James, the Brother of Jesus

(November 7, 2002)


The recent announcement (see the Nov.-Dec. 2002 Biblical Archeological Review) that a first century stone ossuary or "bone box" had turned in Jerusalem bearing the chiseled inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" has brought back to life the old argument as to whether or not Jesus was actually born of virgin.

       The earliest written testimonies, the Gospel of Mark and the writings of St. Paul, seem to have no knowledge of such a miraculous origin of Jesus.  Only the later infancy narratives found in Matthew and Luke make such a claim. And while the latest of the Gospels, that attributed to John, may be seen at most as possibly hinting at such a phenomenon, it takes quite a different and much more philosophical approach in explaining Christ's divine origins.

       Even later Christian traditions seem split over the subject.  Western (Roman) Catholicism has always proclaimed Mary as "ever-virgin" (even claiming that she remained a virgin during and after the birth of Jesus) and claims that James, along with the other so-called "brothers" of Jesus, were at most cousins or even more distant kin. Eastern Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, while also holding that Mary was always a virgin, also are of the opinion that this James (often called "James the Less" in contrast to the other apostle James, the brother of John) was indeed the son of Joseph, but by a previous marriage, hence a half-brother of Jesus.  Protestantism seems even more divided, with fundamentalists insisting on the "Virgin birth" of Christ, while the more liberal scholars following Mark's more reports about the mother and brothers and sisters of Jesus at what seems to be their face value (see Mark 3:31-35 and 6:3).

       All this seems to point to a new battle over the kind of symbolic language that by and large makes up the Christian creed.  If "seated at the right hand of the Father" (to express Christ's eternal heavenly reward) is not to be taken literally, must "born of the virgin Mary" be taken literally as well?

       To answer this question, we must ponder the meaning of divinity as well as virginity, in the ancient world.  For the ancients, it was altogether natural that if a god were to become a human, it would be through the agency of a virgin, so that the divine paternity would be all the more obvious, while at the same time virginity was regarded as making one closer to God.  So similar stories abounded in pagan mythology, or even became attributed to the mother of Gautama, the historical Buddha.  Thus the question becomes, does God stoop to perform miracles to conform to ancient opinions, or is it that God (being God) can do anything he pleases, even if it grates against our current prejudices?

       But all this raises another question as well, one about the usefulness of symbolic language in an age that has become addicted to what it believes to be "scientific accuracy" even while it continues to search for meanings that science can never provide.  Can such symbols as "virgin birth", "resurrection" (or even "miracles" in general) continue to bear the weight or convey the meaning they once had?  One can only wonder if the paradox of trying to describe transcendent truth in terms of such material entities has not become more of a hinderance to faith than a help.  And if this be the case, then what new kind of symbols are to take its place? 


Note:  After laboratory tests were later carried out, archeologists believe that the inscription on the above-mentioned ossuary had been added more recently.   However, this doesn't mean that the issues discussed in the rest of the above article are going to go away.