Some are surprised when they learn that Jesus had four brothers, and at least two sisters (Mark 6:3). Unfortunately, Jesus’ sisters remain unnamed, but his brothers are James, Joses, Judas, and Simon. All of these names, including Jesus, were common Jewish names in the first century.
Jesus, the eldest, was the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua. Joshua was a strong Jewish name, originating with Moses’ successor who led the Israelites in the conquest of Canaan in the Old Testament. Jesus’ name would have been pronounced something like Yeshua or Hoshea, and means “the Lord saves.”
The name James is a little bit tricky; it is the product of being translated from one language to another over and over again. But if you open up a Greek New Testament and read the name it is pronounced Yacob, which comes from the Hebrew patriarch, Jacob. If you are a student of the Bible, you might remember that Jacob’s name was changed to “Israel,” which means “one who strives with God.” Therefore, throughout the Old Testament, it is not unusual for the prophets to refer to the nation of Israel as “Jacob.”
Joses is named after their father, Joseph of Nazareth, but ultimately they were both named after Jacob’s son, Joseph, who rescued their tribes from famine in Genesis.
Judas is named after Judah, another one of Jacob’s sons in Genesis. Judah is an important tribe in Israel because it is the home of David and is the territory that includes Jerusalem.
Simon comes from the name of Jacob’s other son, Simeon; but in times closer to Jesus it took on new meaning as it was the name of one of the Maccabees that led the revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes and brought independence to Israel for approximately 100 years.
Growing Up with Jesus
When we read about Jesus’ brothers in the Gospel narratives, we do not get the impression that their relationship was great. Because there is no mention of Joseph after Jesus’ infancy narratives, it can be assumed that he died prior to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Because Jesus was the eldest, he had special responsibility to care for his mother. In fact, Jesus had most likely received the largest portion of the inheritance in order to care for Mary…but as we read in the Gospels, it appears that Jesus relocated to another village in Galilee known as Capernaum.
Had Jesus forsaken his familial duty and subsequently brought shame upon his family? In Judaism it was a punishable offense; after all, one of the Big TEN was to “honor your mother and father…” Yet, when Jesus was pressed on the issue of familial allegiance, he responded by redefining family on religious, rather than biological, grounds (Mark 3:35).
In the same narrative Jesus is back in his hometown of Nazareth when the locals claim he is “filled with an unclean spirit” (Mark 3:30). Undoubtedly Jesus’ erratic behavior was drawing unwelcome attention to the Joseph of Nazareth family. Once again, Jesus was presumably bringing shame on them. As a result, it appears that Jesus was disenfranchised by his own brothers.
Perhaps Jesus always seemed a little off to everyone in his family—maybe perceived as an eccentric. There is no mention that he was ever married which was very unusual in first century Palestine. Perhaps it was difficult for Mary and Joseph to arrange a marriage for Jesus because of his known idiosyncrasies. Maybe he wasn’t considered “marriage material” because of all the mysteries surrounding the legitimacy of his birth which would have made him a mamzer, a person who was socially outcast because of uncertain origins. Needless to say, it seems that Jesus did not bring the best publicity to his family in a culture where you lived or died on the basis of honor or shame.
In the Gospel of John the evidence that Jesus and his brothers did not get along only becomes clearer. In John 7, it says,
After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him. Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near. So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” (For not even his brothers believed in him.) Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil. Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” After saying this, he remained in Galilee. But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret. (Joh 7:1-10 NRS)
Before and After
What’s interesting is that things seem to have radically changed after Jesus’ crucifixion. According to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that I mentioned in my last post (link), after Jesus was raised back to life, he appeared to James (1 Cor. 15:7). As a result, James became the most important leader of the Church in Jerusalem. In fact, by the time Paul came on to the scene, James was considered one of the three “pillars” of the Church, in addition to Peter and John (Gal. 2:9).
Unfortunately James’ significance in the early Church has been underestimated because the Acts of the Apostles is primarily focused on the gospel moving from Jerusalem to the rest of the world. We are blessed to have a writing in the New Testament from his own hand which most biblical scholars believe is authentic. Likewise, Jesus’ brother Judas/Jude came to faith and is the author of the letter bearing his name (Jude), located right before the Book of Revelation.
Outside the New Testament
James’ influence in the early Church became so great that his death is documented in the writings of Flavius Josephus, the most important Jewish historian of the first century. Josephus claims that James was martyred by stoning.
In more recent years an archeological discovery was made that raised new interest in James the brother of Jesus. When first century Jews died they underwent two stages of burial. First, their bodies would be laid in a tomb in order for their flesh to decompose. Second, their family would take their bones and place them in stone cases called ossuaries and then put them inside of a common family tomb. An ossuary was discovered with the inscription “Yakob Ben Yosef, the brother of Yeshua.” In a patriarchal culture, traditionally a person’s epitaph would only relate them to their father (i.e. “Yakob ben Yosef”), but because the early Church wanted to honor James, they inscribed the name of his brother, Jesus. One of my New Testament professors in seminary, Dr. Ben Witherington III, is one of the scholars who helped authenticate the discovery of James’ ossuary. You can read more in his book: https://www.amazon.com/Brother-Jesus-Dramatic-Meaning-Archaeological/dp/0060556609/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1524007645&sr=8-1&keywords=Ben+witherington+Hershel
The radical change from unbeliever to martyr shortly after Jesus’ death speaks volumes about what James claims to have witnessed during the season of Easter. It also speaks to the fact the resurrection is not only a historical event, but something that brings transformation to our lives, and gives us unshakable hope.
In my next blog I will be posting about the women who showed up at the tomb on Easter morning. I hope you will stay tuned!