I’ve started talking about the epistle of James, first in relation to Paul (yesterday) and then in relation to … James, the man himself, Jesus’ brother (today). My ultimate goal is to explain why I’m sure James himself did not write the letter (later). But in the meantime I’ve received a question that I should probably address first: did Jesus really have a brother named James? Uh… don’t a lot of Christians think that Jesus never had any siblings (since his mother remained a virgin)? How do you explain him having a brother?
I’ve talked about this on the blog before, but in the current context, it’s worth talking about again. Here’s the question and my response:
In what way was the James you are talking about here, the “brother” of Jesus? Was he another one of Mary’s sons from Joseph? Was he another one of Joseph’s sons from a previous relationship?
One of the non-canonical books from early Christianity that I regularly teach is called the Proto-Gospel of James (which scholars call the Protevangelium Jacobi — a Latin phrase that means “Proto-Gospel of James,” but sounds much cooler….). It is called the “proto” Gospel because it records events that (allegedly) took place before the accounts of the NT Gospels. Its overarching focus is on Mary, the mother of Jesus; it is interested in explaining who she was. Why was *she* the one who was chosen to bear the Son of God? What made her so special? How did she come into the world? What made her more holy than any other woman? Etc. These questions drive the narrative, and make it our earliest surviving instance of the adoration of Mary.
On the legends found here was built an entire superstructure of Marian tradition. Most of the book deals with the question of how Mary was conceived (miraculously, but not virginally), what her early years were like (highly sanctified; her youth up to twelve (lived in the temple, fed every day by an angel), her betrothal to Joseph, an elderly widower with sons from a previous marriage, the discovery of her pregnancy and the “proof” that she (and Joseph) were both pure from any “sin” (such as, well, sex).
The book was originally composed in the second Christian century and it became very popular in Eastern, Greek-speaking Christianity throughout the Ages, down to modern times. 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. (If you’re interest in reading them, I’ve translated both versions – the Greek proto-Gospel and the Latin Pseudo-Matthew, in my book, The Other Gospels, co-produced with my colleague Zlatko Pleše).
How influential? 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.
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