Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Setting Up Home

Jesus’ trips with his mother and father to Jerusalem for the Passover each year remind us that Jesus did not grow up in a vacuum.  For thirty years, he lived the relatively normal life of a Jew growing up in Galilee.  Indeed, so normal was it that the people in Nazareth, who knew him better than most, could not believe he was anyone special when he began his ministry.  Jesus seems to have realized that this would happen and comments in both the Synoptic Gospels and John on how a prophet is not accepted amongst those who know him best. (Luke 4:24, John 4:44)

Both the Synoptics and John alert us to the fact that Jesus continued to be in touch with his mother and brothers during his ministry.  This reference to Jesus’ mother and brothers raises some fascinating and important questions.

First, what happened to Joseph?  Joseph seems to disappear from the Gospels and it is only Mary who is spoken of.  This has led scholars to speculate that Joseph may have died before Jesus began his ministry.  It is only speculation, but it does seem somewhat reasonable.

Secondly, were Jesus brothers really his brothers?  Some have argued that they were only his half brothers, being Joseph’s children from a previous marriage.  Or, alternatively, that they were in fact only his cousins.  The only reason for this sort of speculation is the desire to argue that Mary remained a virgin even after Jesus’ birth.  This does not seem to have been the case.  St Matthew, for example, says:

‘(Joseph) took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.’  (Matthew 1:24-25

The desire to keep Mary a virgin has more to do with Christian attitudes to sex than historical reality.  We are safer to take the text at face value and accept Jesus’ brothers and sisters as his full brothers and sisters.

Everything we hear about Jesus’ family suggests that they were devout and that Jesus and his siblings had a devout upbringing.  The best known of Jesus’ bothers, James, was to become the leader of the Jerusalem Church, aquiring a reputation for being devout in his own right.  He even merits a mention by the Jewish historian, Josephus.  That James became the leader of the Jerusalem Church is interesting given his parents regular visits to Jerusalem.  But more about James another time!

The first mention of Jesus’ brothers occurs in St John’s Gospel.  St John describes the miracle at which, Mary and his first disciples were present.  We are then told:

‘After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days.’  (John 2:12)

I have spoken in previous blogs of the importance that Capernaum was to assume in the ministry of Jesus.  Jesus first disciples seem to lived and worked there.  Jesus cured Peter’s mother-in-law there.  Did Jesus and his family stay with the disciples or did they make their own home there as well?  From the way the Synoptics present it, it sounds as if Jesus’ family literally moved house to Capernaum.  Take this verse from Matthew, for example:

‘He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.’ (Matthew 4:13)

St Mark puts it like this:

‘When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home.’ (Mark 2:1)

Further support for the idea that Jesus set up home in Capernaum with his family comes from St Mark’s account of Jesus’ visit to Nazareth.  St Mark records the reaction of the people there in the following way:

‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’  And they took offence at him.  (Mark 6:3)

While the people of Nazareth know Jesus, Mary, and his brothers, they refer to his sisters as actually living there in Nazareth with them.  This surely suggests that Mary and Jesus’ brothers did not live there any longer.  The sisters presumably had married and would, therefore, have been expected to live with their husbands.  Also interesting is that Jesus is referred to as the ‘carpenter’, but we are not told what his brothers did.

Capernaum keeps coming up in both the Synoptics and John as the centre for Jesus’ ministry in Galilee.  The fact that Jesus is said to go to Capernaum with his mother, brothers and disciples means that, at the very least, the family of Jesus and his disciples knew one another and may even have shared a home with each other.  It seems likely to me that they did do so.  What it didn’t mean apparently was that the brothers were as comfortable with Jesus’ ministry as his immediate disciples were.

So what was Jesus’ relationship with his family and his brothers in particular?

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