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Mary–Mother of God or Jewish Mother of Seven?

Mary–Mother of God or Jewish Mother of Seven?

Those engaged in the academic study of religions, and specifically the origins and development of early Christianity, draw a sharp distinction between what they call thehistorical Jesus and the “Christ” of Christian faith and devotion. How and when this transformation took place–from Jesus the itinerant messianic Jewish teacher and healer, to the preexistent, eternal, divine, Son of God–is called “Christology.” What receives much less attention is a similar, perhaps even greater, transformation–that of Mariam, the Jewishmother of Jesus to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, and the Queen of Heaven.

” Mary’s maternity,” Pope Benedict has explained, “is at one and the same time a human and a divine event. . . . The Son of God was begotten by Him, and at the same time is the son of a woman, Mary. He comes from her. He is from God and from Mary. For this reason the Mother of Jesus can and must be called Mother of God.”

Pope Benedict called upon the “Theotokos,” theMother of God, to intercede for the world entire, entrusting to her care “situations in which only the grace of the Lord can bring peace, comfort and justice” (First Vespers for the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God, Vatican City, Dec. 31, 2006, Vatican Information Service).

The Pope’s words well represent the stark contrast between a historical view of Mary–or let’s call her more accurately by her Jewish name–Mariam, the very Jewish mother of Jesus–and “Mariology,” that is the theological dogma about, and the devotion to, “the Blessed Virgin Mary” as the “Mother of God” that has developed over the centuries in Christian tradition. This includes her “immaculate conception (at her conception she was miraculously free of “original sin”),” her “perpetual virginity (she never had sexual intercourse throughout her entire life),” and her corporal or bodily “assumption” into heaven. There she reigns next to her Son Jesus Christ at the right hand of God as co-intercessor with him on behalf of humankind, and for some, even “co-Redemtrix.”

But what about the historical Mary. Unfortunately we know very little. In the time of Jesus approximately 20% of Jewish women were named “Mariam” in the Land of Israel, making it, along with the name Salome, one of the two most popular female names.  The name was variously written and pronounced, both in Greek and Hebrew, as Mariam, Miriam, Maria, Mariame, Marya, and rarely, Mariamene,  honoring Miriam “the prophetess,” the sister of Moses and Aaron (Exodus 20:15). It remains a popular name to this day among Jewish women.

What our various sources tell us is that Mariam was the mother of seven children–Jesus and his four brothers–James, Yose, Simon, and Judah and at least two sisters (Mark 6:1-6). They grew up in the small Jewish village of Nazareth, just south of the Hellenistic metropolis of Sepphoris, capital city of Herod Antipas. The indication we get in the birth stories is that Mariam, legally betrothed to Joseph, becomes pregnant. Mariam fled the small Galilean village “in haste,” presumably to escape the village gossip and scorn that would come to a young girl pregnant from someone other than her betrothed. She travels, apparently alone, to a small town, presumably Ein Kerem in the hill country of Judea. There she finds refuge with her relatives, Elizabeth and Zechariah, who became the parents of John the Baptizer (Luke 1:39-56). Joseph subsequently takes her as wife anyway following the birth of her child, whom she named Yeshua or Jesus (Luke 2:5, Matthew 1:25). Jesus’ father remains unknown, though the name Pantera comes up in some early sources, but be that as it may we know nothing of the circumstances of Mariam’s pregnancy. Later Christians attributed it to the “power of the Holy Spirit” which most would take to preclude any human father (Luke 1:35).

Whether Joseph was the father of Jesus’ siblings, or perhaps, as I argued in my book, The Jesus Dynasty, he died early and his brother Clophas (or Alphaeus) took Mariam as a wife according to the custom of yibbum or Levirite marriage, whereby a brother married the widow of a childless brother (Deuteronomy 25:5-10), we can not definitively say. That Jesus is called the “son of Mary” rather than the “son of Joseph,” in our earliest text about his family, seems to support the idea that Joseph is not his biological father and that he is no longer on the scene when Jesus is an adult (Mark 6:3). Indeed, Joseph strangely drops out of the gospel narratives after Jesus’ birth, with a single childhood story, and then plays no role in his adult life.

Mariah Ossuary from the Talpiot Tomb on Storage Shelf in the Israel Museum

But what about Mariam, the mother? Our sources tell us precious little beyond Jesus’ birth, however, she is mentioned, along with the brothers, a few times in the gospels, but mostly in the gospel of John, which curiously, omits any birth story for Jesus. There is the wedding of an unnamed couple at Cana, a little town near Nazareth, and Mariam seems to be involved in its planning (John 2:1-10). This is the famous scene where Jesus turns water to wine for the wedding party. Jesus moves his mother and brothers to Capernaum, where he sets up his base of operations and they apparently live there, perhaps in Peter’s house (John 3:11-12; Mark 3:31-35). She is present at his crucifixion and involved in the rites of his burial, along with Mary Magdalene and perhaps his sisters (Mark 15:40-41, 47; 16:1). Jesus, in his dying moments, as oldest son, gives his mother into the care of “the disciple whom he loved,” whom I have argued is his brother James (John 19:25-27). According to Luke, Mary and the brothers are present–though unnamed–in Jerusalem with the remnant band of Jesus followers several weeks after his death at the festival of Shavuot/Pentecost (Acts 1:14). As to how Mariam spent the rest of her life we know virtually nothing. Some late sources put her in Ephesus with the apostle John, but these are likely influenced by the notion that John is the “beloved disciple.” There is a more dominant but also late tradition that she lived out her years in Jerusalem and died and was buried there. Indeed, her tomb near the Garden of Gethsemane is a popular sites for Christian pilgrims, as well as the Dormitian Abby on Mt Zion where she supposedly “fell asleep.” If the Talpiot tomb is that of Jesus of Nazareth and his family it is possible that the ossuary inscribed Mariah could be his mother’s since the other Mary in the tomb, Mariamene, is materially unrelated according to the two DNA tests done on the bones. Unfortunately, Mariah’s ossuary has been cleaned and was once on display at the Israel museum, so there were no skeletal remains that could be tested.

From a historical point of view Christian dogma and devotion, as sincere as it might be, rob both Jesus and his brothers and sisters, not to mention the mother that bore them, of their humanity. The very concept of an asexual “mother of God” is alien and foreign to Jewish culture and to the Hebrew Bible. Such ideas were brought into the Jesus movement decades after the death of Jesus and were unknown even to our earliest Christian witnesses–the apostle Paul and the gospel of Mark, who freely mention Jesus with brothers. They could only thrive in the centuries after the first generation had passed on, when James and the other brothers of Jesus were dead, the family dispersed, and the original Jewish followers of Jesus were scattered with little influence or effect on the increasingly Gentile movement that was growing up outside the land of Israel. In fact, both an asexual Jesus and an asexual Mary become necessary to the growing trend toward an ascetic, dualistic, quasi-gnostic, deprecation of the “flesh” and anything of this world, in contrast to the glorious heavenly world beyond.

Unfortunately, Mariam as the extraordinary Jewish mother of Jesus and his siblings was lost, forgotten, and finally outright denied. The image of Mary as “mother of God,”  “queen of heaven,” and the “perpetual blessed virgin,”who intercedes for sinners was irresistibly attractive to countless millions–and remains so today.

I have no desire to be offensive here but when one backs off a bit from the theology and the mythology, the ideas associated with “Mariology,” as pious as they seem, are in fact a travesty on what she was in reality–that is the Jewish mother of Jesus and his family. It is indeed commendable that so many millions of people, whether Catholic or Protestant, want to remember Mary, mother of Jesus. One has to ask, though, whether removing her from her own children, and all we might imagine that she held dear, in terms of her life and Jewish faith, can be properly seen as “devotion” to her memory? Far from being sacrilegious or blasphemous giving Mary her human place as the devoted Jewish mother of Jesus and his siblings shows honor to Mary in a way that is long overdue.



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The Three Marys

“There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.” Gospel of Philip 36

According to the Coptic Gospel of Philip, found in Egypt in 1945 as part of the Nag Hammadi collection, Jesus was closely associated with three women named “Mary,” namely, his mother, his sister, and his “companion,” Mary Magdalene. However the passage that lists these three Marys is confusing, in that Jesus’ sister Mary is first calledhis mother’s sister–obviously an impossibility. Marvin Meyer and other translators have actually amended the Coptic text at this point. Such a correction is possible but one of the rules of textual critical work is that one prefer or at least consider carefully the more “difficult” reading, with the possibility left open that it might convey a meaning one might otherwise miss.

Nicolaus Haberschrack, Three Marys at the Tomb

I received this most thoughtful treatment of the passage from Jennifer Duba-Scanlan, who had read my book, The Jesus Dynastyand I pass it on with her permission. I might note here that the Gospel of Philip, is the text that also contains the passage about Jesus loving Mary Magdalene more than the other disciples and kissing her often (Gospel of Philip 59). For those who do not own copies of the Gospel of Philip I recommend the ever helpful web site Early Christian Writings, that contains several good translations and other supplementary materials.

Anyway, here is Jennifer’s take on the passage which I find instructive and well worth considering:

“There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.” Gospel of Philip 36

I was always confused about it, because it first states that the three who always traveled with Jesus were “his mother and her sister” and Mary Magdalene. But the next sentence claims that Jesus’ “sister” (not his mother’s sister, his aunt) along with his mother and companion “were each a Mary.”

As well, if Jesus’ sister Mary traveled with him, why isn’t she mentioned in the first sentence as regards those women who “always walked with the Lord”? Or did both of his sisters travel with him as well, Mary and Salome, but just aren’t mentioned? After all, in the NT it doesn’t even give Jesus’ sisters names. Just a mention of “sisters” on a couple occasions.

This passage in Gospel of Philip, due to it’s puzzling aspect, should tell us something. As you’d be apt to say, James, “something is definitely going on here.”

And now, due to your book The Jesus Dynasty, this passage makes sense to me after reading “The Mystery of the ‘Other Mary’ ” (pg.77-80)

It’s as though, in the Gospel of Philip, they left a ‘clue’, or rather a ‘riddle’ to try to figure out -maybe they (whomever wrote it), also knew that Mary, the wife of Clophas, was not the sister or cousin or sister-in-law of Jesus’ mother Mary, as many others thought, (and still think today), but that both Marys were actually Jesus’ mother, as they are one and the same person, which you wrote about in your very insightful book.

Why else would the Gospel of Philip write it in this puzzling way as regards the trio of Marys and Jesus’ maternal aunt?

It adds, in a sense, more weight to your argument, (which I find highly likely), that the two Marys were really one and the same – Jesus’ mother Mary married Clophas, the brother of Joseph, after Joseph died, ‘possibly’ leaving Mary with no children other than Jesus, whom he wasn’t the biological father of, and thus, the father of Jesus’ half-brothers and sisters would thus be Clophas.

As well, you’d wisely noted in The Jesus Dynasty (pg 79):
“Is it really likely that these two women, both named Mary, whether sisters or sisters-in-law, married to brothers and had three sons with the same names and born in the same order: James, Joses, and Simon?”

No, not likely at all. After all, how many sisters or brothers do you know of who have the same name? Whether today or way back in the days of Jesus and family. A father/son or a mother/daughter with the same name, is one thing, and quite acceptable, but two sisters/daughters or brothers/sons with the same name, no that’s a horse of a different colour, and isn’t something you ever hear of, really. (with the exception of Michael Jackson’s sons!)

The passage quoted here from Gospel of Philip at first leaves one with the impression that there were three Marys who constantly traveled with Jesus – yet his aunt isn’t mentioned in the second group of women named Mary in Jesus’ life, so she wasn’t a Mary, least not going by what is stated here, or she’d have been listed as such – shouldn’t it have thus said: “His sister and his mother and his aunt and his companion were each a Mary.”

Also, while it lists the three Marys in Jesus’ life whom he was close to – his mother, sister and companion – it doesn’t state that all three of them traveled with him. While we know his mother Mary and Mary Magdalene did, his sister Mary may or may not have traveled constantly with him.

John 19:25:
“Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary [the wife] of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.”

I think it’s ‘possible’ that Salome is the wife of Zebedee, mother of James and John, and though it’s not mentioned directly, is the sister of Jesus’ mother Mary. Salome was at the cross and went to the tomb to anoint the body, with Jesus’ mother Mary, and Mary Magdalene, so she was close to Jesus and family, likely a family member of some kind.

In the above quote from John you could add Salome:

“Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister Salome, Mary [the wife] of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.”

Or, add Salome (as Mary’s sister) to your “decrypted version of John” in your book (pg 80):

“Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother Mary wife of Clophas, his mother’s sister Salome, and Mary Magdalene.”

And while Jesus had a sister named Salome, I believe the Salome I’m writing of here has two sons who are perhaps close in age to Jesus’ brothers, as they’d be first cousins, so it wouldn’t be Jesus’ sister.

Mark 15:40:
“There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and of Joses, and Salome.”

So here it could be speaking about Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ mother Mary, and his aunt Salome – his mother’s sister.

The most intriguing passage, if Salome (though not mentioned by name here) is viewed as Jesus’ aunt, his mother’s sister, is from Matthew 20:21:

“Then came to him the mother of Zebedee’s sons, kneeling down, desiring a certain thing of him. And he said to her, What wilt thou? She said to him, Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left, in thy kingdom.”

Jesus gently rebukes them and in Matthew 20:23, Jesus notes “ sit on my right hand, and on my left, is not mine to give..” And in Matthew 20:24 it states “And when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation against the two brethren.”

Though in Mark, they leave out “the mother of Zebedee’s children” and have the sons of Zebedee making the request of Jesus. (Mark 10:35)

This could be seen/interpreted to fit with your ‘Jesus Dynasty’, because she asks Jesus for special privileges for her sons (or else her sons do on their own, as per Mark), and if she’s Jesus’ mother’s blood sister, his aunt, she carries the same maternal royal bloodline as Jesus’ mother Mary, and thus her sons have the same bloodline as Jesus and his brothers and sisters, so they are part of the dynasty – a main branch of it.

Why else would she dare to ask Jesus such a thing? And she must have known Jesus well enough to be so bold. Not to mention, in those days, first off, women weren’t apt to speak to men unless they were part of the family in some way. Secondly, women at that time also weren’t likely to speak up like this, be so forward, and make such an (audacious) request of any man. Though if she’s of the bloodline of Jesus, as she’s his maternal aunt, it at least makes a bit more sense why she would ask this of her nephew, Jesus. Even if it wasn’t the ‘proper’ thing to do (thus the other apostles were annoyed. Perhaps some were actually envious?)

Mark 16:1:
“And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.” (i.e., Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ mother Mary, and her sister, his aunt Salome.)

Thus, on the hypothesis that Salome is the sister of Jesus’ mother Mary, we can add Salome to the passage in the Gospel of Philip, so it makes more sense, or at least it causes one to read the sentences as separate statements, and not mistakenly conclude that three Marys “always walked with the Lord.” (thus I’ll split them up here):

“There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister Salome, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion.”

“His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.”



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Pope Francis Concecrates the Entire World to the Immaculate Heart of Mary

While most of the news media were concentrating the past ten days on issues such as ending the congressional budget/debt crisis, the computer glitches with the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) and the latest reports of the NSA phone tap spying on the world leaders of our closest allies you might have missed this story.

The original statue of Our Lady of Fatima had been transferred from its home at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal to St. Peter’s Square especially for the consecration. The act marked the culmination of a weekend of Marian prayer and devotion.

The events began on Oct. 12, when Pope Francis led a Marian prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square, followed by a worldwide televised vigil at various Marian sites all over the world.

Immaculate-Heart-E-300x350Pope Francis, in celebrating the 96th anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin Mary to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal in 1917, consecrated the entire World to the Immaculate heart of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. The story below from the National Catholic Register is really pretty unbelievable–at least to me as a historian who has pleaded for a quest for the historical Mary–that is a rehabilitation of the memory of Miriam the Jewish mother of Jesus and his brothers and sisters (See my book, The Jesus Dynasty). 

My post last year, “Mary, Mother of God or Jewish Mother of Seven ?,” which appeared on the front page of the Religion section Huffington Post, and stirred up lots of controversy with nearly 1000 comments, drew both ire and praise, as one might expect when one touches on such a sensitive topic–see here and here. If you have not taken a look at the Huffington Post site please visit and leave your comments to add to the fray.

To be fair to Pope Francis, my guess is he is invoking Mary more as a symbolic example of virtuous behavior than the overtly superstitious extremes of “Marian” devotion that are so common to the masses, but there is no doubt that such “prayers and expressions of devotion” serve to perpetuate the myth rather than recover for our day an appreciation for the thoroughly Jewish mother of Jesus who surely would have recoiled at any such misguided worship. After all, was it not Miriam who most likely taught the young Jesus the great confession of Jewish faith we call the Shema–as witnessed by Jesus’ rebuke to those who offered him even the mildest devotion–Why do you call me God–there is One who is good–God alone (Mark 10: 17-18).

This official story from the Register deserves a very careful reading, including the links. Sadly, it reflects how far we have to go in achieving anything even close to a realistic appreciation for Mary, the Jewish mother of Jesus, in her own time and place in history.


National Catholic Register

Daily News

Pope Francis’ Consecrating the World to Mary Culminates Fatima Celebration

Approximately 150,000 pilgrims jammed St. Peter’s Square for the occasion.


| Posted 10/15/13 at 12:45 AM

Rex Features via AP Images

VATICAN CITY –– Tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world gathered under unseasonably warm and sunny weather in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday to witness Pope Francis consecrate the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

The Holy Father performed the consecration before the image of Our Lady of Fatima, asking Mary’s help to “revive and grow faith.”

Oct. 13 marked the 96th anniversary since the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to shepherd children Jacinta Marto, her younger brother Francisco and Lúcia dos Santos at Fatima. It also took place as the Year of Faith draws to a close on the Feast of Christ the King, Nov. 24.

In front of an estimated 150,000 pilgrims, the Pope asked Mary to welcome the consecration “with the benevolence of a mother.”

“Guard our lives in your arms,” he said. “Bless and strengthen every desire for goodness; revive and grow faith; sustain and illuminate hope; arouse and enliven charity; guide all of us on the path of holiness.”

He also asked Our Lady to teach mankind her “special love” for children and the poor, for the excluded and suffering and for sinners.

The original statue of Our Lady of Fatima had been transferred from its home at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal to St. Peter’s Square especially for the consecration. The act marked the culmination of a weekend of Marian prayer and devotion.

The events began on Oct. 12, when Pope Francis led a Marian prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square, followed by a worldwide televised vigil at various Marian sites all over the world.

Untier of ‘All Knotted Hearts’

In his address, the Holy Father stressed that the Virgin Mary leads Christians to the mercy of God, who can untie “all knotted hearts” caused by sin. “These knots take away our peace and serenity,” he said, and he urged the faithful not to give up hope that God can untie these knots. Mary, he said, “takes us with the hand of a mother to the embrace of the Father, to the Father of mercy.”

Repeatedly over the weekend, the Holy Father explained how Mary, through her witness of faith, is the paradigm for all believers. Drawing on her example, he challenged the faithful to consider their own faith more profoundly, following her example of fidelity, which was shown all the way to Jesus’ crucifixion.

Her faith at that moment, he said, was “like a little flame burning in the night”; and at the empty tomb, her heart was filled with the joy of faith.

During his Sunday homily, Pope Francis reflected on the importance of Mary’s faithfulness even in moments of difficulty. “Her Yes to God was a Yes that threw her simple life in Nazareth into turmoil. Many times,” he said, “she had to utter a heartfelt Yes at moments of joy and sorrow, culminating in the Yes she spoke at the foot of the cross.”

Importance of Gratitude

He also preached about the importance of gratitude, especially for the Christian community and for family life. “If families can say these three things, they will be fine: ‘sorry,’ ‘excuse me,’ ‘thank you,’” he said, adding that, “all too often, we take everything for granted.”

Reflecting on Mary’s example of Christian gratitude, he recalled the Magnificat, saying it is “a song of praise and thanksgiving to God not only for what he did for her, but for what he had done throughout the history of salvation.”

He added that God reveals himself in poverty, weakness and humility and stressed that the journey to salvation also entails commitment.

“I ask myself: Am I a Christian by fits and starts or am I a Christian full time?” the Pope said. “Our culture of the ephemeral, the relative, also takes its toll on the way we live our faith. God asks us to be faithful to him, daily, in our everyday life.”

But he stressed that the Christian knows God cannot be unfaithful even if the believer is himself, and he “never tires of stretching out his hand” to help and encourage us. “This is the real journey: to walk with the Lord always, even at moments of weakness, even in our sins,” he said.

Many attending the consecration and weekend of events dedicated to Mary warmly welcomed the Holy Father’s initiative and said it was much needed.

David Carollo, executive director of the World Apostolate of Fatima in the United States, told the Register that, unlike in the struggle against Soviet communism, “the whole world is in trouble today.”

Russia spread its errors, he said, and that’s been particularly clear in the U.S. and the West. “We’re rotting, culturally,” he said, and exporting a culture that is “disgusting.”

Secularism, he added, has evolved from the “mandated atheism” of communism, but is more subtle. The consecration, he said, is a way of combating this and helping the world convert to Christ. “The Pope is saying to the faithful: ‘Be simple like Mary, because the whole pontificate has that theme.’”

Timothy Tindal-Robertson, president of the World Apostolate of Fatimain England and Wales, stressed that Sunday’s ceremony was “a giving of the world into the Immaculate Heart of Mary to save it.”

“That is her whole mission,” he said. “Mary is again at the foot of the cross to bring salvation, and this is what the world needs.” He was especially struck by Pope Francis kissing the feet of the statue of Mary. “It is the Holy Father saying [to Mary] that we, the Church, welcome you; we embrace you; we love you,” he said. “That’s the message that needs to get right out into the Church.”

Consecration Must Continue

But those present were eager to stress that the consecration doesn’t end there if the world is to be converted.

“We’ve all got to play our part,” said Donal Foley, also a member of the World Apostolate of Fatima of England and Wales. “We must pray the Rosary on the first five Saturdays to make it happen in the West. It’s not meant to be a magic thing that happens and then we relax.”

Mike Daley, a founding member of the England and Wales branch of the apostolate, stressed that the consecration is meant for all people. “We mustn’t lose sight that Our Lady is our universal Mother, and that means everyone,” he said. “It’s very important just to consider it’s not an exclusive consecration.”

They also underlined the power of prayer and recalled the effectiveness of Pope Francis’ vigil for peace in Syria and the world –– a vigil at which the Salus Populi Romani, the most important Marian icon in Rome, was processed up to the altar.

“What does that tell you? Prayer moves mountains, and I think no one knows this more than Pope Francis,” said Carollo.

Carollo, Daley, Foley and Tindal-Robertson all uphold Sister Lúcia’s testimony that John Paul II consecrated Soviet Russia to the Immaculate Heart –– an explicit instruction of Our Lady of Fatima –– in 1984, along with all nations of the world. As opposed to some who still contend the pope must explicitly consecrate Russia, they believe it has been done, as proven by Soviet communism’s fall.

The real crisis, Tindal-Robertson believes, is and always has been the abandonment of belief in God. “That’s what Our Lady said; because if you address that, you’re on the path to salvation again,” he said. He also sees the consecration as a means to heal the Church and the continuing crisis that followed the Second Vatican Council.

“It’s very important to show the whole Church and the people of God Mary’s position in the Church in this Year of Faith,” said Tindal-Robertson. “We need the presence of Our Lady in the Church, and this is what Francis is proclaiming.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.



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 Sorting out the Jesus Family: Mother, Fathers, Brothers & Sisters

That Jesus had four brothers and at least two sisters is a “given” in Mark, our earliest gospel record. He names the brothers rather matter-of-factly: James, Joses, Judas, and Simon. Mark mentions but does name the sisters, but early Christian tradition says there were two—a Mary and a Salome (Mark 6:3). Matthew, who followed Mark as his source, includes the same list, though he spells “Joses,” a nickname akin to the English “Josy,” in its full form “Joseph.” He also lists Simon before Judas (Matt 13:55). Luke, in contrast,drops the list of names entirely. He is an unabashed advocate of the apostle Paul and inaugurates a long process of marginalizing the brothers of Jesus to the obscurity that we find them today. More often than not, when I teach or lecture about the brothers of Jesus, and the important position of James, the eldest, whom Jesus left in charge of his followers, a hand shoots up in the room. The comment is always the same: “I never knew that Jesus even had any brothers.”

There are a number of factors behind this gap in our knowledge of early Christianity. The later Christian dogma that Mary was a perpetual virgin, that she never had children other than Jesus and never had sexual relations with any man, lies at the heart of the issue. No one in the early church even imagined such an idea, since the family of Jesus played such a visible and pivotal role in his life and that of his early followers. It all has to do with Mary being totally removed from her 1st century Jewish culture and context in the interest of an emerging view of the time that human sexuality was degraded and unholy at worst, and a necessary evil to somehow be struggled against at best. The material world, and thus anything to do with the body, was seen as lower and of less value than the heavenly spiritual world. Scholars refer to this view, quite common in Greco-Roman culture, asascetic dualism. Humans were trapped in two worlds—the material and the spiritual, withtwo modes of being—that of the body and the spirit (dualism). Those who denied the body and lived a celibate life, placing emphasis on the higher spiritual things “above,” were viewed as holy and free from the taint of the lower material world (asceticism). Generally this outlook has not found a comfortable home within Judaism because of the emphasis in the Bible upon the goodness of God’s material creation (Genesis 1). But there are exceptions. Philo, the 1st century BC Jewish philosopher, honors Plato, the great advocate of ascetic dualism, next to Moses himself. Philo’s influence, not to mention Plato’s, was enormous on both Jewish and Christian thinkers. The apostle Paul, as we will see, built his theology around an essentially dualistic view of the cosmos in which the earthly was denigrated in favor of the heavenly. He advocated celibacy as a higher spiritual way, though he did not absolutely forbid sex. According to Paul marriage was an antidote for the spiritually weak who might be tempted toward sexual immorality.[ii] It is easy to see how these tendencies to equate the spiritual life with the non-sexual life were transferred to Mary and her family.

Once one insists that “the blessed Virgin Mary” was “ever-virgin,” with no sexual experience whatsoever, then the brothers and sisters have to be explained away. I say this with no disrespect for those who hold such views of Mary. Yet it is important to understand when, how, and why these ideas developed. Good history never needs to be the enemy of devoted faith. The conflict arises when later forms of ascetic piety and assumptions about “holiness” are imposed on a culture for dogmatic or political reasons. What is lost is the historical reality of who Mary truly was as a Jewish married woman of her time. What we lose is Mary herself! The teaching of the “perpetual virginity” is simply not found in the New Testament and it is not part of the earliest Christian creeds. The first official mention of the idea does not come until 374 AD from a Christian theologian named Epiphanius.[iii] Most of our early Christian writings before the later 4th century AD take for granted that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were the natural born children of Joseph and Mary.[iv]

By the late 4th century AD the Church begin to handle the problem of Mary’s sexual life with two alternative explanations. One is that “brothers” does not mean literally brothers—born of the same mother—but is a general term referring to “cousins.” This became the standard explanation in the West advocated by Roman Catholics.[v] In the East, the Greek speaking Christians favored an different view—the brothers were sons of Joseph, but by a previous marriage, and thus had no blood-ties to Jesus or his mother.[vi] Clearly the problem with the Eastern view for Western theologians was their emerging tendency, born of asceticism, to make Joseph a life-long virgin as well. That way the Holy Family, Jesus included of course, could be fully and properly “holy.” Over the centuries it became more and more difficult for Christians, particularly in the West, to imagine Mary or Joseph as sexual human beings, or for that matter even living a “bodily” life at all. Once they become “Saints” in heaven, emphasizing such a potentially degrading “earthly” past became problematic.

If we restore Mary’s Jewish name—Miriam or Maria, the most common Jewish female name of the day—and put her back in her 1st century Jewish village of Nazareth, as a normally married Jewish woman, these theologically motivated concerns seem to vanish. We are free to recover a believable history much more fascinating and rich than any theological dogma. The texts of our New Testament records begin to come alive for us. As one of my university professors used to say about historical investigation: “When you get closer to the truth, everything begins to fit.”

So who were the brothers and sisters of Jesus? The most obvious answer is that they were children of Mary and Joseph born subsequently in the marriage. Mary became pregnant while engaged, father unknown; Joseph married her anyway, adopted Jesus as his own; and the couple assumed a normal married life, producing four sons and two daughters. Such might well be the case, but there is a problem here that we must not overlook. Once again, it has to do with understanding the lost Jewish cultural and religious context of the times.

There is good reason to suppose that Joseph died early, whether because he was substantially older than Mary or for some other unknown cause. After the birth stories he seems to disappear.[vii] Jesus is called “son of Joseph” or referred to as “the carpenter’s son” a few times, but Joseph himself never appears in any narratives and nothing further is related about him. Jesus moved “his mother and brothers” to Capernaum at one point—no mention of Joseph (John 2:12). His “mother and brothers” came seeking him in one story—again, no mention of Joseph (Mark 3:31). Even at the crucifixion of Jesus Mary is mentioned, and possibly one of his sisters, but Joseph is again strangely absent. After Jesus’ death his followers were gathered in Jerusalem and “Mary, the mother of Jesus with his brothers” were part of the group—but no Joseph (Acts 1:14). The silence seems to indicate that something has happened to Joseph.

If Joseph died early and Jesus and his brothers and sisters grew up “fatherless” this surely would have had an important psychological and sociological impact on the family. But if Joseph died childless there are further consequences for traditional theological dogmas about Mary. According to the Torah, or Law of Moses, the oldest surviving unmarried brother was obligated to marry his deceased brother’s widow and bear a child in his name so that his dead brother’s “name” or lineage would not perish. This is called a “Levirate marriage” or yibbum in Hebrew, and it is required in the Torah (Deut 25:5-10).[viii] It is one of the commandments of God given to Israel, and pious Jews took it seriously. It comes up in a discussion in the Gospels where Jesus is asked about a contrived case in which a woman is widowed seven times and each time successively marries a brother of her first husband (Mark 12:19-22).

Suddenly the issue of who was the father of Jesus takes on a new dimension. If Joseph was not Jesus’ father, and Joseph died without children, was Mary the widow required to marry Joseph’s brother? And do we know anything about Joseph’s brother? Amazingly we do. Though seldom recognized he is mentioned in the New Testament.

We want to follow the evidence wherever it might lead, but the implications that Mary was the mother of seven children through three different men does sound outrageous today. But what if such a practice was not only normal but not only required but required and honorable within the Jewish culture of the time? Such was certainly the case. To honor a man who died without an heir and thus assure his posterity was one of the most sacred and holy things a family could do. Remember the four women Matthew mentions in his genealogy? Two of the four, Tamar and Ruth, were widows involved in Levirate marriages. Perhaps Matthew knows more than he is explicitly telling us. It would be a mistake to judge any evidence concerning Mary and the fathers of her children by our theological and cultural standards. What we must do is look at the evidence—in this case a set of complex, but revealing, textual clues within the New Testament itself. It is as if, without intending to do so, the gospel writers have left a trail of evidence that we can reassemble bit by bit after nearly 2000 years.

All four of our gospels note that women from Galilee who followed Jesus were present at his crucifixion and attended to his burial. Mark lists the names of three of these women:

1. Mary Magdalene

2. Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses

3. Salome (Mark 15:40)

Matthew, who used Mark as his source, has the same list with slight changes:

1. Mary Magdalene

2. Mary the mother of James and Joseph

3. The mother of the sons of Zebedee (Matthew 27:56)

Mary Magdalene was the well-known companion of Jesus about whom we will say much in subsequent chapters. Salome, mentioned only by Mark is very possibly Jesus’ sister, or perhaps, according to Matthew the mother of the two fisherman James and John, who were part of the Twelve (Luke 5:10). In Luke’s account he drops the names and simply says that “women” were present just as he did earlier with the names of the brothers of Jesus (Luke 23:49, 55). As we will see, Luke is not keen to emphasize the family of Jesus.

Note that we have two women named Mary who were present. Later, at the burial of Jesus Matthew tells us again that Mary Magdalene was there, as well as “the other Mary” (Matt 27:61). When the women returned to the tomb early Sunday morning to find it empty Matthew again tell us they were “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary” (Matt 28:1). So the obvious question is this—Just who is this mysterious one called “the other Mary?

Mark identifies her specifically two more times—once at the burial as “Mary the mother of Joses,” and then at the empty tomb as “Mary the mother of James” (Mark 15:47; 16:1). He also notes again that Salome was present.

So we know this second Mary was the mother of a “James and Joses.” But is there any way to identify her further? We do know “another Mary” who has two sons named “James and Joses”—none other than Mary the mother of Jesus. These are the very names, even including the nickname “Joses” (that Matthew consistently edits) of her first two sons born after Jesus (Mark 6:3). Is it possible or even probable that this mysterious “other Mary” is Mary the mother of Jesus? It surely should not surprise us that Jesus’ own mother would be witness to his death, and participate in the Jewish family burial practices. And if so why does Mark not openly identify her as such?

Beyond this primary record of Mark, largely followed with some editing by Luke and Matthew, we do have one other independent witness as to the identity of these women—namely the gospel of John. Notice carefully his list of the three women at the cross:

1. Jesus’ mother Mary

2. His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clophas

3. Mary Magdalene (John 19:25)

Notice, we still have three women, but Salome has dropped out and all three are now named Mary! No matter how common the name Mary was at the time surely three Marysshould give us pause. Something seems to be going on here. John knows something that either he, or those who later edited his gospel, chose to veil.

The inclusion of Mary Magdalene does not surprise us, as she is in all the lists. But John tells us explicitly that Mary mother of Jesus was present. That would allow us to safely identify Mark’s “Mary the mother of James and Joses” as Jesus’ mother Mary. But then who is the “new” third Mary—the wife of Clophas? And who is Clophas? She is identified as the “sister” of Mary mother of Jesus—but what is the likelihood that two sisters in the same family would have the same name?

Let’s begin with Clophas as we do know something about him. As I will explain in detail later, when Jesus died he left his brother James in charge of his followers. James was murdered in 62 AD and our earliest records tell us that an aged man known as “Simon son of Clophas” succeeded him. We are further told that this Clophas was the brother of Joseph, the husband of Mary.[ix] If such were the case it is entirely possible that our mysterious Mary, wife of Clophas, mother of “James and Joses,” was a sister-in-law of Mary, married to her husband Joseph’s brother. That is the solution the church has settled on over the centuries. But notice, if such were the case, what we have is more than a bit strange:

Mary m. Joseph                                Mary m. Clophas, brother

|                                                                     |
James-Joses-Simon                                 James-Joses-Simon

Is it really likely that two sisters, both named Mary had three sons with the same names born in the same order: James, Joses, and Simon?

What seems more plausible is that Mark’s “Mary mother of James and Joses” was the same Mary as the mother of Jesus and that the gospel of John (or its later editors) has created a third Mary, wife of Clophas, who in fact was the same woman—in order to disguise the fact that Jesus’ mother Mary, after the death of Joseph, married his brother Clophas. A decrypted version of John would read

“Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother Mary wife of Clophas and Mary Magdalene.”

This would agree perfectly with Mark and not create the absurdity of sisters-in-law of the same name having identically named children, including the nickname “Joses,” in the same order of birth. According to this reconstruction our three women at the cross most likely were:

Mary Magdalene

Mary the widow of Joseph who married Clophas, Joseph’s brother

Salome, either the sister of Jesus or the mother of the sons of Zebedee

There is one additional point about Clophas that supports this interpretation. His name comes from the Hebrew root chalaph and means to “change” or to “replace.” It is where we get the English term “caliphate,” referring to a dynastic succession of rulers. So this is likely not his given name, but a type of “nickname.” He is the one who replaced his brother Joseph, who died childless. Clophas is mentioned elsewhere by the Greek form of the same name—Alphaeus. His firstborn son was regularly known as “James son of Alphaeus” or “James the younger” to distinguish him from James son of Zebedee the fisherman, brother of the apostle John.[x]

Given this information rather different but historically consistent picture begins to emerge. Jesus was born of an unknown father, but was not the son of Joseph. Joseph died without children, so according to Jewish law “Clophas” or “Alphaeus” became his “replacer,” and married his widow Mary, mother of Jesus. His firstborn son, James, the brother who succeeds Jesus, legally becomes known as the “son of Joseph” after his deceased brother in order to carry on his name. This would mean that Jesus had four half-brothers and at least two half-sisters, all born of his mother Mary but from a different father.

This is one plausible reconstruction of the evidence. There are things we can never know with certainty. Clophas is mentioned only once in the entire New Testament (John 19:25).[xi] If he and his brother Joseph were much older than Mary it is likely that neither was alive when Jesus was an adult. This is further indicated in the gospel of John when Jesus the eldest son in the family, just before his death, handed his mother over to the care of a mysterious “beloved disciple” that John prefers not to name (John 19:26). I will show evidence later that this person is most likely James, his brother, the next eldest in the family. But whoever it was, Jesus’ giving his mother into the care of another indicates she was a widow. We have to remember that the gospels are primarily theological accounts of the Jesus story written a generation or more after his death. When it comes to Jesus’ family there is much they do not spell out, and there are things they appear to deliberately suppress. We have seen that Mark preserves material that is edited or removed by Matthew and Luke. John knows more than he is willing to say explicitly. The reasons for these tendencies will become clearer as we trace our story through to the end. It is truly a tangled tale of political intrigue and religious power plays with stakes destined to shape the future of the world’s largest religion.

What we can say with some degree of certainty is the following. Joseph was not the father of Jesus, and Mary’s pregnancy by an unnamed man was “illegitimate” by societal norms. Jesus had four half-brothers and two half-sisters, all children of Mary but from a different father—whether Joseph or his brother Clophas. Jesus by age thirty functions as head of the household and forges a vital role for his brothers, who succeed him in establishing a Messianic Dynasty destined to change the world.

 Epiphanius, Panarion 78.8-9 and compare Gospel of Phillip 59:6-11 withProtoevangelium of James19-20.

[ii] See his instruction in 1 Corinthians 7.

[iii] The idea of Mary’s “perpetual virginity” was affirmed at the 2nd Council of Constantinople in 553 AD and the Lateran Council in 649 AD. Although it is a firmly established part of Catholic dogma it has nonetheless never been the subject of an infallible declaration by the Roman Catholic church.

[iv] This is called the Helvidian view named after Helvidius, a 4th century Christian writer whom Jerome seeks to refute. Eusebius, the early 4th century church historian regularly quotes early sources and refers himself to the brothers of Jesus “after the flesh,” surely understanding them as children of Mary and Joseph (see Eusebius, Church History 2. 23; 3. 19.

[v] This is called the Hieronymian view in honor of Jerome, the 5th century Christian theologian who was its champion.

[vi] This is called the Epiphanian view in honor of Epiphanius, a 4th century Christian bishop. It occurs as early as the 2nd century text we know as the Protoevangelium of James.

[vii] Luke has one story, when Jesus was 12 years old and was left behind after a Passover feast at the Temple. This account does mention his father and his mother but most historians question its historical validity. It appears to be modeled closely on typical stories of the time about a precocious child amazing the wise men of his society (see Luke 1:41-51, compare Josephus, Life 7-8). Other than that one story Joseph is completely absent.

[viii] The term “Levirate” comes from the Latin levir (“husband’s brother”). Jewish authorities differ as to whether or not the Torah has in mind a deceased brother who ischildless or one who specifically lacks a male heir (Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. “Levirate Marriage”). The practical application of this law within Judaism at various points in history is long and complex (Encyclopedia Judaica, s.v. “Levirate Marriage and Halizah”).

[ix] This is from the 2nd century writer Hegesippus who preserves for us some of the most valuable early traditions about the Jesus family (Eusebius, Church History 3. 11).

[x] See Mark 3:18 and 15:27.

[xi] There is a Cleopas mentioned in Luke 24:18 but he does not appear to be the same person and the names in Greek are different.

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