Jakob of Nazareth

James' Ossuary

Some are surprised when they learn that Jesus had four brothers, and at least two sisters (Mark 6:3). Unfortunately, Jesus’ sisters remain unnamed, but his brothers are James, Joses, Judas, and Simon. All of these names, including Jesus, were common Jewish names in the first century.

Jesus, the eldest, was the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua. Joshua was a strong Jewish name, originating with Moses’ successor who led the Israelites in the conquest of Canaan in the Old Testament. Jesus’ name would have been pronounced something like Yeshua or Hoshea, and means “the Lord saves.”

The name James is a little bit tricky; it is the product of being translated from one language to another over and over again. But if you open up a Greek New Testament and read the name it is pronounced Yacob, which comes from the Hebrew patriarch, Jacob. If you are a student of the Bible, you might remember that Jacob’s name was changed to “Israel,” which means “one who strives with God.” Therefore, throughout the Old Testament, it is not unusual for the prophets to refer to the nation of Israel as “Jacob.”

Joses is named after their father, Joseph of Nazareth, but ultimately they were both named after Jacob’s son, Joseph, who rescued their tribes from famine in Genesis.

Judas is named after Judah, another one of Jacob’s sons in Genesis. Judah is an important tribe in Israel because it is the home of David and is the territory that includes Jerusalem.

Simon comes from the name of Jacob’s other son, Simeon; but in times closer to Jesus it took on new meaning as it was the name of one of the Maccabees that led the revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes and brought independence to Israel for approximately 100 years.

Growing Up with Jesus

When we read about Jesus’ brothers in the Gospel narratives, we do not get the impression that their relationship was great. Because there is no mention of Joseph after Jesus’ infancy narratives, it can be assumed that he died prior to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Because Jesus was the eldest, he had special responsibility to care for his mother. In fact, Jesus had most likely received the largest portion of the inheritance in order to care for Mary…but as we read in the Gospels, it appears that Jesus relocated to another village in Galilee known as Capernaum.

Had Jesus forsaken his familial duty and subsequently brought shame upon his family? In Judaism it was a punishable offense; after all, one of the Big TEN was to “honor your mother and father…” Yet, when Jesus was pressed on the issue of familial allegiance, he responded by redefining family on religious, rather than biological, grounds (Mark 3:35).

In the same narrative Jesus is back in his hometown of Nazareth when the locals claim he is “filled with an unclean spirit” (Mark 3:30). Undoubtedly Jesus’ erratic behavior was drawing unwelcome attention to the Joseph of Nazareth family. Once again, Jesus was presumably bringing shame on them. As a result, it appears that Jesus was disenfranchised by his own brothers.

Perhaps Jesus always seemed a little off to everyone in his family—maybe perceived as an eccentric. There is no mention that he was ever married which was very unusual in first century Palestine. Perhaps it was difficult for Mary and Joseph to arrange a marriage for Jesus because of his known idiosyncrasies. Maybe he wasn’t considered “marriage material” because of all the mysteries surrounding the legitimacy of his birth which would have made him a mamzer, a person who was socially outcast because of uncertain origins. Needless to say, it seems that Jesus did not bring the best publicity to his family in a culture where you lived or died on the basis of honor or shame.

In the Gospel of John the evidence that Jesus and his brothers did not get along only becomes clearer. In John 7, it says,

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. But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret.  (Joh 7:1-10 NRS)

Before and After

What’s interesting is that things seem to have radically changed after Jesus’ crucifixion. According to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that I mentioned in my last post (link), after Jesus was raised back to life, he appeared to James (1 Cor. 15:7). As a result, James became the most important leader of the Church in Jerusalem. In fact, by the time Paul came on to the scene, James was considered one of the three “pillars” of the Church, in addition to Peter and John (Gal. 2:9).

Unfortunately James’ significance in the early Church has been underestimated because the Acts of the Apostles is primarily focused on the gospel moving from Jerusalem to the rest of the world. We are blessed to have a writing in the New Testament from his own hand which most biblical scholars believe is authentic. Likewise, Jesus’ brother Judas/Jude came to faith and is the author of the letter bearing his name (Jude), located right before the Book of Revelation.

Outside the New Testament

James’ influence in the early Church became so great that his death is documented in the writings of Flavius Josephus, the most important Jewish historian of the first century. Josephus claims that James was martyred by stoning.

In more recent years an archeological discovery was made that raised new interest in James the brother of Jesus. When first century Jews died they underwent two stages of burial. First, their bodies would be laid in a tomb in order for their flesh to decompose. Second, their family would take their bones and place them in stone cases called ossuaries and then put them inside of a common family tomb. An ossuary was discovered with the inscription “Yakob Ben Yosef, the brother of Yeshua.” In a patriarchal culture, traditionally a person’s epitaph would only relate them to their father (i.e. “Yakob ben Yosef”), but because the early Church wanted to honor James, they inscribed the name of his brother, Jesus. One of my New Testament professors in seminary, Dr. Ben Witherington III, is one of the scholars who helped authenticate the discovery of James’ ossuary. You can read more in his book: https://www.amazon.com/Brother-Jesus-Dramatic-Meaning-Archaeological/dp/0060556609/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1524007645&sr=8-1&keywords=Ben+witherington+Hershel

James' Ossuary


The radical change from unbeliever to martyr shortly after Jesus’ death speaks volumes about what James claims to have witnessed during the season of Easter. It also speaks to the fact the resurrection is not only a historical event, but something that brings transformation to our lives, and gives us unshakable hope.

In my next blog I will be posting about the women who showed up at the tomb on Easter morning. I hope you will stay tuned!

Liar, Lunatic, or Legit?

In C.S. Lewis’ classic book, Mere Christianity, he concludes that based on the claims that Jesus makes about himself in the Gospels, he is either a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. The first time I heard Lewis’ famous line I was compelled by his argument—until a few years later when I heard an additional “L” proposed by a critic: legend.

Jesus did not write Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, or any other known document for that matter; therefore, we should remember that the claims that Jesus makes in the Gospels are attributed to him by others. I believe Jesus is Lord, and although good arguments can be made in favor of the authenticity of Jesus’ sayings in the Gospels, it could also be argued that the early Church put divine claims in Jesus’ mouth. In the technical sense it is possible that the authors of the Gospels turned Jesus into a legend.


But what about Paul of Tarsus?

Paul not only claims to be an eyewitness of the resurrected Jesus, but his writings are also the earliest documents in the New Testament.

According to our best research, Paul of Tarsus was executed by Nero around 63 A.D.; which means that he planted all of his churches and wrote all of his letters prior to the publication of the first written Gospel narrative.

In the Book of Acts, the author portrays Paul [Saul] as being an enemy of Christianity and describes his attacks upon the early Church in multiple accounts (cf. Acts 8:1-4; 9:1-30; 22:1-21; 26:9-18).

However, in Galatians, one of Paul’s first letters written around 51 A.D., he makes his own claims and shares autobiographical information that informs our understanding of early Christianity. He says,

For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.13 You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15 But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being (Gal 1:11-16 NRSV)

Perhaps what is most interesting about what Paul shares is his background as a persecutor of the “church of God.” Unlike Peter, Paul did not follow Jesus during his earthly ministry; in fact, Paul persecuted the followers of Jesus because, according to him, their movement was doing harm to Judaism. Furthermore, Paul claims that he experienced a 180 degree turn in life when he witnessed the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus.

Likewise, in 1 Corinthians, a letter that Paul wrote approximately three to four years after Galatians, he includes multiple claims that he witnessed the resurrected Jesus (Cf. 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8). Of Paul’s claims, 1 Corinthians 15 is the most substantial.

The majority of biblical scholars believe that 1 Cor. 15:3b-5 is an ancient creed that Paul incorporates into his letter. In all likelihood the creed dates back to Peter and the first eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus . He says,

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

The Greek word Paul uses that is translated “handed on to you,” is a technical word that was used throughout the ancient world indicating the passing on of sacred tradition. In other words, Paul is tipping his hat and telling us that he is passing on sacred tradition that was at one point in time passed on to him.

From reading Galatians we know that Paul and Peter (Cephas) spent time together in Jerusalem within the first few years after Paul’s conversion (Galatians 1:18). It’s very possible that when Peter and Paul were together, Peter shared some of his experiences with Jesus and passed on the sacred tradition about Jesus’ resurrection appearances.

Additionally, in 1 Corinthians 15:6-8 Paul claims,

6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

Here Paul claims that the resurrected Jesus appeared to a mass group of people and some of those witnesses were still alive at the time Paul was writing 1 Corinthians (i.e. 54-55 A.D.). Then Paul states that Jesus appeared to his brother, James (who I will talk about in my next post!), and then to all the apostles. Finally, Paul makes a claim that the resurrected Jesus appeared to him as well.

Skeptics could look at the Gospels and claim that the authors put words into Jesus’ mouth in order to turn him into a legend; but what about Paul? His writings are among the earliest documents in the New Testament and he personally claims to be an eyewitness of the resurrected Jesus in more than one of his letters.

So, we’re left with a major decision to make—was Paul a liar, a lunatic, or legit?

Did Paul leave behind his incredibly committed former way of life in Judaism to deceive people into following Jesus only to be executed?

Was Paul mentally unhealthy, but convincing enough to spread the message of Jesus throughout Asia Minor and catalyze a major movement?

Or did Paul spend the rest of his life proclaiming the liberating message of the death and resurrection of Jesus because he legitimately had a life-changing experience on the road to Damascus?

It’s a question we must each answer for ourselves.

I hope this post was helpful and caused you to think more deeply about Jesus’ resurrection. Join me next time as I discuss James, the younger brother of Jesus, and why his story matters when we talk about Easter.

Grace and Peace,

Pastor Jonathan

The Monday After Easter

Hi, I’m Jonathan, and I’m glad you’ve chosen to read my first blog.

I’ve named my blog Things Every Christian Should Know because as a pastor I’ve been asking myself lately, “What should I expect the people in my congregation to know as followers of Jesus?”

My concern is that we are living in a “Christian culture” that is becoming increasingly biblically illiterate. Therefore, I feel called to help Christians grow in their knowledge of Holy Scripture and the Christian faith. I’m not so sure that writing a blog is the solution…but I’m going to give it a try.

Although I am a bona fide Bible nerd and could go on and on about trivial details, I’ve resolved to keep each post relatively short and simple because I want what I share to be enjoyable and memorable. So…here we go.


The Gospels and the Resurrection

Since we’ve just celebrated Easter, I’m going to spend the next few weeks writing about the resurrection. Please feel free to ask questions and leave comments.

Resurrection is kind of the hinge of Christianity…without it our faith simply crumbles. But living in the western hemisphere, our culture is less likely to accept the veracity of miraculous claims. So, when we start having conversations with our friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, etc, it’s important for us to be able to have intelligent, informed conversations that don’t end with shouting and telling someone they are going to hell because they disagree with us.

So what should every Christian know about the resurrection?

Well, for starters…

Often it is claimed that the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are not trustworthy because they were written several decades after the life and ministry of Jesus. For instance, the majority of biblical scholars and historians agree that Mark, the earliest Gospel, was written around 70 A.D. If that is true, then the earliest narrative about Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t written until about 40 years after the events allegedly took place.

Here’s the kicker.

85-90% of the people living in the ancient world were illiterate…which means that texts were not the primary way to communicate and publish information; rather, information was commonly transmitted by trained orators.

Another important detail is that the earliest Christians believed that Jesus would return within their lifetime. It wasn’t until the first few generations of Christians died that the Gospels were written and preserved in text. After realizing that Jesus’ return might not be as soon as they expected, Christians wanted to preserve the life, teaching, and ministry of Jesus for future generations in a more codified format; and that’s when the Gospels were written.

However, the Gospels existed as “oral documents” prior to 70 A.D.  Orators and leaders who knew the Gospel tradition memorized and preserved the narratives in highly controlled environments. Sometimes it is difficult for those of us living in textually driven cultures to appreciate the ability of an oral culture to memorize, preserve, and transmit information accurately, but their brains were trained to think quite differently than the way we are trained to remember things in a textually driven culture.

For instance, we make grocery lists because we don’t HAVE to remember everything we want or need to get at the store. In the ancient world, the primary educational model was built around memorization and retention of information rather than taking notes and having volume after volume of reference material available.

Aside from illiteracy and the inability to write, writing supplies and the cost of publication was astronomical. Therefore, it didn’t make sense for the early Church to write Gospels within the first few decades of Christianity.

The Gospel traditions that we have in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John come from the earliest followers of Jesus, who witnessed his death and claimed to see appearances of the resurrected Jesus after his crucifixion. Although the authors of the Gospels were not eyewitnesses, the traditions are based on eyewitness testimony. These followers passed the information on through preaching and teaching–the way that made the most sense in first century culture.

If you are interested in learning about the historical documents claiming Jesus’ death and resurrection that pre-date Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, I invite you to join me for my next blog. Until then, I encourage you to go to a Bible study, small group or Sunday school class and talk with other Christians about Holy Scripture.

Grace and Peace,

Pastor Jonathan