Three years ago, I produced a series called The Jewish Jesus, that tells the story of Jesus entirely from the Old Testament. While I researched that story, I stumbled on a wealth of information about Jesus’ genealogy, and about the family that survived him. It wasn’t the sensational “Jesus had a wife and daughter” hook from The Da Vinci Code, but still fascinating nonetheless.
From the Gospels, I knew that Jesus had brothers, but from early historians like Josephus and Eusebius, I also learned that He had uncles, cousins, and grand-nephews. Their stories are as captivating as anything that came from Dan Brown’s warped imagination: daring escapes from war, trials before Roman emperors, and martyrs. Lots of martyrs. With the death of Jesus, an insignificant family from the lowly town of Nazareth (population: about 150) was thrust into the midst of an empire-wide hunt for people who were both descendants of King David, and relatives of Jesus.
Exciting as it was, there was no room for this information in my series, which dealt mainly with messianic prophecy, so I put it away for a future story.
But this story was always in the back of my mind, so I wrote a script and shot it little by little: on a trip with Operation Blessing in Israel, I gathered some volunteers, put them in costumes and reenacted the “Flight to Pella” in the Judean desert outside Jerusalem. On a trip to Rome to shoot a story about Constantine the Great, we added a quick standup at the ruins of the palace of Domitian on Palatine Hill. Two years later, on a two-day trip to Israel, we finally shot the rest of the standups during a freak November heat wave.
Most Christians have heard how Jesus’ original apostles – except Judas and John – were martyred for their faith. For each of them, that was a choice. At any time, they could have walked away and gone back to their former lives, families and work. They were friends and followers, not family.
Jesus’ relatives didn’t have that luxury. They didn’t choose their family. Jesus’ brothers didn’t choose to grow up in the same house with God’s answer to human salvation. That puts a whole new spin on the phrase “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” If you’ve ever wished you had been born into a different family, imagine how these men felt.
The ultra-religious James was very high up in Temple circles; one historian compared him to today’s Orthodox Jews. I imagine having an older brother who was a wandering revolutionary with messianic claims didn’t make life easy for James, even before he became a believer. When your brother refers to your friends as “whited sepulchers,” hauls out a whip and flips over the tables in the Temple marketplace, that will not make you the most popular guy in the Temple.
And what about the others who were chosen to lead the church in Jerusalem, simply because they were related to Jesus? At the unthinkable age of 120, his cousin Simeon was arrested by the Romans, not because he was the leader of the church in Jerusalem, but because some nameless snitch told the Romans about Simeon’s ancestry. Simeon was Jesus’ cousin and a descendant of King David, and therefore a possible claimant to the Jewish throne. Simeon’s pedigree earned him a place on the cross, just like his famous cousin.
Here’s a question that nagged at me as I wrote this story: could descendants of Jesus’ family be walking around on earth today?
The answer is… maybe. But even if there are some left, it would be impossible to trace them.
Jesus’ Jerusalem was completely destroyed in AD 132 by the Roman emperor Hadrian. At that point, the well-kept family genealogies, some of which went all the way back to Adam, disappeared with the Jewish capital. The Diaspora became the great equalizer, as the Jewish people were thrust out of Jerusalem and scattered across the globe, regardless of bloodline, power or wealth. Factor in 2000 years of intermarriage with other cultures and nationalities, and the search for Mary and Joseph’s DNA hits a dead end.
The good news is that Jesus left behind more than just a physical family. The old cliché about blood being thicker than water was never truer than in this case. Because of the blood shed by Jesus, we can all claim the same divine ancestry: we are all sons of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus, and heirs to everything that is theirs.
Not a bad family to have for eternity.