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Who Were Jesus’ Brothers? A Q&A with Brian Cunningham, PhD

Who were Jesus’ brothers? The sons of Joseph and Mary were James, Joseph, Jude, and Simon. While they were skeptical of Jesus during his ministry, this changed after Jesus’ resurrection. Two of Jesus’ brothers, James and Jude, went on to become leaders in the early church, each writing a New Testament book.

The following conversation was from an interview with Brian Cunningham, whose PhD dissertation at Liberty University focused on James, the brother of Jesus.

Q: What do you imagine home life being like for Jesus and his siblings?

What was home life like for Jesus and his brothers? For one thing, in Luke’s Gospel, we learn that Mary and Joseph didn’t have much money. We see this from when they offered birds as a temple sacrifice instead of the customary lamb, which shows that they were in a lower income bracket.

So, I would envision them just living an average-joe kind of life. They weren’t wealthy by any means. And they probably lived in a home where they might not have had much room. I’m guessing they were probably a close-knit family as the kids were growing up, but I believe that began to change, especially as Jesus began his ministry.

“They were probably a close-knit family as the kids were growing up, but I believe that began to change, especially as Jesus began his ministry.”

Another description we can gather from the New Testament accounts is that they were probably raised very religiously. I’m sure Mary and Joseph instructed them on the Torah, and they were probably devoted to it. They probably had a good understanding of God and his promise to Abraham (see Luke 1:55), as well as the story of Moses and the Exodus. They were likely well-grounded in God and his story. We gather from Luke 2 and John 7 that the family was dedicated to traveling to Jerusalem for Jewish festivals.

So, to summarize, they probably lived a quiet, simple, religiously devoted first-century Jewish life.

Who were Jesus’ brothers? Simple first-century Jewish men with a strong religious upbringing.

Q: How many siblings did Jesus have? Do we know any of their names?

We don’t know the names of the sisters (the reference in Mark 6:3 is to sisters, so there were more than one). Jesus’ best-known brother was James. There were also Joseph, Judas (Jude), and Simon. So, at least seven kids total (including Jesus).

Who were Jesus’ brothers? James, Joseph, Jude, and Simon.

Q: The Gospel of John tells us there’s a point in Jesus’ ministry when his brothers don’t believe in him. Wouldn’t they of all people have known who Jesus was? Why do you think they were skeptical?

Reason #1: Religion

I think there are a number of possible reasons Jesus’ brothers could have been skeptical of him. One is probably due to their religious upbringing. They were so well-grounded in the Torah, and then Jesus came along and made these claims which seemed to contradict their beliefs. For example, his claim to be Lord of the Sabbath—when the Sabbath was a very big deal for first-century Jews. There was his claim to being the final judge of Israel. There was also his claim to be able to forgive sins (Mark 2:7-10), which no one can do but God alone.

And word traveled very fast about Jesus. I would think if nothing else his brothers would have had serious questions based on what they were hearing about him. It doesn’t appear that Mary and Joseph instructed the other siblings about Jesus and his plan for bringing salvation to their people and the world. We’re not given any indication that they did that. There could be many reasons for their skeptical take on him, but I’m of the opinion that the siblings were ignorant of Jesus’ mission. So, for one thing, there’s the religious aspect, which we see especially in James who demonstrated a very strong devotion to the Scriptures.

Reason #2: Rivalry

There’s also the notion of sibling rivalry. Although there are possible exceptions, sibling rivalry is considered by many to be a universal phenomenon in cultures. Given what Mary and Joseph knew about Jesus (even if they didn’t understand it fully), Jesus was probably treated a bit differently. The brothers would have seen Jesus at the age of twelve conversing with Jewish scholars (Luke 2:46-47), and it’s hard to imagine them not being somewhat jealous. It’s very possible that Jesus may have been given special treatment because of who he was, even if it was unintentional. Even in normal families, it can be very hard to live up to the standard the older sibling sets.

“Even in normal families, it can be very hard to live up to the standard the older sibling sets.”

Again, sibling rivalry isn’t just a modern-day thing; we see it throughout the Bible: Cain and Abel. Esau and Jacob. Joseph and his brothers. This is something that’s been going on since the beginning of time.

Reason #3: Resentment

When Jesus up and left the family to begin his ministry, I think this would have had serious effects on his siblings, especially because of the honor-shame culture that existed back then. One of the reasons I think this could be the case is we’re not given any information about Joseph after Luke 2. There’s solid evidence that Joseph was a very honorable man and that he wouldn’t have left his family. My guess is that Joseph probably passed away in Jesus’ life before his ministry started. And if that’s the case, Jesus would have been catapulted into being the head of the family.

“Jesus would have been catapulted into being the head of the family. Yet, Jesus up and leaves and begins his ministry.”

Yet, Jesus up and leaves and begins his ministry. This would have been a very difficult thing for the siblings to deal with. They could have seen Jesus as dishonoring the family, at a time when people’s identity was strongly tied to their family. This may have been one of the factors which drove Jesus’ siblings to tell others that he was out of his mind: “His family…went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind’” (Mark 3:21). Later in Mark 3, they tried to draw Jesus away from teaching:

When Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35)

By making these statements, Jesus was taking these longstanding traditions and mindsets of family obligation and family honor and turning them on their heads.

It seems that from those three standpoints (religious reasons, sibling rivalry, and family obligation), a pretty good case can be made that it would have been difficult for the siblings, especially in the early part of his ministry, to be believers.

Q: Do his brothers change their tune the more popular Jesus gets?

We don’t hear any of them soften their skepticism until after Jesus’ resurrection. In their defense, there are some pretty good reasons, from their perspective, that they were doing the right thing by honoring their family, whereas it seemed to them that Jesus wasn’t. So, they are apparently justified in keeping their distance.

So, in Luke 10 when Jesus sends out his disciples and the “seventy” to preach, there’s nothing there that indicates that James or any of the brothers were part of it. They weren’t with him at the Last Supper. They were nowhere to be found when Jesus was arrested. Then, when Jesus was crucified, it too would have been very shameful.

At the crucifixion, I think it’s a very big deal that Jesus entrusted his mother to his disciple John (John 19:26-27). I’m assuming James is the oldest sibling after Jesus, since he is always listed first. And one would think that Jesus would have entrusted Mary to James. Again, given the character Joseph is ascribed, it doesn’t seem that he would have abandoned his family; so, the next in line to take care of his mother would have been James.

“At the crucifixion, I think it’s a very big deal that Jesus entrusted his mother to his disciple John.”

We have ancient writings that viewed people that were “hanging on a tree” as a blasphemer. In the intertestamental Book of Wisdom 2:18, we are told that, if the righteous man is a son of God, God will help him. God obviously didn’t help Jesus in the way we would want to be helped. It’s very possible his family saw him as a blasphemer because of what he claimed, and if they were really religiously astute (which especially James shows himself to be; see Acts 15:13-21 for an example), they would have seen this as shameful. So, Jesus entrusted Mary to John.

It is not until after the resurrection that we get any kind of sense of Jesus and his brothers being reconnected.

Who were Jesus’ brothers? Onetime skeptics of Jesus.

Q: The biggest twist of all is that we seem to have two books of the Bible written by two of Jesus’ brothers. Which books are these?

Both Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55 list Jesus’ brothers as James, Joseph, Judas (Jude), and Simon. Of these, James and Jude go on to write books in the New Testament which bear their names. Both are included after Paul’s letters, toward the end of the New Testament. Additionally, both are letters under the category of “General Epistles,” because they were written to more general audiences than one church in one city.

Who were Jesus’ brothers? Early church leaders and New Testament writers.

Q: Jesus’ brother James seems to make quite a few appearances throughout the New Testament and even outside the New Testament. What are the main bullet points we know about James’s life?

Jesus appeared to James after his resurrection (1 Cor. 15:7), and James left his skepticism behind. In Acts 1:14, Luke writes that Jesus’ mother and his brothers were there, praying with the disciples in the weeks between Jesus’ resurrection and the start of the church.

The book of Acts goes on to describe James as having a prominent leadership role in the Jerusalem church (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18). There’s this dispute going on about the Gentiles, James speaks up with the solution, and it appears to be a done deal. He is the go-to guy. Similarly, in Acts 21, we see Paul arriving in Jerusalem (this is after his initial visit to Jerusalem described in Galatians 1-2) and taking the advice James gives him.

In Galatians 1:19, Paul describes visiting Jerusalem shortly after his conversion and meeting with James there: “I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.” I think it’s really fascinating when we look at Galatians 2 and Paul calls three men the “pillars of the Jerusalem church” (Gal. 2:9). He lists James first, then Peter, then John. That’s really something. Many times throughout the New Testament, Peter is listed first, as he is probably the ringleader of the disciples. We don’t know this for certain, but considering how names are typically written in a particular order, at least in the Jerusalem church, maybe James’s position was elevated to the go-to-guy for decisions to be made in the Jerusalem church (as we see played out in Acts).

“Paul calls three men the ‘pillars of the Jerusalem church.’ He lists James first, then Peter, then John.”

James’s devotion to the Old Testament Scriptures and religious practice made him a very pious religious leader, and he was respected in Jewish circles even outside the Jerusalem church. His religious devotion shines through his letter in the New Testament. And when we see him in Acts 15 and Acts 21, he is maintaining a very pious adherence to his Jewish roots even though he’s now following Jesus, his brother, as Lord.

The first-century Jewish historian Josephus mentions that James was stoned to death; an execution that likely took place in the early 60s. Secondcentury Christian writer Hegissipus fleshes this event out, saying that Albinus the priest assembled the Sanhedrin, brought James brother of Jesus out, and formed an accusation against him as a lawbreaker.

According to Josephus, after James was executed, there were many Jews very upset at James losing his life. What I take from that is that James, although obviously a follower of Jesus who promoted the gospel, was likely still participating in Jewish festivals, activities, customs—anything that would not take him away from following Jesus. He was a man very dedicated to his Jewish tradition. Though no longer bound to them, James still engaged with them.

Who were Jesus’ brothers? At least one became a Christian martyr.

Q: You have done a lot of focused study on the life of Jesus’ brother James. What can we learn from James’s life?

To summarize, it seems likely that James was a man that had real issues with Jesus, and these issues may have derived from his own understanding in the way he viewed things. He was in my estimation quite a religious scholar. He knew the Scriptures very well. For example, the way he was able to bring up Amos 9 on the spot in Acts 15 shows how knowledgeable he really was. He wrote the letter of James, and we see a lot of wisdom from his Jewish roots there too.

James then had an encounter with Jesus and completely changed. He still honored his Jewish roots while blessing Paul in his mission to the Gentiles. He made it clear in Acts 15 that he didn’t believe Gentiles had to accept certain things that were prescribed only for the Jews. He believed in Jesus so strongly that he was willing to go to his death about it. This willingness to die for his faith meant that he really believed he had had an encounter with the risen Jesus.

“This willingness to die for his faith meant that he really believed he had had an encounter with the risen Jesus.”

So, James’s life is a testimony to all of us. We all like to hold onto things, trust in our own understanding, and we may even believe we’re doing the right things even when rejecting Jesus. But once we have an encounter with Jesus, now our motives are pointed in a different direction. It’s not all about us. James wasn’t now living for himself or even the convictions of his religious upbringing. He was living for his brother Jesus.

This also teaches us a lot about the mercy of Jesus. Here was someone calling his brother out of his mind, and someone who wouldn’t even support his mother in the death of her firstborn son. James was probably that prideful. Through that encounter with Jesus, we still see a strong man, but a strong man in Jesus. He was willing to lay down his life, and he did so in a very violent way. It wasn’t a lethal injection. He was stoned to death which had to be horrifying and painful. Even so, he would not recant.

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