DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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The Historical Jesus
The Family of Jesus

Considering the vast body of theory and devotion which has grown up around the person of Mary, the mother of Jesus, it's important to realise that we know hardly anything about her.

We know even less about his father. In this passage I have used a well-attested version of the text which tells us that his father was a carpenter (as in Matthew 13.55, rather than that Jesus himself was a carpenter) and his mother's name Mary. The reason for using this version of the text is that to call someone the son of his mother in Jesus time and culture would have been tantamount to an insult. 

Men were always called after their father, since women were regarded as socially inferior to men. Jesus' culture was strongly patriarchal. 

Another reason for calling Jesus Mary's son might have been that the author of Mark made a simple mistake because he didn't appreciate fully the niceties of Palestinian culture.

It's worth noting that we don't know for sure that Jesus himself was a carpenter. This so-called fact isn't mentioned in the gospels, except in the variant text in this chapter (which I have chosen not to use). It's an assumption based on our knowledge that sons often ( but not always) took on the professions of their fathers. On the other hand, it's possible that the gospel authors called Jesus "the son of a carpenter" because they didn't want to show that the "Son of God" worked for a living. In their day this could have weakened the theological case they were trying to make.

He could have been a farmer. His parables and stories indicate a good knowledge of this area of life - though perhaps no more so than anyone who lived in those times. Most people would have been much closer to the land than are modern city dwellers. We don't know if or how Jesus earned a living.

Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century says Jesus was a woodworker who made ploughs and yokes. But he presents no evidence for his belief.

The Joseph believed to have been Jesus' father is mentioned in the birth narratives which a large majority of commentators agree are not history. In one source (the "Book of James") Joseph is said to have been very old when he married Mary. Despite all this, Joseph has had a flourishing cult around his name since "The History of Joseph the Carpenter" was published and circulated between the 4th and 7th centuries.

Mary appears in this passage and the same version in Matthew 13.55. His mother isn't named in John 19.25. Although this latter passage may reflect early tradition, it almost certainly isn't historically probable. And, of course, Mary is central to the non-historical birth narratives. She's also mentioned by the author of Luke in Acts 1.14 as having been present at prayers with the apostles and her other sons.

It is upon this slim evidence that the entire body of Mariology appears to have been built. The Mary of tradition is a theological construct.

True to their inferior status, Jesus' sisters aren't named as are his brothers. But this is the only reference (with the parallel in Matthew) that we have to them in the gospels. The James of Acts and 1 Corinthians is assumed to have been Jesus' brother on the basis of Galatians 1.19 where a James is called "the Lord's brother" by Paul.

I think the upshot is that the idea of Mary is hugely overblown in Christian tradition on the weakest of evidence. In contrast the person of Joseph is comparatively shadowy as befits the evidence. One can't help supposing that theology, rather than history, is responsible for both images.

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