(Years ago, during a religion class at school, I dared to ask the priest who taught this course if Jesus Christ ever had brothers or sisters. He answered it was impossible for him to have siblings because Mary, Jesus Christ’ mother, had been a virgin before, during and after his birth. I was a little astonished –even today I have trouble believing in Mary’s virginity– and while I was trying to understand such a concept, the father topped it all by saying: “Doubting the perpetual virginity of Mary is like doubting the whole Christian faith”.
Stubborn as usual, and not willing to give in so easily, I spent a few hours looking for a reference to Jesus Christ’ siblings in the Gospels. Fortunately, I found many. When I showed them to the priest, he, quite calmly, told me the texts were not referring to blood siblings but to cousins or distant relatives. Such was the position of the Catholic Church on this subject. The Gospels mean “cousins” and not “siblings”.
In the beginnings of the XXI century, and with hundreds of books written on the life and message of Jesus Christ, we can once again state that the Catholic Church has concealed the truth from us. By reading the New Testament we can deduct, if anything, that Jesus had a few sisters and, at least, four blood brothers: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas.
Yes, Jesus Christ had brothers and sisters.
In this first part we will review the Gospels of the New Testament that mention Jesus Christ’ “siblings”, and in the second part we will analyze other sources.
The Gospel of Mark, written around the year 70 AC, is the oldest canonical Gospel and, from the beginning, it brings up the subject of Jesus’ “siblings”. In the following passage Jesus Christ is preaching, surrounded by his followers, when someone tells him his family is looking for him.
Mark III, 32-35, A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’
This sequence, which also appears –with slight changes– in the later Gospels of Mathew (XII, 46-50) and Luke (VIII, 19-21), would only make sense if those who look for Jesus were his blood brothers and sisters. Otherwise, the final statement would be: “Whoever does God’s will is my cousin and mother”.
In the Gospel of Mark we found another passage where Jesus Christ’ siblings are mentioned.
Mark VI, 3, Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him.
This same passage is repeated in the Gospel of Mathew.
Matthew XIII, 55-56, Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?’
Here, although subtle, there is a detail supporting the blood relationship. The author of the Gospel of Mathew divided the first question from the Gospel of Mark –s not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?– into three questions: Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?
The author of the Gospel of Mathew –who left us quite clear in previous passages that Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father– established a difference between Jesus’ legal and biological family. In the first question –Is not this the carpenter’s son?– he mentions Joseph, the putative or legal father of Jesus Christ, and in the second and third question –Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? – he mentions his biological mother. If the author didn’t believe they were his “blood brothers”, he probably would have put them in the first part of the question, together with Joseph.
We found another mention of Jesus’ siblings in the Gospel of John.
John VII, 1-5, After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him. Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near. So his brothers said to him, ‘Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.’ (For not even his brothers believed in him.)
The final phrase of this passage would have a lot less strength if the author, as stated by the Catholic Church, would have wanted to refer to Jesus Christ’ “cousins” or “distant relatives”.
In the Acts of the Apostles I, verses 13 to 14, and in the Gospel of John II, verse 12, there are other references to Jesus Christ’ “siblings”, which don’t need to analyze. Just read them and judge for yourselves.
However, if it is so evident that the New Testament texts indicate Jesus Christ had blood siblings, where did the idea the Catholic Church has sold to us about them being Jesus’ cousins come from?
St. Jerome (347-420), Christian theologian and historian from the IV century, was the first father of the Church to state the siblings mentioned in the New Testament were, in fact, Jesus’ cousins.
Remember the canonical Gospels were originally written in Greek, and the Greek word for “brothers” is ‘adelphos’. According to St. Jerome, ‘adelphos’ actually means “cousins”, and it appears in some passages of the Old Testament referring to cousins or nephews/nieces.
Nevertheless, the German scholar Oberlinner established that there is only one case in the Old Testament where the Greek word ‘adelphos’ (siblings) is used when the text actually refers to “cousins”, and it is in verse 22 of chapter 23 of the 1 Chronicles.
St. Jerome, therefore, was not right. However, the Church once more closed ranks around this issue because they knew the “perpetual virginity” of Mary had to be protected. This is, that Mary was a virgin before, during and after Jesus Christ was born. And to accomplish that, anything goes. If not through reason, it will be done in time.
The evidence presented by the Gospels is enough to consider Jesus Christ had blood siblings. However, there are other sources, such as the epistles of Paul of Tarsus and some documents outside the New Testament, that could help us clarify this issue once and for all. We will go through that in the second part.
(The Bible quotes correspond to the New Revised Standard Version Holy Bible with Apocrypha. Oxford University Press, 1989. We have also used, as a support in case of discrepancy, The Word Study Greek-English New Testament with Complete Concordance de Paul R. McReynolds, Tyndale House Publishers, 1999.)
– John P. Meier (1991). A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume I: The Roots of the Problem and the Person. Anchor Bible.
– Jeffrey J. Butz (2005). The Brother of Jesus and the Lost Teachings of Christianity. Inner Traditions.
– Robert H. Eisenman. (1998). James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Penguin.