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Brothers of Jesus
BROTHERS OF JESUS, THE (ἀδελφοὶ ̓Ιησου̂). Relatives of Jesus usually found in the gospels in the company of Mary his mother, and variously identified as uterine brothers, stepbrothers or cousins of Jesus. Their names are James, Joses or Joseph, Simon and Judas (
Exegetical data and the problems they present
The best way to understand the historical development of this complex subject is prob. to look at some of the Biblical data on which the various theories and comments are based and then to raise some of the questions which arose in the early Christian centuries as the Fathers reflected on the various NT passages.
Passages containing the word
Other significant Biblical references
A survey of early Christian interpretation
In the apocryphal NT lit. several works contain references to the relatives of Jesus which deeply influence later Christian tradition.
The Gospel of the Hebrews,
written around the year a.d. 100, contained somewhere near its end, the legend of an appearance of the risen Lord to James (cf.
prob. dating from about a.d. 150, is the single most important source for later developments. Lightfoot calls it “purely fictitious” (275). Interpreting a magical sign, the high priest tells Joseph that he will have the good fortune to marry the virgin Mary. Joseph replies “I (already) have sons and am old, but she is a girl” (NTAp, 1:379; cf. also 17:2 quoted in NTAp, 1:383). The text clearly assumes that Joseph had been married previously and that one of his sons by that earlier marriage, James, was its author. For the next two centuries this opinion is held by a majority of the Early Church fathers and is reflected in all the apocryphal . In the Infancy Story of Thomas (c. a.d. 190), for example, reference is made to James as older than Jesus: “Joseph sent his son James to bind wood and take it into his house, and the child Jesus followed him” (NTAp, 1:398).
(c. a.d. 150) is also sometimes seen as the origin of the belief that Joseph had four sons and two daughters by a former marriage. Origen, for example, in commenting on
The character of most of this material is such that its historical reliability is very slight. Popular curiosity about “lacunae” in the NT and heretical theological concerns, esp. those of Gnostics, do much to account for its existence.
In more orthodox circles references to the relatives of Jesus are contained in the writings of several Early Church Fathers.
(c. a.d. 60-130). At one time Papias was quoted as giving the earliest known support for the view that the brothers of Jesus were in fact his cousins. Lightfoot (273) has shown, however, that the Papias who supported this view actually lived in the 11th cent.!
(middle of the 2nd cent.) are Ebionite works which strongly support James’ role as “Bishop of the Bishops,” installed in Jerusalem by the risen Lord Himself; they say he was “called the brother of the Lord” (ὁ λεχθεὶς ἀδελφὸς του̂ κυρίου). The significance of the λεχθεὶς has been variously interpreted.
4. The view of Tertullian (a.d. 160-220) has long been debated, although most scholars have concluded that he implies the brothers of Jesus were sons of Mary and Joseph. In Monogamy he implies that Mary ceased to be a virgin after giving birth to Jesus: “It was a virgin who gave birth to Christ and she was to marry only once, after she brought Him forth” (Treatises on Marriage and Remarriage , 86 and n. 104, p. 159). Similar statements occur in On the Flesh of Christ, chs. 7, 23 (ANF, 3:527ff., 541) where the argument seems to depend upon the brothers being sons and not step-sons or nephews of Mary (see also Against Marcion, ch. 19; comment on
(c. a.d. 160-240) refers to the concern of Jesus’ relatives to keep a record of their Davidic descent, presumably because this heritage gave them special honor in the Church (Euseb. Hist., ch. 7).
(c. a.d. 150-215) has been interpreted as believing that Jesus’ brothers were either His step-brothers or His cousins. In Book VIII of his Hypotyposes Clement ranks James before Peter and implies that he was one of the apostles: “After his resurrection the Lord imparted knowledge to James the Just and John and Peter, they imparted it to the remaining apostles” (quoted in NTAp, 2:79). More explicitly, Clement says Jude was Joseph’s son but not Jesus’ blood brother: “Jude, who wrote the Catholic Epistle, being one of the sons of Joseph and [the Lord’s] brother, a man of deep piety, though he was aware of his relationship to the Lord, nevertheless did not say he was his brother; but what said he? ‘Jude the servant of ,’ because He was his Lord, but brother of James; for this is true; he was his brother, being Joseph’s [son]” (as quoted by Lightfoot, 279). In Book VI of his Hypotyposes as quoted by Eusebius (Hist. 2.1) he explicitly differentiates between “James the Righteous” and the Apostle James, although he does not suggest limitation to just these two. Some, however, have implied that only two Jameses appear in the NT, a view which, as we shall see, results in holding that Jesus’ brothers were really his cousins.
Post-Apostolic writers of the third and fourth centuries.
During the 3rd and most of the 4th centuries, the theory that Jesus’ brothers were the children of Joseph from an earlier marriage prevailed. Among the supporters of this view in the Eastern Church were Origen,, Ephraem the Syrian, Basil the Great, , , Chrysostom, the , Cyril of Alexandria and, much later, Euthymius. In the W, similar views were held by Victorinus, , Ambrose and Ambrosiaster (the Ambrosian Hilary). Both Eusebius and the Apostolic Constitutions rank James and Paul as saintly men implicitly on a par with the Twelve (Sieffert’s statement that “Eusebius counts fourteen apostles” [SHERK, 1:90] is not quite justifiable, however). Most of the writers add little or nothing new to the discussion. One comment attributed to Origen is particularly interesting: “With respect to the brethren of Jesus, there are many who ask how he had them, seeing that Mary remained a virgin until her death” (quoted in the New Catholic Encyclopedia 1:975). The question clearly suggests that for many people in Origen’s day “brothers of Jesus” implied children of Mary.
Even late in the 4th cent. Basil the Great (a.d. 339-379) admits the possibility of Mary’s ceasing to be a virgin after the birth of Jesus: “The words ‘He had no intercourse with her until her son was born’ do indeed afford a certain ground for thinking that Mary, after acting in all sanctity as the instrument of the Lord’s birth, which was brought about by the , did not refuse to her husband the customary privileges of marriage. But as for ourselves, even though this view does no violence to rational piety...yet...lovers of Christ cannot bear to hear that the Mother of God ever ceased to be a virgin...” (quoted by Harris, 236n.). Clearly an ascetic spirit which saw sexual intercourse in marriage as less pious and Christian than abstinence and celibacy has emerged to influence the interpretation of scriptural and traditional references to the brothers of Jesus. An awareness of the impact of this spirit on the intellectual history of the times is necessary for an understanding of later developments.
One interesting possible exception to the stepbrother theory may have been made by Victorinus of Pettau around a.d. 300. In his commentary on Matthew, which is no longer extant, Victorinus apparently held that Jesus had brothers “by nearness, not by nature” (J. P. Migne, Patrologiae Latinae, 23:201; 26:220, as quoted in SHERK, 12:181). Helvidius quotes Victorinus as a supporter of his position, but Jerome contends that Helvidius misinterprets the bishop of Pettau, who in fact, he insists, is speaking of brothers through kinship (i.e. stepbrothers) as did a whole list of ancient writers.
The three major fourth century theories
The discussions of the question by three 4th cent. theologians have come to represent the three major positions which evolved on the question of who Jesus’ brothers were. They are Epiphanius (315-403), Helvidius (fl. c. 380) and Jerome (347-420).
The stepbrother theory of Epiphanius.
In about a.d. 375 Epiphanius, bishop of Constantia in Cyprus, wrote his Panarion (Medicine Chest), also called Haereses, in an effort to survey the heresies of his day and refute them. In ch. 78 of this work he includes a pastoral letter written earlier to rebuke the so-called Antidicomarianites and Collyridians, obscure Arabian sects in the E and Africa who apparently were preaching that after the birth of Jesus Mary had sexual relations with Joseph and had several children by him, including those called the brothers of Jesus in the gospels. Such a view contradicted the opinion widespread in the Church since about the middle of the 2nd cent., that Mary both in (in partu) and after (post partum) the birth of Jesus remained a virgin (the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary). According to Epiphanius the six brothers and sisters of Jesus were not the sons of Mary and Joseph at all, but were rather the children of Joseph by a former marriage. Joseph, he says, was at least eighty years old when he married Mary. The two daughters of Joseph by his previous wife were Mary and Salome. Because Joseph’s children were raised with Jesus they are called his brothers. Epiphanius accepts the curious argument that just as a lioness is supposed to exhaust her fertility when she has produced one cub, so the mother of the Lion of Judah could have no other child than Jesus. It can readily be seen that Epiphanius was deeply influenced by the apocryphal gospels. He draws on NT references to the authoritative attitude of the brothers of Jesus (e.g.
The uterine brother theory of Helvidius.
In a.d. 380 an otherwise unknown author by the name of Carterius wrote a book in defense of virginity and asceticism based on the belief in Mary’s perpetual and absolute virginity. In reply a Rom. Christian by the name of Helvidius, who according to was a disciple of an Arian bishop, Auxentius, and pupil of Symmachus, a pagan Rom. senator, wrote a critique of Carterius’ book.
Helvidius’ ideas made a deep impression on the Rom. church. Many of the leading defenders of the asceticism that had come to deeply influence the Church were actually won over to the Helvidian position. A number of influential Rom. Christian women who were defenders of the superiority of virginity over marriage were scandalized and appealed to their friend and mentor Jerome to write a refutation of Helvidius’ teaching. Jerome was reluctant for several reasons to respond to Helvidius until he finally realized how widely influential Helvidius’ ideas were becoming. Finally he wrote a detailed reply, “On the Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Mary Against Helvidius.”
The works of Helvidius have not survived. In his reply to Helvidius, however, Jerome makes many references to Helvidius’ ideas. As interpreted by Jerome, Helvidius held the following views:
1. “Before they came together” (
2. “He had no intercourse with (did not know) her until her son was born” (
3. “The time came for her baby to be born, and she gave birth to a son, her first-born” (
4. There can be no doubt that Jesus had brothers because many NT references speak explicitly about them (
5. Jesus’ mother was present at the cross and entrusted by Jesus to John because she was a widow and alone (
6. Both Tertullian and Victorinus, the bishop of Pettau, also held the view that the brothers of Jesus were the children of Mary and Joseph (
7. Virginity is in no way superior to marriage; the fact that babies are “fashioned daily in wombs by the hand of God” should not cause anyone to blush (
Similar views were also held by the heretical Bishop Bonosus and Jovinian, an influential Rom. heretic. That it was held by no great churchman despite its Biblical orientation is not surprising when it is realized that to deny the perpetual virginity of Mary was already a serious offense and sacrilege.
The cousin theory of Jerome.
In a.d. 383, about three years after Helvidius’ brave attack against Carterius, the young monk Jerome finally entered the theological arena as an opponent of Helvidius. He endeavors to refute each of Helvidius’ theories and in the process creates a completely new theory of the relationship between Jesus and His “brothers.” So persuasive and so timely were his arguments to a church that strongly favored celibacy that in a short time the whole Western Church had adopted them. Augustine’s espousal of Jerome’s theory virtually guaranteed its acceptance.
Jerome is not noted for his courtesy in dealing with his opponents. In the opening chapters of “On the Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Mary Against Helvidius” he vilifies Helvidius as lacking in both theological and literary acumen (Jerome is, of course, not alone among the church fathers in this highly discourteous attitude), and throughout the work belittles even his weightiest and most cogent arguments. Jerome’s tone throughout is strictly defensive, as is evident even in his statement of the purpose of his writing: “I must call upon the Lord Jesus to guard the sacred lodging of the womb in which he abode for ten months from all suspicion of sexual intercourse” (
Since Jerome follows the pattern of stating Helvidius’ position and then refuting it, we can parallel his major arguments with those stated above:
1. Although “before” often indicates a result, it “nevertheless sometimes simply reveals an action that was previously planned” (
2. No one denies that the verb “to know” refers to sexual intercourse, but “until” does not need to indicate a definite time. “It is clear, also, in the case of Joseph that the Evangelist indicated a fact over which there could have arisen scandal, namely that [Mary] was not known by her husband until her delivery, so that we might much more clearly realize that she was not known after her delivery by her husband, who kept himself from her at the very time when he still could have had doubts about the dream” (
3. The OT has many examples where “first-born” does not indicate that others were born. “Every only child is a first-born child; but not every first-born is an only child” (
4. “Individuals are given the title of brothers in Sacred Scripture for four reasons, namely, birth, race, kinship and affection” (
5. If Mary had sons and daughters, Jesus would not have placed her in John’s care at the scene of the crucifixion (
6. Helvidius cannot strengthen his case by referring to Tertullian and Victorinus. “Regarding Tertullian, I say nothing more than that he was not a man of the church” (
7. Only married women who “imitate the chastity of virgins within the very intimacy of marriage” are holy women (
Jerome adds that the brothers of Jesus were actually the sons of Jesus’ aunt, Mary; that James the Less, the son of Mary, must be one of her sons (using the exegetically improbable argument that “the Less” distinguishes him from the other apostle, James “the Greater” i.e. the son of Zebedee and not the son of Alphaeus); that
Three further conclusions are usually added to make Jerome’s theory even more complete:
1. Alphaeus and Clopas are merely different renderings of the same Aram. name, Chalphai;
3. Symeon or Simon the Lord’s brother is the same person as Simon Zelotes. Thus three of the four “brothers” are included among the Twelve.
There is some question as to whether Jerome himself continued to hold this ingenious, assumption-laden hypothesis in his later years. J. B. Mayor points out that, in his commentary on Galatians (c. a.d. 387) and even more markedly in his Letter to Hedibia (c. a.d. 406), Jerome seems to be inconsistent with the above conclusions. Sieffert says that in his Commentary on Isaiah (17:6) Jerome “practically abandons” his theory, but the author’s argument is not very convincing. Lightfoot notes that Jerome’s later comments actually suggest an Epiphanian view (260 n.1).
Criticisms and defenses of the three major theories
In the centuries following, various criticisms and defenses of the three major theories emerged. The following paragraphs are an attempt to summarize the more significant arguments.
The stepbrother theory of Epiphanius.
1. This theory is based more upon the highly unhistorical NT apocryphal books, what Jerome with some justification calls the deliramenta apocryphorum, than upon any solid Biblical or historically reliable tradition. It is purely conjectural, although not impossible, that Joseph had four sons and two daughters by a previous marriage and that he had died leaving Mary a widow before Jesus’ crucifixion.
2. It reflects the influence of the Gr. asceticism of the Early Church and its adoption of the theory of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Harris argues that if indeed Mary had had seven children, the “unanimous tradition of her perpetual virginity could never have arisen” (237); such an argument is weak, however, in that it is repeatedly contradicted by the past which is replete with just such developments;
3. It contradicts those statements in the NT that imply Mary had other children after the birth of Jesus;
4. It, in fact, assumes that Jesus’ “brothers” had no real physical relationship to him at all;
5. Some Roman Catholic writers state baldly that the theory “has no foundation” (Mc-Kenzie) or “no probability” (Guyot), without attempting to support their statements in any way; comments of this type are hardly justified or justifiable;
The uterine brother theory of Helvidius.
1. Contrary to the tenets of this theory, the NT portrays the brothers of Jesus as acting in every way like older brothers. Bauer argues, for example, that Jesus appears alone on the pilgrimage when he is twelve. “If Mary had had other children after this pilgrimage, these would not have reached the age of twenty by the time Jesus began his public life and would never have been able to behave towards their elder brother in such a free and easy manner as is outlined in
2. The theory is contrary to church tradition and abhorrent to Christian sentiment, since it contradicts the belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity;
3. It is unlikely that three children in two families would have identical names as would be the case if both Joseph and Alphaeus had sons named James, Jude and Simon;
4. It is strange that the NT speaks of brothers and sisters of Jesus, but never of sons, daughters or children of Mary or Joseph. Only Jesus is called “the son of Mary” (
5. Would Mary have left younger children at home to go on a fourteen-day trip to Jerusalem for the Passover (Bauer)?
6. If Mary had had other children, Jesus prob. would not have asked John to take Mary into his household (
The cousin theory of Jerome.
1. The Gr. words ἀνεψιός, G463, and συγγενής, G5150, mean cousin; the NT authors would have used them to tr. the more indefinite Aram. word אָח rather than ἀδελφός, G81, if they had understood the brothers of Jesus to be His cousins. “Nowhere in the NT...is the word brother used in a sense of distant relationship” (Sieffert); all Jerome’s examples are drawn from the OT;
2. In the NT the brothers of Jesus always appear in the company of Mary, His mother, and never with their parents, a highly unlikely situation, to say the least. To have a mother and brothers and sisters living together would clearly imply a blood relationship unless a specific statement were otherwise made;
3. It is more reasonable to interpret
4. It is highly improbable that two sisters would have had the same name;
5. It is linguistically indefensible to identify Clopas and Alphaeus;
6. The word πρωτότοκος, G4758, (first-born) in
7. If the brothers of Jesus were actually cousins and three of them were among the Twelve, it could not be said, “His brothers were not believers in him” (
8. James the Less can be identified with James the son of Alphaeus only by conjecture;
9. The theory was actually created to support ascetic belief in the necessity of Mary’s perpetual virginity to preserve her from the sinful sexual act and in the superiority of virginity to marriage;
10. It has absolutely no prior support in tradition.
Subsequent to the 4th cent. no further important theories concerning the identity of the “brothers” of Jesus emerged. Rather, there was an alignment between the theories and the major divisions in Christendom. Roughly speaking, the Eastern or Greek Orthodox church adopted the stepbrother theory; the Roman Catholic church, the cousin theory; and the Protestant church the uterine brother theory.
Perhaps the closest thing to a new theory developed out of the empirical and Kantian outlooks. From this perspective Jesus is viewed as the natural son of Mary and Joseph and his brothers are consequently full blood brothers. As expressed by
Since the Second Vatican Council Roman Catholic thought has become increasingly diversified, ranging from what fellow Catholics have called the “excessively conservative” work of Blinzler, through the moderate views of McKenzie who concludes that “the exact degree of relationship between Jesus and His brethren cannot be reconstructed” (107) and Bauer who will admit that “the possibility must also remain that they were Joseph’s sons as a result of a previous marriage” (88), to the stance of more radical theologians who, in private, if not in print have no difficulty in “demythologizing” the whole construct of Jerome and even in adopting a naturalistic view of Jesus as the son of Mary and Joseph.
It would be nice if some all-encompassing solution could now be proposed to the questions which the NT texts raise. In ecumenical circles a more widespread espousal of the stepbrother theory by both Protestants and Catholics can be anticipated, since it seems to be relatively acceptable to both groups, has tradition in its favor, avoids the many unprovable assumptions of the cousin theory that Catholic Biblical scholars now find difficult to accept, and yet does not force Catholics to abandon traditional and magisterial teaching on the perpetual virginity of Mary.
Nevertheless in the long run, without getting into the even more complex philosophical problems raised by Kant, it seems likely that the truth lies with a recognition of the brothers as full brothers of Jesus, and sons of Mary and Joseph.
1. When the NT statements are taken collectively and a minimum of assumptions are made, the prima facie conclusion is almost unavoidable that the brothers of Jesus were Mary’s own sons. In the past a lot of weight was placed on the possibility of various hypotheses in theology; today’s theologian tends to argue far more in terms of probabilities. From such a perspective it seems highly probable that the NT does not mean cousins and reasonably probable that it does not mean stepbrothers when it speaks of “brothers” of Jesus;
2. Arguments based on the thesis that only older brothers would act as Jesus’ brothers acted toward Him fail to take into account the way brothers of any age might act when confronted with a highly unusual person like Jesus;
3. As far as church tradition is concerned Karl Rahner would seem to be on the right track when he says we must not merely repeat the words of the church fathers but we must rather attempt to understand what they are trying to say in terms of the thought patterns of their day. What emotional and intellectual hunger was satisfied by the adoption of a belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity, for example? Only if we can answer this question will we be able to understand why the Western Church rejected the idea of the brothers of Jesus as physical brothers;
4. Little weight can be placed on the occurrence of identical names in two families, esp. when the names are as common as James, Jude and Simon;
5.should teach us not to conclude that if Mary had younger children she must have left them home to attend the Jerusalem Passover on Jesus’ twelfth birthday. The only relevant conclusion we can draw from this pericope is that we are told nothing about Jesus’ siblings because they have no part to play in the story;
Epiphanius, “Against the Anti-dicomarianites” (377); Jerome, “On the Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Mary Against Helvidius” (383) in Saint Jerome: Dogmatic and Polemical Works, vol. 53 in The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation (1965), 3-43; D. F. Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835; E.T. 1848), 146-148; Mill, The Accounts of Our Lord’s Brethren in the New Testament Vindicated, etc. (1843); Methodist Quarterly Review (1851), 671, 672; F. W. Farrar, “Brother,” Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible (1868), 1:329, 330; J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (2nd ed., 1870), 252-291; J. B. Mayor, “πρωτότοκος, πρωτοτοκεδα,” TDNT (1968), 6:871-881, esp. 876.,” EBi (1899); P. W. Schmiedel, “Clopas,” EBi (1899), 1:849-853; C. Harris, “Brethren of the Lord,” HDCG (1906), 1:232-237; F. Sieffert, “James,” SHERK (1907), 6:89-94, esp. 90, 91; H. E. Jacobs, “Brethren of the Lord,” ISBE (1915), 1:518-520; J. H. Ropes, The Epistle of St. James (1916), 53-62; J. J. Collins, “The Brethren of the Lord and Two Recently Published Papyri,” Theological Studies, 5 (1944), 484-494; R. L. P. Milburn, Early Christian Interpretations of History (1954), 161-192; P. J. Donnelly, “The Perpetual Virginity of the Mother of God,” in Mariology (1957), 2:228-296; E. Stauffer, “Begegnung der Christen,” Festschrift Otto Karrer (1960), 367f., esp. n. 46; F. V. Filson, “ ,” IDB (1962), 1:470-472; A. Meyer and W. Bauer, “The Relatives of Jesus,” in NTAp (1963), 1:418-432; D. Smith and S. Laeuchli, “Brethren of the Lord,” HDB rev. (1963), 114; J. L. McKenzie, “Brethren of the Lord,” Dictionary of the Bible (1965), 106, 107; J. Blinzler, Die Brüder und Schwestern Jesu (1967); “Brothers of Our Lord,” MSt (1968 r.p.), 895, 896; W. Michaelis, “