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First Century Families

When you think about Jesus and His family, it’s important to recognize that in antiquity, there was really no such thing as the nuclear family as we think of it today.  The ancient world was a place with high mortality and frequent birth, so if you think of the pattern in antiquity as being lots of people being born, lots of people dying; that means that the families were really ephemeral and changing a lot.  So, we really need to think in terms of blended families, intergenerational families, unstable families that would move in and out of households at various times; and that’s actually the picture we kind of get from the Gospels.  If you take a look at it, we have Jesus born to a relatively young mother.  By the time he’s older, the father is no longer on the scene, presumably dead; and as best we can tell, He would have had half-brothers or even brothers or cousins that he would have been connected with.  So, think of the family as something that’s very ephemeral, loose, it’s not solid and stable but changing an awful lot because of death and disease rendered the family very, very unstable in antiquity.

As best we can %%tell in antiquity, families would have been run by a father figure, but because fathers, like all people in antiquity, were subject to death and disease more frequently than today and at higher rates; we need to imagine that wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters would have, sort of, accumulated around whatever father figure happens to be around.  That might actually be an uncle, it might be a grandfather, it might be the real father; and in that sense, sort of families might come and go and the household, the house structure itself, might actually be more stable than the family that’s living in it; and, that’s actually the picture we get in the Gospels.  If you think about Jesus as being born in Nazareth and he has a very young mother and, at some point, he moves away from Nazareth and He goes to Capernaum and; then at some point, He moves on again and has an itinerant life style.  Eventually He winds up in Jerusalem, as did some of his other relatives, James for example.

Of course a lot of people ask the question whether or not Jesus had brothers; and I think we need to think of Jewish life in the first century, much like the rest of the world today, in a third world context, where brother doesn’t necessarily mean you have the same father and the same mother; but rather brother is somebody that lives in the house with you at a particular time, could be a half-brother, could even be a cousin or even an uncle.  So, certainly Jesus would have had brothers. 

We do know from the New Testament that James is often referred to as the brother of Jesus and, of course, the question is, is he the brother in the sense that Joseph and Mary are also his mother and father, as with Jesus, or if he’s, maybe, a half-brother and people have speculated that he may, in fact, have been the son from an earlier marriage of Joseph.

  • Jonathan Reed

    Jonathan Reed is professor of religion and dean for the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of La Verne. He co-authored Excavating Jesus and In Search of Paul with John Dominic Crossan. Reed is an active archaeologist and directs a dig at Sepphoris. He has appeared on numerous television documentaries, and his work has appeared in National Geographic.