The Historical Jesus
The Family of Jesus
Considering the vast body of theory and devotion which has grown up around
the person of Mary, the mother of Jesus, it's important to realise that we know
hardly anything about her.
We know even less about his father. In this passage I have used a
well-attested version of the text which tells us that his father was a carpenter
(as in Matthew 13.55, rather than that Jesus himself was a carpenter) and his
mother's name Mary. The reason for using this version of the text is that to
call someone the son of his mother in Jesus time and culture would have been
tantamount to an insult.
Men were always called after their father, since women were regarded as
socially inferior to men. Jesus' culture was strongly patriarchal.
Another reason for calling Jesus Mary's son might have been that the author
of Mark made a simple mistake because he didn't appreciate fully the niceties of
It's worth noting that we don't know for sure that Jesus himself was a
carpenter. This so-called fact isn't mentioned in the gospels, except in the
variant text in this chapter (which I have chosen not to use). It's an
assumption based on our knowledge that sons often ( but not always) took on the
professions of their fathers. On the other hand, it's possible that the gospel
authors called Jesus "the son of a carpenter" because they didn't want to show
that the "Son of God" worked for a living. In their day this could have weakened
the theological case they were trying to make.
He could have been a farmer. His parables and stories indicate a good
knowledge of this area of life - though perhaps no more so than anyone who
lived in those times. Most people would have been much closer to the land
than are modern city dwellers. We don't know if or how Jesus earned a
Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century says Jesus was a
woodworker who made ploughs and yokes. But he presents no evidence for his
The Joseph believed to have been Jesus' father is mentioned in the
birth narratives which a large majority of commentators agree are not
history. In one source (the "Book of James") Joseph is said to have been
very old when he married Mary. Despite all this, Joseph has had a
flourishing cult around his name since "The History of Joseph the
Carpenter" was published and circulated between the 4th and 7th centuries.
Mary appears in this passage and the same version in Matthew 13.55. His
mother isn't named in John 19.25. Although this latter passage may reflect
early tradition, it almost certainly isn't historically probable. And, of
course, Mary is central to the non-historical birth narratives. She's also
mentioned by the author of Luke in Acts 1.14 as having been present at
prayers with the apostles and her other sons.
It is upon this slim evidence that the entire body of Mariology appears to
have been built. The Mary of tradition is a theological construct.
True to their inferior status, Jesus' sisters aren't named as are his
brothers. But this is the only reference (with the parallel in Matthew)
that we have to them in the gospels. The James of Acts and 1 Corinthians
is assumed to have been Jesus' brother on the basis of Galatians 1.19
where a James is called "the Lord's brother" by Paul.
I think the upshot is that the idea of Mary is hugely overblown in
Christian tradition on the weakest of evidence. In contrast the person of
Joseph is comparatively shadowy as befits the evidence. One can't help
supposing that theology, rather than history, is responsible for both