Mary of Cleophas

Author: Christopher Y Wong


Christopher Y Wong

"And there were standing by the cross of Jesus His mother and His mother's sister, Mary of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalen." How should we understand "His mother's sister," literally, as in having the same parents, or in the same sense that Jesus's "brothers" are to be understood as close relatives?

The short answer is that Mary of Cleophas is probably the Blessed Virgin's sister-in-law. Mary of Cleophas may have had a previous husband named Alpheus, or this Alpheus may have been Cleophas. The Blessed Virgin Mary, of course, only had one husband (Joseph) and remained a virgin. The long answer follows.

Jesus' relatives

Reading the Bible, we find that Jesus had brethren named James, Joseph, Simon (Simeon) and Jude (Mt 13:55). We also know that His mother Mary had a "sister" called Mary. This other Mary in turn had a husband named Cleophas (Jn 19:25). I hope here to summarize and untangle this maze of relatives. I do not seek to prove the Blessed Virgin Mary's perpetual virginity here; there are many other sources for that purpose that I will list below.

First, let us see what the Gospels tell us. At the death of Jesus, we are told that Mary wife of Cleophas/Clopas (Jn 19:25) was present. She was described as the mother of James and Joseph (Mt 27:56) in one account, and mother of James the Less and Joses in another (Mk 15:40). On the other hand, James is described as the son of Alphaeus in the synoptic Gospels' listing of the Apostles (Mt 10:3, Mk 3:18, Lk 6:15). We can infer that Mary wife of Cleophas is unlikely to be a true sister of the Virgin Mary, since they bear the same name. However, they are related in some way. This parallels the semitic use of "brother" in relating James to Jesus.

An ancient historian named Hegesippus can shed further light. A native of Palestine, Hegesippus finished his Memoirs in the reign of Pope Eleutherius (AD 175-189) when he was an old man. He draws his information from personal sources, as he was able to question some surviving members of Jesus' family. Hegesippus can tell us that:

"After the martyrdom of James, it was unanimously decided that Simeon, son of Clopas, was worthy to occupy the see of Jerusalem. He was, it is said, a cousin of the Saviour;" Hegesippus recounts in fact that Clopas was a brother of Joseph (Eusebius, Hist. eccl., III, 11).

St. Epiphanius (Haer., LXXVII, 7) says the same and adds (ibid., 14) "that this Simeon, the son of Clopas, was a cousin of James the Just," as Hegesippus says in another passage. (Prat, Jesus Christ, p. 505).

Cleophas is the brother of Joseph (Jesus' adopted father). It follows that Cleophas' wife Mary is the Virgin Mary's sister in law, which explains why they can have the same name and are called sisters. It also follows that James is Jesus' cousin. Ferdinand Prat reasons:

"We know, then that the mother of two of the brothers of the Lord was Mary of Cleophas, the sister of the Blessed Virgin. We also know that Cleophas, St Joseph's brother, was the father of a third, called Simon or Simeon. Since the remaining one, Jude, is always connected with Simon and is, like him, part of the family of David, it is natural to suppose that he was also a son of Cleophas.

All the points that remain obscure would be cleared up, in our opinion, if two hypotheses are risked. Mary, the sister of the Blessed Virgin, having two sons, James and Joseph, by a first marriage, was married a second time to Cleophas, brother of St. Joseph, who also had two sons, Simon and Jude, by a former marriage. In light of the customs of the country and the age, there was nothing extraordinary in the marriage of a widow and a widower, each with children. The second hypothesis is that the sister of the Blessed Virgin had as her first husband a man of the tribe of Levi, called Alpheus.

In this fashion nine or ten problems would be solved. Thus one could explain why James, Joseph, Simon and Jude are always named in that order, as brethren of the Lord; why James and Joseph are a pair distinct from Simon and Jude; why Mary, sister of the Blessed Virgin, is called the mother of James and Joseph and not the mother of Simon and Jude; why, according to Hegesippus, Simon and not James is the son of Cleophas; why, again according to Hegesippus, Simon and Jude are of the family of David; why, according to tradition, James was of sacerdotal ancestry; why the common opinion of Catholics identifies James, son of Mary, sister of the Blessed Virgin, with James the Apostle, the son of Alpheus; why Mary of Cleophas is called in the Gospel sister of the Blessed Virgin, when she was really her sister-in-law, being the wife of St. Joseph's brother; finally, why, after the deaths of Joseph and Cleophas, the two sisters brought their families together, so that thereafter the two families seemed to be but one." (Prat, Jesus Christ, p. 136-137).

We do not hear of Cleophas or Joseph (Jesus' adopted father) in the Gospels during Jesus' adult life. We can imagine that after their deaths, the two families—deprived of their protectors and heads—came together under one roof. This would further strengthen their ties: the two Marys as "sisters" and Jesus and His cousins as "brothers". Gospel and tradition kept these names without denying Mary's perpetual virginity.

Further reading and bibliography

Rereading my writing above, I fear I may have omitted too much material. I do not pretend that any of the above is my original work; the original sources should be consulted for the full picture. I will mention some further reading.

Prat, Ferdinand. Jesus Christ: His Life, His Teaching, and His Work, 2 vols. (Milwaukee, 1950). An orthodox Catholic work, this is my primary historical source. A strong defense of the Catholic position, and a fascinating work, it is described by Carroll as "thorough and profound".

Carroll, Warren H. The Founding of Christendom (Christendom Press, 1985). The first of a projected 7 volumes (3 completed), this book's detailed end-notes and annotated bibliography led me to Prat. Vivid and readable, this is the only attempt this century at a history of Christianity from an orthodox Catholic viewpoint that I know of. Warren Carroll is an expert on the Ask Experts forum.

St. Jerome. Against Heldivius. Where better to get a scriptural defense of Mary's perpetual virginity than the greatest Bible scholar of his day? The standard Protestant objections of today were handily refuted in AD 383, such that this heresy did not resurface again until relatively modern times. James Akin has an electronic copy at

Fr Most, William G. "Brothers and Sisters of Jesus". This short article defends Mary's perpetual virginity, with some attention to linguistic issues. Available as jesbrs.txt on Fr Most is an expert on the Ask Experts forum.