Family Structure of the Historical Jesus


Jesus Christ is a complex character with a narrative that seems to grow and develop constantly while social contexts change and new gospel interpretations arise. When determining what is true about the historic character of Jesus, historians must pick through a vast range of textual evidence and accounts of Jesus, keeping in mind that all material comes attached with the preconceived notions and agendas of its writers. Historians narrow their search to aspects of Jesus that are multiply-attested or reported by numerous independent sources to strengthen the realistic arguments of who Jesus really was. Often, the aspects of Jesus that are the most widely attested among first century writings seem to be lost as time passes. One element of Jesus’ life that has gone through drastic changes in interpretation is his family structure, in relation to his father and his conception. Much of the social implications of modern Christianity have to do with rigid ideals of proper family structure while historical evidence supports that Jesus did not have or support when modern Christians define as a ‘traditional’ family structure. Gospel material supports the historical conclusion that Jesus grew up illegitimate, raised in a fatherless family structure; Jesus’ teachings on family structure and the family of God are reflective of his perspective as an illegitimate child.

While there is little material about Jesus’ family, the gospels are full of multiply attested teachings of Jesus relating to family. Of the gospel material related to Jesus’ own family, there is a passage found in Mark 31-35, Matthew 12:46-50, Luke 8:19-21, Thomas 99:1-3 where Jesus denies his relationship to his family. Someone directs Jesus to his mother and brothers waiting for him outside, Jesus responds that his mother and brothers are those who follow the word of God, even asking in Matthew and Mark’s versions of the account “Who are my mother and brothers?”. Of the gospel material of Jesus that is not multiply attested, Jesus’ birth narrative, genealogy, and accounts of his father are only mentioned in gospels written later, chronologically, and there are major discrepancies between the accounts that are included. Of the genealogies listed in Luke and Matthew only the names Shealtiel and Zerubbabel are included on both lists. The birth narratives included in the two gospels also differ significantly. Finally, in Matthew 13:55-58, Mark 6:1, Luke 4:22-30, and John 6:42 Jesus returns to his hometown. In Matthew and Mark’s versions, Joseph is not mentioned and Jesus is rejected by the townspeople, Luke’s version changes both the villagers reaction to Jesus and the family members mentioned, while John’s account features Joseph but still has the town reject Jesus.

Jesus’ strained relationship with his family is evident, both in the accounts listed previously, and through Jesus’ teachings. On multiple occasions Jesus highlights the importance in cutting ties with one’s family and accepting the family of God over birth family. In Luke 12:51-53, Mark 10:38, Matthew 10:34-25 and Thomas 16:1-4 Jesus defines his purpose on earth; to ‘pit a man against his father’ as worded by Matthew’s gospel. Jesus uses this verse to contradict claims that he has come to earth to bring peace and states instead in Luke 12:52 that since his arrival ‘in any given house there will be five in conflict….. Father will be pitted against son and son against father’. Directly after these verses in Matthew 10:34-39, Mark 13:12, Luke 12:1-53, Luke 14:26-27, Thomas 16:1-3, Thomas 101:1, Thomas 55:1-2 and John, 12:25 Jesus directs his comments to his disciples, warning them in Matthew 10:37, ‘if you love your father and mother more than me you’re not worthy of me and if you love your son or daughter more than me you’re not worthy of me’.

Multiply-attested gospel materials are elements of the Jesus tradition that are reported by multiple, independent sources. If an account of Jesus is only included by only one gospel writer it is safe to assume that the account is not historically sound and thus unusable data, especially if the account seems to support the gospel writers own personal ideologies or agenda. For example, one of the elements of Jesus’ family that is not multiply attested is his genealogy. Both Matthew and Luke’s genealogies allow their respective gospel writers to set Jesus up as the character they want to portray him as. Matthew begins his gospel with Jesus’ genealogy establishing before any accounts of ministry that Jesus was a humble man of Israel, while Luke sets Jesus up as a more prophetic, messianic character. Another aspect of the Jesus tradition that is not attested by any early gospel material is the character of Joseph as Jesus’ father. Joseph is only ever mentioned in Matthew and Luke, never in Thomas, Q, Paul, or Mark, the earlier gospel materials, and mentions of Joseph in Matthew and Luke are rarely consistent. In the aforementioned passage of Jesus’ hometown’s comments on his family Matthew has the crowd react negatively to Jesus being the son of Joseph while Luke has them react positively, both drawing on a source that does not mention Joseph at all. The inconsistent additions make it realistic that neither is a genuine attestation, making both mentions of Joseph unusable data. Each element of the historical Jesus’ family that is not multiply attested is unusable in determining the character of Jesus as they all push the same post-Easter agenda, establishing Jesus as the Messiah based off of Old Testament material.

Using historical methods to determine common trends in oral development within the gospels reveals which form of multiply attested gospels is the earliest form. Having knowledge of the earliest form gives insight into what the passage might have meant in its original context. Two theories of development in oral storytelling can be employed to determine which gospel is the original form. The Bultmann model states that as stories are passed down they are clarified by expanding in detail, the Taylor model argues that as stories are passed down they are made more concise, leaving out details that may have confused or welcomed criticism from audiences. Following the Taylor model, in Mark 31-35, Matthew 12:46-50, Luke 8:19-21, Thomas 99:1-3 where Jesus denies his relationship to his family, Mark seems to be the original version, with Luke and Thomas as the shortened versions. Following the principle of embarrassment, Jesus denying his family would probably not be something gospel writers would have made up, especially if this is something earlier forms did not include. Mark and Matthew’s inclusion of Jesus asking ‘who are my mother and brothers?’ is more realistic as the earlier form while Luke and Thomas’ redaction of this phrase is likely the later version.

In Matthew 13:55-58, Mark 6:1, Luke 4:22-30, and John 6:42, it is safe to assume that Mark is the original form, still supporting Taylor’s model. In Mark’s versions, Jesus’ hometown responds to Jesus by saying ‘This is the carpenter isn’t it? Isn’t he the son of Mary? And aren’t his brothers James, Joses, Judas and Simon? And aren’t his sisters our neighbors?’ concluding with ‘And they took offense to him’. The other versions of this account leave out members of his family in varying degrees and reduce the towns reactions to Jesus in varying ways. Matthew’s version is the outlier. While almost identical to Mark’s version, the addition of the word ‘son’ changes the meaning of the passage. Supporting the Bultmann model, Mark clarifies that Jesus is not only a carpenter but the son of a carpenter, alluding to Joseph despite the earlier version making no mention to a father. Luke and John both follow the Taylor model, removing mention of Mary as well as Jesus’ siblings. While John retains the town's rejection of Jesus, Luke changes the source material, having the town “responding favorably to [Jesus]”, turning Jesus as the ‘son of Joseph’ into a positive description. Again, in adherence to the principle of embarrassment, Mark would not logically remove mention of Joseph from the scene and refer to Jesus as ‘son of Mary’ in a society where patriarchy requires a child be referred to as the son of their father, unless this was the original and more accurate version of the account. Raymond Brown, author of The Problem of the Virginal Conception of Jesus addresses that not having a father “would have led Jesus’s enemies to consider him the illegitimate child of an unfaithful mother” (65 Reilly). Christians would have wanted Jesus presented as free of sin, Brown believes this is the reason “both Matthew and Luke present his parents as holy and righteous” (65 Reilly), which Luke does in this verse by having Jesus’ hometown react positively to ‘the son of Joseph’ rather than take offense to the son of Mary as the earlier form states.

A few elements of Jesus in terms of family and teachings of family occur repeatedly throughout the gospels. Jesus rejecting his family occurs throughout multiply-attested accounts in the gospels. As addressed earlier, Jesus denied his family to the crowd, placing the importance of the family of God over his own family. Additionally, in Luke 11:27 and Thomas 79:1-2 a woman congratulates Jesus’ mother to him, Jesus ignores this praise and says “Rather… congratulations to those who hear the word of God and keep it”. Jesus’ denial of his family, on the most basic level, proves that he did not want to be associated with his family. Placing this within a historical context can result in a few conclusions. Jesus may not have wanted to be associated with his family because he has a strained relationship with them. This claim would be supported by Mark 3:21 which reveals that Jesus’ family thought he was out of his mind. Jesus’ denial could be him living out his teaching that discipleship trumps family. This is supported by Jesus telling his disciples that they are not worthy of him unless they hate their families in Matthew 10:34-39, Mark 13:12, Luke 12:1-53, Luke 14:26-27, Thomas 16:1-3, Thomas 101:1, Thomas 55:1-2 and John, 12:25. Lastly, this could be Jesus’ embarrassment of his family structure because of where this places him within social and temple hierarchy. Based on other recurring gospel themes, this seems to be the most well supported theory. Jesus is repeatedly referred to as ‘son of Mary’ which goes against the patriarchal expectation that men are the offspring of their fathers (466 van Aarde), implying that Jesus is illegitimate, a bastard, or at the very least, fatherless. This claim is supported by earlier gospels consistently not mentioning a father figure and the contradictory accounts of Joseph in the later gospels. In addition, Jesus’ interactions are in line with what would be expected of a bastard in the first century. For example, rabbinical literature states that children who do not know their fathers should stay silent when asked about their familial origins (467 van Aarde), in John 19:9 when Pilate confronts Jesus he asks ‘Where are you from?”, Jesus remains silent.

Jesus as fatherless is complicated when the question of the shared source between Matthew and Luke arises. The two source hypothesis states that Matthew and Luke both share the gospels of Mark and Q as sources. Matthew and Luke hold true to Mark’s order of Jesus’ life, only straying when inserting aphorisms of Jesus where the saying or teaching is not dependent on chronological order. These teachings are scattered throughout Mark’s narrative inconsistently between the gospels. While the order of these sayings is inconsistent between Matthew and Luke, the sayings are the same, leading to the conclusion that the secondary source, Q, is a hypothetical document of Jesus’ sayings. With two shared sources, Matthew and Luke remain fairly consistent, and thus are typically not considered independent sources. Where they differ dramatically is in the information that is neither in Mark or Q. Neither Mark or Q include genealogies of Jesus, mention Joseph or affirm immaculate conception. Without the knowledge of where they are pulling these narratives from, it is hard to tell whether or not the information is reliable. It seems that the shared source may be the gospel writers’ own interpretations of the Old Testament. All of the parallels seem to be the gospel writers’ post-Easter attempts at fitting Jesus into messianic expectations and fulfilling Old Testament prophecies. Both gospels take different approaches to place the birth narrative in line with messianic expectations. The gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth differ in essentially every way, the only shared elements of the two birth narratives are the few prophecies about the birth of the Messiah in the Old Testament. The virgin birth story seems to originate with Isaiah 7:14 which reads: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel”, paralleled by Matthew 1:23 and Luke 1:27. The birthplace of the Messiah being Bethlehem is prophesied in Micah 5:1-2, resulting in the gospel writers differing explanations of how Jesus of Nazareth came to be born in Bethlehem. Jeremiah 23:5 described the Messiah as a descendant of King David giving both gospel writers the task of placing Jesus in King David’s bloodline which, as addressed, resulted in very different genealogies, both fulfilling the prophecy.

In the first century, Jesus’ family structure would have had many implications on his relationship with God and a direct impact on how his ministry was received by those around him. In an article titled Social Identity, Status Envy and Jesus the hierarchy of who would have been allowed presence in the assembly of God’s people and who would not, places bastards born of adultery and ‘fatherless people’ near the bottom of the totem pole. Meaning Jesus, as “the fatherless carpenter, the un-married son of Mary, who lived in a strained relationship with his village kin in Nazareth, probably because of the stigma of being fatherless and, therefore, a sinner” (464 van Aarde) would have been denied access to the congregation and the title of ‘child of God’. From what is known about John the Baptist and Jesus, both support the idea ‘that remission of sin could be granted by God outside the structures of the temple’ (464). This ideology is supported by Jesus placing the family of God above earthly family in his teachings, a teaching that much of his ministry is centered around.

The gospel material discussed leads to the conclusion that Jesus’ social and religious status would have been determined by his family structure and illegitimacy, with his religious teachings being a direct result of this perspective. Ideas of Jesus’ family have become increasingly important in defining ‘traditional Christian values’. The emergence of the Christian Right has brought a rigid definition of family values and proper family structure to Christianity, with the traditional family being defined as “those with two heterosexual parents, with the husband as the head, and preferably, the primary breadwinner” (607 Downland). These groups are quick to cite the bible as the source of their beliefs but seem to ignore the historical family and teachings of the figure their religion is based upon. While there is no direct scripture that states that Joseph does not exist, historical criteria makes his existence unlikely, however, there is direct scriptural evidence about Jesus’ strained relationship to his family and his teachings encouraging the hatred of family. The historical Jesus was never married and did not have children, he was raised in a fatherless household and dismissed his family in adulthood, encouraging others to do the same. His status, beyond guiding his teaching of family, shaped his perception of marginalized communities, gender roles, patriarchal standards, and social, ritual, and religious hierarchies. The Christian Right and modern Christianity in general seem to have adopted the opposite ideologies of Jesus in regards to these topics. In fact, the Christian Right has declared its enemies as “abortion, feminism, and homosexuality [which represent] a multifaceted "attack" on the family... as established by our Creator" (607 Dowland). The use of biblical evidence as a violent threat against the lives and lifestyles of anyone not determined to be within ‘traditional Christian values’ is based in inaccuracy and seems to progressively drift further and further away from the evidence of the historical Jesus. In religious and humanistic terms, a reevaluation on the values of Jesus and the historical data is necessary if the Christian tradition hopes to realign itself with the vision of Jesus.

Works Cited

Dowland, Seth. ““Family Values” and the Formation of a Christian Right Agenda.” Church History, vol. 78, no. 03, 2009, p. 606., doi:10.1017/s0009640709990448.

Reilly, F. "Jane Schaberg, Raymond E. Brown, and the Problem of the Illegitimacy of Jesus." Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 21 no. 1, 2005, pp. 57-80. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/183437.

Van Aarde, Andries G. “Social identity, status envy and Jesus Abba.” Pastoral Psychology, vol. 45, no. 6, 1997, pp. 451–472., doi:10.1007/bf02310645.