In the Gospels, the phrase “Jesus’ brothers” often occurs. Some see this as a contradiction to the Church’s teaching. This gives rise to the following questions: Did Jesus have brothers and sisters? Is He Mary’s only Was Mary the mother of a large family? The Church replies by saying that Mary is ‘forever Virgin’ and that this important assertion is central to the Catholic faith. But why is this?
What does the Church believe?
1. The Church maintains that Mary is ‘forever Virgin’
Mary’s eternal virginity is an expression of the fact that Jesus’ conception and birth were miraculous and that Mary remained a virgin afterwards, without giving birth to further children. This has a deep significance: Mary’s virginity underlines her total dedication to God, in both body and soul, an extension of the commitment she made at the Incarnation: Mary dedicated herself totally to Jesus and His mission in the history of salvation. Jesus was conceived in her body, but before that, Mary had already conceived Him in her heart (St Augustine). Faithful to the covenant and fully receptive to the creative power of the Holy Spirit, she was ready to do God’s bidding: this is the sublime significance of her complete virginity.
2. A tradition that goes back in time
The Gospel writers insist that Jesus was conceived of a virgin. Virginity before and after childbirth has since been confirmed by all the Fathers of the Church, with the exception of Tertullian, especially by St Ambrose and St Augustine (‘virgo peperit, virgo permansit’) who reacted strongly against its detractors. St Jerome repudiated Helvidius who suggested that Mary was a model for mothers with large families. St Thomas Aquinas was prompted to pronounce that Helvidius’ error in saying that Mary had other sons by Joseph is an abomination.
Read: Saint Jerome Defended Mary's Perpetual Virginity
3. A tenet of faith affirmed down the ages from the ancient Councils to the present day
The second Council of Constantinople (in 553 A.D.) ruled that Mary is ‘forever Virgin’. The Lateran Council of 649, recognized by all Churches confirmed this. Pius XII referred to it when he proclaimed the doctrine of the Assumption ‘ex cathedra’. The Second Vatican Council states that Mary devotes herself entirely to the work of her Son that will endure until all men shall be saved (LG 56) and that childbirth has not betrayed Mary’s virginity but rather has hallowed it (LG 57). Mary is Virgin not only because she is the Redeemer’s mother but also so that she may become for us, by grace, our Mother (LG 61).
Read: Mary Remains Forever Virgin
Read: Mary's Virginity in the Magisterium
What have been the objections and doubts?
Three phrases in scripture have sometimes drawn comment, even though they did not trouble the faith of the first attentive readers of the Gospel, who knew the context in which they were written.
- Objection 1. The New Testament speaks of Jesus as the ‘first-born’ (Lk 2:7--the Christmas story). Does this mean that Mary had second and third born children?
- Objection 2. It is also written: ‘he [Joseph] had not had intercourse with her when she had given birth to a son’ (Mt 1:25). As the Biblical expression ‘intercourse’ also refers to sexual relationships, does this mean that Joseph had 'intercourse' with Mary after she had given birth?
- Objection 3. Finally, in the New Testament, there are seven quotations that mention Jesus’ brothers and sisters: In Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55--'This is the carpenter's son, surely? Is not his mother the woman called Mary, and his brothers James and Joseph, Simon and Jude?’ Acts 1:14 speaks of ‘Jesus’ brothers’. Galatians 1:19 speaks of ‘James, the Lord's brother’. Jude 1 speaks of 'Jude, brother of James’ (who may be the Lord’s brother). John 2:12 mentions ‘his mother and his brothers and his disciples’. And Matthew 12:46 and parallel texts speak of ‘his mother and his brothers’. So would Mary therefore have had other children?
Responses that counter these objections.
- Objection 1 does not hold water: Jesus ‘the first-born’ doesn’t mean that there was a second child Luke notes that Mary gave birth to 'the first-born' son (Lk 2:7), but that does not imply that there was a second or third child. This reference foreshadows the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, with the sacrifice according to the Law of Moses for the redemption of the first-born, or, to be more precise, of those who open the womb, a Biblical expression taken up by Luke (2:23). The first-born was redeemed in the first month following his birth, when it was not known whether or not there would be a younger child.
- Objection 2 is also easy to counter: Matthew 1:25 insists only that Jesus was conceived of a virgin and does not in any way imply that there was a sexual relationship between Joseph and Mary after Jesus’ birth. For example, when the Bible says, “We will keep looking to the Lord, our God, until He takes pity on us”, this does not mean that once we have gained His mercy we shall avert our eyes from God.
A complete answer to the third objection includes several strong arguments:
1. James and Joset are called ‘brothers of Jesus’, but they are surely sons of another Mary
James, Joset (Mk) or Joseph (Mt) – the first two brothers of Jesus named in Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55 were very probably the sons of a Mary who was different from the mother of Jesus. Indeed, Mark says "There were some women watching from a distance. Among them were Mary of Magdala, Mary who was the mother of James the younger and Joset, and Salome" (Mk 15:40). This ‘Mary’ is also called, further down, “Mary, the mother of Joset (15:47) then “Mary the mother of James” (16:1). Luke 24:10 also refers to “Mary, the mother of James”.
2. Simon and Jude were Jesus' cousins
Simon was “the son of an uncle of the Lord”, “a son of Cleophas, brother of St Joseph”, according to Hegesippus , originally from the East (probably from Palestine) who wrote his “recollections” about 150-200 A.D., excerpts of which are recounted by Eusebius of Caesarea (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History III, 11-12 and 19-20). After the martyrdom of James, Simon was appointed bishop because he was the Lord’s second cousin”: “second” should be read in conjunction with James, who must also have been a cousin of Jesus (and not his brother in the strict sense of the word).
3. Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” are never referred to as “Mary’s sons or daughters”.
Only Jesus is called Mary’s son or the carpenter’s son. And the Virgin is only referred to as “the mother of Jesus”.
4. Jesus would not have entrusted Mary to John at the foot of the Cross (Jn 19:24) had he had other full brothers.
Had Mary remarried after being widowed or if she had had other children, she would not have felt able to leave them to be cared for by the disciple. Athanasius, Hilary, Epiphanus and Jerome see this as confirmation of her everlasting virginity: “If Mary had sons and her husband was still alive, what reason would Christ have to entrust her to St John?”
Read: Jesus' Brothers in the Middle East
5. This all arises from the fact that there is no Hebrew or Aramaic word for “cousin”.
The words “brothers” and “sisters” denote close relatives. Oral tradition was established in Aramaic before being written in Greek in the Gospel. It was this oral culture that established the term “brothers of Jesus” to denote His close relatives. This ‘honorary’ title attributed to Jesus’ cousins was kept when the Gospel was written or translated into Greek, just as the Septuagint faithfully translated the original Hebrew of the Old Testament by the use of the Greek term “brother” (“adelphos”) and not cousin (“anepsios”) when describing a wider relationship. There are many examples that bear out this use: for example Lot and Jacob who are the nephews respectively of Abraham (Gen 11:27; 14:12), and of Laban, Gen 29:12 are called their brothers (Abraham-Lot: Gen 13:8; 14:14-16; Laban-Jacob: Gen 29:15).
6. In New Testament Greek, the word "brother" often has a meaning that does not refer to a biological relationship.
In the Greek text of the New Testament, the word “brother” in Greek (“adelphos”) occurs 41 times in the sense of “biological brothers”; “brothers” in the sense of ” followers of the same religion” is quoted 213 times; “brothers” meaning “those who work closely together” 22 times, in the epistles of Paul and Peter; and “brothers” meaning “members of the same community or family”: 42 times.
7. Another example of its use in this way: Mary’s “sister” at the foot of the Cross, is certain to be her cousin.
John 19:25 speaks of a certain Mary, sister of Mary the mother of Jesus. She cannot of course be a full sister or even half-sister because her parents would not have given the same name to two children. Thus the uncertainty of the use of the word “brother” or “sister” in Greek is such that we cannot seriously rely on this word to confirm that Mary had other children. Together these arguments, taken from Scripture, bring considerable weight in countering these objections.
8. Several fine passages of scripture are fulfilled with Mary being ‘forever Virgin’.
“He brought me back to the outer east gate of the sanctuary. It was shut. Yahweh said to me, 'This gate will be kept shut. No one may open it or go through it, since Yahweh, God of Israel, has been through it. And so it must be kept shut.” (Ezek 44:1-2). In referring to this oracle, St Zenon of Verona (U 381) calls Mary the ‘closed door’ by which, without opening it, Jesus came into the world. The Virgin is also the “closed garden”, “the sealed fountain” of the Song of Songs.
9. Lastly there is sound argument that complements the common sense of faith.
Philo the Jew had indeed understood that Leah ceased to bear child after giving birth to her fourth son Judas (Gen 29:35) because his name, which means “praise God”, indicates the height of perfection (De Plantatione 135). How much more so should Mary, having given birth to perfection itself, refrain from further child-bearing! How little should we understand the nature of Mary and Joseph if we were to think that they could have had further children after they had welcomed the Son of God made flesh into the world. Mary was visited by God, and afterwards, she is still Virgin; that is what is different and holy about it: the impact of God in her personal life is even more closely dedicated to Jesus alone from this moment on.
The Eastern and Western Churches teach that Mary is “forever Virgin” (Aieparthenos). The Word of God made flesh in the virginal womb of Mary has evoked amazement, admiration and praise. The fact that Mary is said to have had no other children but remained always Virgin does not cause any conflict between reason and faith--if the methods of reasoning are sound.* Above all, it is a fact rich in meaning: the divinity of Jesus overwhelms Mary, and hallows her still further. Mary’s virginity is a gift and an act of grace that inspires others. The three traditional stars on the icons of the Mother of God recall Mary’s virginity before, during and after Christ’s birth: may they also light up our hearts.
*Read: Criteria for Exegetes