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Jesus’ Mother and Brothers in Mark

A brief tangent on Mark’s account of Jesus’ rejection in his hometown (Mark 6:1-6), as summarized in my post.  As I indicated there, Jesus’ townspeople are incredulous that he can deliver such an impressive address in the synagogue.  They ask: “Where did he get such these things?  What what is this wisdom that has been given to him?  And how can such miracles be worked through his hands?  Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James, Joses, Juda and Simon?  And aren’t his sisters here with us?”

In other words: the townsfolk knew of Jesus as an unimpressive member of the community, who worked a day job with his hands (say, a construction worker) – not great miracles (with his hands).  And his family was all there.

The comments on the family are interesting and have prompted a lot of discussion over the years.

To begin with, Jesus is here said to be “the son of Mary.”  As frequently noted, that’s a bit odd.  Normally …

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Jesus’ (Young?) Mother and (Half?) Brothers? The Proto-Gospel of James
Jesus Rejected by His Own Townspeople in Mark



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 19, 2017

    So, if Mary did not know who Jesus really was, then she must not have experienced a special, virgin birth because such a birth would have informed her about who Jesus was. Interesting!

  2. Avatar
    scissors  November 19, 2017

    Sounds more like Joseph’s name was unknown to Mark rather than the townspeople. Still the identification is odd particularly if we ask why is Mary’s name known and not his father’s.

  3. Avatar
    scissors  November 19, 2017

    Sounds more like Joseph’s name was unknown to Mark rather than the townspeople. Still the identification is odd particularly if we ask why is Mary’s name is mentioned and not his father’s.
    Still wouldn’t a fatherless boy take his grandfather’s name?

  4. Avatar
    rivercrowman  November 19, 2017

    Bart, how on earth can you maintain your very active blog while on a road trip to New England? Here in Maine, winter unofficially begins on Halloween.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2017

      Yeah, tell me. It’s my second time to New England in three weeks!

      • Avatar
        Judith  November 20, 2017

        It seems the blog has been even more extraordinary in every way lately and yet you are doing so many other things, too. Please take care of you for us!

        • Bart
          Bart  November 21, 2017

          Ha! Thanks. I’ve just arrived in Ohio for T-giving with my mom and my brother’s family. Life’s good!

          • Avatar
            Judith  November 22, 2017

            So glad, Dr. Ehrman!

      • Telling
        Telling  November 20, 2017

        Do you ever get out to the West Coast? You would be popular out here.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 21, 2017

          I go where I’m invited!

          • Avatar
            SidDhartha1953  November 22, 2017

            I think I recall you speaking at USC (SC, not CA) some years ago. Is that a false memory? Have you visited Columbia SC in recent years?

          • Bart
            Bart  November 22, 2017

            Yes, I have spoken there!

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  November 19, 2017

    OT: Do you have any thoughts about the new Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2017

      Lots. But I’m going to keep mum until I visit it in February.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  November 22, 2017

        When in February? I’m contemplating a trip thenabouts and it would be great to have a meal together.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 22, 2017

          I’m thinking about having a blog dinner there; the seminar is Feb. 10 (all day) and if I do a dinner it would be the night before.

          • Avatar
            SidDhartha1953  November 22, 2017

            I’ll look for the announcement.

  6. epicurus
    epicurus  November 19, 2017

    Have the NRSV translators ever given an explanation for why they chose to translate the way they did in the passages you’ve mentioned as mistranslated?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2017

      I don’t think there is/was a venue for them to have answered queries. (Most of them are no longer living, in any event)

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  November 19, 2017

    Interesting ideas, certainly possible! But I sometimes think scholars are too ready to assume things “never” happened in a certain way. That in Jesus’s day, a simple bribe could “never” have enabled someone to claim the body of a crucified man…and a person would “never” be described as the “son of” his mother if she was the widow of a known, deceased father. Might it not depend on such variables as how long his father had been dead, or how he had died?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2017

      My view is that historians have to base their claims on evidence, one way or the other.

  8. Avatar
    Jim  November 19, 2017

    Just an opinion-type question: If it wasn’t for the gospels, would very many living in the 1st century Mediterranean region have even known that Jesus was from Nazareth, or even a Galilean?

    Idk how much Q references Nazareth/Galilee, and other than circulating oral traditions, this info could have been easily been lost if it were not for the gospels (including Acts).

    Armed with only Paul’s letters and Josephus, one could conclude that Jesus might have been from Jerusalem (or its surrounding area) since that’s where his brother (and the original church) was and that’s where he was executed.

    So again, just an opinion type question.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2017

      My sense is that almost no one had every heard of Jesus, and so they didn’t have any idea where he might have been from. In any event, neither Paul nor Josephus says that Jesus lived or died in Jerusalem.

      • Avatar
        jdmartin21  November 20, 2017

        Wasn’t it generally known that Jesus was a Galilean? If no one had even heard of Jesus and thus would obviously not have known where he was born or where he was raised, why do Matthew and Luke feel compelled to come up with contrived scenarios to have him born in Bethlehem but raised in Galilee?

  9. Avatar
    flshrP  November 19, 2017

    I’ve heard a version of the “born out of wedlock” idea, namely, that Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier named Pantera or Panthera. Is this idea supported in any way by the evidence?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2017

      There were later Jewish legends to this effect, and scholars have long noted that Panthera could be an obscured reference to Parthenon (the Greek word for “virgin”)

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  November 20, 2017

        I certainly don’t think Jesus was fathered by a Roman soldier. But is it true – as I remember having heard somewhere – that there is an ancient gravesite, presumably in Galilee or Judea, bearing the name Pantera or Panthera? That lent some credence to the legend?

      • Avatar
        dankoh  November 20, 2017

        Is it possible the rabbis got this notion from Celsus? Origen quotes Celsus as using this patronymic (c. Cels. 1.32 and other places), and Celsus lived in the time when the rabbis’ ideas were beginning to coalesce into the baraithas that would make up the Tosetta (in this case tHul. 2:22).

        Another thought:: “Panhera” is Latin for “panther,” so the epithet translates directly as “Jesus, son of a panther.” If in fact the rabbis were making a play on words between the Latin panthera and the Greek parthenos, that would require the rabbis to know about the NT and Christian beliefs than I think they would have had at this early time. I am not aware that they cared about the details of Christianity until later on.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 21, 2017

          In Celsus the idea is put on the lips of “a Jew” — so it’s possible that it was an early jewish tradition.

    • Avatar
      godspell  November 21, 2017

      If Mark didn’t know about Joseph, what are the odds much later Jewish scribes who hated Christianity (not without reason) knew about ‘Panthera’?

      It’s funny how some skeptics will believe any cockamamie story, and then complain about the credulity of believers. 😉

  10. Avatar
    Hon Wai  November 19, 2017

    Presumably Jesus’ brothers and sisters (either full or half siblings) have a father who is either known but died, or is still alive. If Mary was married to him at that time, would it not be normal convention in those day to refer to Jesus by his adopted father?

  11. Avatar
    Pattylt  November 19, 2017

    Bart, I have also heard that hints of the possibility of Jesus’ illegitimacy can be found in Matthew’s hereditary narratives. It is a bit of a stretch but Matthew names 4 women in them and all 4 are somewhat” loose” women, giving the hint that illegitimacy can still produce remarkable people. Any thoughts on this? Are hints of this type ever found elsewhere in ANE stories?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2017

      Ah, I’ll post on this!!

      • tompicard
        tompicard  November 21, 2017

        Have you considered or discussed on the blog the conjecture by Weatherhead regarding Jesus father?
        It coincides with the character of the four women PattyIt mentions . . .

      • Avatar
        Euler  October 17, 2019

        Bart, did you ever post on this?

  12. Avatar
    James Chalmers  November 19, 2017

    I think it’s the KJV has “beside himself,” and the NRSV gets it right–has “out of his mind.” The KJV also has “friends” lay hold of him, instead of “family.” So there is Christian diddling with the Greek so as not to disturb the faithful, but it dates from 1611, and maybe is among the bad reasons why the KJV retains the popularity it does. (There are good ones, of course.)


  13. talmoore
    talmoore  November 19, 2017

    “Again, the NRSV has a mistranslation.”

    Seriously, Dr. Ehrman, I really wish you made your own translation of the NT. I know you don’t want to, but, boy oh boy, would it be helpful to the rest of us.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2017

      Got it. But you’re right, I very much don’t want to. 🙂

  14. Avatar
    James Chalmers  November 19, 2017

    I see it gets even better–that Bezae and Washingtonianus have the “scribes and pharisees” restraining Jesus. Mark was quite a fella–a source of embarrassment for fifteen hundred years!

  15. Avatar
    mas.ncsu  November 19, 2017

    Makes me wonder the worn out questions of what and why surrounding Gospel genre. Why go to such great lengths to tell this story, to take the artistic license to create (shoot, to even go so far as to write down) these narratives. My guess is you touch on it in your new book. Looking forward to reading it.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2017

      Yes, I touch on it in a number of publications, including for example Jesus Before the Gospels.

  16. Lev
    Lev  November 19, 2017

    Superb analysis here Bart – especially with the insightful translation work. This is why I’m so happy to read your blog.

    On the lack of reference to Joseph – perhaps his father divorced Mary early in their marriage, and this is why Jesus took such a radically hard stance against divorce?

    This may explain why Jesus related so closely to God as a son does to a father (Mk 14:36 “Abba, father”), why his own father was a persona-non-grata within his family and why he was so against divorce (Mk 10:1-12). Just a theory of mine, but perhaps one to add into the mix?

  17. Avatar
    Tony  November 19, 2017

    Bart, I’m beginning to realize why you’re sticking with the historical jesus story. It allows you to create the most amazing interpretations!

    The more interesting question is to how, and where, Mark gets his notion of Jesus “brothers” from. The answer is, of course, Gal 1:19 – the same way you did! That takes care of James. The others he made up. But, not after reading 1Cor 9:5 and mistakenly concluding, just like you, that Jesus had multiple brothers. You are in fine company. Two thousand years of misinterpreting Paul’s letters! This ship sure’s not moving fast…

    I think that y

    You would have made a great Gospel writer. The Gospel According to BART. You like?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2017

      Ah, *that* would be why I think Jesus really existed! 🙂

  18. Avatar
    Andrew  November 19, 2017

    Could it be that the naming of Mary is a later interpolation, from a time when she was revered and it was a natural for a copyist to insert her name?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2017

      Seems unlikely: there isn’t any evidence of it at least. But interesting idea. I assume you mean a scribe who revered Mary as the mother of God.

  19. Lev
    Lev  November 19, 2017

    “It is only Matthew and Luke, writing some 15-20 years later, who add stories about Jesus’ birth.”

    Well, this must be a first, but I think you’re being too conservative, Bart! I can’t find any evidence to support the theory that the birth narratives were included in Matthew and Luke within the 1st century.

    On Luke – As you’ve pointed out before, Marcion skipped the first two chapters in producing his gospel sometime before 140, probably because they weren’t in Luke. Justin Martyr who knew and approved of Luke, quotes the angelic announcement to Mary in his first apology c156. However, he follows the wording found in the Infancy Gospel of James, rather than Luke – perhaps because his copy of Luke did not include the first two chapters.

    On Matthew – we know the Gospel of the Hebrews, which seems to be based on an early version of Matthew started at chapter 3. We also have the pseudo-Eusebius ‘Concerning the Star’ document (http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/eusebius_star.htm) which seems to indicate that the Magi and birth narratives were only included around 119:

    “And in the year four hundred and thirty (A.D. 119), in the reign of Hadrianus Caesar, in the consulship of Severus and of Fulgus, in the episcopate of Xystus, bishop of the city of Rome, this concern arose in (the minds of) men acquainted with the Holy Books; and through the pains of the great men in various places this history was sought for and found, and written in the tongue of those who took this care.”

    Given that no other document in the NT or other early authors such as Clement of Rome, Papias or Polycarp mentions the virgin birth, wouldn’t this suggest that these chapters in Matthew and Luke were only added in the 2nd-century?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2017

      It would be hard to explain the manuscript traditions of Matthew and Luke if that were the case. And Ignatius of Antioch shows clear evidence of knowing Matthew’s story in 110 CE.

      • Lev
        Lev  November 20, 2017

        Where does Ignatius cite or show familiarity with the account in Matthew? His references to the virgin birth seem vague and without any corresponding detail from Matthew (or Luke). It seems to me that Ignatius is repeating an oral tradition that was hidden and had just been discovered. In his epistle to the Ephesians he writes:

        “Now the virginity of Mary and her giving birth was hidden from the ruler of this age, as was also the death of the Lord; three mysteries to be loudly proclaimed, yet which were accomplished in the silence of God.” (ch. 19)

        Ignatius is suggesting that Mary’s virgin birth and Jesus’ execution was hidden from the “ruler of this age” (Rome? the Satan?), but Jesus’ public execution where he literally died under a sign that read “King of the Jews” was hardly hidden from anybody – especially any rulers, spiritual or otherwise. It is possible that this text (the earliest manuscript we have is from the 5th century), has been corrupted with reference to his death, and what Ignatius originally wrote was along the lines of:

        “Now the virginity of Mary and her giving birth was hidden from the ruler of this age; a mystery to be loudly proclaimed, yet which were accomplished in the silence of God.”

        If this is the case, the sense that Ignatius gives is there was an element of concealment and secrecy over the virgin birth that now needs to be “loudly proclaimed”. That is, Ignatius is promoting an oral tradition that has recently been discovered or come down to the Church in Antioch, and he is insistent that it urgently needs to be loudly proclaimed.

        The earliest citation from a gospel is in Aristides’ apology in c125, where he does seem to cite Matthew.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 21, 2017

          Yes, it’s because of the exposition of the “star” in Ign.Eph. 19 — which is normally interpreted to be an exegesis of the star leading the magi to Bethlehem in Matthew’s account.

          • Lev
            Lev  November 22, 2017

            The star reference in Ign.Eph.19 is intriguing, but it may not be sourced from Matthew. In Matt 2, the star isn’t described much, only that it appeared, moved and stopped, and is only observed by the Magi.

            In Ign.Eph.19 the Magi aren’t mentioned, but the star’s appearance, luminosity and effect on people (“there was agitation felt as to whence this new spectacle came”) is described in some detail, much in the same way it’s mentioned in the pseudo-Eusebius ‘Concerning the Star’ document:

            “there appeared the Star, both transformed in its aspect, and also conspicuous by its rays, and terrible and grand in the glorious extent of its light. And it overpowered by its aspect all the stars that were in the heavens… when the Persians saw it, they were alarmed and afraid, and there fell upon them agitation and trembling, and fear got the mastery over them.”

            Moreover, the reference in ‘Concerning the Star’ to Balaam’s prophecy of the star seems to have caught Christian imagination in Rome. In the Catacombs of Priscilla there is a stunning early depiction (c250) of Mary nursing her child under a star with Balaam pointing to it (http://bit.ly/2hJnCYZ). Balaam wasn’t referenced in Matthew, Luke or Ignatius. Perhaps a timeline of how the virgin birth story appeared would run like this?

            <109 – Ignatius hears oral reports of the virgin birth and the star
            109/10 – Ignatius informs the Ephesians (and others) of this tradition
            110-120 – Church authorities investigate, discover the history and writes it up
            c120 – Virgin birth account added to Matthew's gospel
            c125 – Aristides refers to a gospel account of the virgin birth in his apology

          • Bart
            Bart  November 24, 2017

            Since the star is mentioned in the context of Jesus’ birth, and since Ignatius gives other indications that he knows Matthew’s Gospel, the passage is usually taken to refer to Matthew’s birth narrative.

  20. Avatar
    godspell  November 19, 2017

    Very interesting. I hadn’t heard of this before, and it is a potential explanation. Though where did all those brothers and sisters come from? Mary must have married someone–how tolerant would such a small reilgious community be of someone who had so many children out of wedlock? Possible Mark just didn’t know the name of Jesus’ father. But in that case, neither do we.

    My sense of Jesus’ family is that they were (understandably) wary of his new status as a religious leader in the early days, but given that James became a leader of the early Christian community in Jerusalem, some at least must have been converted to his ideas.

    How early do you think the virgin birth stories began? There must have been some notion of this circulating for some time before it appeared in Matthew.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 20, 2017

      Yes they would have been floating around in the second half of the first century.

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