Did Jesus Have Brothers?
by Fr. William P. Saunders
Did Jesus have brothers and sisters? The Washington Post had a story about a burial box recently discovered in Jerusalem with the inscription, "James, the son of Joseph and the brother of Jesus." I was always taught that Mary and Joseph did not have other children. What’s the straight answer?
As Catholics, we do not believe that our Lord, Jesus Christ, had blood brothers and sisters. Oftentimes, such articles as the one cited present a Protestant understanding of the life of our Lord. The problem arises from how one understands the texts of Sacred Scripture: In the New American Bible's English translation of the Gospel of St. Mark, we do indeed read about the crowd asking, "Isn't this the carpenter, the son of Mary, a brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters our neighbors here?" (Mk 6:3). A similar reference occurs earlier in Mk 3:31 "His mother and brothers arrived...." At first hearing, the words seem to state that Jesus did indeed have blood brothers and sisters. Someone with a fundamentalist or literalist bent toward sacred Scripture would make this conclusion. However, such a conclusion is contrary to not only a thorough understanding of Sacred Scripture but also sacred Tradition.
The problem emerges in understanding the meaning of the word brother. In the original text of the Gospel, we find the Greek word adelphos, meaning "brother," used. However, adelphos does not just mean blood brothers born of the same parents. Rather, adelphos was used to describe brothers not born of the same parents, like a half-brother or step-brother. The word also described other relationships like cousins, nephews, etc. For example, in Genesis 13:8 and 14:14-16, the word adelphos was used to describe the relationship between Abraham and Lot; however, these two men did not share a brother relationship, but one of uncle and nephew. Another instance is that of Laban, who was an adelphos to Jacob, not as a brother, but as an uncle. (In the New American translation, "kinsman" or "relative" will be used in these Old Testament cases; I do not know why this is not true in the English translation of the Gospel.)
The same understanding is true for the word sister. For example, in the Gospel, Mary of Clopas is called "the sister" of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Obviously, St. Ann and St. Joachim would not have named two daughters "Mary"; instead, the "sister" used here denotes a cousin relationship.
Actually this verbal confusion originates in Hebrew and Aramaic, the languages of most of the original Old Testament texts and of Christ. In these languages, no special word existed for cousin, nephew, half-brother, or step-brother; so they used the word brother or a circumlocution, such as in the case of a cousin, "the son of the brother of my father." When the Old Testament was translated into Greek and the New Testament written in Greek, the word adelphos was used to capture all of these meanings. So in each instance, we must examine the context in which the title is used. In all, the confusion arises in English because of the lack of distinct terms for relatives in the Hebrew and Aramaic, and the usage of the Greek adelphos to signify all of these relations.
Nevertheless, other Gospel passages clarify these relationships between James, Joses, Judas, and Simon. Note that the James here (i.e. James the Less) would be the one referred to by the inscription, who was the Bishop of Jerusalem and martyred. James the Less and Joses were the sons of Mary the wife of Clopas (Mk 15:40, Jn 19:25), and James the Less was also identified as "the son of Alphaeus" (Lk 6:15); here "Clopas" and "Alphaeus" are names traditionally said to identify the same man, just as "Jude" and "Thaddeus" refer to the same apostle, St. Jude Thaddeus. Judas and by extension Simon were the sons of James (not either of the apostles) (Lk 6:16). James the Greater and John were the sons of Zebedee with a mother other than our Blessed Mother Mary (Mt 20:20ff).
The Gospels are also very clear that Mary was a virgin at the time she conceived Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Mt 1:18-25, Lk 1:26-38). Remember when the Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary God's plan, she responded, "How can this be since I do not know man?" After the birth of our Lord, although the Gospels do not give us many details of His childhood, no mention is made of Mary and Joseph ever having other children. Never does it refer to the "sons of Mary" or "a son of Mary," but only the son of Mary.
This point is again corroborated at the crucifixion scene: Before He dies, our Lord says to Mary, "Woman, there is your son," and then to St. John, who is definitely not a blood brother, "There is your mother." According to Jewish law, the oldest son had the responsibility of caring for the widowed mother, and that responsibility would pass to the next oldest if anything happened to the first born son. By this time, St. Joseph has died. Since Jesus, the first born, had no "blood brother," He entrusted Mary to the care of St. John, the Beloved Disciple.
Interestingly, the Orthodox Churches solve this problem over brothers and sisters by speculating that St. Joseph was an elderly widower who had other children before he married Mary. Eusebius (d. AD 339) in his The History of the Church wrote, "Then there was James, who was known as the brother of the Lord; for he, too, was called Josephs son, and Joseph Christs father, though in fact the Virgin was his betrothed, and before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Ghost, as the inspired Gospel narrative tells us" (Book II, 1). These brothers and sisters would really then be half-brothers and half-sisters, but only by law, not by blood since Joseph was not the natural father of our Lord. This explanation is why St. Joseph sometimes appears elderly in paintings. Keep in mind there is no conclusive evidence to support this explanation.
Nevertheless, the Church has faithfully taught that Mary only gave birth to Jesus, whom she had conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. About A.D. 380, Helvidius suggested that the "brethren" were the children born of Mary and Joseph after Jesus. St. Jerome (d. AD 420) declared this as a "novel, wicked, and daring affront to the faith of the whole world." In his On the Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Mary, St. Jerome used both Scripture and the Fathers like Sts. Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus and Justin Martyr to refute Helvidius. Later, the First Lateran Council (649) definitively declared that Mary was "ever virgin and immaculate." Therefore, as Catholics, based on sacred Scripture and Tradition, we believe that Mary and Joseph had no other children and consequently that Jesus had no blood brothers and sisters.
Regarding the burial box or ossuary in question, in the recent edition of Biblical Archaeology Review (November/December), Andre Lemaire, one of the worlds leading epigraphers, also noted the following: First, the apostle James the Less was known as "James the Just" or "James the Righteous" and Jesus Himself was known as "Jesus of Nazareth" or "Jesus the Messiah"; these traditional identifications are not found on the ossuary. Second, the names of James, Joseph, and Jesus were fairly common among Jews at the time of our Lord, and have been found most frequently on similar burial boxes. However, how many burial boxes would have all three names? Lemaire noted, "When we take into account that this James/Jacob, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus had a brother who was by this time well known and that the James/Jacob, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus had a special relationship with his brother as the leader of the Jerusalem Church, it seems probable that this is the ossuary of the James in the New Testament. If so, this would also mean that we have here the first epigraphic mention from about 63 C.E. [A.D.] of Jesus of Nazareth." While the conclusion may be probable, it is not conclusive. Moreover, one cannot conclude from this evidence that James is the blood brother of our Lord; rather, from the Scriptural evidence and the tradition of the Church, one can conclude that he is not.
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'Straight Answers' reproduced with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald
. Copyright © 1993-2005 Fr. William P. Saunders. All rights reserved. 100 articles of this column have been compiled in a book, Straight Answers, and another 100 articles in Straight Answers II. These books are available by calling 703/256-5994 (fax 703/256-8593). All proceeds benefit the building fund of Our Lady of Hope Church.