Skip to main content

Brothers of Jesus

Brothers of Jesus

The "Brothers and Sisters" of Jesus: Anything New?

– Father François Rossier, S.M.

In 1978, the authors of the now well-known book Mary in the New Testament [Raymond BROWN, Karl P. DONFRIED, Joseph A. FITZMYER & John REUMANN (eds.), Mary in the New Testament: A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars. New York – Mahwah (Paulist Press) 1978] reached the four following conclusions on the identification of the "brothers and sisters" of Jesus mentioned in the New Testament:

1. The continued virginity of Mary after the birth of Jesus is not a question directly raised by the New Testament.

2. Once it was raised in subsequent church history, it was that question which focused attention on the exact relationship of the "brothers" (and "sisters") to Jesus.

3. Once that attention has been focused, it cannot be said that the New Testament identifies them without doubt as blood brothers and sisters and hence as children of Mary.

4. The solution favored by scholars will in part depend on the authority they allot to later church insights (p. 72).

The subtitle of this book--A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars--clearly denotes some ecumenical ambition. And, as such, the four scholars did reach a common agreement, the most important aspect of which is twofold.

First, the biblical text allows one to identify the so-called "brothers and sisters" as Jesus' siblings as well as other sorts of close relatives. Thus exegetes may either accept Mary's post partum (i.e. after Jesus' birth) virginity--in the literal meaning of the word--or reject it, without having to surrender their intellectual integrity. Both interpretations are acknowledged as being consonant with Scripture. Second, since both interpretations are scripturally legitimate, readers will see in Jesus' "brothers and sisters" either siblings or close relatives, depending mostly on the tradition they belong to and by the way they relate to that tradition.

Almost thirty years later, have scholars moved any further in this regard? As far as the first point is concerned, exegetes and theologians have continued to investigate the topic of the so-called "brothers and sisters" of Jesus. Some conclusions seem to have been achieved on this matter, especially about possible indirect biblical references to multiple childbirths of Mary. These two indirect references are found in Matthew 1:25 (Joseph knew Mary "not until she had bore a son") and in Luke 2:7 (Mary "gave birth to her firstborn son"). Biblical scholars no longer claim that "until" or "firstborn" are to be read as pointing at subsequent pregnancies of Mary.

There is a consensus on these points. Matthew 1:25 does not imply that Joseph knew Mary after she had borne Jesus. The Greek heôs, "until," does not necessarily contrast "before" to "after." It means that up to a certain moment, something happened or not, without considering what happened after that moment. For instance, the Greek text of the Septuagint says, in 2 Samuel 6:23, that "Mikal, daughter of Saul, had no children until (heôs) the days of her death." This obviously does not suggest that she had children after her death. Matthew is interested in underlining that Jesus' birth and conception were carried out without the intervention of any man.

Likewise, the term prôtotokos, "firstborn," as applied to males is recognized to have a unique legal and cultic meaning. In Exodus 13:2, the Lord says: "Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine." Moses, in Exodus 13:12, adds: "You shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb." In Israel a firstborn was defined as such not because he was the first among other siblings, but because he was the first "to open" his mother's womb, whether his mother would have other children or not. In Numbers 3:40, the Lord ordered to Moses: "Number all the firstborn males of the people of Israel, from a month old and upward." A one-month-old child could not be declared a first-born because he had other siblings. The term "firstborn" refers above all to the law, and is thus applicable not only to the eldest of several, but also to an only son. Luke insists, three times, on showing how Jesus was presented into the Temple as the law demanded for every firstborn male child (cf. Luke 2:22.23.27).

If the debate around the meaning of "until" and "firstborn" looks closed, this is not the case concerning the "brothers and sisters" of Jesus mentioned in the New Testament. Three lines of interpretation developed very early in this regard. The Helvidian one--named after the tract Against Helvidius written around 383 by Jerome--maintained that the "brothers and sisters" are Jesus' true blood siblings and children of Joseph and Mary. The Jeromian one, opposing Helvidius, concluded that the "brothers and sisters" are Jesus' cousins. And the Epiphanian one--named after the fourth-century Bishop of Salamis, Epiphanius, who was one of its great sponsors--stated that the "brothers and sisters" are children of a previous marriage of Joseph.

This plurality of interpretations has been made possible because of the ambiguity of the word "brother" (and "sister") in ancient Hebrew. This language, like Aramaic, does not distinguish between blood brother and cousin. In fact--and this point might not have been taken into sufficient consideration--the Hebrew word ah, in its literal meaning, applies to any close male relative of the same generation. Once someone belongs to this circle--whether as sibling, half-brother, step-brother or cousin--he is an ah. Within this circle defined by true family brotherhood, no further word distinction is made. For ancient Hebrew, one belongs either to the family in-group or not. John P. Meier , for instance, wrote that, in Matthew 13:50, "the final 'punch line' of Jesus carries full weight only if the mother, brothers, and sisters all have a close, natural relationship to Jesus." [John P. MEIER, "The Brothers and Sisters of Jesus in Ecumenical Perspective." Catholic Biblical Quarterly 54 (1992) 1-28, page 13.] In Meier's mind, it means that the "brothers and sisters" were Mary's children. Yet, what Jesus says there still carries full weight if the "brothers and sisters" were half-brothers or half-sisters of his, since such half-brothers and sisters would also belong to the closest family circle.

Ancient Greek considers how the family members of a same generation may be related, and distinguishes between an adelphos, "brother," and an anepsios, "cousin." Since the New Testament was written in ancient Greek, the sponsors of the Helvidian interpretation argue that wherever the word "brother" is used it refers to a true sibling. They concede that if we can suppose an original Hebrew or Aramaic that preceded the Greek text, we may accept that the New Testament authors felt bound to translate the original Hebrew or Aramaic expression word-by-word into Greek. But when such an original text or fixed expression cannot be supposed, they continue, we need to acknowledge that the authors of the New Testament made the distinction between "brother" and "cousin," since they were writing in Greek.

The psychological and anthropological reality of speaking and writing in a language of another culture is, however, more complex. I was able to witness it when I was living in Abidjan, the major city of the Ivory Coast, in West Africa. It is today a big city of about four million inhabitants that grew up in a zone originally scarcely populated. The sparse original population was not able to absorb the waves of immigrants coming from all over the former French colonies in West Africa. The only language all these people had in common was French, and French became thus the native language of Abidjan. In most native languages of West Africa, no distinction is made between a "brother" and a "cousin," whereas such a distinction exists in French. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of Abidjan, whose mother tongue is French, who have been raised and educated in French, continue to use the French word for "brother" when they speak of a "cousin." Using the French word for "cousin" would betray the way they envision social and family relationships. When the people of Abidjan want to specify that "brother" means a true blood sibling, they need to add "same father, same mother" (même père, même mère). Full siblings are a particular kind of brothers; they do not constitute the benchmark of brotherhood. The socio-cultural milieu of the authors of the New Testament is Judaism. So, we can accept the idea that, even if their text does not suppose a Hebrew or Aramaic substrate, in their use of Greek words they would naturally convey the way their own Judaic society and culture envision social and family relationships.

Scholars keep debating the Jewishness of Luke, but he is still recognized as the least Jewish and the most Greek among the four evangelists. He mentions the "brothers" of Jesus only in Luke 8:19-21, a text that is based on Mark 3:31-35 (see parallel in Matthew 12:46-50); and in Acts 1:14, a text that could be regarded as depending upon the synoptic tradition where no distinction is made "between Mary and the brothers in their portrait of Jesus’ ministry." (Mary in the New Testament, p. 175) In texts where Luke is neither bound by any Hebrew susbtrate nor dependent on a pre-existing tradition, no mention is made of any "brother" of Jesus: neither when the twelve-year-old Jesus is found in the Temple nor, in the Acts of the Apostles, where James, head of the church in Jerusalem, is not introduced as the "brother" of the Lord as Paul calls him in Galatians 1:19. Being "more Greek" than the other authors of the New Testament, Luke was possibly aware that the the term "brother" used, in a non-generic way, to refer to non-siblings might lead his Greek readers into some confusion. Not knowing what the Greek exact equivalents of Jesus' family bonds were, he might simply have chosen not to speak of Jesus' "brothers."

We cannot make an argument ex silentio, but we can also observe that there are no "cousins" in the New Testament, except for one case. We find the word anepsios once, in Colossians 4:10. Most scholars today think that the Letter to the Colossians was not written by Paul, but probably by a disciple of his from the second generation of Christians with a Greek background. Otherwise, we find the word adelphos 343 times in the New Testament (and adelphê, "sister," 26 times), but no other "cousin." The only family relationship that existed among people of a same generation in the New Testament seems to be brotherhood. Is it relevant, since we know that in Judaic society the inmost family group was not limited to the nuclear family as we know it in North America or in Europe? Other Greek words such as homopatôr ("half-brother by the father") or homomêtôr ("half-brother by the mother") are also not found in the New Testament. If the authors of the New Testament wanted to render the relationships within Jesus' family as precisely as possible in Greek, they should have used such expressions since--and Matthew and Luke make it very clear--Jesus was not the true son of Joseph. If Jesus' "brothers" were sons of Mary, they would have been only Jesus' "half-brothers by the mother," and there was a Greek word for that.

It remains true that the word "brother," in Hebrew, also means "blood sibling." Since it is the most obvious--but by far not the exclusive--meaning, it cannot be simply dismissed. The use of the word adelphos remains, therefore, a challenge for those who uphold Mary's virginity post partum. Yet, reading this word as referring only to actual siblings may also raise some difficulties.

It has been said that imagining Joseph and Mary having children together after Jesus' birth would conflict with Mary's so-called "vow of virginity," as interpreted in her question to the angel at the moment of the Annunciation (Luke 1:34). Such a "vow," or at least an intention to remain a virgin, is thought to be the only satisfactory explanation for Mary's question: "How can this be since I know not man?" If Mary had no intention of remaining a virgin, she would not have asked "how." She would have naturally concluded that she would conceive the Messiah after having had intercourse with Joseph. That interpretation supposes that Mary is here raising a kind of objection. Yet, it is also reasonable to ascribe to Mary's question the function of a mere literary device, meant to allow the angel to explain about Jesus' virginal conception. And since betrothal seems to be hardly compatible with the intention to remain a virgin, we should not read into Mary's question more than its function within a story that is about Jesus' origin and not about her life project. Besides, the fact that such a "vow" would have been odd in a girl who was betrothed, has also to be taken into consideration. In first-century Israel, people normally married in order to procreate.

It has also been asked why would Jesus, on the cross, entrust Mary to a disciple, even a beloved one, if his mother had other children? However, if we ascribe a symbolic meaning to Jesus' gesture--the disciple is invited to welcome Mary as a physical prolongation of Jesus' presence, for instance--the argument loses its value. Jesus is not concerned about finding a home for his mother, but about the formation of his disciples who are invited to acknowledge Mary as their own mother. Of course, a symbolic interpretation does not exclude a more literal one, but neither does it require it. The statement "And from that hour the disciple took her eis ta idia," in John 19:27, does not necessarily mean that the disciple offered Mary his home, but also could mean that he took her literally "to his own" (Mary in the New Testament, p.206), in a symbolic way. Such a symbolic interpretation does not contradict the possibility that Mary had other biological children besides Jesus.

The scene at the foot of the cross leaves us with another difficulty when we compare Mark 15:40 (Matt 27:55) with Mark 6:3 (Matt 13:55). In Mark 6:3, the "brothers" of Jesus are named; they are James and Joses and Judas and Simon. Two of the names, James and Joses, appear again in Mark 15:40, where they are said to be the sons of a Mary, one of the women watching the crucifixion. If this Mary is the mother of Jesus, it is odd that she is not identified as mother of Jesus, since Jesus is a much more prominent character than James or Joses. It has been argued that the James mentioned in Mark 15:40 is identified as "the younger," which is not the case about the James of Mark 6:3. They must have been, therefore, two distinct individuals. This distinction, though, is not present between Matthew 13:55 and Matthew 27:55. So, in order to solve the difficulty, some of those who uphold the existence of Jesus' true siblings have recourse to considering Mark 15:40 as a later addition to the original text, and thus not conclusive: the names in that verse, they hold, should not be related to those in Mark 6:3. About the identification of the names contained in that verse, it could also be said that Jude, the author of the epistle, introduces himself as "brother of James." If he is the Jude mentioned in Mark 6:3, we may deduce that there are some differences in family ties among the "brothers" of Jesus listed in Mark 6:3. Otherwise, why would Jude not have introduced himself as the "brother" of Jesus? That would have given him greater credentials. He must have then been more closely related to James than to Jesus. Would the hypothesis that he was related to Jesus only by his mother, and to James both by his father and his mother be sufficient to account for it?

Nowhere in the New Testament are the "brothers" of Jesus also identified as "sons of Mary" within the same context whereas, again in Mark 6:3, Jesus is identified as "the son of Mary" by the people of Nazareth. This formula most probably does not allude to Jesus' virginal conception, since it is put into the mouths of people who did not believe in Jesus. It could show that people in Nazareth suspected or knew that Jesus was not Joseph's child, and would then reveal that they regarded Jesus as a bastard. Supporters of the Epiphanian hypothesis, on the other hand, may say that the people of Nazareth simply wanted to distinguish Jesus from his "brothers," sons of Joseph's earlier marriage. The use of the definite article "the son of Mary" is less relevant. It does not necessarily mean that such a son is the only one. Grammatical usage in the New Testament is unclear in this regard. For instance, Matthew 10:2 speaks of "James the son of Zebedee," whereas in 26:7 he speaks of "the sons of Zebedee."

Concerning the relationships between "brothers," the passage of John 7:3ff. raises some questions about whether the brothers of Jesus mentioned there are Mary's biological children. They seem in fact to instruct Jesus about what he should do: "Leave here and go to Judea ..." If Jesus was the firstborn of several siblings, he was obviously the eldest son and, as such, would have enjoyed a privileged social and family status in first-century Israeli society. Younger brothers would not be entitled to command him. The argument is not conclusive since it could be debated whether Jesus' "brothers" are giving him instructions or mere suggestions. Yet it would be consonant with the idea that Jesus' "brothers" were older than Jesus and, thus, not Mary's children.

Still related to John and focused on consonance, another argument in favor of Jesus being Mary's only child has been raised by the late Jaroslav Pelikan in a recent publication [Jaroslav PELIKAN, "Most Generations Shall Call Me Blessed: An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Liturgy." Carl E. BRAATEN & Robert W. JENSON eds., Mary, Mother of God. Grand Rapids, Mich. – Cambridge, U.K. (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) 2004, 1-18]. In this article, Pelikan reflects on the meaning of the Greek word monogenês, applied to Jesus in John's prologue (1:18). He argues that this word should be translated as "only-begotten" though "modern New Testament scholars and translators"--see for instance the NRSV, the NAB, the NIV--"have sought to scale down its meaning from 'only-begotten' to 'only,' and therefore to treat it as just a little more than another word for monos." (p. 8) Then, "on the basis of the New Testament declaration that 'every fatherhood in heaven and on earth' is named from the Fatherhood of God--see Ephesians 3:14-15--rather than the other way around," (p. 9) "a fitting corollary of that congruence and paradoxical parallelism"--i.e. "between God in Godself and God in his act" [See Tim S. PERRY, Mary for Evangelicals: Toward an Understanding of the Mother of Our Lord. Downers Grove, Ill. (InterVarsity Press) 2006, page 283]--is the teaching that "the human birth as well as the divine birth was unique, so that He was the single and only-begotten Son of God but also the single and only-begotten Son of Mary;" (p. 8) since "what made the Son of God monos, 'single,' was this, that He was, in the precise and technical sense monogenês, 'only-begotten'." (p. 8).

If Pelikan's argument is biblical, it was reached after consideration of early liturgical texts. That is possibly where we have to look if we want to come to some conclusion concerning the identity of the "brothers" of Jesus mentioned in the New Testament. Early Christian texts have, thus, started to be explored even by scholars searching for what the Bible says in this regard. The Bible itself leaves the question unsolved. The repeated presence of the words "brothers" and "sisters" in the Greek text of the New Testament remains a strong point for the supporters of the Helvidian hypothesis. However, considering these "brothers and sisters" as children of Mary also creates some difficulties in the New Testament text. None of these difficulties is in itself conclusive, but their accumulation gives some strong support either to the Epiphanian or the Jeromian hypotheses too. Hence, the growing recourse to the early readers and interpreters of Scripture in order to achieve some progress in this regard.

The hypotheses concerning the identity of the "brothers and sisters" of Jesus were, in fact, named after such early readers. Does it signal that no final solution might be reached at that level too? Not exactly, since, as far as numbers are concerned, only very few among the early Christians authors denied Mary's virginity post partum. Helvidius himself is known only through the pamphlet Jerome wrote against him. He had two disciples, Jovinian and Bonosus. All three lived within the last decades of the fourth century. After them, the followers of the Helvidian opinion practically became extinct. Earlier, Hegesippus--a second century Hellenistic Jew converted to Christianity--and, especially, Tertullian--from 150/170 to around 230-- are said to have supported the idea that the "brothers" of Jesus were children of Mary. It is strongly contended that Hegesippus did consider James or Jude as blood brothers of Jesus.

Concerning Tertullian, scholars say that the only thing we can surely assert is that Tertullian simply seems to show no awareness that the idea of Mary's post partum virginity existed at all. He nowhere attacks this idea explicitly. Therefore, "the claim that the Helvidian position enjoyed antiquity and widespread support cannot be sustained." [See José M. PEDROZO, "The Brothers of Jesus and His Mother's Virginity." Tomist 63 (1999) 83-104, p. 101].

On the other side, starting with the "best-seller" apocrypha, Protogospel of James, and with Origen--around 185-254, the idea that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus' birth became widespread, to the point that "every Father of the Church in the fourth century who addressed the issue of the 'brother of Jesus' upheld Mary's virginity post partum." (See Pedrozo, p. 92). Of course, the Protogospel of James cannot be credited to be a reliable historical witness, but what the text affirms in presenting Joseph as having already been married and with children--the so-called "brothers" of Jesus--before meeting Mary, was at least not seen as being in contradiction with the biblical text. The vast majority of the Fathers of the Church, supporting either the Epiphanian or the Jeromian hypothesis, belonged to the Greek culture and spoke Greek. Some of them were even close to the New Testament era in both time and culture. Yet they did not find it an obstacle to consider Jesus' adelphoi as his cousins, step-brothers or half-brothers. The tradition adopted that point of view--be it the Catholic one, the Orthodox one, or even the Reformation one (with Luther and Calvin)--until the nineteenth century, when Protestant biblical scholars started to question the consensus in the name of the historical-critical method of interpretation. Their views were widely adopted within the Protestant denominations, making of Mary's perpetual virginity one of the great markers of dissent.

Even today, most Protestant biblical commentators will uphold the fact that Mary had other children after Jesus' birth, even those who have manifested a renewed interest in studying Mary. Alternately, the vast majority of Catholic biblical scholars sustain Mary's virginity post partum. Interestingly though, we find now a number, still small but growing, of scholars who try to approach the subject by appreciating the consistency of the other denomination's point of view. Some Catholic scholars (Pesch, Meier, Refoulé) affirm that a historical-critical reading of the New Testament does give much support to the Helvidian hypothesis. Whereas, some Protestant scholars (Raukamp, Pelikan) conclude that the Epiphanian or the Jeromian hypotheses enjoy strong biblical support, and that the New Testament cannot be read isolated from its first readers of the early Christian tradition.

At the beginning, we asked the question whether the situation regarding the identity of the "brothers and sisters" of Jesus mentioned in the New Testament had evolved over the past thirty years. If we look at arguments exclusively based on the biblical text, we must concede that very little has changed. The same argumentation is used again and again. Attempts are sometimes made at refining these by resorting to findings related to the history of the texts. But since it has become harder and harder to reach some consensus in that field, no real breakthrough has been made.

Some new insights have been, therefore, introduced through the use of extra-biblical data provided by patrology, liturgy, anthropology, sociology, etc. Liturgy has thus offered interesting perspectives on the way the word monogenês, in John's gospel, had been understood. Sociology and sociolinguistics have helped scholars grasp the complexity of expressions of family ties when transferred from one cultural context into another one.

The awareness that the biblical text can no longer, in itself, provide new information about Jesus' natural family is not recent. The existence of the apocrypha of the New Testament, such as the most popular Protogospel of James, attests to it already in the middle of the second century. Today, after the rediscovery of extra-biblical insights through new methods of interpretation, this awareness has been revived. And even renowned scholars fall prey to forgers, for example, when, in October 2002, they said that an ancient ossuary had been unearthed near Jerusalem bearing the inscription "ames/Jakob son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," and concluded that the box very probably belonged to Jesus' brother James. Then, in June 2003, this inscription was proved to be fake.

More promising, of course, is the reality that some Catholic and Protestant scholars, moved by ecumenical concerns, are now acknowledging the validity of the biblical foundation of the other denomination's traditional position concerning the identity of the "brothers and sisters" of Jesus mentioned in the New Testament. They are moving ahead on the way paved by the authors of Mary in the New Testament. Some Protestant theologians who still maintain that Mary probably had other children after Jesus' birth, are nonetheless ready to accept the notion of Mary's perpetual virginity. That is, they accept the theological significance of the perpetual virginity without postulating for it a physical reality. What is promising in all this is that Mary is little-by-little escaping from the yoke of being a stumbling block, a sign of division among the major Christian denominations.

All About Mary includes a variety of content, much of which reflects the expertise, interpretations and opinions of the individual authors and not necessarily of the Marian Library or the University of Dayton. Please share feedback or suggestions with


Marian Library

Roesch Library
300 College Park
Dayton, Ohio 45469 - 1390

Study Mary

Study the theology and history of Mary at the University of Dayton.

Learn More

Keyword Search

Would you like to begin a new keyword search?

Get Started