Sunday, November 27, 2022

How Jesus' Relatives Shaped Our View Of His Childhood

Early beliefs about Jesus' childhood developed in a context in which relatives of Jesus, including some who lived with him for a long time and interacted with him in other contexts, were highly accessible and often involved in the life of the church. When I mention the earliest beliefs about his childhood, I'm not just referring to Christian beliefs. I'm also referring to the views of non-Christians. They, too, had access to Jesus' relatives (e.g., Mark 3:21-35, 6:1-6; Josephus, Antiquities Of The Jews, 20:9:1). Non-Christians didn't just have access to relatives of Jesus who were believers, but also had access to relatives who were unbelievers. Part of what we need to take into account when evaluating any view of Jesus' childhood is how well it addresses the influence of his relatives.

I want to recommend some resources on those relatives and make some points that are relevant to Christmas issues. Jesus' family is prominent in some modern Christmas contexts, such as theology and music. But there's been a lot of neglect of the role of his relatives in the context of the historical evidence pertaining to his childhood.

Before I go further, I should address some background issues. We've written a lot elsewhere about historiography, the historicity of the gospels, and other relevant topics. I can't provide a full argument within this post for every assumption or claim I make. But I want to briefly summarize some of the evidence relevant to a subject I referred to above and will reference again below, the unbelief of Jesus' relatives. Their unbelief is significant, but the evidence for it doesn't get discussed much. We have a lot of reason to accept the historicity of their unbelief. It's referred to by multiple early sources who can be shown to be credible in other contexts, such as the ones discussed here and here. Those sources' claims about the relatives' unbelief occur in multiple and widespread contexts in a variety of explicit and implicit forms. The claims were widely accepted and unchallenged early on. The claims are unlikely to have been made up due to their embarrassing nature. The claims are of a highly public and falsifiable nature, such as claiming that Jesus' brothers weren't among his followers during his public ministry, that Jesus publicly referred to their unbelief while in their hometown (Mark 6:4), that they were unsupportive of him in the contexts of his execution and burial, and that Mary was entrusted to and lived with the apostle John rather than the siblings of Jesus. It would have been significantly dangerous to the Christian movement to have made up such claims, or hard to explain how the earliest Christians would have been honestly mistaken about such things, accordingly. Don't just think of how the most critical opponents of Christianity would have reacted to these claims about the unbelief of Jesus' relatives. Put yourself in the place of the wife, son, grandson, or friend of one of Jesus' brothers, such as James. If he had been a faithful follower of Jesus, would you want him remembered as somebody who had been so unfaithful for so long, somebody who had been judged to be so incompetent to take care of his own mother that she was entrusted to John instead? Acts, Paul's letters, and the letters of James and Jude have Jesus' brothers in prominent positions of church leadership. 1 Corinthians 9:5 has at least two of the brothers still alive in the 50s, and Josephus dates James' death to the 60s. If Jesus' brothers had referred to their faithfulness to Jesus prior to his death during those decades when they were in positions of church leadership, how did the view that they were instead unfaithful to Jesus prior to his death become so dominant so early? Then there's the fact that the earliest Christians don't seem to have made much apologetic use of the unbelief of Jesus' relatives, which undermines any suggestion that they fabricated the accounts for apologetic purposes. And so on.

Having said all of that, I'll recommend some resources on the relatives of Jesus, some books and posts. I'll then discuss some of the historical issues involved.

Margaret Wesley's Son Of Mary (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2015) is focused on the fourth gospel, but provides some significant background information on ancient Jewish and pagan views of families. I've often cited Eric Svendsen's Who Is My Mother? (Amityville, New York: Calvary Press, 2001) on issues pertaining to Mary and Biblical matters concerning Jesus' relatives more broadly. Richard Bauckham's Jude And The Relatives Of Jesus In The Early Church (New York, New York: T & T Clark International, 2004) has a lot of useful information about Jude in particular and the patristic evidence concerning Jesus' relatives in general. I don't agree with everything in these books, and these aren't the only books or only sources I've consulted regarding Jesus' relatives. But these three books cover a lot of important ground in the contexts mentioned above.

You can find many posts on Jesus' family in our archives. Go here for a collection of our posts on Mary, for example. Concerning the relatives of Jesus in general, see the collection of links here. Or here on how much Matthew and Luke agree about Jesus' relatives. On the reasons Matthew and John would have had for being interested in Jesus' childhood and the access they would have had to information on the subject, see here. See here regarding Jesus' brother Simon. These are just some examples. You can find much more in our archives.

In the second century, Hegesippus wrote:

"They [relatives of Jesus] came, therefore, and took the lead of every church as witnesses and as relatives of the Lord. And profound peace being established in every church, they remained until the reign of the Emperor Trajan [late first and early second centuries], and until the above-mentioned Symeon, son of Clopas, an uncle of the Lord, was informed against by the heretics, and was himself in like manner accused for the same cause before the governor Atticus." (cited in Eusebius, Church History, 3:32:6)

There's some modesty in these later accounts about the relatives of Jesus. Notice that Hegesippus refers to a cousin of Jesus by the name of Symeon. Since a cousin is in the same generation as Jesus, why not cite a brother of Jesus instead, a relative who would be closer than a cousin? Elsewhere, Hegesippus refers to some grandsons of Jude. Again, why are more distant relatives cited when closer ones, such as sons of Jude rather than grandsons, could have been cited? Or why not cite sons of James instead, since James was more prominent than Jude? As Bauckham's book illustrates, Hegesippus isn't the only one to show that sort of restraint. The discussion of less significant relatives of Jesus rather than more significant ones adds some credibility to the reports. That isn't to say that these accounts are entirely historical. I don't think they are. Historical research involves sifting true claims from false ones, often when they exist side-by-side in the same source. But there is an element of modesty worth noting in the early claims about Jesus' relatives. We see the same in the New Testament with Joseph's apparent death prior to Jesus' public ministry and Mary's obscurity after Acts 1, for example.

Bauckham's book has a lot to say about the extrabiblical evidence for the large extent to which Jesus' relatives were involved in early Christianity. Something that stands out in his book is the diversity of sources he cites addressing such a wide variety of contexts (Josephus, Hegesippus, Julius Africanus, etc.). The agreement of so many sources across so many contexts makes more sense if what they agreed about is true. Most likely, the relatives of Jesus did have a prominent role in early church history.

Their prominence can be traced back to the earliest Christian documents we have, written in the middle of the first century (Galatians 1:19, 2:9, 1 Corinthians 9:5). Jesus' relatives are mentioned periodically and across a wide diversity of contexts in the gospels and Acts, and two documents attributed to them were accepted as canonical (or more than two for those who think John the son of Zebedee was a relative of Jesus). Galatians is widely considered the earliest or one of the earliest Christian documents we have, and James already has a major role there, even being named first, before Peter, as one of the reputed pillars of the church (2:9).

And notice how long some of the relatives were around. The New Testament, Josephus, and other sources agree that James lived into the second half of the first century. 1 Corinthians 9:5 tells us that at least one other brother of Jesus lived that long as well. Hegesippus and other sources agree that some relatives of Jesus were prominent in Christian circles in later decades.

I wrote a post last year about how the early Christians and their opponents had a lot of access to reliable information on Jesus' birthplace. It would be absurd to suggest that individuals like James lived for so long and were so active so prominently in early Christianity without saying anything significant about where Jesus was born. Much the same can be said of other issues pertaining to Jesus' childhood.

Bauckham's book has some valuable material on the early availability of information on genealogical issues. I won't get into everything he writes on the subject. You can read his book for more details. But he cites material like Ezra 2:59-62 and Nehemiah 7:61-64 as evidence that a large amount of genealogical information was kept among the Jews of antiquity. See, for example, pages 341 and 360-61 in Bauckham's book. I'll have more to say below about Luke's genealogy of Jesus.

Luke wrote more about Jesus' childhood than any other early source did, including material beyond the first two chapters of his gospel. Combine that fact with his coming into contact with James in Acts 21:18. It's probable that somebody who had as much interest in Jesus' childhood as Luke did and had so much access to a source like James would have discussed the subject with him. That doesn't tell us how much information he got from James or what kind of information, but the likelihood that he obtained some information from James has some significance. And there are indications of what that information consisted of.

There are substantial parallels between what's said by the Jerusalem leaders in Acts 21:20-25 and what we find in Luke 1-2. In the Acts passage, there's concern over the fulfillment of the law, circumcision, going to the temple, and a suggestion that Paul participate in purification. It's long been noted that Luke 1-2 is highly nationalistic and is in some ways more Jewish than the rest of Luke/Acts, and there's a lot of attention there to the fulfillment of the law (e.g., 2:39), including Jesus' circumcision, going to the temple, and the purification discussed in 2:22. Notice that such interests aren't just shown in the events immediately surrounding Jesus' birth, but also in the events that occurred when he was twelve years old: regular religious observances (2:41-42) and going to the temple and interacting with the religious authorities (verse 46). Contrast that to the lesser amount of such material in Matthew's account of Jesus' childhood, even though the gospel of Matthew is so Jewish. Or think of Paul's comments about Jesus' birth in Galatians 4:4. Like Paul, Luke could have just made a brief reference to adherence to the law and left it at that. Instead, Luke not only goes into much more detail, repeatedly, but also does so in multiple ways that align so well with the issues raised in Acts 21. If Luke discussed Jesus' childhood with James in the context of Acts 21, it would make sense for issues of fulfillment of the law, circumcision, going to the temple, and purification to have been on James' mind at the time and, therefore, to be reflected in Luke's material on the childhood of Jesus.

The account at the end of Luke 2 also aligns well with James as a source in some other ways. The strong-willed characteristics of Jesus in the passage are reminiscent of James' strong-willed character. The references to listening, asking questions, understanding, and providing answers with teachers in Jerusalem in verses 46-47 sit well with James' background as a prominent church leader and, therefore, teacher in Jerusalem. This account at the end of Luke 2 is the sort of episode in Jesus' life that you'd expect somebody like James to want to highlight.

When we move past chapter 2 of Luke's gospel, we find further indications of James' influence. Upfront, Jesus and his relatives, especially his immediate family, would be the most plausible candidates for the source behind a genealogy of Jesus. And there are indications that some members of Jesus' immediate family had the relevant genealogical interests and that there are some unusual parallels between their interests and what we find in Luke's genealogy.

James' reference to Jesus' Davidic ancestry in Acts 15:16 is important. Not only is it significant that we have a member of Jesus' immediate family referring to Jesus' Davidic descent, but it's also significant that James goes out of his way to do it. He begins his citation from Amos with 9:11, even though verse 12 was all he needed to cite to make his point. His acknowledgement of and interest in Jesus' Davidic ancestry add some plausibility to James' being the source of Luke's genealogy.

There's a more significant line of evidence from the letter of James' brother, Jude. Bauckham's book cited earlier discusses that evidence, and I'll just outline some of it here. The letter of Jude shows interest in 1 Enoch, a document that makes much of the significance of the number seven. Jude (in verse 6) cites a passage in 1 Enoch that alludes to seventy-seven generations (1 Enoch 10:12, which refers to seventy more generations, apparently after seven had already passed), and he refers to Enoch as "in the seventh generation from Adam" (Jude 14). So, we have Jude showing interest in 1 Enoch, the number seven (and seventy-seven in particular), and genealogical descent "from Adam". Similarly, Luke's genealogy probably is meant to have seventy-seven generations (depending on some textual disputes and how you count the generations), lists Enoch in the seventh place (despite Luke's departing from Old Testament genealogies elsewhere), puts other highly significant figures in places that are multiples of seven (Abraham twenty-first from Adam, David thirty-fifth from Adam in the most common rendering of Luke's text), and goes back to Adam (unlike Matthew's genealogy). Notice that Luke doesn't just share Jude's interest in the number seven. That would be significant by itself. Luke also shares an interest in the particular types of seven we find in Jude (Enoch in the seventh place, seventy-seven generations). And though going back to Adam is a less significant similarity with Jude, we need to be careful to not underestimate it. As Matthew's genealogy illustrates, an early Christian could easily end a genealogy at some generation after Adam. Not only is Matthew's choice of ending with Abraham a plausible option, but so is ending with David. The Messiah was commonly thought to be a son of David, and Luke makes much of Jesus' Davidic ancestry and the Davidic nature of the city of Bethlehem in the first two chapters of his gospel. So, his decision to go back to Adam in his genealogy, instead of stopping with somebody like David or Abraham, is more significant accordingly. I don't think Luke's material on the Gentiles in his gospel and Acts is the best explanation for his going back to Adam. Matthew's gospel includes the Gentile magi in a prominent way near the beginning of the document and ends with the Great Commission to go to the nations (Matthew 28:18-20), yet Matthew only goes back to Abraham in his genealogy. Why did Luke go back to Adam? It probably was a decision that was made by Luke's source rather than Luke himself. That would help explain not only why Luke goes back to Adam, but also why he makes no effort to draw the reader's attention to the multiples of seven in his genealogy (unlike Matthew with the number fourteen in Matthew 1:17). Was Jude the source who provided Luke with the genealogy that appears in his gospel? Did some other source give the genealogy to Luke, a source who influenced Jude, was influenced by him, or was influenced by some third source they had in common? Whatever the scenario, it does seem that there's a significant connection between Jude and Luke. And that increases the credibility of Luke's genealogy.

We have evidence for both James and Jude's interest in genealogical issues, there are substantial parallels between Luke's genealogy and the genealogical material in Acts 15 and the letter of Jude, and Acts 21 tells us Luke was in contact with James. That doesn't make it certain that James was the source of the genealogy. But it makes him the likeliest candidate.

As we now move past Luke 3 and the genealogy there, notice the ongoing references to Jesus' relatives, in Luke 4 and elsewhere in Luke's gospel and well into the book of Acts. Luke not only says more about Jesus' childhood than any other early Christian source does, but also makes several references to Jesus' relatives in other contexts. That, like the large amount of material Luke has on Jesus' childhood, becomes more coherent if Luke consulted James about those issues, particularly in Acts 21.

The letter of Acts 15:23-29 is mentioned in 21:25. James was prominent in the church in Jerusalem, where the events of Acts 15 occurred, he speaks last during the deliberations leading up to Acts 15:23, and he proposes that a letter be sent (verse 20). It would make sense for him to have written or dictated the letter. It begins with "greetings" (verse 23), an opening that the letter of James has (1:1), a characteristic absent from the letters of the other New Testament authors (including the ones who were present at the Jerusalem council). As discussed above, Luke's genealogy of Jesus seems to give us precedent for Luke's having gotten written material from one or more of Jesus' brothers. And James' position in the Jerusalem church makes it more likely that he would have kept a copy of the Acts 15 letter than that some other potential Lukan source would have. James is the most plausible candidate for Luke's source for the Acts 15 letter. And that increases the plausibility of Luke's having gotten other information from James as well.

Luke's material on Jesus' relatives ends in the Acts 21 passage under consideration, which makes sense if James was Luke's primary source on issues pertaining to Jesus' relatives and if Acts 21 was the context or the last context in which Luke consulted James. There were multiple significant opportunities for Luke to have made further references to Jesus' relatives after that Acts 21 passage. There was potential to discuss James again later in Acts 21 and beyond, after Paul got into trouble for following the advice James had given him in the Acts 21 passage under consideration. The events leading up to James' martyrdom occurred around the time when Acts ends. Multiple brothers of Jesus were active in church leadership in the middle of the first century (1 Corinthians 9:5), so there should have been other opportunities for Luke to mention them if he was getting information about them from a context other than his meeting with James in Acts 21. And so on.

Something I don't recall seeing anybody bring up in discussions of Luke's sources is the significance of how Jesus' brothers are addressed in the writings of Luke in comparison to how they're addressed elsewhere. All three of the other gospel writers include a larger number of negative passages about Jesus' brothers (Matthew 12:46-50, 13:54-58, Mark 3:21-35, 6:1-6, John 7:1-10, 19:25-27). And the one passage where Luke portrays them negatively (Luke 8:19-21) is less negative about them than the parallel passages in Matthew and Mark (Matthew 12:46-50, Mark 3:21-35). So, Luke is less negative in terms of both quantity and quality. Yet, he makes a larger number of negative comments about Mary than he does about the brothers of Jesus (Luke 2:35, 2:48-50, 8:19-21, 11:27-28) and is more forceful in his negative comments about her than he is in his negative comments about the brothers. And Joseph is included in the criticism contained in the passage at the end of Luke 2 just cited. So, Luke doesn't seem to be more restrained in criticizing Jesus' other relatives. Rather, he's more restrained about the brothers of Jesus in particular. Luke's gospel is more lengthy than the others, yet he includes less negative material about the brothers of Jesus. Luke's restraint toward Jesus' brothers is more coherent if Luke had one or more of those brothers as a source.

Another factor that increases the credibility of the sort of scenario I'm suggesting is how James is portrayed in Galatians. You get the impression that he was an intimidating figure. Paul goes out of his way to mention James in both of the first two chapters. He was perceived as a pillar of the church and was named first, even before Peter, in that context (2:9). Peter was moved to act hypocritically under the influence of "men from James" (2:12). If James was so influential, earning so much respect from Paul and the early Christians in general and apparently intimidating Peter to some extent, how much more might a lesser figure like Luke be intimidated by James?

But it wouldn't have to be intimidation alone, and it may not have been a matter of intimidation at all. It may have been a matter of respect, or it could have been some combination of factors. Whatever the case, Luke's restraint when discussing the brothers of Jesus makes more sense if one or more of those brothers were among his sources.

There's a large cumulative effect if you combine all of the factors discussed above. A simple way of summing up what's involved here is to think of how well Luke's consulting James as a source in the context of Acts 21:18 explains several characteristics of Luke's writings: his saying so much about Jesus' childhood, the nature of what he says about the subject, where he got the genealogy in Luke 3, some of the characteristics of that genealogy, his material on Jesus' family in other contexts, where Luke got the letter quoted in Acts 15, why his material on Jesus' relatives ends at the passage in question in Acts 21, and why his material on Jesus' brothers is less negative than that of the other gospel authors both in terms of quantity and quality. All of these aspects of Luke's writings flow in a highly natural way from Acts 21:18. I don't know of any alternative scenario that offers an equal or better explanation.

Our conclusions about the influence of James can, and should, range across a spectrum, involving different degrees of possibility or probability for different conclusions. And there's a complicating factor in the potential for James to have provided material relevant to particular locations without his being named or without the naming of any source close to him. He spent much of his life in Nazareth and Jerusalem, for example. He could be one of Luke's sources or his only source on issues related to locations like those. The account in Luke 4:16-30 is relevant to James in a series of ways, such as its Nazareth setting, the mentioning of Jesus' family background, and the proximity of the passage to other material closely related to James (in Luke 1-3). The relationship between Luke 4:16-30 and parallel material in the other gospels is often discussed, and there should be a consideration of James' potential influence. Similarly, the discussion of the persecution of church leaders in Jerusalem in Acts 12, where some of the events are referred to as being reported to James (verse 17), is a context in which it's plausible that James was Luke's source or one of multiple sources. Some of our conclusions in these contexts can't go beyond a possibility, but they're still worth considering. My focus in this post is on Jesus' childhood, but we should take factors like the ones I just mentioned into account when we're evaluating other issues as well. Another example is the resurrection appearance to James. The reason why most of the gospel authors didn't include the appearance to James in their resurrection narratives probably was at least in part because it fell outside the timeframe they were focused on. Paul was discussing the relevant timeframe in 1 Corinthians 15, though, and he mentions the appearance to James in verse 7. But Luke also covers the relevant timeframe, and does so at length, yet doesn't mention the appearance to James. That may have been partly or entirely because the appearance was of a confrontational and, therefore, embarrassing nature, given James' skeptical background. So, it's similar to the other material that reflects poorly on James and seems to have been left out by Luke for that reason.

It might be objected that Luke doesn't explicitly say he had James or any of the other brothers of Jesus as a source. But we all arrive at conclusions through implicit rather than explicit means in many areas of life. For example, critics of Christianity frequently conclude that Luke used Mark as a source, even though Luke doesn't explicitly tell us that he did so. We know Luke used sources (Luke 1:1-4), even though he doesn't explicitly tell us who those sources were, so it's not a matter of our not knowing whether he used any sources.

Besides, you wouldn't have to conclude that something like Luke's use of James as a source is probable in order to think the possibility of it is enough to significantly increase the credibility of Luke's material. What if Acts 21:18 hadn't been included in Acts or if it wasn't one of Luke's "we" passages? What if Luke's writings didn't line up so well with having one or more of Jesus' brothers as a source in the other ways I've described? It wouldn't make sense to claim that such a scenario wouldn't make a difference. Or that it would increase the credibility of the notion that Luke had one or more of Jesus' brothers as a source. Rather, it would decrease the credibility of such a conclusion. Even if you don't think something like Luke's use of James as a source can be shown to be probable, the factors I've discussed in this post should substantially increase how seriously you take the possibility.

Paul met with James on multiple occasions, as we see in Galatians and Acts. It seems that Paul followed what was happening with the brothers of Jesus even when he was at a large distance from them, as reflected in 1 Corinthians 9:5. Paul probably would have gotten some information on Jesus' childhood from his brothers. See here regarding what Paul tells us about the childhood of Jesus. He tells us more than people typically suggest. We can't say he got all of that information from Jesus' relatives, but he likely got some of it from them, whether in terms of originally hearing it from them or in terms of having it confirmed by them after he originally heard it from some other source. When such early documents as Galatians and 1 Corinthians keep referring to brothers of Jesus rather than just identifying them in some other way, Galatians discusses Jesus' birth (4:4), and Romans opens with a reference to Jesus' Davidic ancestry, for example, it's evident that there was early interest in Jesus' family and background, including his childhood. It's also evident that the early Christians had access, and knew they had access, to sources with reliable information on those subjects.

I've said a lot here about Luke and a little about Paul. My material linked earlier in this post discusses some of the other relevant individuals.

There's widespread agreement among the earliest sources that multiple relatives of Jesus, including his closest relatives, were known to the public, were easily accessible to Christianity's enemies (Mark 3:21-35, 6:1-6, John 19:25-27; Josephus, Antiquities Of The Jews, 20:9:1), were in contact with the Twelve on multiple occasions (including Mary's living with one of them for a while), traveled (1 Corinthians 9:5), lived for more than a quarter of a century past the time of Jesus' death, and so on. It's highly probable that they had a large role in shaping early views of the childhood of Jesus.

That raises the issue of those relatives' credibility. They would have been in a position to have had a large amount of reliable information about Jesus' childhood. I've written a lot in the past about the likelihood of their honesty: their willingness to express skepticism toward Jesus at times, as we see in multiple contexts in the gospels; their susceptibility to suffering and the known suffering and martyrdom in the case of James; the public, falsifiable nature of many of the issues involved (e.g., Jesus' birthplace, his early residence in Nazareth, whether the family had claimed Davidic ancestry prior to when Messianic claims were made about Jesus); some of the claims made about Jesus' childhood are of such a nature as to have been difficult for the early Christians in some way and are unlikely to have been fabricated accordingly (e.g., the examples discussed here); corroboration from non-Christian sources.

That last point should be underscored, and it takes us back to where I began this post. The relatives of Jesus ranged across a spectrum, from the sort of unbelief we see in John 7:1-10 to the sort of belief to the point of martyrdom that we see in the account of James' death in Josephus' Antiquities Of The Jews (20:9:1). They were known to the public and highly accessible during all of those decades. They surely influenced both the early Christian and the early non-Christian sources, and their influence can't be adequately addressed merely by dismissing them as biased believers.

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