Jesus’s Family Ties: On Jude the Brother of Jesus

Jesus’s Family Ties: On Jude the Brother of Jesus

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The myth that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene may be a modern meme, but debates about his family are nothing new. Ancient Christians argued over the status of Jesus’s brothers and sisters who are mentioned in the New Testament records. For instance, when Jesus preaches in his hometown, Nazareth, his old neighbors ask: “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us?” (Matt. 13:55–56).

You may wonder what’s to debate about. After all, this looks like a straightforward listing of Jesus’s nuclear family: his dad, the carpenter (Joseph); his mom, Mary; his four brothers (one of them named after the dad); and an unknown number of sisters (talk about a full house!). Before we dive into the controversy, though, let me make three quick observations. First, contrary to the “Jesus Family Tomb” theory, there’s nothing said about Jesus having a brother named Matthew. The idea is sheer make-believe. Second, the Judas in this list is indeed our man Jude, the person this whole book is about. Third, this list has a parallel in Mark 6:3, where there are a few minor variations. It’s noteworthy that in Mark’s list the sequence of Simon’s and Judas’s names is reversed. We aren’t certain whether Matthew or Mark is giving us their actual birth order. Did Joseph and Mary run out of “J” names before Simon came along? Or is Jude the baby brother of the family? We can’t be sure.

How Was Jude Related to Jesus?

What we do know is that early on in church history a controversy arose over the relationship of these “brothers” and “sisters” to Jesus. See, this list in Matthew 13 is complicated by Jesus’s origin story in Matthew 1:18–25. There we learn that he’s not biologically “the carpenter’s son.” Instead, his mother conceived him supernaturally when she was a virgin. Matthew assures us that even though Joseph went through with the wedding, “he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth” to Jesus (Matt. 1:25). The “until” may suggest that after Jesus was born, Joseph and Mary did indeed consummate their marriage, with Jesus’s brothers and sisters arriving in due course as the fruit of their union. But “until” may simply mean that Joseph respected Mary’s virginity up through Jesus’s birth without implying that anything changed in Joseph’s and Mary’s relationship afterward. Maybe Mary’s first pregnancy was also her only one.1

That second option gained a lot of traction in the early church because the ideals of holiness and virginity very quickly became intertwined. Since God had set Mary apart for the holy purpose of bearing his Son, it seemed to pollute her purity if she went on to have normal marital relations with Joseph. Should the womb that specially bore the holy Son of God be put to the common use of carrying children who’d been conceived in the ordinary way? If Jesus lived out his earthly life as a virgin, shouldn’t his mother do the same? That way he could serve as a model of celibacy for males (Christian monks and priests) and she for females (nuns).

What about Jesus’s brothers and sisters though? In the century after Jesus’s family and first followers lived, a work of fiction called the Infancy Gospel of James popularized a solution. It portrayed Joseph as a widower with children by his first wife before his paper marriage to Mary. Even though the Infancy Gospel of James wasn’t genuinely by Joseph’s son James and didn’t make it into the New Testament, its notion that Jesus’s brothers and sisters were his stepsiblings has been influential ever since. The other alternative explanation came from St. Jerome of Bethlehem (remember him from the introduction?). He said that the terms brother and sister had a wider meaning than just “sibling,” so James, Judas, and the rest were really Jesus’s cousins. Jerome’s explanation is long-standing but less than likely.

So there you have it: Judas/Jude was either Joseph and Mary’s natural son and Jesus’s younger half brother (as a few in the early church held) or else Jesus’s older stepbrother or a cousin. Personally, I think that just like contemporary secular culture has so idolized sex that people can’t imagine a celibate Jesus, ancient Christian culture swung to the opposite extreme of so idolizing virginity that they couldn’t stomach a Mary whose holy calling was compatible with normal marriage and motherhood. But it wasn’t ungodly for Israel’s priests who served in God’s sanctuary to go home and procreate afterward (Luke 1:8–9, 23–24; see Lev. 21:7–9, 13–15, which presumes priests are married and have kids). And the God who miraculously caused Hannah to bear a consecrated savior-son later blessed her with several ordinary children (1 Sam. 1:1–2:11, 18–21). So, too, I believe, Jesus and Jude came from the same womb—one supernaturally, the other naturally.

How Jude Felt About Jesus

Whichever way you take the New Testament’s references to Jesus’s siblings, though, one thing’s clear: they weren’t always on the same page with him. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke each record an incident in Jesus’s ministry when his mother and brothers visit him but can’t get close because of the crowd that’s surrounding him. Someone tells Jesus that his family wants to talk to him. His reply? Luke reports the mildest version: “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice” (Luke 8:21). That could sound like Jesus is just expanding his family to include his followers. But Matthew’s version doesn’t read that kindly: “‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Matt. 12:48–50). Here Jesus is actually contrasting his earthly kinfolk with his spiritual family.

Mark’s Gospel sheds light on why Jesus distances himself from his own family: Their visit isn’t a show of support. They’ve heard how he’s attracting crowds and set out “to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind’” (Mark 3:21). Mark pairs the accusation by Jesus’s family that he’s nuts with the accusation by the teachers of the law that he’s demon-possessed (Mark 3:22). Jesus handles these slanders one at a time. First, he swats down the teachers of the law (Mark 3:23–30), then he swaps out his skeptical relatives for the spiritual kinship of his disciples (Mark 3:31–35). Elsewhere, all three Gospels repeat Jesus’s warnings that embracing the gospel may estrange you from your family (Matt. 10:21, 34–39; 13:57; 19:29; Mark 6:4; 10:29–30; 13:12; Luke 12:51–53; 14:26; 18:29–30; 21:16). He lived out what he warned about.2

What about the Gospel of John? Jesus’s brothers show up twice. The first time is right after Jesus has turned water into wine at his mother’s request, with the result that his disciples believe in him (John 2:1–11). In the very next verse, Jesus makes a trip with his mother, brothers, and disciples. There’s a subtle contrast here: we know from the water-to-wine story that his mother and disciples trust in him. His brothers, though, only travel with him.

In case the reader didn’t catch the hint, though, John’s Gospel puts it plainly the next (and last) time Jesus’s siblings appear. One of the major Jewish festivals is coming up on the calendar, so Jesus’s brothers give him some career counseling: “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world” (John 7:3–4). Then the narrator breaks in with commentary: “For even his own brothers did not believe in him” (John 7:5). Like P. T. Barnum’s father-in-law and the journalist Mr. Bennett in The Greatest Showman (2017), they’re critics who don’t buy into his vision and are only impressed by success that’s measured by worldly standards. That was Jude’s attitude—but only until Easter.

This entry is an excerpt from Jerome Van Kuiken’s new book, The Judas We Never Knew. As you read this book and view the videos, you’ll discover unearth the Judas behind the biblical letter of Jude—illustrating why we should care about his twenty-five-verse letter and arguing that Jude’s presence in the early church and in our Canon still matters today.

We believe this resource can help someone understand:

  • Why the book of Jude is so important for the church today
  • Jude’s place in the church as Jesus’s half-sibling
  • What we stand to lose as believers if the book of Jude is overlooked

Get it from our store here.

1. Tim Perry and Daniel Kendall, The Blessed Virgin Mary, Guides to Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 12.
2. For Bauckham’s more detailed reflections on how Matthew, Mark, and Luke depict Jesus’s relations with his family, see Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990), 46–52. See also McKnight, Real Mary, chaps. 7–9.


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