Jesus the Jew's embarrassing brother

Pierre-Antoine Bernheim caused a storm in France with his claim that Jesus had a brother whose existence the Church tried to hide. It is the root of anti-Semitism, he argues.

Did Jesus belong to a normal family? Did he have real brothers and sisters? Did they reject or embrace his teachings? Many Christians, Roman Catholics in particular, believe that Jesus had no brothers and sisters. In order to maintain a belief in Mary as ever-virgin, they are obliged to argue that the people referred to in the gospels as Jesus's brothers and sisters were in fact his first cousins. However, most Protestant scholars and increasing numbers of Roman Catholic exegetes are now convinced that, after Jesus's birth, Joseph and Mary had four boys whom they called James, Joses, Judas and Simon and two or more daughters. The implications of this are significant.

Most churchgoers have also absorbed the view that Jesus's brothers did not believe in him and were not among his followers during his ministry. They often assume that Jesus's family did not share his supposedly radical interpretation of the Jewish Law. Yet a critical look at the evidence raises major questions. The antagonism between Jesus and his family found in the gospels, far from reflecting authentic traditions, may well represent much later conflicts between the communities to which the gospel-writers belonged and the Palestinian churches in which the brothers of Jesus were very influential.

Thus the picture presented in the gospels of a Christian discipleship which requires total dissociation from family ties, such as practised with sometimes disastrous results by modern cults, may be misleading. It is certainly easier to explain the importance of Jesus's family - James in particular - in the early church, if we assume that they were not hostile to Jesus during his lifetime.

In Western Christian tradition Peter is regarded as the most significant apostle, undisputed leader of the primitive church and, by Roman Catholics, as the first Pope. Such a view, enshrined in the principle of apostolic succession, underpins the authority of the Roman Catholic church and its hierarchy. Thus it was under Peter's authority and with his full approval that Paul was in charge of the conversion of pagans. Such a historical reconstruction is hardly confirmed by an impartial reading of the Acts of the Apostles and Paul's letters. These documents show that the church's foremost leader around 50CE was James, "the brother of the Lord", head of the Jerusalem church. It was James who was the key decision-maker in controversial questions such as whether pagans could be admitted into the Christian community without first converting to Judaism. On several occasions Peter and Paul had to submit to his authority. Sources outside the New Testament tell us that James had a reputation for his strict observance of the Jewish Law, but he seems to have been willing to accept non-Jewish converts into the Christian community. However, he required Christians of pagan origin to follow a number of rules derived from the Jewish Law and probably would have preferred them to become Jews. He was opposed to Paul, who wanted to redefine completely the identity of Israel and the role of the Law. Apart from his following the teachings of Jesus, very little distinguished James from most other Jews of his time. He would have been surprised if someone had told him that he adhered to a new religion.

Modern rediscovery of James's pre-eminence shows that the early church remained deeply rooted in Jewish tradition for some time. This church was without doubt following the example of "Jesus the Jew". The success of Paul's mission among pagans transformed the Christian community from a Jewish sect to a gentile church, for whom James increasingly became a source of embarrassment - a kind of anomaly in the history of the Church as they wanted to reconstruct it. James was swept under the carpet by those who defended the importance of Paul, Peter and Rome; the contribution of Jewish- Christianity was lost.

This emergence of James from obscurity sheds light on the changes which have taken place in the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and how they moved from common roots into antagonism. From our post-holocaust perspective they also reveal how historically absurd Christian anti-Semitism has been.

"James, Brother of Jesus" by Pierre-Antoine Bernheim is published in the UK by SCM Press (pounds 14.95)

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