built more than tables and chairs. Not
much building would have been going on in Nazareth, a village
of 120 people. But much building was going on in towns around
them. The town of Sepphoris was being rebuilt at this time by
Jesus left Nazareth at about the age of 30 and,
after his baptism by John the Baptist, began his public ministry
in the cosmopolitan area around the Sea of Galilee. He chose fishermen
from this district as his disciples, and we hear very little of
his family. At one point when he returned to Nazareth they tried
to throw him over a cliff (Luke 4:29), and at another they came
after him in Capernaum and suggested that he be locked up (Mark
There seems to have been tension between Jesus—
disciples and his brothers. We read a revealing little incident
in the Gospel of John: —But when the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles
was near, Jesus— brothers said to him, —You ought to leave here
and go to Judea, so that your disciples may see the miracles that
you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret.
Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.—
For even his own brothers did not believe in him— (7:2-5).
Rise to Prominence
After Jesus— death and resurrection, his family
becomes prominent. Paul—s letter to the Corinthians tells us that
Jesus appeared to his brother James after the resurrection. We
find them present with his disciples in the upper room at Pentecost
Eusebius says that a large clan of relatives of
Jesus was gathered around James in Jerusalem. Many may have moved
even before the death of Jesus. While none of them had been active
in his ministry, they were now believers. These people were builders
by trade and needed work. Much building was going on in Jerusalem,
where the Temple was still under construction, and in the surrounding
villages. Emmaus was among the villages that had been destroyed
by the Romans and perhaps was one of those being rebuilt at this
time. Cleopas (whom tradition tells us was a brother of Joseph)
and his companion (his son Simon?), who met up with Jesus on Easter
Sunday (Luke 24:18), may have worked there.
Immediately after Pentecost, Peter and John took
the lead in the Jerusalem church. As time goes on we hear more
and more about James. Peter and the others move off stage after
persecution starts in the church and James comes to the fore.
We do not know what became of most of his family, but Paul implies
that they traveled and preached in the company of their wives
(1 Corinthians 9:5). James takes the lead in the Council of Jerusalem
when the important decision has to be made about allowing gentiles
to join the church without circumcision. This took an infinite
amount of courage from one who had grown up as a strict observer
of the law. But James was able to adapt.
From extra-biblical sources we learn that James
became the leader of the church in Jerusalem because of —his extraordinary
piety and his Jewish loyalty.— He was known as James the Righteous
(the Tzadic). The apocryphal Gospel of Thomas informs us,
—When Jesus is asked —Where are we going after you?— he says,
—Go to James.—— He was the one to be consulted.
Descendants of David
James was conscious of being of Davidic descent.
At the Council of Jerusalem, he refers to the prophecy of Amos:
—Hereafter I will return and rebuild the fallen house of David:
from its ruins I will rebuild it and set it up again— (Acts 15:16).
In the Jerusalem church, from which all the other churches sprang,
he was the obvious one to take leadership. He was Jewish, and
loyal to Jewish custom. He lived his life in Jerusalem. Tradition
has it that he had a house on Mount Zion and that Mary, the mother
of Jesus, whom James greatly loved, lived out her life there too.
She died seemingly at about the time of the Council of Jerusalem
in 49 A.D.
Reading between the lines of Scripture, however,
we find that James was often at loggerheads with Paul. Paul was
the apostle to the gentiles. James had backed up Paul at the Council
of Jerusalem on the matter of circumcision, but later when Paul
brought gifts to the church in Jerusalem, James had him prove
his loyalty to Judaism by performing certain Jewish rituals (Acts
Many scholars are now of the opinion that the Letter
of James was actually written by the brother of Jesus. The Letter
of Jude also is said to be written by a brother of Jesus, although
scholars are divided as to whether it is a pseudonymous letter.
In any case, even an attribution indicates that Jude was an important
person in the church.
The Death of James
Eusebius tells us that when Paul was sent to Rome,
his enemies turned their venom on the church in Jerusalem. Their
attack on Paul had really been aimed at the head of the Nazoreans
on Mount Zion, but James—s respectable lifestyle and his good
reputation among the people foiled any action against him for
a while. The opportunity arose at Easter of 62. Josephus (Antiquities
20. 197-203) tells us that the Roman consul Festus had died and
a new procurator was on his way. Before he arrived, the high priest,
Anan, planned the attack against the Lord—s brother and succeeded
in having him lynched.
The Jewish leaders demanded that James, now in
his 70s, make a public declaration of his adherence to the Jewish
faith through a gesture in the Temple. They stood him up on the
parapet of the sanctuary of the Temple so that all around could
hear his words. We learn from an early writer, Hegesippus, that
James showed —undreamed of fearlessness— in the face of the throng
and instead gave a splendid sermon insisting that Jesus was the
Son of God. Some among the crowd were convinced by his words and
began to chant, —Hosanna to the son of David.— This further enraged
the authorities, who rushed at him and threw him off the parapet,
a drop of some 100 feet. But seeing that he was not dead from
the fall, they stoned him and finally clubbed him on the head.
When the Roman proconsul arrived, he had the high priest removed
for acting illegally.
After the death of James, the leaders of the church
came together to choose a successor and the lot fell to Simon,
son of Cleopas, and cousin of Jesus. Simon was to lead the Jerusalem
church through much turmoil for the next 40 years.
The Zealots rebelled against Roman rule and precipitated
the Roman Jewish wars, which were to end in the complete destruction
of the Temple and of Jerusalem. Simon took his flock and fled
across the Jordan to Pella until things settled down. When they
returned to Jerusalem, a shrine of Jupiter had been erected on
the Temple grounds and, Hegesippus tells us, the emperor had ordered
the execution of all descendents of David.
Eusebius writes: —And those who survived of the
Lord—s family were grandsons of Jude, who was said to be His brother,
humanly speaking. These were informed against as being of David—s
line, and brought by the evocatus before Domitian Caesar,
who was as afraid of the advent of Christ as Herod had been. Domitian
asked them whether they were descended from David and they admitted
it....When asked about Christ and His Kingdom what it was like,
and where and when it would appear, they explained that it was
not of this world or anywhere on earth but angelic and in heaven,
and would be established at the end of the world, when He would
come in glory to judge the living and the dead and give every
man payment according to his conduct. On hearing this, Domitian
found no fault with them but despising them as beneath his notice
let them go free and issued orders terminating the persecution
of the Church.—
In 105, Simon was betrayed, so Eusebius tells us,
by a member of a heretical sect and tortured for several days
before being crucified.
The place of Simon Bar Cleopas was taken by Justus,
who was also of the family of Jesus, a descendant of David. Until
135, at the time of the rebellion of Bar Kochaba, the bishops
of Jerusalem continued to be of the family of Jesus. After that
time, Jews were forbidden to live in Jerusalem and gentile bishops
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