Did Jesus Have a Sister?

Years ago, I was watching a documentary series on ABC TV called Son of God. The program set out to find the historical person that Christians now revere as Jesus Christ.

At one point in a spell-binding narrative, we were told the names of all of Jesus’s brothers, and some details of what had become of them. But whether Jesus had sisters and how many, the narration continued breezily, was something we could not know because all the references to sisters in the gospels were unclear. The existence of such women and their names had not been documented.

What kind of world painstakingly documents facts about a well-known figure’s male relatives, but allows the female ones to be lost to history? Recalling my lower jaw from the floor, I took myself off to the library to find out.

The explanation I came up with was as illuminating as it was depressing. Two thousand years ago in the Middle East, a scribe would no more record the names of a famous man’s sister than a reporter today doing a profile on a farmer would write down the names of his sheep. Women simply weren’t considered people back then. They were, like a man’s flocks, just chattels.

What would it have been like to be a girl at this time? Particularly a bright, inquisitive girl who admired her older brother and, just like him, thirsted to play a role in resolving the fierce conflicts – over beliefs, identity and territory – that were raging at the time?

How might a man like Jesus – whose actual name was most likely Joshua – have replied to the predicament of such an intelligent and beloved sister? My intuition, and reading of the few sayings that scholars tend to agree Joshua actually uttered, is that he would have responded with compassion.

To make this case, you have to know something about the world in which our hero – and perhaps our heroine – came of age. There, an individual’s standing and status among his fellows was entirely dependent on his relationship with God. Human suffering was seen as proof of sin and the Lord’s punitive hand. To win God’s forgiveness, one must atone through sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem.

The cost of an animal sacrifice, on top of the price to simply enter the Temple, was beyond the means of many Israelites.

The spoils of this spiritual monopoly flowed into the pockets of the hereditary Jewish elite who the Romans allowed to run the Temple any way they saw fit as long as they were acquiescent on other matters of state.

Unable to afford redemption, the poor remained “unclean” – beyond the sight of God and man. The infirm suffered terribly, too, particularly when the sacrifices offered on their behalf by the Temple priests failed to bring about the desired cure for their leprosy or schizophrenia, proving them doubly cursed by God.

Less well understood is that women, by virtue of their gender, were also quasi outcasts in ancient Israelite society. Their access to God – the key to their status in the world – was entirely dependent on their relationship with men. To be seen in God’s eyes, a woman had to be someone’s daughter, sister, mother or wife. This is why in the Bible, widows and divorcees crop up as victims of harsh social circumstances again and again, and mothers yearn so desperately for the social insurance of a son, who can still win them blessings when the other men they depend on are dead and gone.

Joshua of Nazareth understood the plight of outcasts. “The first will be last and the last first,” he said. “Blessed are the destitute, the reviled, those who weep, who suffer and are hungry,” he insisted. While some say that such calls for recognition and respect for society’s reviled did not encompass women, this seems doubtful when he often explicitly included them.

In the sayings and parables most scholars agree can be attributed to Joshua, we find justice-seeking widows, coin-sweeping housewives and prudent bakers who know just how to leaven bread so that one loaf becomes many.

In the gospel of Thomas, Joshua responds to Peter’s scathing dismissal of disciple Mary Magdalene as “not worthy of life” by insisting that he will “guide her … for every female who makes herself male will enter heaven’s kingdom”. Added to this is evidence that women comprised many, if not most, of Joshua’s followers. Perhaps among these dignity-seeking Jewish women was one or more of Joshua’s sisters?

The truth is that we’ll never know. When I realised so many years ago that Joshua’s sisters had been cruelly written out of history, and that no matter how much I cared, I could not reinstate them, I felt useless. None of the tools I had spent so many years acquiring as an academic scholar and general audience non-fiction writer were in any way equal to the task. I was surplus to what these women required.

I tried to forget the sisters. To abandon them to the dust of the unmarked past where I’d found them, but failed. To do so made me feel complicit in perpetuating what they’d already suffered – the terrible pain of being forgotten.

There was only one thing left to do. Slowly, I learned the craft of fiction writing so I could tell these stories the only way they could be told. By letting my imagination take wing.

Publication history

Did Jesus Have a Sister?  The Sunday Age