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Brothers of the Lord

-Did Jesus have natural brothers or sisters? 

 

Summary:

There is no biblical evidence to support the belief that Jesus had actual sibling brothers or sisters. This is demonstrated clearly by examining the Greek terminology underlying verses that speak of these "brothers".

Likewise, there is no biblical evidence to support the belief that Mary and Joseph shared physical marital relations after the birth of Jesus, and the commonest argument to support such a belief is easily refuted.

I realize these statements are contrary to what many Protestant believers hold to be true.  I don’t wish to be argumentative, but simply to show that a careful look at the Scriptural evidence does show these statements are consistent with Scripture, and are very reasonable. 

 

SECTION 1: Linguistic evidence

Q: Why do some people believe that Jesus had true brothers and sisters born of Mary?

A: Because various passages refer to "brothers" and "sisters" of Jesus:

[Mt 12:46] While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. RSV

[Mark 6:3] Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him.

[John 7:5] For even his brothers did not believe in him.

[Acts 1:14] All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

[1Cor 9:5] Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?

[Mt 1:25] "And [Joseph] knew [Mary] not till she brought forth her first-born son"

[Mt 13:55-56] “Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?  And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?"

 

Q: But do these terms necessarily refer to immediate brothers or sisters german, i.e., of the same parents?

A: No. In the Old Testament, these terms have a wide meaning. Hebrew and Aramaic have no word specifically for "cousin", for example. "Brother" or "sister" often is used in a wide sense to include cousins, or more distant relations, or even non-relatives:

"Brothers" can refer to relatives outside of the immediate family

Case 1

Lot is Abram's nephew:

[Gen 11:27] Now these are the descendants of Terah. Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot. KJV

Yet, Lot is called Abram's "brother":

[Gen 14:12] And they took Lot, Abram's brother's son, who dwelt in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.

[Gen 14:13] And there came one that had escaped, and told Abram the Hebrew; for he dwelt in the plain of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol, and brother of Aner: and these were confederate with Abram.

[Gen 14:14] And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them unto Dan.

Case 2

Jacob is Laban's nephew:

[Gen 28:2] Arise, go to Paddan-aram to the house of Bethuel your mother's father; and take as wife from there one of the daughters of Laban your mother's brother.

Yet, Laban calls Jacob his "brother"

[Gen 29:15] And Laban said unto Jacob, Because thou art my brother, shouldest thou therefore serve me for nought? tell me, what shall thy wages be?

Case 3

Eleazar had only daughters, Kish had sons:

[1Chr 23:21] The sons of Merari; Mahli, and Mushi. The sons of Mahli; Eleazar, and Kish.

Yet, Eleazar's daughters married their "brothers", the sons of Kish:

[1Chr 23:22] And Eleazar died, and had no sons, but daughters: and their brethren the sons of Kish took them.

"Brothers" can refer to distant relatives or kinsmen

[Deut 23:7] "You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother; you shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a sojourner in his land.

[Jer 34:9] that every one should set free his Hebrew slaves, male and female, so that no one should enslave a Jew, his brother.

"Brothers" can refer to people apparently unrelated

[2Sam 1:26] I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.

[1Kgs 9:13] Therefore he said, "What kind of cities are these which you have given me, my brother?" So they are called the land of Cabul to this day.

 

Q: But Jesus' brothers and sisters appear in the New Testament, which was -at least mostly- written in Greek. Doesn't the Greek language have specific terms for brothers german and cousins?

A: Yes, that’s true…

"Adelphos" means, "a brother (literal or figurative), near or remote" [1]. "Anepsios" means, "cousin" [2].  (Note that these definitions are from the widely respected Strong’s Concordance, which is generally considered to be of a Protestant orientation.)  But "adelphos" is used almost universally throughout the New Testament wherever the terms "brother", "brothers", and brethren appear in English translations.

[Acts 22:1] "Brethren and fathers, hear the defense which I now make before you." RSV

[Rom 8:12] So then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh--

[1Cor 12:1] Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be uninformed.

[Heb 2:11] For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren…

"Adelphos" is the Greek term for "brethren" in all of these passages, as well as in all of those that refer to "brethren" of Jesus. In fact, more than 220 other New Testament verses contain "adelphos", and most of them do not refer to familial siblings, but clearly intend a broader meaning of the word.

 

 

SECTION 2: Testing the "sibling theory"

Q: Are the "brothers" and "sisters" of Jesus ever referred to as "sons" or "daughters" of Mary or of Joseph?

A: No, not once.

In Scripture only one person is ever called "the son of Mary", and He is Jesus. (Mark 6:3). Jesus is called "the son of Mary", not "a son of Mary". The use of the Greek definite article, as opposed to an indefinite article, argues against the possibility of other sons of Mary.

 

Q: When the twelve year-old Jesus and His family traveled to Jerusalem, are other brothers or sisters mentioned?

A: No, there is no hint of any kind that siblings were present.

 

Q: Since Jesus was the "first-born" son of Mary, any siblings must have been younger than Jesus. Are the actions of the "brothers" of Jesus consistent with their being younger siblings?

A: No, they are not.

In ancient (and even modern) eastern culture, it was considered disrespectful and inappropriate for younger sons to give advice or correction to elder sons. Yet in John 7:3-4, Jesus' "brothers" tried to direct Jesus to leave Galilee and preach elsewhere. And in Mark 3:21, "when his family (adelphos) heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, 'He is out of his mind'" NIV. In neither case do these "adelphos" exhibit the respect they would be expected to display to their eldest brother.

 

Q: Did Jesus behave as though He had younger brothers?

A: No.

When Jesus hung dying on the cross, He entrusted His dear mother to John, who was not a blood relative. Why didn't Jesus entrust the care of His mother to her other supposed sons? These sons naturally would have been expected by family, friend, and neighbor to accept this responsibility, even if the eldest brother had not commanded this before his death. The Gospels mention four "brothers" of Jesus: James, Joseph, Simon, and Jude. Were they all incapable of caring for their mother? This action of Jesus strongly suggests that these four "brothers" of the Lord were not His natural siblings.

 

 

SECTION 3: Testing the "first-born theory"

[Mt 1:25] "And he knew her not till she brought forth her first-born son"

Q: Since Scripture describes Jesus as Mary's "first-born", naturally this implies that Jesus was the first of a family of children, doesn't it? Besides, if Joseph "knew her not till" Jesus was born, this implies that they had normal marital relations after Jesus was born… right?

A: No on both counts.

[Exod 34:20] …All the first-born of your sons you shall redeem. And none shall appear before me empty.

In the Mosaic system the first male child of every marriage was called the "first-born" -regardless of whether the marriage produced further children. The term "first-born" in no way implies that there were other children of Mary.

Similarly it is mistaken to think that the phrase "knew her not till" Jesus was born implies that Joseph and Mary engaged in marital relations afterward. Consider the following illustration:

[2Sam 6:23] And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death.

Does this imply that Michal had children after the day of her death? Of course not.

How about the burial of Moses? The Bible says that

[Deut 34:6] …no man knows the place of his burial to this day.

Does this imply that today, after this passage was written, we now know where Moses was buried? Of course not. The figure of speech common in these passages indicates merely that some condition existed up to a particular point in time, but says nothing at all about whether that condition persisted thereafter.  There are many other passages which clearly show that in general, use of the word “until” in this way does not imply a future change in condition:

 

"The LORD says to my lord: 'Sit at my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool.'" (Psalm 110:1 RSV)


...Does this mean that once Jesus' enemies are subdued He shall no longer sit at the Father’s right hand? Certainly not.

 

"For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet." (1 Corinthians 15:25 RSV)


...Shall the reign of Christ end once His enemies are vanquished? No way.



"But when Paul had appealed to be kept in custody for the decision of the emperor, I commanded him to be held until I could send him to Caesar." (Acts 25:21 RSV)


...Does this imply that Paul would be released once he was sent to Caesar? Not at all. Paul's release would depend upon Caesar's verdict.



[The Son of God says,] "But to the rest of you in Thyati'ra, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay upon you any other burden; only hold fast what you have, until I come." (Revelation 2:24-25 RSV).


...Once Jesus comes are the believers of Thyatira no longer to hold fast to what they believe? Of course not.

 

 

SECTION 4: What did the early Church believe?

Perhaps the earliest known person to suggest that "brethren of the Lord" actually referred to siblings of Jesus, was Helvidius, who wrote about this theory around 380 A.D. In response,

Jerome first declined to comment on Helvidius' remarks because they were a "novel, wicked, and a daring affront to the faith of the whole world"[3]. This was an entirely new interpretation, one nobody had ventured before, and it was beneath contempt. At length, however, Jerome's friends convinced him to write a reply… He used not only the scriptural arguments given above, but cited earlier Christian writers, such as Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr. Helvidius claimed the support of two writers, Tertullian and Victorinus, but Jerome showed this was no support at all, since Tertullian was a heretic (a Montanist) and the passage from Victorinus had been misinterpreted. Helvidius was unable to come up with a reply, and his theory was not employed again until modern times. [4]

 

At the Fifth General Council at Constantinople in 553, the Church defined that Mary possesses the title, "perpetual virgin". This title was reaffirmed at the Lateran Synod of 649, and by Pope Paul IV in 1555. Among the many early Fathers who maintained that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life, are Origen, Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine, Saint Epiphanius. Saint Basil wrote, "The friends of Christ do not tolerate hearing that the Mother of God ever ceased to be a virgin."[5]

 

 

Endnotes:

[1] Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, 1890. #80.

[2] Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, 1890. #431.

[3] Saint Jerome, De perpetua virginitatae Beatae Mariae adversus Helvidium.

[4] Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, p. 287.

[5] Dr. Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma

 

John Robin
29 June 2000
updated 30 June 2002
update 27 April 2006