The feast of Passover is celebrated by Jews in “each household,” as the LORD commands Moses in Exodus chapter 12. From the very beginning of Passover, it has been a family affair.
Since the festival of Easter, including the memorial of the death and burial of Jesus Christ on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, constitutes the Christian Passover (Pascha, 1 Corinthians 5:7), it is not surprising that one of the cultural aspects of Easter is a gathering of families for an Easter feast.
What is interesting is that the first Easter was also a family affair.
According to John 19:25, which is based upon the personal witness of “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” there were at least two close relatives of Jesus at the cross. His mother Mary was one of them (although John never calls her by her personal name), and the other was “Mary the wife of Clopas.” This other Mary was the wife of a brother of Joseph, the deceased husband of Jesus’ mother. Mary the wife of Clopas was Jesus’ aunt. John 19:25 does mention “his mother’s sister” along with his mother, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene, but it is probable that “his mother’s sister” is meant as a reference to Mary the wife of Clopas who is named afterwards. Even though technically Mary the wife of Clopas was the sister-in-law of Jesus’ mother, it was not uncommon to refer to male in-laws as brothers and therefore presumably it was also possible to refer to women in-laws as sisters, and the known usage of the Greek word for sister-in-law is quite rare.
In the second century Hegesippus informs us that Clopas was the brother of Jesus’ father Joseph. It is likely that this Clopas was the same person who is named Cleopas in Luke 24:18. Cleopas is not literally the same name as Clopas, but it was not unusual for Palestinian Jews to be known by a Greek name that was similar to their Semitic name. For comparison, Jesus’ disciple Peter was identified either by the Greek equivalent of his Semitic name, Simon, or by the transliteration of his Semitic name, Symeon.
That the disciple Cleopas who, along with another disciple, received an appearance of the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus, was Jesus’ uncle Clopas is very likely. After the death of James the brother of the Lord in 62 C.E,, Hegesippus informs us that a son of Clopas named Simon or Symeon succeeded James as the leader of the mother church in Jerusalem. In other words, James was succeeded by his cousin, ensuring that the church in Jerusalem or the Palestinian Jewish Christian community would be led by a close relative of Jesus throughout the first century. The succession of James by a relative fits with the story of the appearance of the risen Jesus to his relative Clopas or Cleopas as recorded in the Gospel according to Luke. Indeed, some have speculated that the other disciple who was with Cleopas when the risen Jesus appeared to him was Cleopas’ son Simon or Symeon while others have speculated that it was Cleopas’ wife Mary, but who this disciple really was is unknowable to us today.
According to the earliest tradition about Easter that we have received — the tradition that the apostle Paul received and handed on in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 — one of the persons to whom the risen Lord appeared was James, Jesus’ brother (1 Corinthians 15:7). The New Testament does not contain a narrative of Jesus’ appearance to James, but it also does not contain a narrative of his first appearance to one of the Twelve, which was an appearance to Peter (1 Corinthians 15:5; Luke 24:34). However, according to Jerome in his Lives of Illustrious Men, the now lost Gospel according to the Hebrews did contain a narration of Jesus’ appearance to James. Following Jesus’ death, James fasted and said that he would not eat or drink again until he saw the Lord rising from among the dead. Then the Lord appeared to him saying, “Bring a table and bread.” After Jesus took the bread, blessed, broke, and gave it to James, he said, “My brother, eat your bread, for the Son of Man is risen from among those who sleep.” It is interesting that this appearance to James the brother of the Lord is an eucharistic narrative just as the appearance to Jesus’ uncle involves the revelation of the identity of the risen Jesus in the eating of the Eucharist.
We do not know for sure whether or not the other siblings of Jesus were present when he appeared as the risen Lord, but we do know that his mother and brothers were believers who were among the first members of the church in Jerusalem according to Acts 1:14 and that his brothers were traveling missionaries according to the testimony of Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:5. Given these two facts, it is plausible that the other brothers of Jesus also received an appearance of the risen Lord, although perhaps in company with other disciples. The narrative of the first chapter of Acts leaves an impression that members of Jesus’ family may have been with the other disciples at the final appearance of the risen Jesus which is described as his ascension into heaven. In addition to James, who resided in Jerusalem as the leader of the mother church, Jesus’ brothers who were active as missionaries were Joses, Judas, and Simon (Mark 6:3; Matthew 13:55). The names of Jesus’ sisters are not given in the New Testament, but they are called Mary and Salome in some second century sources. Given how much the early Christian movement in Palestine was a family affair, we may assume that Jesus’ sisters were involved since their absence would probably have been noted by early Christians.
That the first Easter was a family affair ought not to surprise us because of the importance of the family in the story of Israel and in Jewish life. While it is true that Jesus issued strong commands to put the kingdom of God above one’s family, even when he was in the presence of his own family (Mark 3:31-35; Matthew 10:37; Luke 14:26), these prophetic utterances ought not obscure how important family relations were in the earliest church. The way the church was established and grew was on the basis of family relations and other close social networks. The lesson is that Jesus Christ did not come to destroy the family but to fulfill it by tying each family to the whole household of God, the church as God’s family where God is our Father, the incarnate Son is our brother, and we are all the children of God.
Timothy W. Whitaker is a Retired United Methodist Church bishop who served the Florida Area.