Jesus’s family: No, he didn’t disown them.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 June

You seriously think Jesus would disown his mom?

Mark 3.20-21, 31-35 • Matthew 12.46-50 • Luke 8.19-21

Today’s story refers to Jesus, his mom, and his adelfoí/“siblings” (KJV “brethren”). And we start talking about Jesus’s sibs, we wander into a bit of controversy.

Y’see Jesus’s mom, Mary, was a virgin when she conceived and gave birth to Jesus. Lk 1.34-37, Mt 1.18-25 Hard to believe for some, but impossible things are no problem for God. But certain Christians consider virginity so vital to Mary’s identity, they insist she remained a virgin her whole life. Never mind the fact that in her culture, she and her husband Joseph wouldn’t be considered married unless they “knew” one another physically—and the scripture implies they did. Mt 1.25 Never mind sex was God’s idea, and good, ’cause God wants humans to be fruitful and multiply. Ge 1.28 They’re pretty sure it’s not all that good; that if you wanna remain spiritually pure you gotta abstain; so Mary perpetually abstained.

Even though Jesus had siblings. Mk 6.3

But they explain away the siblings pretty simply. Either these are step-siblings, ’cause Jesus’s adoptive dad Joseph had a previous wife, and these are his kids from that marriage; or cousins, ’cause they insist adelfoí can also mean “cousins.”

(Well, now Greek dictionaries say adelfoí can mean cousins. But in the first century, before Christians came up with the “actually they were cousins” theory, Greek-speakers used other words, like synghenís/“relative,” anepsiós/“[parent’s] nephew.” The redefinition became popular in the second century and thereafter.)

Okay. I grew up Protestant, and we have no problem with the idea Mary gave birth to children after Jesus. It seems to be the simplest interpretation of the text. But I’m also aware loads of Christians believe otherwise… and I don’t see any pressing reason to demand they believe as I do. If they wanna insist Mary had no biological kids besides Jesus, fine; she adopted them.

’Cause where we should agree is these “siblings” are Jesus’s legal siblings. Just as Joseph isn’t Jesus’s biological dad, but absolutely his legal dad. Adoption counts. Regardless of how these kids were begotten, they were Jesus’s legal siblings. Period.

This is the first we see of Jesus’s family in Mark, and what we see is they worry Jesus lost his mind.

Mark 3.20-21 KWL
20 Jesus went into a house, and the crowd came together again,
thus hindering him and stopping him from eating bread.
21 Hearing of this, his own family came to take control of him,
for they said he was overwhelmed.
Matthew 12.46 KWL
While speaking to the crowds again, look:
Jesus’s mother and siblings stood outside, seeking to speak to him.
Luke 8.19 KWL
Jesus’s mother and siblings came to him, and couldn’t reach him because of the crowd.

This is the first half of the story; Mark splits it here and inserts a story in the middle about “Beelzebub,” as it’s called. Get to that later. Today I’m putting the parts together and discussing ’em.

Disrespecting one another?

The usual interpretation of exésti/“overwhelmed” is “beside himself” (KJV) or “out of his mind.” (NIV) Literally it means “out of place,” but one could be out of place in all sorts of ways. Like in the wrong place at the wrong time. And yes, out of your head. Our English word ecstasy comes from exésti, and means out of one’s head with emotion.

But “gone mad” tends to be the usual interpretation for two reasons. One is the Beelzebub story Mark wedged between it: First Jesus’s family says he’s exésti, then the Jerusalem scribes say he’s using devilish power to throw out devils. People figure they’re both about the same thing: Neither group believes in Jesus, and both of ’em attribute his ministry to either Satan or madness.

The other reason is projection. I’ll get to that.

So supposedly his family thought him nuts. Whereas Jesus, who knew precisely what he was doing, disowned them and said his real family are his followers. Guess they know and do God’s will better than his family.

Mark 3.31-35 KWL
31 Jesus’s mother and siblings came and were standing outside.
They sent for him, calling him, 32 and the crowd was sitting round him.
They told him, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters outside, seek you.”
33 In reply he told them, “Who’s my mother and my siblings?”
34 Looking round at those encircling him, he said, “Look, my mother and my siblings!
35 Whoever might do God’s will—this is my brother, sister, and mother.”
Matthew 12.47-50 KWL
47 Someone told Jesus, “Look, your mother and siblings have been standing outside to speak to you.”
48 In reply, Jesus told those speaking with him, “Who’s my mother? Who’re my siblings?
49 Stretching his hand out over his students, Jesus said, “Look, my mother and my siblings!
50 Whoever might do my heavenly Father’s will—they’re my brother, sister, and mother.”
Luke 8.20-21 KWL
20 People told Jesus, “Your mother and siblings have been standing outside, wanting to see you.”
21 In reply Jesus told them, “These are my mother and siblings:
Those who hear and do God’s message.”

As Walter W. Wessel put it in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary:

When Jesus was told that his mother and his brothers were looking for him, Mk 3.32 he responded by asking the question, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Mk 3.33 Then with a sweep of his eyes over those seated in a circle around him, he identified his true family: “Here are my mother and my brothers.” Mk 3.34 This statement probably included only the Twelve, who were seated nearest to Jesus. They had responded to his call to be with him. There were now spiritual ties between him and them that were far closer than blood ties. EBC at Mk 3.32-34

I’ll grant you there are ties between us and Jesus which are closer than family ties. Although considering they were made by shedding his blood, and represented by how we drink “his blood” in holy communion, I’d avoid comparing our connection with “blood ties.” We have blood ties with Jesus. Just of a different sort.

Still, had Jesus’s mom and brothers actually merited him disowning them like this? Disrespecting them? Leaving them outside while he embraced the new family he’d created for himself?

Lemme remind you of those Christians who believe Jesus’s mom stayed a virgin: If you even suggest she ever sinned in anyway, they’ll fight you. If they’re not very devout Christians, they’ll even do it with pointed sticks.

She’s why I reject the idea Jesus disowned his family: His mom did believe in him. Believed in him so much, she nudged him to perform his first miracle. Jn 2.1-5 In the gospels, we don’t see many examples of total faith in Jesus. But one of the few examples we have is absolutely Jesus’s mother.

Jesus’s sibs sorta believed in him. They knew he could do miracles, and encouraged him to show them off, but didn’t get the point behind them. Jn 7.2-5 They didn’t understand how Messiah was meant to suffer, die, and be resurrected. To be fair, we can say the very same thing of his followers at the time. Even his 12 apostles.

Knowing Jesus’s mother’s great faith, why then was she there with his siblings? No, it’s not because she thought him mad. It was concern for his well-being. She was a mom. Moms do that.

Not, like interpreters speculate, because of embarrassment, because he humiliated the family, nor because of the nefarious jealousy the scribes expressed. True, both Jesus’s family and the scribes were guilty of not quite understanding him, and jumping to negative conclusions. But the two stories are put here for contrast: The scribes were biased against Jesus; his family was biased for him.

And don’t forget Jesus’s character. He doesn’t reject people. When people come to him, it’s because the Father drew them, Jn 6.65 and Jesus promises to never reject them. Jn 6.37 The scribes rejected him, but his family never did. Yeah, at the End, Jesus will have to throw some people out of the kingdom—but only because they rejected him. Not the other way round. Lk 13.27

I brought up projection, remember? The reason Christians assume Jesus would just dismiss his family out of hand because they misunderstood him, is not who he is; it’s who we are. We end relationships over some minor slight. We stop talking to family members because they embarrassed us, or are difficult and untrustworthy, or just because they bug us. We refuse to accept people who believe and think differently than we do. We don’t forgive. Does Jesus behave this way whatsoever? No. He forgives everything. Jesus even forgave the pagans who crucified him. Lk 23.34 We would never.

That’s why Christians embrace the interpretation where Jesus rejected his family in favor of his followers: It justifies all the awful behavior we exhibit towards our own families. “Family doesn’t support you? Turn your back on them; it’s what Jesus did!” But no he didn’t.

Jesus’s family was awesome. How do we measure up?

Jesus’s mom, Mary, was the “young woman” (as her culture called people who recently reached adulthood, which back then was at age 13) who obeyed God when an angel told her God chose her to carry and birth his Messiah. Lk 1.38

After Jesus rose from the dead he made a point of appearing to his brother James. 1Co 15.7 And likely the rest of his family, since they prayed alongside his apostles for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Ac 1.14 James, and Jesus’s brother Jude, wrote those particular letters of the New Testament—both of which are all about doing God’s will. James, and Jesus’s brother Simon, also became the heads of the Jerusalem church.

So when Jesus asked the question, “Who’s my mother and my siblings?” Mk 3.33, Mt 12.48 it wasn’t a question about which people were related to him. It was a question about what kind of people were related to him. Namely people who did God’s will. Primo examples of the best kind of people.

Jesus wasn’t disrespecting and dismissing his family; he was complimenting them. What sort of person were his mom and siblings? “Whoever might do my heavenly Father’s will”—like they did—“they’re my brother, sister, and mother.” Mt 12.50 They’re the very sort of people we need to be. A whole lot for Jesus’s students, including us, to live up to.