A Catholic novel that looks at the non-traditional family in the time of Christ
Every Christmas the iconic image of the Holy Family – Jesus, Mary, and Joseph – are seen across the world. However, in some branches of Catholicism including some Orthodox and Eastern Rites there is much more to this non-traditional family. In those faiths, Christ might have had stepsiblings.
The concept of Christ having siblings is usually more in line with being a protestant, and in some cases to discredit his divinity. However, this understanding of a stepbrother or sister is not all that widely understood or embraced. Brother in Aramaic is often interchangeable with the word cousin.
While not widely accepted in all Catholic traditions, Bill Kassel’s book My Brother’s Keeper embraces the belief. As a practicing Roman Catholic, however, the work does not come from his personal belief.
The novel gives the idea a great deal of respect and thought, partially because it is based on Kassel’s own interest and study of forgotten (non-canonical) scripture. These books were often written by early Christians and circulated in the early years of the church, but the church later omitted many from the more recognized version of the bible.
Kassel’s book specifically follows James, who in the Bible is referred to as “brother of the Lord” in the book of Galatians. My Brother’s Keeper views the statement literally, unlike most Catholic teachings.
It portrays James as the youngest son of Joseph and his deceased wife. Growing up, James is a good student of the Torah and is sent to Jerusalem to study to be a rabbi. This all happens while Jesus is growing up in Nazareth.
Joseph believes Jesus is destined for greatness, and on his deathbed asks James to look after Jesus. From that point on James life focus was to protect Jesus, and Kassel said he “wanted to explore what it means to be Jesus’ brother.”
He uses the relationship between Jesus and his stepbrother as a way to explore and contextualize the religious and sociopolitical landscape of the time and how the message of Christ sent shockwaves through the political and cultural powers. He specifically looks at the cultural and religious complication between three Jewish groups the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, all of which were vying to be the dominant Jewish voice, and the Roman Empire, which feared an uprising.
“I forced myself into the position of the people ... how would I have reacted,” said Kassel.
As an example of the tensions, the Sadducees were influenced heavily by Greek and Roman thought, even giving support to the Romans during their occupation of Palestine. The Pharisees believed in an afterlife, in contrast to the Sadducees, a concept, while not lacking in modern Judaism, is far more associated with Christianity. As a result, he believes James and Jesus were Pharisees.
The Essenes believed temple leadership was corrupt and opposed the Roman occupation so much that they stockpiled weapons.
Oddly enough, given biblical accounts of his challenging of the Pharisees, Kassel believes this would have been Christ’s school of thought.
He cites Christ’s famous “do unto others” philosophy as possible paraphrasing of Hillel, a Pharisee rabbi. Of course, the Holy Bible does not end with his effect on the religious practices of the first century A.D., or even his crucifixion and neither does this book.
As a rabbi, James cultivated relationships with Roman leadership, particularly Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who gave the order to torture and eventually kill Christ. Despite these relationships, James could not save Christ.
The focus on these political pressures shows inevitability to the crucifixion.
This approach of portraying it from a political light comes from heavy research into the times and places Kassel wrote about. One thing he hopes his research and writing will work against the centuries’ long anti-Semitic propaganda that Jewish people as a whole are responsible for Christ’s Crucifixion.
The focus on James’ law background comes from biblical accounts of his role in early Christianity. Not the least of which taking a lead role in determining what Jewish practices would be carried over to the new religion, and if gentiles could practice.
Christ reveals himself to James after his resurrection, and it is at this point in the book that James realizes Christ is the messiah.
While My Brother’s Keeper is fiction, Kassel said he did not stray very far from scripture in writing this book, and believes Chaldeans will especially enjoy seeing their perspective on Christianity, which is often overlooked, represented with reverence.
Bill Kassel talked about his novel on Ave Maria Radio with Teresa Tomeo. You can hear the podcast at www.avemariaradio.net. His book is available at https://avemariaradio.net/product/ brothers-keeper-novel-family-jesus/