Questions we've pondered

By Bill Warren, Professor of New Testament and Greek at NOBTS

Question: What Do We Know About Jesus’ Family? What happened to them after Jesus was born and later after he was crucified?

Bill Warren responds: You’ve asked a question that Christians have puzzled over from the second century onward. Unfortunately, we don’t know as much as our curiosity desires, but there is some information in the New Testament and other early sources.

In the New Testament, Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:56 mention Mary as Jesus’ mother, Jesus’ sisters (not named) and brothers James, Joses, Jude (or Judas), and Simon. The most natural reading of this text is that these are actual brothers and sisters, not simply “cousins,” and no indication is given that they are children of only Joseph and not Mary.

Matthew 13:56 also notes that Joseph was a carpenter, with Mark 6:3 noting that Jesus was also a carpenter. Of course, the son generally followed in his father’s trade, so we should expect the same trade for both Joseph and Jesus.

Regarding Jesus’ parents, his father is not mentioned as being alive during Jesus’ ministry, so most likely Joseph died between when Jesus was 12 years old and when his public ministry began. Mary, however, is noted several times in the NT.

She was related to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1:36). She was at the crucifixion along with her sister (John 19:25), the wife of Clopas (likely a variant spelling of Cleopas). While this phrase can be read as indicating two different people, the most natural reading is that Mary’s sister is the wife of Clopas since the placements of the Greek conjunctions for “and” indicate such. After the resurrection, Mary is mentioned among the disciples in Jerusalem before Pentecost (Acts 1:14).

As for after that, two traditions exist, with one indicating that she died in Jerusalem a few years later, and another that she went to Ephesus with John the Apostle and then died there. In fact, it’s uncertain as to when and where Mary died.

Of Jesus’ four brothers, we only have information on James and Jude. James became the head of the Jerusalem church and is the traditional author of the Epistle of James, as is Jude for the Epistle of Jude. James was killed in A.D. 62 by the Jewish religious leadership in Jerusalem. When Jude died is not certain, although the second-century writer Hegesippus notes that some of Jude’s grandchildren were alive at the time of the Emperor Domitian in the late first century, so Jude obviously married and had children. Later less-reliable traditions mention Jude dying as a martyr in the early 70s.

Bill Warren PhD is NOBTS Professor of New Testament and Greek in the Landrum P. Leavell II Chair of NT Studies, and Founding Director of the H. Milton Haggard Center of New Testament Textual Studies.