Oh Brother Where Art Thou?
“There are things which, in your extreme ignorance, you had never read, and therefore you neglected the whole range of Scripture and employed your madness in outraging the Virgin… You have set on fire the temple of the Lord’s body, you have defiled the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit from which you are determined to make a team of four brethren and a heap of sisters come forth… Pray tell me, who, before you appeared, was acquainted with this blasphemy? Who thought the theory worth two-pence? You have gained your desire, and are become notorious by crime.”
– St. Jerome, The Perpetual Virginity of the Virgin Mary, 383 AD
Evangelicals often have a Biblical literalist style of Scriptural interpretation which claims that Jesus had blood brothers and sisters. For most, it is simply a matter of reading the Bible itself. Nothing seems to speak more plainly to the eye and understanding as the verses of the Bible that relate the story of Mary and Jesus’ brothers and sisters coming to see him (cf. Matthew 12:46, Luke 8:19, and Mark 3:31)
Then his mother and his brothers came to him but were unable to join him because of the crowd. He was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside and they wish to see you.” He said to them in reply, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.” (Luke 8:19-21)
First of all, doesn’t that just sound like a nice smack in the face to the relatives of Jesus who probably took a long haul of a trip to get across town to visit Him? The truth is much more of an hermeneutics approach involving the point Jesus was conveying to those present which was that all who do and follow Christ are considered His family.
At any length the text seems to convey most clearly that Jesus has brothers and sisters. Not so, saith the Catholic.
For anyone who has done a study on this subject the deepest discussion rages about the meaning of the Greek word used here and its corresponding Hebrew or Aramaic term. For those who have not, we’ve just stepped into deep theological and etymological waters which can quickly go over someone’s head. However, to understand the Bible and its true meaning we cannot simply accept what we read at face value. The Bible has so many layers of depth that scholars are still finding understanding and meaning to it 2,000 years after the Resurrection of Christ. This is why the plain, literalist approach to Scripture fails because the understanding of the original words, customs, and concepts must be understood before one can understand the meaning the author of a particular book is trying to convey. Therefore, it is vital to understand the original words used here in order to grasp what is being talked about. In order to that we must actually go even further back to the culture and customs of that time.
There are a lot of elements here so I’ll try to be a linear as possible. The Old Testament was translated from Hebrew into Greek (the Greek Septuagint) because when Alexander conquered most of the known world at the time everyone took on the culture of the Hellenistic Greek. When the New Testament was being written, the authors relied heavily on the Septuagint version of the Bible for reference, not the Hebrew version because many Jews comprehended and used the Septuagint version. Therefore, a “Jewish Greek” was used for these books. Particularly the Gospels and Acts. It is also suggested that the original texts were written in Aramaic which is Jesus’ native tongue. Whether they were or not, they were certainly conveyed orally in Aramaic.
“Since all the authors represented in the New Testament appear to have been either Jews or Jewish proselytes before becoming Christians, it is natural that their use of Koine Greek was colored by their familiarity with the special characteristics of the Hebrew Old Testament. Here and there the Gospels and the first half of Acts preserve in Greek certain turns of expression which reflect an underlying Aramaic idiom, which was the mother tongue of Jesus and his disciples” (“Introduction to the New Testament,” p. 1168).
The basic argument, without getting too specific, is that there is not a real Aramaic word for “close kin” that would have fit into these sentences. Also, the terminology of using the word “brother” often denoted close kinsmen or relatives without referring to uterine brothers and sisters. In the Old Testament there were terms and words to refer to kinsmen and actual brothers and sisters, but more often than not the term adelphos was used in the Septuagint Greek. NOW… the reason that is important is because in the New Testament the specific word used that is translated as “brother” is the Koine Greek word, adelphos as well and it was a familiar term to the New Testament writers.
It is often argued that even though Aramaic did not have a word for “cousin” or “close kin”, that Greek did: anepsios and that if the Biblical writers had wanted to say that “brothers” and “sisters” of Christ were really cousins, it would have used anepsios. However, the word anepsios is a very specific term meaning “first cousins” or sometimes “cousins” and, as Fr. Mateo points out, all cousins are kinsmen, but not all kinsmen are cousins and the term adelphos has a much wider meaning that can incorporate close relatives, kinsmen, blood brothers, or those to whom one is bonded as brothers. Therefore, the word used in the verses referring to the “brothers” of Christ is the word adelphos, which encorporates this much broader interpretation.
In the Old Testament, in several places, we have many examples of relatives being called “brothers” of one another where, in fact, they are actually nephews or cousins. In Genesis 13:8 and 14:16 we have the word adelphos being used to describe the relationship between Abraham and Lot. However, these two men did not come from the same parents; they were uncle and nephew. Laban is also called an adelphos to Jacob and he is not a “blood brother” he is an uncle. This tradition of referring to close relatives carried over into the New Testament.
We also have what appears to be clear lineage of the brothers of Christ who are mentioned in the Bible of James and Joseph (or Joses depending on the manuscript), Simon, and Jude. (cf. Mt. 13:55; Mk. 6:3) However, if you read the Crucifixion story of all four Gospel’s you will see who these men’s mother was.
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. (John 19:25)
Mary, the wife of Clopas (or Cleophas) is mentioned in Matthew 15:40 as being the mother of James and Josas (or Joseph). In Mark she’s called the mother of James the Less and Joses (Mk 15:40). James is also described as the son of Alphaeus in the synoptic Gospels’ listing of the Apostles (Mt 10:3, Mk 3:18, Lk 6:15). Alphaeus and Cleophas is often thought to be the Roman and Hebrew name respectively of the same man. Much like Saul was the Jewish name but was also transliterated by his Roman name of Paul. This can be asserted because elsewhere the same James is referred to as the son of Alphaeus. We can infer that Mary wife of Cleophas is unlikely to be a true sister of the Virgin Mary, since they bear the same name however, they are close kinsmen. This parallels the semitic use of “brother” in relating James to Jesus. Acts 1:13 says that Jude (Judas) was a brother of James who is identified in this verse as James, the son of Alphaeus. Jude himself says in his own epistle that he is a brother of James (cf. Jude 1:1). Simon, called the Zealot, is identified as coming from Cana, not Nazareth as were Joseph, Mary and Christ. (Mark 3:18) Therefore, the “brothers” mentioned in Scripture as being brothers of Christ are clearly shown to have different lineage than that of Mary and Joseph.
Briefly, there are two other verses which Evangelicals seek to prove that Joseph and Mary conceived other children after Jesus. The first verse says that Jesus was “the first-born” (Luke 2:7) and thus, according to Evangelicals, it means there were more children afterward. However, a first-born is a first-born whether or not there are others that follow. The second verse states that Joseph did not know Mary until she’d given birth to Jesus (Matthew 1:25). “To know” her implies sexual relations and “until” means things changed afterward. Many times the word “until” is used and it is used to clarify what is present, not what will happen after that time. For instance, Jesus says, “Behold, I am with you always until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19 & 20) Does this mean that Jesus will not be with us after the end of the age? No. It only seeks to clarify that since we are not with Him physically during this age that He will is still with us nonetheless until we are reunited with Him in Heaven at the end of the age. Many times in the Bible the word “until” is used and it is always used to help the reader understand what happened up and to that point, not beyond.
The question of the “brothers and sisters” of Christ was unchallenged as meaning “close kinsmen” of Christ until a man named Helvidius claimed that they were actual uterine blood siblings of Christ. He was soundly, (and harshly) denounced in 383 AD by the same St. Jerome who gave us the Latin Vulgate . The legitimacy of St. Jerome’s argument The Perpetual Virginity of Mary can be shown in the fact that he was not refuted by the Church because of his argument for both the Perpetual Virginity of Mary and the concept that she bore no more children after Jesus, whereas Helvidius’ argument has not been preserved in history.
This doesn’t cover all verses, ancient words, or ancient concepts of belief about the brothers and sisters of Christ, but perhaps it will give the reader a starting point of contemplation for the idea that Joseph and Mary had no children together and that the “brothers and sisters” of Christ are only relatives.