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Friday, September 18, 2009

The Family of Jesus Christ, Part One

We all know that Jesus Christ is our spiritual "big brother" as the firstborn of our Father in Heaven. But what would it have been like to have had Him as a big brother in mortality? What might we have observed during those 30 years before our big brother took upon Himself the mantle of His Messiahship and began His three-year ministry? What memories would we have of Him as an older brother? As an example? as someone who worked side by side with us in doing chores? or hunting game? or playing games? What anecdotes might we be able to tell of extraordinary things that He might have done? Would He have performed miracles? Would He have stayed up late with us teaching the scriptures or other spiritual lessons? Obviously He would have taught some exceptional Family Home Evening lessons.

Well, the fact is, even though we hardly ever think of it, there were, in fact, as many as seven or eight people born into this life who could claim the honor of having Jesus Christ as an older brother. And yet we know very, very little about any of these siblings.

The scriptures do make it clear that Jesus of Nazareth had siblings. Four of these brothers are mentioned by name in at least two of the four Gospels. Their names are James (English form of the Hebrew Jacob or Ya’akov), Joses (modified from the Hebrew Joseph or Yosef), Simon (Shimon in Hebrew or Symeon in Aramaic), and Judas (Yehudah in Hebrew, shortened by King James translators as Jude, probably to keep from being confused with so many other significant New Testament figures also named Judah or Judas) (see Matt. 13:55, Mark 6:3). An assumption is made that the names of these brothers are offered in order from oldest to youngest. But if this is the case then Matthew and Mark seem to disagree whether Simon or Juda(s) was youngest. It’s even possible that the last two brothers are twins.

Matt. 13:56 also makes it clear that Jesus had sisters (plural). The number of sisters is not specified, but the Greek text makes it clear that there were more than two (See Bible Dictionary: Brethren of the Lord). Although no names are provided in the scriptures, post-canonical sources have named at least three of these sisters: Mary, Anna, and Salome (Pan. 78:8:1; 78:9:6; cf. Ancoratus 60:1). Such sources may be several centuries removed from the time of Christ, but they appear to be based upon earlier sources no longer extant, leaving no particular reason to doubt their accuracy.

Controversy has existed for millennia regarding Jesus’ siblings. Although the context of the various references in the New Testament seems to reinforce that Mary and Joseph had children together after the birth of Jesus, such a notion is strongly refuted by Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and other longstanding Christian traditions. These traditions generally reverence the mother of Jesus as deity and/or as a perpetual virgin. Obviously, if Mary had additional children, it undermines many theological tenets of several major denominations, such as celibacy for clergy. Elder James Talmage in the notes of Chapter 18 of Jesus the Christ briefly summarizes the three alternate “theories” explaining these supposed “brethren” or siblings of Jesus. One prevalent hypothesis is that the siblings of Jesus were the children of Joseph from a former wife (Ephiphanian theory). Another is that such children were adopted by Joseph and Mary after the death of one of Joseph’s brothers (Levirate theory). The last is that such “brethren” were not siblings at all, but cousins (Hieronymian theory). These alternate explanations appear to ignore or dilute the point of the actual lesson being presented in the scriptural accounts. They also wrest the meaning behind the common appellation of Jesus as the “firstborn son” of Mary (which presupposes that she gave birth to more than one (see Matt 1:25, Luke 2:7)). The theory espoused by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and eventually accepted by most other Protestant denominations, is that Jesus was the eldest half-sibling of a large and bustling family belonging to Mary and Joseph, and is known as the Helvidian view.

Jesus Christ apparently had a very large family that included siblings, aunts, uncles, and a myriad of cousins—-as well as other integral kinship ties with Judean or Galilean Christians. This fact is deemed important here because of the blatant lack of focus it has received from most other fictional and/or historical accounts. In short, nobody talks about this subject! So many representations neglect the impact such a reality would have had upon the Savior’s life and ministry. Most know, for example, that John the Baptist was related to Jesus through Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth (Luke 1:34-37). But lesser known is that James and John, the brothers of the original First Presidency, were also Jesus’ cousins through Mary’s sister, Salome, wife of Zebedee (see Matt. 27:56, Mark 15:40, Matt. 4:21). Yup, that’s right. The original members of the First Presidency were all cousins and kinsmen. Add to this the fact that every apostle except Judas Iscariot was also from Galilee and we may find that there were blood ties that existed between practially every one in Jesus' closest circles of followers. We know, for example, that Peter and Andrew were brothers, and also that the Savior’s brother, James, became the first recorded Bishop of Jerusalem, and that after James’ martyrdom this position was inherited by another cousin of Jesus named Symeon Cleophas (father of the character Mary in the Tennis Shoes Adventure Series). So if all this is true, how is it that so much knowledge regarding the family of Jesus Christ has escaped the annals of history?

Even as late as the 140s A.D. a great, great grandson of the Lord’s brother, Jude, is said to have been Bishop of Jerusalem (Epiphanius, Panarion). A full century after that, a Christian writer named Julius Africanus reports that descendants of Jesus were still traveling about, doing missionary work from their bases in Nazareth and Kokhaba in Galilee, and tracing their genealogy back to the Savior as part of their testimony and teachings (Eusebius, HE 1:7:14). All in all, the early Church in Jerusalem appears to have been dominated by a select number of Galilean kinships, if not by direct relatives of Jesus Himself.

Although this fact is acknowledged by most modern historians and scholars, it has been overwhelmingly ignored by Christians in general for almost two millennia. There may be a very good reason why this information has been suppressed or forgotten, and it relates to issues that Latter-day Saints have been particularly sensitive about ever since the death of Joseph Smith—namely nepotism and Priesthood succession.

But I'm going to leave that discussion for a later post. Stay tuned.....

(c) Copyright 2009, Chris Heimerdinger


  1. It makes perfect sense to me that the savior would have family that included siblings.
    Part of Heavenly Fathers plan is the eternal family.It would make sense then that God sent his son to a place that would have a family environment.

  2. Chris: The original members of the First Presidency were all cousins and kinsmen. ... Blood ties [may have] existed between practically everyone in Jesus' closest circles of followers.

    Besides being interesting in its own right, this is a great response to antis who accuse Joseph Smith of nepotism when they see the names of the Eight Witnesses. I've had critics say to me before, "Hmmm, three Smiths, four Whitmers, and the Whitmers' brother-in-law. Doesn't that make you suspect collusion—an inside job perpetuated through family loyalties?" If they're a Bible-believing Christian, it's hard to stand by that accusation once someone points out the fact that so many of Jesus's early followers and witnesses were extended family members.

  3. Excellent, Nathan. Actually, I had the very same thoughts when I was fairly new in the Church. I wanted the witness list to be more "diverse." But you have caught on to the reason I point out such a similarity in the early Christian movement.