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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 (Matt 13:55; Mark 6:3).

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


1. Mark 3:31-35; Matthew 12:46-50; cf. Luke 8:19-21. As Jesus is teaching, “his mother and his brothers” arrive and send someone to tell Him of their arrival. Jesus tells His hearers that “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, my sister, my mother” (Mark 3:35; all Scripture quotations are from the NEB). Who are the “brothers” who arrive with Jesus’ mother? Did Jesus have brothers in the usual sense of the term? How many? If they were not blood brothers, what other possible relationship could they have to Jesus? (This is the first reference to Jesus’ brothers in the synoptic gospels.)

2. Matthew 13:53-58; Mark 6:1-6. People are amazed as Jesus teaches in the synagogue at Nazareth, and ask, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:3). What do we know about these brothers and sisters? Why does Matthew reverse the order of the last two brothers (13:55)? Are the brothers related to other NT people with the same names? Are they the same individuals, for example, as the Apostles James, Judas and Simon? Does the description of Jesus as “the son of Mary” imply that He is her only child (Bauer)?

3. John 2:12. Leaving Cana Jesus “went down to Capernaum in company with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples.” What relationship, if any, is there between Jesus’ “brothers” and His disciples? Does the NT speak of any of the “brothers” as disciples? Or are they portrayed consistently as two separate and distinct groups?

4. John 7:1-10. Following the account of the feeding of the five thousand, John tells of the departure of “many of his [Jesus’] disciples” and of Jesus’ question to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave me?” In the episode which follows, a clear distinction is made between the brothers of Jesus and His disciples: “As the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles was close at hand, his brothers said to him, ‘You should leave this district and go to Judaea, so that your disciples there may see the great things you are doing. Surely no one can hope to be in the public eye if he works in seclusion. If you really are doing such things as these, show yourself to the world.’ For even his brothers had no faith in him.” Could one or more of the brothers have been a disciple? Could one of them have, in fact, been among the Twelve? More than one? Do the “brothers” have a symbolic or “spiritual” significance for John’s gospel?

5. Acts 1:14. After a listing of the Twelve by name as lodging in the upstairs room in Jerusalem, it is stated that “All these were constantly at prayer together, and with them a group of women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” If, as John says, Jesus’ brothers had no faith in Him, when did the change occur? And what implications does it have for our understanding of the relationship between the disciples and the brothers of Jesus? When did the brothers move to Jerusalem?

6. 1 Corinthians 9:5. In defense of his apostleship Paul remarks incidentally, “Have I no right to take a Christian wife about with me, like the rest of the apostles and the Lord’s brothers, and Cephas?” Paul also makes a distinction between the apostles and the Lord’s brothers. He also states that all of them were married. What is the relationship between brothers, disciples and apostles?

7. Galatians 1:18f. In describing the origins of his apostleship, Paul says that three years after his conversion he stayed in Jerusalem with Cephas “without seeing any other of the apostles, except (ἐι μὴ) James the Lord’s brother.” Is Paul now speaking of James as an apostle? Does this imply that he is one of the Twelve, or is the term used in a wider sense? If he is one of the Twelve, why does his name not occur in the lists of the Twelve?

Other significant Biblical references

1. Mark 3:21. When οἱ περἀυτου̂ (RSV “his friends”; NEB “his family”; lit. “those with him”) hear people say, or say themselves, that Jesus is “out of his mind” (RSV “beside himself”), they “set out to take charge of him.” Some scholars feel that Mark meant to anticipate 3:31. If so, who would be included? Would Jewish younger brothers act so aggressively toward an older brother?

2. Luke 2:7. Mary “gave birth to a son, her first-born” (πρωτότοκον). Does the word πρωτότοκος, G4758, imply that Mary had other children? Would she have made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as Luke 2:41-52 says, and leave small children at home (Bauer)?

3. Matthew 1:24f. Joseph “took Mary home to be his wife, but had no intercourse with her until (ἐως in other MSS) her son was born.” Does this mean that Joseph had intercourse with Mary after Jesus was born?

4. John 19:25f. Near the cross where Jesus hung were “his mother, with her sister, Mary wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala.” His mother was standing beside “the disciple whom he loved.” To her He says, “Mother, there is your son,” and to the disciple He says, “There is your mother.” “And from that moment the disciple took her into his home.” If Jesus had brothers, would they not have taken care of their mother? Why does Mary then go to stay with John? Were the brothers too young or unbelievers, or very poor, or older with families of their own? Are these explanations satisfactory? And are three women or four included around the cross? Is Mary, wife of Clopas, a separate individual or is she Mary’s sister? (Cf. Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1; Matt 27:55f.; Luke 24:10.)

A survey of early Christian interpretation

The New Testament Apocrypha.

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. 1 Cor 15:7), according to which James “had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour in which he had drunk the cup of the Lord until he should see him risen from among them that sleep” (NTAp, 1:165). From this quotation several interesting conclusions emerge: (a) James was supposedly present at the Last Supper; (b) at the time of the Last Supper he was already a devoted believer in Jesus; (c) if he was present at the Last Supper he presumably would have been considered by the author to be one of the Twelve. Lightfoot, influenced by the Gr. tr., prefers the tr. “in which the Lord had drunk the cup” but Vielhauer (NTAp) and most other commentators prefer what seems to be the more natural rendering. The Gospel clearly indicates, it should be noted also, that James is Jesus’ brother.

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 Infancy Gospels. 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 Matthew 13:55 refers to this work as the source of this then widely held theory; Maurer, NTAp, 1:179, suggests that he was prob. thinking of the Protevangelium of James since the fragment of the Gospel of Peter discovered in 1886-87 contains no such statement. Origen’s own language suggests as much: “Some persons, on the ground of a tradition in the Gospel according to Peter, as it is entitled, or the Book of James [i.e. the Protevangelium], say that the brothers of Jesus were Joseph’s sons by a former wife whom he married before Mary” (quoted in Lightfoot, 281).

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.

Post-apostolic writers.

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 [1956], 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 Mark 4:19). Admittedly, however, the remarks are not clear, although the fact that they were made by a father who preferred celibacy to marriage makes them even more noteworthy. Tertullian’s rejection of the idea that Mary was a virgin post partem involves the rejection of the idea of perpetual virginity, not apparently yet an ecclesiastical tradition with which Tertullian is familiar. Helvidius later is to quote Tertullian in favor of his belief that Mary had children after Jesus, and Jerome rather than denying the accuracy of Helvidius’ statement simply rejects Tertullian as an authority.

Julius Africanus

(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 Jesus Christ,’ 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, Eusebius of Caesarea, Ephraem the Syrian, Basil the Great, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nyssa, Chrysostom, the Apostolic Constitutions, Cyril of Alexandria and, much later, Euthymius. In the W, similar views were held by Victorinus, Hilary of Poitiers, 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 Holy Ghost, 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. Mark 3:31; John 1:3f.) to support his position, insisting that younger brothers in a Jewish society would never treat an older brother with such disrespect. The fact that Mary goes to stay with the Apostle John after the crucifixion of Jesus (John 19:27), also suggests that Joseph was no longer alive and that Mary had no other sons to take care of her. This doctrine was and has continued to be held by the Eastern Church and is the official position of the Greek Orthodox and other Eastern churches to this very day. It has also been held by such Protestants as Lightfoot and Harris.

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 Gennadius of Marseilles 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” (Matt 1:18) suggests that at some later point Mary and Joseph did “come together,” i.e. sexually (ch. 3);

2. “He had no intercourse with (did not know) her until her son was born” (Matt 1:25) means that after Jesus was born Joseph had intercourse with Mary. “Until” designates a definite time (chs. 5, 7);

3. “The time came for her baby to be born, and she gave birth to a son, her first-born” (Luke 2:6) implies that other children were also born (ch. 9);

4. There can be no doubt that Jesus had brothers because many NT references speak explicitly about them (ch. 11);

5. Jesus’ mother was present at the cross and entrusted by Jesus to John because she was a widow and alone (ch. 13; Jerome does not make clear the place this point has in Helvidius’ argument);

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 (ch. 17);

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 (chs. 18, 22).

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” (ch. 2). He later says of Helvidius, “You have brought disgrace upon the Virgin with your madness...and...you have defiled the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit from which you would have issue four brothers and a host of sisters” (ch. 16); and he even accuses Helvidius of seeking fame this way since he was unable to get it honestly.

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” (ch. 4).

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” (ch. 6). Jerome goes on to ridicule Helvidius by suggesting that according to Helvidius Joseph did not even wait for a minute after delivery to embrace Mary!

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” (ch. 10).

4. “Individuals are given the title of brothers in Sacred Scripture for four reasons, namely, birth, race, kinship and affection” (ch. 14). Since the brothers of Jesus are called “neither the sons of Mary nor sons of Joseph” (ch. 15), Jerome concludes that the brothers are in fact cousins.

5. If Mary had sons and daughters, Jesus would not have placed her in John’s care at the scene of the crucifixion (John 19:27). “O blind madness, and a crazed mind bent on its own destruction!”

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” (ch. 17). Victorinus, Jerome insists, actually spoke of brothers through kinship as did “a whole list of the ancient writers” such as Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus and Justin Martyr. Helvidius actually holds the same views as the heretical Ebionites and Gnostics.

7. Only married women who “imitate the chastity of virgins within the very intimacy of marriage” are holy women (ch. 21). Jerome gives a hilariously distorted picture of the life of the married woman (ch. 20). He admits that the holy men of OT times were told to be fruitful and multiply, but he insists that Paul gives God’s new pronouncement—“that those who have wives be as if they had none” (1 Cor 7:29).

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 Galatians 1:18, 19 implies that James the brother of the Lord is an apostle; that the James mentioned in Galatians 2:9 cannot be the son of Zebedee because he had already been put to death by Herod (Acts 12:2); and that “the Mary who is designated as the mother of James was the wife of Alphaeus and the sister of Mary, the mother of the Lord, whom John surnames Mary of Cleophas, giving her this title either after her father or some relationship of her family or for some other reason” (ch. 13). See James. He also claims that Joseph himself was also a virgin through Mary, so that a virgin son might be born of a virgin wedlock” (ch. 19).

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;

2. “Judas of James” and Judas the Lord’s brother are the same person (Matt 13:55; Mark 6:3; Luke 6:16; Acts 1:13; Jude 1);

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;

6. John 19:27 taken in combination with the numerous NT references to the close relationship between Mary and the brothers of Jesus would seem to seriously weaken this theory. If the brothers were truly stepsons and yet so very close to Mary a year or so earlier, it does not seem convincing to argue that family ties prevented them from caring for her after the death of Jesus.

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 Mark 3:21, 31-35 and John 7:2-5, in which texts they appear to treat him almost as a guardian treats his ward” (87);

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” (Mark 6:3);

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 (John 19:27) but would have presumably committed her to the care of one of his brothers, most likely James.

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 Galatians 1:18, 19 as using the word “apostle” in a wider sense than to see it as identifying James, the Lord’s brother, with James the son of Alphaeus, one of the Twelve;

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 Luke 2:7 “cannot have the sense of μονογενής, G3666, (onlyborn) or rule out the possibility that Mary had other children” (Michaelis, 876f.);

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” (John 7:5). Jacobs calls this “the crowning difficulty of this hypothesis” (519); efforts at arguing that only some of the brothers did not believe are most unconvincing. Furthermore, throughout the NT the brothers are named as a group quite distinct from the apostles;

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.

Later history

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 David Friedrich Strauss, for example, the whole idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity is dismissed as “the mere invention of superstition” (146). John 19:27 does cause him a problem, but he concludes “we can imagine the existence both of external circumstances and of individual feelings which might have influenced Jesus to confide his mother to John rather than to his brothers” (146). Interestingly Strauss tentatively speculates that the James of the apostolic council may be the son of Alphaeus and hence the cousin of Jesus in Acts, and that Paul may be speaking instead of James the brother of Jesus in Galatians 1:19. He appreciates the ingenuity of Jerome’s arguments but finally concludes that “the web of this identification gives way at all points” (148) and adopts the view that the brothers of Jesus were his real brothers. He does admit, though, that “there is perplexity on every side.” Jesus may in fact have had both younger and older brothers, since the NT statement that Jesus was the first-born “may belong no less to the mythus than the representation of the Fathers that he was an only son” (148).

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. Form criticism 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;

6. Finally, John 19:27 is really a crux interpretationem for all three theories because none of them can really explain it satisfactorily. Whether they are brothers, stepbrothers or cousins in Mary’s constant company, it is strange that John rather than one of Jesus’ brothers would take Mary into his home. With the fourth gospel’s penchant for symbolism we are perhaps justified in seeking a non-literal solution.


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, “Brethren of the Lord,” 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, “Brothers of the Lord,” 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, “πρωτότοκος, πρωτοτοκεδα,” TDNT (1968), 6:871-881, esp. 876.