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29 March 2018

When Jesus made John responsible for his mother.

And why not any of his siblings.

John 19.25-27.

Only John has this story. Which has caused no end of speculation about Jesus’s family situation.

John 19.25-27 KWL
25 Standing by Jesus’s cross was his mother, his mother’s sister, Klofa’s Mary, and Mary the Magdalene.
26 So Jesus, seeing his mother and the student he loved standing by,
told his mother, “Ma’am, look: Your son,” 27 then told the student, “Look: Your mother.”
From that hour on, Jesus’s student took her as his own.

John doesn’t give everybody’s names in this story, so I figure I will.

  • MARY OF NAZARETH. She’s never once referred to as “Mary” in John, because the author was trying refer to as few Marys as possible, so as not to confuse everybody with how common the name “Mary” was. He stuck to two: Mary of Bethany, and Mary of Magdala. Whenever Mary of Nazareth comes up, she’s always “Jesus’s mother.” Jn 2.1, 3
  • SALOME OF KFER-NAHUM. Whom Mark mentioned by name. Mk 15.40 John only calls her “[Jesus’s] mother’s sister,” ’cause she’s his mom and Jesus’s aunt. Sometimes Christian tradition mixes her up with Klofa’s Mary, which is why some Christians refer to her as “Mary Salomé”—which’d mean all four women there were named Mary. Well it was a popular name.
  • KLOFA’S MARY. Klofa (KJV “Cleophas”) was her husband, which is why most translations insert the words “the wife of.” Klofa was Joseph’s brother. This was another of Jesus’s aunts.
  • MARY THE MAGDALENE. Tradition has it she’s one of Jesus’s financial backers, or even one of his students.
  • JOHN BAR ZAVDI. “The student Jesus loved” is the one who wrote this gospel, Jn 21.24 and most reasonably John bar Zavdi, Mk 1.19 Salomé’s son, Jesus’s cousin. For various reasons Christians figure John was the youngest of Jesus’s students—maybe 16, or even younger, at the time of Jesus’s death—and his youth might’ve been why he could get to where the other students wouldn’t dare go. Who’d suspect a kid? But it meant he could be an eyewitness to history, and record it in his gospel.

Other than the Magdalene, they were all Jesus’s family members, so of course they’d be by his cross, lamenting his death.

But you notice Jesus’s siblings weren’t. And there’s no reason they weren’t. Jesus was killed the day before Passover, Jn 19.30-31 and we know Jesus’s siblings regularly went to Jerusalem for the feasts, Jn 7.1-10 as required by the Law. Dt 16.16 They were in Jerusalem. They were still in Jerusalem 50 days later. Ac 1.14 They likely knew the Romans were killing their brother. But they weren’t there. Only their mother, her sister, and her sister-in-law had the guts to stand up for Jesus. They did not.

Oh, and John was there. So as the only male family member present, whom could Jesus call upon? Right: His beloved student.

Who was the head of Jesus’s family?

Americans like myself tend to be pragmatic. We figure the person best suited to the job should get the job. Sometimes the person who wants it most; sometimes the person who shows up first. So for most of us, Jesus’s decision to have John look after his mom makes perfect sense.

For other cultures—including Jesus’s!—no it doesn’t. There are rules about this sort of thing. Well, customs. By custom the male head of the family, the patriarch, was the one who had responsibility for all the women in the family. He decided who cared for whom. If Jesus wasn’t the patriarch of his family, his dying declaration wouldn’t matter: It wouldn’t be up to him. It’d be up to his dad, his brother… possibly even his uncle.

Initially the head of Jesus’s family was his dad Joseph. Except by the time of Jesus’s ministry, Joseph isn’t in any of the stories. Tradition has it Joseph had died by then. Most traditions imagine Joseph was already old when Jesus was born—let’s say 60—and would’ve died at a ripe old age before Jesus ever got started. It’s a little nicer to imagine Joseph had a full life, than to imagine he died young, killed in a carpentry accident. (Which, since the scriptures don’t say one way or another, is entirely possible y’know.)

So, various Christians have imagined the head of the family would therefore be… Jesus’s brother James.

Wait, not Jesus? Yep. See, the reason traditions imagine Joseph as old, is ’cause they imagine he had another wife, and kids by that wife, before he married Mary and adopted Jesus. That way all Jesus’s siblings would be adoptive siblings, and Jesus would’ve been the only child Mary gave birth to… and Mary could remain a virgin. Even though marriage in Jewish culture was determined by the fact you had sex. If Joseph’s marriage was never consummated, it means they weren’t married, and she was his ward, not his wife. But Roman Catholics want Mary to remain a perpetual virgin, so this explanation works for them: Joseph had no offspring with Mary, and James was Jesus’s older, adoptive brother, not his younger, biological brother. Hence James held the birthright, and upon Joseph’s death governed the family.

But there are a few huge problems with that idea.

First of all, Matthew. That gospel made it really obvious Jesus is the heir to David’s throne through his adoptive dad. Mt 1.6-16 For those who claim Matthew’s genealogy was actually Mary’s, I remind you the angel addressed Joseph as “son of David,” Mt 1.20 because that’s the legal route the title Messiah passed to Jesus. Custom was for patriarchs to pass their birthright, and kingdoms, to their eldest—but really they could assign it to anyone, much as David passed over Adonijah and picked Solomon as his heir. If James in any way held the birthright, Joseph’s death would legally make him Messiah. True, God can and does anoint anyone he chooses, but what’d be the point of Matthew trying to establish Jesus’s genealogical credentials when James really held the birthright?

Next: If James was head of the family, Jesus would have no power to say, “Take care of Mom.” Yeah, I’ve heard Christians claim Jesus had authority as John’s rabbi and Lord, and therefore John followed it ’cause he believed in Jesus. And yes, as an American that scenario makes sense. But I’m not allowed to presume first-century Galileans would think like Americans! It’s possible, but way more likely Jesus had some cultural authority behind his declaration. He did have the right to pick someone to care for his mom. He could assign the task to his cousin without it later getting overruled by his brother.

Lastly, some Christians imagine Jesus passed over James and his siblings because they were otherwise incapable. Too young, maybe. Too immature. Not Christian enough. Arguments which are kinda moot considering Jesus, right after he rose from the dead, appeared to his siblings, and they helped his students start his church. Me, I suspect it’s more likely Jesus had specific ideas for what John and Mary’s ministries in his kingdom were gonna be—and he wanted them to minister together. Which, as tradition has it, they did together for the rest of her life.

Suffering because she’s suffering.

Eight days after Jesus was born, a prophet had spoken with Mary.

Luke 2.34-35 KWL
34 Symeón blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Look:
This is laid out for the downfall and rise of many in Israel, and they’ll speak out against the sign.
35 You yourself: A sword will pass through your soul.
It’s so that every mind’s thoughts may be revealed.”

Most Christians figure watching her son die was the “sword through your soul” Symeón spoke of. ’Cause what parent wants to watch their beloved child die? It’s like getting stabbed in the gut. (Not heart; that’d kill you. Gut, so you’d suffer.)

Mary might’ve heard Jesus’s prophecies that he’d die, but rise again three days later. His students certainly had. For all the good it did ’em: His death still drove them into panic, despair, heartbreak. It’s really difficult to see past a gory spectacle. It’s a huge stretch of one’s faith. And even though Mary had tons of faith—enough to give birth to Jesus, obviously—did she have enough faith to expect her son to rise in a few days? I dunno. Those who make the movies and art really don’t; they always depict her as grief-stricken. Me, I figure this was a massive test of anyone’s faith, but I’d like to think Mary was up to this sort of challenge. But I really don’t know.

Well. Even if Mary totally believed Jesus would rise, it was still completely awful to watch her son suffer on the cross. And it had to make Jesus miserable to think he couldn’t do a thing to comfort her. Best he could do was have John comfort her for him.

Then, three days later, comfort her personally.