Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

The Holy Families – From the Daily Office – March 2, 2013

From the Gospel of John:

After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him. Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near. So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” (For not even his brothers believed in him.) Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil. Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.” After saying this, he remained in Galilee.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 7:1-10 (NRSV) – March 2, 2013.)

Holy Family IconThirty or so years before the episode described here by John, Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” in a town called Bethlehem. (Luke 2:7) We are told here and elsewhere that Jesus had brothers, and his brothers were named “James and Joseph and Simon and Judas.” (Matthew 13:55) He had sisters, too, but their names are not reported in Scripture.

We know next to nothing about his family life. His siblings are not mentioned in the two stories we have from his childhood and adolescence. One supposes it was pretty typical of his time and place. We are told that a Jewish man in First Century Palestine live a life of hard, physical labor either in the farm fields or in the workshop. His wife prepared meals, kept the house, made and washed clothing, and bore and cared for the children. Babies were breastfed, and weaned after 18 months to 3 years. At the age of 13, boys entered adulthood and were apprenticed to learn a craft. Although there is no evidence that boys at the time underwent a ritual bar mitzvah as current Jewish adolescents do, Shmuel ha-Katan a Talmudic scholar writing at the close of the First Century AD does indicate that the completion of the 13th year marked the age for responsibility to the Law. Girls assisted their mothers with domestic work and rearing the younger children; at the age of 12 they were eligible to marry.

If we assume Mary’s and Joseph’s family followed this pattern Jesus and his siblings lived together for at least their formative years. Furthermore, it appears from this story (and others in the Gospels) that as adults the children lived nearby. This seems to have been a tightknit family, although maybe one with some issues. Modern psychology has shown that first born children hold the exclusive attention of the parents and grandparents until the birth of the next child. This is believed to allow for the development of a confident individual who is certain of his place and does fear competition. Jesus would certainly seem to live up to this expectation.

Eventually, the first born does have to deal with the challenge of newcomers. The second born usually ends up in a fight for attention that starts even before he or she is weaned. The expectation that the second will achieve the same standards as the older sibling can result in self-undercutting behavior or in over-achieving behavior in competition with the elder sibling. We don’t know who was the second child in this family; if the listing of Jesus’ brothers’ names in Matthew’s Gospel is in birth order, perhaps it was James. Given that James later became the first Bishop of Jerusalem, that is an interesting possibility.

The arrival of more brothers and sisters may lead second and later children to “middle child syndrome” where the child, being neither youngest nor oldest strives to find a rational role to fill within the family. The youngest children of a large family can face a variety of confusing relationships. Could this be the reason that “not even his brothers believed in him?”

Of course, all this is speculation. We don’t, as I said before, really know anything about Jesus’ early family life. Nor do we have any basis for supposing that the family of Joseph and Mary conformed to these modern psychological stereotypes. What we do know is that Jesus grew up in the bosom of a family, reared by a loving mother and foster father, surrounded by brothers and sisters. In doing so, he sanctified family life in whatever form it may come – large families like his own, childless couples, single-parent households, same-sex couples with or without children – in whatever configurations human beings may form themselves into household units, those families are holy families because each, in its own way, replicates the family in which the Son of God was reared.

The Book of Common Prayer (1979) of the Episcopal Church includes a traditional prayer for families. I’ve edited it to be more inclusive than the original:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, you set the solitary in families: We commend to your continual care the homes in which your people dwell. Put far from them, we pray, every root of bitterness, the desire of vainglory, and the pride of life. Fill them with faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness. Knit partners together in constant affection. Turn the hearts of the parents to the children, and the hearts of the children to the parents; and so enkindle fervent charity among us all, that we may evermore be kindly affectioned one to another; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.


  1. Kay

    This should elicit some interesting responses from

  2. eric

    The Roman Catholic Church’s theologians and apologists bend over backwards to find ways to “interpret” scripture by either making the “brothers and sisters” into cousins or by suggesting that Joseph was an older man with a family from a previous spouse. Neither of these is supported by Scripture. The reason for doing so is to preserve the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity; something which also is not supported by Scripture. So, perhaps there will be some interesting responses from Roman Catholics. Other kinds of Christians in the Catholic tradition (such as Anglicans, of which I am one) would have no problem with what I have written. Thanks for your note.

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