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  • Writer's pictureElaine Kelly

Mary of Clopas and Mary of Nazareth

Updated: May 16, 2022

When approaching my biblical fiction, I had a long look at the many Mary's and their children. To avoid confusion for readers of my novel, I call Mary Magdalene 'Marie', Martha's sister in Bethany 'Miriam', the mother of Jesus 'Maria', Mary of Clopas 'Mara', Mary Salome is simply Salome, and Phillip's sister is Mariamne.

Earlier I posted about Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany. Today I'm looking at the mother of Jesus "Maria", and Mary of Clopas "Mara" and their children. Were they sisters, sisters-in-law, sister-wives? Did they both have children named James, Joses/Joseph, Jude and Simon/Simeon?

Here are the options:

a) 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. Jesus's brothers are actually his stepbrothers. Mary may have given birth to Jesus at 15 and became a widow before Jesus was 30.

b) the modern Protestant view is that the brothers of Jesus were sons of Joseph and Mary; she remained a virgin only until after Jesus' birth. Protestants see this as more in line with the Bible's records saying Jesus' had 'brothers and sisters' (Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3).

c) the Roman Catholic and early Protestant view is that Mary remained a perpetual virgin and that Jesus' brothers and sisters were actually his cousins, children of Mary of Clopas. This option means the children of Mary of Clopas (James, Joses, Simeon) are the same people as the brothers of Jesus (James, Joseph, Jude, Simon).

d) another alternative would be that Joseph had no children, and died leaving no heirs. Joseph's brother would have fulfilled his duty under Leverite law and married Joseph's widow so that Mary could have children to be Joseph's heirs. This idea meets the biblical description of Jesus' siblings (Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3). It also meets the biblical description of Mary the mother of Jesus as sister to Mary of Clopas (John 19:25), as the mother of Jesus would become a sister-wife to Mary of Clopas. I don't know any theologians who seriously entertain this option.

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

Those who believe Jesus' brothers were actually his cousins point to ancient historian Hegesippus who states they were the children of Mary of Clopas. Many theologians believe that Alphaeus is the same as Clopas. Alphaeus (in Aramaic), Cleophas (Greek) and Clopas (Hebrew).

The 2nd-century writer Hegesippus, 4th- century historian Eusebius, and the 5th-century theologian Jerome all wrote that Clopas was a brother of Joseph,

Clopas' wife, Mary of Clopas, is called the Virgin Mary's sister (John 19:25), though technically she was her sister-in-law. She is also called the mother of James and Joses (Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:47), the mother of James the Less (Mark 15:40), Mark 16:1-7, Luke 24:1-32). Therefore, the Apostle James the Less is the son of Mary of Clopas, also called the son of Alphaeus (Matt. 10:2-3, Luke 6:15).

Mary, Daughter of Clopas or Wife of Clopas:

In contrast, some believe that Mary of Clopas is the daughter of Clopas and the biological sister of the virgin Mary. The tradition is that Saint Anne was married three times. From one husband, she had Mary who became the mother of Jesus, from another husband, she had Mary, daughter of Clopas, and from another husband, she had Mary Salome, who married Zebedee and became the mother of James and John (making these two apostles cousins of Jesus). This would make Salome Jesus' mother's sister, fitting with John 19:25 "Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene" (NIV). There is debate about whether "his mother's sister" is an adjective describing Mary the wife of Clopas, or is a placeholder for Salome, John's own mother. Salome is mentioned at the cross by name in Matthew and Mark but not in John's gospel. The gospels say that there were many women at the cross. There is an ancient tradition that Mary Salome acted as a midwife when Mary gave birth to Jesus. Most theologians say it's more likely that Mary of Clopas was the wife of Clopas than the daughter of Clopas.

Simon, son of Clopas:

Eusebius says Clopas has a son Simeon in Hebrew (Simon in Greek), who 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).

Jude, brother of Jesus/James

Christians agree that the writer of the letter of Jude is a brother of both James and Jesus. Some even say that Jesus' brother Jude is the Apostle Jude Thaddaeus. However, the Bible does not pair Jude and James the Less as it does with other sets of brothers. While Alphaeus is also the name of Matthew's father, most theologians agree that there is no evidence that Matthew and James the Less are brothers. No apostles are associated with James the Less as a brother in the same way as James/John and Peter/Andrew.

James, brother of Jesus

It is agreed that James, brother of Jesus, 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 and is called James the Just. Tradition is that around AD 65, Jewish leaders called for James the Just, brother of Jesus, 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. Because historically the Roman Catholic church merged James the brother of Jesus with James the Less, James the Less is depicted in traditional art holding a fuller's club. Be careful not to confuse these two James with the James killed about 44 AD per Acts 12 (that was James the brother of John, son of Zebedee and Salome),

The fuller's club may be referring to the large wooden bat used by ancient fullers to clean, soften, and whiten cloth. Fullers would beat and stir the cloth in tubs of urine, a source of ammonium that helped cleanse and whiten the fabric. Blacksmiths also have a tool called a fuller. It has a rounded nose to spread metal more efficiently than a flat hammer. My novel shows Clopas and his son James the Less as blacksmiths.

Apostle James the Less, not James, brother of Jesus:

Since we know that Jesus' brothers did not believe in him until after the resurrection (John 7:5), my novel presents James the Less (son of Mary of Clopas) as distinct from James, the brother of Jesus (son of the virgin Mary). This is consistent with the view of Eastern Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Christians. My novel follows the biblical account that James, brother of Jesus, remains an unbeliever until after the resurrection and then becomes a pillar in the church and the first bishop of Jerusalem.

My novel portrays James the Less as being a son of Alphaeus/Clopas and the son of Mary of Clopas. I show Clopas and Mary with four children, Jamie (who became the apostle James the Less), Joses, Janis, and Simeon. 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 with their bar mitzvah. James the Less was martyred in Ostrakine in 62 AD. Simeon, the second bishop of Jerusalem, was martyred around AD 100. Jesus’ aunt and uncle, Mary and Clopas, may well have been a husband-and-wife team of travelling missionaries.

My novel portrays three James:

  1. son of Zebedee and Salome (the apostle James the Great)

  2. son of Mary of Clopas (the apostle James the Less)

  3. brother of Jesus (James the Just) became a believer after the resurrection, became a pillar of the church

There are two additional James not mentioned in my novel. One is a James mentioned in Acts 1:13: James the father of the apostle Jude/Judas (also known as Thaddaeus).

The final James comes 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, 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.

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