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The Desposyni (from the Greek δεσπόσυνοι, plural of δεσπόσυνος, meaning "of or belonging to the master or lord"[1]) is a term that, according to Sextus Julius Africanus, a writer of the early third century, refers to alleged blood relatives of Jesus who were then alive.

According to the Gospel according to the Hebrews, some of these held, even at that relatively late stage, positions of special honour in the Early Christian Church.

As church leaders

James the Just, whose judgment was adopted in the Apostolic Decree[2]

According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus' mother and brothers were at first skeptical of Jesus' ministry but later became part of the Christian movement.[3] Saint James, "the Lord's brother," presided over the Jerusalem church after the apostles dispersed.[4] Jesus' kinsmen likely exercised some leadership among neighboring Christian communities until Jews were expelled from the area with the founding of Aelia Capitolina.[4]

At an earlier stage too, James, known as the Lord's brother,[5] and who is said to have been granted a special appearance by the resurrected Jesus,[6] was, with Saint Peter a leader of the church in Jerusalem and, when Peter left, James appears as the principal authority and was held in high regard by the Jewish Christians.[7] Hegesippus reports that he was executed by the Sanhedrin in 62.[7]

It is likely that other kinsmen of Jesus had some measure of leadership in nearby Christian communities, until all Jews were expelled from the area after the Jewish revolt during Hadrian's reign.[4]

Sextus Julius Africanus's reference to the Desposyni is preserved in Eusebius of Caesarea's Ecclesiastical History:[8]

For the relatives of our Lord according to the flesh, whether with the desire of boasting or simply wishing to state the fact, in either case truly, have handed down the following account... But as there had been kept in the archives up to that time the genealogies of the Hebrews as well as of those who traced their lineage back to proselytes, such as Achior the Ammonite and Ruth the Moabitess, and to those who were mingled with the Israelites and came out of Egypt with them, Herod, inasmuch as the lineage of the Israelites contributed nothing to his advantage, and since he was goaded with the consciousness of his own ignoble extraction, burned all the genealogical records, thinking that he might appear of noble origin if no one else were able, from the public registers, to trace back his lineage to the patriarchs or proselytes and to those mingled with them, who were called Georae. A few of the careful, however, having obtained private records of their own, either by remembering the names or by getting them in some other way from the registers, pride themselves on preserving the memory of their noble extraction. Among these are those already mentioned, called Desposyni, on account of their connection with the family of the Saviour. Coming from Nazara and Cochaba, villages of Judea, into other parts of the world, they drew the aforesaid genealogy from memory and from the book of daily records as faithfully as possible. Whether then the case stand thus or not no one could find a clearer explanation, according to my own opinion and that of every candid person. And let this suffice us, for, although we can urge no testimony in its support, we have nothing better or truer to offer. In any case the Gospel states the truth." And at the end of the same epistle he adds these words: "Matthan, who was descended from Solomon, begat Jacob. And when Matthan was dead, Melchi, who was descended from Nathan begat Eli by the same woman. Eli and Jacob were thus uterine brothers. Eli having died childless, Jacob raised up seed to him, begetting Joseph, his own son by nature, but by law the son of Eli. Thus Joseph was the son of both." Eusebius of Caesarea, Historia Ecclesiae, 1:7:11, 1:7:13-14

Eusebius has also preserved an extract from a work by Hegesippus (c.110-c.180), who wrote five books (now lost except for some quotations by Eusebius) of Commentaries on the Acts of the Church. The extract refers to the period from the reign of Domitian (81-96) to that of Trajan (98-117), includes the statement that two Desposyni brought before Domitian later became leaders of the churches:[9]

There still survived of the kindred of the Lord the grandsons of Judas, who according to the flesh was called his brother. These were informed against, as belonging to the family of David, and Evocatus brought them before Domitian Caesar: for that emperor dreaded the advent of Christ, as Herod had done.

So he asked them whether they were of the family of David; and they confessed they were. Next he asked them what property they had, or how much money they possessed. They both replied that they had only 9000 denaria between them, each of them owning half that sum; but even this they said they did not possess in cash, but as the estimated value of some land, consisting of thirty-nine plethra only, out of which they had to pay the dues, and that they supported themselves by their own labour. And then they began to hold out their hands, exhibiting, as proof of their manual labour, the roughness of their skin, and the corns raised on their hands by constant work.

Being then asked concerning Christ and His kingdom, what was its nature, and when and where it was to appear, they returned answer that it was not of this world, nor of the earth, but belonging to the sphere of heaven and angels, and would make its appearance at the end of time, when He shall come in glory, and judge living and dead, and render to every one according to the course of his life.

Thereupon Domitian passed no condemnation upon them, but treated them with contempt, as too mean for notice, and let them go free. At the same time he issued a command, and put a stop to the persecution against the Church.

When they were released they became leaders of the churches, as was natural in the case of those who were at once martyrs and of the kindred of the Lord. And, after the establishment of peace to the Church, their lives were prolonged to the reign of Trajan. Eusebius of Caesarea, Historia Ecclesiae, 3:20

A certain amount of publicity has been won by the following claim by the controversial Irish priest Malachi Martin. However, he gave no valid source for his story.

A meeting between Sylvester (Pope Sylvester I) and the Jewish Christian leaders took place in 318....The vital interview was not, as far as we know, recorded, but the issues were very well known, and it is probable the Joses, the oldest of the Christian Jews, spoke on behalf of the Desposyni and the rest.

...That most hallowed name, desposyni, had been respected by all believers in the first century and a half of Christian history. The word literally meant, in Greek, "belonging to the Lord." It was reserved uniquely for Jesus' blood relatives. Every part of the ancient Jewish Christian church had always been governed by a desposynos, and each of them carried one of the names traditional in Jesus' family---Zachary, Joseph, John, James, Joses, Simeon, Matthias, and so on. But no one was ever called Jesus. Neither Sylvester nor any of the thirty-two popes before him, nor those succeeding him, ever emphasized that there were at least three well-known and authentic lines of legitimate blood descent from Jesus' own family..."

...The Desposyni demanded that Sylvester, who now had Roman patronage, revoke his confirmation of the authority of the Greek Christian bishops at Jerusalem, in Antioch, in Ephesus, and in Alexandria, and to name desposynos bishops to take their place. They asked that the practice of sending cash to Jerusalem as the mother church be resumed... These blood relatives of Christ demanded the reintroduction of the Law, which included the Sabbath and the Holy Day system of Feasts and New Moons of the Bible. Sylvester dismissed their claims and said that, from now on, the mother church was in Rome and he insisted they accept the Greek bishops to lead them.

...This was the last known dialogue with the Sabbath-keeping church in the east led by the disciples who were descended from blood relatives of Jesus the Messiah. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Church

Degree of consanguinuity between the Adelphoi and Jesus

The New Testament names James the Just, Joses, Simon, and Jude as the adelphoi of Jesus[10][11][12][13][14][15]. Delphys is the Greek word for womb (the words dolphin and Delphi derive from this meaning), so adelphos would literally mean (those) from the womb in this context. However, there is much disagreement over whether the Greek term adelphos referred to by these narratives are full brothers, half brothers, merely stepbrothers, or just cousins.

The most natural inference from the New Testament is that the adelphoi were children of Mary and Joseph born after Jesus[16]; Tertullian, possibly Hegesippus, and Helvidius accepted this view[16]. The Ebionites also had no issue with the idea of the adelphoi being Jesus' full biological brothers, since they believed that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus, and hence that Mary was biologically virgin at that birth.

However, Eusebius and Epiphanius, important early Christian theologians, adhered to the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity, and therefore did not accept that Mary could have had any children apart from Jesus[16]; Eusebius and Epiphanius held that these men were Joseph's sons from (an unrecorded) former marriage[16]. Jerome, another important early theologian, also followed the perpetual virginity doctrine, but argued that these adelphoi were sons of Mary's sister, also named Mary[16]. A modern proposal has these men as the sons of Clopas (Joseph's brother according to Hegesippus) and Mary, the wife of Cleopas (not necessarily referring to Jesus' mother's sister)[16].

The official Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox doctrine is that Mary was a perpetual virgin[17]; Islam also holds that Mary was a perpetual virgin, as did many of the early Protestants, including Luther,[18] Calvin,[19], and Zwingli,[20] as well as John Wesley, the 18th Century Methodist leader[21]. Indeed, the majority of early Christians seem to have left this doctrine completely unquestioned. The Roman Catholic Church, following Jerome, conclude that the adelphoi were Jesus' cousins, but the Eastern Orthodox, following Eusebius and Epiphanius, argue that they were Joseph's children by his (unrecorded) first wife.

Scholars of the Jesus Seminar suggest that the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity has impeded the recognition that Jesus had brothers and sisters[22]. Modern Protestants generally regard the adelphoi as Mary's biological children, by Joseph[23]; since these churches usually view Jesus as the son of God, rather than of Joseph, the adelphoi are seen as Jesus' half-brothers[23].

Family trees and pedigrees

Aside from the Genealogies of Jesus present in the Gospel of Luke and Gospel of Matthew, there have been several attempts to piece together a detailed family tree of Jesus' immediate nuclear family:

  • Version I (after James Tabor)
                          Matthat bar Levi
        Eleazar                   |
        |                     Heli/Eliakim
        |                           |
        Matthan             ________|____________
        |                   |                   |
        |                   |                   |
    Mary + GOD         = Joseph (1st) =   Clophas (2nd)
          |                                     |
          |              _______________________|___________
          Jesus          |      |     |      |      |     |
          5 BCE- CE 28.  |      |     |      |      |     |
                       James  Jose  Judas  Simon  Mary  Salome
                          d.CE 62     |   d.CE 101
                                 |         |
                                 |         |
                             Zechariah   James
                           alive in the reign of Domitian
  • Version II (edited; see external link)
      |                                        |
      |                                        |
 Mary=Joseph                                   Cleopas=Mary
     |                                                |
     |______________________________________          |
     |    |     |     |     |      |      |           Simeon
     |    |     |     |     |      |      |           d. 106
    Jesus James Joses Simon Sister Sister Jude
          d.62                             |
            |                            Menahem
          Jude                           ____|____
            |                            |        |
         Elzasus                       James     Zoker
            |                                 ?
          Nascien                             |
                                             Bishop Judah Kyriakos

Interpersonal relationship with Jesus in the New Testament

According to the Synoptic Gospels, and particularly the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was once teaching a large crowd near the home of his own family, and when this came to their attention, his family went to see him and "they" (not specified) said that Jesus is "...out of his mind."

Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ -Mark 3:20-21 NRSV
And he comes back home, and the crowd gathers again, to the point where they couldn't even eat a meal. Hearing of that, his folks came out [from Nazareth] intending to take him away, saying, "He's gone mad!" -Mark 3:20-21 (Andy Gaus, Unvarnished New Testament, 1991)
And He came home, and the crowd gathered again, to such an extent that they could not even eat a meal. When His own people heard of this, they went out to take custody of Him; for they were saying, "He has lost His senses." -Mark 3:20-21 NASB

In the narrative of the Synoptic Gospels, and of the Gospel of Thomas, when Jesus' mother and adelphoi are outside the house that Jesus is teaching in, Jesus tells the crowd that whoever does what God wills would constitute his mother and adelphoi (Thomas 99). According to Kilgallen, Jesus' answer was a way of underlining that his life had changed to the degree that his family were far less important than those that he teaches about the Kingdom of God. The Gospel of John states that Jesus' adelphoi did not believe in him, because he wouldn't perform miracles with them at the Feast of Tabernacles.

The negative view of Jesus' family portrayed in Acts and the Gospels may be related to the conflict between Paul of Tarsus and Jewish Christians, who held Jesus' family in high regard, for example at the Council of Jerusalem,[24], a view reinforced within the Dead Sea Scrolls.


  1. Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon
  2. Acts 15:19-29
  3. Funk, Robert W. and the Jesus Seminar. The acts of Jesus: the search for the authentic deeds of Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco. 1998. "What do we really know about Jesus" p. 527-534.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 "Jerusalem." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford University Press. 2005
  5. Galatians 1:19
  6. 1 Corinthians 15:7
  7. 7.0 7.1 "James, St." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford University Press. 2005
  8. The original text can be found at Bibliotheca Augustana
  9. The original text of this passage too can be found at Bibliotheca Augustana
  10. Mark 6:3
  11. Matthew 13:55
  12. John 7:3
  13. Acts 1:14
  14. 1 Corinthians 9:5
  15. Cited in "brethren of the Lord." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 16.4 16.5 "brethren of the Lord." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  17. e.g., Origen's Commentary on Matthew, §10.17
  18. See quotations from Luther's works in Martin Luther on Mary's Perpetual Virginity
  19. Harmony of Matthew, Mark & Luke, sec. 39 (Geneva, 1562), / From Calvin's Commentaries, tr. William Pringle, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949: "Helvidius displayed excessive ignorance in concluding that Mary must have had many sons, because Christ's 'brothers' are sometimes mentioned" (vol. 2, p. 215); "[On Matthew 1:25:] The inference he [Helvidius] drew from it was, that Mary remained a virgin no longer than till her first birth, and that afterwards she had other children by her husband . . . No just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words . . . as to what took place after the birth of Christ. He is called 'first-born'; but it is for the sole purpose of informing us that he was born of a virgin . . . What took place afterwards the historian does not inform us . . . No man will obstinately keep up the argument, except from an extreme fondness for disputation" (vol. I, p. 107).
  20. "I firmly believe that [Mary], according to the words of the gospel as a pure Virgin brought forth for us the Son of God and in childbirth and after childbirth forever remained a pure, intact Virgin" (Zwingli, Ulrich; Egli, Emil; Finsler, Georg; Zwingli-Verein, Georg; Zürich (1905). "Eini Predigt von der ewig reinen Magd Maria." (in German). Huldreich Zwinglis sämtliche Werke. 1. C. A. Schwetschke und Sohn. pp. 385. Retrieved 2008-07-01. 
  21. "I believe that He was made man, joining the human nature with the divine in one person; being conceived by the singular operation of the Holy Ghost, and born of the blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as before she brought Him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin" (The Works of the Rev. John Wesley p. 112)
  22. Funk, Robert W. and the Jesus Seminar. The acts of Jesus: the search for the authentic deeds of Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco. 1998. "Mark," p. 51-161
  23. 23.0 23.1 In other words, in this view they shared one parent (Mary) with Jesus. "So James, according to this view, would be Jesus' younger half-brother." Witherington, Ben III, "Jesus' Extended Family," Bible Review, 19:3, pg.30–31. In addition, the Nelson Study Bible (NKJV) lists the traditional authors of the Epistles of James and Jude as "James, the half brother of Jesus, traditionally called "the Just" (pg 2102) and "Jude the brother of James and the half brother of the Lord Jesus" (pg. 2156). The term "half brother" is used to denote parentage, not genetics. In this view, the other brothers and sisters listed in the Gospel passages would have the same relationship to Jesus. However, some Protestants reject the term "half brother" because it is too specific; the Gospel accounts refer to these relatives as brothers and sisters of Jesus, without specifying their parents, and refer to Mary only in relation to Jesus.
  24. "Wilson (1992) [Wilson, A.N. Jesus: A life. 1992. New York: Norton & Co.] has hypothesized that the negative relationship between Jesus and his family was placed in the Gospels (especially in the Gospel of Mark) to dissuade early Christians from following the Jesus cult that was administered by Jesus’ family. Wilson says: “…it would not be surprising if other parts of the church, particularly the Gentiles, liked telling stories about Jesus as a man who had no sympathy or support from his family (p. 86).” Butz (2005) [Butz, Jeffrey. The brother of Jesus and the lost teachings of Christianity. 2005. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions.] is more succinct: “…by the time Mark was writing in the late 60s, the Gentile churches outside of Israel were beginning to resent the authority wielded by Jerusalem where James and the apostles were leaders, thus providing the motive for Mark’s antifamily stance… (p. 44).” Other prominent scholars agree (e.g., Crosson, 1973 [Crosson, John Dominic. “Mark and the relatives of Jesus”. Novum Testamentum, 15, 1973]; Mack, 1988 [Mack, Burton. A myth of innocence: Mark and Christian origins. 1988. Philadelphia: Fortress]; Painter. 1999 [Painter, John. Just James: The brother of Jesus in history and tradition. 1999. Minneapolis: Fortress Press])."


  • Cooper, L.E., The Jesus Presidents, iUniverse, 2004, ISBN 0-595-33300-1.
  • Kilgallen, John J., A Brief Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, Paulist Press, 1989.
  • Martin, Malachi, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Church, New York, Bantam, 1983, pages 30–31.
  • Tabor, James D., The Jesus Dynasty, Simon & Schuster, 2006.

External links