Did Jesus Have Blood Brothers and Sisters?

1. Introduction

The New Testament explicitly teaches the virginal conception of Jesus, that is, Jesus was conceived in the womb of his mother Mary by the holy spirit (Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38). (The “holy spirit” in this context means the power of God, as the parallel phrase dunamis hupsistou, “power of the most high,” in Luke 1:35 shows.) In the early Catholic Church there grew a belief that not only was Mary a virgin when she conceived Jesus (virginitas ante partum) but that she maintained her virginity during (virginitas in partu) and after the birth of Jesus (virginitas post partum). “During” means that Mary’s physical virginity, that is, the hymen, miraculously remained intact during the passage of Jesus through her birth canal at birth. This belief, that Mary was a virgin before, during and after the birth of Jesus, became established as a dogma of the Catholic Church and is known as the dogma of the perpetual virginity of Mary. This is considered an infallible dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, that is, an article of faith which the Magisterium of the Catholic Church declares as binding on every professing Catholic.

The apochryphal gospel Protoevangelium of James, dated to the second century, is the oldest source supporting belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary. At the age of three, Mary is dedicated to the Jewish temple, where she stays until she is 12. In the story, Mary takes a life-time vow of celibacy. While this apochryphal work does not directly affirm the perpetual virginity of Mary, it is a necessary consequence of the vow that she has taken. There are, however, a number of references in the NT to “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus, e.g., Matthew 12:6-50, Luke 8:19-20. The following interpretations of these passages were given by early Church fathers:

  1. The “brothers” and “sisters” were other sons of Joseph and Mary (i.e., younger half-brothers). Helvidius held this view and for this reason this is known as the Helvidian theory.
  2. They were sons of Joseph by a previous marriage (Epiphanius held this view).
  3. They were cousins of Jesus. This theory is credited to the Roman Catholic scholar Jerome (c.? A.D. 347 – 420), who, in his tract Against Helvidius (dated to about AD 383) expresses the view that they were the sons of the woman called “Mary of clopas” and “Mary the mother of James and Joses” in the gospels and that she was a sister of Jesus’ mother. Known as the Hieronymian theory from Jerome’s name in Latin: Hieronymus.

The present official position of the Catholic Church is set out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#500):

The Church has always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary. In fact James and Joseph, ‘brothers of Jesus’, are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls ‘the other Mary’. They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression.” [1]

The belief that Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus is not exclusively a Roman Catholic one. It is part of the teaching of anglo-catholics and eastern and oriental orthodox churches. Some early Reformers such as Luther, Calvin and Zwingli subscribed to it. Though later Reformed teaching rejected this belief, some modern Anglican and Lutheran theologians support it. This article will show that the evidence of the Bible best supports the position that Jesus indeed had blood brothers and sisters.

2. The Evidence of the Bible

2.1. The Angel’s Announcement to Joseph

18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they lived together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But when he had resolved to do this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the child conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. … 24When Joseph awoke from his sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son…. (Matthew 1:18-25, New Revised Standard Version)

In the time of Jesus

[a] special formality, that of ‘betrothal’ (Erusin Qiddushin), preceded the actual marriage by a period varying in length, but not exceeding a twelvemonth in the case of a maiden. At the betrothal, the bridegroom, personally or by deputy, handed to the bride a piece of money or a letter, it being expressly stated in each case that the man thereby espoused the woman. From the moment of betrothal both parties were regarded, and treated in law (as to inheritance, adultery, need of formal divorce), as if they had been actually married, except as regarded their living together. A legal document (the Shitré Erusin) fixed the dowry which each brought, the mutual obligations, and all other legal points. [2]

There are a number of noteworthy points in the Matthean passage cited above:

  1. First, the expression “before they lived together” implies that the writer of the first gospel clearly understood this betrothal to be a normal one which would be followed by a union of the couple with normal marital relations.
  2. Second, the angel instructs Joseph to marry Mary (the Greek is literally, “take [to thee] Mary, thy wife”), involving, as it does, procreation, of course. “Take as wife” is the Old Testament expression for “marry”: e.g., Genesis 12:19; 24:3, 37, 38, 40; 25:1; 26:34; 27:46; 28:1, 2, 6.Note that Joseph is not commanded by the angel merely to be a guardian and protector to Mary and the child that she was to give birth to, which is what advocates of the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary understand was the role of Joseph for the rest of his life with Mary (a notion derived from the Protovangelium of James). If Mary was a perpetual virgin, Joseph, too, would have been compelled to be one! Was that the situation that the angel was commanding Joseph to enter into by “marrying” Mary?

Third, in saying that Joseph did not have sexual relations with Mary “until she had given birth to a son” (v. 25) the writer of the first Gospel implies that Joseph did have such relations with her after the birth of the son. The Greek word translated “until” is heōs (in transliteration). Sentences in Greek with this word fall into one of two types:

a. Sentences in which the action or state asserted or negated in the sentence does not continue beyond the time indicated by heōs, i.e., a change takes place after the “until” event occurs, e.g., “I will not eat until [Gr. heōs in the Septuagint] I have told my business” (Genesis 24:32).

b. Those in which the action or state asserted or negated in the sentence continues beyond the time indicated by heōs, e.g., “And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child until the day of her death” (2 Samuel 6:23). In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), “until” is rendered by heōs. The use of “until” does not, of course, imply Michal had any children after her death.

Proponents of perpetual virginity cite sentences of the second type from the Bible to argue that the “until” of Matthew 1:25 does not necessarily imply that Joseph had sexual relations with Mary afterwards. This is a specious argument and it is a cause for consternation that many otherwise intelligent people appear to be impressed with it. What is the problem with this argument? Whether a given sentence belongs to the first or second type depends on its immediate context, or, in the absence of any clues in the immediate context, any relevant data in the broader context or our knowledge of some relevant general truth. Let me illustrate these points with examples.

  1. “I will not eat until [Gr. heōs in the Septuagint] I have told my business” (Genesis 24:32, NASB). Verse 54 informs us that Abraham’s servant and his men ate and drank after he had related his business. Therefore type (a) sentence. Actually, even without verse 54 it would be natural to classify this sentence as type (a)—This point taken up below.
  2. “And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child until [Gr. heōs in the Septuagint] the day of her death” (2 Samuel 6:23). Since only human females are capable of childbirth and human existence ends at death—one may call it a general truth—we know that Michal could not have had children after death. Type (b) sentence.
  3. Isaiah 46:4: “Even to [Gr. heōs, LXX] old age I am he.” This is one of the Bible verses that the Catholic scholar Jerome cites in his tract Against Helvidius to show that “until” in Matthew 1:25 does not mean that a change of state takes place after the “until” event. He asks, “Will He cease to be God when they have grown old?” The answer is an emphatic No. The question of God ceasing to exist after they had grown old did not arise in the mind of the original audience of Isaiah, for they knew as well Jerome did that God lives forever from God’s revelation about himself. This is not a parallel to Matthew 1:25.

Now what if, applying the logic of apologists of perpetual virginity, I were to say that sentences such as 2 Samuel 6:23 show that “until” in Genesis 24:32 does not necessarily mean that Abraham’s servant ate after he told his business? They would rightly point me to verse 54: “Then [Abraham’s servant] and the men who were with him ate and drank and spent the night.” Those who affirm that Jesus had blood brothers and sisters would likewise point to the mention of “brothers” and “sisters” in the same gospel (Matthew) and in the rest of the New Testament on numerous other occasions as confirming that Joseph did have normal marital relations with Mary after the birth of Jesus. Apologists of perpetual virginity reply that they were not his own siblings, even though adelphos and adelphē, the Greek words used in the New Testament for Jesus brothers and sisters, always refer to blood siblings in family relationships in classical Greek (click here for more on terminology). Now what if verse 54 took the form “Abraham’s servant and his men helped Laban to wash the dishes,” with no reference to their eating and drinking? Wouldn’t we still understand that, in the light of Genesis 24:32, as implying that Abraham’s servant and his men shared a meal with their hosts? This would be analogous to Matthew telling us that Jesus had “brothers” and “sisters” without explicitly saying that Joseph “knew” his wife Mary after the birth of Jesus. But if I played the game of apologists of perpetual virginity, I could argue that Abraham’s servant and his men washed not their own dishes but those of Laban and his men! Now let’s go a step further and suppose that verse 54 took the form “Then Abraham’s servant and his men spent the night. When they arose in the morning, he said, ‘send me away to my master,'” with the reference to their eating and drinking omitted. Wouldn’t we still assume, in view of verse 32, that they shared a meal with their hosts before spending the night, provided there was no statement contradicting that in the context? Then why cannot we accept that the writer of Matthew 1:25 did intend to say that Joseph did have normal marital relations with Mary after the birth of Jesus, especially in view of the fact that (a) there is nothing to the contrary in Matthew or elsewhere in the New Testament and (b) there are many references to Jesus “brothers” and “sisters” both in Matthew itself and elsewhere in the New Testament corroborating the plain implication of Matthew 1:25? If there were any biblical texts in Matthew or elsewhere that asserted that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus’ birth, then Matthew 1:25 could rightly be classified as a type (b) sentence, but this is not the case. A man may announce one morning, “I will not eat until 8 pm tonight.” No sane person will appeal to sentences like 2 Samuel 6:23 to argue that “until” in this example sentence does not necessarily mean that the man ever ate after 8 pm that day, because we know that it is not normal for humans not to eat indefinitely. Similarly, when Matthew tells us that Joseph, after taking Mary as his wife, did not have marital relations with his wife until a certain time, it is not natural to understand that as meaning that Joseph may never have had such relations with her even after the specified time since sexual relations are as normal a part of marriage as eating is of life. The reader would appreciate by now that whether a sentence with “until” belongs to type (a) or type (b) has to be decided on a case by case basis, not by the flawed logic of apologists of perpetual virginity. What would help their cause is not sentences of type (2), but sentences which are genuinely ambiguous, that is, sentences which cannot be classified under either type (a) or (b) with certainty. I am not aware of the existence of such sentences in the Bible or the Apocrypha. The burden of proof rests on those who assert that the “until”in Matthew 1:25 does not imply that Joseph had sexual relations with Mary after the birth of Jesus and that burden cannot be discharged by simply appealing to the existence of type (b) sentences. Matthew, the putative writer of the first gospel, must have known that it would be natural for the reader of 1:25 to infer that Mary had conjugal relations with Joseph after the birth of Jesus, especially since he mentions “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus later in his gospel without any qualification (see below). If Matthew had been aware of Mary’s perpetual virginity, he would have surely mentioned that fact explicity or, at least, one would expect him to just say “He knew her not” in 1:25, omitting the words from “until.” Abishag the Sunammite became David’s attendant but the king, we are told, “did not know her” (1 Kings 1:4). Pray, why couldn’t Matthew have written likewise?

Why did Joseph refrain from sex with Mary until the birth of Jesus? Matthew does not give Joseph’s motive for it but the most probable reason is that he wished to cooperate with the literal fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14: “Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son.” Mary was a virgin at the point of conception and Joseph saw it appropriate that she should remain a virgin at the point of birth. Another possible reason, though an unlikely one, is that Joseph believed, as some did in his day, that sexual intimacy should be restricted for procreation and not for pleasure. Whichever was Joseph’s motive, after the child was born the reason for abstension from sexual relations with Mary no longer existed.

What was the reason for the virgin birth? To answer that question, we need to understand the relationship between Christ and his church. The members of the NT church are Christ both individually and collectively. Individually, because each member of it “feeds” on Christ and is predestined to be conformed to his image, that is, his moral character or excellence (cf. Romans 8:29). Collectively, because the church, as the body of Christ, is a reproduction of him. The church becomes Christ when his glory, that is, his moral excellence, fills it, when the full number of the elect are conformed to his image. The history of Israel is recapitulated in the life of Christ, which also points forward to the life of the NT church, the new Israel (Galatians 6:16). The birth of Jesus by the holy spirit without the intervention of a man symbolized the spiritual birth of believers in Jesus, “who were born not of blood nor the will of flesh nor of the will of man but of God” (John 1:13). The virgin birth of Jesus symbolized in a literal, physical way what is accomplished spiritually in the New Testament church. Certain other events in the life of Jesus, such as the flight to Egypt and the baptism, too, have a similar symbolical significance.

2.2. Jesus is called Mary’s “Firstborn”

In his account of the nativity of Jesus, Luke informs us that Mary gave birth to her “firstborn son” (the Greek is ton hion autēs ton prōtotokon, literally, “her son, the firstborn”) and wrapped him in clothes and laid him in a manger (Luke 2:7). In classical Greek prōtotokos means the first of two or more children and so, in the absence of any data to the contrary, it is natural to understand “firtborn” in Luke as implying that Mary had other children afterwards. The response of proponents of perpetual virginity is similar to their position on Matthew 1:25 and is represented by the following:

[I]n Jewish culture, the term firstborn was not merely a birth-order designation; it was a legal term, indicating rights of inheritance and authority in the family. Thus a firstborn could apply to a woman’s first child before any siblings came along, and even if no siblings came along. This is illustrated by the tombstone of a Jewish woman from 5 B.C. that indicates that she died while giving birth “to a firstborn child.” [3]

It is true that in legal contexts in the Old Testament the term “firstborn” is applied to the first child regardless of whether other children followed it. That is how it is used, for example, in Exodus 13:2: “Sanctify to Me every firstborn, the first offspring of every womb among the sons of Israel, both of man and beast…” (NASB). The Hebrew word for “firstborn” in this verse is בְּכוֹר, which is rendered by the Greek word prōtotokos in the Septuagint. In other contexts, this word has its normal meaning of “the first of two or more children,” as in, for example, Genesis 35:23: “Reuben, Jacob’s firstborn, then Simeon and Levi and Judah ….” Luke uses the term prōtotokos in a historical account of the birth of Jesus, not in a legal context. Proponents of perpetual virginity point to Luke 2:23, “(as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’)” (English Standard Version), and assert that this legal requirement in the Law of Moses was what Luke had in mind when he used the term prōtotokos. The following objections may be urged against this view:

  • No less than fifteen verses separate the verse in which prōtotokos occurs (v. 7) and the verse setting out the law which is supposed to have been in Luke’s mind (v. 23).
  • In every passage in the Pentateuch where this legal requirment of the consecration of the firstborn male of humans is set out (Exodus 13:2, 13, 15; 22:29; Numbers 3:13; 8:16; 18:15), prōtotokos appears in the Septuagint as the translation of the Hebrew בְּכוֹר (“firstborn”), but this very word Luke fails to mention in 2:23! Indeed the Greek words he uses to describe this law in v. 23 are not a quotation from any of the abovementioned passages in the Septuagint.

The tomb inscription under reference was found near the site of an ancient Jewish colony in Upper Egypt and belonged to a Jewish woman named Arsinoe. It is in Hellenistic Greek and dates to A.D. 5. The epitaph says that she had a hard life and died giving birth to her “firstborn child” (prōtotokou teknou). This tomb inscription appears to show that prōtotokos could be used in Hellenistic Greek in a non-legal context even of an only child. But we cannot automatically assume that Luke used this word so. In fact there are good reasons why that by his use of this word he did intend the reader to understand that Jesus was the first of a number of children:

  • In Luke 8:19, 20 he mentions “his brothers” coming to meet Jesus in the company of his mother. Now if these “brothers” were not his own, we have to conclude that Luke was a very careless writer in describing Jesus as Mary’s “firstborn,” especially since he mentions “his brothers” in close association with his mother in 8:19, 20. (See below for more on the NT references to Jesus’ brothers.)
  • Elsewhere in his gospel, Luke uses the word monogenēs on three separate occasions to refer to an only child (Luke 7:12 [son of the widow of Nain]; 8:42 [Jairus’ daughter]; 9:38 [demon-possessed boy]). If Luke was aware of Mary’s perpetual virginity, his failure to use this word in Jesus’ case is incomprehensible when he was so ready to use it in other cases. It is noteworthy that in the parallels to the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter and the healing of the demon-possessed boy in Matthew and Mark the word monogenēs does not occur. Luke is also the only Evangelist to record the resurrection of “the only son” of the widow of Nain.
  • In the case of the birth of John the Baptist, Luke only says that Elizabeth “brought forth her son” (Luke 1:57). If he had written “her firstborn son” and later mentioned “brothers of John,” we would have assumed that Elizabeth had other children after John even though she was well advanced in years.

Returning to the tomb inscription, the word “firstborn” is used there in a context that makes it practically equivalent to monogenēs, so there is no ambiguity. Can we be sure that Hellenistic Greeks would also have used prōtotokos of an only child in ambiguous non-legal contexts? In literature defending Mary’s perpetual virginity, it is customary to all too easily dismiss the relevance of Matthew 1:25 and Luke 2:7 to the subject under discussion, saying, to cite one writer, that “Biblical scholars no longer claim that ‘until’ and ‘firstborn’ are to be read as pointing at subsequent pregnancies of Mary.” First, I am not sure there are no modern scholars who do make that claim. Second, considering the weakness and inadequacy of objections of apologists of perpetual virginity to the use of these two passages in the controversy concerning the biological status of Mary after Jesus’ birth, the scholarship of such “scholars” as accept these objections is very shallow indeed.

2.3. The Brothers and Sisters of Jesus

There are a number of passages in the New Testament which refer to “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus.

2.3.1. Jesus’ Family is Known in Nazareth

Matthew, Mark and Luke record the reaction of the people of Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, when he visited it once.

  1. And coming to his home town he began teaching them in their synagogue, so that they became astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom, and these miraculous powers? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary, and his brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this man get all these things? And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his home town, and in his own household.” (Matthew 13:54-57, New American Standard Bible)
  2. “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James, and Joses, and Judas, and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?” And they took offense at Him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his home town and among his own relatives and in his own household.” (Mark 6:3-4 [parallel to above passage in Matthew], NASB. The word “own” is not in the Greek text, but is added by the translators of NASB for emphasis.)

Note that Jesus’ “brothers” and “sisters” are associated with his “father” and “mother,” and the most natural interpretation is to take them as his own brothers and sisters, i.e., as members of his immediate family. This immmediate family is what Jesus calls “his own household,” who are distinguished from his “relatives” (Greek sungeneusin). The above passages show that even his own family did not give the honor that was due to him as a prophet of God, as John 7:5 confirms: “For not even his brothers were not believing in him.” When Jesus said, “A prophet is not without honor…,” he was not just quoting a proverb but describing his own experience. Jesus’ family, i.e., his father, mother, brothers and sisters, were known to the people of Nazareth. When they heard his preaching, they were astonished, because they knew his family and background and could not believe that he was what he claimed to be. The people say that Jesus cannot be what he seems to since they know who he is, and they speak of his family (father, mother, brothers and sisters) to show that he is quite ordinary. They thought that, since he came from an ordinary village family, he had no right to make the claims that he did. This was a case of “familiarity breeds contempt.” William J. Bridcut writes:

The local people were … amazed at the wisdom of Jesus and at his ability to perform mighty works and they wondered how he came to have such power. Who would ever think that Mary’s son could do such wondeful things? So the people of Nazareth speak of Jesus as coming from an ordinary family to put him in his place and also as part of their expression of amazement. The carpenter and Mary and brothers and sisters are mentioned to put him down and also because what they saw and heard was so different from what they would have expected. But if the ‘brothers” and “sisters” were merely cousins, a relationship which others could claim, then there would be no surprise at any difference. People express surprise only when they see blood brothers who are different from each other. There is no surprise at cousins being different. When the crowd says in effect, ‘He is only ordinary,’ the ‘put down’ loses its savour of scandal if it is not meant that the brothers and sisters are other children of Mary. [4]

The New American Bible, a Catholic translation, in a comment on Mark 6:3 makes the following admission: “The question of meaning here would not have arisen but for the faith of the church in Mary’s perpetual virginity.” [5] That is, this Catholic translation admits that this passage would have been understood by the Catholic Church as meaning that Jesus had blood brothers and sisters if the church had not had a tradition to the contrary. Hence this is a case of tradition overriding the plain meaning of the scriptures.

2.3.2. Jesus’ Brothers Disbelieve Him

John 7:3-5 records Jesus’ brothers’ disbelief:

Jesus’ brothers said to him, “You ought to leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples may see the miracles you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” For even his own brothers did not believe in him.

But the resurrection of Jesus changed his brothers’ unbelief to belief, as is shown by their presence in the company of the disciples in Jerusalem (Acts 1:14) and their inclusion among the apostles (1 Corinthians 9:5). Jesus brethren later became prominent members of the church.

2.3.3. Jesus’ Mother and Brothers Seek Him

Once when Jesus was preaching to a crowd, his family went out to take custody of him, because they thought that he had “lost his senses” (Mark 3:21).

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35, NIV)

The parallels in Matthew and Luke read:

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.” (Matthew 12:46-49, NIV)

Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” He replied, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.” (Luke 8:19-21, NIV)

Bridcut’s comments in this regard are apposite:

In speaking like this Jesus is saying that there are closer bonds than those of blood, and his words have force only if the spiritual relationship he speaks about is seen to be as close as the closest of family ties. Our Lord’s words would fall flat if he said what could mean, “Whoever does God’s will is my cousin”. The words lose their wonderful meaning if the contrast is not with Mary and the brothers related by blood to each other and to Jesus on the one hand and those who do God’s will on the other. [6]

Those who deny that these “brothers” and “sisters” are Mary’s children and hold that they are the children of a sister of Mary (see below) explain their close association with Mary as in the above passages and Acts 1:14 thus: After the death of Joseph, Mary became an inmate of the home of her sister, resulting in the two families being combined, and that is why they were accompanying Mary. But this creates a problem for the traditional interpretation of John 19:26-27 (more on this later).

2.3.4. Other New Testament References to Jesus’ Brothers
  1. John 2:12: “After this [Jesus] went down to Capernaum, he and his mother, and his brothers, and his disciples; and there they stayed a few days.”
  2. Acts 1:14: “All these with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.”Note here that Mary is again closely associated with the brothers of Jesus, suggesting that they were blood brothers rather than cousins or other close relations of Jesus.
  3. 1 Corinthians 9:5: “Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas?”
  4. Galatians 1:19: “I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.”This James is the same as the James mentioned in Matthew 13:54-57 and Mark 6:3-4. He was apparently the eldest of the four brothers of Jesus.

2.4. Terminology

The Greek words used to refer to Jesus’ “brothers” and “sisters” are (in the singular) adelphos and adelphē, respectively, which refer to a (blood) brother or (blood) sister in classical (ancient) Greek when used of biological relationships (Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon). The New Testament was written in ancient Greek and so there is the natural presumption that these words when used in the New Testament in reference to kinship would refer to blood brothers and blood sisters. Indeed, elsewhere in the Greek New Testament, when adelphos and adelphē are used of people biologically related they always refer to a blood brother or a blood sister. For example, John is called the adelphos of James, the son of Zebedee, in Matthew 4:21. Andrew is called “brother [adelphos] of Simon Peter” in v. 18. There are two special uses of this word in the NT. The first is the use of adelphos in relation to fellow Jews as children of the same “fathers,” i.e., the ancestors Abraham and Israel, following the Septuagint translation (adelphos) of the Hebrew ah (e.g., Matthew 5:47; Acts 3:22 [quoting Deuteronomy 18:15]; 13:26). The Hebrew word ah (rough transliteration) is not restricted to a blood brother in meaning and can refer to persons of other relationships, such as a cousin, nephew (see below). This use of adelphos in the New Testament to reflect the wider sense of ah is evident in Romans 9:3: “for my brothers [adelphōn], my kinsman [syngenōn] according to the flesh.” Fellow Christians are also called “brothers” (adelphoi) in the New Testament by virtue of the spiritual Fatherhood of God of all believers. The relationship among God’s spiritual children is analagous to that between literal blood brothers and sisters sharing the same father. The Greek language had words for a cousin (anepsios) and more general terms for relations (syngenēs, meaning “kinsman,” syngenis, meaning “kinswoman”) and these are used in the Greek New Testament. When describing Mark as Barnabas’ “cousin,” the apostle Paul uses anepsios in Colossians 4:10, but he refers to James as “the Lord’s [Jesus’] brother [adelphos]” in Galatians 1:19. In 1 Corinthians 9:5, Paul refers to “the brothers of the Lord,” i.e., James, Joses (=Joseph), Judas and Simon. In referring to Jesus’ brothers, Paul always uses the Gr. word adelphos. If these had been Jesus’ cousins, Paul could have used the word anepsios, but he didn’t. Even if anepsios was not the right word to express the relationship, he could have used the more general word syngenēs to describe the brethren of the Lord. The words suggenēs and syngenis occur in the Greek New Testament in the following passages:

  • Elizabeth is called Mary’s “relative” (Gr. syngenis) in Luke 1:36. She must have been a close relative of Mary—probably her cousin—for Mary visited her in the sixth month of her pregnancy (cf. vv. 24 and 26) and spent three months with her before the birth of John (v. 56). Yet Elizabeth is not called Mary’s “sister” (Gr. adelphē).
  • When Jesus was missing from the caravan on their return home from Jerusalem, Mary sought him among her “relatives” (Luke 2:44, Gr. syngeneusin, from syngenēs, here referring to both male and female relatives).
  • Jesus said, “But you will be delivered even by parents and brothers [Gr. adelphōn, from adelphos] and relatives [Gr. sungenōn, from syngenēs] and friends…” (Luke 21:16). Note that “brothers” and “relatives” are distinguished.

In Hebrew and Aramaic the words for ‘brother’ are ah and aha (cognate of the Hebrew) respectively. There is no word for ‘cousin’ in these languages and these words could also be used to refer to a cousin or other close male relative. For example, Lot is called Abraham’s ah in Genesis 14:14, though Lot was Abraham’s nephew (see Genesis 11:31; 14:12). In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, ah is literally rendered as adelphos in Genesis 14:14. Those who defend the perpetual virginity of Mary assert that this Hebrew and Aramaic usage underlies the use of adelphos and adelphē in the NT in referring to certain close relatives of Jesus. In answer to this it may be said that the Septuagint is a translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, which is often quite literal. The translation is very literal in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). For example, Hebrew participles are rendered with Greek participles, a finite verb with a finite verb and Hebrew idioms are translated literally into Greek. But the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament were originally written in Greek and are not translations of Aramaic (mother tongue of the Jews) originals. It is true that Aramaic oral traditions may underlie much of the gospels and stylistically the NT writers, especially in the gospels, display their familiarity with the Septuagint. But the fact remains that the normal, primary meaning of adelphos and adelphē in Greek are “blood brother” “blood sister,” respectively, and whether these words bear the broader sense of “kinsman” or “relative” in the NT with regard to the “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus has to be determined not by merely suspecting a Semitic background for them but by examining how the NT writers used these words in context. There are no demonstrable cases of adelphos or adelphē being used in the NT in the sense of “relative” in describing biological relationships and the contexts in which Jesus’s “brothers” and “sisters” are mentioned point to their being his blood siblings. In his article “The ‘Brothers and Sisters of Jesus’: Anything New?” François Rossier, Catholic priest and Marianist, writes:

This plurality of interpretations [i.e., “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus mentioned in the NT as being either blood siblings or close relations, such as cousins] has been made possible because of the ambiguity of the word “brother” (and “sister”) in ancient Hebrew. This language, like Aramaic, does not distinguish between blood brother and cousin. In fact—and this point might not have been taken into sufficient consideration—the Hebrew word ah, in its literal meaning, applies to any close male relative of the same generation. Once someone belongs to this circle—whether as sibling, half-brother, step-brother or cousin—he is an ah. Within this circle defined by true family brotherhood, no further word distinction is made. For ancient Hebrew, one belongs either to the family in-group or not. [7]

Further down in the article he writes

The socio-cultzural milieu of the authors of the New Testament is Judaism. So, we can accept the idea that, even if their text does not suppose a Hebrew or Aramaic substrate, in their use of Greek words they would naturally convey the way their own Judaic society and culture envision social and family relationships.

While it is true that no further word distinction is made as between a blood brother and a close relation such as a cousin in Hebrew (and Aramaic), it doesn’t mean that the ancient Hebrews and the Jews of the first century did not indicate such distinctions in speech and writing when using ah or aha (Aramaic). Owing to its ambiguity, in some cases the precise relationship denoted by ah is specified in the Old Testament. In Judges 8:19 “my brothers” are more specifically defined as “the sons of my mother.” In Deuteronomy 13:6 and Psalm 50:20 “your brother” is more specifically described as “your mother’s son.” In Judges 9:5, we are told that Abimelech killed “his brothers the sons of Jerubbaal, seventy men” on one stone.” The words “sons of Jerubbaal” and “seventy men” serve to distinguish his blood brothers from the “mother’s brothers,” i.e., her relatives, mentioned in vv. 1-2, who are also Ahimelech’s “brothers” in the sense of “relatives.” Sometimes the preceding context helps to determine the precise relationship denoted by ah. For example, in Genesis 14:14, 16 Lot is called Abraham ah, but from Gen. 11:27 the reader already knows that the relationship is uncle-nephew. In 1 Samuel 16:13, “Then Samuel took the horn of oil and annointed him [David] in the midst of his brothers” the writer meant and expected the reader to understand the other sons of Jesse he had mentioned in the preceding verses. Similarly, the mention of “brothers” and “sisters” of Rahab in Joshua 2:13, 18 and 6:23 in close association with her “father” and “mother” serves to identify them as her own blood brothers and sisters. The internal evidence militates against seeing a Semitic influence on the use of adelphos and adelphē in the New Testament in referring to relationships between individuals. As mentioned above, “brothers” (adelphoi) and “relatives” (syngeneis) are distinguished in Luke 21:16, even though syngeneis would undoubtably have included many “brothers” in the wider Semitic sense. Paul uses anepsios to refer to Barnabas’ cousin in Colossians 4:10 but adelphos to refer to James as the Lord’s brother (Galatians 1:19). If the Hebrew/Aramaic idiom underlies the use of relationship terms in the NT, why wasn’t adelphē, ‘sister,’ used to refer to Elizabeth instead of “relative” (syngenis, Luke 1:36)? Such usage points to the use of adelphos and adelphē in the New Testament in the classical Greek sense of “blood brother” “blood sister” in reference to biological relationships. Furthermore, the brothers and sisters of Jesus are mentioned in close association with Mary and (in certain cases) Joseph, which points to their being Jesus’ blood siblings (cf. the passages from Joshua cited above). In Luke 21:16 “relatives” (syngeneis) and “those of his household” are distinguished. Rossier writers further,

Other Greek words such as homopatôr (“half-brother by the father”) or homomêtôr (“half-brother by the mother”) are also not found in the New Testament. If the authors of the New Testament wanted to render the relationships within Jesus’ family as precisely as possible in Greek, they should have used such expressions since—and Matthew and Luke make it very clear—Jesus was not the true son of Joseph. If Jesus’ “brothers” were sons of Mary, they would have been only Jesus’ “half-brothers by the mother,” and there was a Greek word for that [viz., homomêtôr] .

The adjectives homopatrios or homopatēr (by the same father) and homomētrios or homomētōr (by the same mother) were used in ancient Greek with adelphos and adelphē to refer to half-brothers or sisters. These words were sometimes used singly substantively. The expression for a half-brother by the same mother would be adelphos homomētrios (an alternative form would be adelphos ouch homopatrios, “brother not by the same father”). Therefore Jesus’ brothers were more specifically adelphoi homomētrioi. In classical Greek adelphos and adelphē alone could refer to a half-brother and a half-sister. In Antiphon’s (the orator) “Against the Stepmother for Poisoning” (a classical Greek work), the words adelphois homopatriois kai mētri adelphōn (“my half-brothers and their mother [literally, ‘mother of brothers’]”) occur in 1.1. Thereafter throughout the rest of the speech a particular half-brother who is engaged in litigation with the speaker is referred to as simply adelphos in sections 5, 14 and 21. In New Testament writings Jesus’ half-siblings are not identified as such with homomētrios but their precise relationship could be inferred from the nativity stories by the first readers of Matthew and Luke. As for Mark, John and certain epistles of the NT, where the virgin birth is not mentioned, one may assume that the precise circumstances of Jesus’ birth were such common knowledge among the readers of these writings in the first century that the use of homomētrios even once would have been superfluous. We have a possible example in the New Testament of the use of adelphos alone to refer to a half-brother: In Mark 6:3 Philip is called Herod’s adelphos, though he was in fact the latter’s half-brother. Some might argue that “Mark” actually thought Philip was Herod’s full brother, but those who argue thus assume that “Mark” may have been mistaken as to the exact relationship between Herod and Philip.

2.5. I Have Become a Stranger to My Mother’s Sons

The psalms in the Old Testament are prophetic songs composed under the influence and direction of the holy spirit (1 Chronicless 25:1, 3). The subject matter of the psalms is varied but for the most part they are prayers and songs of praise of individual Israelites and/or the nation of Israel collectively. Though many of them address the present concerns of the writers, they are, viewed in the light of the New Testament, ultimately prophecies of Christ and his church, the new Israel. A substantial portion of the book of Psalms was composed by king David. His life experiences foreshadowing the Messiah who was to come, many verses of his psalms are cited in the New Tesament as being fulfilled in Christ. An example is Psalm 22:18 (cf. John 19:24). Some elements of David’s psalms, however, have no demonstrable application to own his life but are seen as fulfilled in Jesus, e.g., Psalm 16:8-11 (cf. Acts 2:25ff). Psalm 69 is attributed to David. It contains a cry of distress and a prayer for help and imprecation on his adversaries. He complains of being falsely accused by his enemies of wrongs he was innocent of (v. 4). Many verses of this psalm are applied to Christ in the New Testament: v. 4 (John 15:25), v. 9 (John 2:17; Romans 15:3), v. 21 (Matthew 27:34, 48; Mark 15:23, 36; Luke 23:36; John 19:28-30), v. 22-23 (Romans 11:9-10), v. 25 (Acts 1:20). Verses 6-9 reads as follows:

6May those who hope in you not be disgraced because of me, O Lord, the Lord Almighty; may those who seek you not be put to shame because of me, O God of Israel. 7For I endure scorn for your sake, and shame covers my face. 8I am a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my own mother’s sons; 9for zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me. (NIV)

Since the words “my own mother’s sons” are in parallelism with “my brothers,” the latter must refer to his own blood brothers. We are told in John 7:3-5 that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him. There are also other indications in the gospels that Jesus family, including his mother, did not understand what he was about (cf. Mark 3:31-35 and para. discussed above). Therefore Psalm 69:8 clearly fits Jesus and corroborates the fact that Jesus did have blood brothers. Proponents of perpetual virginity wouldn’t give in that easily. Some argue that Psalm 69:8 may not be Christological, pointing to other elements in the psalm which were not true of him, e.g., v. 5, “You know my folly, O God; my guilt is not hidden from you,” which could not be applied to Jesus. Examples from other psalms may be cited. Psalm 22 is heavily Christological, yet v. 2 cannot be applied to Jesus in detail. The problem with this defense is that if what clearly fits Christ in the psalms such as Psalm 69:8 is arbitrarily set aside as not Christological, then on what basis can we apply any passage in the Psalms to Jesus? The book of Psalms is the most frequently quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament. Even so, only a fraction of this book is quoted. There are many more Christological passages in the Psalms which are not quoted but are clearly fulfilled in Christ. The same applies to the rest of the Old Testament. While the writers of the New Testament do not lay down an explicit hermeneutical principle whereby we may interpret the Psalms, from their use of the Psalms we may derive the principle that, when there is a sufficient basis for establishing a given psalm as Christological, whatever fits Christ in that psalm is to taken as fulfilled in him. Following this principle, we must conclude that Psalm 69:8 was fulfilled in Christ. Some Marian apologists argue that, even if Psalm 69:8 applies to Christ, “my mother” may not be Mary but Israel as the mother of the children of Israel. The nation Israel is sometimes personified in the Old Testament as the spouse of Yahweh. As such, she is the mother of the people of Israel in a metaphorical sense. But it is more natural to take “my mother” in Psalm 69:8 as referring to the psalmist’s own mother. In Psalm 27:10, also attributed to David, we have the exact expression “my mother” in reference to the psalmist’s own mother: “My father and my mother have forsaken me, but the Lord will take me up.” Being alienated from one’s kith and kin has been a common experience among the true worshippers of God in all ages. Jeremiah experienced this (Jeremiah 12:6). Psalms 31:11 and 38:11 describe situations similar to that in Psalm 69:8. So no cause for wonder if this was part of the lot of Jesus, the “man of sorrows,” too. A close examination of Psalm 69:8-9 suggests that the unpopularity resulting from Jesus’ zeal for God’s house—”consumes me” here means “ruins me”—has led him to be alienated from his own brothers. His shame affects their attitude towards him. I have seen one Catholic apologist suggesting that even if Psalm 69:8 refers to Christ and his own mother, the other children need not be her biological children! This suggestion is based on the Catholic interpretation of the woman in Revelation 12 as Mary as the spiritual mother of all believers. That the woman of Revelation 12 represents Mary is one of the preposterous teachings of the Catholic Church, for a refutation of which this is not the place. Let it suffice here to say that the woman and the son she gives birth to (12:5) both represent the New Testament Church (cf. Galatians 4:26).

3. Were the Lord’s Brothers Sons of the “Other Mary”?

In the Introduction to this article, an extract from the the Catechism of the Catholic Church relating to the subject of Jesus’ siblings was reproduced, a part of which reads, “In fact James and Joseph, ‘brothers of Jesus’, are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls ‘the other Mary’. They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression.” This “other Mary” was one of the three Marys who figure in the accounts of the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus in the Gospels:

  1. Mary Magdalene (Matthew 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40; 16:1; Luke 24:10; John 19:25).
  2. Mary the wife of Clopas and mother of James (the little) and Joses (Matthew 27:56, 61; Mark 15:40; 16:1; Luke 24:10; John 19:25). Matthew mentions Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph (=Joses) in 27:56 and refers to the latter as “the other Mary” in Matthew 27:61 and 28:1 to distinguish her from Mary Magdalene.
  3. Mary the mother of Jesus (John 19:25). This Mary, however, is mentioned only in the Gospel according to John as being at the cross.

Jesus’ brothers are named James, Joses (=Joseph), Judas and Simon in the Gospels (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3). The Catholic Church teaches that these James and Joses and the James and Joses who are said to be the sons of the “other Mary” = “mother of James and Joses” (Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40) are identical. The fact that the same two names are mentioned in the two places in the same order is asserted to be in its favour. Thus Mary the mother of James and Joses = wife of Clopas = “the other Mary” is assumed to be the mother of Jesus’ “brothers,” who are assumed to be related to Jesus based on a certain interpretation of John 19:25, which admits of three possible interpretations as follows:

  1. “But there were standing by the cross of Jesus his mother and his mother’s sister [adelphē], Mary the wife of [Gr. hē tou] Clopas and Mary Magdalene.”The above words may be understood as describing four women in two pairs: Jesus’ mother and her sister (first pair), and Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene (second pair). There are parallels to this construction elsewhere in the New Testament. In the enumeration of the apostles in Matthew’s Gospel, Philip and Bartholomeus are paired. So are Thomas and Mattheus; Jacob and Thadeus; and Simon the Caananite and Judas Ischariot (Matthew 10:3-4). The Peshitta, ancient the Syriac translation of the Bible, inserts “and” before the first “Mary,” indicating that it understands the words to refer to four women.On this interpretation, the women present at the cross are as follows:
    Mark 15:40 Matthew 27:56 John 19:25
    Mary Magdalene Mary Magdalene Mary Magdalene
    Mary the mother of James “the little” and Joses Mary the mother of James and Joses = Mary the wife of Clopas
    Jesus’ mother
    Salome = (?) Mother of the sons of Zebedee = (?) Jesus’ mother’s sister

    N.B.: In the above chart and the two that follow, (?) denotes “uncertain” and (??) denotes “very doubtful.”

  2. They can also be understood as referring only to two women: The mother of Jesus and her sister, who are then named as Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene respectively. The words “Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene” are in apposition to the words “his mother and her sister.” Mary, Jesus’ mother, would then be either the daughter or the mother of Clopas, not the wife of Clopas, for we know that Joseph was Mary’s husband. (The Greek words hē tou may mean “wife of,” “mother of” or “daugher of.”)On this interpretation, the women present at the cross are as follows:
    Mark 15:40 Matthew 27:56 John 19:25
    Mary Magdalene Mary Magdalene Mary Magdalene = (??) Jesus’ mother’s sister
    Mary the mother of James “the little” and Joses Mary the mother of James and Joses = Mary of Clopas = (??) Jesus’ mother
    Salome = (?) Mother of the sons of Zebedee

    This interpretation is attended by these difficulties: (i) It results in two sisters of the same family having the same name, an unlikely possibility; (ii) It is highly improbable that Jesus mother would be described as “the mother of James and Joses” (rather than as the mother of Jesus); and (iii) Mary Magdalene is nowhere else identified as Jesus’ mother’s sister.

  3. In the third interpretation the same words are punctuated differently: “But there were standing by the cross of Jesus his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” This variation of punctuation is possible because in the original Greek there is no punctuation.On this interpretation, there are three women: Jesus’ mother, his mother’s sister, who is the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene, as shown in the chart below:
    Mark 15:40 Matthew 27:56 John 19:25
    Mary Magdalene Mary Magdalene Mary Magdalene
    Mary the mother of James “the little” and Joses Mary the mother of James and Joses = Mary the wife of Clopas, Jesus’ mother’s sister
    Jesus’ mother
    Salome = (?) Mother of the sons of Zebedee

Of the three interpretations, (b) is the most problematic. Both translations (b) and (c) suffer from the difficulty of there being two Mary’s in the same family, but (a) does not and so is preferable for that reason. The difficulty of Mary the mother of Jesus having a sister with the same name has been explained in various ways:

  • The two sisters had the same name just like some members of Herod’s family bore the name Herod. However, Herod was a royal name repeated in Herod’s family and so that name does not come into comparison.
  • The two sisters may have borne two forms of the original Hebrew name: Miriam and Maria.
  • The two were not blood sisters (cousins or other relationship), but this involves not taking adelphē in its normal sense of blood sister.

That the first two brothers of one family should have in common the same two names with two brothers of another family may seem rather uncommon but the names in question were extremely common, as the following statistics show:

  • There are nine Simons, four Judes/Judahs (Gr. Ioudas), not including the writer of the epistle of Jude, and six Josephs in the New Testament.
  • There are twenty-one Simons, seventeen Joses (=Joseph) and sixteen Judes in Josephus. [8]
  • Jesus’ twelve disciples included two Simons (Simon Peter and Simon the Canaanite), two Jameses (James the son of Zebedee and James the son of Alpheus) and two Judes (Matthew 10:2-4; Mark 3:14-19: Luke 6:13-16)!

Consider also the following:

  • Of the eleven women named and connected to the life and ministry of Jesus, no less than four are named Mary.
  • There were at the cross three women named Mary and connected to the early Christian community!

The theory that the “brothers” of Jesus are his cousins or other close relations through Mary of Clopas being a sister (in a narrower or wider sense) of Jesus’ mother is based on a particular translation of John 19:25, but it is a bad choice of translation exegetically.

4. The Hieronymian Theory in Its Full Form Examined

In his tract Against Helvidius Jerome argues that the “brothers of the Lord” were actually his first cousins based on the following positions: (a) James the Lord’s brother (Galatians 1:19) was one of the twelve apostles and identical with James the son of Alphaeus; (b) the mother of this James and the brothers of Jesus named Joses (=Joseph), Simon and Jude was Mary of Clopas (John 19:25); and (c) this Mary was Jesus’ mother’s sister. As developed by later writers, Jerome’s theory affirms in addition that (d) the apostles Simon the Zealot and Judas (“not Iscariot”) were brothers of Jesus; and (e) Clopas is identical with Alphaeus and is the husband of “Mary of Clopas” (John 19:25) = “Mary the mother of James and Joses” (Matthew 27:56) = “Mary the mother of James ‘the little’ and Joses” (Mark 15:40) = “Mary the mother of James” (Luke 24:10). Let us deal with each of these points in order. The identification of James the Lord’s brother with the apostle named James the son of Alphaeus (point [a] above) is arrived at by the following steps:

  1. In the beginning of the book of Acts two Jameses are mentioned as being in the “upper room” in the company of the other apostles: James the brother of John and James the son of Alphaeus (Acts 1:13). The first James is martyred in about AD 44 (Acts 12:3). Therefore the James who figure very prominently in the rest of the book (Acts 12:17; 15; and 21:18) must be James the son of Alphaeus, the only other James mentioned in the book. There is the further argument by those who translate the Greek phrase Iakōbou tou mikrou in Mark 15:40 as “James the Less” or “James the younger” that this implies there were only two prominent Jameses in the church: James the Great, son Zebedee (though he is never so described in the gospels) and James the “little,” i.e., the son of Alphaeus.
  2. This James is to be identified with James “the Lord’s brother” of Galations 1:19 and the James of Galatians 2:9, 12, all of which passages are to be understood as representing James as a member of the twelve apostles of Jesus.

The identification of the James of Acts 12:17; 15; and 21:18 with James the son of Alphaeus is certainly quite logical. It is reasonable to identify the James in Galatians 2:9, 12 with James the son of Alphaeus, because (a) the mention of his name in close association with the names of the apostles Peter and John v. 9 (“James and Cephas and John”); (b) his prominence implied in Paul naming him before Peter as one of the chief pillars of the church; and (c) his leadership position in the Jerusalem church implied in v. 12, the same position occupied by James the son Alphaeus in the book of Acts, all point to the James of Galatians 2 to being one of the twelve apostles and James the son of Alpheus. But there is no compelling reason to identify James the son of Alphaeus with “James the Lord’s brother” in Galatians 1:19. Paul says that on his first visit to the Jerusalem church after his conversion he stayed with Peter fifteen days (Galatians 1:18) and that he “did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother” (v. 19). This statement does imply that James the Lord’s brother was an apostle but it does not necessarily follow that he belonged to the Twelve, for there were other apostles besides the twelve apostles. [9] The qualification of his name with the words “the Lord’s brother” shows that this is not the same as the other James whom Paul could refer to just by the bare name of James (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:7), i.e., James the son of Alphaeus. Even if only two Jameses existed, viz., the James the son of Alphaeus and James the son of Zebedee, and Paul felt it necessary to to distinguish the former from the latter, the patronymic “of Alphaeus” would have been more appropriate. At the time relating to Galatians 1:9 there were three Jameses: James the son of Alphaeus, James the son of Zebedee; and James the Lord’ brother. At the time relating to 2:9, 12 James the son of Zebedee was dead and the James of these verses is James the son of Alphaeus, prominent enough for Paul to be able to refer to by the bare name. With regard to the phrase Iakōbou tou mikrou in Mark 15:40, mikros in Greek is an adjective meaning “little” or “small” and it may refer to the stature or size of the person so described rather than his juniority or smallness in comparison to another James. On the other hand, mikros may have been originally used to differentiate the two Jameses belonging to the Twelve, viz., James the son of Alphaeus and James the son of Zebedee, and that appellative may have continued to be used even after James the Lord’s brother joined the band of Jesus’ disciples after Jesus’ resurrection. We simply do not know enough to base any firm argument on the epithet ho mikros in Mark 15:40. [10] If James the son of Alphaeus was Jesus’ brother, that fact would naturally have been mentioned somewhere in the gospels as it is in the cases of Peter and Andrew, and James and John. The omission of that fact in the gospels would be incomprehensible. Is “Mary of Clopas” the same as the mother of James the son Alphaeus and the brothers of Jesus named Joses, Simon and Jude (point [b] above)? According to the gospel according to Luke, among the women who visited Jesus’ tomb after his resurrection were “Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Mary the mother of James” (Luke 24:10). Which James? From the manner of mention of the name (without any qualification and any clues in the context as to precise identity), some argue that the writer of Luke meant James the son of Alphaeus, who is one of the two Jameses mentioned in his gospel and makes a large figure in the book of Acts (also by the same writer), and the epistles of Paul. This argument, while a good one for Luke’s gospel, is difficult to sustain in Mark, where the same woman is described first as “Mary the mother of James and Joses” (15:40), as if the name James was not sufficient by itself, then a few verses down as “Mary the mother of Joses” (15:47) and “Mary the mother of James” (16:1), implying Joses, of whom we otherwise know nothing, and James were equally prominent and well known to Mark’s readers. Even if, guided solely by Luke, we conclude that this James is identical with James the son of Alphaeus, it still does not follow that the latter was related to Jesus through Mary of Clopas in John 19:25 being a sister of Jesus’ mother, because that relationship is a result of a particular translation of that verse, a translation to be deprecated for the reason that, as explained above, it results in two sisters having the same name “Mary.” Point (c), that Mary of Clopas was Jesus’ mother’s sister, has already been dealt with above. Were the apostles Simon the Zealot and Judas (“not Iscariot”) brothers of Jesus (point [d] above)? In the most complete form of the Hieronymian theory, these two are also considered to have been “brothers” of Jesus. The arguments for this are as follows. In Luke’s catalogue of Jesus’ twelve apostles, there is a Jude designated as “Jude of James” (Luke 6:16). The author of the epistle of Jude identifies himself as “Jude, the brother of James” (Jude 1). It is asserted that this James is the same as the James of Luke 6:16; therefore, “Jude of James” in Luke 6:16 should be read as “Jude the brother of James,” which makes Jude one of the twelve apostles. “It is quite in accordance with Greek custom for a man to be distinguished by the addition of his brother’s name instead of his father’s, when the brother was better known.” [11] In his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius states that after the martyrdom of “James the Just,” whom tradition regarded as “the brother of the Lord,” one Simeon, son of Clopas, was chosen to succeed him as bishop of Jerusalem (3:11:1), and that this Simeon was “a cousin, as they say, of the Saviour. For Hegesippus records that Clopas was a brother of Joseph” (3:11:2). The following objections may be urged against the apostles Jude and Simon being identified as Jesus’ brothers (in the sense of relations):

  • The obvious objection against this theory, as in the case of James, is that the apostles Jude and Simon are nowhere described in the New Testament as Jesus’ brothers, again an incomprehensible omission. Nor are they ever called brothers of each other in the lists of the apostles.
  • In the list of apostles in Luke 6, “James of Alpheus” (Gr. iakōbos alphaiou) means “James the son of Alphaeus,” so why should not “Jude of James” (Gr. ioudas iakōbou) in v. 16 mean “Jude the son of James” rather than “Jude the brother of James,” especially since earlier in the list brotherhood is marked by the word adelphos (“brother”): “Peter and Andrew his brother” (Luke 6:14)?
  • The very way in which these three Apostles [James, Simon and Jude] are designated shows that they were not brethren of Jesus. It was necessary to distinguish them from three other Apostles of the same name, and they are not once called, for distinction, ‘the Lord’s brethren.’ James is called ‘of Alpheus …; Simon is called the Cananaean,’ and ‘Zealot’; Jude receives no less than four distinguishing titles, ‘not Iscariot,’ ‘of James,’ ‘Thaddaeus,’ and ‘Lebbaeus’ (Matthew 10:3, Western Text). How strange, if he really was the Lord’s brother, that he is not once so described! [12]

  • The authors of the epistles of James and Jude do not identify themselves as Jesus’ brothers. The author of the former calls identifies himself only as “a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). The author of the latter identifies himself as “a bond-servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James” (1:1). Neither describes himself as an apostle. Indeed in Jude 17 the manner in which the writer refers to the apostles of Jesus indicates that he himself was not an apostle.Both the epistles of James and Jude were written late relative to most other New Testament books as evidenced by certain statements (James 5:8, 9; Jude 3ff, referring to the predicted apostasy of the church [cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:3]), probably around A.D. 70. It is entirely possible that the writers of these two epistles were two prominent members of the late New Testament church who were brothers and unconnected to any of the other Jameses and Judes mentioned in the rest of the New Testament, traditions to the contrary notwithstanding.

The last point, (e) above, has it that Clopas is identical with Alphaeus. In answer to the obvious objection that the two men cannot be identical because the two names are different the following explanations are offered:

  1. They are two different names for the same individual. Examples for this can be cited from the Bible. We learn from Acts 12:12 that Mark was also called John. Judas the zealot is also called Thaddaeus (compare Mark 3:18 with Mattthew 10:3). In the Old Testament, Gideon is also called Jerubbaal (Judges 6:32).
  2. The two names (Klōpas and Alphaios or halphaios) are alternative Greek forms of the same Semitic name חַלֽפַּי (Chalphai). However, the available evidence does not support this view. [13]
  3. Mary was the wife of Clopas or daughter of Clopas rather than his wife.

5. Did Joseph Have Children from a Previous Marriage?

In the early Catholic Church, alongside the view that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were his blood siblings there existed the belief that these “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus were children of Joseph by a previous marriage. The earliest extant written source for this belief is the apocryphal gospel named Protevangelium of James, dated to the second century A.D. The author of this apocryphal work poses as “James,” presumably James the brother of the Lord, and gives many details about Mary, including her family, birth, her childhood in the temple, her bethrothal to Joseph, who is presented as a widower with children. The legendary character of the book is obvious. While this book evidently relies on and copies the infancy narratives in the canonical gospels to a great extent, it also deviates from and contradicts them in a number of points. For example, the annunciation to Mary is located in Jerusalem while in the canonical gospels it is located in Nazareth. Jesus is born in a cave outside the city of Bethlehm whereas he was born in Bethlehem. This apocryphal work is rejected and condemned in official documents of the Catholic Church. The following objections may be raised against the brothers and sisters of Jesus being Joseph’s children from an earlier marriage:

  1. It is incomprehensible that Joseph’s children from an earlier marriage should be mentioned repeatedly in the gospel in close connection with Mary without any indication that they were step-brothers and step-sisters if the writers of the gospels were aware of it.
  2. There is no mention about them in the accounts of the birth of Christ. There is no indication that there were other family members with Joseph and Mary when they went to Bethlehem for the census (see Luke 2:4ff). They are not mentioned when Joseph fled to Egypt taking Mary and Jesus with him (Matthew 2:13ff).
  3. If these “brothers” and “sisters” of Christ were Joseph’s children by a previous marriage, then Joseph must have been a widower and much older than Mary. Since four brothers and sisters of Jesus are mentioned, there must have been at least six or seven, which means Mary, when she was in her teens, was bethrothed to a man much older than her with at least six or seven children!

Officially, the Catholic Church itself does not hold the view that the “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus were children of Joseph from an earlier marriage (see the passage from the Catechism quoted at the beginning of this article).

6. Positive arguments in Favour of Perpetual Virginity Refuted

Writings defending the perpetual virginity of Mary are for the most part defensive in nature, i.e., they consist of attempts to refute the biblical arguments against her perpetual virginity, such as Matthew 1:25. There are some exceptions to this, some of which are extremely fanciful.

6.1. John 20:26-27

The Revised Standard Version’s translation of the above passage is typical of the way Bible translations render it:

26When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.

This passage may be called the trump card of proponents of perpetual virginity of Mary. The following extract is from the Catholic Encyclopedia (1917 edition):

A further proof [of the perpetual virginity of Mary] is the fact that at His death Jesus recommended His mother to St. John. Is not His solicitude for her in His dying hour a sign that she would be left with no one whose duty it would be to care for her? And why recommend her to an outsider if she had other sons? Since there was no estrangement between Him and His “brethren”, or between them and Mary, no plausible argument is confirmed by the words with which he recommends her: ide ho uios sou, with the article before uios (son); had there been others sons, ide uios sou, without the article, would have been the proper expression.

There are problems with this argument. First, the same argument can be used to prove that the “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus closely associated with his mother in the Gospels could not have been cousins or some other close relations either, for if they were, it would have been more natural for them to look after their aunt than a foster son. Wouldn’t it have been more natural for Jesus to entrust his mother to his cousins or other close relations with whom she was living under the same roof all her life than to an outsider? Therefore whatever interpretation we put on the “brothers” and “sisters” mentioned in the New Testament, there is a difficulty if Mary was entrusted to a man who was not called a “brother,” though the difficulty is a little greater if the “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus were Mary’s own children. Second, why would Jesus entrust his mother to be looked after by someone whom he knew would be away from home for long periods of time on God’s work and exposed to the perils of Christian discipleship just like other followers of his? Further, if “the disciple whom Jesus loved” was John the brother of James, as tradition has it, why would Jesus commend his mother to some one in the very presence of his natural mother (Matthew 27:56, probably the woman named Salome in Mark 15:40). If ide ho uios sou implies Mary had no other son, do the words Ide hē mētēr sou (mētēr with the article), “Behold, thy mother,” imply that “the disciple whom he loved” had no mother of his own? Proponents of Mary’s perpetual virginity cannot urge this argument without abandoning the tradition that “the disciple whom he loved” is John. There is a far better interpretation of John 19:26-27 not attended by the above difficulties. The Greek words translated “took her to his own home” in the RSV are elaben ho mathetēs autēn eis ta idia, literally, “the disciple took/received her into/among his own [things].” elaben, from lambanō , can be translated as “took” (e.g., John 6:11) or “receive” (e.g., John 1:13). Indeed with immaterial things, the word is used in John in the sense of “receive” rather than “take” (e.g. John 1:13, 16; 6:12). The phrase ta idia, literally, “one’s own things,” is the neuter plural of the adjective idios with the plural article. It first occurs in the same gospel in John 1:11: “He came to his own country [Gr. ta idia] but his own people [Gr. hoi idioi, masculine plural of idios with the plural article] did not receive him.” “[H]is own people” are the people of Israel. Its second occurrence in the gospel is in John 16:32: “Behold, an hour is coming, has already, for you to be scattered, each to his own home [eis ta idia], and leave me alone….” It is instructive to carefully study the use of this phrase in Luke 18:28:

And Peter said, “Behold, we have left out own homes [Gr. ta idia], and followed you.” And he said to them, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left [a] house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who shall not receive many times as much at this time and in the age to come, eternal life.” [NASB]

ta idia above is better rendered “all that we own,” “everything we own” (so Common English Bible). The parallel in Mark 10:28 reads simply panta, “all things.” The disciples are telling Jesus that they have left all their possessions in order to follow Jesus. These possessions are “house,” “wife,” “brothers,” etc., that is, both living and non-living things. The parallel in Mark 10:29 includes “farms” (literaly, “fields”) among their possessions. Jesus tells them that whoever gives up his material possessions for the sake of the kingdom of God will receive many times as much the spiritual equivalents of such possessions in this life (Luke 18:30). Mark is explicit as to the spiritual compensation that Jesus said the believer would receive:

“There is no one who has left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, [or wife], or children, or lands, for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, that shall not receive [Gr. labē] a hundredfold now in this time: houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions, and in the coming age life eternal.” [Mark 10:29-30]

“[B]rethren,” “sisters,” etc. comprise the believer’s new spiritual family, God being the father of them all. This is taught clearly in Matthew 12:47-50:

And someone said to him, “Behold, your mother and your brothers are standing outside seeking to speak to you.” But he answered the one who was telling him and said, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Behold, my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my father who is in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

When greeting Rufus’ mother, a member of the church in Rome, Paul calls her “his mother and mine” (Romans 16:13). We are now ready to properly understand John 19:26-27. Seeing his mother and the disciple whom he loved, he tells his mother that the latter is now her spiritual son. Likewise he tells the disciple that Mary is now his spiritual mother. (Incidentally, compare the similarity of expression between “Behold, my mother and my brothers!” in Matthew 12:49 and “Behold, thy son/thy mother!” in John 19:26-27.) Therefore from that hour that disciple receives her into/among his own spiritual possessions. [14] The words “from that hour” show that Mary joins the community of true believers in Jesus only at that late hour. This agrees well with the portrayal of Mary in the New Testament, which never presents her as a disciple of Jesus during his ministry and describes her as associating with the believing community first at the cross (John 19:25) and then in the upper room in Jerusalem after Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:13). This true New Testament portrayal of Mary is quite at variance with the mythical image of Mary held and promoted in the Roman Catholic Church. If the presence of the article before both mētēr (“mother”) and uios (“son”) signifies uniqueness in the particular case, then we may understand Jesus as setting aside his natural brothers as unbelieving and transferring the place of the true son of his mother to his favourite disciple and spiritual brother (and vice versa). However, in view of cases like ton ‘Iakōbon ton tou Zebedaiou Mark 3:17 and ton adelphōn tou kuriou in Galatians 1:19 (see below), it is not certain whether the presence of the article in this case signifies uniqueness of any sort. In Romans 16:13 Paul describes Rufus’ mother as tēn mētera autou kai mou, that is, he says in effect, “She is Rufus’ natural mother and my spiritual mother.” Paul calls her tēn mētera mou, with the article, though she would have been one of many such mothers to Paul.

6.2. No Mention of Other Children in Luke’s Account of the Boy Jesus’ Attendance at Feast in Jerusalem

The absence of the mention of any brothers of Jesus when he attended a feast at Jerusalem at the age of twelve with his parents as reported in Luke 2:42ff. is cited by some as evidence that Jesus had none. The simple explanation is that his younger brothers would have been left in Nazareth in the care of friends or relations of Joseph and Mary. Under the Old Covenant, all males were required to appear before the Lord at the three public festivals: the feast of unleavened bread, of weeks, and of tabernacles (Exodus 23:17; 34:23; Deuteronomy 16:16-17). This last passage suggests that only males of working age were obliged to attend. According to the comment on Luke 2:42 in Jamieson-Fausset-Brown’s Commentary, at the age of twelve “every Jewish boy was styled ‘a son of the law,’ being put under a course of instruction and trained to fasting and attendance on public worship, besides being set to learn a trade.” It is therefore probable that this was the age at which a Jewish male first went up to Jerusalem.

6.3. Jesus is Called “the Son of Mary” in Mark 6:3

When Jesus preached in the synagogue Nazareth, his hometown, the people react to him with the words “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James…” (Mark 6:34). Some argue that the expression “the son” (Gr. ho huios) indicates that Jesus was the only son of Mary. But in Greek the use of the definite article ho with a term of relationship does not necessarily indicate that the person so denoted is the only one standing in that relationship to another. James, one of the twelve apostles, is called “the son of Zebedee” in Mark 3:17, though he had a brother called John. Jesus’ brother James is called “the brother of the Lord” (Galatians 1:19), although Jesus had more than one brother.

6.4. Did Mary Have a Vow of Virginity?

Mary’s surprised response to the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she would conceive and give birth to a child is cited as evidence of a vow of virginity on the part of Mary. Her words are literally, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” (Luke 1:34, New King James Version). Why should Mary, who must have known all about “the birds and the bees,” be surprised when she was bethrothed to Joseph and would conceive by him in due course when she started living together with him if not for the fact that she had bound herself to a vow of virginity? Catholic apologists point out that the angel does not tell Mary, “You are pregnant,” but “You will conceive in your womb and bear son” (Luke 1:31). On the interpretation of a vow, Mary’s first words to the angel are translated, “How shall this be done, because I know not man?” (Luke 1:34, Douay-Rheims Bible), the words “I know not man” expressing a habitual disposition and a resolution on the part of Mary to abstain from sexual relations with a man. In effect, she is saying, “How can I conceive, since I have pledged never to have a sexual relationship with a man.” [15] As stated here, marriage in ancient Israel consisted of two distinct stages: engagement followed by the marriage itself. The former could last as long as one year. Mary at the time of the annunciation was not cohabiting with Joseph and so the simplest explanation for Mary’s surprise is that she assumed that she would conceive almost immediately, before she could possibly have sexual relations with her husband, which may have been up to twelve months away. She is saying to the angel Gabriel, “I am not now having sexual relations with a man, so how can I conceive a child?” Why would the angel appear to Mary and say, “You will conceive in six to seven months from now and give birth to a son?” In the few parallels to the annunciation in the Old Testament, the conception has already taken place or takes place shortly after the annunciation. In Genesis 16:11, the angel of the Lord tells Hagar that she is with child. When God promises a son to a ninety-nine year old Abraham by Sarah, a barren woman (Genesis 16:1), he responds with the words, “Will a chid be born to a man one hundred years old?” (Genesis 18:17). Note that, though no time frame is given at this point by God for the birth of Isaac, Abraham assumes the conception to happen shortly after (following intercourse with his wife). This assumption is proven correct when God tells him later, “I will surely return to you at this time [literally, “when the time revives”] next year; and, behold, Sarah your wife will have a son” (Genesis 18:10). True enough, Isaac is born when Abraham is one hundred years old (Genesis 21:5). An angel of the Lord also appears to the wife of Manoah and says, “Behold now, you are barren and have borne no children, but you will conceive and give birth to a son. Now therefore, be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, not eat any unclean thing. For behold, you shall conceive and give birth to a son [who is to be a Nazirite]” (Judges 13:3-5). Note that the angel’s command to Manoah’s wife to immediately abstain from alcoholic drinks and unclean foods implies an immediate conception. Mary’s intuition of an immediate conception is confirmed to be correct by two clues in the continuation of the narrative. First, after the annunciation, Mary visits Elizabeth “with haste” and she is pregnant when she greets her relation (Luke 1:29). Therefore she must have conceived in the interval between the annunciation and the visit. Second, Luke’s chronology indicates that the interval cannot have been very long, for (a) Elizabeth is already six months pregnant when the annunciation takes place (1:36) and (b) Mary stays with Elizabeth for “about three months” but leaves before John is born (1:56-57), which leaves a very short interval between the annunciation and the visit. The interpretation of Luke 1:34 as expressing a vow has a long history.

[W]ith Gregory of Nissa and Augustine, Luke 1:34 began to be read as a “vow” of perpetual virginity on Mary’s part. The idea of perpetual service in the form of a vow by which her mother Anna consecrated Mary to the Lord already underlies Mary’s childhood story in Protevangelium 4:1. [16]

This view, it seems, was first articulated by the fourth century theologian Gregory of Nyssa, in an age when ascetic ideals ran high and women were taking monastic vows for the first time. Other Church writers adopted and popularized it. Medieval theologians brought Joseph into the picture, deducing that both Mary and Joseph and Mary had been inspired by God before their marriage to commit themselves to celibacy. [17]

What we can know about Judaism in first century Palestine does not lend credence the theory of a vow of virginity by Mary and Joseph. Such vows are unknown in the Old Testament [18] and among first century Jews (with the possible exception of some members of the ascetic community associated with the Dead Sea Scroll, though even this is disputed by some scholars).

An ideal of celibacy would seem to be alien to Judaism, at least Judaism as represented by the rabbinic corpus. The Mishnah declares emphatically that “no man may abstain from keeping the law Be fruitful and multiply [Genesis 2:28] unless he already has children (m. Yebam 6.6). The talmud records the opinion of Rabbi Eliezar that “he who does not enage in propagation of the race is as though he sheds blood” (b. Yebam. 63b). [19]

Having many children was considered a blessing in ancient Israel and childlessness a sign of divine disfavour, as anyone familiar with the Old Testament scriptures would appreciate. Elizabeth expresses the Jewish mentality towards childlessness by the word “disgrace” (Luke 1:28). Clearly therefore a vow of virginity by a Galilean maiden of a humble background in first century Palestine is an unfounded supposition and anacronism. In addition, a vow of virginity by Mary (and Joseph) does not make much sense within Luke’s narrative. If Mary had pledged a vow of celibacy, why would she accept betrothal to Joseph? Why would Joseph agree to be betrothed to a girl who had pledged celibacy, entailing as it did lifelong celibacy for himself? If Joseph, too, pledged to virginity, why did he agree to a betrothal to Mary? Was he, as some apologists of perpetual virginity suggest, supporting Mary’s decision to remain a lifelong virgin? If so, their union was not a real marriage but more a marriage of convenience, not involving spousal love between the two partners. Further, why did such an extraordinary and unprecedented arrangement pass unnoticed in Luke’s narrative, in which such comparatively trivial details as the prophetess Anna “having lived with her husband seven years after marriage (literally, “from her virginity”)” are recorded (Luke 2:36)? It should be mentioned that not all Roman Catholic scholars would support the theory of a pre-anunciation vow.

6.5. John 7:3ff Imply the Seniority of Jesus Brothers

Some argue that Jesus’ brothers conduct as reported in John 7:3ff imply that they were elder brothers since in their culture such conduct would be thought of as being inconsistent with the respect due from younger brothers to their elder brothers. In this regard, the following comment is apposite:

When it is urged that their attempts to interfere with Jesus indicate a superiority which, according to Jewish custom, is inconsistent with the position of younger brothers, it may be answered that those who pursue an unjustifiable course are not models of consistency. [20]

Further, disrespectful conduct and attitude of the young toward their elders is not unprecedented in the scriptures: Consider Elisha being ridiculed by youngsters (2 Kings 2:23) and the experience of Job (Job 30:1). It is also possible that Jesus was only slightly older than his brothers.

7. The Real Reasons for the Dogma of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary

Earlier in this article the following comment on Mark 6:3 from The New American Bible, a Roman Catholic translation, was reproduced: “The question of meaning here would not have arisen but for the faith of the church in Mary’s perpetual virginity.” This is a telling comment. It admits what is already obvious to a student of this issue, that the Catholic teaching of the perpetual virginity of Mary is derived not from an examination of the evidence of the New Testament, the only reliable source of knowledge of the life and teachings of Jesus and the history of the first century church and its teachings, but from later Catholic tradition. Catholic interpretations of the biblical passages relevant to this issue are but attempts at harmonising them with a tradition actually contrary to them. What gave rise to such a false tradition? The following extract from Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, III.28.3, reveals the sort of thinking that led to this false doctrine:

“Without any hesitation we must abhor the error of Helvidius, who dared to assert that Christ’s Mother, after His Birth, was carnally known by Joseph, and bore other children. For, in the first place, this is derogatory to Christ’s perfection: for as He is in His Godhead the Only-Begotten of the Father, being thus His Son in every respect perfect, so it was becoming that He should be the Only-begotten son of His Mother, as being her perfect offspring. Secondly, this error is an insult to the Holy Ghost, whose “shrine” was the virginal womb, wherein He had formed the flesh of Christ: wherefore it was unbecoming that it should be desecrated by intercourse with man. Thirdly, this is derogatory to the dignity and holiness of God’s Mother: for thus she would seem to be most ungrateful, were she not content with such a Son; and were she, of her own accord, by carnal intercourse to forfeit that virginity which had been miraculously preserved in her. Fourthly, it would be tantamount to an imputation of extreme presumption in Joseph, to assume that he attempted to violate her whom by the angel’s revelation he knew to have conceived by the Holy Ghost. We must therefore simply assert that the Mother of God, as she was a virgin in conceiving Him and a virgin in giving Him birth, did she remain a virgin ever afterwards.”

Aquinas, an influential Catholic theologian, lived in the 13th century, but similar sentiments were expressed by the early Church Fathers of the Catholic church on this subject. The sole scriptural “argument” that Aquinas advances in his Summa Theologica in favour of Mary’s continued virginity after Jesus’ birth is an appeal to Ezekiel 44:2: “This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened and no one shall enter by it, for the Lord God of Israel has entered by it; therefore it shall be shut.” Augustine before him had interpreted the closed gate of the temple as a type of Mary’s perpetual virginity. It is evident that heretical, false views on sex, marriage and holiness in the early Catholic church lies at the root of the false doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. In Catholic writings, the celibate state is equated with a higher spirituality, though no such equation is found in biblical Christianity. The God-created sexual impulse is seen as something essentially evil and negative. In support of such false ideas of spirituality certain scriptures are sometimes cited. Marianist Mark Miravalle writes

There are numerous examples in Scripture where God asks married couples to renounce relations. In the Old Testament we have Moses requesting continence from the Israelites in preparation for the arrival of God (Ex 19:15). The levitical priests were commanded by God to abstain during the time when they exercised their duties in the temple, and David and his men were only allowed to eat of the holy bread if they had been abstaining from women (1 Sam 21:5). In the New Testament, St. Paul also writes that on occasion abstinence could be helpful in aiding us in our prayer life (1 Cor 7:5). In all of these examples, we have present the theme of refraining from the marital act because of the presence of that which is holy or sacred. Again, there is nothing wrong and much beautiful in itself with the physical love of spouses expressed for one another, but these scriptural examples show that when men and women are near to God and what he is sanctified, it can also be appropriate for them to respond by giving of themselves directly and undividedly to God. If in these cases it was fitting that men and women should remain abstinent, it can hardly be surprising that present before the great miracle of the Incarnation, Mary and Joseph chose to remain permanently virginal as well. [21]

In the first two of these cases the issue involved is the ceremonial impurity or uncleanness resulting from the emission of semen or contact with other bodily fluids during sex, not sex per se. Leviticus 15:16-18 reads

16When a man has an emission of semen, he must bathe his whole body with water, and he will be unclean till evening. 17Any clothing or leather that has semen on it must be washed with water, and it will be unclean till evening. 18When a man lies with a woman and there is an emission of semen, both must bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening.

V. 16 concerns a case where there is an emission of semen without sexual intercourse with a woman (as in a nocturnal emission). The resulting impurity can be communicated even to inanimate things. Ejaculation during sex with a woman rendered both the man and the woman ceremonially impure (v. 18). Deuteronomy 23:9-11 covers the case of an Israelite soldier made ceremonially unclean by a nocturnal emission whilst the army is encamped against an enemy. Other bodily fluids, too, could render a person unclean according to the Mosaic code. For example, the regular monthly period caused a woman to be ceremonially impure for seven days (Leviticus 15:19ff). Anyone or anything touching her was made unclean. Contact with the monthly flow of a woman during sex rendered a man unclean for seven days (v. 24). [22] Childbirth, too, caused a woman to be unclean for 40 days for a male child and 80 days for a male child in total (Leviticus 12). During this period she was not to touch any consecrated thing or enter the sanctuary. After the days of purifications were completed, she was required to offer a certain sacrifice to make “atonement” in order for her to be cleansed from the flow of blood after childbirth. Mary herself had to follow the prescribed ritual to be cleansed after the days of purification (Luke 2:22-24). Sacrifices were prescribed also for the atonement of ceremonial impurity resulting from abnormal bodily discharges (Leviticus 15). It is important to note that in none of these cases is the ceremonial defilement due to any personal sin. The monthly flow of blood of a woman and the nocturnal emission of a male are all normal biological processes and even beyond human control. What caused the defilement were these bodily discharges, which were meant in the Law of Moses as a type of sin or spiritual defilement. As the New Testament teaches, the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament were a foreshadow of things to come (Colossians 2:17; Hebrews 8:5; 10:1). In the New Testament dispensation, the laws concerning ceremonial impurity are abolished and inapplicable to Christians.

Catholic writings also commonly misinterpret Revelation 14:4 in support of virginity and celibacy. [23] It says of the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth, “These are the ones who have not been defiled with women, for they are virgins.” The basic objection to a literal interpretation of “virgins” is that it implies that sexual relationships even within marriage are defiling, which is utterly contrary to the clear teachings of the New Testament on marriage and sex. What defiles a person spiritually is not sex per se, but the improper use of it in even in a marriage relationship (1 Thessalonians 3:4-6). The book of Revelation is a highly symbolical book which unveils its message basically by a series of allusions to the rest of the scriptures. A correct interpretation sees the 144,000 as representing the entire body of the redeemed, viz., the New Testament church, consisting of both men and women. Their spiritual purity is figuratively presented by them being described as not being defiled with women on the one hand and being virgins on the other. The first figure is based on Old Testament cultic laws concerning defilement contracted by contact with ceremonially impure women as discussed in the preceding paragraphs. In particular, the 144,000 Christians being holy warriors of God (cf. Revelation 7; Ephesians 6:10ff), the requirement for Israelite soldiers to preserve ceremonial purity before battle is in view (cf. Deuteronomy 23:9-10; 1 Samuel 21:5; 2 Samuel 11:8-11). The second is based on the description of Israel as the “virgin of Israel” (e.g., 2 Kings 19:21 [para. Isaiah 37:22]; Jeremiah 14:17; 31:4, 21), which figure is carried over into the New Testament in relation to the church (2 Corinthians 11:2). This connection is further suggested by the fact that the behind the idea of “defilement” in Revelation 14:4 lies Old Testament Israel’s defilement with idolatry, the New Testatment counterpart of which is the worship of the Beast and the drinking of the wine of the passion of the immorality of Babylon the Great, which is imperial Rome (14:8ff). All true believers are “virgins” who have kept themselves pure from all defiling relationships with the pagan world.

Jesus and Paul recognized that there is a place for celibacy in the New Testament Church (Matthew 19:12; 1 Corinthians 7). Paul’s commendation of celibacy (1 Corinthians 7:7-8), which was not due to any intrinsic virtue inherent in it, but due to its practical utility (“I want you to be free from concern,” v. 32), especially in view of the nearness of the end (vv. 29ff), has to balanced with the high esteem in which he held marriage, which he uses an illustration of the intimate relationship between Christ and his church (Ephesians 5:31-32). In interpreting 1 Corinthians 7:5 its precise context has to be carefully considered. Paul was writing in response to a query by a party in the church at Corinth advocating abstension from sex even between married couples. He disapproves of the practice of abstension from sex between married couples and allows it only when praying—which was already the current practice—and that, too, by agreement.

8. Conclusions

The issue of Mary’s continued virginity after the birth of Jesus is nowhere raised in the New Testament and there are many texts evidencing that she had other children after Jesus. Those who depart from the natural meaning of these texts bear the burden of proof, which has not been discharged to the satisfaction of at least this writer. The view that the “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus mentioned in the New Testament are not his blood siblings but relatives is derived not by an inductive study and objective examination of the relevant passages of scripture but by an exegesis heavily influenced by later Catholic tradition. Honest proponents of perpetual virginity acknowledge that their exegesis is guided by tradition. Even though each of the passages referring to Jesus’ “brothers” and “sisters” may be explained away with difficulty, the force of the argument is cumulative. There is every indication in the New Testament that they are Jesus’ own siblings short of the statement that they are Mary’s children and even that lack is supplied by Psalm 69:8 if one is willing to accept its applicability to Jesus. Finally, if the gospel writers believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary and that it was something to be celebrated and honoured, we would have to conclude both from their omission to clearly affirm it and the use of language that implies the opposite that they were extremely careless writers.


  1. The “other Mary” to whom the Catechism refers is mentioned in Matthew 28:1, called the “wife of Clopas” in John 19:25 and the mother of “James the Less and Joses” in Mark 15:40. These James and Joseph are actually different from the two brothers of Jesus bearing the same names. More on this later.
  2. Alfred Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Chapter IV, 1883 edition.
  3. Kevin Perrotta, Mary: Jesus’ Mother–and Ours (Chicago, Illinois: Loyola Press, 2011), p.57.
  4. William J. Bridcut, “Did Mary remain a virgin?” in Mary is For Everyone, eds. William McLoughlin and Jill Pinnock (Gilford, Wiltshire: Cromwell Press, 1997), p. 18.
  5. New American Bible, Oxford University Press, Large Print Bible, 2011 edition.
  6. Ibid., p.17.
  7. The full article can be accessed at http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/Rossier.html.
  8. Dr. William Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible: Comprising Its Antiquities, Biography, Geography , art. “Brother,” as cited in John Eadie’s Commentary on Galatians, note on 1:19.
  9. First, Paul himself was an apostle. So was his companion Barnabas (Acts 14:4, 14). In Philippians 2:25 Epaphroditus is called “your apostle.” 1 Thessalonians 2:6 Paul includes Silvanus in “apostles of Christ” (cf. 1:1). Andronicus and Junia are possibly included among the apostles in Romans 16:7.1 Corinthians 9:5, “Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” implies Paul and Barnabas were also apostles. Jesus’ brothers and Cephas are singled out for special mention as being prominent among the apostles, the word being used here to refer to a wider circle of apostles.
  10. A certain junior monk in a temple in Sri Lanka (where the writer resides) was called “Podi Hāmudhuruwō” in Sinhalese, literally “the little monk,” to distinguish him from the senior or chief monk (who was “Loku Hāmudhuruwō,” literally, “the big monk”). After the death of the chief monk, the junior monk succeeded him as the chief monk, but continued to be addressed and referred to as “Podi Hāmudhuruwō” affectionately by many and he reportedly liked it! This illustrates that language use is not always logical and that an epithet may continue to be used even after a change of circumstances.
  11. “The Brethren of the Lord,” Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910 edition.
  12. Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, s.v. “Brethren of the Lord” (2).
  13. “[Klōpas] … is a purely Greek name, being contracted from [Kleopatros] (cf. [Antipas], from [Antipatros]) (Hastings Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. “Brethren of the Lord”). [Klōpas] occurs in John 19:23 while its variant form kleopas occurs in Luke 24:18. The Peshito, the oldest Syriac (Aramaic) translation of the Bible, renders alphaios in all the five places it occurs in the New Testament by the word חַלְפַּי, while it gives קלֶיוֹפָּא for the two names Klōpas and kleopas in John and Luke respectively. “The names are thus evidently regarded as quite different by the author or authors of this oldest version. Clopas therefore is not, as is often affirmed, the Aramaic form of Alphaeus…” (John Laddie, Commentary on Galations, note on 1:19). Furthermore, “(חַלְפִּי) חַלְפַּי is transliterated quite regularly χαλφί (chalphi) in 1 Maccabees 11:70″ (Hastings Dictionary of the New Testament, ibid.)Richard Bauckam writes,

    The identity of the two names has always been doubtful on philological grounds. Moreover, the Semitic original of the name [klōpas], which used to be very uncertain, has now been found in an Aramaic document of the early second century A.D. from Murraba’at (Murr 33 line 5). It is a distinct name (קלופו) from that of which [halphaios] is the Greek form (חלפי). The name קלופו may be a Semitic imitation of the Greek name [Kleopatros] or its abb. form [Kleopas] [= Klōpas].

    (Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church [London, New York: T&T Clark, 1990], p.17.)

  14. The preposition eis can mean “among,” e.g., John 21:23 (“Therefore this word went out among [Gr. eis] the disciples…”). The Greek word for “receive” in Luke 18:30 as given in the United Bible Society’s The Greek New Testament is [apo]labē, the textual variant indicating that the word is derived from either apolambanō or lambanō. In the parallel in Mark 10:29 the Gr. word is labē, from lambanō , a form of which exact word is used in John 19:27: elaben, “received.”]
  15. The Greek word for “man,” anthrōpos, has not the article so grammatically it can be translated as either “a man” or “man.” But note that in Judges 11:39 we are told that Jephthah’s daughter “did not know a man” (LXX: autē ouk egnō andra, where the Greek is similar to Luke 1:34: andra ou ginōskō). Similarly, hai ouk egnōsan andra eis koitēn arsenos in Judges 21:12 (LXX) is “who did not know a man for intercourse with a male” (NETS translation). In both cases, the Douay-Rheims Bible renders the anarthrous andra as “a man.”
  16. Raymond Brown, Mary in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), p. 278.
  17. Louise Perrotta, Saint Joseph : his life and his role in the church today (Ind.: Huntingdon, 2000), p. 54.
  18. The case of Jephthah’s daughter is not relevant (Judges 11:38-39), because the issue there is not a vow of virginity by the girl, but Jephthah’s daughter weeping over the fact that she was going to die a virgin at the end of the two months.
  19. John J. Collins, Families in Ancient Israel (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press), p. 134.
  20. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1939 edition, s.v. “Brethren of the Lord.”
  21. Mark Miravalle, Introduction to Mary—The Heart of Marian Doctrine and Devotion (Goleta, CA: Queenship Publishing, 2006), pp. 63-64.
  22. It is probably this that lies behind the requirment in the Mishnah for the high priest to refrain from sexual relations with his wife for a week before Yom Kippur (m. Yoma 1:1).
  23. Sacra Virginitas, Encyclical of Pope Pius XII on Consecrated Virginity, para. 19.

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