Who were Jesus' “brothers and sisters”?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Tuesday 16, August 2011 | Category:  

The church preserves many glorious mysteries—and some knotty other ones as well. The siblings of Jesus fit into the latter category. Eleven times the New Testament refers to brothers/sisters of Jesus. Some are named: James, Joses, Simon, and Judas. James, “the brother of the Lord,” will play a significant role in the Jerusalem church, according to the Acts of the Apostles, and is mentioned with some deference by Saint Paul. The precise number of such siblings or what became of the rest of them after Jesus’ Crucifixion is unknown.

Curiosity alone would lead us to seek more information about potential relatives of Jesus (and their descendants!). The real issue is the conflict between the church’s teaching on the perpetual virginity of Mary and the possibility of a larger family. The Greek words adelphos and adelphe mean just what English does by “brother” and “sister.” That is not a generic reference to kin or cousins, as is often suggested.

The trouble lies in that Hebrew doesn’t make such fine distinctions about degrees of consanguinity: Members of the same clan were regarded broadly as brothers. James and Joses, listed above as brothers of Jesus, are called sons of another Mary later at the cross. It’s also hard to understand why Jesus would commend his own mother to one of his disciples at the cross if she had other living children who might care for her.

The church fathers proposed that Saint Joseph had had a previous marriage which provided him with children. That would make the siblings of Jesus not children by Mary at all. There is no proof for or against this theory—although a manuscript called The Infancy Gospel of James from around 150 A.D. builds on this interpretation. Like the linguistic fix, the half-sibling theory offers a way to reconcile scripture with doctrine.

Most big-gun Catholic scripture scholars (and some Protestant ones) subscribe to one of these explanations or avoid the discussion in their commentaries altogether even while addressing these verses. A few, like Jesuit Jerome Neyrey, admit simply that the New Testament authors apparently believed Jesus had brothers and sisters. If we take their word as historically accurate, that doesn’t affect the teaching about the Virgin Birth of Jesus but does emphasize his divine origins.

Scripture
• Matthew 12:46; 13:55; Mark 3:31-32; 6:3; Luke 8:19; John 2:12; 7:3-5; 20:17; Acts of the Apostles 1:14; 1 Corinthians 9:5; Galatians 1:19; also John 19:26

Online
Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), the Second Vatican Council—see Chapter 8, “The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the Mystery of Christ and the Church”
Redemptoris Mater (On the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Life of the Pilgrim Church), encyclical letter of Pope John Paul II

Books
• Mary in the New Testament: A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars, Raymond E. Brown, ed. (Fortress Press, 1978)
Mary 101: Tradition and Influence by Mary Ann Zimmer (Liguori Press, 2010)

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