I was recently at a group Bible study when someone commented that she heard the disciples James and John were first cousins of Jesus. She wondered it that was true and, if so, where is that found?
Actually, biblical passages do open up the possibility that James and John might have been first cousins of Jesus, but we don’t know definitively. This possibility is raised by comparing the four gospels and looking at the women who were nearby when Jesus was crucified.
Let me begin by saying that my teachings usually gravitate towards digging into Scripture to pull away spiritual truths that can help us grow in our daily Christian walk. Still, it’s always exciting to dig into Scripture and find interesting things that help us better understand Scripture, or inspire us to search deeper into Scripture. That’s what I’ll do in this study.
When looking at the women who stood close-by during Jesus’ crucifixion, it’s important to first know that the Bible explicitly identifies the name of James’ and John’s father. We are told his name was Zebedee:
Going on from there, [Jesus] 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, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. (Matt. 4:21-22)
James son of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means “sons of thunder.”) (Mark 3:17)
We also know that James and John’s mother was one of the women who “had followed Jesus from Galilee” and helped care for the needs of Jesus and his disciples. However, while James’ and John’s mother is talked about in the gospels (i.e. Matthew 10:20), she isn’t called by her first name in association with James and John.
Let’s now look at the four gospels and compare the women who are specifically named as being nearby when Jesus was crucified and, too, those who are named going to Jesus’ gravesite on resurrection Sunday.
Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons. (Matthew 27:55-56)
Matthew identities three of the women at Jesus’ crucifixion. These were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons (Zebedee’s sons were the disciples James and John.) We could probably ascertain from this passage that these three women were standing in close proximity to each other.
Next, compare those three women to the ones named in the gospel of Mark.
Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. 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)
Mark, too, specifically lists three women at the crucifixion scene. He says that Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James and Joseph, and Salome were there. Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James and Joseph, are named by both Matthew and Mark.
Although, Mark names Salome as among the women there; whereas, Matthew tells us that the mother of Zebedee’s sons was there. This raises the question as whether the name of James’ and John’s mother was Salome; or, are they two different women. If Salome was the mother of James and John; then Matthew and Mark are speaking of the same woman.
For now, let’s skip over Luke and compare the women listed in Matthew and Mark to the names of women whom John tells us were there. While reading these names, remember that we do know John’s mother was there.
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. (John 19:25)
John identifies four women who were at the crucifixion. Moreover, he says these women were “near the cross,” so this group of four women seems to be more defined and closer to the cross than the other women who were around. Also, John himself would’ve been nearby (John 19:26).
First, John tells us that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was there together with her sister. He then includes Mary Magdalene and Mary the wife of Clopas.
All three gospel accounts have Mary Magdalene nearby at Jesus’ crucifixion and tell us she was there with other women. Too, all three accounts have another Mary there, together with Mary Magdalene. John says “Mary the wife of Clopas” was there, while Matthew and Mark tell us that “Mary the mother of James the younger and Joseph” was there. Mary, the wife of Clopas, could well be, and most likely is, the same Mary who was mother of James and Joseph.
However, John is the only one who talks about Jesus’ mother being there. At the same time, while we know John and his own mother were there, John doesn’t come out and tell us that his mother was there, nor does he mention a woman named Salome.
Or, does he?
Could Mary, Jesus’ mother, have been a sister to the mother of Zebedee’s son (John’s mother)? Was Salome the sister of Jesus’ mother? Were these two or three different women? Or, could all three gospel writers be identifying the same person using three distinct titles?
After all, John almost certainly wouldn’t call his own mother “the mother of Zebedee’s sons.” That would be awkward. A reference like that would seem more appropriate for someone unrelated to her—such as Matthew. John, too, from respect, may have shied away from calling his mother by her first name. More probably, in humility, if John’s mother was Mary’s sister, he may have intentionally downplayed that relationship in respect of Jesus’ Sovereignty and Lordship. (For example, while others refer to James, the son of Joseph and Mary, as the brother of the Lord (Gal. 1:19); James himself never calls himself the brother of Jesus but rather calls himself, “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” James 1:1.)
So, if John’s mother was actually Mary’s sister, it would seem more appropriate that John would identify her by her relationship to Mary, rather than by her relationship to him. And, if John’s mother was a sister of Jesus’ mother, that would’ve made John and James, first cousins of Jesus.
This is the primary source for speculating that Jesus was a first cousin of James and John. But, again, this is not definitive! Although, it opens up a possibility and makes you wonder.
Still, even when examining these passages, we need to consider that the gospels tell us that there were a number of other women who came out for Jesus’ crucifixion. Matthew says “many” women were there (Matthew 27:55). Mark, too, says, “many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there” (Mark 15:41).
And while Luke didn’t write the names of any of the women at the crucifixion, he does record that a group of at least five women went to the tomb together on resurrection morning. He gives three names in specific—two of those were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James. Both were at the crucifixion. The other woman named is Joanna (Luke 24:10).
However, Joanna was the wife of Chuza, so she couldn’t have been the mother of James and John because they were sons of Zebedee. And, Joanna is also unlikely to have been the mother of Mary’s sister, because Joanna is listed among those who followed Jesus after being “cured from either an evil spirit or disease (Luke 8:2-3). Another woman who followed Jesus after she was healed by Him was Susanna. While both Joanna and Susanna were likely among the group of women who helped care for the needs of the disciples, and both could’ve been close-by at the crucifixion, neither is likely to have been the sister of Jesus’ mother. Nor, is either of these Salome.
So, in studying Scripture, we can’t conclude that James and John were Jesus’ cousins but it’s quite possible. In any case, it stimulates interest for going deeper into Scripture.
Food for thought: If James and John were first cousins of Jesus, these two would’ve heard inside family stories about Jesus through their childhood and youth. If there were any question about Jesus’ having lived a sinless life, these two cousins would’ve had an “inside scope.” With that in mind, the two brothers were so convinced that Jesus is the Messiah, that James was actually the first of the Twelve to be executed for his devotion to Jesus’ Lordship. He was “put to death with the sword” (Acts 12:2). And, John, the younger of these brothers lived longer than any of the Twelve, enduring many years of persecutions and exile because of his allegiance to Jesus’ Lordship. Yet, he never wavered throughout his lifetime in proclaiming the Deity of Jesus Christ.