Jesus’ “Brothers”

The perpetual virginity of Mary, the mother of Jesus, has been consistently taught from the early Christian era. Western and Eastern Catholicism, and the Orthodox, consider it a fixed doctrine. Even early Protestant reformers, including Luther and Calvin, asserted the doctrine as worthy of belief. At present, however, most Protestants, accept the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, but dispute Mary’s perpetual virginity.

The New Testament mentions Jesus’ brothers and sisters, which is obviously related to the issue, and to Protestant doubts about the “perpetuity” of Mary’s virginity. In Mark 6:3, four brothers are named – James, Jose, Simon, and Judas. In Matt. 13:55ff, the same four are  specified, but “Joses” is called by the more common “Joseph.” “Sisters” are also mentioned, although not specified by name. Other references to the brothers or sisters, sometimes by name, are to be found (Mark 3:31-35, Matt. 12:46-50, Luke 8:19-21; 6:3; John 7:3-10; Acts 1:14; Gal. 1:19; and 1 Cor. 9:5).

Many contemporary Protestants, looking to the Bible for support, take these references as pointers to biological siblings of Jesus. They find additional support in Matt. 1:25, which states that Joseph did not have sexual relations with Mary “until” the birth of Jesus; and in the reference there and also in Luke 2:7 to Jesus as Mary’s “firstborn” child.

The attempts made to identify the “brothers” in Patristic works, including the biographical chronicles of St. Hegesippus in the second century, and St. Jerome’s defense of Mary’s perpetual virginity against Helvidius, have led to the tradition, with some variations, that the “brothers” spoken of in the Gospels were cousins of Jesus.

Important considerations regarding the parentage issue include the following: There is no word for biological brother in either Aramaic, which Jesus spoke, or in Hebrew. There are multiple examples in the Bible of the use of the word, “until,” which do not imply “only until”; and of the use of “firstborn” which do not imply subsequent offspring. In Luke’s account (Lk. 2:42) of the multi-week pilgrimage the Holy Family made for Passover to Jerusalem, and the three-day search for Jesus, no mention is made of younger siblings. Pope Benedict notes in his new book that Jesus on the cross entrusted his mother to the “beloved disciple,” not to any biological children, as one might have expected if there were any.

James, the brother of Jesus (iconographer unknown)

The “sisters” have never been credibly identified. Differing opinions exist about the “brothers.” Some Catholic commentators think that Joseph was a widower and the “brothers” were thus stepbrothers; others maintain that they were children of the “other Mary,” who was present at the crucifixion (Mt. 27:56, Mk. 15:40, Jn. 19:25), and married to Clopas. The theologian Josef Blinzler, however, in Die Brüder und Schwestern Jesu, finding insufficient evidence that the “other Mary” was the wife of Clopas, comes to the following more conservative conclusion about the individual brothers, based on Patristic traditions, as well as an analysis of Biblical texts:

·       James and Joses (Joseph) were cousins of Jesus, probably of Levitical ancestry, and sons of the “other Mary.” James was the oldest of the brothers, unconvinced about Jesus’ messiahship until the resurrection; Jesus appeared to him then, and he became the leader of the brothers; he also became the leader of the believers in Jerusalem after Peter had to depart (Acts 12:17ff.), and was visited by Paul, who mentions James as a “brother of the Lord” in Galatians. He was not an apostle, since there were two apostles named James, one of whom was designated as a son of Zebedee (Mark 3:17), along with John, and was martyred under Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:2), and the other was designated as the Son of Alpaeus (Mark 3:18). James was stoned to death by the Sanhedrin when Annas II, the son of the Annas mentioned in the Gospels, became high priest.
·       Simon was born seven years before Jesus, according to the chronicles of St. Hegesippus, and chosen as bishop of Jerusalem after the martyrdom of James. Hegesippus writes: “[After James’ death] the son of an uncle of Jesus, Clopas, was installed. All agreed to his precedence, since he was another cousin of the Lord.”
·       Judas, like Simon, was a son of Clopas, the brother of Jesus’ father, Joseph. According to Hegesippus, two grandsons of Judas were summoned to Rome about 95 A.D., since the Emperor Domitian heard that they were descendants in the Davidic line. But the Emperor released them when it was established that they were farmers with no troublesome claims to the throne of David. Judas was the author, or “designated” author, of the short letter of Jude in the New Testament (the so-called “Catholic Epistle”).

If this is a trustworthy account of the cousins, Jesus’ early life seems to come into clearer focus: He was not an only child living a rather sheltered life until he received a “call” at the baptism by John, and performed his first sign of messiahship at the marriage at Cana (John 2:12). He would have been much involved in work and play with relatives in an extended family. One imagines the return of the Holy Family from Egypt after several years as an arduous resettlement, alleviated somewhat by help from relatives like Joseph’s brother, Clopus. 

The story of Jesus being lost at twelve during the Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem has, as background, a large group of traveling kinsmen. And the movement of Jesus, the cousins and the disciples to Capharnaum after the Cana miracle (John 2:12) gives us the impression that this town was a frequent domicile for the extended family. Finally, accounts of the disbelief of Jesus “brothers” (Mark 3:21; John 7:5) indicate some conflicts in the nascent community of believers at Capharnaum, since the “disciples” seemed to be domiciled there also.

All of which enriches our notion of Jesus’ “family,” while leaving intact traditional teaching about Mary’s perpetual virginity.

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.