Lesson #337: Adelphoi, Desposyni, and Christianity

Autobiographical note: This is the most fun I’ve had doing research in a long while because it was the most challenging research I’ve done in a long while. The four hours it took me to get everything together and written (I don’t f**k around with my research) is time I rarely have to devote, but it’s a slow weekend in my world. This is also why yesterday’s post is as detailed as it is — though that took only half the time. 

Both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark acknowledge Jesus’ siblings. Four brothers by name, even. They’re called James, Joseph, Judas (or Jude depending on which version you’re reading), and Simon. They also make mention of at least two sisters, who aren’t named, but because the noun is plural, I’m sure you can do the (super basic) math.* 

If you never learned that in Sunday school, ever, that’s because modern Christianity sees the whole thing as a problem. Because Christianity on the whole likes to view Mary as pure as all get-out despite the fact that women of her time would never have had one kid and then been all, “yeah, that’s enough.”

There has been debate raging about the meaning of the word “brothers” in this context since pretty much the dawn of Christianity. Proponents of the perpetual virgin version of Mary — pretty much all of Christianity — choose to see this translation as a figurative association between Jesus and these four. Cousins, maybe.** Or brothers from another mother (literally…there’s discussion as to whether they might be Joseph’s children from a previous, completely unmentioned marriage). Or, you know, bros.

Here’s the problem with that argument: the Greek word from which we get the translation “brothers” is adelphoi, which literally means “from the same womb.”*** I’m not exactly sure how that gets misinterpreted because it’s pretty explicit.

Whatever the modern interpretation, early Christians didn’t doubt the consanguinity of Jesus’ brothers. The historian Josephus (who was Jewish, but that’s so very much not the point here) addresses James’ fate in Antiquities of the Jews. He notes in Book 20, Chapter 9, paragraph 1 that James, who was stoned to death, was “the brother of Jesus called Christ.”****

And they had a word for people who were Jesus’ blood relatives: desposyni, meaning “belonging to the Lord.” The word was widespread enough in its use that the early third century historians Sextus Julius Africanus and Hegesippus both addressed the concept in their writing. Hegesippus’ work is mostly lost, but large portions are quoted in Eusebius’ Historia Ecclesiae. Book 3, chapter 20 makes reference to the grandsons of Judas, whom he calls a blood brother of Jesus. Julius Africanus’ work, which actually uses the word desposyni, is quoted in book 1, chapter 7 of the same Eusebius work. 

The concept of the adelphoi and desposyni fell out of favour by the time Third Synod of Carthage set the books of the Bible in 397, with help from major early Christian theologians like Hippolytus and Epiphanius, who held to the perpetual virgin doctrine that continues to exist today. There is, however, some scholarship that suggests that a meeting took place between Pope Sylvester I and Jewish Christian leaders in 318, wherein the Jewish Christian leaders, speaking on behalf of the desposyni, asked that the papacy a. recognize the bloodline of Jesus, b. make Jerusalem the mother church (and have the church’s money sent to Jerusalem), and c. revoke the authority of the Greek Christian bishops of Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, and Alexandria, and appoint desposynos bishops in their stead. Rome declined. This meeting is the last known communication between the Church and the desposyni.***** 

There is no doubt some political motivation in all of this. It’s unlikely that, with the papacy under Roman patronage by this time, the Church was ever going to agree to lose the money it was making in being the mother church and in being in control of bishopric appointments. And it’s not exactly good publicity to change your mind about the purity of your holiest saint. In canonizing the Bible not long after, Rome solidified its place as the power of Europe for the next 1125 years — until Martin Luther showed up and said “eine minuten, bitte” — and shaped the way modern Christianity believes without much question into the finer points. The Church, like every other ruling faction, became a political entity ahead of everything else. It just so happened their political interest was in saving souls. For money.******

And lest you think this is critical of Christianity, it is and it isn’t. I’ve long been critical of the unchecked political agency of the early and medieval Church. But I’m most impressed by people like priests and bishops, whose job it is to learn and know these things, but still manage to reconcile them with their faith (and then let me ask a million questions about it all like a petulant four-year-old who wants to know why she has to go to bed); it’s exactly these sorts of smaller details that, when taken as a collective, made me walk away from religion. As an academic, the whole notion of the Church saying, “just trust me!” without ever giving compelling evidence for why I should — especially when my scholastic motto is “sources or GTFO” — led to a wholesale mistrust in the fundamental tenets of the entire faith.

As an aside: There’s an interesting alternate history to be drawn if the mother church moves from Rome to Jerusalem.

*See here (verse 55) and here (verse 3)

**Unlikely. The Greek word for cousin is a distinct word, anepsios.

***The etymology of the word brother even identifies the as “Greek adelphos…meaning, specifically, “brother of the womb” or “brother by blood.”

****For the record, religious scholars agree that of the two references to Jesus in Josephus’ work (both in Antiquities of the Jews), this is the only one that is authentic. The reference in Book 18 to Jesus’ crucifixion is universally held to be a later addition by an outside source. For more on that, see Schrekenberg and Schubert’s Jewish Traditions in Early Christian Literature, Vol 1, Evans’ Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies, Wansbrough’s Jesus and the Oral Gospel Tradition, Dunn’s Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, Vol. 1, Wells and Hoffman’s The Jesus Legend, and probably half a dozen others.

*****See Malachi Martin’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Church.

******See: tithing, which was required by law. And any number of shady practices employed by the medieval church to scare every last cent out of people in order to ensure their eternal salvation. But that fear-mongering and widespread abuse of power made the Church exorbitantly wealthy.

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