Who Were the Brothers and Sisters of Jesus?

Now we will look at the brothers and sisters of Jesus and see what the bible has to say about them.

Older Siblings

In the Book of Exodus we read about the ten plagues that God inflicted on the obstinate Egyptians that the Hebrews might be set free. The plagues were terrible: water turned to blood, locusts, gnats, darkness, to name a few. The worst was the last of the plagues – the tenth one. For it God gave fair warning: “One more plague I will bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt. After that he will let you depart. In fact, when he finally lets you go, he will drive you away”…“Every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the slave-girl who is at the handmill, as well as all the firstborn of the animals”. “I will go through Egypt, striking down every firstborn in the land, human being and beast alike, and executing judgment on all the gods of Egypt—I, the LORD”! (Ex. 12:12)

And so it happened – the first born in the land of Egypt was killed – human being and beast alike. And then God said, When I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated to me every firstborn in Israel, human being and beast alike. They belong to me; I am the LORD”. (Num. 3:13)

This would be done by a ritual that God established whereby the firstborn son of every couple would need to be “redeemed” (dedicated) to God; hence the name of this ritual, The Redemption of the First Born Son…or Pidyon Haben as it is called by today’s Jews. This ceremony is strictly for the firstborn son who also opens the womb and is done at age 30 days. If the firstborn out of the womb is not a male the ceremony is not performed:Consecrate to me every firstborn; whatever opens the womb among the Israelites whether of human being or beast, belongs to meEvery human firstborn of your sons you must ransom”. (Ex. 13:2, 13)

Because Jesus was thus dedicated to God at the age of 30 days we know for certain that he had neither older sisters or brothers: “When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord”! (Lk 2:22-23)

During the ceremony the father attests: “This is my first born son, the first born of his mother”.

Again, this shows that Jesus had no older siblings.

Younger Siblings

As for younger siblings that doesn’t work, either. As Jesus was on the cross dying and “saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son.Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his home” (Jn 19:26-27). Jewish law demands that younger siblings are the ones to care for their parents after the older ones are gone. But because Jesus had no younger siblings he gave the care of his mother over to John. Why John? Perhaps he was the youngest of the apostles. Perhaps he was the “one whom Jesus loved” (Jn 13:23). More than likely John was the only one of the apostles there.

But what about Mary who gave birth to “her firstborn son” (Lk 2:7)? The term in Greek is πρωτότοκος (prototokos) in order to show forth that Jesus is the one to be offered to God (or to offer himself as the case may be) and that he has all of the rights of inheritance. “Everything that the Father has is mine” says Jesus in order to give it freely: “for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine and declare it to you” (Jn 16:15). Because “the Father and I are one” (Jn 10:30).

Siblings By Name

So…just who are those siblings, then, mentioned by name as belonging to Jesus in the Gospel of Mark? “Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary, a brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Aren’t His sisters our neighbors here” (Mk. 6:3)? According to Fr. William Saunders, “the confusion originates in Hebrew and Aramaic, the languages of most of the original Old Testament texts and of Christ. In these languages, no special word existed for cousin, nephew, half-brother, or step-brother; so they used the word brother or a circumlocution” such as “The son of Paul’s sister” (Acts 23:16) which is obviously Paul’s nephew. Fr. Saunders continues: “When the Old Testament was translated into Greek and the New Testament written in Greek, the word adelphos was used to capture all of these meanings. So in each instance, we must examine the context in which the title is used”.

A modern example of this is when Spanish-speaking people (or French) speak of their parents the term used is “mis padres” (“mes parents” in French). When they speak of aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. the term is still “mis padres”/“mes parents”. This is the case in other languages as well.

These aforementioned “siblings” are clarified in the Gospels. James and Joses were the sons of Mary of Clopas (Mk 15:40). Judas was the son of James (not either of the Apostles) (Lk 6:16). James the Lesser was the son of Alphaeus (Lk 6:15). James the Greater and John were the sons of Zebedee, with a mother other than our Blessed Mother Mary (Mt 20:20).

But why these four? According to the writings of Eusebius — a church Father and an historian — they were cousins to Jesus. Eusebius writes in his Church History when describing the process of choosing someone to replace James (the head of the Church in Jerusalem) who had been martyred, “They all with one consent pronounced Symeon, the son of Clopas, of whom the Gospel also makes mention; to be worthy of the episcopal throne of that parish. He was a cousin, as they say, of the Saviour. For Hegesippus records that Clopas was a brother of Joseph”. So…Jesus had an Uncle Clopas!

Again…“there were also others, descended from one of the so-called brothers of the Saviour, whose name was Judas…”.

And still again…”And after James the Just had suffered martyrdom, as the Lord had also on the same account, Symeon, the son of the Lord’s uncle, Clopas, was appointed the next bishop. All proposed him as second bishop because he was a cousin of the Lord”.

The Founders of the Protestant Reformation

Even the three fathers of the Reformation — Martin Luther, Hulrych Zwingli and John Calvin all maintained belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary.

From Martin Luther:  “Christ…was the only Son of Mary, and the Virgin Mary bore no children besides Him…’brothers’ really means ‘cousins’ here, for Holy Writ and the Jews always call cousins brothers.” (Sermons on John, chapters 1-4, 1537-39)

From Zwingli — “To deny that Mary remained ‘inviolata‘ before, during and after the birth of her Son, was to doubt the omnipotence of God…and it was right and profitable to repeat the angelic greeting — ‘Hail Mary’…God esteemed Mary above all creatures, including the saints and angels — it was her purity, innocence and invincible faith that mankind must follow.
Fidei expositio,‘ the last pamphlet from his pen…There is a special insistence upon the perpetual virginity of Mary.”

From John Calvin — “He says that she [Mary of Cleophas] was the sister of the mother of Jesus, and, in saying so, he adopts the phraseology of the Hebrew language, which includes cousins, and other relatives, under the term ‘brothers.’”

While many of the Early Church Fathers also wrote/preached about the perpetual virginity of Mary, the last word of this topic is given to the great St. Augustine:

“It was not the visible sun, but its invisible Creator who consecrated this day for us, when the Virgin Mother, fertile of womb and integral in her virginity, brought him forth, made visible for us, by whom, when he was invisible, she too was created. A Virgin conceiving, a Virgin bearing, a Virgin pregnant, a Virgin bringing forth, a Virgin perpetual. Why do you wonder at this, O man?”

(Sermons 186:1 [A.D. 411])

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Cynthia Trainque is an author who is enrolled in the Master of Arts in Ministry (MAM) for the Laity at St. John’s Seminary, Brighton, MA. She has served the church for several years as a worker, writer, and volunteer and is presently an active member of Our Lady of Lourdes in Worcester, MA. Cynthia is available to come to speak as a guest speaker/teacher on the beauty of the Catholic faith.  She gives talks and also creates/uses PowerPoint presentations. She may be contacted at [email protected].

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