Brothers and Sisters of Jesus

Author: Fr. William Most


(this is a revision of a previous article of same name)

Mt. 13.55 and Mk 6.3 name the following as brothers of Jesus: James, Joseph (Joses - the manuscripts vary on the spelling), Simon and Judas.

But Mt 27.56 says at the cross were Mary the mother of James and Joseph. Mark 15,40 says Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses was there.

So, although the proof is not conclusive, it seems that--unless we suppose these were others with the same names, that the first two, James and Joseph (Joses) had a mother other than the Mother of Jesus.

Therefore the term brother was used for those who were not sons of Mary the Mother of Jesus. So the same easily could be the case with the other two, Simon and Judas.

Further if Mary had other natural sons and daughters too at the time of the cross, it would be strange for Jesus to ask John to take care of her. Especially, James the "brother of the Lord" was alive in 49 AD (Gal 1:19). He should have taken care of her.

Lot, who was the nephew of Abraham (cf. Gen 11.27-31) is called his brother in Gen 13.8 and 14.14-16.

The Hebrew and Aramaic "ah" was used for various types of relations: Cf. Michael Sokoloff, "A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic" (Bar Ilan University Press, Ramat-Gan, Israel, 1990, p. 45.) Hebrew had no word for cousin.They could say "ben-dod" which means son of a paternal uncle, but for other kinds of cousins they would need a complex phrase, such as "the son of the brother of his mother" or, "the son of the sister of his mother". For complex Aramaic expressions see Sokoloff, p. 111 and 139.

Objection 1: We should not consider the Hebrew--Greek did have a word for cousin and other kinds of relatives also, and the Gospels do not use the other specific words for the relatives of Jesus. They use only Greek "adelphos," which means a real brother.

Reply 1: The Septuagint (the old Greek translation of the Hebrew OT-- abbreviated LXX) uses Greek "adelphos," brother, for Lot - who as mentioned above, was really a nephew.

Furthermore, the writers of the Gospels and Epistles often had Hebrew words in mind when they wrote Greek words. This is specially true with St. Paul. And, as we shall see presently, there is strong evidence that St. Luke at some points was translating Hebrew documents - two kinds of Hebrew - with meticulous care. The LXX for Mal 1:2-3 has this: "I have loved Jacob and hated Esau." St. Paul in Rom 9:13 quotes it the same way in Greek. Yet the LXX translators knew both Hebrew and Greek and so did Paul, yet they used a very odd, even potentially misleading Hebrew expression. How did it happen? Hebrew and Aramaic lacked the degrees of comparison (such as: good, better, best; clear, clearer, clearest) and so they had to find other way to express such ideas. Where we would say: "I love one more, the other less", the Hebrew said "I love the one and hate the other." In Luke 14:26 Our Lord tells us that we must hate our parents." Again,it means to love them less than one loves Christ. Similarly,in 1 Cor 1:17 Paul says: "Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach"--yet Paul had just said he did baptize some. He really means, in the Hebrew way of speaking: My more important mission was to preach, less important was to baptize.

St. Paul in 1 Thes 4:5 speaks of the gentiles "who do not know God". He uses "know" in the sense of Hebrew "yada," a broader word, to know and to love. In fact quite a few times we must think of what Hebrew word was in Paul's mind to fully understand his Greek words.

All scholars admit that St. Luke's Gospel has more Semitisms than the books written by Semites (even though Luke was not a Semite himself, but a Greek Physician). Why? It had been thought that Luke did this to imitate the style of the LXX but a study I made (In my article, "Did St.Luke Imitate the Septuagint?" published in the international "Journal for Study of the New Testament" (July 1982, pp. 30-41 from the University of Sheffield, England) showed statistically that Luke did not try to imitate the Septuagint. I made a study of a very strange Semitism in Luke, the apodotic "kai," which reflects Hebrew apodotic "wau." Here is an example from Luke 5:1: "And it happened--when the crowds pressed on Him to hear the word of God--and He stood by the Lake. The underlined and would be in place in Hebrew- but not in Greek, not even in Aramaic. By actual count, St.Luke uses it only about 20 to 25% of the times he would use it if he were imitating the Septuagint. Clearly that was not his reason for using it. So why did he do it at all? In his opening lines, St. Luke says he took great care, spoke to eye-witnesses, and read written accounts about Jesus. Now written accounts could have been in Greek (a few Jews grew up speaking Greek), Hebrew, or Aramaic. So it is possible that St. Luke had used written accounts in those languages. Greek on Greek would not show, of course, but if he used Hebrew documents part of the time, and if he translated them with meticulous care - so extreme that he would bring a Hebrew structure into Greek, where it did not belong - then we could explain what he did. The odd stricture was not normal in Aramaic either, so we gather that St.Luke seems to have used,at some points, not at all points, Hebrew documents, and that he translated them with extreme care. Luke knew how to write fine Greek - yet he did this, Why? It was his extreme care to be faithful to the original texts he used.--So again, we need to know the underlying Hebrew to understand (of course in this item, English translations just skip the and--it appears only if we read St. Luke in Greek).

There is an important word in Romans 5:19 which speaks of the many as becoming sinful--original sin. Of course, St.Paul really means all. Yet the Greek he uses is "polloi." In normal Greek it always means just many, not all. But if we know the Hebrew in Paul's mind it clears up. There was a strange word "rabbim" which is first known in Isaiah 53, the prophecy of the passion. By context there we see it is clear that it means all, yet it also means many - to be more exact, it means the all who are many.If I were in a room with 3 others,I could say all, but could not say many. Now if we use a Greek concordance to find every place in St.Paul where "polloi" is used as a noun,it always,without exception, means all, as we gather from context, such as that of Rom. 5:19. Hence we really need to go back to the Hebrew to understand Paul's Greek here.

Again, St. Paul often uses the Greek "dikaiosyne" not in the narrow usual Greek sense, but in the broad sense of Hebrew "sedaqah."

There are many other times in the NT where we must consider the underlying Hebrew in order to get the right sense of the Greek.We have given only samples, but they should be enough to show how the NT writers worked, and the need to avoid stopping with the Greek and insisting that we should ignore the underlying Hebrew, as those do who point out that Greek had words for cousins and other relatives, even though Hebrew did not.

Objection 2: J.P. Meier, in "A Marginal Jew" (Doubleday, 1991, pp. 325-26) says that "The New Testament is not translation Greek",and says it would be a "wooden" translation to follow the Hebrew usage on brother.

Reply 2: Many scholars do think part or all of the Gospels were translation Greek. The evidence cited above in "Journal for Study of the New Testament" seems to show that.

Further we have just given extensive evidence to show that regardless of whether or not the writers were translating,they often used Greek words in such a way that to understand them we must look to the underlying Hebrew. This is specially true of Paul in spite of Meier's claim that Paul was not translating and that he knew "James the brother of the Lord" in person.

Meier also (326-27) asserts that Josephus, a Jew writing in Greek does at times use the special word for cousin, yet he does use brother for the "brothers of Jesus."--We reply that we grant Josephus does this. But, did Josephus have direct information on the real nature of the "brothers" of Jesus. Not very likely. Meier does not even mention this point.

Objection 3: Meier argues, p. 323, that if we want to say "ah" could mean cousin, then we should read Mt 12:50 thus: "Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my male cousin, my female cousin, and my mother." Similarly, on p. 357 he says that Mk 3:35 should read "not even his cousins believed in him."

Reply 3: Meier seems to be deliberately obtuse here. If "ah" had the broad meaning, we should keep it in translation,not narrowing it to cousin - it would include cousin,but not be limited to it.

Objection 4,on Mt 1.25: Protestants like to point to two words here, "until" and "firstborn".

Until: Most ancient words have a broad span of possible meanings. Sometimes the word for until leaves room for a change after the time point indicated. However not nearly always. In Dt. 34:6 Moses was buried, "and to this day no one knows where the grave is." That was true in the day of the writer of Dt- it is still true even today. In Psalm 110:1,as interpreted by Jesus Himself (Mt.22-42-46), "The Lord said to my [David's] Lord: 'Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.'" Of course, Jesus was not to stop being at the right hand of the Father at any point. So the word until here does not mean a change of status. Psalm 72:7, a messianic Psalm, says that in his days "peace will abound until the moon is no more." Again, the power of the Messiah is not to stop when the moon no longer gives its light (Mt.24:29). In 2 Samuel 6:23 that David's wife Michal had no son until the day of her death." Of course,she did not have one after that! In Mt. 11:23 Our Lord says that if the miracles done in Capernaum had been done in Sodom, "it would have lasted until the present day." Had it lasted, Jesus did not intend to destroy it in His time. In Mt 28:20 Jesus promised to be with His Church, His followers until the end of the world - nor would He desert them in eternity. In Romans 8:22 St. Paul says that all creation groans, waiting for there revelation of the sons of God until Paul's day. Nor did it stop then, that will continue until the restoration at the end. In 1 Timothy 4:13 the Apostle tells Timothy to devote himself to reading, exhortation and teaching "until I come." He did not mean Timothy should stop such things when Paul did come.--and there are more, but these should be more than enough to show that not always does until in OT and NT, mean a change of things is to come at the point referred to.

Even J.P. Meier,who works so strenuously to try to show that most probably Jesus had real siblings,admits that the arguments from "until" proves nothing (In CBQ Jan. 1992, pp. 9-11).

firstborn: Jesus is called that in Luke 2:& (and also in Mt 1:25 if we take the Vulgate addition to the Greek). This reflects Hebrew "bekor" which chiefly expressed the privileged position of the firstborn among other children. It need not imply there were actually others. We can see this from a Greek tomb inscription at Tel el Yaoudieh (cf."Biblica" 11, 1930 369-90) for a mother who died in childbirth: "In the pain of delivering my firstborn child, destiny brought me to the end of life." For another epitaph of the same sort, from Leontopolis, see "Biblical Archaeology Review," Sept/Oct, 1992, p. 56.

Objection 5:.Some early Christian writers think the brothers were true siblings.

Reply: Meier, who so diligently collects all data against virginity after the birth of Jesus, mentions only four: (1) Hegesippus, in the second century. Yet Meier admits on p. 329: "...the testimony is not without its problems and possible self-contradictions"; (2) Tertullian--yet Meier admits that it was his "fierce opposition to [the] docetic view of Christ's humanity' that caused him to say this. In fact, Tertullian even, in the same vein, argued that the body of Jesus was ugly (On the Flesh of Christ 9)! He was a real extremist, as shown by the fact that even the Montanists were not severe enough in morality - he formed his own subsect; (3) Meier also suggests that two passages of St.Irenaeus might imply a denial of virginity--in one Irenaeus works out in detail the parallel between Adam and Christ, for the sake of his favorite "recapitulation" theology; in the other, Irenaeus develops the New Eve theme.--It is hard to see any hint of a denial of virginity in these passages. Even Meier admits the texts are not probative; (4) Helvidius in the 4th century.--But these few texts are little compared to the extensive Patristic support of perpetual virginity. Cf. "Marian Studies," VIII, 1956, pp. 47-93. In his summary of conclusions, pp. 331-32, Meier does not even mention these early writers.

Objection 6: Meier, p. 331, says we have the criterion of multiple attestation", namely, Paul, Mark, John, Josephus and perhaps Luke speak of the brothers of Jesus.

Reply 6: He is begging the question.He has not proved that any of them mean true sibling by brother. Meier adds that the natural sense of brother is sibling--but we have shown in reply 2 above that it need not be so. He also says that there is no clear case in the NT where brother means anything but true brother or half-brother. Again he is begging the question: he has not shown that even one of the texts has to mean sibling.

Conclusion: Meier himself admits, on p. 331, that "all of these arguments even when taken together cannot produce absolute certitude. "WE add: In Mk 3:20-21 his relatives go out to get Him-younger brothers would not have done it in that culture - and He was the firstborn. -And at age 12 in Temple,if there were younger brothers, they would have been along - women did not have to go. So she would have stayed home with the younger ones.

So we can see that there are no solid evidences in Scripture that Our Lady had other children. We have just answered all claims. But the decisive reason is the teaching of the Church. The most ancient creeds all call her "aei-parthenos" = "Ever-virgin".

Meier seems to have an axe to grind. In his long CBQ article, 1992, pp. 1- 28, he says on the last page that we must ask whether the hierarchy of truths should not let us accept Protestants into the Catholic Church without asking them to believe in Our Lady's perpetual virginity. There is a hierarchy of truths, in that some are more basic than others. But this does not at all mean we can countenance denial of even one doctrine taught repeatedly by the Ordinary Magisterium and the most ancient Creeds - and therefore infallible. Really,if some Protestants seemed to enter the Church, but did not accept the teaching authority, they would not be really Catholics, even if they accepted all but one of our teachings. That authority if really accepted leads them to accept all, not all minus one.

Even Meier,so inclined to deny perpetual virginity,admits (pp. 340-41) that there is a strong rabbinic tradition that Moses, after his first contact with God, refrained from knowing his wife. This first appears in Philo, is taken up the the rabbis. Therefore,if Moses with only an external contact with God did that way, what of Our Lady who was filled with the divine presence at the conception of Jesus, and caried divinity itself within her for nine months?

Actually, Luther himself and Calvin, as Meier admits on p. 319 of his book, accepted Our Lady's perpetual virginity. Why then does Meier argue so strongly against it?

Really, Protestants should not, if they were logical, appeal to Scripture at all for anything - for they have no means whatsoever of determining which books are inspired. Luther thought that if a book preached justification by faith strongly, it was inspired, otherwise not. But sadly, he never proved that was the standard--he, or I could write such a book, and it would not be inspired. And many books of Scripture do not even mention justification by faith. Also sadly: Luther did not know what St. Paul meant by the word faith - on that Cf. the standard Protestant reference work, "Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible," Supplement, p. 333.