Who is my Mother?

What was Jesus’ relationship like with his family? We might think it would be idyllic – a model of familial harmony, but a closer look at the New Testament suggests that perhaps this was not the case. According to some passages in the Gospels, it seems there were fissures between Jesus and his family.

Before I continue, it needs to be said that any issues that exist in the Gospels might not go back to the actual family of Jesus. Rather, they might represent an issue that one of the writers of the Gospels had with a group represented by the family of Jesus. In other words, if there was a group of early Jesus followers that was oriented around the family of Jesus, by attacking that family, a Gospel writer may not really even be thinking about the actual historical family, but rather he might be interested in undermining a rival ideological perspective.

Mark

The NRSV questionably translates Mark 3:21, “When his family heard it [that Jesus was attracting a huge crowd of followers], they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” According to the NRSV Jesus’ family is worried that “some people” are raising questions about Jesus’ sanity, and the family wants to stage an intervention. They are worried about Jesus’ public persona and reputation given what others are saying about him.

The NRSV’s translation is forced. The Greek is, καὶ ἀκούσαντες οἱ παρ᾿ αὐτοῦ ἐξῆλθον κρατῆσαι αὐτόν· ἔλεγον γὰρ ὅτι ἐξέστη. A literal translation of this is: “And his family,[1] hearing [it], went out to seize him, for they were saying ‘he is out of his senses.’” The Greek word ἔλεγον is translated “they were saying.” Who is “they”? The NRSV decides that “they” are “some people.” For the NRSV, “they” are not the family, but rather some anonymous people who think Jesus is crazy. However, just as in English, the most recently mentioned subject that matches in number (and Gender, in Greek) is usually the preferred antecedent referred to by such pronouns. This makes the family the most likely candidate in Mark 3:21. They are the only antecedent in the sentence. If the translation “people” is adopted, it requires that we look pass the family (who is grammatically standing right there), and find another antecedent. The only other possible candidate is the crowd surrounding Jesus in Mark 3:20, but this would mean that the crowds are gathering around Jesus despite the fact that they thought he was a crazy person. It doesn’t follow the flow of the story at all!

It is the family of Jesus themselves who think Jesus is crazy. Because they think he is off his nut, they want to remove him from the public sphere, presumably to save themselves from a loss of honour.

Mark likes sandwiching stories around each other and does this often. He introduces the family in Mark 3:21 wanting to seize Jesus, but then quickly turns our attention to some Jerusalem scribes who challenge Jesus. This occupies the action from Mark 3:22-30. Then Mark returns back to the story he has started about the family in Mark 3:21. Jesus’ mother and brothers want to remove Jesus and arrive on the scene but are unable to get close because of the crowd. They send word to Jesus “calling” him (Mark 3:31). The fact that they call him means they want him to go to them. They expect him to accept the subjugated role of one who obeys their demands. They are not interested in fighting their way through to him to lay their hands on him and take him away but rather demand him to present himself to them.

The word works its way through the crowd until finally Jesus hears, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” How does Jesus respond? He asks a question, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And then looks at those sitting and listening to him, and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34-35). Jesus not only questions his family’s claim on him, he disowns them. Jesus’ “real” mother and brothers are not those biologically related to him; they are not his physical family. He no longer counts Mary and his brothers (and his sisters?) as family. Instead, he has chosen what sociologists call a “fictive family” over his actual family.

His family may or may not have heard Jesus’ pronouncement against them, but they do not take him away, and are unable to bring him under their control. Whether Mark imagines a reconciliation later is uncertain. His family is mentioned in Mark 6:3, but other than that, do not actually set foot on the stage of Mark’s Gospel again.[2]

Matthew

Matthew follows Mark, for the most part. The family stand outside wanting to speak with Jesus. They do not “call” Jesus as they do in Mark, which makes them a little less presumptuous concerning their authority over him. Otherwise, the contrast between those listening to him and his family, present in Mark, is also in Matthew. In some ways it is even more stark in Matthew. Matthew 12:49 is a change from Mark 3:34. An additional contrast between family and follower is marked out by the action preceding the saying about doing the will of God. In Mark, Jesus looks at those sitting with him (Mark 3:34). This signifies that the saying about who the real family is pertains to them. But Matthew makes this even more explicit. In Matthew before Jesus identifies who his “real” family is, he points to his disciples (Matthew 12:49). This more emphatically determines who he is referring to when he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers!” (Matthew 12:49b-50).

The biggest difference between Matthew and Mark is that Matthew does not have the preceding story explaining why Jesus’ family wants to speak with him in the first place. There is nothing about the family thinking Jesus is crazy. This makes Matthew less intelligible. The reader has no idea why the family want to speak with Jesus, and no ideas why Jesus is being so hard on them. At least in Mark the reader knows that the family has adopted a bad perspective on Jesus (as one who is crazy), which make Jesus’ reaction to them more understandable. The reader of Matthew is puzzled why the family want to speak with Jesus, and even more puzzled as to why Jesus reacts to them as he does.

Luke

Luke takes a completely different approach to the story. First, Luke make it clear that the family is trying to get to Jesus – there is nothing about them commanding Jesus report to them. This puts them in a more favorable light right from the beginning. They cannot get to Jesus because of the crowd, but if they could have gotten to him, presumably they would have.

Someone in the crowd tells Jesus, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you” (Luke 8:20). Jesus responds by saying, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21). There is no corresponding action – that is, Jesus does not “look at those sitting with him” (Mark 3:34), nor does he “point to his disciples” (Matthew 12:49). The opening question “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (Mark 3:33; Matthew 12:48) is also missing. This means that there is no contrast between biological and fictive family. Luke has removed any suggestion that his own natural family are not his real family. Jesus’ response does nothing to call the status of his family into question. Rather, not only does Jesus affirm that Jesus’ family hear and does the word of God, he also suggests that they provide an exemplar of what it means to be a disciple. If one wishes to be “related” to Jesus, one would do well to copy the example of Jesus’ biological family, and hear and do the will of God. Luke has completely rehabilitated the representation of Jesus’ natural family.

The Revised Common Lectionary

One unfortunate aspect of the Revised Common Lectionary is that it sometimes does not make sufficient room for the diverse accounts of some stories. The only version of this story included in the Revised Common Lectionary is Mark’s version. Mark’s version is fascinating in its surprises and unexpected twists, but Luke’s telling is worth listening to as well.[3] Perhaps even more to the point, listening to the differences between Mark and Luke is something worth listening to. It is instructive how the same story can be used to such different ends.


[1] οἱ παρ᾿ αὐτοῦ is accepted expression denoting one’s family. See BDAG, p. 756.

[2] Mary also is mentioned in Mark 6:3, but does she appear again in the narrative? Perhaps. Mark 6:3 lists James, Joses, Judas, and Simon as brothers, as well as some unnamed sisters. In Mark 15:40, Mark writes that a Mary, the mother of James the younger and of Joses, watched the crucifixion from a distance. Is the Mary of 15:40 the same Mary as 6:3? It is striking that both women have sons named James and Joses. However, these are not uncommon names. Furthermore, we have no evidence of James, the brother of Jesus, being known as “James the Younger.” More importantly, if this verse were speaking of the mother of Jesus, it would be doing so in an extremely odd way! Why would Mark say she was the mother of Jesus’ brothers and fail to mention that she was also the mother of Jesus?

[3] I can almost understand the omission of the Matthean version, as it is less integrated into his overall story. Matthew has copied this episode from Mark but does little more.

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