Did Jesus Have “Real” Brothers and Sisters?

In the recent sketch for a Catholic magazine, Meghan Murphy-Gill lays out some of the discussion and then concludes with this:

These three general arguments continue to be defended and disputed by scholars today, whose positions depend mostly on their particular traditions and how they interpret early church theology. The New Testament writers didn’t leave a clear picture of what first-century Christians thought about Mary’s virginity after the birth of Jesus, if they left any details at all. All we can say for sure is that Jesus’ family tree looks just as complicated as those of many modern families.

There we have it: it’s all based on one’s presuppositions or one’s theology, and so it’s a matter of preference. Not so fast, I say. I refer you to my book The Real Mary:

Mary, Joseph, Sex, and Siblings

We have done our best to avoid the entangling debates between Protestants and Roman Catholic teachings about Mary. But let’s explore one such debate and, once again to speak realistically, look at Mary’s sexual relations with Joseph. If she did have sexual relations with Joseph, which seems likely, then the very names of her sons may lend some clues about Mary’s influence.

Did Mary have children after Jesus? With very few exceptions, all Christians from the 2nd or 3rd Century onwards believed that Mary was perpetually virginal. That is, not only did she conceive as a virgin, she was (as an early creed has it) “ever-virgin.” Which means, just in case we need to fill in the lines, that she and Joseph lived together as husband and wife without sexual relations. This surprises many of us. What may surprise us even more is that the three of the most significant Protestant leaders – Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Wesley – who in their own way were also very critical of what Catholics believed about Mary, each believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity.

If Joseph and Mary did not have sexual relations, why – we Protestants will always ask – didn’t they? While other possible explanations have been given for this, the standard response is that both Joseph and Mary knew the sacredness of Mary’s womb as a result of having carried the Son of God and that awareness alone led them to think sexual relations would be inappropriate.

Well, was she perpetually a virgin? There are two major reasons why Protestants, and we have shifted considerably on this issue since the days of those early leaders, maintain that Mary and Joseph had normal sexual relations and had children. First, Matthew 1:25 says that Joseph “had no union with her [Mary] until she gave birth to a son.” It is possible that Joseph had no union “until” they were married as well as “after” they were married. But, in nearly all of the cases when this expression “until” is used there is a change of conditions after the “until.” So, there is a presumption in favor of until  meaning that Joseph and Mary did have sexual relations after Jesus’ birth.

Second, and more importantly, the New Testament regularly tells us that Jesus had “brothers” and “sisters.” While true that both of these terms can refer to cousins, relatives, half-siblings and step-siblings, the normal meaning of brother and sister is blood-brother/sister. A standard rule of interpretation is that words carry normal meanings unless the context suggests otherwise. Here is my own conclusion – and I share this with the majority of Protestant interpreters: there is nothing in any of the contexts when Jesus’ brothers and sisters are mentioned to suggest that the words mean anything other than blood-brother and blood-sister.

I join the current Protestant view on this issue: It is highly probable that Mary and Joseph had normal sexual relations and that the “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus were his younger siblings. If this is the case, then the names of Jesus’ brothers tell a story.

Mary’s evocation with names

Back up to the Gospel of Mark 6:3. Here are the names of Jesus’ brothers given in that text: “James, Joseph, Judas and Simon.” If we translate those names into Hebrew, they would be Yakov, Yoseph, Yehudah, and Shimeon. Let’s put a few clear facts together. The first one is that Mary and Joseph, not long after the birth of Jesus, were warned by an angel to flee to Egypt. A second factor to consider is that the biblical account of the children of Israel in Egypt includes the blessing of Jacob (Yakov) on his twelve sons, three of whom were named Yoseph, Yehudah, and Shimeon. I suggest that the choice of these names by Joseph and Mary tells us something very significant about Mary. To anticipate what we will lay out in the barest of details, our conclusion will be this: in Egypt, Joseph and Mary named their sons Yakov, Yoseph, Yehudah, and Shimeon in order to evoke the conviction that God would liberate Israel from Rome and would give to Israel new “tribal” leaders. I emphasize that this is a suggestion.

Let me now lay out the facts and then put them together in such a way that reveals my hypothesis that the names of Jesus’ siblings evoked the theme of liberation and the creation of a new Israel. We should recall that Jacob, also called Israel, had twelve sons. One of whom was Joseph, who became the prince of Egypt and who attracted his brothers to Egypt. Over time, these sons – by now called the “children of Israel” – were enslaved in Egypt and longed to return to the Land. God enters the picture at this point and works a miracle – at Passover God liberated Israel from Pharaoh and Israel returned (after forty years of wandering in the desert) to the Land, where they established a twelve-tribe nation.

Now enter Joseph and Mary. They, too, were sojourning in Egypt and they, too, longed to return. Here are the facts: Joseph and Mary named their boys, perhaps when they were in Egypt or perhaps after they returned, Yakov, Yoseph, Yehudah, and Shimeon. Each of these names, however common, derives from the tribal leaders of Israel. My suggestion then is this: Mary and Joseph named their sons after those leaders in order to express their hope that God would free Israel from Rome and establish their son, Jesus, and his brothers, as the new leaders for Israel. I consider this as a possibility. Mary and Joseph gave their boys names to evoke the dream of God liberating Israel from oppression. You make up your own mind.


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