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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Were the brothers of Jesus mentioned in the Bible sons of Joseph and Mary?
Jesus had not only brothers but also sisters (Mark 6:3). The names of his brothers are given (James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon [Matt. 13:55]), but not the names of the sisters. Since the word “brother” is at times used in the Scripture to designate a person other than one born from the same father and mother, questions have been raised concerning Jesus’ “brothers” and “sisters.”
Within the Roman Catholic tradition the need for clarification is necessary because of their belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary. For us this is a historical question, not a theological one. The debate goes back to the middle of the second century and has not yet been resolved to the satisfaction of all; the biblical evidence lends itself to different interpretations.
1. Children of Joseph and Mary: Some consider this to be the New Testament teaching. Jesus is called the firstborn of Mary (Luke 2:7), and we are told that Joseph knew Mary, that is to say, had sexual intercourse with her, after the birth of Jesus (Matt. 1:25). Therefore, the most logical conclusion would appear to be that the “brothers of Jesus” refer to children of Joseph and Mary. Besides, there is no clear indication in the Gospels that Joseph was a widower before marrying Mary or that he had children from that previous marriage.
2. Cousins of Jesus: This interpretation is based on the argument that the word “brother” could sometimes designate a close relative, a cousin. Among other things, this theory teaches that the mother of James and Joseph was not the mother of Jesus but her sister, Mary, the wife of Cleopas (John 19:25). Her son James is the same one called the son of Alphaeus or Cleopas (Mark 3:18). That clearly makes the “brothers of Jesus” His cousins. But the high level of speculation in this theory and the fact that there is hardly any evidence for the use of “brother” in the sense of “cousin” makes this suggestion unlikely.
3. Stepbrothers of Jesus: Several arguments have been used to support this position. First, nowhere in the New Testament are the “brothers of Jesus” explicitly called “sons of Mary.” The passage that comes closest to that idea is Matthew 13:55: “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?” (NIV). But Jesus is the only one specifically called a son of Mary. One could argue that the text is implicitly saying that Mary was the mother only of Jesus, not of his brothers mentioned in the passage.
Second, the word “brother” is used in Greek literature to refer to a stepbrother; so the term itself is not decisive in answering the question.
Third, the word “firstborn” does not imply that Mary had other children. It is used in Luke 2:7 to prepare the way for the consecration of Jesus to the Lord as firstborn (verse 23). An ancient Jewish inscription refers to a woman who died giving birth to her “firstborn.” Hence that term cannot be used to argue that Mary had other children.
Fourth, the fact that Joseph did not have sexual relations with Mary until after she gave birth to Jesus (Matt. 1:25) does not necessarily mean that she had other children. The purpose of Matthew’s remark was to emphasize that Mary was still a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus.
Fifth, the fact that the “brothers” of Jesus tried several times to control Him suggests the possibility that they were older than Jesus. In Jewish family life the older children had authority over the younger ones.
Finally, the fact that during His crucifixion Jesus entrusted His mother to John implies that Jesus’ “brothers” were not Mary’s children; otherwise, they should have provided for her.
Although the topic is still being debated, it seems that the best solution is the last one: Jesus’ brothers were His stepbrothers. The obvious question is Why did the Lord close the womb of Mary? This is the theological question. The Bible does not address it. Perhaps God was attempting to preserve the uniqueness of Mary’s experience as the mother of the Savior.