The perpetual virginity of Mary has always been reconciled with biblical references to Jesus’ brethren by a proper understanding of the meaning of the term “brethren.” The predominant view in Latin Christianity is the “cousins theory” mentioned by Eusebius of Caesarea as a belief of some Christians, but more widely supported by St. Jerome in De Viris Illustribus in the 4th century, as he sought to defend the doctrine of Mary as Ever-Virgin. This biblical interpretation found favor with the Pope at the time and became widely promulgated, eventually becoming the non-official, but majority view of the Roman church.
With great respect and love of St. Jerome, a celebrated saint and Father of the Church, dare I say, I would like to boldly make a theological argument against his position and that of the majority of Catholics and delineate a just as valid, but arguably more reasonable theological opinion.
The Brethren of the Lord in Christian tradition and historically
It is sometimes wrongly assumed that the “cousins theory” is a tenet of the Catholic faith, in which, Catholic Christians stand firmly against Protestant Christians who believe that Jesus had brothers and sisters. The Catholic Church has never definitively declared this to be a truth of the Christian faith. Therefore, Catholics are free to speculate within the framework of Catholic doctrine and biblical evidence.
The predominant view of Eastern Christianity (Orthodox, Catholics, Orientals, et al) is that Jesus’ brethren are his stepbrothers and stepsisters, the children of Joseph from a previous marriage. Historically speaking, this is the most ancient and most traditional view of the Church and arguably, the most plausible.
The Protoevangelium of James (A.D. 120-125) is an apocryphal ‘gospel’ that seeks to describe the conception of the Virgin Mary, how she and St. Joseph came together, and to assert and explain—realistically—the doctrine of Our Lady’s perpetual virginity.
The author of the ‘gospel’ is unknown, though it claims St. James for its author:
And I James that wrote this history in Jerusalem, a commotion having arisen when Herod died, withdrew myself to the wilderness until the commotion in Jerusalem ceased, glorifying the Lord God, who had given me the gift and the wisdom to write this history. And grace shall be with them that fear our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory to ages of ages. Amen.
Though historically this is very improbable (unless the dating is incorrect, which is possible – I am personally very skeptical of contemporary biblical scholarship), it does not deny the possibility that St. James preached the central message during his earthly life.
Here is the story: Sts. Joachim and Anne, the parents of Mary (from this ‘proto-gospel’ tradition assumes their names) are unable to conceive a child, causing them distress, thus they pray to the Lord. God intervenes and an angel of the Lord appears to St. Anne saying:
“Anne! Anne! The Lord has heard your prayer, and you shall conceive and shall bring forth, and your seed shall be spoken of in all the world.” St. Anne replies, “As the Lord my God lives, if I beget either male or female, I will bring it as a gift to the Lord my God, and it shall minister to him in the holy things all the days of its life.” The text continues: “…and from the time she was three, Mary was in the temple of the Lord as if she were a dove that dwelt there.”
The historical figure, Mary of Nazareth, was a young Jewish girl devoted to the service of the Lord as Samuel had been by his mother (1 Sam 1:11) and as was many women for centuries (1 Sam 2:22) such as Anna the prophetess (Lk 2:36-37).
When the young girl, Mary, was twelve years old, which is a year or two younger than what she is traditionally believed to have been when she conceived the Lord, the Protoevangelium of James attempts to deliver background details:
“…there was a council of priests, saying, ‘Behold, Mary has reached the age of twelve years in the temple of the Lord. What then shall we do with her, lest perchance she defile the sanctuary of the Lord?’ And they said to the high priest, ‘You stand by the altar of the Lord; go in and pray concerning her, and whatever the Lord shall manifest to you, that also will we do.’…[A]nd he prayed concerning her, and behold, an angel of the Lord stood by him saying, ‘Zechariah! Zechariah! Go out and assemble the widowers of the people and let them bring each his rod, and to whomsoever the Lord shall show a sign, his wife shall she be…And Joseph [was chosen]…And the priest said to Joseph, ‘You have been chosen by lot to take into your keeping the Virgin of the Lord.’”
Given the historical-setting, women had few, if any, legal rights. Mary as a consecrated temple virgin would have to be married and given to a man fully aware of her status willing to honor and protect it; her parents would not always be alive and we are not given any biblical or historical information about Mary’s kinsmen with whom she could live with – though there is a reference to the “sister of the mother of Jesus” at the foot of the Cross in the Gospel According to St. John and her “kinsman” Elizabeth. In light of the Protoevangelium of James, it remains possible for Mary to actually have had younger siblings given that the events surrounding Mary’s conception is largely, in literary terms, an employment of Old Testament narrative traditions to convey a message. It is obviously similar to the biblical typology of Jesus and Moses, particularly in birth narratives. The questions seem irrelevant, as the text itself states that what to do with Mary was discerned by asking God – Whom decided on her marriage to Joseph.
This tradition, if true, could be implicitly attested to and drawn out of the scriptures. In the Gospel According to St. Matthew, we find that after learning that Mary was with child, Joseph “being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly,” (Mt 1:19). From the tradition, Joseph may have sought to “send her away” quietly because not only did it appear that she was unfaithful, but Joseph would be aware that she had broken her vow to remain a virgin of the Lord, which would indeed “put her to shame.”
Indeed this is the interpretation of the Protoevangelium of James:
“And Annas the scribe came to him [Joseph]…and saw that Mary was with child. And he ran away to the priest and said to him, ‘Joseph, whom you did vouch for, has committed a grievous crime.’ And the priest said, ‘How so?’ And he said, ‘He has defiled the virgin whom he received out of the temple of the Lord and has married her by stealth…’”
“…And the priest said, ‘Mary, why have you done this? And why have you brought your soul low and forgotten the Lord your God?’ . . . And she wept bitterly saying, ‘As the Lord my God lives, I am pure before him, and know not man.”
“…Joseph therefore came from Judaea into Galilee, intending to marry the virgin who had been betrothed to him; for already three months had elapsed, and it was the beginning of the fourth since she had been betrothed to him. In the meantime, it was evident from her shape that she was pregnant, nor could she conceal this from Joseph. For in consequence of his being betrothed to her, coming to her more freely and speaking to her more familiarly, he found out that she was with child. He began then to be in great doubt and perplexity, because he did not know what was best for him to do. For, being a just man, he was not willing to expose her; nor, being a pious man, to injure her fair fame by a suspicion of fornication. He came to the conclusion, therefore, privately to dissolve their contract, and to send her away secretly. And while he thought on these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in his sleep, saying: Joseph, thou son of David, fear not; that is, do not have any suspicion of fornication in the virgin, or think any evil of her; and fear not to take her as thy wife: for that which is begotten in her, and which now vexes thy soul, is the work not of man, but of the Holy Spirit. For she alone of all virgins shall bring forth the Son of God, and thou shall call His name Jesus, that is, Savior; for He shall save His people from their sins. Therefore Joseph, according to the command of the angel, took the virgin as his wife; nevertheless he knew her not, but took care of her, and kept her in chastity.”
The last point reiterates Mary’s perpetual virginity and again the document highlights her vow of celibacy and her status as “full of grace” in perfect communion with the Lord.
“And in those days, that is, at the time of her first coming into Galilee, the angel Gabriel was sent to her by God, to announce to her the conception of the Lord, and to explain to her the manner and order of the conception. Accordingly, going in, he filled the chamber where she was with a great light; and most courteously saluting her, he said: Hail, Mary! O virgin highly favored by the Lord, virgin full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou above all women, blessed above all men that have been hitherto born. And the virgin, who was already well acquainted with angelic faces, and was not unused to the light from heaven, was neither terrified by the vision of the angel, nor astonished at the greatness of the light, but only perplexed by his words; and she began to consider of what nature a salutation so unusual could be, or what it could portend, or what end it could have. And the angel, divinely inspired, taking up this thought, says: Fear not, Mary, as if anything contrary to thy chastity were hid under this salutation. For in choosing chastity, thou hast found favor with the Lord; and therefore thou, a virgin, shall conceive without sin, and shall bring forth a son. He shall be great, because He shall rule from sea to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth; and He shall be called the Son of the Most High, because He who is born on earth in humiliation, reigns in heaven in exaltation; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He shall reign in the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there shall be no end; forasmuch as He is King of kings and Lord of lords, and His throne is from everlasting to everlasting. The virgin did not doubt these words of the angel; but wishing to know the manner of it, she answered: How can that come to pass? For while, according to my vow, I never know man, how can I bring forth without the addition of man’s seed? To this the angel says: Think not, Mary, that thou shall conceive in the manner of mankind: for without any intercourse with man, thou, a virgin, wilt conceive; thou, a virgin, wilt bring forth; thou, a virgin, wilt nurse: for the Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee, without any of the heats of lust; and therefore that which shall be born of thee shall alone be holy, because it alone, being conceived and born without sin, shall be called the Son of God. Then Mary stretched forth her hands, and raised her eyes to heaven, and said: Behold the hand-maiden of the Lord, for I am not worthy of the name of lady; let it be to me according to thy word.”
The response of Mary is similar to that in the Gospel According to St.Luke where her ambiguous response almost implicitly refers to what is contained in the Protoevangelium of James. She asks the angel Gabriel, “how shall this be?” (Lk 1:34). Mary was betrothed to Joseph and if she had any intention to traditionally consummate her marriage and experience marital love physically, the question is puzzling. It seems she would reply in question, “So, Joseph and I will be the parents of the Messiah?” This is not the case; rather, just as in this apocryphal gospel, Mary asks how she, a soon-to-be married woman, will be able to conceive a child. However, if Mary was a temple virgin that intended to remain celibate, the question is perfectly sensible.
It goes without saying that not all apocryphal text is heretical—they simply aren’t inspired; this is not new knowledge, e.g. the epistles of Clement, Barnabas, Ignatius, the Didache, and several other “Acts” documents contain valid Christian teaching, legends of what happened to other apostles and early Christian martyrs, etc; perhaps, a prime example is the Book of Enoch (2nd century B.C.) describing the “evolution” of Jewish belief of the final judgment, heaven, and hell from earlier lack of belief in any personal—literal—encounter with God and any sort of afterlife.
The validity of many aspects of the Protoevangelium of James, at least, in the Christian theological sense gives credibility to many, not all, of its assertions. The structure of the story itself is built out of the Old Testament narratives of the births of Isaac and Samuel (whose mother, Hannah, is the original form of Anne) and from the framework of biblical accounts of couples who grieve that they have no posterity who are rewarded with a child, whom is dedicated to the service of God. If anything, Mary’s conception can be seen as a fulfillment of all blessings to barren couples with the gift of a child by God, for through this miraculous conception the “woman” of Genesis 3:15 will be born and despite her dedication to God, despite her vow of celibacy, the impossible, as it was for barren woman, will occur miraculously: she would conceive a child, not just any child, but the Messiah, Who is the God of Israel incarnate.
This sort of parallelism with Mary occurs in the New Testament. The account of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is a theological and literary parallel to the journey of the Ark of the Covenant with David in 1 Samuel: a) Mary went to the hill country and David took the ark of the covenant to the hill country; b) David asked, ‘how can the ark of the Lord come to me?’ and Elizabeth asked ‘how can the mother of my Lord come to me?’; c) David danced and leapt in the presence of the ark, whereas John the Baptist leapt in his mother’s womb at the voice of Mary, the ark of the new covenant; d) both Mary and the ark remained in the hill country for three months. And so on.
The same tradition found in the Protoevangelium of James is found in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (also called The Infancy Gospel of Matthew, or the actual name of the text in antiquity was The Book About the Origins of the Blessed Mary and the Childhood of the Savior). The text itself was translated by St. Jerome who was skeptical of its contents, but did not condemn those who assigned credibility to its assertions. Originally, it was thought that the Infancy Gospel of Matthew was written “by the holy Evangelist Matthew, and written at the head of his Gospel.” In other words, the birth and story of Mary and the early life of Jesus were alleged to have been in the text of the Gospel According to St. Matthew before or directly after the genealogy. It is likely that it was used among Jewish Christians.
Nevertheless, the basic narrative [of the Infancy Gospel of Matthew] has these elements: (1) Sts. Joachim and Anne, the parents of Mary are sorrowful for their lack of progeny (2) God grants the couple Mary (3) the birth of Mary (4) her entering service as a temple virgin (5) her prayerful life and vow of chastity (6) the choosing of Joseph as her husband and guardian upon her becoming too old to continue as a temple virgin (in this text, she is fourteen rather than twelve, which was given in the earlier document) (7) the Annunciation (8) Joseph’s distress at finding her pregnant (9) his eventual acceptance of her honesty (10) his and Mary’s being tested in the temple.
The early part of the text is primarily an edited reproduction of the Protoevangelium of James followed by an account of the Flight into Egypt and subsequently a Christian modified version of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas without the Gnostic implications. In the early childhood of Jesus, the text refers to the children of Joseph:
“Joseph called to him his first-born son James, and sent him into the vegetable garden to gather vegetables for the purpose of making broth. And Jesus followed His brother James into the garden…”
“And Joseph having come to a feast with his sons, James, Joseph, and Judah, and Simeon and his two daughters, Jesus met them, with Mary His mother, along with her sister Mary of Cleophas, whom the Lord God had given to her father Cleophas and her mother Anna, because they had offered Mary the mother of Jesus to the Lord…And when they had come together, Jesus sanctified and blessed them, and He was the first to begin to eat and drink; for none of them dared to eat or drink, or to sit at table, or to break bread, until He had sanctified them, and first done so. And if He happened to be absent, they used to wait until He should do this. And when He did not wish to come for refreshment, neither Joseph nor Mary, nor the sons of Joseph, His brothers, came. And, indeed, these brothers, keeping His life as a lamp before their eyes, observed Him, and feared Him. And when Jesus slept, whether by day or by night, the brightness of God shone upon Him. To whom be all praise and glory forever and ever. Amen, amen.”
Other works, though clearly unorthodox in terms of religious doctrine, such as the Gospel of Peter (which arguably is two different ‘gospels’ – an original orthodox text circulated, that was edited and re-written by Gnostic groups, which universally resulted in the end of its use) and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas should be considered, not because of any supposed theological validity or historical value in themselves, but because they potentially draw upon a “common tradition” that is of historical value. In all these works—in these two and those aforementioned—the idea that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were Joseph’s children by a previous marriage is not the focus, it is just taken for granted to be a matter of fact and it is the only piece of non-biblical information common to these works. So while it cannot be guaranteed to be absolutely true, it cannot be ruled out that this idea has historical foundations, perhaps, to the time of the apostles – a tradition, perhaps more reliable than the biblical interpretation of St. Jerome.
The Brethren of the Lord and Sacred Scripture
Introducing the “stepbrothers and stepsisters theory” into an intellectual environment accustomed to the “cousins theory” is analogous to the introduction of Copernicus’ heliocentric model of the universe into a society accustomed to the geocentric model of the universe. The unfamiliar theory must withstand a series of difficult questions.
An often raised question in general is this: why would Jesus, on the Cross, entrust Mary to a disciple, even a beloved one, if His mother had other children? It seems that in such a question that one is looking superficially at the surface of the action. If we were to assign a symbolic meaning onto Jesus’ gesture, a literal act, then it seems that Jesus is giving Mary to His disciple for the fulfillment of her own vocation. Jesus, in this view, is not concerned about finding his mother a home—of all things to be concerned about, a loving concern, yes, but one that is beside the point. He is rather concerned about the formation of His disciples who He invites to acknowledge Mary as their own mother. This action is best understood, as all things concerned God’s self-revelation—in retrospect. Jesus in the Gospel According to St. John is typologically the “new Adam” and Mary is the “new Eve.” There is redemption to be accomplished through her—not by her—and part of this is to be the spiritual mother of Jesus’ followers (cf. Rev 12). In Pauline theology, each disciple of the Lord is literally a “new” Christ, a part of His mystical body, and therefore, each has for their spiritual mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of the church, which is the Body of Christ. Just in the same way, all that are apart of Christ’s body are adopted by the Father, to be sons and daughters of God through the Son sharing in His “sonship”—sons within the Son.
From this perspective, when it was time, when the “hour” had come, Jesus’ mother was called to participate and share in that “hour.” She was to become literally the “new Eve,” mother of all the living, whom as St. Paul tells us, lives in Christ. Of course, a symbolic interpretation does not exclude a literal one—which may give to the “cousins theory”—but neither does it require it. In fact, the statement “And from that hour the disciple took her eis ta idia,” in John 19:26, does not necessarily per se mean that the disciple offered Mary his own, but could be rendered that he took her literally “to his own,” in a symbolic way. Such a symbolic interpretation does not contradict the possibility that Mary was the stepmother of Jesus’ brothers and sisters nor does it make a statement (as will be discussed later) otherwise, if she did— as I actually do personally believe—that she went to live with St. John the Apostle as traditionally held.
Another common point is that nowhere in the New Testament are the brothers of Jesus also identified as “sons of Mary” within the same context. Even further, Jesus in Mark 6:3 is identified as “the son of Mary” by the people of Nazareth. This formula doesn’t necessarily allude to Jesus’ virginal conception, since it is put into the mouths of people who were skeptical of Jesus. It might, however, show that the people in Nazareth suspected or knew that Jesus was not Joseph’s biological child and show they regarded Jesus as a bastard. If this is considered historically, Mark, who is John Mark, a Jewish Christian convert who lived in Jerusalem (where St. James, the brother of the Lord was Bishop of Jerusalem and who is traditionally said to have received the Gospel from the preaching of St. Peter) this could have been a reflection of contemporary Jewish arguments against Christians living in the holy city. Jesus was not conceived by a virgin, they would say, but rather a “bastard” and fruit of an illicit union. In fact, the Talmud, which is a composition of Jewish interpretation of the Scriptures and rabbinical teaching refers to Jesus as a bastard countless times and the name often rendered as Jesus’ Hebrew name (Yeshua) may actually be an acronym derived from the document:
Yeshu as the acronym “yemach shemo vezikhro” (may his name and memory be obliterated) or Yeshua as the acronym “yemach shemo vezikhro olam” (may his name and memory be obliterated from the world)
Some scholars suggest that the acronym(s) might be a shortened version of the name Yehoshua, which is Jesus’ actual name. Back to the original point, some scholars might suggest that the use of the article (“the”) might be there to distinguish Jesus from his brethren, the children of Joseph’s earlier marriage. The use of the definite article “the” is less relevant. It does not necessarily mean that such a son is the only one. Grammatical usage in the New Testament is unclear in this regard. For example, Matthew 10:2 speaks of “James the son of Zebedee,” whereas in 26:7 he speaks of “the sons of Zebedee.” We know from Scripture that James had a brother named John; the use of the article does not speak either way since the reality is evident contextually.
Concerning the relationship of Jesus to His brothers and sisters, a passage from John 7 is critically helpful:
Jn 7:2-9 – “Now, the Jews’ feast of Tabernacles was at hand. So his brethren said to him, ‘Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples may see the works you are doing. For no man works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.’ For even his brethren did not believe in him. Jesus said to them, ‘My name has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify of it that its works are evil. Go to the feast yourselves; I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come.’ So saying, he remained in Galilee.”
They seem to instruct Jesus about what he should do: “Leave here and go to Judea…” As commonly argued in support of the “cousins theory” against those advocating that the brethren of the Lord are Mary’s biological children, it is rightly argued that if Jesus is the firstborn, then this is against the social custom of family status in first-century Judaism. Younger brothers have no business giving their older brother commands. However, the argument is invalid if Jesus’ brothers are from Joseph’s previous marriage, legally his brothers, and actually older than Him. It would not be uncommon, or disrespectful, at all. [On a side note, it might be telling why none of Jesus’ “brothers” were chosen as Apostles or why, presupposing historical literalism, He chose to “give” His mother to the beloved disciple: His brethren profoundly misunderstood His mission and fundamentally who He was. This may have changed after His Death and Resurrection, presupposing that St. James was His brother, but not before. This is attested to by Mk 3:31 when His family went to “seize Him” because Jesus was “beside himself.” It is very possible they did not understand Him.]
Considering other Scripture passages that refer to Jesus’ brothers, a similar conclusion can be reached.
Mt 12:46 – “While, he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brethren?’And stretching out his sand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brethren! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.”
Lk 8:19- While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers (adelphoi) appeared outside, wishing to speak with him. (Someone told him, “Your mother and your brothers (adelphoi) are standing outside, asking to speak with you.”) But he said in reply to the one who told him, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers (adelphoi)?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers (adelphoi). For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother (adelphos), and sister (adelpha), and mother.”
Careful not to commit the error of eisogesis, but considering the historical-critical method and reading the text carefully in a “canonical exegesis,” it is evident that Jesus’ is speaking of an eschatological family, not rejecting the notion that He has “brothers” and “sisters” who are present. If we consider Rev 12, where the dragon tries to assault the woman (Mary, the “new Eve”) and then goes after her “other children,” it is clearly the spiritual children who are members of the Body of Christ, who have done “the will” of His “Father in heaven.” The statement can be read in light of our understanding of sacramental theology and Christian eschatology and the communion of saints, particularly expounded upon in the Pauline epistles. This statement does not present itself as a negation of, or renouncing the fact of, that he has brothers and sisters.
Acts 1:14 – “All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.”
This text here is ambiguous. It not certain whether the “brethren” are Jesus’ actual brethren, or “spiritual brethren” meaning Christians, as the earliest Christians were simply Jews who followed what they called “the Way.” The term “Christian” was coined by pagans as a derogatory term for Jesus’ followers. A line later, it says “the brethren” which clearly refers to a spiritual brotherhood and fraternity. Acts 15:13 demonstrates this: After they had fallen silent, James responded “My brothers, listen to me…”, though they clearly and literally are not his brothers.
Moreover, Acts 1:14 is preceded by a list of 11 apostles, then it includes Jesus’ female disciples, His mother, and His “brethren.” Hypothetically, this refers to Jesus’ “brothers” and “sisters,” as can be seen with other references—considering the age of St. Joseph—they are almost always listed, or referred to, contextually with the Virgin Mary. If these are simply cousins, why are they almost always referred to in association with the Blessed Virgin, with no mention of uncles, aunts, or any other family members?
Mt 13:55 – “Is he not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother named Mary and his brothers, James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us?”
Mk 6:3 – “Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?”
These passages are practically identical. Mark 6:3 was discussed earlier and as aforementioned, they are listed constantly after or with the mother of Jesus.
Jn 2:12 – “After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brethren and his disciples; and there they stayed for a few days.”
This takes place directly after the marriage feast at Cana, where Jesus’ mother was—it does not seem to be quite a stretch to assume that if she were invited, His “brethren” might have been as well. Perhaps not. But again, the same consistency—His “brethren” are again associated with Mary.
The word used in the Bible for brother (or sister) is “adelphos” (“adelphe”) in Greek, and this is the same word used to describe relatives and near kinsman because people in Israel lived in “clans” or “tribes” of perhaps ten to fifteen families. This is evident in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament; “brother” is used instead of “nephew” and “uncle” (cf. Gen 12:5; 29:15) and countless other examples. This reality is familiar territory to those who espouse St. Jerome’s “cousin theory.” However, it is noteworthy that the only case of this in the New Testament is allegedly the “cousins” of Jesus.
Acknowledging this linguistic habit in Jewish idiom does not necessarily say very much for three of four gospels primarily oriented toward Gentile Christians with no specification of whether the “brethren” are simply kinsman. Moreover, the Gospel According to St. Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were written by a Gentile. It is not impossible, but improbable, that an author would make use of a Jewish custom for Gentile readers with no clarification when there is in fact a Greek word for “cousin” (“anepsios”). Granted, the Septuagint version of the Old Testament uses “brothers” to describe any kinsman, but the Septuagint was translated by Jews! Why would a Gentile maintain this tradition, presupposing he is aware of it, particularly for a Gentile audience who might be unaware of this fact especially if there is a clear tradition of a virgin birth, the perpetual virginity of Mary, and “brothers” and “sisters” of the Lord? Should there not be clarification as to prevent confusion, if they were not in fact his brothers and sisters, even if it is through marriage?
Since the New Testament embraces a wider audience with a radically different culture, it is reasonable to suppose that familial terms are used more literally. Arguably, the only time the word “brother” is used different in the New Testament is to refer to a “spiritual brother,” i.e. another follower of Jesus, or fellow Jew. In the historical context, the “cousins theory” doesn’t seem to make much sense.
The word brother (“adelphos”) is used to describe the relationship between Philip and Herod who are stepbrothers (Mark 6:17-18). St. Joseph is referred to as Jesus’ father linguistically when he is His stepfather (cf. Luke 2:48: “…Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.“)
St. Luke discussing the relationship of the Blessed Virgin to her “cousin” (or “kinswoman”) Elizabeth uses the term “συγγενής” (“suggenēs” – notice “genes”), which literally is the feminine of “kinsman.” If St. Luke is writing to a Gentile audience and takes this liberty to actually to distinguish relation, why would he not take the same liberty with Jesus’ “kinsman” if they were not His stepbrothers and stepsisters? St. Paul calls St. James, the bishop of Jerusalem the “brother” (“adelphos”) of the Lord in his Letter to the Galatians, but refers to a kinsman of Barnabas (Col 4:10) as his “cousin” (“anepsios”) – which again may reiterate that given the Gentile readership, New Testament authors may have used words without special cultural connotations.
If the Evangelists can make use of the term “adelphos” to describe stepbrothers, can actually call St. Joseph Jesus’ “father” when he is His stepfather, and distinguish Elizabeth as Mary’s kinswoman (suggenes) and not sister (“adelphas”) it seems quite arbitrary to insist that Jesus’ “brothers” and “sisters” are His cousins.
Even despite the points, which may raise doubt, another series of questions may come up. Here are two examples:
(1) Where were Jesus’ brothers and sisters during the flight into Egypt? This is a good question. There is no definite answer. I won’t pretend there is. But, if you compare Jesus’ conception and birth to that of Moses, there is striking comparisons. Arguably, the story of Jesus’ birth (given in Matthew) is put into a literary framework to compare Jesus to the prophet Moses. Perhaps, the author disregarded Jesus’ alleged brethren as irrelevant for his purposes seeing that the Old Testament of Moses’ early life doesn’t include his siblings – that would be a point of difference, which could deemed counterproductive in trying to make a typological comparison.
(2) Where were Jesus’ brothers and sisters when He was missing for 3 days? This is a more difficult question, but I believe there to be answer. Anyone reading the early chapters of Matthew and Luke must be aware of the literary genre of the birth narratives of other biblical figures, for example, Moses, Samson, and Samuel, which obviously shaped the way the birth story of Jesus was told. Similarly, when we study Jesus’ boyhood narrative, we find analogies to boyhood stories of other figures and it is a relevant fact that this story is told in the one Gospel written by a Gentile Christian. In world literature there are stories about great men who between the ages of ten and fourteen displayed amazing knowledge, e.g. Buddha in India, Osiris in Egypt, Cyrus the Great in Persia, Alexander the Great in Greece, and Augustus in Rome. (Note: St. Luke often used Hellenistic elements in his writings; “Acts” is a Greco-Roman literary genre to celebrate and record the achievements of a great and celebrated figure, e.g. Acts of Alexander, Acts of Hannibal). Within the Jewish background, Josephus (a 1st century Jew) says that while he was still “a boy about fourteen years old,” he won “universal applause for” his “love of letters, with the result that the chief priests and leading men of the city used to come” to him for “precise information on some particulars” in Jewish ordinances. Jewish legends of Moses which are contemporary with the New Testament timeframe attribute to him extraordinary knowledge as a boy. Incidentally, the reflections on Moses as a boy are placed by Philo (a 1st century Jew) between the birth story of Moses and the well-known ministry story, which may be the same procedure St. Luke is using by drawing forth a framework to convey a message. Josephus commenting on Samuel, tells us that the boy began to act as a prophet at the end of age twelve, when he was called by God in the temple (1 Sam 3:1-18). In the Septuagint Greek story of Susanna, Daniel as a youth of twelve (according to the Syro-Hexaplar version) receives a spirit of “understanding” that makes him wiser than the elders. Perhaps, the child Jesus “recognized” His call more deeply at the age of twelve presupposing the Christology of St. Paul to which the Logos abandoned Himself to the limitations of the human condition and did not account equality with God “as something to be grasped,” (cf. 2 Phil: 5-11).
I think this point can best be explained in drawing upon Jesus’ boyhood described in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Perhaps too often those accounts are superficially dismissed before any real analysis of their function or origin can be ascertained. For example, if you are to focus on the supernatural element of a five-year old Jesus turning birds into clay, one might overlook the real point of the story: in doing so, Jesus’ action provokes the charge of violating the Sabbath. As a result, one can see anticipation in Jesus’ youth for such drama and accusations. If a traditional Christian focuses solely on the repulsion of Jesus causing the son of Annas the scribe to wither up like a tree and bear no fruit, one can overlook the parallel to the hostility during Jesus’ ministry between Him and the scribes, and between Jesus and Annas the priest, and the cursing of the fig tree. In the apocryphal gospel the villagers question, “from where does this child come, since his every word is an accomplished deed?” (That in itself is a theological statement about the God and His Wisdom (or Logos) that profoundly reflects the Genesis account). This sort of reaction anticipates the amazement of the people of Nazareth about Jesus’ teaching and His works. In other words, this later text (which does contain problematic ideas) does show the imagination, not just of the group and theological tradition of where the text develops, but of the people in general, for centuries, who imagined that what the man Jesus was known to be, that is, God’s Son speaking and acting with divine power, the child Jesus must have been as well. And it is perhaps these same Christological instincts, with the use of outside sources, that provoked St. Luke earlier to create his account to prepare us for later aspects of Jesus’ ministry in his own gospel.
In fact, Jesus’ response to his parents, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2:49) is interesting. His parents, St. Luke says, did not understand His question. Jesus made a Christological statement, a self-revelation; He identified God as His “Father” and this is the very reason why St. John says the Jews wished to kill Him because by making God His Father, He made Himself equal to God, as God. The event both is an expression of Jesus’ true identity and is better understood in a later event: the Resurrection. The women who were seeking Jesus’ body on Easter morning were asked by men, perhaps angels, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” This echoes the question, Jesus asked his parent, “Why were you looking for me?” Jesus, because of Who He is, must do the will of His Father and be in His Presence. That’s the essential narrative point of the story.
So while I have (conveniently) evaded the immediate question, I think, simultaneously, I have answered it. The gospels are not narrative history in the strict sense. The Gospel According to St. Mark does not even mention St. Joseph once, then again, neither does the Gospel According to St. John. To understand why, one must consider the nature and purpose of the gospel itself: to preach the good news. St. Joseph is not the central figure or message. Thus, it is permissible not to mention him. If one considers the crucifixion accounts, certain figures are present in all four (Mary Magdalene). The Virgin Mary is only at the Crucifixion in St. John’s account and it is evident that St. John is obsessed with the “protoevangelium” (Gen 3:15) and what St. Irenaeus coins as “recapitulation”; Mary is essential at the foot of the Cross because she is the “woman” and her Son is the “enmity” that will strike the serpent and crush him with His heel. St. John also does not mention Symon of Cyrene perhaps because He wants to emphasize the divinity of Christ. Or, perhaps St. John is conscious of 1st century Gnosticism and docetism and removes Symon so that there is no one to be “accidentally” crucified in the place of Christ as some heretical groups suggested. St. John has St. Thomas, who was particularly used by the Gnostics, place His hand in the side of the risen Jesus to confirm His physicality; at His arrest, Jesus says, “I have taught nothing in secret,” (cf. Gnostics believed in “secret” knowledge for the elect). Moreover, it is only in St. John that there is no agony in the Garden. Jesus is quite solemn. In fact, Jesus says, “And what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify thy name,” (Jn 12:27-28). Did Christ not experience suffering and perhaps, even, fear before His arrest?
I think this reiterates my point. In short, the gospels don’t submit so simply to questions—especially simple ones. Moreover, the arrangement of figures in each account is oriented toward some greater purpose; thus, I think, the question “where were Jesus’ brethren” at this or that point presupposes an incorrect way of reading the scriptures. I think the reality of Jesus’ stepbrothers and stepsisters are contextually verifiable, textually evident, and affirmed by the earliest tradition of the Church.
(3) Most recently I have encountered a question thought to be “killer” to anything but the “cousins theory.” If Jesus is not the oldest son of Joseph, how can He claim to be the heir to the Davidic line and thus, the Messiah of Israel? Yet this very question presupposes that God followed the human tradition of choosing eldest sons to be His representatives. This is a Jewish presumption, but not a part of Revelation, hence God does not conform to it. David, himself, was the eighth and youngest son of his father. Joseph in the Old Testament was the youngest of his brothers. God deviates from this standard with other prophets, including Moses who was younger than Aaron. Therefore, it is not a theological necessity that Jesus be the oldest son of Joseph.
Strikingly, Mary is presumably of the house of Aaron since her kinsman Elizabeth is a descendant of Aaron. If this is so, then through her marriage to Joseph, she entered his family and legally became a part of the house of David. As a result, Jesus descends from both the priestly line and the kingly line – a Priest-King – like Melchizedek. In regard to His humanity, Jesus is the final prophet (foretold in Deuteronomy by Moses) and the fulfillment of all the prophets. Therefore, in the whole of His person, Jesus is Priest, Prophet, and King.
Another point. There is often a conjecture on names, particularly two figures central to the “cousins theory”: “Alphaeus” and “Clopas.” In the gospels, there may have been two separate men named Alphaeus. Though both St. Matthew and St. James are described as being the “son of Alphaeus” there is no biblical account (or church tradition) of the two being called brothers, even in the same context where John and James or Peter and Andrew are described as being brothers.
The name Alphaeus is a purely Greek name and though one might accept the supposition that it is a transliteration of an Aramaic name, it is only an assumption and not a necessary one. The name does not occur in the Old Testament, but it does five times in the New Testament, readily divided into two individuals, both of whom are only mentioned indirectly.
(1) The father of Levi (Mark 2:14). If, by comparison of Matt. 9:9, Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27, it is presumed that Levi and Matthew are the same individual, then this Alphaeus cannot be identified with the father of James, because Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18 show an Alphaeus who is father of James but not of Matthew. Even if Levi be identified with Matthew, it tells us nothing more about Alphaeus father of Levi. The NT offers no more data on this Alphaeus.
In Mark 2:14 [ancient manuscripts] read Iakobon (“James”) for “Levi,” but this is probably no more than scribal effort to harmonize this passage with Mark 3:18 and parallels. The preponderant weight of manuscript evidence supports the reading Leuein (“Levi”).
(2) The father of James (Matt. 19:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). The first three of these passages are Synoptic parallels and indicate nothing more than that Alphaeus is the father of the James who in the Mark and Matthew passages is clearly distinguished from James, son of Zebedee. The same distinction is made in Acts 1:13.
Past efforts to identify this Alphaeus with Clopas (John 19:25) and with Cleopas (Luke 24:18) are quite arbitrary and rest upon no firm evidence. Kleopas (Luke 24:18) is a contraction of Kleopatros, a purely Greek name and is not readily identifiable with Klopas, (John 19:25), which is of Aramaic origin. Klopas cannot be reduced to the same Hebrew original as Alphaeus; hence it is a problematic assertion to identify them as such. If this identification falls apart, so does the “cousins theory,” to which the identification of the two as the same individual an important component. The actual argument makes St. James, the son of Alphaeus who is allegedly also Clopas, the son of Mary, who is also the sister of the Virgin Mary. It is unprecedented and entirely unheard of that two sisters would have identical names, particularly in that time period. Though, if “sisters” simply means “relative,” then there is an argument to be made—though the identification of Clopas and Alphaeus remains a problem.
“Cleopas” [Kleopas, probably a shortened form of Kleopatros]. One of the two disciples who were confronted by the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:18). The other is not named. Tradition gives the name Simon to the companion and includes both among the Seventy of Luke 10:1-24. Cleopas is sometimes identified with Clopas. The connection is not impossible, but in the absence of clear supporting evidence it must remain uncertain.
“Clopas” [Klopas] (John 19:25); Cleophas. The husband of one of the women who stood at the foot of the cross. No certain reference to him appears elsewhere in the NT, though he is sometimes identified with Cleopas and/or Alphaeus. There is no linguistic relationship between “Cleopas,” a genuine Greek name, and “Clopas,” which seems to be of Semitic origin. There is no indication that the Clopas named in John 19:25 was also known as Cleopas or that the names have been interchanged in the transmission of the text. The connection with Alphaeus can be established only if Mary the wife of Clopas is the same person as Mary the mother of James and Joses (Mark 15:40 = Matt. 27:56; cf. Luke 23:49; 24:10), and if the James mentioned here is the same as James son of Alphaeus (Mark 3:18 = Math. 10:3 = Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). Mary, the wife of Clopas may thus be recognized as the wife of Alphaeus, and it is possible to suppose that Alphaeus and Clopas are the same person. Since other alternatives are present in each of the preliminary suppositions, as well as in the final identification, the question must remain undecided. “Clopas” can hardly be explained as a variant transliteration of the Aramaic or Hebrew form from which “Alphaeus” is derived.
One last point. The person of St. James the Just is worth consideration. St. James, the first bishop of Jerusalem is identified because of the “cousins theory” as St. James the Apostle, son of Alphaeus. This figure, whoever he was, was known as the “brother of the Lord” and claimed to be the author of the Epistle of St. James and originator of the Apostolic Decree of Acts 15 since he gave the final judgment (which could be translated as “opinion”), which was sent by letter and Sts. Paul and Barnabas were commissioned to minister to the Gentiles.
Whenever Jesus’ “brethren” are mentioned—James, Jude, Simon, and Joses—it is striking that James always appears fist in the list, perhaps because he is the eldest. The “sisters” of Jesus are never named, but if he had two, he would be the youngest and seventh child. If he had three, he would the youngest still and the eighth child just like King David.
St. Paul refers to James in his Letter to the Galatians when he went to visit St. Peter, with whom he stayed. He notes that “I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.” Translations sometimes say “except” or “save for,” but others render it: I didn’t see any other apostle, I only saw James, the Lord’s brother. Yet, it is from this verse that others consider that many take to mean that St. James the Just is, in fact, St. James the Apostle, the son of Alphaeus. However, this is not a necessity. It should be noted that apostólōn (ἀποστόλων) could mean “messengers” (or even “missionaries”) and that ei mē ( εἰ μὴ) could mean “only” (as it does in Galatians 1:7), “but”, or “just”. Simply put, the text is ambiguous. St. Paul uses the term “apostle” rather loosely apart from referencing to the Twelve. He includes himself as an apostle, someone who is both “called” and “sent” (the basic meaning of the Greek word apostle means “one who is sent”). In my view, he includes St. James, the brother of Jesus, who was not a part of the twelve. Junia (or Junias) is listed in Romans 16:7 as an “apostle,” which invokes quite a bit of controversy about whether or not there was a “woman apostle” or whether or not “Junia” (a female name) is actually “Junias” (a male name). That is no interest here; the point is the person, St. Paul calls an “apostle.” In fact, many Fathers of the Church celebrated St. Mary Magadalene as the “Apostle to the Apostles.” What did they mean? Surely, it seems they, and those before them, used the term beyond a specific reference to the Twelve. In fact, St. John does not make room for the latter usage of the term “apostle” in his gospel account or in Revelation. The Twelve were particularly called by Jesus’ during his earthly life and lived with Him and learned His teaching directly as witnesses and it is these Twelve who join the Twelve patriarchs of Israel as the twenty-four foundations of which the Kingdom of Heaven is built. This does not permit one to think of and use the term “apostles” as St. Paul so readily does. So, while one cannot exclude the possibility that St. James the Just may, in fact, be St. James the Less—which would render my whole argument obsolete—it is not an absolutely necessary presumption.
St. Jerome in his writing, quotes from the non-canonical Gospel According to the Hebrews which is a Hebrew gospel, believed by scholars to be predominantly identical to Matthew with a bit more emphasis on Jewish traditions, e.g. these are likely the Christians who wished that the Law be kept by Gentile converts. The text reads:
“Now the Lord…appeared to James, for James had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour in which he had drunk the Lord’s cup until he should see him risen from the dead. And a little further on the Lord says, ‘bring a table and bread,’…and ‘He took bread and blessed and broke and gave it to James the Just and said to him, ‘My brother, eat your bread, for the Son of Man is risen from the dead.’”
This is a type of Emmaus story where the Jewish Christians believed the Lord “broke bread” with his brother James. The Jewish historian and apologist Josephus (A.D. 37 – c. 100) refers to him as, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James.” In fact, the Divine Liturgy of St. James is considered the oldest surviving liturgy, dating to the early fourth century with some scholars advocating that parts of it survive from the first. The liturgy is based on the ancient rite of the church of Jerusalem as implied by the Mystagogic Catecheses of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (on a side note, St. Cyril gives instructions on how to receive communion in the hand—I’m not advocating this, I receive on the tongue, just stating a fact). In the Divine Liturgy of St. James used in the Christian East, he is called the “adelphotheos” which means “brother of God.” If these traditions hold in credibility, it testifies to the fact that James was believed to the brother of Jesus—it is hard imagine a mere kinsman receiving such celebration.