Mary and the Brothers and Sisters of Jesus
The third question in our series deals with why Catholics believe that Mary didn’t have any other children except Jesus and why she, in fact, remained a virgin.
Q: Why do Catholics think Mary had no other children and remained a virgin?
A: Because it is an ancient Christian teaching. Early Christians taught that Mary was a virgin her whole life and had no other children besides Jesus. This is implicit in the Bible – meaning there are passages that point to this doctrine and it is explicit in Christian tradition – meaning there are doctrines that were taught and written about in early Christian writings which show that this is what early Christians believed. It is, therefore, the total sum of all the many different aspects of Christian faith concerning Mary that form these beliefs.
These ancient Christian beliefs, taught from the beginning, said that Mary, by virtue of the fact that she gave birth to God Incarnate, had to be an extremely holy person. From the beginning Christians taught and believed that because she was a very holy person, God maintained her in holiness and a part of doing that was to maintain her virginity intact because it was a sign of her holy consecration to God. (a non-scriptural writing on the childhood of the Virgin Mary stated that she had been consecrated to God as a holy virgin¹.) From ancient Christianity Mary has been considered the New Testament version of the Ark of the Covenant (the Holy Spirit overshadowed them both and they both contained within them the Word of God) and thus considered Holy and consecrated to God with her virginity.
Early Christians taught that she remained that way throughout her entire life and that she never gave birth to any other children. They taught that anyone mentioned in the Bible as being a “brother” or “sister” of Christ was either a half-sibling from a previous marriage of Joseph’s (a common early Christian belief) or that they were related kinsmen of Mary and Joseph’s who were not born from either of them. The idea that she was not a virgin forever and that she had other children was not taught in Christianity for over 1,500 years. Historically the Reformers believed in her everlasting virginity including John Calvin and John Wesley. The belief that she was not a virgin forever and that she had other children besides Jesus is a very modern belief of Christian teaching less than a few hundred years old.
So why use the term “brother” when it didn’t mean actual brother?
You can read more about this topic and the “brothers of Jesus” in minute detail in my blog entry discussing the term “brother” and it’s Aramaic and Greek heritage. Generally speaking, there wasn’t a specific word in Jesus’ original language of Aramaic to define the proper or exact relationship these “brothers” had to Jesus, so when New Testament writers like Luke wrote the story down they didn’t use a specific Greek word for these kinsmen but instead used the more general term in Greek which meant ‘close kin’ so that it encompassed a wider range of relationships. What this means is that when the term used in the Greek manuscript for a ‘brotherly relationship’, translated into English it was translated as “brothers”. The Greek word itself used the term “brethren” as in either close family – like cousins, brothers by bond (think of ‘Band of Brothers’ or ‘Brothers in Arms’), as tribal relations, or as blood brothers. So the way it was originally written the Greek word used there was used as a very wide open term to describe the relationship.
Also, if we look at the men specifically mentioned in the Bible as being “brothers” of Christ like James and Joseph (or Joses depending on the manuscript), Simon, and Jude (or Judas, not Iscariot [cf. Mt. 13:55; Mk. 6:3]) we can identify who they were exactly and who their parents were or at least where they came from.
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)
Well who is Mary, the wife of Clopas (or Cleophas)?
- She 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 of the same man. (Much like Saul was the Jewish name and Paul was his Roman name.)
- Therefore, we can deduce that Cleophas/Alphaeus is the father of James and Josas/Joseph.
- We can also deduce that it is highly unlikely that Mary wife of Cleophas is a blood sister of the Virgin Mary since they bear the same name. More likely they were probably close kinsmen or cousins. This parallels the 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 by name in Scripture as being brothers of Christ are clearly shown to have different lineage than that of Mary and Joseph.
Mary being a virgin and having no other children is a difficult concept for Protestants to believe since they do not often consider or know the early historic traditions of Christianity and thus don’t believe them sturdy enough to base their doctrines upon. Instead they prefer to rely on what is explicitly or basically clear in Scripture alone as the only reliable platform with which to base doctrinal beliefs. (Ironically the Bible itself is based on Catholic Tradition.)
Catholics on the other hand do not use the Bible alone as a sole base for their doctrinal beliefs. They primarily use Scripture but they also believe what was historically always taught in Christianity as a basis for belief. Commonly called Tradition in the three-fold basis of Catholic Authority. Catholics pull from the entire picture of what makes up Christianity in order to determine what matters of faith are. When taken together from all valid sources (Scripture, Tradition, Teaching Authority) all the pieces of the puzzle, from these different places, come together to form a whole and complete picture.
A clear example of the fact that Christianity held the universal opinion that Mary was a virgin forever and had no other children is found in a letter St. Jerome (who translated the Bible, Latin Vulgate) wrote and blew his top at a man called Helvidius for even suggesting in writing and teaching that Mary did have children and was not a virgin forever. Helvidius’ argument (which is the stance of most Protestant denominations today) wasn’t even preserved in history because it was considered so outrageous and unsound. St. Jerome’s response to Helvidius has been preserved. He writes, in part:
“I must call upon the Holy Spirit to express His meaning by my mouth and defend the virginity of Blessed Mary. And I must also entreat God the Father to show that the mother of His Son, who was a mother before she was a bride, continued a virgin after her son was born.”
(Scripture tells us Joseph was told in a dream by an angel not to fear making Mary his wife [Matthew 1:20] but even though he did make her his wife by marrying her, we’re told that he didn’t have sexual intercourse with Mary before the birth of Jesus. [Matthew 1:25] This verse of Scripture is written to verify that that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus.)
“Excellent! We are to believe then that the same man who gave so much credit to a dream that he did not dare to touch his wife, yet afterwards, when he had learnt from the shepherds that the angel of the Lord had come from heaven and when the heavenly host had joined with [the angel] in the chorus, and when he had seen just Simeon embrace the infant, and when he had seen Anna the prophetess, the Magi, the Star, Herod, the angels; Helvidius would have us believe that Joseph, though well acquainted with such surprising wonders, dared to touch the temple of God, the abode of the Holy Spirit, the mother of his Lord!“
“We believe that God was born of the Virgin, because we read it. That Mary was [carnally] married after she brought forth, we do not believe, because we do not read it.”
“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?”² [emphasis’ mine]
This is simply one excerpt which Jerome wrote as a common belief (notice he says “we” throughout) at the time and was one that was held even by the founders of Protestantism. All of this taken together is why Catholics hold that Mary didn’t have other children and remained a virgin throughout her life.
1. Protoevangelium of James which first appeared in the 2nd century AD. – Although the authorship was disputed by Origen (3rd century AD) he never disputed the validity of its content about Mary.
2. The Perpetual Virginity of Mary, St. Jerome (383 AD)