Every now and then, the subject of Jesus’s celibacy is raised, usually in connection with Mary Magdalene who some suggest was his wife. Still others believe that the tomb of Jesus has been found in Jerusalem, a tomb that contained the remains of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and their son. While the jury is still out on such proposals, many who are interested in learning more about the historical Jesus remain unaware of the early Christian traditions that testify to other members of Jesus’s family. It is to these “lost” descendants of the Holy Family that we now turn.
Most readers of the New Testament gospels know that Jesus had brothers and sisters. His brothers were named James, Joses (“little Joseph”), Judas, and Simon (Mark 6:3); the sisters are left unnamed though early tradition knows them as Mary and Salome. An unbiased reading of the Gospel of Mark would lead to the conclusion that these children are sons and daughters of Mary and Joseph. Later Christian tradition, emphasizing sexual abstinence as a means of attaining piety, would make them Jesus’s step-brothers and step-sisters or even cousins. Identifying them in this way allowed for the belief that Mary remained a virgin her whole life and that even Joseph sired no offspring. Be that as it may, the brothers and sisters are historical figures and we know something about at least one of them beyond Mark’s meagre introduction.
“James,” an English revision of the Hebrew name Jacob, was a very important person in the life of the early community of those who believed in Messiah Jesus. He is mentioned several times in the New Testament: in the Acts of the Apostles and in Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Corinthians. There is even a letter in the New Testament attributed to him although many scholars remain doubtful as to its authenticity. Regardless, James became the undisputed leader of the apostles in Jerusalem either immediately after the crucifixion of Jesus or after the departure of Peter for places unknown (Acts 12:17).
James’s leadership in the church seems strange when, in passages such as John 7:3-5, Jesus’s brothers are said not to have believed in him. Such statements however are contentious and may not be trustworthy. By the time the Gospel of John was written (late first century) a rift had developed not only between Jews and Christians but also between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. It may be that Gentile Christians looked back on the brothers of Jesus as not being fully cognizant of the opportunity afforded to Gentiles by the death of their famous brother. This opportunity, as understood by Paul, was the opening of the door to Gentiles so that they might inherit the promises made to Abraham without first becoming Jews themselves.
Nevertheless, the Gentile-Christian New Testament text called the Acts of the Apostles presents the brothers of Jesus, along with Jesus’s mother Mary, as belonging to the very first community of Jesus’s post-resurrection followers in Jerusalem. And though no gospel narrates an appearance of the risen Jesus to any of his family members, Paul wrote that James was a recipient of just such an appearance (1 Cor. 15:7). The appearance itself is recounted in the apocryphal Gospel of the Hebrews, an ancient text used by Jewish Christians.
James does appear to have represented a more conservative view than Paul toward Gentile admission to the church and there were Christian Jews more conservative still, insisting that Gentiles must be circumcised. James seems to have taken a middle course, insisting only that Gentile believers adhere to some basic Torah provisions: eating kosher meat, abstaining from sexual activity outside marriage, and rejecting pagan idols (Acts 15:22-29). Whether James accorded Gentile believers the same status as Jews among the people of God remains an open question however.
James led the church in Jerusalem until 62 CE, a duration of some thirty years. He was revered not only by those who believed in Messiah Jesus but by non-believing Jews as well. Attaining to himself a broad reputation for righteousness, he was known as “James the Just” or “James the Righteous.” A second-century Christian historian named Hegesippus described James as abstaining from alcohol and meat. He is said to have gone unshaven and to have prayed continuously in the Temple in Jerusalem. Another title conferred upon James according to Hegesippus was “Rampart of the People,” perhaps referring to the protective wall of righteousness he formed around the young church.
The first-century Jewish historian Josephus wrote about how James was executed illegally by the son of the same high priest who contributed to Jesus’s arrest and execution: Annas, the son of Annas. (Though Caiaphas was the sitting high priest at the crucifixion, Annas, his father-in-law, served in that position earlier – from 6 to 15 CE – and played a role in Jesus’s demise.)
At the time of James’s death, Judea was still under the direct control of Rome; Jewish officials were prohibited from exacting the death penalty. However, during a brief period following the death of the sitting procurator and before his replacement could arrive, Annas convened a Sanhedrin and accused James of “breaking the Law (Torah).” James was stoned. Though Josephus does not describe the execution, the formal procedure for stoning was to first push the victim off of a high precipice then, if he survived the fall, place heavy rocks on his chest to stop his breathing. Hegesippus says that James was thrown from the southeast wall of the Jerusalem Temple down into the Kidron Valley. Amazingly, the fall did not kill him so a laundryman broke open James’s skull with a club. Josephus then relates how a group of concerned Jews (non-Christians?) reported the event to the incoming procurator whereupon Annas was sacked for convening a Sanhedrin without his consent.
Hegesippus also wrote that the tomb of James could be found very near to where he fell. Such a tomb has not yet been located. For centuries the second-century BCE tomb of the Bene Hezir in the Kidron was mistakenly thought to be the “Tomb of James.” On the other hand, the “bone box,” or ossuary, that once contained the remains of James has been discovered. It can be seen in the Israel Museum where, on its side is inscribed “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” (Some believe that this ossuary was discovered in the “tomb of Jesus” referred to above – see James D. Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici, The Jesus Discovery, 2012.)
After the death of James, revolution broke out throughout Israel when groups of disaffected Jews sought to overthrow Roman domination. The legions put down the revolt in typically violent fashion, destroying Jerusalem and razing the Temple to the ground. Tradition says that many Christian Jews fled before the Roman onslaught but returned afterward under the leadership of Simeon, a cousin of Jesus and James. According to Hegesippus, Simeon was the son of Clopas “a brother of Joseph,” Jesus’s reputed father. Clopas is mentioned in the Gospel of John (19:25) as the husband of a woman named Mary who was present at the crucifixion of Jesus. Hegesippus wrote that during the reign of the Roman emperor Trajan (98-117 CE) Simeon was arrested for his familial connections to the ancient Israelite King David (ca. 1000 BCE), then tortured, and crucified.
Not much is known of Jesus’s third brother Judas although some Syrian traditions identify him as Judah Thomas, the same Thomas mentioned in the Gospel of John. Be that as it may, traditions tell us that Judas’s descendants, probably grandsons, led a number of Christian churches in Palestine. Two of these grandsons were named Zechariah (Zoker) and James. Again, thanks to Hegesippus, we learn that they were arrested during the reign of the emperor Domitian (81-96 CE) for being descendants of King David (thus, perhaps messianically inclined). Discovering that the two men were simple farmers, the Romans released them. Zechariah and James reportedly lived until the time of Trajan.
Two further descendants of the Holy Family are reported in certain medieval manuscripts to be connected to the lineage of James the Just, perhaps as grandsons or great-grandsons. Their names were Abraham and Jacob and they were said to have been second-century church leaders in the Babylonian city of Ctesiphon-Seleucia. They were not the first leaders of the church, however, but the third and fourth following Mari, a disciple of Addai (Thaddeus, possibly Jude Thaddeus), and his successor Abris. Abris was of the “family and race of Joseph,” Jesus’s reputed father. Jacob was the son of Abraham.
Finally, there is the strange tale of the martyr Conon of the “family of Christ” from the third century. According to the story of his martyrdom, Conon was a gardener in the city of Magydos in the Roman province of Pamphylia (in modern Turkey). Conon refused to worship the pagan idols and was arrested. His execution was carried out by having spikes driven under his ankles and being made to run for his life ahead of a stampeding chariot. He ran as far as the agora where he expired.
This is the extent of our knowledge of ancient traditions about the descendants of Jesus’s family. It is not always easy to separate history from legend but the stories indicate that being members of Jesus’s human family was considered both a mark of honor and an invitation to danger in the Eastern church. While leadership roles seemed to be expected of such men, genetic connections to Jesus did not prevent their violent deaths. In fact, Jesus seems to have set the example. Martyrdom in the imitation of Christ was held by many early Christians to be the supreme ending to a pious, Christian life. Jesus’s blood kin could be expected to suffer nothing less.