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Near East

Did Jesus Have a Secret Family?

by David Leafe, December 2006

Is the man on the left of the picture below the key to unlocking a mystery even bigger than the Da Vinci Code... and proof that Jesus had a secret family?

Deep in the wilderness of the Judean desert, in a remote part of the Holy Land which has changed little since Biblical times, there stands an ancient Greek Orthodox monastery with a highly unusual portrait of the Holy Family hidden in its chapel.

Showing the young Jesus being carried on the shoulder of Joseph, while his mother Mary rides behind them, it appears similar at first to the thousands of other such images painted over the centuries.

Jesus and his family
The medieval Christian icon depicts Jesus on the shoulder of Joseph, followed by Mary and, behind her, what was being claimed to be Jesus' brother, James

Mysterious fourth figure

This is a picture which is unlikely to be seen on any Christmas card, however, for next to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph there is a mysterious fourth figure - a young man with a golden halo who is wearing a simple dark robe and carrying his belongings on a stick.

His name is James and, according to a mildly controversial Channel 4 documentary which was screened on Christmas Day in 2006, his inclusion in this picture is a clue to a real-life church conspiracy which is as disturbing as anything which has been dreamed up by Dan Brown in his bestselling religious thriller, The Da Vinci Code.

In that novel, Brown speculated that Christ was married to his loyal follower, Mary Magdalene, and that they had a daughter together. However, it seemed the novelist may have missed the point.

Apparently, Jesus did have a hidden family, but they were not a wife and daughter (or at least, they are not being referred to in this instance). Rather it was his elusive brothers and sisters who were the included subjects here: James, Joses, Simon, Jude (sometimes referred to as Judas), Salome, and young Mary.

Founding Christianity

These secret siblings apparently played a crucial role in the founding of Christianity, but their teachings proved too dangerous for the official church. As they and Mary Magdalene seem to have been aligned in proposing a certain inclusive form of Christianity after the death of Jesus, they may even have been sidelined rather early by Peter and the disciples who drove the early movement towards a more patriarchal leaning.

When taking over their Christian movement in the fourth century AD, the official church in Rome went even further, trying to eradicate them from history by rewriting Christ's life story, fabricating his place of birth, falsely crediting him with creating the Lord's Prayer, and even inventing the idea that his mother Mary remained a virgin throughout her life.

The evidence was presented in 2006 by Dr Robert Beckford, a committed Christian and then-reader in theology at Oxford Brookes University. His claims probably outraged many Christians and, particularly, Roman Catholics for whom the idea that Mary was a perpetual virgin is a key part of their faith.

However, Dr Beckford stated that the Bible supported his arguments. For evidence that Mary had other children besides Jesus, he points to the Gospel of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament.

This describes Christ preaching at the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth where the citizens question his claim to be the new Messiah.

Mary Magdalene icon

Mary Magdalene was branded a prostitute by the official Roman church in the fourth century AD, but perhaps only to hide unsavoury (to them) close associations with Jesus which may even have included marriage

'Is not this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother called Mary, and his brothers James, Joses, Simon and Judas?' they demand. 'And are not his sisters here with us?'

Christ's family are also mentioned in the next gospel, in which St Mark relates how they go searching for him one day when he is preaching.

'A multitude was sitting around him and they told him: "Behold your mother, your brothers, and your sisters are outside looking for you".'

Theologian theories

Over the centuries, theologians have concocted various theories to explain away these references. The most common is the view accepted by the monks of St Gerasimos Monastery which houses that intriguing painting of the Holy Family.

They do not know who painted the picture or when, only that it dates back many hundreds of years, but they are clear about the relationship between James and Jesus. They believe that Joseph was a widower who had children from his first marriage when he met Mary, and that James and his siblings are only Jesus' half-brothers and sisters. If true, this could explain why there are so few pictures of these shadowy half-siblings who, as relatively minor figures, would not have merited inclusion in those pictures which illustrated the most important people and events in Jesus' life.

  For evidence that Mary had other children besides Jesus, he points to the Gospel of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament.

'Is not this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother called Mary, and his brothers James, Joses, Simon and Judas? ...and are not his sisters here with us?'  

However, Dr Beckford had a more sinister theory as to why the glimpse of James in the St Gerasimos picture is so rare. He believed that the early clerics suppressed such portraits because they knew these were Jesus' full-blood brothers and sisters. The same censorship is apparent in the gospels, he argued. As is shown above, both Matthew and Mark briefly mention Jesus' family, but although the Gospel of Luke drew heavily on these earlier works, it does not mention any other children of Mary and Joseph.

Dr Beckford maintained that the reasons for this censorship can be found in a vicious power struggle among the early Christians in the years after Christ's death in approximately AD 33.

The true successor to Jesus' church?

The Gospel of John suggests that Jesus asked his disciple Peter to take care of his flock and, indeed, it is Peter who is traditionally regarded as the first leader of the Christian church. Yet at least four different documents written by reputable historians of the time, but which were not included in the New Testament which was compiled in the fourth century, suggest that Christ wanted his eldest brother, James, and not Peter, to lead his church.

This is clear from the writings of Hegesippus, a respected early chronicler of the Christian faith, who is believed to have lived between AD 110 and AD 180. 'The succession of the church passed to James, the brother of the Lord,' he said. As the first bishop of Jerusalem, James had an arch-rival in the apostle Paul, whose teachings differed from his in one key respect: the issue of whether Jesus really was the son of God.

Like Jesus, James was a Jew and, in line with Old Testament prophecies, he believed that Jesus was an ordinary man chosen by God to lead his people. This was very different to the idea championed by Paul that Jesus was a divine being, born of God himself.

Although Paul never met Jesus, and he based his beliefs on a series of mystical visions, his ideas quickly gained popularity as more and more Gentiles joined the movement and the Jewish-Christians who were being led by James soon found themselves outnumbered.

Then the Jewish-Christians suffered two very serious setbacks.

In the year AD 62, James was stoned to death on the orders of the Jewish high priest of the temple in Jerusalem, who was jealous of his influence. Just five years later, the Romans captured Jerusalem and destroyed the great temple itself, robbing James' followers of their headquarters and the focus of their faith.

First Council of Nicaea in AD 325

The 'First Council of Nicaea' was held by Roman Emperor Constantine I in AD 325 to decide all of the fundamental basics of an organised Catholic church in Italy, including which books would be included in the Bible and which would be left out.

Parading the temple's sacred treasures through the streets of Rome, the marauders sold off the looted gold to pay for the building of their city's most famous landmark - the coliseum.

Downfall of the original church

The downfall of James' Jewish Christianity was complete, and when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire in the fourth century, and the church fathers began to compile the New Testament, they set about obscuring the existence of James and Jesus' other brothers and sisters.

At the same time, many of Paul's teachings became enshrined in official church doctrine, including the belief that salvation could be achieved through faith in Jesus Christ as the son of God.

According to Dr Beckford, this idea was perhaps more palatable to the establishment because it could be interpreted, wrongly, to mean that the rich and powerful could redeem themselves through this belief alone, without any need to change their lifestyle.

Having settled on this doctrine, Dr Beckford believed that the church then began altering the details of Christ's life to support the idea that he was a divine being. He said there was virtually no evidence in the Bible for the assertion that Mary was a perpetual virgin, but the early church elevated her to this status since it seemed more fitting for the mother of God.

They also set about changing the circumstances of the nativity itself. For two thousand years, the traditional Christmas story has related how Jesus was born in Bethlehem near Jerusalem, after Mary and Joseph travelled there from Nazareth to register for a Roman census. However, Bethlehem is 140km from Nazareth, and Dr Beckford questioned whether a woman who was nine months pregnant really could have undertaken this arduous four-day journey on a donkey.

He pointed out the fact that there is another town called Bethlehem, which is in Galilee. In 1992, building work there revealed the ruins of a sixth century church, built on top of the kind of natural cave in which many scholars believe Christ was born.

Since this Bethlehem is only six-or-so kilometres from Nazareth, Dr Beckford believed that this cave is more likely to have been the genuine site of the nativity, but that the church fathers had good reason to suggest that Christ's birth took place in its now-celebrated namesake instead.

In this, they were fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy which stated that the new messiah would be a descendant of King David, and this meant that he had to be born in the same town as David - in the Bethlehem near Jerusalem.

Playing down John

In their attempts to establish Christ's divinity, Dr Beckford claimed that the early church fathers also played down the role of one of the most important figures in the Christian movement, the prophet John the Baptist.

He cited the passage in the Gospel of Luke which introduces the Lord's Prayer. 'He was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said to him: "Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples".'

This translation from the Greek suggests that the disciples were referring to the act of praying in general but it could equally be interpreted to mean: 'Teach us the prayer which John taught his disciples'.

The idea that John was the creator of the Lord's Prayer raises a possibility which was unacceptable to the early church and which remains unacceptable for many Christians today: that John was Jesus' teacher rather than Jesus being John's teacher.

According to Dr Beckford, the Bible editors did all they could to reject this notion, as is apparent in the Biblical accounts of Jesus' baptism. The fact that John baptised Jesus is clear from the Gospel of Mark, the first to be written. But Matthew, the second oldest gospel, introduces a line in which John protests that he is unworthy of this task, while the other gospel writers, Luke and John, make no mention of John the Baptist's role at all.

Like Dr Beckford's other ideas, this would no doubt be the subject of scholarly debate for many centuries to come. However, he insisted that, away from the ivory towers of academia, his arguments had a very real significance for how Christians live their lives today.

In emphasising the belief that Jesus was God's son, he warned that Christianity risked losing sight of its original message, as preached by James. This focused on the need to serve God not only through abstract worship and prayer, but also in everyday actions, and this is perhaps something which should be pointed out in the lead-up to the annual celebration of Christ's birth.

In that way, although it is difficult to imagine a time in which James and Jesus' other brothers and sisters will be depicted on Christmas cards or portrayed in nativity plays, we can perhaps acknowledge their legacy and restore to them the place in history which, it seems, they have been denied for so long.



Text copyright © David Leafe, The Daily Mail, and Channel 4 Television. No breach of copyright is intended or inferred.