Were Jesus, James and John First Cousins? Was Clopas Jesus’ Uncle?

It’s frustrating to look at old family photos, say a hundred years old, and not know who the people were. They were important enough to be included in the old shoe box filled with known photos, but their names and relationships have been lost to us.

Let’s look into interesting possible family connections. Were Jesus, James, and John first cousins by their two mothers, Mary and Salome, two sisters? Clopas is little-known, but he appears prominently in the last chapter of Luke’s Gospel. Was he Joseph’s brother and therefore Jesus’ uncle?

Call this article an old fashioned Bible study, which broadens our knowledge of Scripture. This study is not essential for salvation and growth in Christ.

Unless otherwise noted, I use the NIV. If you would like to see many other translations click on biblegateway.com. All bold font is added.

And now let’s lay out the evidence, first doing some detective work on James’ and John’s mother and their father Zebedee.

To begin with, here are James and John and their father Zebedee.

21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. (Matt. 4:21-22)

And here is their mother demanding or requesting (you choose) that her two sons get special privileges and status in the Messiah’s kingdom:

20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.

21 “What is it you want?” he asked.

She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”  (Matt. 20:20-21)

We have identified James and John’s father’s name. And we see their mother in the above passage. But what was her name? Can we know?

To answer those questions, if we can, let’s look at Scriptures that tell us about the women who were watching the crucifixion.

Matthew’s Gospel:

55 Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons. (Matt. 27:55-56)

These two parallel verses are from Mark’s Gospel:

40 Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. 41 In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there. (Mark 15:40-41)

Finally, John’s Gospel:

25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (John 19:25-27)

Let’s collate the data, and let me number my points for clarity and order.

(1) One named woman witnessing the crucifixion from a distance was Salome (Mark 15:40). In the parallel passage, Matthew 27:55 says that an unnamed woman was watching the crucifixion from a distance.  (2) Note the position of Salome (and the unnamed woman) within the verses in Matthew and Mark. She is listed right after another Mary who was the mother of James the younger and Joseph (today, no one knows who these three were). The natural inference is that the unnamed woman in Matthew’s Gospel is Salome.

(3) Then John 19:25 says that a few of the women moved closer to the cross. An unnamed woman was the sister of Mary (Jesus’s mother). (4) If the beloved disciple was John, and he likely was, then this explains why Jesus handed his mother to him. (Jesus’s brothers may have been indifferent or even hostile to him at this point but came to believe in him later; cf. Mark 3:21; John 7:5). (5) This explains why John was with the women at the cross–to sustain them as they witnessed up close the gruesome death of Jesus. (6) Let’s momentarily (and generously) assume this woman was the wife of Zebedee, named Salome, sister to Mary. Then this would explain why John stood by his Aunt Mary and his mother during the sad scene at the cross.

(7) Further, if the unnamed woman was Salome, wife of Zebedee, this would explain, in part, why Jesus chose Capernaum as his adopted hometown and ministry base up north in Galilee (e.g. Luke 4:31). Zebedee and his two sons, James and John, had their fishing business there.

But on the last two points my assumption may have jumped ahead too fast.

Now for a little counter idea. Matthew 27:55, Mark 15:40 (and Luke 23:49) say many Galilean women were watching the crucifixion. So the unnamed woman could be one of them and not the wife of Zebedee and mother of James and John. For Mark, the woman named Salome may simply be a well-known witness in his community or to him. In contrast, Matthew dropped her name (or never knew it) because for him she was not a well-known witness (Richard Bauckham p. 50).

However, this seems needlessly skeptical, for it dismisses Salome as just one of many women.  And so despite the previous paragraph sounding a cautionary note, the evidence in all the numbered points is compelling.

Therefore, I tentatively conclude that the unnamed woman in Matthew’s and John’s Gospels, in agreement with Mark’s Gospel which names her, who watched the crucifixion, was very probably Salome, Mary’s sister, Zebedee’s wife, and James’ and John’s mother.

And therefore, Jesus, James and John were very probably first cousins.

But complete certainty, based on the textual data, is not available to us.

Now let’s round a corner to the second question in the title to this post.

Who was Clopas?

Here are the references.

This passage is from Luke’s Gospel:

13 Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; 16 but they were kept from recognizing him.

17 He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”

They stood still, their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” (Luke 24:13-18)

Once more, the same verses from John’s Gospel:

25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (John 19:25-27)

His name is spelled Clopas, which is the Semitic form, while another variation, Cleopas, is the Greek form. This is just a variation in spelling. Trust me. If anyone has researched names in early America (I have), he has discovered that these variations do exist, sometimes in the same document!

And now we know of yet another Mary (Miriam): Clopas’s wife. To confirm whether Clopas was Joseph’s brother, we have to look outside Scripture.

New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham, who has researched all the names in the four Gospels, the rest of the NT, in Israel, and the surrounding areas, writes:

If the names are of persons well known in the Christian communities, then it also becomes likely that many of these people were themselves the eyewitnesses who first told and doubtless continued to tell the stories in which they appear and to which their names are attached. A good example is Cleopas (Luke 24:18): the story does not require that he be named and his companion remain anonymous. There seems no plausible reason for naming him other than to indicate that he was the source of the tradition. He is very probably the very same person as Clopas, whose wife Mary appears among the women at the cross in John 19:25. Clopas is a very rare Semitic form of the Greek Cleopas, so rare that we can be certain this is the Clopas who … was the brother of Jesus’s father Joseph and the father of Simon, who succeeded his cousin James [Jesus’s brother] as leader of the Jerusalem church … Cleopas / Clopas was doubtless one of the relatives of Jesus who played a prominent role in the Palestinian Jewish Christian movement. The story Luke tells would have been essentially the story Cleopas himself told about his encounter with the risen Jesus. Probably it was one of the many traditions of the Jerusalem church which Luke incorporated in his work. (p. 47)

In short, Cleopas / Clopas is a very rare name. To cite my parallel research in early American names, rarity is a very strong factor in identifying family connections. One example: the family name Washington in Virginia is very rare, relative to other names in the right century and area (e.g. Johnson, Smith, or Williams). If you see the name Washington in the documents, it is a sure thing the person belongs to the larger Washington family. Now one has only to figure how.

To continue summarizing what Bauckham wrote, Clopas was Joseph’s brother and Jesus’ uncle, His wife’s name was Mary. He was the one who told this story to Luke, so Clopas’s name got worked into the Gospel of Luke because Luke knew its source or traditionist or tradent or story teller. That’s why Luke named him.

Who was Clopas’s traveling companion (Luke 24:13)? It could be Cleopas’s son Simeon who succeeded James (Jesus’s brother) in leading the church at Jerusalem, says commentator Darrell L. Bock, vol. 2, p. 1911, referring to church historian Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3.11 and John 19:25. (Counter: it seems hard to believe that if Clopas was the eyewitness story teller to Luke, Clopas would omit his son Simeon’s name, particularly when the son took over leadership in Jerusalem. But I may be missing additional factors that real scholars see.)

To conclude, if the data are accepted, here is a summary:

Clopas: Jesus’s uncle on his father’s side (Joseph’s brother)

Mary, wife of Clopas: Jesus’s aunt on his father’s side (Joseph’s sister-in-law)

Simeon (not named in the Gospels): Jesus’s first cousin on his father’s side (Clopas’s son)

Salome: Jesus’s aunt on his mother’s side (Mary’s sister, wife of Zebedee, and mother of James and John)

Zebedee: Jesus’s uncle on his mother’s side (Salome’s husband and Mary’s brother-in-law)

James and John: Jesus’s first cousins on his mother’s side (Salome and Zebedee’s sons and Mary’s nephews)

I tentatively conclude that the biblical and extra-biblical evidence supports the accuracy of the summary.

But you can decide on your own.

Works Cited

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