The Family Tree of Jesus of Nazareth

Never known from the gospels, but the product of the apocryphal books and medieval imagination

Mary and Joseph

Before we look further into Mary’s history, as constructed by the “forbidden” apocrypha, aided by some vivid imaginations, let us note the times when Mary actually is mentioned in the Scriptures:

All in all, we know very little of Mary, and this would have been totally unacceptable to medieval minds, which thrived on detail. The basis for most of the extended picture long predates the Middle Ages, since the apocryphal books, condemned by Church authorities well before, date to the earliest Christian centuries. Their depiction in medieval art, and their use in sermons delivered by many saints, caused them to have great popularity.

A complete overview would be beyond the scope of its page, but I should like to present you with a sampler of the elaborate family tree with which our medieval friends were well acquainted.

Mary’s parents, whose names are not mentioned in the Scriptures, were known as Anne (Hannah) and Joachim. These devout, generous and prosperous souls suffered the stigma of having no children after many years of marriage. Amongst the Jews (which medieval man occasionally remembered that Jesus and his family were), a lack of children meant divine disfavour, and Joachim was barred from offering sacrifices at the temple as a result.

Joachim, greatly discouraged, disappeared for a time, and the distraught Anne mourned for him as if he had died. However, Joachim, prompted by an angel, was to learn that his prayers for a child were to be answered.

Anne, who had dressed in her wedding robes to commemorate a great Jewish feast day, was overjoyed to find that her husband had returned, and ran to greet him at the gate. Sources are divided on what happened next, and several minds (contrary to Roman Catholic teaching that Mary's beginnings were no different from ours) were to assert that a chaste kiss during this meeting led to Mary’s conception.

Anne and Joachim dedicated their child to God, and, at age 3, she became the first girl (not to mention the oldest child) in recorded history to have a Presentation ceremony. The young Mary remained at the temple school (an institution that existed only in this context!), balancing her life between contemplation and learning such domestic arts as dyeing and weaving. The latter were to serve her well in later years, when the poverty of the family demanded her contribution.

This Jewish maiden's history was unique in far more ways than merely the obvious one. Though vows of chastity were not taken by Jewish women, except among the sect of the Essenes, Mary was to do so very young. This presented a problem when she reached puberty. A nubile maiden would defile the holy temple during her menstrual cycles, according to the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and even this extraordinary young lady was not exempted from this prohibition.

It was decided that Mary would be given to a husband who would hold her “in trust”, and who therefore needed to be both virtuous and of advanced years. During a contest for her hand, the elderly widower Joseph was to have a lily sprout from the staff he held, and the prize was his. Their betrothal presumably followed at once.

Shortly afterward, Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel, who announced that she was to be the Mother of the long-awaited Messiah, the Son of God. She then became pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit (which medieval artists depicted as involving a perfectly formed, tiny child descending on a sunbeam into his mother's right ear.) Directly afterward, Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and remained there three months, until John the Baptist was born and had his circumcision ceremony.

Needless to say, Joseph was quite troubled when his betrothed returned from her journey with a bun in the oven. (Many Christian authors speculated that Joseph believed her the victim of abduction, not one guilty of adultery.) He considered divorcing her quietly, to avoid her being stoned to death for adultery as the law prescribed, but he was informed, in a dream, of the pregnancy's special character, and he and Mary were wed.

For further details of Jesus’s childhood, please see The child Jesus

Jesus’s maternal grandmother and aunts

In her youth, Anne, who was raised in the vicinity of Mount Carmel, had contemplated a life of perpetual virginity. (This was a highly individualistic family.) However, the monks of the areas had a premonition, solidified by angelic revelations, that the Saviour was to be her descendant, and she was married to the pious and wealthy Joachim.

Anne was widowed shortly after the infant Mary's presentation in the temple. She would marry twice again, to Cleopas and to Salomas, and, with unprecedented fertility, bear two more daughters, both named Mary in remembrance of her firstborn. Jesus’s aunts were known as Mary Salome and Mary Cleopas, and were to be perpetually confused with the Maries who are mentioned in the scriptures as having been present for the crucifixion.

Mary Cleopas bore four sons, James the Just, Joses, Simon and Jude, who are named in the Scriptures as “Jesus’s brothers” because of the close kinship. Mary Salome married Zebedee, and their sons, James and John, were among the Apostles, rounding out a quite distinguished family circle.

Elizabeth had married Joachim’s nephew, Zacharias (son of Jacob). Since Zacharias also was Joseph’s brother, the family ties are more extensive than the scriptures illustrate. Joseph’s other brother, Clopas, was the father of Simeon, the second bishop of Jerusalem.

Jesus’s great-grandmother

nne’s mother, Esmerentia, has perhaps the most intriguing history of all the family members. Esmerentia was born, of David’s line, at the foot of Mount Carmel. She embraced a monastic life (this family were trend-setters, and “way ahead of their time”) in the company of the Carmelite monks who dwelled in the vicinity.

The monks had various revelations about Esmerentia, and were granted a vision of the Saviour of the World’s being her descendant. Though Esmerentia had been dedicated to virginity, she was not bound by perpetual vows, and her unique role, as the monks had discerned, needed to be fulfilled at once.

Unfortunately, Esmerentia’s marital history was to be quite tumultuous. The entire reason for her marriage, of course, was that the line be continued to make way for the Messiah. Her first six husbands, whose mindset was not sufficiently elevated to the mystic character of the task at hand, unfortunately permitted themselves lustful thoughts when they entered the bridal chamber, and were quickly dispatched to sheol by the angel of death.

Seven was the lucky number here, and the noble husband Stollanus apparently was able to attend to business without the intrusion of lust. The children of this marriage included Anne and Esmeria.

Esmeria’s grandson, Servius, is of note, and will conclude this treatment of family lore. Servius, who had inherited a tendency to great piety, travelled to Rome as a young man, and so impressed the Pope Saint Peter that the latter presented Servius with a duplicate set of the Keys of the Kingdom. (These were composed of silver rather than gold, since Servius was to be bishop of Tongres, not of Rome.) Apparently, Servius’s life span was to be one surpassed only by Methusaleh, since he was to survive to convert Attila four centuries later. For reasons unknown, Servius later was martyred by the peasants, then buried in Maastricht cathedral.

This delightful chronicle of Jesus’s family complements our understanding of the awareness that medieval man had of divine providence, and their identification with holy characters on a very human plane.


© 1996 by Elizabeth G. Melillo