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The Nazoreans 4: The Desposynoi

Members of the family of Jesus were prominent members of the Natzraye community. Julius Africanus preserved the Greek designation by which they were known: desposynoi, roughly “the Lord’s people.” A Semitic equivalent for this term is lost to us, but there almost certainly was one. As mentioned in part three of this series, Reed’s investigation of the archeology of Galilee has refuted the common assumption that the region was thoroughly hellenized. Although major Hellenistic centers such as Sepphoris and Tiberias certainly existed, the material culture of small villages like Nazareth and Capernaum demonstrate that the population there was clearly Jewish and thus would have used Aramaic as their common language and Hebrew in worship.

In Hebrew, the desposynoi might have called themselves something like benei beth ha-‘adon, “Children of the House of the Lord.” Syriac, a later dialect of Aramaic, has the adjective maranay (plural maranaye), “Belonging to the Lord,” which might serve as a rough equivalent of desposynos. All of this, of course, is pure speculation. [I am indebted to Dr. Edward Cook for suggesting these possible Semitic equivalents, and for his lucid cautions about their speculative nature.]

Epiphanius connected the origins of Ebionism with the village of Kokhaba, about ten miles north of Nazareth. Julius Africanus stated that traveling preachers from the family of Jesus were based in both Nazareth and Kokhaba. Paul was also aware of “brothers of the Lord” involved in itinerant missionary work (1 Co 9:5).

A central figure in the formative years of the community was James (Ya’aqov), “the Lord’s brother” (Gal 1:19). Later writers called him a “bishop”—in fact the first bishop—of Jerusalem. Bauckham notes that, though the term may be anachronistic, “he seems to have been more like a later monarchical bishop than anyone else in the period of the first Christian generation.” In fact, James’ role was not confined to Jerusalem. Bauckham continues:

Since the Jerusalem church was the mother church of all the churches, and was naturally accorded the same kind of central authority over the whole Christian movement that Jerusalem and the temple had long had for the Jewish people, James now occupied a position of unrivaled importance in the whole early Christian movement.

Furthermore, the Gospel of Thomas (early 2nd century) reflects a connection between James and northern Mesopotamia. Logion 12 states,

The disciples said to Jesus, “We know that you will depart from us. Who is to be great over us?” Jesus said to them, “Wherever you shall have come, you are to go to James the Righteous, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.”

Although this obviously hyperbolic statement has no possibility of being an authentic saying of Jesus, it does demonstrate the centrality of James for the Gospel of Thomas community, and Bauckham suggests that the saying may in fact go back to James’ lifetime.

James is also exalted in the Pseudo-Clementine writings, where he is called by such terms as “the chief of the bishops” and “archbishop” (see James Julius Scott Jr., “Glimpses of Jewish Christianity from the End of Acts to Justin Martyr [A.D. 62-150]“). In the first book of the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions, James is described as carrying on activities characteristic of an administrative head.

James has the distinction of being the only follower of Jesus mentioned by name in a first-century source not written by a Christian: Josephus records his martyrdom in AD 62 under the high priest Ananus II. Josephus noted the high regard in which the people of Jerusalem held James and invested him with the designation “James the Righteous.”

After the death of James, it seems the Jerusalem community existed in a state of turmoil that only ended after the first Jewish War (AD 66-70) with the appointment of Simon (Shim’on, also rendered Symeon or Simeon) as the community’s second “bishop.” This selection was contested by one Theboutis, who appears to have been a viable candidate. As Hegesippus described the proceedings, there being no other grounds for choosing between the two, Simon was chosen “because he was another cousin of the Lord.”

We should not, however, assume that leadership of the Nazorean community was based on a principle of dynastic succession among the desposynoi. In fact, the idea only seems to have arisen with Simon in AD 70. If it were an entrenched principle, Theboutis would never have even been considered as a possible leader. Also, following Simon, leadership of the community passed to Judas “the Righteous,” whom Eusebius describes as “a certain Jew named Justus, one of many thousands of the circumcision who by that time had believed on Christ.” If Judas had any claim to membership in the family of Jesus, Eusebius showed no indication whatsoever that this was the case.

The desposynoi enjoyed a certain respect within the Nazorean community, but they did not hold a monopoly on its leadership. Bauckham suggests that the best model to explain the role of the family of Jesus in the community is not that of dynastic succession but of the association of a ruler’s family with him in government.

Just as it was normal practice in the ancient Near East for members of the royal family to hold high offices in government, so Palestinian Jewish Christians felt it appropriate that Jesus’ brothers, cousins and other relatives should hold positions of authority in his church. Indeed, the term desposynoi could well have the sense, more or less, of “members of the royal family.”

This respected position may be illustrated by Zoker and James, grandsons of Jude, who apparently held positions of leadership in the 80’s or 90’s. The nature of their responsibility within the community is unclear. According to Scott,

They seem, to some extent, to have shared authority with Symeon in Palestine. They may have been the heads of small Christian communities outside Jerusalem. Although they may be described as “bishops” in their own right, Symeon may have had at least nominal control over them.

The only other desposynic bishop of Jerusalem according to ancient sources was Judas Kyriakos in the early second century. When the Second Jewish War ended with the sack of Jerusalem in 135, the Jews, including Jewish believers in Jesus, were expelled from Jerusalem and the city was renamed Aelia Capitolina. At that time the small Gentile Jesus movement in the city chose a man named Marcus to be their bishop.

Next: Distinctive Features

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