How about members of Jesus’ family?
It turns out, we can figure that out with more reliability than you might suppose.
Let’s put on our detective hats and see what we can discover . . .
A Key Insight
I was a child in the 1970s. It was a tumultuous time. It followed the youth rebellion of the late 1960s, and there were many, similar youth rebellions and protest movements in different parts of the world in the ’70s.
Listening to TV and radio reports of everything that was happening, I couldn’t help but notice that—over and over again—the people involved in these movements were young. It didn’t matter where in the world they were—Iran, West Germany, South Korea, or anywhere else—it was always young people and “students” who were involved.
The pattern was so striking that I asked my father—a university professor—why it was always young people involved in these revolutionary movements.
I don’t recall his exact words, but my memory is that he said they had less to lose. Young people haven’t yet put down roots in society. They haven’t married, gotten jobs, and established families, and so they could join revolutionary movements without threatening the lives that they were building for themselves and their loved ones.
One thing that I’m sure my father didn’t mention, though it’s true, is that passions also run high in youth. It’s part of the nature of the beast. In adolescence, our hormones are famously raging, and part of that continues into young adulthood.
Thus St. Paul warns St. Timothy:
Shun youthful passions and aim at righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call upon the Lord from a pure heart (2 Tim. 2:22).
St. Paul undoubtedly meant the sexual passions that rage during youth, but youth is a passionate time for many reasons, not all of them sexual. Young people feel everything with a special passion, and that is part of what leads them into revolutionary movements all over the world.
Including in the first century.
In view of this, we would expect that the majority of the followers of the revolutionary movement started by Jesus of Nazareth would be young.
Specifically: They would be younger that he was.
I mean, if he was leading a revolutionary movement of young people, it is unlikely that the average age of his followers would be higher than his! Individual followers may have been, but this would not have been the norm.
That raises an important question . . .
What are the dates for Jesus’ birth and ministry?
Most scholars today think that Jesus was born around 6 B.C., and possibly earlier.
This date is based on the idea that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great, who they hold to have died in 4 B.C.
The Gospel of Matthew indicates that Jesus was as much as two years old when Herod died (see Matt. 2:16), which would require a date of 6 B.C. or earlier—if Herod died in 4 B.C.
Luke reports that John the Baptist began his ministry “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar” (Luke 3:1), or A.D. 29. He also reports that Jesus began his ministry (very) shortly after John and that “Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age” (Luke 3:23).
This fits with the date established for his birth. If he was born in 3/2 B.C. then, bearing in mind there is no “Year 0” in the B.C./A.D. system, he would have been “about thirty” in A.D. 29. (In fact, his 30th birthday would have fallen in A.D. 29 if he was born in 2 B.C., due to the absence of a “Year 0”).
Since we can show that Jesus was crucified on April 3, A.D. 33, that means he was between 33 and 34 years old at the time of the Crucifixion.
This gives us a basis to calculate the probable ages of the apostles and the New Testament authors.
The Ages of the Twelve
If Jesus was thirty when he began his ministry and the twelve apostles tended to be younger than him, their average age would be somewhere in the twenties.
It’s hardly likely that Jesus was leading around teenagers—people around half his age—so the twenties are the correct time. Let us suppose that they were, on average, twenty-five years of age at the time Jesus’ ministry began.
If so, the average apostle would have been born around A.D. 4.
We can refine this estimate in a few cases, though, because among the Twelve there were at least two sets of brothers—Peter and Andrew (sons of Jonah) and James and John (sons of Zebedee).
We have no evidence that they were twin brothers. Twins are very uncommon, and we already have reason to think that Thomas was a twin (that’s what both his Aramaic and Greek names mean), so Thomas probably wouldn’t have been called “the Twin” (John 11:16) if there were other twins in the group.
Protocol would indicate that the brothers named first were older, so there must be some time between the births of the elder brothers (Peter and James) and the younger brothers (Andrew and John).
Although it is possible that only a year separated the older from the younger, this is unlikely. Not only do couples typically delay the resumption of marital relations after a birth, in the ancient world, ordinary mothers breast fed their children, which tended to delay the next pregnancy. There were miscarriages, stillbirths, and cases of infant mortality. Half of all children were girls, and there could even be an intervening brother who did not follow Jesus. Between these factors, a considerable amount of time is likely to have passed between the birth of the older brother and that of the younger. We will estimate the period as being six years.
This means that we may estimate Peter and James as having been born three years earlier than the average estimated birth year (i.e., in A.D. 1) and Andrew and John as being born three years later (i.e., in A.D. 7).
This would give us estimated birth years for three of the traditional authors of the New Testament:
- Peter: A.D. 1
- Matthew: A.D. 4
- John son of Zebedee: A.D. 7
The Brethren of the Lord
Two of Jesus’ “brothers”—James the Just and Jude—also authored books of the New Testament.
There have been attempts to identify them with the apostles known as James son of Alphaeus and Jude Thaddeus.
However, this is implausible, because John’s Gospel unambiguously indicates that Jesus’ “brothers” were not disciples during his ministry, stating, “even his brothers did not believe in him” (John 7:5). It is thus scarcely likely that two of them were among the apostles that followed him during his ministry.
We thus can’t use the average age of apostles to determine the age of these two figures. However, we may be able to determine their probable ages in another way.
If the theory—common in Protestant circles—were true that they were Jesus’ younger half-brothers (born to Joseph and Mary) then we might estimate their birth years based on Jesus’ birth year. However, this view is excluded by other information we have, which indicates that Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus.
Since the time of St. Jerome, it has been common in Western Catholicism to propose that the brethren of the Lord were cousins. If so, we have no way of telling whether they were older or younger cousins (or both). We would know only that they were of the same generation as Jesus, which we could have determined anyway.
However, the earliest proposal for who the brethren of the Lord were—a proposal that dates to the A.D. 100s, making it older than either of the above views, and which has always been the view maintained in Eastern Catholicism and Eastern Christianity—is that they were Jesus’ step-brothers, that is, children of Joseph by a prior marriage. As an elderly widower, Joseph was not seeking to begin a family and thus was willing to serve as the guardian of a consecrated virgin like Mary.
If so, the brethren would have been older than Jesus—but by how much?
The Gospels identify Jesus’ brethren as James, Joses (Joseph), Jude, and Simon (Matt. 13:55, Mark 6:3a). They also indicate that he had at least two “sisters” (Matt. 13:56, Mark 6:3b).
We have already taken into account the effect that sisters would have had on the average gap between surviving sons, so if the above list reflects the birth order of Jesus’ brethren (as is probable), we may estimate that James was the oldest, that Joses was six years his junior, that Judas was twelve years his junior, and that Simon was eighteen years his junior.
We must also allow time for Joseph’s first wife to pass and for him to grieve and then become the husband of Mary. We will assume that this represented three years, since men with small children (as Simon would have been) tended to remarry quickly in the ancient world.
After marrying, it was customary to wait a year before beginning cohabitation, and Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit during this period.
That would give us the following estimates for the births of Jesus and his brethren:
- James: 25 B.C.
- Joses: 19 B.C.
- Jude: 13 B.C.
- Simon: 7 B.C.
- Jesus: 3/2 B.C.
Of course, these are only estimates, and Jesus’ brethren—or some of them—may have been born much less than six years apart.
On the other hand, around A.D. 378, in his Panarion, St. Epiphanius of Salamis reports a tradition that James died at the age of 96. From Josephus, we know that James was martyred in A.D. 62, in which case he would have been born in 35 B.C., so the above estimates might be too late rather than too early.
Either way, however, the brethren would have been significantly older than Jesus, which may explain their attitude of disbelief during Jesus’ ministry. As Jesus said, a prophet has no honor in his own family.
From their perspective, Jesus was the much younger son of their father’s second wife, and it took the miracle of the Resurrection to convince them that he was the Messiah.
UP NEXT: We can also figure out when the other authors of the New Testament were born. Stay tuned!
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