1 vote, average: 5.00 out of 51 vote, average: 5.00 out of 51 vote, average: 5.00 out of 51 vote, average: 5.00 out of 51 vote, average: 5.00 out of 5 (1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
You need to be a registered member to rate this post.

Jesus’ Brothers?!? And the Proto-Gospel of James


One more post on the Proto-Gospel of James.  As it turns out, this Gospel was very popular in Eastern, Greek-speaking Christianity throughout the Ages, down to modern times; and a version of it was produced – with serious additions and changes – in Latin, that was even more influential in Western Christianity (a book now known as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew).   In some times and places, these books were the main source of “information” that people had for knowing about Jesus’ birth and family – more so than the NT Gospels.

The idea that Joseph was an old man and Mary was a young girl?  Comes from the Proto-Gospel (not the NT!).   The view that Jesus was born in a cave?   Proto-Gospel.    The notion that at the nativity there was an ox and a donkey?  Pseudo-Matthew.   And there were lots of other stories familiar to Christians in the Middle Ages not so familiar to people today, all from these books – for example, a spectacular account (in Pseudo-Matthew) of Jesus as an infant, en route to Egypt, helping out his very-hungry mother Mary who was eyeing with longing some fruit at the top of a palm tree, by ordering the tree to bend down and yield its produce to her.  It does, and Jesus blesses the tree and guarantees that one of its branches will be taken to Paradise.

The Proto-Gospel was also responsible for the popularity of one particular view of Jesus’ brothers.

You need to be logged in to see this part of the content. Please Login to access.

Brothers of Jesus and the Mythicists
When Time Stood Still



  1. cheito
    cheito  October 22, 2013

    As you said DR Ehrman, they are legends, as in fictitious. Although it’s very popular and accepted by many I reject the book of Revelation. I consider it a deliberately fabricated divination written to deceive believers and distort true prophecy. ON the other hand I accept the Gospel of John and other NT books as inspired by God. So very little has changed from earlier times except that we now have all the narratives available to both the Eastern and Western Churches to choose from.

    “In some times and places, these books were the main source of “information” that people had for knowing about Jesus’ birth and family – more so than the NT Gospels.”

    What times and places are you referring to DR Ehrman? Did the Eastern Greek-Speaking Christians also have the writings of the Apostles along with the Proto-Gospel of James and Pseudo Matthew? Did they know about John or Luke at all?

  2. Avatar
    FrancisDunn  October 22, 2013

    Dr Ehrman:
    What in hell is with the “religious” people in this world thinking that sex is something dirty or unnatural???….I could never figure out why something as natural and normal as sex is looked down upon, especially by “religious” people. Did not their god tell them in the old testament, “Genesis”, to live and go forth an multiply??. How in hell can you go forth and multiply without having sex??..The shakers in upstate New York condemned thy’re people from having sexual relations and guess what; NO MORE SHAKERS. We are all just human animals. Without sex the world just doesn’t go on….Can you figure this one out.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 23, 2013

      Well, I know it seems strange, but there are lots of philosophical and religious movements, with very serious and deep thinkers, who toe the ascetic line. And probably different reasons for people to move in this direction (from — to speak simplistically — the apocalyptic idea that the end was near and people should devote themselves completely to the coming kingdom to the deep sense that this material world is a secondary corrupt place and the goal of life is not to indulge in it but to escape it by denouncing the body and elevating the mind/spirit). Personally, of course, I’m on your side!

      • Avatar
        FrancisDunn  October 23, 2013

        Thank you Dr Ehrman. That answers my question. I never thought of it that way.

    • cheito
      cheito  October 23, 2013


      With all due respect I’d like to comment on your assertion that the religious people of this world think sex is something dirty and unnatural.

      What religious people are you talking about? I believe in God and Jesus and I don’t think sex is dirty or unnatural. The teachings of Christ and His Apostles do instruct us to abstain from sexual immorality.

      God teaches that having sex with someone else wife is be wrong . He also says that a man having sex with a man, or a woman with a woman, or a human with an animal is unnatural. I would also agree with God and Christ that a man having sex with his sister, mother or aunt is lewdness to say the least.

      I believe sex is holy and sacred and God created it for a man and a woman who make a commitment to each other in marriage. Sex is not dirty or unnatural however Sex is not for engaging in it with whoever you want whenever you want just for the pleasure of it without a commitment to that other person.

      The religious people you speak about are following erroneous teachings like the ascetics did. God did not and does not tell people to abstain from sex and marriage. That persuasion came from someone else.

      • Bart Ehrman
        Bart Ehrman  October 24, 2013

        Are you referring to *my* comment??? I certainly never said any such thing!

        • cheito
          cheito  October 24, 2013

          I was referiing to FrancisDunn’s comment DR Ehrman.

  3. Avatar
    dennis  October 22, 2013

    This , then , must be the source for that charming carol The Cherry Tree :
    ” When Joseph was an old , an old man was he , he wedded Virgin Mary , the Queen of Galilee “

  4. Avatar
    SJB  October 23, 2013

    Prof Ehrman

    Since you’ve brought up the subject of Jesus’ family perhaps it won’t be too far off the subject to ask this question.

    Mythicists are forced by their arguments to deal with Paul’s encounter with Peter and James in Galatians 1:18–20. They claim that when Paul refers to James as “The Lord’s brother” he does not mean that James is Jesus’ biological brother (which of course would mean that Jesus actually lived) but that he was using the word “brother” in the sense that all the disciples were “brothers” i.e., metaphorically.

    What about this? Is the word translated as “brother” in English that ambiguous in the original Greek? Can it be other than a biological relationship? Elsewhere I believe Paul uses the word “brothers” to describe fellow believers. Does he use the same Greek word?

    Thanks for the clarification.

  5. Avatar
    Scott F  October 23, 2013

    ‘Jerome insisted that the Greek word for “brother” actually could and often did mean “cousin.” ‘

    You say ‘Jerome insisted.’ Is it actually true that the word can mean either brother or cousin?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 23, 2013

      Well, there’s a different word for cousin.

      • Avatar
        Scott F  October 24, 2013

        What about the (Catholic) claim that the word brother/cousin was brought over to the Greek from the original Hebrew/Aramiac where only one word did duty for both? You point out in your books that some pericopes had to have originated in Greek while others must have come from the Aramaic. Can we make that distinction in any of the passages touching on Jesus’ “brothers”?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  October 24, 2013

          The problem is that Paul didn’t speak or know Aramaic. He was writing in Greek. So too with the writers of the Gospels.

          • Avatar
            FrankJay71  October 24, 2013

            Paul didn’t speak Aramaic? What about his meeting with Peter and James at Jerusalem? Would Barnabus have interpreted the meeting?
            Also, I know Acts isn’t considered very historical, and that we get a lot of our “information” about Pual from Acts, but there’s a lot in Acts that ties him to Jerusalem, like his own words in the speach to Agrippa, and the stoning of Stephen. Wasn’t the majority language of the Jews in Jerusalem Arimaic? Wouldn’t he speak the language if he spent any time there? Acts 22 explicately states that he spoke Arimaic
            I know in his own writtings he admits to persecuting Christians, was it under the official autority from the priests in Jerusalem??

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  October 25, 2013

            Great question about Paul in Jerusalem. I don’t know if they used interpreters or what. The business in Acts I think is historically suspect (including his getting Jerusalem authorization to persecute); he himself shows no real evidence of knowing Aramaic — and if he grew up in the diaspora, as he certainly did, it’s hard ot figure out how/why/where he would have learned it. The idea that he was edu cated in Jersualem under Gamaliel is just a later legend, in my judgment.

  6. Avatar
    Steefen  October 23, 2013

    Steefen’s Hypothesis
    Jesus’ father was King Herod the Great.
    The Temple of Jerusalem has been called Herod’s Temple. Jesus said, My father’s house will be a house of prayer. Therefore Herod was his father.
    Second, Jesus’ father was a Roman soldier. Herod was a Roman soldier.
    Mary was young when she had Jesus.
    Herod had 10 wives. How many women on the side, then?
    Mary was one of the women on the side.
    After two of Herod’s children were put to death by Herod, Jesus takes on a whole new meaning.
    But, let’s hide Jesus’s father by claiming he wanted to kill him (Well, Herod had a reputation for doing such things.)
    The Talmud said Jesus was connected to government: no kidding with this scenario.
    So, this is part of the reason why John the Baptist was so honored to baptize Jesus, not that Jesus had already given his sermon on the Mount to impress John, not that he had done any of the wonders of his ministry which starts after his baptism. Jesus has not yet been blessed by the Holy Spirit. So, why is John the Baptist so honored: it cannot just be for spiritual reasons.

    Jesus had Herodian half brothers.
    Jesus had brothers from Joseph, his guardian.
    Jesus had brothers from Mary’s future children.

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 23, 2013

    I’m surprised that your Catholic students at Rutgers were troubled only by that…because in my longer-ago Catholic upbringing, the Bible *was* supposed to be infallible. I assume its inconsistencies didn’t create problems for most lay Catholics because they, like me, never read it. (Even now, when I’m happy to read what a scholar I trust says *about* it, I can’t bring myself to dip into the Bible itself for longer than five minutes. Might feel differently if I bought a newer version…the book I have is very off-putting.)

    What I was taught in a Catholic elementary school was that Jesus’s “brothers” were his cousins. But I somehow got the impression – not sure whether teachers intended it – that Jesus’s “cousin” James was identical with the apostle “James the Less.” Was that idea ever current?

    About the idea that Joseph was much older than Mary? Now, I think, everyone’s acknowledged there’s no evidence for that. But a few years ago, when we could receive some New York City channels on cable in my area (we no longer can), I was watching the Christmas Midnight Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. And the cardinal who celebrated the Mass said in his homily, *as if it was established fact*, that Joseph was 18 years old and Mary 15! (Or he may have said 17 and 14.) That – presumably based on something he’d read about the “typical” age at which people married in that era – is just as bad as the other claim!

  8. Avatar
    Peter  October 23, 2013


    Was Jerome right when he said that ‘brother’ was sometimes used instead of ‘cousin’?

    Paul specifically used the word ‘cousin’ in one of his letters, did he not?

    Also, re. your students: in general, is there a particular denomination that you find more reluctant than others to accept the use of the historical or critical methods that you employ in class?

    I ask because to me, as a (former) Irish Catholic, the differences found among Protestant denominations are a mystery! To put it another way: the members of which denomination would be least likely to invite you to give a lecture at one of their churches?!

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 23, 2013

      There’s a different word used when one wanted to designate what *we* mean by “cousin” — ANEPSIOS (instead of ADELPHOS); it occurs only once in the New Testament, in Col. 4:10.

      My students: it’s not so much which denomination as which brand of Christian belief. It is conservative evangelicals who have the most trouble with the historical-critical methods; the only time I get invited to their churches is when they stage a debate between me and a scholar from their own ranks, so they can see me get trounced…..

      • 8801BE
        8801BE  October 24, 2013

        ….and the only reason you get trounced is because they stick their fingers in their ears and say “La-La-La-La-La” while your are speaking!

      • Avatar
        Betho  August 29, 2015

        Greetings to all. This forum will be an outlet for my bonds. Dear teacher and future teachers, the word adephos means etymologically “the same woumb” ? However, the word was used to the father Jacob Gen 37:3-4, with four different wives. All children were brothers-cousins (adelphos) of the same father ? There was a shift meaning of the word to Jacob. All these were brothers-cousins (adelphos) by father. A mother and brothers who accused Jesus of being crazy and induced him to death in the Judea , why not believe in him , were not actually brothers and his mother? They were not children of Mary, It was another wife of Joseph? Roberto

        • Bart
          Bart  August 29, 2015

          Why do you think the Greek word adelphos etymologically means “the same womb”?? And Genesis was not written in Greek but Hebrew.

          • Avatar
            Betho  August 30, 2015

            The biblical quotation refers to the Septuagint, as it was used Adelphos? I can’t find it in my lexicons quickly.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 31, 2015

            Yes, the LXX would use adelphos.

          • Avatar
            Betho  August 30, 2015

            The definition is found in Greek Lexicon de Thayer: Thayer’s Greek Lexicon Strong’s NT 80: ἀδελφός ἀδελφός, (οῦ, ὁ (from ἆ copulative and δελφύς, from the same womb). Which is the Gospels in which the Septuagint is most used? It makes sense the use the defninição brother-cousin to adelphos for these passages? My vision is limited.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 31, 2015

            Nice! I’ve known Greek for nearly forty years, and didn’t know this. Most ancient Greek speakers would not have either probably — or at least thought about it. It’s like today: the etymologies of words are not what people think about when they use the words. E.g., when people are picking weeds in their yard, do they think about where the word “dandelion” comes from??

  9. Avatar
    Steefen  October 24, 2013

    Virgin means young girl and not virgin for the Isaiah “a virgin will bear a son” or virgin means young girl for Mary, mother of Jesus, or virgin means young girl for both of them or neither?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 24, 2013

      The Hebrew word used in Isaiah 7:14 means “young woman” (irrespective of whether she ever had sex); the word used in the NT also meant that, but eventually *came* to mean “woman who never had sex.”

      • Avatar
        Steefen  October 25, 2013

        Thank you !

        I’m concerned that that doesn’t help identify who wrote the birth narrative. The Jews weren’t into virgin births. They’d make an old lady have sex for childbirth. I heard the Therapeutae had there celibate elements. Yea, yea, you ruled them out. In my own book, I relay what is commonly known of the Ancient Egyptian royals: at least one god is said to have impregnated a queen.

        Dr. Ehrman, I do not think this Virgin Birth thing is Jewish mythology at all. By a thread, it is a way of making Jesus like Adam who was created without sex. You know something? Why even bother with Mary. If God can create Adam, God could have created another body of a man for Jesus.

      • cheito
        cheito  October 26, 2013

        I believe the most important event in the life of Jesus is not whether he was born of a virgin or not. Non of the Apostles mention the virgin birth of Jesus. Paul in Romans 1:3 declares that Jesus is a descendant of David according to the flesh.

        My point: The miracle of Jesus’ life is that the Apostles who were eye-witnesses testified that He rose from the dead. Everything else is secondary.

  10. Avatar
    Steefen  October 24, 2013

    IMPORTANT QUESTION: With all 40 or so gospels you say there are, Jesus never has a biological father? Not one secular humanist could write a gospel? What # of the 40 or so have birth narratives? All of them put Jesus with a step-dad? Only the Talmud gives him a biological father, Pandera/Panthera?

    Jesus must have looked like some man’s boy.

    My first pick is King Mono – bazus, sole king, reminding me

    “Herod with the title of tetrarch of Galilee, a title that was commonly used for the leaders of parts of vassal kingdoms. Herod’s brother Phasael was to be tetrarch of Jerusalem; Hyrcanus remained the Jewish national leader in name only.” In time, Herod became sole king.

    Darth Vader: Luke, I am your father.
    Herod the Great: Jesus, I was your father.

    King Mono-bazus called the child of Queen Helena his “only begotten son.”

    Mono-bazus and Helena had a child called King Izates.

    People like you, Bart, say Jesus didn’t feed 5,000 men with a few fish and a few loaves of bread. Then, King Izates (and his mother) saved Judea from famine. So, with all the people who were fed, there may have been a distribution day of 5,000; and, it was King Izates (associated with Edessa, which has a pool of fish in its Ancient City) who spoke to the people and then lectured to them on Judaism because he converted to Judaism as well as his mother.

    It’s pretty odd that people say, Jesus was crucified and the dead rose up out of their graves and a Roman said, surely He was the Son of God. No one was ready to write down in Greek what happened; but after Izates died, then Queen Helena died, people wanted to save for posterity episodes of their lives.

    Izates father, Monobazus, was a friend of Octavian, Octavian called him wise. So, where did Jesus get his wise parables? He got them from his father who entertained Octavian with the same wisdom. Herod also had an audience with Octavian. So, we wonder why Pilate washed his hands?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 24, 2013

      There were early Christians who thought that Jesus had a biological father (Joseph). But none of their Gospels still survive….

  11. Avatar
    Wilusa  October 24, 2013

    Just looked again at “The Off-Putting Bible.” It’s a translation made in 1750, with the original (“helpful’) footnotes! And it includes a lengthy encyclical letter by Pope Leo XIII. A couple sample quotes:

    “[S]eeing that the same God is the author both of the Sacred Books and of the doctrine committed to the Church, it is clearly impossible that any teaching can by legitimate means be extracted from the former, which shall in any respect be at variance with the latter. Hence it follows that all interpretation is foolish and false which either makes the sacred writers disagree with one another, or is opposed to the doctrine of the Church.”

    “[I]t is absolutely wrong and forbidden, either to narrow inspiration to certain parts only of Holy Scripture, or to admit that the sacred writer has erred. … For all the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical, are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost; and so far is it from being possible that any error can co-exist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true.”

    Whew! In practice, as a young woman raised Catholic, all it meant to me was that there was a part of Mass when the priest read “the Gospel.” While he was doing that, you stood up. (I was never paying close attention – just stood up when others did.) The Gospel reading was followed by a “sermon” – during *that*, you sat down.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 24, 2013


    • Avatar
      ktn3654  October 25, 2013

      You’ll notice, though, that the Pope doesn’t claim the LITERAL interpretation should always be used. I believe the basic attitude of the Roman Catholic Church has been the same for centuries: The Bible is always right–under the correct interpretation. Sometimes the correct interpretation is literal, and sometimes it isn’t. Needless to say, we must look to the magisterium of the Church in order to find which way to go.

      (Comments along the lines of “The Bible needs no interpretation,” as far as I can tell, come only from Protestants.)

  12. Avatar
    GokuEn  October 24, 2013

    Dr Ehrman, I wonder if you could perhaps tell us a little more about the historical origin of many “Catholic” beliefs, especially concerning Mary. For instance, where dis the idea of Mary’s Ascension came from?

    Also, it seems to me that the Gospels depict Mary’s relationship with Jesus in different ways. Mark seems to imply that Mary is amongst those family members that thought Jesus “went out of his mind” (Mark 3:20-35). Luke and Matthew have taken this implication out (probably because of the virgin-birth story?) and finally John implies that Mary was active in Jesus ministry and even that she “nudged” Jesus into performing his first “sign” (turning water into wine).

    Would it be fair to say then that the depiction of Mary’s relationship with her son seems to improve with time? What historical factors could explain this?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 25, 2013

      Good point about Mary’s portrayal improving over time. I would say she certainly is more important in Matthew and Luke than in Mark; but her portrayal in john I would say is ambivalent. Later she became very important indeed. As to her being taken up into heaven: it is connected with the idea that she not only never sinned but also even lacked a sin nature (as a result of her own immaculate conception — conceived without a sin nature). If no sin — then you can go straight up!

  13. Avatar
    bobnaumann  October 24, 2013

    Do I understand correctly that the modified version of the Proto-Gospel of James in Latin is referred to as Pseudo- Matthew? Why would be attributed to Matthew?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 25, 2013

      Yes it is a later version of the Proto-Gospel, with some stories taken away, others added. It’s not called Pseudo-Matthew, obviously, in the manuscripts; it is called that because in some manuscripts it is prefaced by a pair of letters indicating that it was originally written by Matthew and eventually translatied into Latin by Jerome. Neither was true.

  14. Avatar
    Beatle792  December 11, 2013

    Being raised a Catholic I have a REAL problem with the position of the Church that Mary didn’t have other children even though the gospels name the brothers of Jesus. I know that the Greek has separate words for “brother” and “cousin”, but the Catholic apologists know that too. The new argument is that there is no Aramaic word for cousin. It seems to me that they moved the “there is no Greek word for cousin ” defense to Aramaic. I’ve read that there is a phrase or Aramaic word for “my uncle’s son.” How is that not a word for cousin as Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin says?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 12, 2013

      Yes, the problem is that the Gospels were not written (or imagined) in Aramaic, but Greek. These are not (originally-Aramaic) words of Jesus, but (original-Greek-compositions) comments of the Gospel writers.

      • Avatar
        Beatle792  December 12, 2013

        I was in a chat room debate yesterday with man who claimed to have a doctorate in theology. I actually considered the answer that you gave me but it seemed too simple at the time and I couldn’t think of a way to word it. I just KNEW the Aramaic argument was BS, and probably his claim about his education was as well.

        I just love your blog. Thank you so much for answering my question.

  15. Avatar
    gavm  February 1, 2014

    according to Pauls letters James the Just seems like a major character in the early movement after the death of jesus but by the time the gospel writers are producing their texts it seems he isnt of great significance because they barely mention him, except to say that jesus’s family thought he was crazy. why do you think this is?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 2, 2014

      My hunch is that it’s becaues the Gospel writers were not closely tied to the church in Jerusalem, where James was in charge.

  16. acircharo
    acircharo  March 22, 2015

    I think the most gratifying aspect of really delving into the historical Jesus story is, at least in my opinion, reading the words of a person, – authentic or not – hearing the voice of someone who was writing 2000 years ago, as if he were speaking just to you. It can be quite unnerving sometimes, but fascinating none the less.

You must be logged in to post a comment.