700 Club Special
The Family of Jesus
By Gordon Robertson
The 700 Club
In first century Jerusalem, Jesus of Nazareth was crucified as a heretic.
He had no wife and no children, but he did leave behind a family – one that can be traced for more than a century after his death.
“It's possible to actually do something of a primitive family tree of Jesus,” says Dr. Paul Maier, the author of The Constantine Codex. “[Many of his family members] became known as leaders of the church, no question about that.”
During Jesus' ministry in Galilee, both Jews and Gentiles accepted him as the Jewish Messiah, but some of the hardest people to convince were his own brothers.
“Now imagine one day, your older brother comes home and says, ‘Family, I've got some wonderful news,’” says Maier. “’I'm the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ What would you do? Reach for the phone book under ‘P’ for psychiatrist, right? He's deluded, unless he dies and then he comes back to life as he said he would three days later. Then you put the phone directory away and you believe, and this is exactly what happened to the brothers.”
Maier believes that one of the greatest proofs of the resurrection of Jesus is the conversion of his brother James.
“James, of course, did not believe his sibling during his lifetime, but hold it -- after the resurrection, Jesus appears to him, that’s the end of any doubts, he becomes a leader in the church, and writes one of the books in the New Testament.”
James was a devout man who was well known in the Jewish temple.
“As a matter of fact, he was called James the Just,” says Maier. “He was a beautiful bridge between Judaism and Christianity, and he was known as ‘old camel knees,’ because he knelt so much that his knees became gnarled like those of a camel.”
After Jesus' death, the disciples appointed James the first bishop of Jerusalem. He led the first church council in history, where he made the historic decision that gentile Christians should not be forced to convert to Judaism.
“If that council had not made the decision that it did, says Maier, “I'm not sure the Christian church would have survived.”
The church in Jerusalem survived, but James, like his brother before him, died a violent death.
“Because James had entre with the priests as well as the Christians, they thought they could use him to discredit Christianity,” says Maier. “And so they brought him to the temple, and they asked him to denounce Jesus. Instead, he defended Jesus and looked forward to his coming spiritual rule. So they threw him down off the temple mount, but he was still alive, and it was a laundryman came along, and he had a club they used for beating laundry, and he clubbed [James] over the head, and that's what finally killed him.”
When James fell to his death, he left the church in Jerusalem without a leader. The local believers got together to elect a new bishop and once again, they decided to keep it in the family.
“The second bishop of the church was Simeon, who was Jesus' first cousin,” says Maier. “Let me explain that. Joseph (Jesus’ earthly father) had a brother named Clopas. Clopas had a son named Simeon, and so this was Jesus’ first cousin and the second bishop of the church.”
In Luke's gospel, Clopas is named as one of the disciples who walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection. Early church writers say this man was the brother of Joseph the carpenter, which means that he was also Jesus’ uncle.
Clopas’ son Simeon became the bishop of Jerusalem at a dangerous time. In A.D. 66, the Jewish War with Rome had just begun, and the city was under siege, just as Jesus had prophesied three decades earlier:
"When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then you will know that the time of its destruction has arrived.
Then those in Judea must flee to the hills.
Let those in Jerusalem escape." (Luke 21:20-21)
Simeon remembered the words of his cousin and waited for the right moment to leave the city.
In November, the Roman army inexplicably retreated from Jerusalem for a few weeks, a military blunder historians would later call “disastrous.” But to Simeon, this so-called “blunder” was a miracle. He persuaded his congregation to flee Jerusalem, and they escaped with just the clothes on their backs. Simeon led them to safety in a gentile city called Pella in the hills of modern-day Jordan.
“We don't know why Pella specifically was chosen, except for the fact that it's across the Jordan River,” says Maier. “It was primarily peopled by gentiles in the area, and therefore it was quite a logical place of refuge if you want to get away from anything controlled by Jerusalem.”
Simeon and his congregation spent the next four years safely in Pella, while back in Jerusalem, the Romans murdered more than a million Jews and took another 97 thousand as slaves.
When the war was over, many of the believers returned to Jerusalem and settled on Mount Zion, near the upper room where they had first received the Holy Spirit and where Jesus had celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples. They built a new Judeo-Christian synagogue on the site where the upper room had once stood.
Simeon served as the bishop of Jerusalem until A.D. 106, when he was arrested and tortured by the Romans. Then, like his cousin, Simeon was crucified. He was 120 years old.
A few decades earlier, two more of Jesus’ relatives had caught the attention of the Roman emperor Domitian, who carried out one of the greatest Christian persecutions in history.
“The last record we have of any of Jesus' family would, I think, be the grandsons of Jude,” says Maier. “Now Jude had a son, and we don't know his name, and he had sons-- Jesus' grand nephews. The grandsons of Jude were arrested and brought before the emperor Domitian in Rome because they were of the house of David, therefore the royal dynasty, therefore they might be pretenders to the Jewish throne.”
Decades earlier, Jesus had predicted the persecution of his followers.
"You will be accused before governors and kings.
This will be your opportunity to tell them about me." (Luke 21:12-13 NLT)
With this prophecy in mind, the grand nephews of Jesus went boldly to Rome.
They were taken to the palace of Domitian, where the emperor asked them a series of questions. First, he asked them about the kingdom of Jesus and when it would be established. They replied that it was a heavenly kingdom, not an earthly one.
“When the brothers appeared before Domitian, he asked them about their background,” says Maier. “They were rustic sorts who were used to agricultural toil, and they had only about 80 acres between them, and they showed him their hands, which were gnarled from farm labor. Domitian decided these don't look like royal types to me, and so at that point, he let them go, and he stopped the persecution of the church. They returned then to the Holy Land, and they were tremendously appreciated for the public testimony they had made before the emperor of Rome. The family of Jesus became known as the desposyni, which means “Belonging to the Lord” in Greek. These people were very big in the church after that.”
Several years later, the two brothers were martyred under a different Roman emperor, Trajan.
For the next few decades, members of Jesus' family continued to lead the church in Jerusalem. Nothing is known of them, except their names, which were preserved in early church records.
The last known relative of Jesus was Judah Kyriakos, a Greek name that means "Judah of the Christ."
He was the great grandson of Jesus' brother Jude, and the last Jewish bishop of Jerusalem.
In A.D. 130, the Roman emperor Hadrian leveled the city of Jerusalem. On its ruins, he built a new city dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter. The records of Jesus' family disappeared, along with the old city of Jerusalem.
“After that, we lose track,” says Maier. “Not that there might not have been generations that were related to Jesus, more of the desposyni, the famous family members of Jesus. We have no more record of them.”
The legacy of Jesus' family lives on today.
Two of his brothers wrote books of the Bible, and at least five of his relatives were martyred. They served as the first Christian bishops in history and kept the early church alive in Jerusalem. From there, the message of Jesus- their brother, cousin, and uncle- spread to the ends of the earth.
“We have 2,250,000,000 Christians in the world today,” says Maier. “It’s the largest and most successful single phenomenon that has ever hit this planet.”
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