Christmas 1C—Feast of the Holy Family (30 December 2012)



  • 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26 & Psalm 148
  • Colossians 3:12-17
  • Luke 2:41-52


The Childhood and Family of Jesus

The first Sunday after Christmas is often observed as the Feast of the Holy Family. In any event, the Sunday after Christmas presents a natural opportunity to reflect on the likely nature of Jesus’ upbringing, his immediate family and the impact of his family upon his own spiritual formation.

Arthur J. Dewey, “The Family of Jesus.” Forum ns 2,1 (Spring 1999) 79-97 lists the relevant texts as follows, although these relate not so much to the circumstances of Jesus’ childhood as to the activity of Jesus’ own relatives within his movement:

Dewey also notes the following references:

  • Pauline references: Gal 1:19; 2:9,12; 1Cor 9:5; 15:7
  • Acts material: Acts 1:14

For the record, Dewey concludes with the following recommendations for the Jesus Seminar session in the Fall of 1994:

  • The family of Jesus continued into the second century. [Recommendation: Red]
  • The family played a significant role in the development of the early Jerusalem community. [Recommendation: Red]
  • The family of Jesus became the vehicle for dynastic succession of community leaders in Jerusalem. [Recommendation: Red]
  • This dynastic succession lasted until the second Jewish War. [Recommendation: Gray]

The voting outcomes from the Seminar’s examination of texts relevant to Jesus’ family were as follows:

True relatives: Mark 3:20-21,31-35 and parallels

  • Jesus’ relatives thought him mad. 0.72
  • Jesus’ mother and brothers came to get him. 0.65

No Respect at Home: Mark 6:1-6 and parallels

  • Jesus had brothers. 0.97
  • James was the name of one brother of Jesus. 0.97
  • Jesus had sisters. 0.73
  • Jesus’ brothers were not in sympathy with him. 0.69
  • Jesus was known as the son of Mary. 0.89
  • The name of Jesus’ father was not known. 0.73
  • Jesus did favor or inaugurate the establishment of a blood dynasty. 0.01

Jesus’ Family: Gal 1:19, 2:9,12

  • James was a brother of Jesus. 0.96
  • James was one of those of “repute.” 0.94
  • James appears to be pre-eminent among the three leaders of “repute.” 0.95
  • James, Cephas and John extended the right hand of fellowship to Paul. 0.84
  • Emissaries of James later came to Antioch and precipitated a confrontation between Cephas and Paul. 0.96

Jesus’ Family: 1 Cor 9:5, 15:7

  • The brothers of Jesus were married. 0.88
  • James claimed a revelatory experience or vision. 0.81

Jesus’ Family: Eusebius and his sources

  • The family of Jesus continued into the second century. 0.87
  • The family of Jesus played a significant role in the development of the early Jerusalem community. 0.91
  • The family of Jesus became the vehicle for dynastic succession of community leaders in Jerusalem. 0.75
  • The dynastic succession of Jesus’ family lasted until the second century. 0.44

Early Christian writings show an increasing interest in Jesus’ birth and childhood as time passes, but these matters were seemingly not of interest to the original followers of Jesus or even early converts such as Paul. For Paul it was sufficient to note that Jesus was born of a Jewish mother (“born of a woman, born under the Law” (Gal 4:4).

Other developments can be traced as follows:

Mark (written in the 70s) has very little information about the family of Jesus, and its reliability cannot be verified. From Mark we can draw just the following points:

  • Mark pays no attention to Jesus’ conception, birth or childhood.
  • Jesus was known as the “son of Mary” rather than being named for his father. (Mark 6:3)
  • While the mother and brothers of Jesus are mentioned, there is no mention of his father. (Mark 3:31-35; 6:3)
  • There seems to be have been some division between Jesus and his family. (Mark 3:31-35; 10:28-31)
  • Jesus had at least two sisters. (Mark 6:3)

Matthew (written a decade or so after Mark) begins the process of filling out the sketchy details in Mark:

  • Matthew begins with a genealogy that traces Jesus’ descent from Abraham and David (Matt 1:1-17)
  • Jesus’ father is Joseph, a “just man” whose religious practices included revelatory dreams. (Matt 1:18-25; 2:13,19,22)
  • There is some doubt over Jesus’ paternity but Joseph acknowledges Jesus as his own child. (Matt 1:18-25)
  • Jesus’ family originally lived in Bethlehem, not Nazareth in Galilee. (Matt 2:1,23)
  • A threat to Jesus’ life caused the family to flee to Egypt for safety. (Matt 2:13-15)
  • Subsequently Joseph took his family to Nazareth rather return to Bethlehem. (Matt 2:22-23)
  • Joseph is described as a carpenter. (Matt 13:55)
  • His siblings now include 4 named brothers and more than 2 unnamed sisters. (Matt 13:56)
  • Jesus was alienated from his own family to some extent. (Matt 10:34-36; 12:46-50; 19:29)

John (written mid/late 90s) gives no attention to the birth and childhood of Jesus, but has an occasional reference to members of Jesus’ family:

  • Mary attends the Cana wedding celebrations with Jesus and plays an active role in his first miracle. (John 2:1-11)
  • His mother and brothers accompany Jesus when he goes to Capernaum. (John 2:12)
  • Galilean Jews recognize Jesus as the “son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know.” (John 6:42)
  • Jesus’ brothers advise him to leave Galilee and go to Judah. (John 7:3)
  • Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him. (John 7:5)
  • Jesus’ brothers go to Jerusalem for Tabernacles, and then Jesus follows them there. (John 7:10)
  • Jesus is not born in Bethlehem but comes from Galilee. (John 7:40-44)
  • Jesus’ opponents hint at his illegitimate birth while affirming their own pedigree. (John 8:39-41)
  • Mary is with Jesus during his crucifixion and he gives her into the care of a favorite disciple. (John 19:25-27)

Luke (perhaps written ca 110) pays far more attention to the family of Jesus:

  • The parents of John the Baptist are relatives of Mary. (Luke 1:36)
  • John and Jesus are cousins although there is no mention of contact between them.
  • Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth. (Luke 1:26-27; 2:39)
  • Mary conceives Jesus prior to the marriage.
  • Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem late in her pregnancy for a census. (Luke 2:4-5)
  • Jesus is born while his parents are visiting Bethlehem. (Luke 2:6-7)
  • Lacking proper housing in Bethlehem a manger serves as a make-shift crib. (Luke 2:7)
  • The “baby in a manger” is visited by shepherds alerted to his birth by angels. (Luke 2:8-20)
  • Jesus is circumcised on the eighth day. (Luke 2:21)
  • Jesus and is parents visit the Temple for Mary’s purification rituals. (Luke 2:22-24)
  • At the Temple Simeon and Anna prophesy his future significance. (Luke 2:25-38)
  • The family returns to their hometown of Nazareth. (Luke 2:39)
  • Jesus’ childhood is spent at Nazareth. (Luke 2:40)
  • At age 12 Jesus visits Jerusalem for Passover and engages the scholars in the Temple. (Luke 2:41-51)
  • Luke provides a genealogy that traces Jesus’ descent to Adam. (Luke 3:23-38)
  • His townsfolk identify Jesus as “the son of Joseph.” (Luke 4:22)
  • Jesus seems to be alienated from his mother and brothers when they come looking for him. (Luke 8:19-21)
  • Jesus praises disciples over his own mother. (Luke 11:27-28)
  • His mother Mary and his brother are among the disciples in Jerusalem after Easter. (Acts 1:14)
  • James the brother of the Lord is a significant leader in the Jerusalem community. (Acts 15:13-21)

Infancy Gospel of James (ca 150 CE):

  • a collection of stories about Mary’s special childhood
  • the circumstances of her arranged marriage to an elderly widower named Joseph
  • various episodes relating to the miraculous birth of Jesus.

Infancy Gospel of Thomas (ca 180 CE) provides a collection of childhood adventures by Jesus that fill the gap between the birth of Jesus and his appearance in the Temple aged 12


John P. Meier [A Marginal Jew, vol 1:350-52] gives the following summary of what can be said about the childhood and family of Jesus:

During the reign of Herod the Great, and probably towards its end (ca. 7-4 B.C.), Jesus was born in the hill town of Nazareth in Lower Galilee. His mother was Mary, his putative father, Joseph. We hear of four brothers of Jesus (James, Joses, Jude, and Simon) and at least two unnamed sisters. It may be significant that all the names in the family hark back to the glorious days of patriarchs, the exodus, and the conquest of the Promised Land. Jesus’ family may have shared in the reawakening of Jewish national and religious identity that looked forward to the restoration of Israel in its full glory. That is all the more likely if Joseph claimed to be a descendant of King David. At any rate, judging by the fiercely religious focus of Jesus’ life once it becomes visible to us, we may reasonably suppose that his family had been deeply devout Jews of a peasant Galilean type: firmly committed to the basic practices of the Mosaic Law (especially its “boundary symbols” of circumcision, Sabbath, and pilgrimage to the Jerusalem temple), but not given to the niceties of Pharisaic observance.
As the firstborn son, Jesus would have been the object of Joseph’s special attention, both in training him for a trade and in seeing to his religious education. The fact that Joseph is notably absent during the public ministry is best explained by the traditional idea that he had already died. Jesus’ mother, brothers, and sisters survived into the period of the ministry, though not without some tensions between them. …
However galling the Gospels’ silence about Jesus’ “hidden years” may be, the silence may have a simple explanation: nothing much happened. The shoot of the stump of Jesse was sprouting slowly and silently.
Jesus in Nazareth was insufferably ordinary, and his ordinariness included the ordinary status of a layman, without any special religious credentials or “power base.” As a Galilean layman, he would have appeared at first negligible to the high priestly families in Jerusalem—until he began to appear dangerous.


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