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Mary of Clopas and Mary of Nazareth

Today I'm looking at Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus, whom I call Maria for clarity, and Mary of Clopas, whom I call Mara. When approaching my biblical fiction, I decided to avoid confusion for readers by using variations on the name Mary:

Maria of Nazareth - the mother of Jesus

Mara - Mary of Clopas

Marie - Mary Magdalene

Miriam - Martha's sister in Bethany

Earlier I posted about Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany.

The Bible refers to Mary of Clopas eight times, but scholars debate whether some of these references are to Mara of Clopas or Maria of Nazareth:

  • Jesus's mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas near the cross (John 19:25),

  • Mary the mother of James and Joses at the cross (Matthew 27:56)

  • Mary the mother of James the Less and Joses at the cross (Mark 15:40)

  • Mary the mother of Joses at Jesus's burial (Mark 15:47)

  • the other Mary sitting opposite the tomb at Jesus's burial (Matthew 27:61)

  • the other Mary went to the tomb, saw angels who said he had risen and saw Jesus on the road (Matthew 28:1-10)

  • Mary, the mother of James, went to the tomb and saw an angel who told them to tell the disciples but they were too afraid (Mark 16:1-8)

  • Mary, the mother of James, went to the tomb, saw angels and reported back to the disciples (Luke 24:1-10). Mary of Clopas may also be included in "that same day two of them were going to Emmaus" (Mark 16:12, Luke 24:13-32).

Let's look at what we may know about Maria of Nazareth, Mara of Clopas, and their children. Were Maria and Mara sisters, sisters-in-law, sister-wives, or half-sisters? Did they both have children named James, Joses/Joseph, Jude and Simon/Simeon?

Is Mara Clopas's daughter or his wife?

In John 19:25 it says "Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene" (John 19:25 NIV). Is "his mother's sister" an adjective describing Mary the wife of Clopas, or is it a placeholder for Salome, John's mother?

Mary, Daughter of Clopas:

Since James and John's mother Salome is not mentioned in John's gospel and is named in Matthew and Mark, some think that John 19:25 refers to Salome (or Mary Salome) as Jesus's mother's sister. An early Roman Catholic tradition is that both Mary Salome and Mary of Clopas are sisters of Jesus's mother. The tradition is that Saint Ann was married three times. From one husband, she had Mary who became the mother of Jesus, from her husband Clopas, she had Mary of Clopas, and from another husband, she had Mary Salome, who married Zebedee and became the mother of James and John. This would make James and John Jesus's cousins and could be a reason why Jesus asked John to take responsibility as Maria's son. An ancient tradition that Mary Salome acted as Maria's midwife lends to the idea that they were related. Most theologians doubt this view and believe it's more likely that Mary of Clopas was the wife of Clopas than the daughter of Clopas.

Mary/Mara, Wife of Clopas:

Most Church Fathers interpret John 19:25 to suggest that 'Jesus's mother's sister" refers to Mary of Clopas, Maria's sister-in-law, called sister for short. The 2nd-century writer Hegesippus, 4th-century historian Eusebius, and the 5th-century Catholic theologian Jerome all wrote that Clopas was a brother of Joseph, This would make the children of Clopas cousins of Jesus. Mara is also referred to as “the other Mary” (Matthew 27:61; Matthew 28:1-10). She is named as a follower of Jesus who cared for his needs and was an eyewitness at his death, burial, and resurrection.

Historian Eusebius says Clopas has a son Simeon in Hebrew (Simon in Greek). Clopas's son Simeon was a relative of Jesus and became the second bishop of Jerusalem (after the death of James, the brother of Jesus). During the first century, believers who knew Simeon would also know Clopas (Luke 24:18) and Mary of Clopas (John 19:25).

Many theologians believe that Alphaeus is the same as Clopas. Alphaeus (in Aramaic), Cleophas (Greek) and Clopas (Hebrew). Clopas (Alphaeus) is named twice in the Bible, Luke 24:13 and John 19:25. Alphaeus may be a variant or a translation of Clopas/ Cleopas/ Cleophas, making the apostle James the Less the son of Mary of Clopas, also called the son of Alphaeus.

My novels take the view that Mara is the wife of Clopas/Alphaeus, sister-in-law to Maria of Nazareth. Mara has four children: James (the apostle James the Less/James the Younger, Joses, Janis, and Simeon. Historically, a relative of Jesus's became the 2nd bishop of Jerusalem. I portray Simeon as a cousin of Jesus, brother of James the Less, son of Clopas and Mara. Simeon became the second bishop of Jerusalem and was martyred around AD 100.

How can we understand Jesus's brothers and sisters?

The Bible says that Jesus had four brothers (or kin) James, Joseph, Judas and Simon, and at least two sisters (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3). Mary may have given birth to Jesus at 15 and became a widow before Jesus was 30. The Bible says that Maria did not know Joseph until she gave birth to her son, Jesus (Matthew 1:25). Traditionally, the church has taught that Maria perpetually remained a virgin.

a) Jesus's siblings were the children of Maria and Joseph

The modern Protestant view is that Mary remained a virgin only until after Jesus' birth, and then Joseph and Mary had four sons and at least two daughters. Protestants see this as more in line with the Bible's records saying Jesus had 'brothers and sisters'. The novel Forgotten Followers takes the view that Joseph and Maria had four sons and two daughters after Jesus was born. These are Jesus's siblings and they did not believe in Jesus until after the resurrection (John 7:5).

Mary of clopas with children
Photo: Mary of Cleophas and her family by Hans Suess von Kulmbach 1513 public domain

b) Jesus's siblings were cousins

Early Protestants, including John Wesley, shared the Roman Catholic view that Mary remained a perpetual virgin and that Jesus' brothers and sisters were actually his cousins, children of Mary of Clopas. As stated above, many ancient historians state that Clopas was Joseph's brother, and the siblings of Jesus were the children of Mary of Clopas. This would make the children of Clopas (James, Joses, Simeon) cousins of Jesus, and mean that his cousins are the ones referred to as his brothers or kin (James, Joseph, Jude, Simon).

c) Jesus's siblings were his step-brothers from Joseph's first marriage

The traditional view of Eastern Orthodox churches is that the brothers of Jesus were sons of Joseph after he became a widower on the death of his first wife. This idea often comes with Joseph being 20-40 years older than Mary when they wed. Joseph already has heirs and Mary remains a perpetual virgin after marrying Joseph.

d) Jesus's siblings were brothers under Levirite law

According to tradition, if Joseph died leaving no heirs, then Joseph's brother, Clopas, would have fulfilled his duty under Levirite law and married Joseph's widow. Any biological children of Mary and Joseph's brother (Clopas) would be considered Joseph's heirs and Jesus's siblings. Also, Joseph's brother's wife, Mara, and Maria would become sister wives, matching the description of Mary the mother of Jesus standing with her sister, Mary of Clopas (John 19:25). I don't know any theologians who seriously entertain this option.

But what about all those guys named James?

  1. James the Great; son of Zebedee and Salome, brother of John. My novel presents Salome as not being a half-sister of Maria; James and John not being Jesus's cousins. This James, brother of John, was killed about 44 AD per Acts 12.

  2. James the Less, son of Mary of Clopas, was an apostle of Jesus and was martyred in Ostrakine in 62 AD. The apostle James the Less is also called James, son of Alphaeus (Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15, Acts 1:13). While Alphaeus is given as the name for Matthew's father, and James the Less's father, there is no evidence that Matthew and James the Less are brothers. The Bible does not pair James the Less as a brother of Matthew nor as a brother of apostle Jude. The apostle James the Less is paired with Joses, and both are sons of Mary (Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:47), the mother of James the Less (Mark 15:40, Mark 16:1-7, Luke 24:1-32).

  3. James, the brother of Jesus (James the Just) became a believer after the resurrection, became a pillar of the church (Galatians 1:19, Galatians 2:9) and could be called the first bishop of Jerusalem. James, brother of Jesus, wrote the letter of James in the Bible. Tradition is that around AD 65, Jewish leaders called for James the Just to stand on the pinnacle of the temple and speak against Jesus. When he spoke for Jesus, they pushed him to the ground and beat him to death with a fuller's club. Historically the Roman Catholic church merged James the brother of Jesus with James the Less and traditionally the apostle James the Less is depicted in art holding a fuller's club. The fuller's club may refer to the large wooden bat used by ancient fullers to clean, soften, and whiten cloth.

  4. James the father of Jude Thaddaeus may be alternatively translated as James the brother of Jude or Jude Thaddaeus. The Bible lists Jude as an apostle, without describing Jude, as the brother of James or son of James (Luke 6:16, Acts 1:13). Some say the letter of Jude is written by the apostle Jude, known as Thaddaeus. Others say it is written by Jude, the brother of James and Jesus.

  5. James the brother of Zoker, both grandsons of Jude. This James is from early church history. There are two brothers identified as Zoker and James, the grandsons of Jude. As Jude was the brother of Jesus, this Zoker and James would be grand-nephews of Jesus. The Bishop of Caesarea Eusebius quoted from Hegesippus saying that Zoker and James were brought before Emperor Domitian in the first century. In court, Zoker and James admitted they were descendants of David and relatives of Jesus. Court documents show how much they had in terms of assets, primarily a smallholding from which they supported themselves. They testified that Jesus' kingdom was not a threat to Rome, and was not an earthly kingdom but a spiritual one. Domitian then let them go and did not actively persecute Christians.

In summary, we have two Marys, each having their own children with similar names, and through history, the two Marys and their children have often been combined. By AD 30, Jesus's mother would have been in her late 40s. Traditionally, Apostle John is thought to be quite young during Jesus's ministry, since he may have lived to the late AD 90s.

For the purposes of my fiction, I have Mara about fifteen years younger than Maria, and her children are likewise younger. Below are the families as I imagine them for my fiction, fitting with what we know from the Bible and tradition.

Clopas married Mara

Joseph married Maria

Zebedee married Salome


Rachel (fictional)

James, Apostle James the Great

James (1st bishop of Jerusalem)

Naomi (fictional)



Sarah (fictional)



Sarah (fictional)

James the Less (a young apostle)

John (Apostle John, one of the younger apostles)



Simon (2nd bishop of Jerusalem)


Protestants generally say that Jesus's siblings are half-siblings, children of Maria and Joseph while Jesus is the son of Maria and conceived by God, not Joseph. Eastern Orthodox would likely say the siblings were stepsiblings if Joseph had children from a prior marriage. Our Catholic brothers and sisters may view Maria remaining a virgin, and Jesus’s siblings (named in Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55) were close kin, possibly cousins (children of Mara, conflating the two James into one).

Some Catholics also believe that Salome was a half-sister of Maria: St. Anne had a daughter from each of three husbands: Maria (mother of Jesus), Mara (daughter of Clopas), and Salome (Mary Salome). These three sisters are called the three Marys at the tomb (Maria, Jesus's mother, Mara of Clopas, and Mary-Salome). The three Marys at the crucifixion are generally Maria (mother of Jesus), Mara of Clopas, and Marie of Magdala.

My novel follows the view that Maria remained a virgin only until Jesus was born and that Jesus’s siblings were children of Maria (Maria and Mara each have a son named James). My novels reflect that Jesus’s siblings did not believe in Jesus during his ministry (John 7:5) but believed after the resurrection (Acts 1:14). Since early historians Hegesippus and Eusebius state Clopas was a brother of Joseph, my novel portrays Mara as the wife of Clopas and sister-in-law to Maria.

In Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold, I show Clopas and Mary with four children, Jamie (who became the apostle James the Less), Joses, Janis, and Simeon (who traditionally became the 2nd bishop of Jerusalem). James the Less, son of Alphaeus (another name for Clopas), is one of the twelve disciples (Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15, Acts 1:13). In traditional art, only James the Less and John, son of Zebedee, are depicted without a beard, as they are the youngest apostles. My novel shows these two as teenagers, having become men at about age 13. Jesus’ aunt and uncle, Mary and Clopas, may well have become a husband-and-wife team of travelling missionaries.


Elaine Ricker Kelly Author is empowering women with Christian fiction about women in the Bible and early church and Christian blogs about women in leadership, church history and doctrine. Her books include:

  • Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold, Book 1

  • The Sword A Fun Way to Engage in Healthy Debate on What the Bible Says About a Woman's Role

  • Because She Was Called: from Broken to Bold, Book 2, A Novel of the Early Church, imagines Mary Magdalene's trip to testify before the emperor


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