The brethren and the disciples

In the New Testament, the word "brethren", in Acts, appears to apply to the members of the young church. But in the gospels it seems somehow different, with a distinction drawn between the brethren and the disciples:

Mt 12:46: While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. [47. Some one told him, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, asking to speak to you.’] 48. But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my disciples?’ 49. And stretching out his hand towards his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 50. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.’ (Similar wording at Mk 3:31-35, while Lk 8:19-21 is a bit simpler.)

Mt 13:54: and coming to his own country he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? 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? 56. And are not all his sisters with us? (Similar wording at Mk 6:1-6, while Lk 4:16-30 is a bit freer.)

Mt 28:8 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9. And behold, Jesus met them and said, ‘Hail!’ And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshipped him. 10. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go an tell my brethren to go to Galilee, where they will see me.’ (Jn20:17 also has a message for the brethren. However in Mt 28:16 it is the eleven disciples who go to Galilee.)

Jn 2:12 After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples; and there they stayed for a few days.

Jn 7:3: So his brothers said to him, ‘Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples may see the works you are doing. 4. For no man works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.’ 5. For even his brothers did not believe in him. (But Jesus nevertheless does go up incognito in v. 10.)

Jn 21:23 The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die.. (However, this seems to be the later usage as in Acts: for brethren read disciples, for disciple read apostles.)

In Acts 15:6-29 is an account of an early church council, where James appears to preside, and certainly gives the judgement. Tradition asserts that this is James the brother of Jesus, the writer of the epistle of James.

Given the royal lineage of Jesus, the assertion that he was king of the Jews, and his name of Christ., a keen political interest from the rest of his family would seem natural, and this is how I read Jn 7:3-5.. It is noticeable in Matthew’s gospel that it is shortly after the visit of his mother and brothers that he begins to speak of what death he should die. There appears to be much going on that is hidden from the disciples: the arrangements for the entry into Jerusalem, the burial of Jesus, maybe even the meeting with strangers on the hill in the transfiguration (Mt 17:3). But not much remains in the canon about his brothers or their later history.

Jesus, in relation to his brothers, would appear to be a rather controversial figure. It is Joseph's lineage that is attested, and Joseph went to Bethlehem to be taxed because he was of the house of David. But we are told in Mt 1:18-25 that Joseph knew the child was at least not his. Thus here we have Jesus, the firstborn of a royal house (or at least of royal pretenders), but with a question-mark over his parentage. From the royal party's point of view, far better to become a prophet, and maybe even a sacrifice for many (Jn 11:49-51). After the destruction of the temple, the royal succession becomes a matter of even less importance for the world, but Christianity becomes a world religion: the stone that the builders rejected becomes the head of the corner (Ps 118:22 = Mt 21:42).


Malcolm Crowe, Glasgow, 11 June 1998, revised 19 December 1998.