Monday, March 21, 2011

How important were Jesus' brothers in the early Christian movement?

Last week I had a link to the 50th episode of Mark Goodacre's NT Pod in which he discusses the possible identification of Jesus' sisters. This week he looks at the identity and activity of Jesus' brothers and asks: What do we know about the brothers of Jesus?

Interestingly, Goodacre does not start with the gospels but with Paul. In 1 Corinthians 9:5 Paul mentions the brothers of Jesus and their wives. Goodacre points out that these family members appear to not only be known followers of Jesus, but are also active in spreading the message about Jesus. Paul compares them to himself and Peter in the context of defending his ministry.

Of course all of this, as Goodacre points out, does not match what we find in the gospels. For instance in Mark 3:20 Jesus' family sets out to get hold of him since they think he is crazy and in John 7:4 we read that not even Jesus' own brothers believed in him.

So what happened?

Was there a change of heart? Was it because of a resurrection appearance to them? Or was it because the brothers were actually much more involved from the beginning and when the gospel writers came to the brothers role it was spin in a much more negative light? Did some early Christian writers have concerns about or objections to the prominent role taken by some of Jesus' family, James in particular, and therefore portrayed them in a negative light? Listen to what Goodacre has to say and see what you think.


  1. For me, the spin theory is problematic. If we are able to spot that the gospels distorted the reality, then the intended audience of the gospels would likely have been able to do the same, since they were much closer to the events than we are. If it was spin it would then have been completely ineffective spin, surely. Also, there is very little evidence that there was a rift in the early church, in my view.

  2. Richard,
    I agree with you. It seems that if the gospels were written within living memory of the events, it would be difficult to rewrite the brothers' role without getting some blow back. I think Goodacre does a good job at laying out the information, but I am not sure where he ultimately lands on this one. Unless I missed it.

  3. Thanks very much for the plug, and thanks also for the comments, John and Richard. I am not sure where I ultimately land on this one either, hence my attempt to keep it open ended. And I want to podcast twice again at least on the issue (once on James, once on the issue of the parents of the brothers) and possibly three times (once also on Jude). The one thing that makes me wonder about the Gospels' portrayal is that they are curiously silent about resurrection appearances to the brothers, and especially James. I wonder whether this plays into an inclination at least to play down their role.

  4. Mark,
    The lack of appearances to the brothers raises a good question. Paul mentions that Jesus appeared to James (1 Cor 15:7), which could suggest some sort of early participation by James. Or this could be the reason James had a change of heart. Whatever the case, it is curious that with James' later predominance in the church that he is not mentioned as meeting the resurrected Jesus in a gospel or Acts. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on this topic. Keep up the good work.