Spring 2003, Vol. 6, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2003

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

In the South:
The GOP Gets Religion

What Christian Right?

The Undetected Tide

Church Notes

The New Governing Party

The Bible in Memphis

The Decalogue in Montgomery


A World of Hurt

James in the Box

O Brother, Who Art Thou?


What Would Jesus Drive?


O Brother, Who Art Thou?
By Michael McGough

Whether or not the ossuary of “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” is genuine, historians and biblical scholars have little doubt that James the man is a historical figure, and a towering one at that. The question—not a new one in biblical scholarship or theological polemics—is how to understand the identification of James as Jesus’ brother.

Following time-honored journalistic practice, reporters covering the discovery of the purported bone box of James the Just took advantage of breaking news to commandeer newsprint for a story that could have been written at any time: differences between Christians over whether James was literally Jesus’ brother (his “biological brother,” as we would say today).

In general, the coverage was the opposite of sensational, though a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen didn’t have to paint the lily much when presented with this quote from Hershel Shanks: “Many Christians didn’t know that the Son of God could have a brother.” Many of those Christians are Roman Catholics, and articles about James laid special emphasis on the official Roman Catholic position that James could not be Jesus’ brother or even half-brother (Joseph’s son by a previous marriage), because such a connection would undermine the Roman Catholic teaching that Mary was “ever virgin.”

Typical was this recitation by John Noble Wilford in the New York Times:

“Protestants generally read the New Testament to mean that James was the son of Joseph and Mary; in this case, Mary presumably gave birth as a virgin and then had James and other children. A second interpretation, dominant in the Eastern Orthodox Church, regards James as a son of Joseph by a previous marriage. Roman Catholics tend to regard the word ‘brother’ to mean any close relative; perhaps James was a cousin, the son of Joseph’s brother, which would accord with teachings of Mary’s ‘perpetual virginity.’”

A Los Angeles Times story cited Ben Witherington, a New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, who suggested that the ossuary, if genuine, might cast doubt on the Catholic interpretation that Mary was “a virgin all her life [and] James is only a cousin of Jesus, perhaps the son of  Joseph’s brother Clopas.” The St. Petersburg Times reported on an echo of this debate in an Internet chat room, where a chatter’s comment that not many Lutherans believe Mary was a virgin for life was answered this way by another chatter: “Wrong, bonehead.”

The rehearsal in many news articles of the possible relationships between James and Jesus was correct as far as it went, but reporters generally failed to explore what Paul Harvey would call “the rest of the story.” The truth is that opinions about James’s relationship to Jesus—or at least the biblical authors’ likely understanding of that relationship—cannot be so neatly placed in denominational boxes.

Some Roman Catholic biblical scholars take seriously the argument that James and Jesus were biological brothers, while some non-Roman Catholic scholars, such as Penn State’s Philip Jenkins, an Anglican, believe that there is a serious and ancient argument for the view that the  “brothers” of Jesus were the offspring of Joseph by a previous marriage.

What is interesting is that a secular press often accused of sensationalizing questions about the historical Jesus—for example, ascribing undue eminence to those radical scholars associated with the Jesus Seminar—generally took at face value the assertion that there was a single Roman Catholic view of the nature of the James-Jesus relationship. That assumption was not to be found in the Biblical Archaeology Review article by André Lemaire that started the sensation.

The article noted, in what may be an understatement, that “some Roman Catholic scholars” accept the view that James was the blood brother of Jesus. Perhaps the two most prominent Roman Catholic New Testament scholars in America—John P. Meier and the late Raymond E. Brown, both priests—deal respectfully with the hypothesis that Jesus and James were literal brothers. 

In Volume I of his encyclopedic A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Meier painstakingly analyzes New Testament texts concerning the brothers of Jesus. After pointing out that “there is no case in the New Testament where the word adelphos [brother] clearly carries the sense of ‘stepbrother,’” and dismissing St. Jerome’s claim that adelphos “actually means ‘cousin’ in the Gospel texts that speak of the brothers of Jesus,” Meier concludes: “[I]f—prescinding from faith and later Church teaching—the historian or exegete is asked to render a judgment on the New Testament and patristic texts we have examined, viewed simply as historical sources, the most probable opinion is that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were true siblings.”

Raymond Brown, who combined rigorous critical scholarship with an acknowledgement of the authority of Roman Catholic doctrinal pronouncements, took a nuanced approach to the James-Jesus issue. In “Responses to 100 Questions on the Bible,” a work aimed at non-specialists, Brown insists that “the ‘brothers of Jesus’ is not Protestant language but biblical language” while noting that the New Testament never states that Jesus’ brothers and sisters are “are children of Mary.”

Referring to the Roman Catholic belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity, Brown writes, “We accept this doctrine of the ‘ever virgin’ not on the basis of a biblical text, but from Christian reflection on the sanctity of Mary and the way in which that sanctity was expressed in her life.” He urges his Catholic readers to “abstain from considering un-Christian those who interpret the New Testament differently; they should abstain from calling us unbiblical when we speak of Mary-Ever-Virgin.”

Of course, the Roman Catholic hierarchy would tell journalists that there can be only one Roman Catholic view—the one articulated by the Magisterium and reflected in, for example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church. But does that mean reporters presented with a peg on which to hang a discussion of James should be reluctant also to hang upon it the fact that prominent Catholic theologians express views like Meier’s and Brown’s? 

One reporter, Lou Marano of UPI, did interview Meier, who reiterated his published views. Marano also cited Brown’s views. But he was very much the exception.

Presented with the gift of the ossuary story, journalists had an opportunity to acquaint their readers with the untold story of the “brother of the Lord” and the Jewish Christianity with which he was associated—and in the process to illuminate the tension that exists, even within the Roman Catholic Church, between doctrine and scholarship. It was, almost entirely, a missed opportunity.

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