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Burial box does nothing to resolve Christian debate over Joseph's children

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The discovery of a first century Jewish burial box inscribed "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" has highlighted the long, unresolved debate between Protestants on one hand and Catholics and Orthodox on the other over the nature of Jesus' nuclear family.

Icon of Mary and Jesus at Kykkos monastery, Cyprus

Theologians of all stripes agree that the burial box -- called an ossuary -- doesn't change the argument over whether Jesus' mother, Mary, remained a virgin.

When the gospels say that Jesus had brothers and sisters, Protestants believe they are younger half-siblings born to Mary and Joseph. Catholics and Orthodox Christians believe that they are either cousins or older stepsiblings from an earlier marriage of Joseph.

"This only brings to the fore again the discussion. It doesn't give any solution to it. And we don't know at this point whether it refers to Joshua -- Jesus -- the Son of God or if it is another Joshua," said the Rev. Johann Roten, director of the International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton.

"And if that was established, we would be back to square one. It doesn't give us a solution. There is no DNA proof possible."

The gospels of Matthew and Luke say that Mary became miraculously pregnant with Jesus by the Holy Spirit before she married Joseph. Matthew 1:24-25 says that Joseph "took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son."

Joseph is not mentioned after Jesus' childhood. But Mary and at least six people described as his brothers and sisters are mentioned several times. Matthew 6:3 describes his neighbors asking, "Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?"

Acts and Galatians depict "James, the brother of the Lord" as a leader of the early church in Jerusalem who tried to negotiate an agreement between Jewish and Gentile Christians over how much of the Jewish law they had to follow. He is credited with writing the Epistle of James. According to sources outside the New Testament, he was martyred in about the year 62.

The belief that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus' birth was official church teaching by the third century, Roten said.

But differing explanations for James and the other "brothers and sisters" go back almost as far.

Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, argued that in Jewish culture, "brother" and "sister" often described cousins. He noted that Matthew 27:56 mentions a "Mary, the mother of James and Joseph" at the crucifixion, and suggests she may be the same "Mary, wife of Clopas" that John 19:25 says was at the foot of the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene. Mary, wife of Clopas, might be a relative of the Virgin Mary and mother of James the early church leader, he argued.

The explanation that these were stepsiblings from Joseph's first marriage began with accounts of Jesus' life that the church did not judge authoritative enough to be canonized as scripture. But parts of those accounts -- including the story of an elderly Joachim and Anna who miraculously conceive Mary -- became part of Catholic and Orthodox tradition.

Orthodoxy has never officially chosen between the stepbrother theory and the cousin theory. But the step-relationship fits well with the story of Joachim and Anna, said Metropolitan Maximos, bishop of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Because Mary's parents were very old when she was born, they died when she was a child and Joseph became her guardian, Maximos said.

"She was given to him for protection. It was not a real marriage," Maximos said. "So it can be that James is a child of Joseph from his real marriage."

The Rev. Ken Bailey, a Presbyterian New Testament scholar from New Wilmington, spent 10 years teaching Catholics in Jerusalem at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute. Whenever the issue of Jesus' family relationships arose he agreed to disagree, and moved on.

Bailey's own view is that the sexual relationship between Mary and Joseph is nobody else's business. But he believes the most obvious reading is that they had children.

When the Bible says they had no sex "until" after Jesus' birth, it implies they did so later, Bailey said.

"The natural flow of the language is that after Jesus was born, they have a normal marriage," Bailey said.

And "brothers and sisters" most likely means precisely that, he said.

"The major Protestant view is that these are blood brothers of Jesus. But this particular piece of archaeology isn't going to settle that dispute," he added.

The belief in Mary's perpetual virginity does not denigrate marriage, Roten said.

"The deeper meaning of her virginity is that she is a person who is totally dedicated to God," Roten said. "The mystery of the unity of her encounter with God constitutes the very foundation of Christianity. You want to enshrine that. You want to make sure it is not violated."

Scott Hahn, professor of theology and scripture at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and a former Presbyterian, argues that Jesus' words to Mary at the cross are evidence that she had no other sons. In John 19:26-27 he tells the Apostle John that he is now Mary's son, and the gospel records that Mary went to live with John.

In that culture, Jesus would not have sent his mother to live with a nonrelative if she had had another son, Hahn said.

"Protestant and Catholic scholars agree that this would have been social nonsense. It would have been illegal for Jesus to do this if he had younger brothers. They would naturally have taken Mary into their homes," Hahn said.

Ann Rodgers-Melnick can be reached at arodgersmelnick@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.

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