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Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Family of Jesus Christ, Part Two

Again I pose the question: Why do we know so little about the family members of Jesus Christ? The four Gospels refer to them only rarely, and often with disdain, highlighting the concept that they did not seem to support or believe in Jesus Christ as the Messiah. However, a closer look would reveal that, even though they may not have completely understood the breadth and depth of their eldest Brother's mission as the Holy Messiah while He was in mortality (frankly, even the Savior's twelve Apostles are often described with the same lack of full comprehension) the family of Jesus eventually became some of His most passionate followers.

In modern times scholars have resurrected the age-old argument as to who succeeded Jesus in leading the early Church. Most Christian denominations (including Latter-day Saints) adamantly believe that Christ’s legitimate successor was Simon Peter. But a few decades after the death of Christ a bitter schism emerged, and numerous records begin to proclaim that the issue was not clear at all. Many apocryphal manuscripts and virtually all Gnostic texts state that James, the Lord’s half-brother, was His legitimate successor (see Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of the Hebrews, Protevangelium of James, and many others). Such a concept was espoused in particular by Jewish Christians in the late First century A.D., and included such sects as the Ebionites and Elkesaites, both of whom revered James while disdaining Paul because of Paul’s urging that members of the Church should jettison the belief that Gentile converts must adhere to Jewish law (see Gal. 2:11-14).

As apostles were killed and as the Church sank into apostasy, the question of succession became an increasingly critical issue and would decide ultimate hegemony among the cities of the Roman Empire wherever a Christian fellowship was established. Ultimately, this was a political issue, a power grab, and considering the dynamics at play, is it any surprise that overall authority fell to Christian leaders at Rome? Or that after Constantine’s death, and a subsequent division in the Empire in 337 A.D., that a new denomination of Christianity emerged in the Byzantine capital at Constantinople (modern Istanbul)? Today these denominations are known as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, but arguably they are not the earliest Christian denominations still practicing. Other denominations equally as old or older include the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Eritrean (Ethiopian) Orthodox Church, and the Indian (Malankara) Orthodox Church. Additional denominations in Asia and Africa may also have roots back to apostolic times. (Note that the survival of these Churches to the present day may be due to their geographical isolation from the political influence of 4th century Rome.)

Almost from the beginning, the Christian Church was plagued by conflict and division. One claim that Christians in Judea appear to have put forward in their struggle to reassert hegemony was that before a man could become a Bishop he had to be “desposyni” (in Greek literally “belonging to the Lord”) meaning that any ordained Bishop had to be a literal blood descendant of Jesus Christ (or one of His close relatives). In a meeting purported to have taken place between Pope Sylvester I and an envoy from Jerusalem in 318 AD, Jewish Christians are said to have demanded that Gregory recall unduly ordained Bishops from numerous cities around the Mediterranean and replace them with desposyni or official relatives of Jesus who Jewish Christians claimed had been specially designated to sit in governance of all churches in the Hellenized world from the earliest days of Christianity. These Jewish Christians also demanded that the practice of sending offerings or cash to Jerusalem as the “mother church” should again be resumed, inferring that, at an earlier time, this was precisely where all tithes were sent (Martin, Malachi, Decline and Fall of the Roman Church, Putnam, New York, 1981).

Latter-day Saints may recognize this belief as the principle heresy that lead to the most dramatic schism in the early Restored Church. Many of those who refused to follow Brigham Young came to believe that any prophet who succeeded Joseph Smith had to be Joseph’s literal blood descendant, and for more than a century this was a guiding tenet in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (known today as the Community of Christ).

If indeed this teaching became prevalent among Jewish Christians of the post-apostolic era, it is not clear how it came to be so rigidly practiced. The root of it may have been based upon legitimate doctrine, as suggested by D&C 68:16-21, but the firm application of such an impractical rule in a Church that was rapidly expanding with gentile converts must be considered evidence of an emerging or fully ripened apostasy among the Christians of Judea.

In any case, it was a source of serious contention for the pro-Paul Christians of Rome during a time when Rome was attempting to consolidate power. Possibly it is precisely because this power struggle was dominated by Pauline Christian leaders that one must search diligently for any positive mention of the Savior’s family in the four extant gospels. In several of these Gospels, particularly in the testimony of Mark, the Savior’s family is treated with apparent disdain, and those closest to Jesus—-his direct family and neighbors—-are readily dismissed as non-believers and thorns in the Savior’s side (see Mark 3: 20-35 and Mark 6:1-6). Many scholars have concluded that Mark was the first widely distributed gospel and that it has a significantly pro-gentile agenda (Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, World Biblical Commentary, Vol. 34, Dallas: Word Books, 1989, 168). The same concepts dramatized in Mark 3: 20-35 and Mark 6:1-6 are also found in Matt 12:46-50 and Matt 13:54-58, and in Luke 8:19-21 and Luke 4:22-24, but the controversy with the Savior’s family are discussed in much softer and less condemnatory language. So why would Mark represent Christ’s kin in such a negative light? Some scholars conclude that Mark (or later scribes and copyists of Mark) had the subtle objective of casting a negative shadow on the desposyni, perhaps undermining persistent voices of hegemonic dissent coming out of Jerusalem. (Bütz, Jeffery, The Brother of Jesus and the Lost Teachings of Christianity, Inner Traditions Publishing, 2005, 31-32.)

We find in the three synoptic Gospels (a term commonly applied to Matthew, Mark and Luke) little evidence that the family of Jesus supported Jesus during His mortal ministry. Only in the Gospel of John do we get the impression that Jesus’ brothers and family were an essential part of His following (see John 2:1-2). Even in John 7:1-5, wherein John recounts an episode of conflict with Jesus’ brethren, and where he states that His brothers “did not believe in him,” it becomes clear that His siblings were nevertheless regular members of His company of disciples. Keep in mind that an apparent dominating theme in John’s gospel is that everybody, including His apostles (and particularly Peter), misunderstood Jesus and His messianic mission until after the resurrection. So rather than condemning His family, John seems to suggest that His family was intimately involved with His ministry. Furthermore, he implies that His brethren were deeply concerned with Jesus’ conduct and public image, even if these concerns were at times misdirected and overreaching.

However, as previously stated, one must “read between the lines” to affirm that Jesus’ family played a supportive role in His ministry and that they became a positive force in the early Church. Whether there was a deliberate effort to mute or negate the involvement of the desposyni in the canonical record is a matter of conjecture. But in case the Savior’s devotion to his family is ever doubted, we should remind ourselves that Paul references an entirely separate and unique appearance of the resurrected Jesus to His brother, James, in one of his epistles (1 Cor. 15:5-7). This appearance is not mentioned in any of the gospels. Such a private visitation suggests that Jesus felt a deep and abiding connection to the eldest of his younger half-brothers—-and perhaps to all of His siblings. The attention James received is curiously poignant and causes a reader to yearn for greater detail regarding all the members of Jesus’ family. (This desire is one of the forces driving my lastest Tennis Shoes novel.) But in no way does it presume that James or Jude or any other desposyni should be esteemed with greater significance than other Church leaders in ancient times or, for that matter, in any dispensation.

In modern times, the notion of invalidating the authority of Peter and exalting that of James, the brother of the Lord, is very much in vogue, as evidenced by such works as The Quest of the Historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer, James, the Brother of Jesus by Robert Eisenman, Just James: The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition by John Painter, The Brother of Jesus and the Lost Teachings of Christianity by Jeffrey Bütz, and even best-selling novels like The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Some of this shift is inspired by a general disdain for Christianity and a specific disdain for Christianity’s oldest denominations. After all, if Christianity’s most established institutions got it wrong, perhaps the whole theology can be disregarded.

However, the entirety of the controversy stems from a basic misinterpretation or misunderstanding of true Christian hierarchy as revealed by modern prophets, and serves as yet a further reminder that without the blessing of new revelation, the ancient word of God can be suited to fit whatever pet cause or belief system someone might espouse.

(c) Copyright 2009, Chris Heimerdinger


  1. Chris, your comments are so thought provoking, seeing how your mind is working is very interesting and makes me really excited for "the book" to come out. you mentioned the DaVinci Code I thought I would share a thought I had about it. It really bothered me that the author was trying to prove that Christianity was based on paganism until I thought about it for a while, Adam & Eve were Christians therefore paganism is based on Christianity. just a thought!

  2. You bring up some very good points, Chris. In addition to what you've already mentioned, I would add that the misunderstanding between the early Christians was compounded by the fact that sometime after the death of James, the son of Zebedee, James, the brother of Jesus was called to be an apostle and appears to have succeeded his martyred cousin as a counselor in the early 1st Presidency, as is evidenced by several of Paul's remarks concerning him. His position at the forefront of church leadership certainly must have made him an easy target for subsequent misunderstandings by apostates with axes to grind, as you have already mentioned.
    P.S. I really enjoy this blog. :)

  3. Comment right on, Alexander. I believe your assessment is correct. I've always looked at the New Testament like it was articles about the game of football. Weird? Lemme explain.

    The New Testament is not the rule book--just sports articles. So that leaves the world desperately trying to figure out the rules of the game by reading the articles, not the rule book. So when they read an article which says, "The Broncos won by 10 points because of an extra field goal in the fourth quarter," some will assume that a field goal is worth 10 points, ignoring the fact that the article also mentions that a wide receiver scored in the third quarter. And when it says the Quarterback was repeatedly sacked because of blitz after blitz, some might assume this means he was placed in a bag during a snowstorm. They don't really know the rules. You see, the New Testament was written for people who already knew the basic rules of the game--just like sports articles. And no one figured that in the future the rules would turn up missing. Unfortunately, if anyone actually wrote a rule book, such a book was lost to history. So scholars have to figure out the rules from articles, and they often get it totally wrong. Just another reason we need a living Prophet.

  4. OK, I'm using that analogy in every future lesson on the Old or New Testaments. Should I reference you or someone else? :-)

  5. I'd have to read the doggone article again to know what analogy you are referring to. Been a while. No time right now.

  6. Sorry, I meant the one from your comment just previous to my own—about deriving the rules of football just from sports articles about games.

  7. Oh. Duh. Yes, I've been using that analogy since my mission. :)