The Controversial Question: Did Mary Have One Child or Several Children?
KEY IDEAS: By identifying who Jesus’ disciples were and who “Jesus’ brothers and sisters” could have been – from the gospel texts themselves, it is possible to give a definitive answer to this question.
Having answered the question of whether Mary had other children apart from Jesus, we can address the question and examine the Catholic belief in Mary’s continued virginity.
I’ve been writing my own family history and got really into it. Then through a sermon I heard online on the Feast of St Joseph I started to wonder about Jesus’ family history and if I wrote it out, how it would sound as a family history.
I started to investigate using the documents of the New Testament as my sources. What sprang out is the realness of the story surrounding Jesus – he came from a real family and like us he had some of the problems we have all had with our own families.
I originally wrote this article in May 2020 when I was going to a Catholic church online. Since then I have been going to some Evangelical churches so I’m not quite sure whether this article will sound very Catholic or whether it will come over as an Evangelical view on a traditionally Catholic subject? Whichever angle I’m coming from, my aim is to dig down to the truth behind the Bible.
I have ascertained that Jesus’ immediate family actually came from Judea, probably Jerusalem on both sides of the family – Joseph’s and Mary’s family. When I say both sides what I mean is that Joseph played the paternal role of father, but Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary.
- Was the Virgin Mary a virgin only until she gave birth to the Saviour, or was she perpetually virgin as claimed by Catholics?
- Who were Jesus’ brothers and sisters mentioned quite a few times in the gospels and in Acts?
- What sort of deal did Joseph get in this marriage?
I will attempt to answer these three questions such that everyone can agree on what the Bible actually teaches.
I mentioned a sermon. Catholics will immediately say, the Feast of St Joseph is on the 19th of March. But, in fact, this was the Feast of St Joseph the Worker which is on the 1st of May. This shows from the outset that a thing can appear to be obviously wrong, which later emerges is true. Joseph the Worker was a carpenter and Jesus became a carpenter. The priest who gave the sermon in this feast day mass was explaining that as Catholics we believe that the Virgin Mary was virgin at the conception of Jesus (the Incarnation), virgin at the birth of Jesus, and virgin in her marriage to Joseph.
He explained that the brothers and sisters of Jesus mentioned in the gospels were children of a previous marriage of Joseph. In other words, when Joseph’s first wife had died, he had married Mary and been much older than her. He had a normal first marriage producing about eight children, and then when he married Mary he did not have union with her during this, his second marriage. This virginal marriage is not what Joseph would have chosen, the priest stated.
I had always been given to understand that the brothers of Jesus mentioned in the gospels were, in fact, first cousins of Jesus. I now see, however, that this would not make sense at all of the Bible texts.
If the ‘brothers’ mentioned had been first cousins, they would have a different set of parents and they would have remained living in Jerusalem and not gone to Nazareth with Joseph and Mary. Also, they would have spent their time with their own parents and not gone everywhere with Mary.
Joseph came from the tribe of Judah whose territory was Jerusalem and Judea. He had no connection to Nazareth and did not come from there. Mary also had her relatives in the hill country of Judea and all of them connected to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem. They also descended from King David.
To say that Mary came from Nazareth appears to be totally untrue. Tradition and extra biblical sources say that Mary was a ward of the Temple in Jerusalem and lived there in the Temple. It took me a long time to sort this out, and I was thinking that it was an error on the part of the gospel writer Luke until I discovered the truth behind it. Mary through her mother Anne was from the tribe of Asher. The tribe of Asher was amongst the ten lost tribes of the Northern Kingdom, and their territory was in Galilee. Their town was Nazareth. Mary went to Nazareth because she had relatives there on her mother’s side, and in the tribal sense ‘came from Nazareth.’
Thus, the storyline is that Joseph who is living in Jerusalem becomes betrothed to Mary. She is living at the Temple as a ward of the Temple. She is from the tribe of Asher on her mother’s side and Maccabean Jews who were priests in the Temple on her father’s side. Mary is aged about 30 and Joseph is aged about 50. Joseph has children from a previous marriage.
The betrothed Mary feels compelled to go to Nazareth without Joseph. Nazareth is where her mother’s family come from so she has relatives to stay with there. It is here that the angel Gabriel announces that she will become the mother of the Messiah (Luke 1:26). Not only is she a virgin, but her betrothed is not there with her.
When she hears that her aunt Elizabeth is pregnant in her old age, Mary goes to the hill country of Judea to help Elizabeth during her pregnancy (Luke 1:39). Mary stays there for six months until after John the Baptist is born, then returns to Nazareth.
While Mary helps Elizabeth who is quite old with the birth of her child, it is equally important that Elizabeth and Zechariah protect Mary from prying eyes and gossiping tongues. They know that the baby she carries is no accidental happening or single mother occurrence. But Mary must be hidden because others would not understand this. It would, for example, have been impossible for the angel Gabriel to go to Mary when she was at the Temple because it would produce the appearance of her becoming a single mother there and that would be totally inappropriate. It was right for Mary to go to Nazareth where no one knew her. She had to be shielded from view, since if accused of adultery she could have been stoned to death.
Six months pregnant Mary returns to Nazareth and Joseph goes to join her there. She becomes part of his household, though in Orthodox Jewish households man and wife sleep in separate rooms so she would have her own room to sleep in.
The Roman Empire census comes along, and Mary’s relatives register in Nazareth and maybe she does too, but Joseph has to go to Bethlehem in Judea. Therefore, he takes Mary and they go to Bethlehem south of Jerusalem, but find no place at the inn.
Jesus is born in a cave in Bethlehem amongst animals and hay. On the eighth day they travel the short distance to the Temple in Jerusalem to circumcise the child and offer sacrifices. At this point they meet Simeon and Anna who have waited all their lives in expectation of seeing the Messiah.
The atmosphere in Jerusalem is bad when Herod catches wind that a king has been born. The child’s life is being threatened. Herod has all the baby boys in Bethlehem killed since, although he expanded the Second Temple into a magnificent building to his own glory, he certainly didn’t want a messiah turning up. Joseph takes Mary and baby Jesus and flees to Egypt until after Herod dies.
When they return from Egypt they would normally have gone back to live in Jerusalem where they both came from. However, Joseph is warned in a dream to keep away from Jerusalem and go to Galilee instead. The text of Matthew 2:21 implies that they expected to return to Jerusalem, but saw that it was wise not to. So they go to Nazareth far enough away from Jerusalem for the holy family to be safe.
This scenario explains exactly what is written in the gospel of Luke and gospel of Matthew, and the reasons why it had to be like that. The scenario makes both gospels true. The toing and froing between places allowed Mary to bear the special child without comments from onlookers.
Therefore, Joseph was many years older than Mary. He took on Jesus as his ninth child with mother Mary and offered them protection. In return Mary became a mother to his eight children when they moved from Jerusalem to Nazareth.
Joseph and Mary lose Jesus
Every year Joseph, Mary and family went up to the Temple in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. When Jesus was 12 years old, they were coming back from the festival in Jerusalem to Galilee when after a days travel they realize they lost Jesus and spend three days looking for him.
When you only have one child, you don’t lose him. You could say that this is evidence that Mary, by this time, had six other children – when you don’t use contraception and don’t use plastic bottles to feed a baby, women have a child about once every two years.
I think that Mary was occupied with other relatives and children, but she was not giving birth to them. The youngest of Joseph’s children would have been aged about 20 at this time, and the seven others older than this. So Mary was probably taken up with looking after their children i.e. her and Joseph’s grandchildren.
At any rate, Jesus might have been the Son of God, but he was not a spoilt child. He disappeared and no one even noticed he was gone. Jesus had stayed behind in the Temple – which in typical 12 year old fashion he said was his father’s house, as if it were obvious.
The Temple was filled with Mary’s lot: the prophetess Anna was probably Mary’s grandmother, while Simeon was probably Mary’s uncle on her father’s priestly line side. Although Jesus’ great grandmother and great uncle would not still have been there as they were both very old when he was born, the Temple would still be full of people who remembered them and remembered Mary living there as well. When Jesus remained in the Temple there was more of home about the place for him than most people would think.
Wedding at Cana
There’s a brief glimpse into Jesus’ identity before he started his public ministry. Early on Jesus and his disciples are invited to a wedding at Cana in Galilee. Mary is there because the wedding involved either friends or relatives of hers; maybe it was the wedding of one of Jesus’ sisters. They are trying to keep up appearances, but run out of wine.
Mary is distressed – so it probably was the wedding of one of Joseph’s daughters and she was the ‘bride’s mother.’ Mary already knew that Jesus could fix things. Jesus turns water into wine – only Mary and the servants knew what had happened; all the guests at the wedding thought it was very good wine.
This is to show that Jesus didn’t receive a ministry at a point in time as someone with a healing ministry does, but even as a child he was able to perform miracles if he so wished.
It all gets hectic
Jesus started his ministry in Capernaum beside the lake called the Sea of Galilee. First he called four fishermen who were brothers and cousins of each other. Later he called a diverse bunch of other disciples to make up the twelve. He starts to teach the people on the shores of the lake, and soon there are so many people that Jesus has to get into a boat as a platform from which to preach. All the crowds following him line the shores of the lake.
After this Jesus and the twelve start to go on mission all around Galilee, where Jesus teaches the people by use of parables and explains things in greater depth to his disciples. Many people come to him for healing. By the time they return to Capernaum, there are so many people pressing around Jesus’ house that you can’t get either in or out of the house. It was getting really hectic.
Just at the time when Jesus’ ministry was really taking off, Joseph died of old age. Jesus had started his ministry aged about 30, and Joseph by then was aged 80 so he died of natural causes. Jesus’ brothers, being older than him, had always been quite bossy. In fact, he went to Capernaum away from the synagogue in Nazareth partly to get away from them, and their always knowing best and telling him what to do.
So Jesus’ elder brother and the others came to his house in Capernaum with Mary to say that Joseph had died, and he’d have to go back to Nazareth to assume his responsibilities towards the family. They were unable to get anywhere near the house because of the crowds. Then they heard Jesus call out, who are my mother, my brothers and my sisters? The crowd thought they’d be sent away because family always comes first. But Jesus said, you who hear God’s word and put it into practice are my mother, brothers and sisters.
Mary had infinite patience, but Jesus’ brothers were irritated. They said, you’ve got to drop this crazy mission and come back to Nazareth to look after Mary, your mother, and be a carpenter again.
So Jesus did what they asked; he did go to his home town with his disciples, and he stood up in the synagogue to preach. He preached with such wisdom, the people said, isn’t this the carpenter’s son? The son of Mary? We know his brothers and his sisters. They kicked him out of the synagogue, jeering at him.
Jesus wisely returns to Capernaum. He’s registered here for Temple Tax, but has no money to pay it. Simon (Peter) also has no money. Miraculously a fish coughs up a four drachma coin they use to pay the tax for both households.
Each year Jesus’ family went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. He’s done this his entire life. Jesus’ brothers like to keep things in order and tell Jesus that he should go with them. Jesus replies to them that the time is not right. They goad him saying, if you want to be famous and get known, you need to go to Jerusalem and show yourself to the world. What’s the point of only doing stuff among us? Jesus says, for you any time is the right time, no one is going to make attempts on your life – sounds a bit harsh, but true. The greater the healing miracles performed by Jesus, the greater the threat to his own life.
Jesus does go to Jerusalem, but in secret, then returns to Galilee where he can move about with his disciples freely. Mary goes about the place in the company of Jesus’ brothers. She probably lived with them and their families, and with his sisters as a woman would not live alone after her husband died. Though, technically speaking Mary belonged to Jesus’ household after Joseph died and was his responsibility.
Mary’s relationship to Jesus’ brothers is important in forming the early church. Despite an unpromising start in some ways, and some family tensions, it is the four brothers who will administer the early church in Jerusalem in the company of Mary. Mary was the family bond of the church of Jerusalem.
Foot of the cross
When the time is right Jesus heads towards Jerusalem. As we all know it ends with his crucifixion. At the foot of the cross stood Mary, Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene and other women. The disciples had fled leaving only the women and the youngest disciple – who would not be arrested on account of being women or under-age.
The account of Jesus’ words from the cross given in John’s gospel (John 19:25-27) were the words spoken to himself:
“Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.”
Quite apart from Jesus caring about those left behind more than about his own agony hanging on a cross, this tells us a crucial thing:
Mary, being Jesus’ actual mother, was his responsibility. It fell to him to decide what to do for her welfare. Mary did not belong to any of Jesus’ brothers’ households because she was not their actual mother; they were Joseph’s grown up children. Jesus gives Mary to ‘the disciple whom he loved’, the person to whom he was closest to care for Mary as a mother. Thus, John takes Mary into his household and becomes responsible for her. This shows that Mary was, in fact, the mother of only one child.
The young disciple John, the one who Jesus loved and Mary his mother understood Jesus’ mission on a level that the others did not understand. There can be an intimate joining of souls that has both meaning in life and eternal significance. Both of their lives were completely given to what Jesus stood for.
Mary’s house at Gethsemane
Apostles James and John stayed in Jerusalem after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Their mother who had supported Jesus’ mission had probably gone back to Galilee to care for her husband Zebedee.
Simon was given the new name of Peter by Jesus and appointed as head of the early church of Jerusalem. Peter generally went around with John. John’s brother James was martyred early on. The apostle James was beheaded under orders from Herod Agrippa in AD 44 for following The Way. James, the brother of Jesus also remained living in Jerusalem and was prominent in administration of the early church.
Mary lived in the household of John, and not the household of brother James in Jerusalem – if Jesus’ brother James had been Mary’s actual son, she would have lived in his house. Her house with the apostle John was in the Kidron Valley, at Gethsemane below the Mount of Olives. This is known because the Church of the Sepulchre of Saint Mary was built there. During the first centuries AD many pilgrims went to see her empty tomb which was situated at the house because a miracle had occurred at this tomb.
If Mary was aged about 30 when she had Jesus, then she would be about 63 when he was crucified. She may then have lived for another 15 years and died aged about 78 in about AD 48 of natural causes. She died before the Apostolic Council of AD 51 took place.
Mary chose to live at Gethsemane, the place of the garden where Jesus had prayed in his last hours when his sweat had turned to blood, the place of his arrest in the hours of darkness. But above the garden was the hillside from which he had ascended to return to the Father. Simeon, in the Temple, had prophesied that a sword would pierce Mary’s heart (Luke 2:25-35). Mary lived with this sword for the remainder of her life. However, through forgiveness of the perpetrators of a very great wrong, a person can know mystical union with God.
John knew Jesus and how he thought like no one else did, he was the beloved disciple. But knowing Jesus so well also came to him through caring for Mary until she died. When you stay with parents until they die, you take on what they were.
Who were the apostles and who were the brothers of Jesus?
If you can find an answer to this question, then you can answer the question concerning the perpetual virginity of Mary and her relationship to Joseph.
First let us clarify that Jesus’ brothers were called James, Joseph, Simon and Judas.
Jesus had twelve apostles whose names were:
Jesus had two apostles called James: The older one was the son of Zebedee and the younger one the son of Alphaeus. The other son of Zebedee was John.
There were two apostles called Simon: Simon son of John who became Peter and Simon the Zealot The other son of John was Andrew.
There were three apostles called Judas: Judas son of James or Thaddeus; Judas Iscariot; Judas known as Thomas
Thomas or Talmai means ‘twin’ in Aramaic. His name was not twin, but Judas. Bartholomew is bar-talmai which means ‘son of twin’. This apostle’s actual name was Nathaniel.
The other apostles were Matthew also called Levi, Philip and Matthias who replaced Judas Iscariot. This totals twelve apostles plus one.
Basically there are three people here called James and four people called Judas. If we can identify who ‘Judas son of James’ was, then the key questions can be answered.
Firstly, ‘Judas son of James’ is always distinguished from Judas Iscariot – this is understandable since Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus. The gospels of Matthew and Mark call ‘Judas son of James’ by his nickname Thaddeus. This is because the name Judas became tarnished by its association to betrayal. The gospel writers do not want us to get confused about which Judas is which.
So, if his father was James, which James does this refer to?
- Is the apostle James son of Zebedee and brother of John the father of Judas?
The mother of James and John, and wife of Zebedee went round helping provide for Jesus and his disciples, and she was present at the crucifixion (Matthew 27:55-56). For her to be active in this way she could not have been aged more than 45 to 50.
Her son John was the youngest apostle. He may have still been under age at the time of the crucifixion. James son of Zebedee could have been aged 26 to 32 maximum if she had her first child aged 18.
If this James had been married – of which there is no evidence – any son of his could not be aged more than 6 to 12 years old. None of the apostles were children, therefore, James son of Zebedee was not the father of Judas.
2. Was James son of Alphaeus the father of Judas?
In Mark 15:40-41 speaking of Mary the mother of James, James is described as ‘James the younger’. This text indicates that this apostle James son of Alphaeus was younger than James son of Zebedee. This makes it even more unlikely that he would be married or have a son, and if he did have a son, he would be only a baby.
‘James the younger’ implies that his age was only just above that of the youngest apostle John meaning that he would not be anybody’s father.
3. So we come to Jesus’ brother James.
Was Jesus’ brother James the second son of Mary his mother, or the first son of a first wife of Joseph with Jesus being the ninth child of Joseph?
If Jesus was aged 30 when he started his ministry, a younger brother could not be aged more than 28 at the time. If this were the case, and he was the father of the apostle Judas, then Judas could not be aged more than 8 years old, which he would not be.
If, however, James was the first son of Joseph and Joseph had about eight children in his first marriage before his first wife died, then when Jesus was born to Mary, James would be aged at least between 16 and 21 years old.
This would mean that brother James was aged between 46 and 51 when Jesus went to Capernaum and started calling disciples. If this were the case, it is easy to see that James would already be married and very probably have a son aged between 16 and 21 if he became a father aged 30.
What this all means is that the apostle ‘Judas son of James’ or Thaddeus was the son of Jesus’ elder brother James; Judas was Jesus’ nephew.
Analysis of the Biblical texts to trace relationships and calculating their ages shows that Jesus’ brothers were, in fact, older than him. The fact that James was very bossy with Jesus, telling him what to do, also implies that he was the elder brother and not a younger brother of Jesus.
This means that Mary could not have been their genetic mother. It means that Mary herself had only one son, Jesus. This makes her perpetual virginity possible.
4. Of course, there is still Jesus’ brother Judas.
Brother Judas is not the apostle Judas – if he were he would be identified as ‘Judas son of Joseph’, and not ‘Judas son of James’.
In the gospel of John there is a question to Jesus sounding typical of his brothers: “Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?” (John 14:22) Whether this was said by brother Judas or nephew Judas who was an apostle, it is difficult to say, but it sounds like the brother not the apostle.
As I mentioned in a previous section, brother James became prominent in running the church in Jerusalem. He was one of the elders and he addressed the Council of Jerusalem concerning the Gentiles – see Acts 15:13-23. Brother James became known as ‘James the Just’. He was martyred in AD 62 or 69. It was he who wrote the Letter of James.
There is another letter called Jude. Jude is another form of Judas. The author introduces himself as “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James”. Jude is Judas the brother of Jesus since he says ‘brother of James’. If he had been Judas the apostle he would have put ‘Judas son of James’.
James, Simon and Jude, the brothers of Jesus become principle people in the early church of Jerusalem and contribute to the New Testament. When Paul went to Jerusalem he saw only Peter and James, “the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:18-19).
Acts 1:23-26 mentions Joseph called Barsabbas also known as Justus. Acts 15:13-23 mentions Judas called Barsabbas. Barsabbas means ‘son of the sabbath’. I believe that these two, Joseph Barsabbas and Judas Barsabbas may have been the brothers of Jesus.
There is a high family contribution to the early church, but Jesus’ brothers never claim actual kinship with Jesus. This, I believe, is because they were Joseph’s sons and not Mary’s.
Therefore, in conclusion to this section, the Bible supports the Catholic view concerning the identity of the brothers of Jesus and not the opposing view often held by Protestants. These brothers were certainly older than Jesus, and the eldest one James was at least 20 years older.
First of all, who were the brothers and sisters of Jesus?
St Jerome thought that the brothers of Jesus were first cousins. The Biblical texts do not indicate this since cousins have a separate set of parents of their own. What is recounted is that Mary was always going round with the brothers of Jesus, in other words playing the role of mother towards them and they sons towards her. After Joseph their father died, the brothers and sisters had no other parents apart from Mary to be attached to.
Christians have long disputed the Bible texts referring to the brothers of Jesus, and by extension to this argument the perpetual virginity of Mary.
A simple reading of the gospels, without any probing or calculation of ages, appears to indicate what constitutes the Protestant view: that Mary as a virgin conceived Jesus and gave birth to him in Bethlehem. Then after that she lived a normal marriage and had about eight other children with Joseph in Nazareth. Joseph died leaving Mary with nine children. If this were the case, Jesus was aged about 32 when Joseph died, and any younger children would be aged about 30, 28, 26, 24, 22, 20, 18 and 16.
In the Catholic view the brothers and sisters of Jesus are proposed as being Joseph’s children from a previous marriage. These children would all be much older than Jesus. By my calculations when Jesus was 32 they would be aged about 53, 51, 49, 47, 45, 43, 41 and 39.
In support of the Catholic view is the information that from the cross, Jesus gave his mother to the apostle John as a mother; and he to her as a son.
Let us remember that women lived in their father’s household, then they married and lived in their husband’s household, and if he died they lived in their son’s household. Women did not live alone. To be an abandoned widow or orphan was the worst thing ever.
If, when Jesus died, there had been eight younger siblings to look after, Mary would have returned to Nazareth to take charge of them and look after them.
If, however, the siblings were older, with the sisters already married and some of the sons such as James also already married, then she would have no obligation to look after them.
Did the brothers of Jesus have an obligation to look after Mary? The four brothers remained in Jerusalem after the crucifixion and resurrection, and they became pillars of the early church. It would be natural that one of the brothers would take Mary into his household in Jerusalem, but this did not happen. The Catholic argument goes that this did not happen because she was not their genetic mother, she had not given birth to any of them; they were Joseph’s sons.
Jesus himself had an obligation towards Mary his mother, to whom he was actually genetically related, and he passed the responsibility to John.
Thus, the balance of evidence from the New Testament shows that the brothers were not the sons of Mary; she had one child, not nine children. The Catholic view is borne out by the Bible.
What of Joseph?
Joseph died many years before Mary died, and before Jesus himself died. This, I believe, is because he was much older than Mary and simply died of old age. If Joseph had been aged 45 to 50 when he married Mary who was about 30, then he would be aged 77 to 82 when he died.
From Joseph’s point of view, he had previously had a normal marriage with plenty of children. It may have been a great relief to find a second wife willing to look after them. Mary seems to have spent her time going round with these sons when Joseph was no longer on the scene.
Mary and Joseph lived as a family – but in Orthodox Jewish households husband and wife do not sleep in the same bed, they have separate beds in different rooms. They are only permitted to have union on certain days of the woman’s cycle. It is Catholic belief that Mary and Joseph had no union, and Mary remained ‘ever virgin’.
From the recounting of Jesus’ life story, we see the threat to his life right from birth. Joseph played the role of protecting Mary and the child, and taking them first to Egypt and then up to Galilee for this reason.
Jesus and his brothers:
It emerges how obscurity in Galilee was a wise option when Jesus started his ministry. Jesus chose the time to go to Jerusalem publicly when the time was right.
Jesus, as the youngest of nine children, had quite a few problems with his immediate family as all of us do. His older brothers were often bossy and overbearing. Jesus was not genetically related to these brothers and sisters, but he had been brought up with them.
Eventually, the brothers become part of the early church in Jerusalem. This was probably helped by the fact that originally the family came from Judea and had maintained ties there by going every year from Galilee to visit Jerusalem and the Temple for religious festivals.
The brothers of Jesus never make any claim of kinship with Jesus. They make a point of not seeking priority for being Jesus’ brothers. James becomes known as ‘James the Just’ and there is mention of ‘Joseph the Just’ – this comes from relinquishing ‘the elder brother thing’.
The Messiah’s story is an extraordinary story written in the small everyday details of a real life and a family life.
The virginity of Mary:
The Marian Dogma of the perpetual virginity of Mary is not something well-accepted or understood today.
The grace of God in Mary’s life has to be something of acceptance and not of understanding maybe. The majority of people only embrace a life devoid of sexuality very late in life.
For those close to God, as Mary was close to God, it is revealed that spiritual union far surpasses physical union. While marriage is right for most people, it is not the only way to happiness and a fulfilled life.
Clare Merry 2020 reflections and 14th May 2021 write up (5542 words)
Bibliography NIV Study Bible
Story of Jesus from the four gospels combined
Clare Merry May 2021
KEY IDEAS: This is the storyline of the life and death of Jesus Christ taken from the four gospels combined. What emerges is the threat to Jesus’ life at many points along the way and how he knew when was the right time for what he came to do.
Authorship of the Gospels
The four gospels basically tell the same story, but a few discrepancies occur. For example, the genealogies for Jesus given in Matthew and Luke are not exactly the same. It turns out that this can be explained. Sometimes sequences of events are different – this is not a major problem since people’s memories of real events can vary. The focal point for each gospel may be different so the emphasis is different.
Two of the gospels were written by apostles: the Gospel of Matthew was written by the apostle Matthew also known as Levi the tax collector. This tax collector was called by Jesus for a reason; apart from keeping records, he was also quite a good writer.
The Gospel of John was written by the apostle John, who with his brother James were known as the ‘sons of thunder’. Three short letters in the New Testament are also written by John. John culminated his great literary and theological feat by writing the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation. Both the Gospel of John and Revelation are full of imagery and symbolic meaning; both soar to the heights of inspiration as if to touch the heavenly realm.
In disputed sequences of events I am going to go with the gospels of Matthew and John as eye-witness accounts.
The Gospel of Mark was written by a friend of the apostle Peter and based on Peter’s sermons. His actual name was John Mark. This account is contemporary, but slightly removed from events giving the gospel more simple clarity. It is the most straight forward of the gospels.
The Gospel of Luke was written by the doctor Luke, a friend of Paul. It is addressed to Theophilus who must have been a Greek with a name like that. Paul’s co-worker Titus was also a Greek. Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles. Gentiles means non-Jews.
Luke gathered stories from all sorts of witnesses to Jesus’ life and wrote the most beautiful gospel with exclamations called ‘songs’ and anecdotes recounted by many people concerning Jesus’ extraordinary life. The gospel is a compilation of eye-witness accounts. One of the informants must have been Mary herself concerning the birth of Jesus.
The four gospels are, in my opinion, reliable sources of information as to the life of Jesus Christ as they are based on sources that come directly from first-hand accounts of the events.
The life story of Jesus the Christ
This is the storyline of Jesus’ life taken from the four gospels combined together.
Mary aged about 30 is pledged to be married to Joseph aged about 50. The angel Gabriel visits the virgin Mary in what is known as the Annunciation. She accepts the plan of God. Her acceptance of the plan of God allows her to conceive Jesus through the Holy Spirit. This is the Incarnation.
Joseph, when he finds out, decides to break the engagement quietly without public fuss. However, the angel Gabriel visits him in a dream and explains.
Mary joins Joseph’s household as his wife. But Mary then goes off to the hill country in Judea to visit her aunt Elizabeth for three months. Elizabeth is six months pregnant with John the Baptist. Her husband Zechariah is a priest in the Temple where he also had a visit from the angel Gabriel. Zechariah is instructed to call the child that will be born to them in their old age, John rather than Zach.
John first meets his cousin Jesus while they are both in wombs, and they do somersaults as babies do in the womb when happy.
John is born to Elizabeth happy to no longer be barren. Mary returns to Nazareth (where her family came from) and Joseph joins Mary in Nazareth from Jerusalem. They find out there is going to be a census of the whole Roman Empire and Joseph has to go to Bethlehem to register.
It is near her time to give birth but it is decided that Mary must stay with Joseph so they go to Bethlehem together. They planned to get lodging at an inn, but everywhere is full. Finally, an inn-keeper offers them a stable to share with animals, and it is there that Mary gives birth.
The stable where Jesus was born was actually a cave as depicted in Eastern Orthodox art. When Mary and Joseph hear people outside, they quickly hide the baby in the trough for hay to feed cattle (called a manger) out of fear for him (in traditional societies newborn babies are not put in cots so the manger was not like a cot). But the people outside turn out to be shepherds come down from the hills. They have been told by angels that a saviour has been born and they go to worship the babe. They are surprised to find him lying in a manger, but this is also a sign. Amazingly enough, some wise men also turn up from the East. The wise men are Zoroastrians from Persia who studied the stars for signs. They saw the ‘star of the Messiah’ rise in the heavens at that exact time. (The bright star could have been a supernova as these occur from time to time).
On the eighth day after giving birth, Roman Empire census registration done, Joseph and Mary take the baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem. They take him to the Temple for circumcision and to offer a pair of doves as a sacrifice. When they enter the Temple they meet Simeon who prophesies over the child.
Then they meet Anna, a prophetess who also prophecies. Tradition has it that Mary’s mother’s name was Anne. Anna’s age shows that she could have been Mary’s grandmother. It is possible that the prophetess Anna was the actual great grandmother of Jesus.
At this point Joseph is warned in a dream to take Mary and the child and escape to Egypt. Herod, in an attempt to eliminate all rivals to his kingship, had all the male children in Bethlehem killed.
Here we see the threat to Jesus’ life right from his very birth. We also see the protective role played by Joseph who makes all the decisions of what to do to keep Mary and Jesus safe. Joseph takes Mary and Jesus and they flee to Egypt until it is safe to return to Israel because Herod is dead. At this point they are the ‘Holy family’ the three of them.
When they return to Israel, Joseph after having another dream decides it is too risky to live in Jerusalem (where they had been living originally) and he takes the family up to Galilee. They settle in Nazareth where Joseph starts up a carpentry business.
Mary thinks she’ll adapt to a quiet life with her child Jesus. However, as I mentioned elsewhere, Joseph had been married previously and his wife had died. In this first marriage Joseph had four sons and several daughters. These sons were the four brothers of Jesus called James, Joseph, Simon and Judas. Joseph had left them with their grandparents when he went to Egypt with Mary, and in any case the eldest one was aged about 21 and the youngest about 7 at the time. The Judean grandparents now deliver the children back to Joseph. These details may be conjecture, but they make sense of the parts of the story that are told later. The upshot is that the virgin Mary who had one child, now actually had nine children to look after, and several of them teenagers.
Every year the family went to Jerusalem for festivals and participated in the Temple rituals. On one of these occasions Joseph and Mary mislaid Jesus. If you have one only child, you don’t lose him, but when you have nine children and other relatives it is easy to forget one. And so Jesus aged 12 stayed in the Temple to argue with the teachers of the Law. This was not a sin, but just a thing which 12 year olds do; they never realize how much trouble they are going to cause with their parents worried sick about them.
Jesus learnt his father’s trade and became a carpenter. Like all Jewish boys he also studied the Scriptures with the Pharisees in the local synagogue. The Pharisee movement had decentralized Judaism towards local synagogues instead of only having a central Temple for worship. They had made obedience to laws in everyday life their thing along with the reading of Scriptures kept as scrolls in the synagogues.
Jesus starts his ministry
By the time Jesus was thirty most of his older brothers and sisters had got married and left home. The wedding of one of his sisters was at Cana in Galilee. Jesus then felt the call to start his mission. One Sabbath Saturday he went down to the local synagogue as he always did and it was his turn to read. He took the scroll and found a passage written about himself in Isaiah and read it, then sat down. Everyone stared at him, at first they wondered, then got cross and indignant.
Jesus made the decision to relocate to Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, really a large lake. This turned out to be a good move. He left his mother Mary with Joseph, by this time quite old, being aged nearly 80.
Jesus started to call disciples who were fishermen on the lake. The first four disciples were fishermen and cousins to each other: Simon and his brother Andrew, and James and his brother John. Many people started to follow Jesus and out of these followers he chose eight more disciples to make up the twelve. The twelve men shared Jesus’ actual life and ministry of preaching.
The cousins John and Andrew had started off as disciples of John the Baptist who was baptizing people in the River Jordan in Judea. Jesus went to John the Baptist at the river to be baptized. When he came up out of the water there was a sign that Jesus was indeed the Messiah – something like a dove descending from heaven lighted upon him and the Father’s voice was heard. John and Andrew then left John the Baptist excited to follow Jesus.
John the Baptist’s mission was preparatory to Jesus mission. Technically speaking John was Jesus’ first cousin once removed. John’s call to true religion was to lead to him being thrown into prison.
Jesus gets a following
In Galilee crowds had started to follow Jesus everywhere. He had followers from as far away as Idumea in the south, Tyre and Sidon in the north and regions across the Jordan to the east. Jesus even had to start employing a small boat to preach to people lining the shore of the lake so as to be heard as there were so many crowds of people.
Later came the news that Jesus’ cousin John had been beheaded by Herod Agrippa (Herod Agrippa acceded to the throne after Herod). When this happened Jesus withdrew to a solitary place to grieve. This was another sign to Jesus to stay up in Galilee out of the way, and not go down to Judea until the time was right. The mixed blessing of popularity was that it would now be dangerous to go openly to Jerusalem.
So many people came to the house in Capernaum where Jesus stayed that the disciples often were not able to eat, you couldn’t get in or out of the house with all the people looking for healing, and after the paralytic being let down through the roof incident (Mark 2:1), the roof was leaking and there was no money to fix it. Jesus’ ministry was really starting to take off and it was getting really hectic.
It was, I believe, at this point that Joseph died in Nazareth. Due to this new situation, Jesus’ older brothers decided that a stop had to be put to this mission that was getting out of hand; they decided to bring Jesus home to Nazareth where he could go back to being a carpenter.
“Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”” (Mark 3:20-21)
Jesus’ brothers went with Mary to Capernaum to see Jesus and take him back home. They couldn’t get into the house so waited outside. Jesus’ reaction was to ask those sitting around him “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (Mark 3:21). Jesus says to those gathered around him that they, his followers, are his mother, brothers and sisters.
Matthew records that Jesus said, at the renewal of all things, …… “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:28-30)
A prophet without honour in his home town
Jesus’ brothers would surely have reminded him that since he was Mary’s actual son, when Joseph her husband died, he had a duty to take his mother into his own house and assume his responsibility as a son.
Jesus then took his disciples and went to visit his home town. He went into the synagogue in Nazareth to teach. The people there said “What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us? And they took offence at him. Jesus said to them, “Only in his home town, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honour.”” (Mark 6:1-4) The people who knew Jesus as he grew up and knew his family kick him out of the synagogue, jeering at him.
Jesus obviously did not stay in Nazareth, but went back to Capernaum. A short time after this Jesus is paying temple tax as a resident of Capernaum. He and Simon-Peter had so little money they had nothing with which to pay the tax until Jesus got a fish to cough up a four-drachma coin to pay the tax for both their households (Matthew 17:24-26).
My guess is that Mary officially became resident at Jesus’ house in Capernaum at this point. As a woman she would have little choice in this. But she may well have spent her time going round visiting relatives and staying with them for many months as women do in traditional cultures. Mary always appears in the company of Jesus’ brothers and sisters.
“After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples. There they stayed for a few days. When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” (John 2:12)
Festivals in Jerusalem
Jesus habit was to go to Jerusalem for festivals and to visit the Temple; his family had always done this, however, as his mission expanded, going to Jerusalem became increasingly dangerous.
Mary always supported Jesus, knowing many things she stored up in the secret of her heart. At the wedding feast in Cana in Galilee she had called upon him to sort out the problem of running out of wine. Jesus had changed water into wine. However, while Mary totally trusted her son Jesus, his brothers often thought they would sort him out.
Jesus’ brothers, all older than him, tried to get Jesus to fall into line with their plans and customs. Sometimes they goaded him about becoming famous and showing himself to the world – which can only happen if he goes to Jerusalem.
“After this, Jesus went around in Galilee, purposely staying away from Judea because the Jews there were waiting to take his life. But when the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles was near, Jesus’ brothers said to him, “You ought to leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples may see the miracles you do. No-one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” For even his own brothers did not believe in him.” (John 7:1-5)
Apparently Jesus answers them quite bluntly – “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me …” and he says “The right time has not yet come.”
Jesus’ brothers leave and go to the Feast in Jerusalem, and Jesus does go, but in secret. Then unannounced Jesus pops up in the Temple to teach people. The Sadducees want to have him arrested, and the Pharisees want him stoned.
The Pharisees and Sadducees were not happy – they were sad-you-see because of Jesus’ success. The greater the healing miracles performed by Jesus, the more threat there is to his own life.
Popularity in Galilee
Jesus stays away from Judea, having an enormous following among the descendants of the tribes whose regions were Galilee, but also the north and south of Israel, the coast and west of the River Jordan.
So many people followed Jesus in Galilee by this time that even the surrounding farms would not have enough food to sell to them for the journey home. On one occasion Jesus multiplies loaves of bread and fish for five thousand men. There could have been ten thousand with women and children. On another occasion he feeds four thousand. This is a sign to show how many times God can multiply a small gift we make to him, even if it were only two small fishes and five rolls of bread.
Jesus’ popularity was at its height in Galilee, but he knows that he must take his mission to Judea. Jesus goes to Jerusalem when he decides the time is right; he knows full well the consequences. On a human level it would have been nice to stay in Galilee and enjoy success and popularity.
Jesus has friends in Bethany, two sisters Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus. Lazarus dies, is buried in a cave and raised to life by Jesus. This is the pivotal event. It leads to the acclamation of Jesus by the people of Judea and an actual plot by the religious authorities to have him killed.
The final journey
It is now only a matter of time, and Jesus prepares his disciples who understand absolutely nothing.
The last supper is celebrated with the twelve apostles in the upper room. Jesus says one of them will betray him, and they have no idea which one. John ‘the disciple who Jesus loved’ asks him, Who? And gets an answer: the one who dips his hand into the bowl with me (Matt 26:23).
The one who is to betray him goes out. Then with only hours left, they go to the Mount of Olives and the disciples fall asleep. The authorities arrive at the hour of darkness when Jesus is alone with only the eleven dosing. They ask for “Jesus of Nazareth”. Jesus steps forward and says “I AM”, and the soldiers and Judas the betrayer fall back. They cower before Jesus because he is strong and unafraid. Jesus speaks to the guards while the disciples slip away; they scatter terrified, knowing that they too will die if associated with Jesus.
Jesus is arrested and taken to the house of Caiaphas, High Priest and his father Annas. The Jews charge Jesus with blasphemy for claiming to be the Messiah. They take him to the Roman governor’s palace where he is questioned by Pilate.
How are the details about the trial given in the gospel of John known – if, at this point, Jesus is alone with no followers present?
The answer is that Jesus did have followers in Judea, even in Herod Agrippa’s own household. The wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household, whose name was Joanna was, I believe, the witness who saw and memorized everything (see Luke 8:3). There is also Susanna who accompanied Joanna.
Condemned to death
Jesus is condemned to death and Pilate has the charge written and fastened to the cross: it read ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews’.
Women could move silently, heads covered, without fear of arrest because they were not recognized as entities before the law. They stood at the foot of the cross.
Mary Magdalene was there with Mary wife of Alphaeus, the mother of the young apostle James, and Joses and Salome. Joanna stood by with Susanna. In the Gospel of John, Mary the mother of Jesus and his mother’s sister (sister-in-law), Mary the wife of Clopas were there.
John, himself stood nearby – maybe because he was too young to be arrested, it was safer for him than for the apostles who were older men, and maybe he was braver.
Jesus died in the most extraordinary way with a loud cry. Others who died on a cross had nothing left in them by the time they expired.
Joseph of Arimathea was given permission to take Jesus’ body for burial. Some of the women followed him and noted where the tomb was so that they could return to perform the proper rituals. Then the Sabbath descended upon them and they went home.
Risen from the dead
On Sunday, the first day of the week, the women returned to the tomb carrying spices. There was Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, her daughter Salome and Joanna. They find the tomb empty and bump into an angel, they are distressed but the angel says that Jesus rose from the dead and is going to meet them in Galilee. They hurry back to the apostles with startling news.
Peter and John run to the tomb, but John being younger runs faster and gets there first, but does not dare go in. Peter catches up and goes in and finds the strips of linen with which the body was bound lying there discarded. Then John goes in and sees the empty tomb. They go back with the news, but Mary Magdalene stays and weeps by the tomb believing the body to have been stolen. A man addresses her who she thinks is the gardener, until he says “Mary”. Then she sees it is the Teacher, and reaches out to touch him, but he says no, go tell the disciples.
After rising from the dead Jesus appeared to his disciples many tines. On one occasion they are fishing on the lake in Galilee and have caught nothing, and Jesus appears on the shore. He instructs them to throw out their nets again, and they bring in a huge catch of fish. At this sign, “the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” Peter jumps out of the boat and wades in to shore, while the others bring the catch of fish in. Jesus cooks them breakfast on the beach. “None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord.” (John 21:1-14)