Hegesippus (2nd c.) and the “Brothers” of Jesus

Hegesippus (2nd c.) and the “Brothers” of Jesus January 5, 2023

Including a “New” Argument from How Jesus is Described in Relation to Mary and Joseph

This is a follow-up to my article, Dialogue w a Protestant on Mary’s Perpetual Virginity (II): Biblical Proof That Three Named “Brethren” of Jesus Are Non-Siblings + Harmonious 2nd Century Evidence Regarding the Fourth (Simon) [1-3-23].

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In the previous effort, I set forth the opinions of Church historian Hegesippus (c. 110 – c. 180) regarding the brothers of Jesus (particularly, Simon, or Symeon: see Acts 15:14; 2 Pet 1:1). Eusebius, in his History of the Church, documents Hegesippus’ words as follows:

After the martyrdom of James and the conquest of Jerusalem which immediately followed, it is said that those of the apostles and disciples of the Lord that were still living came together from all directions with those that were related to the Lord according to the flesh (for the majority of them also were still alive) to take counsel as to who was worthy to succeed James.

They all with one consent pronounced Symeon, the son of Clopas, of whom the Gospel also makes mention; to be worthy of the episcopal throne of that parish. He was a cousin, as they say, of the Saviour. For Hegesippus records that Clopas was a brother of Joseph. (Book III, section 11, parts 1-2; translated by Arthur Cushman McGiffert. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second SeriesVol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. [1890], pp. 123-124 in the version translated by G. A. Williamson, Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1965; cf. Book III, section 32, part 4: “Mary, the wife of Clopas, who was the father of Symeon” and Book III, section 32, part 1: “Symeon, the son of Clopas”)

Hegesippus also describes the beginnings of the heresies that arose in his time, in the following words, rescued from oblivion by Eusebius:

And after James the Just had suffered martyrdom, as the Lord had also on the same account, Symeon, the son of the Lord’s uncle, Clopas, was appointed the next bishop. All proposed him as second bishop because he was a cousin of the Lord. (Book IV, section 22, part 4; Williamson translation, p. 181)

According to Hegesippus, Simon, or Symeon was (like James and Joseph: see Mt 13:55; 27:56; Mk 6:3; 15:40) also a son of Clopas and the “other Mary” (uncle and aunt to Jesus); therefore also a cousin of Jesus and not a sibling. But many point out that Hegesippus appears to regard James and Jude as Jesus’ siblings. Maybe; or maybe not . . .

James B. Prothro is an Assistant Professor of Scripture and Theology. His academic work “focuses on the letters and thought of the Apostle Paul and on the ancient Greek language.” He obtained a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Cambridge and an MA in classics and MDiv in theology from other universities.

He wrote an article entitled, “Semper Virgo? A Biblical Review of a Debated Dogma” (Pro Ecclesia: A Journal of Catholic and Evangelical Theology, Vol. 28, Issue 1, March 7, 2019). Here are his comments about Hegesippus:

The more reliable second-century writer sometimes cited here is Hegesippus, fragments of whose chronicles are preserved by Eusebius. Hegesippus is cited not because he explicitly claims Jesus’ “brothers” were Josephs’ sons, but because (a) he refers to James as “the Lord’s brother” and says Jude was “called” (λεγόμενος) [legomenos] Jesus’ brother according to the flesh (Eusebius, HE [History of the Church] 3.20.1)—which some think implies a lack of consanguinity—and (b) he can use broader terms like “cousins” for other relatives; so the surmise is that he viewed these as closer than cousins but not full brothers. However, Hegesippus may rather suggest a different view. In one passage, Hegesippus speaks of Symeon (=Simon) being appointed bishop in Jerusalem after James (apparently appointed with input from Jesus’ other relatives, cf. Eusebius, HE 3.11–12). Symeon is Jesus’ putative cousin (ἀνεψιός) [anepsios], son of Joseph’s brother Clopas (cf. John 19:25). But notably this same descriptor could go also to James, the “brother of the Lord”: after James died, Hegesippus reports, Συμεὼν ὁ τοῦ Κλωπᾶ καθίσταται ἐπίσκοπος, ὃν προέθεντο πάντες, ὄντα ἀνεψιὸν τοῦ κυρίου δεύτερον [“Simeon son of Clopas becomes a bishop, whom everyone nominated, being a cousin of the Lord”] (Eusebius, HE 4.22.4). Bauckham reads δεύτερον [deuteros/ “the second, the other of two”] as a predicate complement to προέθεντο [“past”], making Symeon a further “bishop.” But δεύτερον appears rather to be in the supplemental participial clause with ὤν [ón / “be, come, have”] (a common idiom for adding pertinent identity information), modifying ἀνεψιόν. This would result in the following translation: “Symeon son of Clopas was appointed bishop, whom all commended, being another cousin of the Lord.” If this reading is correct, Hegesippus understands not only Symeon but also James, whose title as Jesus’ “brother” he elsewhere repeats, to have been in fact his cousin. If one trusts his purported knowledge of Jesus’ family and their descendants (cf. HE 3.19.1–20.6)—or at least reasons that he is unlikely to have invented such information whole cloth—then one finds warrant to explore broader relationships between Jesus and his “brothers and sisters.”

[Footnote: πάλιν [“again”] may suggest Hegesippus is saying Symeon is another child of Jesus’ uncle: first, James has never had a cousin be bishop; second, it seems closer to Hegesippus’ purpose to trace kinship of the first Jerusalem bishops to Jesus (rather than relating Symeon to James), . . . ]

The skeptical argument regarding the Catholic interpretation laid out by Dr. Prothro above, is to ask why Hegesippus referred to James and Joseph as Jesus’ “brothers” (adelphoi), but called Simon a “cousin”? Wouldn’t he have also called the former “cousins” (syngenis or anepsios) if in fact he believed all of them were? It doesn’t necessarily follow that he would or must do that. How can I say that? I can because of the use of these words in the Gospels (including Jesus’ own).

I laid out the standard biblical “case” for James and Joseph being Jesus’ cousins in my previous installment of this series. It seems to me a fairly compelling exegetical argument. If one accepts it, then we have an instance of the Gospel writers referring (many times) to literal cousins as “brothers.” Arguably, also, we have Jesus referring to these same described “brothers” as “cousins.” That was also argued in my previous paper, with the aid of a commenter:

Mark 6:4 And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin [(συγγενής, ές / suggenes)], and in his own house.” (cf. Jn 7:5: “For even his brothers did not believe in him.”)

He [Alex Lielbardis] added:

The plural Greek word used refers to kinsfolk, relatives, or fellow countrymen. This same word is used by Luke in his account of the Annunciation which in the singular form specifically means a cousin: “And behold, your kinswoman [συγγενίς / syngenis] Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren” (Luke 1:36). Thus, Jesus apparently replies with his cousins (relatives or kin) in mind, in response to what was said by those who were offended at him.

The context of this incident was His preaching in His hometown of Nazareth. Both Mark (6:3) and the parallel text in Matthew (13:55-56), in the immediate context mention four “brothers” of Jesus” and also, unnamed “sisters.” Jesus was catching flak from these relatives in His hometown. Both Matthew and Mark record Jesus as saying in response that a “prophet” is not honored “in his own house.” That would be these “brothers” (Jewish families of this time including members of the extended family, not usually just a nuclear family, as I also recently demonstrated).

In Mark, it’s recorded that Jesus specifically identified “kin” as among those who oppose a prophet. The word Jesus used is συγγενής, ές (suggenes): which also can be translated as “cousin.”  It seems clear in context that He is referring to these “brothers” who are also described as living in Jesus’ “house.” Therefore, he described these “brothers” as suggenes, whereas the two Gospel writers call them “brothers” and “sisters” (adelphoi). In 32 translations of Mark 6:4, suggenes (“kin” in the RSV) is translated as “relatives”.

The parallelism is obvious by comparing these two Bible passages:

Mark 6:4 (RSV) . . . A prophet is not without honor, except . . . among his own kin [συγγενής, ές / suggenes] . . .

John 7:5 For even his brothers [adelphoi] did not believe in him.

In another incident at Nazareth, after Jesus claimed to be the Messiah in the synagogue (Lk 4:16-21), the townspeople (including possibly some of these “brothers” for all we know) were scandalized by His claim and “filled with wrath” (4:28), and again, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country” (Lk 4:24). They then tried to kill Him:

Luke 4:29 And they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong.

Thus we see that [what I believe to be cousins, based on all my reasoning and various arguments] are called “cousins” or “kin” in one place in the Bible (by Jesus) and “brothers” in many other places (from the narrator evangelists). This proves that both terms were proper, in describing cousins or other non-sibling relatives. If the Bible can display this latitude of language, then I submit that Hegesippus in the next century can also do so. He could possibly call Jude and James “brothers” of the Lord, meaning “cousin”, and also call Simon a “cousin” of the Lord (with the literal meaning of that term). It’s not impossible. Goose and gander . . .

Another little interesting tidbit to ponder, is how two Gospel writers (recording spoken words) described Jesus and His brothers in relation to Mary:

Mark 6:3 “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

Matthew 13:55 “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?”

Can you see what I’m driving at by my use of blue font? I never thought of this until today, when I saw it in one commentary. It’s the singular use of “son” in describing Jesus. This would seem to (at the very least, possibly) suggest “only son.” It’s in the context of mentioning four of His “brothers” and also “sisters” in Mark. Now, if they are all understood to be — and were in fact — His siblings, why is He called “the son of Mary” and “the carpenter’s son”? Note also that in both passages, only He is called Mary’s “son” and also Joseph’s (in Matthew). The others are not.

It seems to me (maybe I’m weird), as an argument from implausibility, that this is not the language we would expect God to inspire the evangelists to use (remember, we’re talking about divinely inspired revelation), if in fact, Jesus had siblings. It would have been easy as pie for these passages to read so clearly, so manifestly plain, that there never would have been any dispute about the nature of the “brothers” of Jesus. All it would have taken would be a few changes of words. I submit that the passages would have read something like the following, if Jesus had siblings:

Mark 6:3 [Liberal Protestant Version: LPV] “Is not this the carpenter, one of the sons of Mary, along with his brothers James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

Matthew 13:55 “Is not this one of the carpenter’s sons? Is not his mother and the mother of his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas called Mary?”

One good reason why at least James and Joseph are not described as the Blessed Virgin Mary’s son in these passages, is because they are specifically called in other passages the sons of “the other Mary”: who is called a “sister” of Jesus’ mother Mary. The Bible is self-consistent as always.

Simple; easy; elementary. Instead, we get “the son of Mary” and “the carpenter’s son”: even when “brothers” are being discussed in the same context. These “brothers” and “sisters” are neither described as sons or daughters of Mary, nor of Joseph. Only Jesus is, using the singular “son.”

This factor, along with some dozen other arguments, of varying degrees of strength (and I’ve written about as many as I could find), produce an overall case that is (like many of the biblical arguments for Catholicism, which I have specialized in for these past 32 years) very strong in its cumulative effect, just as a rope becomes stronger each time an additional strand is added to it.

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Photo credit: Madonna and Child (c. 1743), by Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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Summary: Continued defense of Mary’s perpetual virginity, including examining more closely the second century witness of Hegesippus for Simon being Jesus’ cousin.

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