Why Don’t Jesus’s Brothers Believe? – Matthew 12:46–50

Jesus’s description of his disciples as his brothers and sisters serves as the conclusion to the conflict stories in Matthew 8-12 and a segue into the Parables of the Kingdom in Matthew 13. Jesus’s true family are those who do the will of the father. This stands in contrast to the Pharisees who declare Jesus casts out demons by the power of Beelzebul. The Pharisees are given the sign of Jonah and in the last days they will be judged by the people of Nineveh and the Queen of the south.

Jesus's Brothers

Differences from Mark 3:20-21

Matthew does not include an important detail found in Mark 3:20-21. His family heard about the huge crowds and they came to “take charge of him” because they thought he was out of his mind. Following this the teachers of the law declare Jesus is casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub (3:22-30) and Jesus’s mother and brothers come to take him home (3:31-35).

Another key difference is Mark does not mention the disciples (those sitting around him). Matthew specifically states it is the disciples who are the ones doing his will. In both Matthew and Mark, the next section begins with the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20; Matthew 13:1-23).

Jesus’s Brothers Do Not Believe

That Mary should have some doubts is surprising for most readers. Although in Luke’s version of the story, an angel appeared to her and explains her son will be the “Son of God” (Luke 1:35). In Luke 2:22-37 Simeon and Anna recognized her child as the messiah. It may be the case she had some doubts because Jesus does not appear to be interested in taking the throne of his father David or reigning over the house of Jacob (Luke 1:32-33).

Where is Joseph? He would be thirty years older than Jesus at the least. If Joseph was even twenty when Jesus was born, he would be on the high end of the average life expectancy for a hard laboring peasant in the first century world. In some traditions Joseph was considerably older than Mary, making his death by this time more likely.

That Jesus has brothers is no surprise to Protestants, it is only a problem for Roman Catholics who believe in perpetual virginity of Mary. These must be cousins of Jesus or Joseph’s children from a prior marriage. The unbelief of Jesus’s brothers is more prominent in John’s gospel (John 7:1-5).

Why do Jesus’s brothers not believe Jesus is the Messiah? John 7 implies they have seen some of his signs yet still do not believe. They may not believe for the same reason as the Pharisees, Jesus may be doing messianic signs, but he is not doing the commonly expected messianic acts. Jesus does not seem interested in an earthy kingdom. He is not acting like David, Solomon, or even Judas Maccabees. In the next chapter Jesus will describe what he means by the kingdom of heaven through a series of parables. He calls this “the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” because his kingdom is in many ways radically different than Jewish messianic expectations in the first century.

Pointing to his disciples, Jesus declares his family are those who do the will of the Father (12:49-50). What is “doing the will of the Father”? Jesus as the son of God does what the Father commands, the disciples are the insiders who hear what the Father commands and respond proper.

By opposing Jesus, the Pharisees and others are not doing the will of the Father. They hear but they do not understand, see both do not perceive who Jesus is. They therefore fulfil the words of Isaiah 6:9-10. As a result, Jesus begins to teach the crowds in parables so that only his family will understand.

4 thoughts on “Why Don’t Jesus’s Brothers Believe? – Matthew 12:46–50

  1. Reread the angel’s conversation with Mary. How much do we read into because we know what is the result? Could Mary who didn’t have the gospels to read, did not interpret it the way we do?

  2. Hello, I’m a skeptic, and here’s my take on the problems raised by Mark 3:21 and John 7:5:

    First, numerous Christian scholars and apologists concede that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him throughout the entire duration of his pre-crucifixion ministry. Licona is representative of Geisler, Habermas and others in saying “The preponderance of the evidence favors the conclusion that the brothers of Jesus were not counted among his followers through the time of Jesus’ execution. By all accounts, they appear to have maintained a distance from their brother’s ministry (Licona, “The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach”, IVP Academic, 2010, p. 455).

    So which is more likely: Jesus’ brothers didn’t believe in him because they were so blinded by jealousy and/or a desire for a military messiah that they refused to apply common sense toward miracles they saw Jesus was doing, like feeding 5,000 and raising the dead?

    Or Jesus’ brothers don’t believe in him during the pre-crucifixion period because they saw a few of his “miracles” and, like skeptics at a Benny Hinn crusade, decided those miracles were fake?

    I take the latter since a) the brotherly-unbelief passages pass the criterion of embarrassment while the passages saying Jesus did miracles do not, so the brotherly-unbelief passages are more historically reliable than the passages saying Jesus did miracles, and

    b) it violates common sense to say that Jesus’ family could be so shockingly dense toward their own brother who is allegedly doing these miracles (“Yes, we know that Jesus has raised back to life people who were obviously dead….but….we just want a military messiah…can’t you just leemee alone!?!”) LOL,

    b) Matthew 10 tells us that the disciples themselves also went around performing miracles including raising the dead, so that when the brothers exude unbelief toward Jesus, they are also denying the ministries of other people where such miracles are supposed to be repeated and corroborated. So the unbelief of the brothers is so shocking that it screams for something other than jealousy of Jesus’ popularity, or some unreasonable biased expectation for Jesus to be a military messiah.

    Second, most responsible Christian scholars of today acknowledge that Benny HInn has thousands of devoted followers, yet they also insist that Hinn has never employed supernatural power, or at least cannot demonstrate it so when directly challenged to produce evidence of such. So there’s nothing about the gospel passages saying large crowds followed Jesus, that mitigates the skeptical position I take, supra. We learn from the health-and-wealth gospel that large crowds can indeed be duped into thinking a miracle happened when it in fact did not.

    Third, If we allow the protestants’ mostly symbolic interpretation of Jesus cannibalistic sounding statements in John 6:57, then the many disciples of his who stopped following him because of that saying (6:66) can only imply that Jesus had not done much more to ground his messiahship claims beyond “teaching” stuff. In other words, the “miracles” Jesus was allegedly doing, if any, were not genuinely supernatural, and many of his disciples did not believe those “miracles” successfully corroborated any of his teachings.

    Fourth, most apologists trifle that there’s no evidence the brothers ever actually saw any of Jesus’ miracles, but then you disagree with such notion by saying “John 7 implies they have seen some of his signs yet still do not believe”, supra. So apparently, when skeptics like me who argue that in the collectivist honor/shame culture, Jesus’ family would surely have heard back from others about such miracles, even if his family didn’t start out monitoring Jesus from the beginning, we skeptics are justifying our naturalistic interpretation from the cultural realities of the day.

    Fifth, if we assume Jesus was god since before he was born into humanity, then we must also assume that never during his childhood, or ever in the entire 30 years that his family knew him, did Jesus ever sin. His parents and brothers during his childhood would have found this disconcerting in the least (and I seriously doubt anybody will trifle that Jesus sinned in his human nature but not his divine nature, just so they can get rid of this bit of skeptical common sense).

    So if Mark 3:21 and John 7:5 are true, it would appear that Jesus’ family did not see anything about Jesus in their 30 years of knowing him which gave them probable cause to believe he was anything other than a normal if perhaps extroverted person.

    I have much more to argue, but for right now, the question is whether skeptics can be reasonable to interpret Mark 3:21 and John 7:5 the way I do, supra. I say we skeptics can indeed be reasonable that way. It isn’t like my skeptical interpretation is failing to take into account any rule of historiography, hermeneutics or common sense. Yes, I deny the rule “scripture interprets scripture”, as that merely presumes the truth of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, a doctrine which I along with most Christian scholars deny, a doctrine that even inerrantists cannot come to agreement on despite decades of trying within the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. barryjoneswhat@gmail.com

    • Thanks for your detailed response…

      “First, numerous Christian scholars and apologists concede that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him throughout the entire duration of his pre-crucifixion ministry”

      Agreed, this is uncontroversial.

      “Jesus’ brothers don’t believe in him during the pre-crucifixion period because they saw a few of his “miracles” and, like skeptics at a Benny Hinn crusade, decided those miracles were fake?”

      This is more or less the gist of the original post, which was about the people in Nazareth questioning the source of his authority to teach and perform miracles. I suspect (although could never prove) that they were convinced by the Pharisees that he was doing miracles by the power of Beelzebul.

      “Matthew 10 tells us that the disciples themselves also went around performing miracles including raising the dead”

      I do not see any raising the dead in Matthew 10. Matthew 10:1, he gave the authority to drive out impure spirits and heal every disease and sickness. But otherwise the point stands.

      “We learn from the health-and-wealth gospel that large crowds can indeed be duped into thinking a miracle happened when it in fact did not.”
      This is a great analogy (I am stealing it). I personally would play the role of a Pharisee with respect to Hinn and others and say the source of that power is not God.

      “In other words, the “miracles” Jesus was allegedly doing, if any, were not genuinely supernatural, and many of his disciples did not believe those “miracles” successfully corroborated any of his teachings.”

      Here is where we will disagree, since in the Second Temple Period a messiah who does not do miracles does not make sense. Jewish messianic expectations drawn from Isaiah 35:5-6 or Isaiah 61:1-2 (for example) connect healing with the coming eschatological age (blind see, deaf hear, lame, leap). Jews at the time of Jesus did not allegorize those texts, they really did expect signs from heaven. Pharisees asked Jesus for signs, and explained his power of demons as a sign he too was in league with Beelzebul.

      “most apologists trifle that there’s no evidence the brothers ever actually saw any of Jesus’ miracles, but then you disagree with such notion by saying “John 7 implies they have seen some of his signs yet still do not believe”

      Well, I did not know you when I wrote that, so you might agree with me . I cannot imagine the brothers not being aware of what Jesus was doing if the villagers in Nazareth knew he was doing miracles; I have no idea what would motivates an “apologist” to say such a thing.

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