When Jesus made John responsible for his mother.

by K.W. Leslie, 17 April 2019

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 were his mother, his mother’s sister Salomé,
Mary wife of Clopas, 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 Jesus told the student, “Look: Your mother.”
From that hour on, Jesus’s student took her as his own.

John’s list of the women who watched Jesus die is the same as the other gospels, with the addition of Jesus’s mom and himself. He never referred to Jesus’s mom as “Mary,” because he was trying to refer to as few Marys as possible, so as not to confuse everybody with how common the name “Mary” was. (Same as his own name; notice in his gospel the only “John” in it is John the baptist.)

Anyway. All these people at the cross, save Mary the Magdalene, were family. Salomé was Mary the Nazarene’s sister; Mary “of Clopas” was Joseph the Nazarene’s sister-in-law; John himself was Salomé’s son and Jesus’s first cousin. For various reasons Christian 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 was able to get to the places he did, and be a firsthand witness to Jesus’s trial and death. Who’d suspect a kid?

But y’notice despite all this family around, Jesus’s siblings weren’t there.

And there’s no reason they wouldn’t be. Jesus was killed the day before Passover. Jn 19.30-31 We know Jesus’s siblings regularly went to Jerusalem for the feasts, Jn 7.1-10 as required by the Law. Dt 16.16 So they weren’t all the way back in Nazareth; they were in Jerusalem. In fact Luke notes they were still in Jerusalem 50 days later. Ac 1.14 No doubt they knew the Romans were killing their brother. And they weren’t there.

Only their mother, their aunts, and their cousin John had the guts to be there for Jesus. They did not.

So as the only male family member present, who was there for Jesus to 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 any job should get it. And all things being equal, we’re okay with giving it to the person who wants it most… or 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. In a patriarchal culture the male head of the family was responsible for all the women of the family. He decided who cared for whom. So when Jesus put his mother in John’s care: If he wasn’t the head of his family, his dying declaration wouldn’t matter: It wouldn’t be up to him. It’d be up to his grandfather, dad, brother… possibly even his uncle.

One would figure the head of Jesus’s family would be his adoptive father Joseph. Except by the time of Jesus’s ministry, Joseph isn’t in any of the stories. Christian tradition figures Joseph had died by then. Most of our customs figure Joseph was already old when Jesus was born; let’s say 60. So by the time Jesus started teaching in his 30s, Joseph would’ve died at a ripe old age, in his 80s or 90s. Which sounds a little nicer than to imagine Joseph died young, in a carpentry accident. (Which, since the gospels say nothing, is entirely possible y’know.)

The other part of the reason Christians imagine an older Joseph is to explain Jesus’s siblings. Roman Catholics are really fond of the idea Mary wasn‘t just a virgin when Jesus was born; she remained a virgin ever after. (Even though marriage in ancient Jewish culture wasn’t valid unless the spouses had sex: If Joseph and Mary never consummated their relationship, as Matthew implies, Mt 1.25 they weren’t married. She’d be his ward, not his wife. But because Catholics demand Mary be a perpetual virgin, they don’t care how ancient Jewish culture worked: Mary was a special exception.) So where’d Jesus’s siblings come from? Simple: Jospeh had kids by a previous wife before he married Mary and adopted Jesus. All Jesus’s siblings were therefore older adoptive siblings, not younger biological siblings.

But that theory generates some giant problems.

Starting with the very fact Jesus is Messiah. Matthew makes 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 he’s the legal route the title Messiah passed to Jesus.) Custom was for patriarchs to pass their birthright, and everything they ruled over, to their eldest. And that’s why Matthew indicated Jesus was Mary’s firstborn Mt 1.25 —and, really, Joseph’s eldest. Because if another son of Joseph was eldest, Jesus’s birthright, and Messiahship, would be open to debate. And you’re not gonna find any Christians who’ll claim Jesus’s brother James is really Messiah. But if James were older, and the head of the family as various Christians claim, he would get that title.

Various Christians try to claim James ran the family while Jesus was away, and maybe he did… though I think it’s more likely their mom did. But if James was in any way in charge, Jesus would have no power to say, “Take care of Mom.” Yeah, I’ve heard Christians claim Jesus had special authority as John’s rabbi and Lord; yeah, as an American this 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 did have the cultural 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 James, 1Co 15.7 and Jesus’s siblings helped his students start his church. Ac 1.13-14 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.