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Mark 3:31-35 and Parallels

Mahlon H Smith,
Rutgers University

0. Background


Commentary on the implications of Jesus' interaction with his relatives in Mark 3:31-35 and parallels has covered biographical questions (identity of kin, break with family) and the ecclesiastical concerns of Mark (universalization of the Christian brotherhood, polemic against the Jerusalem church). Critical controversy over the structure of the passage, however, has concentrated on the relationship between the concluding aphorism and its narrative setting.  Dibelius claimed that the story originally ended with Jesus' declaration (3:34): "Here are my mother and brothers!" with 3:35 added later as a homiletic peroration/1/  Bultmann proposed the reverse: that 3:35 is "original" (from Jesus?) and that the preceding verses are a secondary "imaginary" setting created to introduce a previously free-floating aphorism./2/  The most detailed discussion to date is that of J. D. Crossan, who decades ago came to the "somewhat tentative" conclusion, supporting Dibelius, that "Mark himself created and appended 3:35 to 3:31-34."/3/   All of this debate concerned the synoptic evidence alone. Crossan's subsequent gathering of non-canonical parallels in the Gospel of Thomas 99, 2 Clement 9:11, and the Gospel of the Ebionites 5 has, however, put this pericope in a whole new context, one that suggests quite a different and more complex solution./4/


1. Synoptic Puzzle


Reduplicated pattern

Mark 3:31-35 is easily identified as the matrix behind Matt 12:46-50 and Luke 8:19-21./5/  The Markan narrative has six distinct elements phrased with characteristic redundancy:

A. Description of Jesus' mother and brothers "standing outside" (3:31).
B. Description of Jesus surrounded by "crowd" (3:32a).
C: Jesus told: "Your mother and brothers are outside, seeking you" (3:32).
D. Jesus asks: "Who are my mother and brothers?" (3:33).
E. Jesus indicates audience: "Here are (ἴδε) my mother and brothers" (3.34).
F. "Whoever does will of God is my brother, sister and mother" (3:35).

The almost monotonous reiteration of the formula "mother and brothers" in A-E seems excessive even for Mark. What is striking, however, is that this is not the sequence of relatives used in F.  If Mark 3:31-34 generated 3:35 or vice versa, why has the verbal pattern been inverted?

Restrictions by redactors 

Matthew and Luke's versions are, as usual, less clumsy and more economical, each containing only four of the elements employed by Mark. Yet they differ from each other both in their choice of elements and in the degree to which their wording echoes Mark. A and F are the only features all three have in common, although in no case is there full verbatim agreement.

Matthew, while not following the opening of Mark's narrative closely (paraphrasing A and omitting B and probably C), reproduces the sayings Mark credits to Jesus in DEF virtually verbatim, with the exception of the terms chosen to designate the Deity. His use of "my Father in heaven" instead of "God" is readily explained as a redactional characteristic of the evangelist who generally replaces a Markan "ὁ θεός" with circumlocutions that were more acceptable in the synagogues.  Otherwise, Matthew here accepts Mark as a reliable source for the words of Jesus, even though he seeks to streamline the second evangelist's awkward description of the occasion and to clarify the intent of the pronouncement in EF by having Jesus, as he delivers it, point directly toward his "disciples" (rather than just give a vague general glance at the surrounding "crowd" as in Mark).  That is to say, while Matthew trusts Mark's ability to quote Jesus accurately, he thinks it necessary to correct the impression left by the second gospel that Jesus' pronouncement originally envisioned a universal audience.

Luke's treatment of the Markan account, on the other hand, is almost the reverse of Matthew's.  He sees little need to alter Mark's scenario other than to polish his grammar.  Rather, his rewriting skill is focused primarily on editing the lines that the second gospel gives to Jesus.  His excision of the rhetorical question in Mark 3:33 (D) not only removes an unnecessarily dull echo of the message in the previous line, it also reduces the impression of rudeness in Jesus' reply to his blood relatives' request for an audience.  Luke presents Jesus' climactic pronouncement neither as a direct rebuff to his mother and brothers nor as an open invitation to any religious person to claim kinship with him, but rather as a masterfully enigmatic bit of repartee.  By having Jesus assert that those who "hear God's word" (presumably as spoken by himself) are his family, Luke shows that he understands Jesus' remark as a pointed rejoinder to the one who interrupts his teaching with word that his presence is requested elsewhere.  If his mother and brothers really want to see Jesus, he insinuates, they should not just "stand outside" but come in and listen to him. At the same time, those who were already in the position of being Jesus' auditors could understand such a saying as indicating that their teacher felt a closer bond to them than to members o his own family who insisted on staying outside his audience.  And eventually, the same saying could be taken as establishing the criteria necessary for anyone, though not originally present, to relate to Jesus.  Thus, while verbally simpler than Mark's generalization, Luke's version of F is logically more complex.  In any case, like Matthew, Luke presents Jesus' pronouncement as initially having a more immediate and less comprehensive focus than that envisioned in Mark's narrative.

If one considers just the synoptic evidence, then, it would appear that the first and third evangelists have independently edited a Markan narrative and that most of their differences can be accounted for on the basis of redactional tendencies characteristic of the respective authors./6/  It is not immediately evident, however, why Matthew and Luke should both take the trouble to alter Mark to make it clear that a logion which explicitly proclaimed Jesus' kinship with all persons dedicated to God, regardless of genetic ties or gender, was originally directed to those who at the moment of first utterance formed Jesus' inner circle of students.  For both evangelists---as much or more than Mark---saw Jesus as intending to create a universal fellowship.

True, Matthew attributes the opening of discipleship to the Gentiles to a saying of the resurrected Jesus (28:19).  But apart from this, the first evangelist had no trouble in tracing logia relevant to the post-resurrection church to the pre-crucifixion Jesus (e.g., Matt 16:18-19; 18:15-20) and even, in one case, presents Jesus as explicitly telling the "crowds" as well as his "disciples" that they are "all brethren" (23:8) because they have "one Father" (23:9).  Moreover, since he accepts and even intensifies the generalized wording of Mark 3:35 (replacing ὃς with ὅστις), it is even less clear why he insists that Jesus directed this saying to his "disciples" alone (Matt 12:49a), especially when he expressly claims that this happened while Jesus "was speaking to the crowds" (12:46). 

As for Luke, it is just as puzzling why the evangelist who claims that the international scope of Jesus' mission was evident from the beginning (2:30-32; 4:25-27), and who more than any other NT writer attests to the prominence of women among Jesus' followers (both before and after the crucifixion), should delete both "whoever" and "sisters" from the pronouncement as worded by Mark (and even Matthew!).  To be sure, Luke does not directly limit the focus of Jesus' rejoinder to his "disciples."  But does not his insistence that Jesus' true kin are those "hear the word" indirectly imply as much?  Can such coincidence be credited merely to chance or clumsiness on the part of Mark's redactors?  Or is it possible that both had access to some less universalized version of this incident than they found in the second gospel.  If so, what did it say?


2. Extra-Canonical Prototype


As long as one is confronted only by the synoptic evidence the answer to questions about the redaction and pre-Markan history of this pericope can only be conjecture. When one brings in parallels in other ancient texts, however, one begins to be able to reconstruct the tradition behind each of the church's canonical gospels. Neither Gospel of Thomas 99 nor Gospel of the Ebionites 5, nor even 2 Clement 9:11, can be adequately explained as an echo of one or more of the canonical gospels.  Nor is any one of them clearly dependent on any of the others. Thus one has six versions of this pericope, the three non-canonical texts being more  truly independent witnesses than are the synoptics.  Yet, there are elements in each of the former that help to clarify the development of each of the latter.

Minimal dialogue 

Thomas characteristically presents the incident in dialogue rather than story form. Only three of the Markan elements (CEF) are represented, with wording that approximates but does not exactly and consistently reflect that found in any of the synoptics.  At first such differences seem trivial, careless oversights perhaps on the part of the non-canonical evangelist or his translator.  They become significant, however, when one notices that Thomas:

(1) gives the two statements in Markan (and Matthean) EF as one (cf. Luke 8:21; 2 Clem 9:11; and GEbion 5);
(2) limits the focus of Jesus' pronouncement to his immediate disciples (cf. Matt 12:49; GEbion 5);
(3) prefers the order "brothers/mother" (cf. GEbion 5; Mark 3:35; Matt 12:50) in both members of the dialogue;
(4) has Jesus make doing "the will of my Father" his criterion for kinship (cf. 2 Clem 9:11; GEbion 5; Matt 12:50).

This combination of elements makes it difficult to regard Thom 99 as a secondary echo of the synoptic model(s), since it is at once simpler and logically more coherent than any of them.  Jesus acknowledges those who obey his "Father" (without Matthew's celestial qualifier) primarily as "brothers" (unlike Luke).  Yet the force of this declaration has not been applied to a social situation beyond his immediate disciples, as there in no generalizing "whoever" or mention of "sisters" (unlike Mark, Matthew, or GEbion 5).  

If, however, one accepts the dialogue in Thom 99 as a clearer reflection of the pre-Markan form of this tradition than any of the synoptic stories, then one is able to explain not only why Matthew and Luke edited Mark but also why Mark wrote A-E as he did. If Matthew, for example, was familiar with a version of this incident like that in Thomas as well as that in Mark, then one can see why he introduced the references to "disciples" and "my Father" that are not found in the second gospel. Likewise, it would then be evident why Luke (unlike Mark 3:32) says Jesus was told his family was "standing" outside and, even more, why he replaced Mark's version of Jesus' reply (EF) with a more concise and less generalized pronouncement. Moreover, one could then understand the reason for the vagueness and redundancy of the Markan narrative itself.  For, if the pre-Markan tradition consisted simply of an unsituated interchange between Jesus and his disciples in which the latter began by informing their master that his relatives were "standing outside," then it becomes clear why Mark also begins his narrative by telling his readers just this, no more and no less.  He could not say outside where, or what, because the "disciples" did not give him this information. And left to his own imagination to explain why Jesus' family did not themselves come in, the second evangelist fell back on his oft-used device: the "crowd" surrounding Jesus (before this in Mark 2:4,13 and 3:9,20 but also again in 4:1,36 and 5:21-31, etc.).  That is to say:

a. Mark probably transformed an original aphoristic dialogue into a pronouncement story by creating the setting (AB) out of information he found in the first line of conversation (C).  In the same way, he dramatized and generalized Jesus' response by splitting the single stich saying into two (E and F) and prefacing it with a rhetorical question of his own composition (D).
b. Mark's apparently clumsy redundancy, then, might be recognized as a mark of his conservatively creative hermeneutic.  Even while forming a narrative framework for isolated sayings material, Mark did not invent details that could not be read out of the original (oral?) tradition.
c. In the same vein, Matthew and Luke appear to have "corrected" Mark, not just due to personal whim but to restore details found in earlier tradition.

Yet, to say that Thomas seems to preserve a version of this pericope that is more primitive than any of the synoptic accounts is not to say that every detail of the current Coptic text of Thom 99 antedates the canonical gospels.  Thomas' unparalleled statement that Jesus' spiritual brethren are the ones who will "enter the kingdom of my Father" (G) is best seen as a logion that was added at a later date.  And the original wording of the disciples announcement (C) probably put "mother" before "brothers" since this is the preferred order, not only in the synoptics, but in the Gospel of the Ebionites, whose opening line of dialogue is otherwise closer to that found in Thomas than in any particular canonical parallel.

Priority of "brothers" (plural)

While Thomas seems to have preserved the original nucleus of this pericope better than any canonical text, he does not give the elements of Jesus' pronouncement in their simplest logical form.  The presence of Jesus' mother in the opening announcement presents the stimulus for him to introduce his Father in his response.  Confronted by one parental paradigm, Jesus appeals to the other---possibly, but not necessarily, invoking the ancient social ethos that gave the paternal precedence over the maternal in matters of obedience. For him then to go on to proclaim that one obedient to his Father is also his mother---however true that may be of her---not only confuses the filial focus but destroys the tensions in the setting that provide the necessary logical stimulus for this type of repartee.

Moreover, the priority of "brothers" in Thomas' version of Jesus' response is supported not only by Matthew and Mark's wording of the climactic pronouncement (F) but by the Ebionite text and an isolated logion cited in that Corinthian homily called 2 Clement.  In fact, the latter claims Jesus identified his spiritual kin only as "brethren."  Since 2 Clem 9:11 does not pretend to retell the whole incident, but rather cites Jesus' words only to prove his promise that God will receive those who are wholeheartedly devoted to him as "sons" (9:10), it is possible that the author has presented only that portion of the pronouncement that was of immediate use. There was no need to quote Jesus' as referring to either "mother" or "sisters" as neither is properly identified as a "son" of the Father. If, on the other hand, Thomas is right---along with Matthew and Epiphanius' quote from the Ebionite Gospel---in portraying this pronouncement as directed initially just to Jesus' "disciples' (meaning the Twelve or some other limited inner circle of followers), then it is highly likely that Jesus' original saying mentioned only his "brothers."  For being all Jewish males (as far as we know) it is hardly likely that Jesus' disciples would have told others that their teacher had equated them with his mother and sisters, even if this were the case!  Only when this saying came to be applied to a wider audience which included women would it have been necessary to introduce female titles of kinship into the pronouncement (F).  Then, the order in which such kin were mentioned would depend on whether the tradant was influenced more by the fact that the original saying emphasized "brothers" (so Thomas, Mark, Matthew and the Ebionite Gospel) or by the fact that the introductory announcement gave precedence to Jesus' mother (so Luke).  Evidence that "mother" was at first the only female relative inserted into F is to be found not just in the fact that neither Thomas nor Luke have Jesus' sisters in view but in Epiphanius' quotation of the Ebionite Gospel which lists "mother" right after "brothers" (like Thomas) but before "sisters" (unlike Mark and Matthew).

Importance of doing the Father's will 

Reliance on the evidence of the Gospel of the Ebionites is risky, however, insofar at all our knowledge of its contents comes from critiques. It is uncertain whether Epiphanius actually had the text before him when he wrote Panarion 30.14.5 or even if he did, whether  he cited it exactly.  His quotation, as its stands, has complex affinities to the four other versions of this pericope. The opening announcement is closest to Thomas or (among the synoptists) Luke. He begins Jesus' reply, with the rhetorical question (D) that is not found these in these works but in the first two gospels.  Epiphanius phrases the question (with its double "who') like Matthew with this verbatim agreement with the first gospel is continued through the following narrative describing Jesus' gesture towards his disciples, the longest passage with consecutive verbal agreement between two works anywhere among the various versions of this pericope.  On the other hand, the wording given for the definitive pronouncement (F) is hardly that of canonical Matthew.  Not only does it open with a specifically focuses "these" rather than a broadly generalized "whoever," it (like Luke and 2 Clement but not the other gospels) has Jesus identify his true relatives ("brothers," etc.) and the criterion of doing "the will of my Father" (yet without locating him "in Heaven").

Comparison of Epiphanius'quotation with just the synoptics might lead one to accept either the claim of the heresiologist that the Ebionites used a "falsified and mutilated" version of Matthew (Pan. 30.13.2) or the opinion of modern scholars that it is a harmony of two or more of the synoptics./7/ Yet comparison with the other non-canonical versions shows that (originally Syriac?) Thomas and Hellenic Clement agree verbatim with the Cypriote archbishop's quotation of a Palestinian Jewish-Christian text in saying that Jesus claimed kinship with "who do the will of my Father," a clause not identical with any of the synoptic versions.  Since it is hardly likely that any of these authors was directly dependent on any of the others, it is safe to concluded that their consensus, on this point at least, reflects a widespread oral formula, whose antiquity and authority is proved by the mere fact that three authors independently chose it rather than one of the canonical alternatives.  Ironically, it is the three "spurious" works rather than the "apostolic memoirs" that are truly "synoptic"---or, rather, "syn-acoustic"---here.  

This agreement becomes even more striking if one brackets the Matthean material---question (D) and narrative (E)---out of Epiphanius' quotation of the Ebionite Gospel. Then one is left with a simple two member dialogue that in form is as coherent as Thom 99.  Moreover, if one recognizes "sisters" to be a secondary insertion in the original text of the Ebionite Gospel, this work and Thomas display greater agreement in reporting the verbal content of this interchange between Jesus and his disciples than any two of the other sources. Epiphanius, of all people, is hardly to be seen as the source of such a parallel!  Nor is it credible that the author of the Jewish-Christian gospel, if he were working from the text of canonical Matthew, would have deliberately substituted Thomas' version of the substance of this dialogue between the disciples and Jesus (CF) for the parallel material in the first gospel (AF) and still quote the latter's non-essential intervening elements verbatim.  Since neither Epiphanius nor the Ebionites noticed any affinity to Thomas, it is not likely that the parallel wording in the Palestinian gospel was borrowed from Thomas at any stage of its development.  But it is plausible that later Ebionites, contending that they possessed the authentic version of Matthew (Pan. 30.13.2, 30.16.4), borrowed lines from the first canonical gospel to flesh out the version of this dialogue recorded in their own sacred text, which no one either then or later recognized to be virtually identical with Thom 99. And this similarity might still have passed unnoticed (except by G. Quispel) had not Crossan set these passages side by side.

Thus, in Thom 99 and the dialectical core of Epiphanius' fifth fragment of the Gospel of the Ebionites we have an excellent example of multiple attestation to the pre-synoptic form of the pericope on kinship. In fact, the Ebionite wording can be seen as a better reflection of the original tradition than that preserved in Coptic Thomas. For its introductory formula gives Jesus' mother precedence over his brothers, a feature of every version except Thomas. And its subject-predicate of Jesus' reply (F), introduced by a demonstrative with a clearly present focus ("these"; compare 2 Clem 9:11), makes it a more pointed rejoinder to those who told their teacher his brothers were "outside."  The Jewish-Christian version of Jesus' pronouncement (leaving out "mother" and "sisters") neither generalizes nor sets conditions for becoming a brother of Jesus.  Rather, it has the effect of telling Jesus' disciples, who are already doing Jesus' Father's will by being there inside listening to him, that they are his real brethren. Thomas' version, on the other hand, seems to make Jesus imply that there are even some insiders that do not do the Father's will---an understandable attitude given the disciples' subsequent history but hardly appropriate either for the occasion or for the earliest report of the incident, in which the disciples themselves would have told others that that Jesus said in effect: "You are my brothers!"


3. Historical Roots and Branches


The historicity of this incident may be challenged because of its application to several situations in the social formation of the post-crucifixion church (tensions between Jesus' disciples and blood-relatives, polemic between advocates of a universal mission open to Gentiles and reactionaries insistent on ethnic solidarity, etc.) But such an objection pales in the face of the number of signs of historical authenticity of the core dialogue.


  • Multiple Attestation: This one of the best attested passages in the Jesus tradition, ironically with the greatest verbal agreement regarding Jesus' saying in non-canonical sources that do not appear to be dependent either on the synoptics or on each other. This indicates an old and generally stable oral tradition behind this pericope.
  • Coherence The basic terms of the climactic saying, particularly in the non-canonical texts, are well-attested in traditions that may reliably be traced to Jesus (identification of God as "[my] Father," concern that his "will be done").  But even more significant is the unpremeditated creative wit: a Jewish teacher is interrupted with word that his mother awaits him outside; instead of going out he justifies his staying inside by calling for obedience to this unseen Father. Such an interchange has too much hint of flippant impiety about it to have been created by Jesus' super-serious followers. 
  • Cultural Setting & Dissimilarity: Presupposed in the logic of the repartee is the seriousness with which the command to honor both father and mother was regarded in Jewish culture.  The son who publicly scorned his parents was subject to stoning./8/ In not going outside to his mother, Jesus is in danger of being seen as a disobedient son, an image hardly likely to have been invented by either Jewish or Gentile Christianity./9/  Almost as startling in a Jewish context is the elevation of disciples, pedagogical subordinates, to the level of spiritual contemporaries with their mentor./10/  For a teacher to call his students his "brothers" is unprecedented and virtually unthinkable in first-century Judaism. It took Jesus' followers some time to work out the logical implications of such an idea./11/ The seed of this trajectory as well as various attempts at hermeneutical clarification are evident in the various recorded versions of Jesus' pronouncement on kinship.

Tradition history

Performancial variation. The evolution of this pericope may be schematized in the  diagram below (with the letters A-F of the Markan narrative and G as Thomas' statement on entering the Kingdom). The sequence is intended to clarify the logical proximity of the various reports of the dialectical core of this pericope, not to make chronological claims about the relative antiquity of the texts within which those reports are embedded. Few sayings of Jesus have as many variants, indicating that the common nucleus was inherently explosive.

Hermeneutical clarification. This diagram traces the proximity of various witnesses to the probable core of this tradition, regardless of the publication date of the texts themselves. Such an outline makes Mark's role in developing this pericope all the more vivid. At the same time it dramatizes the enduring restraints imposed by a residual sensitivity among Christian scribes to the original form and content of oral tradition.  In the pericope on kinship at least, scribal creativity is most evident in the narrative rather than the logia.  Every version of Jesus' words can be attributed to performancial or hermeneutical variations to preserve the original impact of an utterance of Jesus. Crossan was correct, therefore, in recognizing the form of this saying in Mark 3:35 as the product of later reflection. Yet it is equally evident that, here at least, the second evangelist is echoing an authentic word of Jesus and expressing implications which had already emerged in its pre-Markan transmission.  Instead of consciously creating a saying and attributing it to Jesus, Mark lets the traditional saying create its own setting. Since Jesus did not say that those first disciples were his only brethren, Mark makes it clear that he left the door open for anyone to qualify as his kin. Though admittedly late in formulation, such an interpretation---controversial in Mark's day because of those who saw the Christian fellowship as a community determined by ethnic kinship (cf. Mark 8:14-21; 11:17)---is actually closer to the original insight occasioned by Jesus' words than those that present this saying as having a restrictive intent.

Social concerns

Sexism? Concern to transcend attitudes ingrained by millennia of subjugation of females to males may make my reconstruction of the development of this tradition problematic for the socially liberated exegete.  Some would argue that the non-canonical texts show a progressive masculinization of the tradition by the displacement or elimination of the names of feminine relatives in the Markan version of Jesus' pronouncement.  Unfortunately, claims of the priority of the Markan (or Matthean) wording here are contradicted by the agreement of the non-canonical versions in other wording that is at once simpler and more Semitic.  Yet, by arguing that Jesus' original response probably reflected the general first-century Jewish (and gentile!) masculine bias, I am not suggesting that Jesus shared sexist sentiments.  While those who preserved his words regarded them as programmatic, the setting shows that they were formulated as repartee.  And repartee depends as much upon quip as upon principle.

Prejudice. A successful quip carries more weight than words. For it exploits common prejudice, wielding the outlook of one's hearers to lead them to an uncommon reflection.  Just as Jesus must have known the command to obey one's parents, he certainly knew that within his culture it was the "father," not the "mother," who was regarded as the ultimate authority.  Such an awareness seems to have influenced his own distinctive preferred epithet for the Deity (Abba).  Likewise, he could not have ignored the fact that other Jews sometimes assumed a similar---though more distant and deferential---stance as God's "sons." And the "brotherhood" of all "sons of Abraham" was axiomatic in Hebrew tradition (e.g., Lev 19:17; Mal 1:2).  Yet, this predominance of masculine terminology in ancient Judaism did not necessarily discriminate against women (witness Deut 15:12; Jer 34:9). As in English until quite recently, the Semitic masculine was generally used as the umbrella that covered females as well (see Gen 1:27). Since language is primarily the means of communication with one's contemporaries, historical accuracy demands that the historical Jesus not be made to appear ahead of his time in his use of words, unless the evidence shows otherwise.

Impact. Jesus' quip gets its force from such social commonplaces. He presupposes that among his hearers the names of masculine relatives carry literal and transcendent connotations; and he invokes this double entendre to make a point. In both physical and spiritual Jews expected their "brothers" to do the will of their "Father." The fact that neither "mother" nor "God" carried the same ambivalence for a Jewish audience makes it either term was part of Jesus' original response to those who reminded him of familial responsibility. The bite in his words comes not from the sentiment but from the context, in that traditional wisdom is used to subvert social obligation. Jesus' retort here, like his terse call elsewhere to "leave the dead to bury the dead" (Matt 8:22 // Luke 9:60) is a radical challenge to rethink traditional attitudes to all social relationships. His "brother" is defined neither by blood nor by masculinity but by response to his "Father" who, in the absence of a living male parent, is transcendent by implication. Conversely, male siblings who remain aloof are implicitly not recognized as "brother."  No attempt at inclusive language could do more to undermine the male chauvinism of Jesus' contemporaries.

Consequences. Mark 3:35 and its synoptic parallels just do not function at the same level of social discourse. Explicitness is substituted for innuendo and, as a result, some of the explosive energy is lost.  Jesus' reply is presented as liberalizing rather than contradicting conventional priorities in human relationships. Although Jesus' kinship with those who are not blood relations is underscored, discrimination by sex and seniority is retained.  Women may be regarded as "sisters" or "mothers," presumably depending on their relative age, but only men can claim full equality as "brothers." And, in a culture where any son regardless of age can claim priority to women as his father's heir, such a distinction is decidedly anti-feminist.

Chronology. If Pauline parallels give any indication of the development of familial terms in the post-crucifixion fellowship, the Markan (and Matthean) wording is patently late.  In Galatians, generally recognized as one of the earliest NT writings, Paul presents the denial of sexist distinctions among Christians as axiomatic (3:28), although his own description of fellow believers is exclusively masculine.  By calling all "sons" (3:26) Paul allows women to be see as equal to any male, including Jesus, in the eyes of God (4:5-7). This spiritual status requires him to regard all as "brothers," whether they are comrades (1:2) or critics (2:4) or readers being lectured (1:11; 3:15; 4:12,28,31; 5:11,13; 6:1,18). "Sisters" are not mentioned in this letter, although he sometimes uses the term elsewhere (1 Cor 7:15; Rom 16:1; Phil 1:2) in contexts where relationship to God is not at issue. Contrast this with 1 Timothy, which is clearly late and probably post-Pauline, where women are silenced and subjected to men (2:11), even though the reader is expressly urged to regard them as "mothers" and "sisters" according to their age (5:1).  While such observations do not themselves prove that the non-canonical versions of our logion are prior to the synoptics, they should remove the impression that my thesis---that the textual evidence indicates that Jesus probably identified those around him simply as "my brothers"---is sexist and anachronistic.

Recommended vote


2 Clem 9:11  "My brethren are those who do the will of my Father."
Thom   99:2   "Those here who do the will of my Father are my brothers..."
GEbion 5      "These are my brethren...who do the will of my Father."


Matt  12:49  "Here are my...brothers.
          12:50   For whoever does the will of my Father...is my brother...."
Mark  3:34  "Here are my...brothers. 
           3:35    Whoever does the will of God is my brother...."
Luke  8:21   "my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it."


Everything else.



/1/ Cf. Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition, 29.

/2/ Bultmann, Synoptic Tradition 29f.

/3/ "Mark and the Relatives of Jesus," 97.

/4/ See Crossan, Sayings Parallels, 187.

/5/ For detailed analysis of these pericopes and reasons favoring Markan priority see discussion in my Synoptic Gospels Primer.

/6/ Howard (Gospel of Matthew, 215) claims the variation between "brother/brothers" in Mark 3:35 // Matt 12:50 and Luke 8:21 suggests the primacy of Hebrew Matthew with its orthographically ambiguous אחי.  But he does not explain any of the other verbal differences in this pericope, which point to oral exposition of Greek Mark.

/7/ Barnstone, The Other Bible, 336.

/8/ See Deut 21:18-21 and m Sanh 7.4a.  While there is no evidence that this command was enforced in first-century Galilee, the principle was embedded in thee Torah lectionary and probably known to Jesus' followers.

/9/ Compare Luke 2:51; Rom 1:30; Eph 6:1; Phil 2:8; Col 3:20; 2 Tim 3:2; 1 Pet 1:14.

/10/ Though Jewish sources are later, the social stratification of the Jewish teacher/student relationship was already well-established in NT times.  Jewish students regularly addressed and referred to their teachers with titles implying superiority and seniority, e.g.: Rabbi, Mari or Abba (compare Matt 23:8-10). Jewish (and Jewish Christian) teachers in turn treated their followers as subordinates and children (compare Matt 10:24-25 // Luke 6:40; John 15:15; 1 Cor 4:15-21; 1 John 2:1 etc.).

/11/ For further theological development of this trajectory see Matt 23:9; John 1:12-13; Rom 8:14-17,29; Gal 3:26, 4:4-7; Heb 2:10-18.



Anderson, Hugh, The Gospel of Mark. New Century Bible. London: Oliphants, 1976.

Barnstone, Willis, ed., The Other Bible. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.

Bultmann, Rudolf, The History of the Synoptic Tradition. Trans. J. Marsh. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1963.

Crossan, J. Dominic, "Mark and the Relatives of Jesus," Novum Testamentum 15 (1973): 81-113.

_____, Sayings Parallels: A Workbook for the Jesus Tradition. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

Gould, Ezra P., The Gospel According to St. Mark. International Critical Commentary.New York: Charles Scribners, 1896.

Grant, Frederick C., "The Gospel According to St. Mark." Pp. 621-917 in The Interpreter's Bible. Ed. G. A. Buttrick. Vol 7. Nashville/New York: Abingdon/Cokesbury Press, 1951.

Hennecke, Edgar and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha 1. Trans. A. J. B. Higgins et al. Ed. R. McL. Wilson. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1963.

Howard, George, The Gospel of Matthew according to a Primitive Hebrew Text. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1987.

Lightfoot, J. B., The Apostolic Fathers. Part 1, Vol. 2. London/New York: Macmillan & Co., 1891.

Mann, C. S., Mark. The Anchor Bible 27. Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1986.

Robinson, James M., The Problem of History in Mark. Studies in Biblical Theology 21. London: SCM Press, 1957.

Schnackenburg, Rudolf, The Gospel According to Mark 1. Trans. W. Kruppa. London/Sydney: Sheed & Ward, 1971.

Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Mark. Trans. D. H. Madvig. Richmond: John Knox Press, 1970.

Smith, Mahlon H., A Synoptic Gospels Primer (http://virtualreligion.net/primer/).

Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark. New York: St. Martins Press, 1966.

Wilson, Robert McL, Studies in the Gospel of Thomas. London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., 1960.


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  • This paper was first presented in March 1989 to the session of the Jesus Seminar in Sonoma, CA. The updated expanded version presented above was published in FORUM o.s. 6,1 (1990) 80-94.

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