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Jesus' Family, Jesus' Illegitimacy

Was Jesus a Bastard? (Mark 6:1-6)


It appears that people had trouble taking Jesus seriously because they knew his family and his background. When a stranger comes to do wonderful things, it is easy to take that as an indication of who they “really” are; when someone you know well does amazing things, however, there may be more of an inclination to be suspicious and cynical.

After all, you know them in a very different manner and can have trouble imagining them as a great authority or miracle worker. This disposition is what creates a lot of truth for the famous saying “a prophet is not without honor except in his own country.”

The question of Jesus’ family comes up here and it is very interesting. The people unable to take Jesus very seriously appear to be on familiar terms with his brothers (James, Joses, Juda, and Simon) and his sisters (not worthy of being named, apparently). Brothers? Sisters? According to tradition, Jesus was an only child. According to Catholic doctrine, Mary was a perpetual virgin — which naturally excludes the possibility of her ever having had other children besides Jesus.

What’s going on here?

This seems to be one of those cases where the biblical text and Christian traditions crash head-on, with traditions coming out far worse. There’s not much basis for arguing that the text here isn’t describing brothers and sisters, but that doesn’t stop ecclesiastical leaders from trying — for example, many have argued that these are “metaphorical” brothers and sisters rather than blood kin. I don’t know which is worse: the fact that religious leaders think that believers will buy that sort of explanation, or the fact that many believers over the years have indeed bought it.

Another interesting question about Jesus’ family is the fact that the text describes him as the “son of Mary.” In Jewish tradition, a man is always identified as the son of his father, even if the father is dead. Why identify Jesus as the son of his mother instead? One likely reason is that Jesus’ birth wasn’t legitimate — that his parents weren’t married, and therefore his biological father wasn’t also his “social” father.

It’s not an early reference to Jesus’ divine origin because it’s coming from people who are hostile towards him and who certainly don’t know anything about his mission. It’s a slur, not a neutral observation. Indeed, to call Jesus the “son of Mary” in this fashion is tantamount to saying “this guy has no real father, he’s a bastard.”

This may be why Matthew and Luke change the text to describe Jesus as the “son of Joseph.” Jewish tradition has it that the children of adulterers are “without honor” if they live to adulthood, an interesting connection to Jesus’ own words in verse 4. If the people in his home town knew about his illegitimacy, then of course they wouldn’t have faith or confidence in any of his abilities.

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