The last post tried to show who Mary of Clopas was and what she told us about Jesus. It argued that an examination of her story revealed that He had an extended family, two of whom became followers and wrote Epistles, and two of whom became bishops of Jerusalem. Here, I want to explore the family circle in a little more detail. Sometimes, based on one or two passages, the impression is given that Jesus’ own family rejected him, but if we examine the Gospels in more detail, we shall see how false such an image is.
If we start with ‘Salome’, whom St Mark identifies as standing by the Cross at Golgotha, and who goes to the tomb on that first Easter morning; who is she? St Matthew calls her ‘the mother of Zebedee’s sons, whilst John calls her the sister of the mother of Jesus. Thus, Salome was the aunt of Jesus and she was also the mother of two of the disciples, James and John – who were therefore first cousins to Jesus. We know that family ran a fishing business down in Capernum and that it was thence that Jesus went after John the Baptist had been executed; this suggests Jesus knew them well enough to go to live with them. We can perhaps begin to understand why John was the ‘beloved disciple’. If, as tradition has it, he was the youngest of the Apostles, then he may well have been very close to his older cousin, who, in turn, may have treated him as he would a younger brother. It also helps explain why Salome thought she could ask for her sons to be at His right and left hands in the world to come.
Although historians have tended to treat the Apostles and Jesus as unlettered men, there is no evidence for this. Zebedee clearly ran a successful fishing business, and someone would have been required to keep track of the profits and organise the trade with Jerusalem, about eighty miles away. We are told that that young John was ‘known to the high priest’, indeed, so much so that he was able to go into the house on that first Good Friday, and to get Peter into the house too. We also know John had a house in Jerusalem to which he took the Blessed Virgin after the crucifixion.
Two sorts of explanations have been offered for this. Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History vol III, chapter 24) describes him thus: ‘John, who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord, and, being a priest, wore the sacerdotal plate.’ This, Eusebuis attributes to Polycrates, who was bishop of Ephesus at the end of the second century. It is not out of the question that John could have been a priest. Luke tells us that Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, was a ‘daughter of Aaron’, and it might well have been that Salome was another such. John certainly seems to have had a detailed knowledge of Jerusalem and the Temple complex.
The other tradition is more prosaic and may be truer to life – which is that John was the man who dealt with the Temple complex as part of the family business. There is a tantalising mention in the apochryphal Gospel of the Nazarenes which states that John ‘often brought fish to the palace of the high priest’, thus conjuring up the image of the beloved disciple as fish-wholesaler to the Pharisees.
We often tend to think about Our Lord as an isolated figure, but the more we delve into it, the clearer it comes that His mother Mary’s family, and that of his foster-father Joseph, provided him with a typically Jewish extended family, many of whom followed their cousin into the new line of work.