Who Are the Brothers and Sisters of the Lord?

Who were the “brothers” of the Lord?

Recently an archeological find of great important to Bible scholars was announced in the press. An ossuary (bone box) surfaced as part of a private collection with the inscription “James the son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus.”  In June 2003 the Israel Antiquities Authority declared the words “the brother of Jesus” a forgery. 

However in the New Testament there are passages referring to Jesus’ brothers and sisters. “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, a brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not his sisters our neighbors here? (Mark. 06:03, Mark 03:21, Mark 03:31; Mathew 13:56; John. 07:05; Galatians 01:19).

Most main line churches support the doctrine of the virgin birth which is presented in the Gospels and handed down in the Nicene Creed. However in Roman Catholic theology we also describe the Blessed Mother as “ever virgin” which arose early in Christianity. It was very much part of theology in the Middle Ages. It appeared in the reformers confessional writings (Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli; Book of Concord, Smalcald Articles).

Who then were these so called “brothers and sisters of Jesus”?

The setting in which the family of Jesus lived was Hebrew-Aramaic. In those languages there were limited words for relationships. On the male side there is only father, son, or brother. On the female side there is only mother, sister, or daughter. There are no words for cousin, uncle, aunt, grandfather, etc.

Thus when the Greek New Testament was written decades after Jesus’ ministry, the Aramaic relationship of brother and sister was handed down. It is not far fetched to assume that Jesus and his family were remembered according to the view presented in the original Hebrew-Aramaic setting.

The church fathers give their answer

If they weren’t brothers and sisters (adelphos/adelphe), who were they?

Some who accepted the ancient tradition that Mary was “ever virgin” believed that these “brothers” were actually half brothers of Jesus; sons of Joseph by a previous marriage. He was therefore an elderly widower with children when he took Mary who conceived as a virgin into his home. There were no subsequent marital demands since Joseph was elderly. Joseph made no appearances during Jesus’ ministry since he was already deceased. Mary raised Joseph’s children. This is Epiphanius’ explanation, an Eastern Church father.

The eminent Scripture scholar, Jerome, a father in the Latin Church, taught that these brothers were actually cousins, sons of Mary’s married brother or sister, who Mary lived with after Joseph died. This explanation became enshrined in the traditions of the Church in the west.

There is one additional factor that is of greatest importance in evaluating this issue.  It seems highly unlikely that the doctrine of perpetual virginity would have gained acceptance in the early second century in view of the fact that these four so-called brothers became prominent movers in the early Church and one of them, James, became bishop of Jerusalem.

Did these “brothers” believe in Jesus and his vision of the kingdom?

There is another most interesting development in the history of these men called “the brothers of the Lord.” It is clear that they did not participate in or give any support to Jesus during his public ministry. In fact at the very beginning when he was gaining acceptance as a prophet and teacher of the people but had also antagonized the leading Pharisees, they revealed their disbelief if not their opposition.

“When his family heard of this they came to take charge of him saying He is out of his mind” (Mark. 3:21).

It is most significant that this negative attitude is also recorded in John’s Gospel which was written about twenty years later in Asia Minor. He visited the family home in Galilee, and “his brothers had this to say: ‘you ought to leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples there might see the works that you are performing.  No one who wishes to be known publicly keeps his actions hidden. If you are going to do things like this, you may as well display yourself to the world at large.’ As a matter of fact not even his brothers had much confidence in him” (John. 07:03-05).

What happened to change them?

Obviously something earthshaking had to occur to change the thinking of these men.  The Apostle Paul in the first account of the resurrection tells us what happened. “He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve...then by James, then by all the apostles.  Last of all he was seen by me” (1 Corinthians 15:05, 1 Corinthians 15:07). This James was the “brother of the Lord.” He was transformed after his encounter with the Risen Christ.

His next appearance was at the “upper room” in prayer after the ascension: “There were some women in their company, and Mary the mother of Jesus and his brothers” (Acts 01:14). It is here that later the power of that first Pentecost filled the lives of these followers of Jesus and the Church was born. H was the leader in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13).

When Peter was released from prison by Herod Agrippa (AD. 44) he asked his friends to “tell this to James and to the brethren” (Acts 12:17). Paul fourteen years after his conversion describes James, Cephas and John as “acknowledged pillars” of the Church (Galatians 02:09).

Eusebius writes that he was called James the righteous because of his great virtue and he became the first bishop of Jerusalem. Ancient tradition states that he was cast from the parapet of the temple but survived and then was stoned to death.

Perpetual Virginity in the Roman Catechism

The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary’s real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man. In fact, Christ’s birth did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it. So the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the ever virgin (paragraph 499).

Against this doctrine the objection is sometimes raised that the bible sometimes mentions the brothers and sisters of Jesus. The Church has always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary. In fact James and Joseph, “brothers of Jesus” are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, who Matthew significantly calls “the other Mary.” They are close relatives of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression (paragraph 500).

"Who Are the Brothers and Sisters of the Lord?" is one of the pamphlets on the biblical foundations of the Catholic Church written May 2008 to Nov 2010 by Deacon Paul Carlson of Minneapolis, Minnesota's St Lawrence Catholic Church / Newman Center, a Paulist Foundation. (St Lawrence is the Catholic Church of Southeast Minneapolis and is right in the heart of "Dinkytown USA".)

This blog post is a memorial serialization of those pamphlets written by Deacon Paul Carlson at the request of than Pastor/Director Fr John J. Behnke, who asked Deacon Paul to write brief answers to questions University students often encountered as Catholics.

At couple of weeks before Deacon Paul's death, he said: "If there are any financial gains made from the blog serialization of my pamphlets, please have the money given to St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center or Paulist Fathers, because what they do is so important." If you can, send memorials to St. Lawrence Parish and Newman Center or Paulist Fathers at 1203 Fifth Street, S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55414. 

Remember Deacon Paul Carlson in your prayers, as well as all the other souls of the faithful departed, who have died in the grace of Jesus Christ.

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