Did Jesus Have Brothers and Sisters?

I was brought up as an Evangelical fundamentalist Christian and when we read the verses in the Bible that spoke of Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” we concluded that they were the other children of Joseph and Mary. What I didn’t know is that this idea was unheard of in the early church, and that even the Reformers–Martin  Luther, John Calvin and the others did not hold to this view.

The Catholic Church had always taught that the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus mentioned in the gospels were Jesus’ “kinsmen”–either the children of Joseph by an earlier marriage or more likely–members of Jesus’ extended family. The original Biblical languages are short on vocabulary for extended family members and so cousins and nephews and half brothers were all called “brothers”.

Furthermore, we judge the family situation based on our experience of the American suburban nuclear family with Mom, Dad and offspring. Many cultures have a more fluid experience of family in which extended families live together in the same village or even in the same housing compound and cousins, half brothers and sisters all grow up together as calling one another ‘brother’ and ‘sister’.

The first time it was suggested that the “kinsmen” of Jesus were the other children of Joseph and Mary was by a theologian named Helvidius in the fourth century. This idea was opposed adamantly by St Jerome. The simple fact is that the gospel is not clear on who the “brothers and sisters” are and whether you think they are Jesus’ extended family members or other children of Joseph and Mary really depends on your underlying assumption about the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin.

The question of whether Mary and Joseph had sexual relations and the implications of that question are complex, and it lead us to consider the dogma of the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin. What does the dogma mean and why does it matter? Read more.

More Reading: Once a Virgin-Always a Virgin? is a long article from the Archived Articles section of the blog. It is an edited version of chapter four of my book Mary-An Evangelical Catholic Debate written by David Gustafson. Purity is Power discusses the nature of Mary’s perpetual virginity, and what it means for us. Mother Mary is a short post which explains the different Marian dogmas simply.

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  • http://www.SwanseaAcupuncture.net Dr. Eric

    It is an ancient and venerable tradition that St. Joseph was an aged widower with children of his own when he was betrothed to the Blessed Virgin. This explains the “brothers and sisters” and it explains the fact that he is no longer mentioned in the Bible after the Finding in the Temple.

  • Neill

    Here in Pakistan children are often brought up in extended family homes. They routinely refer to their brothers and sisters when in fact they are cousins. This is quite natural when they are brought up together. I suspect it was quite natural in biblical times also.

  • http://platytera.blogspot.com/ Christian

    I have Arabic-speaking Catholic friends who don’t get the big deal English-speakers make of this. They also refer to cousins as “brothers,” even in English.

  • http://www.chesterton.org Sean P. Dailey

    I know that is an ancient tradition, but I have never been comfortable with it. If God could pick as his mother the most extraordinary and beautiful woman in all history, why would he saddle her with some hoary old man? I think St. Joseph was young, virile, pius — the most eligible young man in the district. Nothing less would do for the Mother of God.

    Plus, from a practical standpoint, Mary and the Babe would need a young, strong man, one better to protect on the dangerous journey to Egypt, to provide for them once in Egypt, to protect them on the journey back to Nazareth, and to provide for them and teach Jesus his trade until Jesus was old enough to assume those duties himself.

    No way could a hoary old man have fulfilled these requirements.

  • Eric

    I have always accepted this argument, but have never seen any supporting evidence. I am not a bible scholar, but I just happened to notice that there is support, if not proof, of this argument right in the bible. Look at 1 Chr 6: 18-28 (New American Bible). It says that Asaph is the brother of Heman. Yet in the paternal genealogy that follows, we see that they are either only half-brothers, or they are so distantly related that you must go back at least 14 generations, if not all the way to Levi to find a common ancestor.

    They must indeed have used the term ‘brother’ fairly loosely.

  • Doug

    Dwight Longenecker writes: “cousins and nephews and half brothers were all called “brothers” … The simple fact is that the gospel is not clear on who the “brothers and sisters” are and whether you think they are Jesus’ extended family members or other children of Joseph and Mary really depends on your underlying assumption about the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin.”

    Mine depends on the underlying assumption about the conversation at hand: At Mt 12:46,47 the Douay says as simple fact, “As he was yet speaking to the multitudes, behold his mother and his brethren stood without, seeking to speak to him. And one said unto him: Behold your mother and your brethren stand without, seeking you.”
    At Mt 13:55 ff. we read as simple fact, “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary, and his brethren James, and Joseph, and Simon, and Jude: And his sisters, are they not all with us?”
    The natural understanding of these conversations is that his “brethren” are half-brothers, younger sons of Mary. The rest of the conversation bears out this plain understanding, especially Jesus’ response at 12:48, “Who is my mother, and who are my brethren?
    Understanding Jesus’ earthly ministry- preaching the good news of God’s kingdom- requires no mystical beliefs about his mother. Indeed, she is hardly mentioned elsewhere in the Gospels except under the few circumstances when we would expect it. And Acts 1 tells us she was in the upper room, along with his spiritual brothers (named) and “his brethren”. Paul mentions her at Gal 4:4, “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent his Son, made of a woman, made under the law:” He does not call her “virgin”, although he had such another word at his disposal, as seen by 1 Cor 7:34. “And the unmarried woman and the virgin thinks on the things of the Lord”
    The OP statement “perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin” contains in its six words two phrases that are not scriptural. They belong with and to the Scholastics, noted for making the simple complex. The Word of God- **imprimatur**, **nihil obstat** and all- tell us that Jesus did have half-brothers; offspring of Mary and Joseph (unless the Magisterium has another candidate to propose).

  • http://quamangustaporta.blogspot.co.uk/ Malvenu

    Some people might find the idea of Joseph as ‘an aged widower’ uncomfortable. I would tend to agree – particularly considering the flight into Egypt. We also know he lived at least another 12 – 13 years after his marriage to our Blessed Mother.

    However, i find the idea that Joseph was young, virile and the most eligible man in the district at least as uncomfortable. And probably less likely that he would wish to practice chastity with his young wife.

    Why not the most eligible, (middle-aged) widower in town? Not necessarily aged (at least certainly not by our standards). Young enough to cope with the demands of being a father-figure to the saviour of the world and teaching him his trade, and perhaps with a few kids in tow – hence his need for a step-mother to them and his willingness to embrace chastity. But not too old that Mary would have let him sit on the donkey on the way to Bethlehem!

  • Doug

    Sean writes: “hoary old man” ??????
    In all my 70 years I’ve never heard of such a thing! :-)
    Joseph was older, certainly, and mature in his Jewish faith. (His custom was to make the expensive thrice-yearly trip to Jerusalem with his family, although not required under Law to do so.) He was old enough to have been established in his carpentering, so as to support his family. His physical protection was not required during the Egyptian sojourn or at any other time, as you’ll see by noting the many angelic interventions in his firstborn’s early life.

    “The joy of young men is their strength: and the dignity of old men, their grey hairs.”

  • Fortuna Veritas

    Well, yeah, the whole idea of her as the Blessed Virgin got way overblown and is taken way too damn seriously. How many “holy” sites are named after her, after all?

    Such a horrible thing to do to a poor Jewish Girl, never letting her grow up and then deciding she wasn’t allowed to be thought of as an actual human being.

    Granted, large swathes of humanity still have difficulty seeing their own wives, sisters, and mothers as human anyway…

  • Debra Barry

    Mary’s sexuality was non-existant for her for life…deemed so by a hierarchy that had wives and mistresses they secretly damned. The Virgin Birth made Mary a woman none of us could ever be but these men could love ultimately. I love Mary and know she was a complete wife and mother as God meant her to be. Why wouldn’t God come to us the way he made all humanity come to life? Did God want to skip the coitus part? Why? Geez,Louise…critical thinking is missing in so many of us.

  • Debra Barry

    No where in the Bible does it say Joseph was older, widowed or anything else about his status. We need to separate fact from tradition, legend and myth.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    I think the original post said that it was early church tradition that Joseph was an older man.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    It would have been hard to argue for the incarnation of the Son of God if Jesus had been conceived in the normal manner.

  • Andy

    Well then, what are we to make of the fact that Jesus’ “brethren” were not the ones at the crucifixion to take Mary into their home (See: Jn. 19:26,27)? These same “brethren” are indeed present after Jesus’ Ascension (Acts 1:14) with Mary, but according to Jn. 19:27 Mary is taken to the home of the beloved disciple. What reason would Jesus’ “brethren” have not to be obliged by the 4th Commandment to honor Mary and care for her after Jesus’ death? Would Jesus have set aside the 4th Commandment? No! Mary was not their mother.
    This is not complex. It’s what the Church teaches. It’s our faith. Believe.

  • http://www.azoic.com/ Irenaeus of New York

    St. Joseph was an old man according to tradition. St. Mary was a Temple virgin. When she was to no longer serve in the Temple, she was purposely fixed up with an older man because she wanted to continue in her consecrated virginity. The syriac version of the Gospel of Matthew translated by St. Jerome goes into the back story of the Holy Family including SS. Joachim and Anna. It is not canonical, but it is aligned with the sayings of other early church fathers and I believe much of it is accurate, but there were some verses that were spurious which rightly disturbed St. Jerome and it was relegated to the dustbin.

    “Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church.”
    Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3:1:1 (c. A.D. 180).

  • Tim J Leader

    Jesus did not have actual Brothers or Sisters. This is because Jesus is not the son of Joseph, He is the Son of God. So James, Joses, Simeon and Jude (possibly others too) are either: a) older step-brothers or b) younger half-brothers.

    It really doesn’t matter since their status, as their mother’s status, is irrelevant compared to Jesus. Jesus is the only Redeemer, Jesus is the only Mediator-the rest of His relatives are not. Some (read: Catholics) will insist on Mary’s perpetual Virginity, as has been held since the 3rd Century, and are forced to regard James et al as step-brothers from Joseph’s 1st marriage, comments about Catholics and re-marriage nowithstanding. Others (Protestants) have usually viewed James as a younger half-brother (even if for no other reason than to annoy Catholics).

    Both positions are Biblically accurate. If one feels the need to ascribe additional honours to the Blessed Theotokos, then the former position must be affirmed. If Mary’s role is secondary to Jesus’, then it really doesn’t matter if He had step-brothers or half-brothers.

  • Thomas R

    I don’t think a widower with kids would have to be that old. Let’s say Joseph’s first marriage was at 20 and his wife dies when he’s 30. It was not unusual for women to die young, and younger than men, back then. So if he’s a widower at 30 he could plausibly marry Mary at 31-34 years of age. That’s not necessarily ancient even then.

    Even if his kids were grown when he met Mary I think it was certainly possible to have three grown kids while you’re still in your 40s. And to be fairly healthy in your 40s.

  • Thomas R

    Virgins are children and not humans? Where did you get this idea?

  • flyingvic

    . . . and it’s not easy to argue for the humanity of Jesus if he wasn’t.

  • http://quamangustaporta.blogspot.co.uk/ Malvenu

    Luke 1:41-43: “And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she cried out with a loud voice, and said: Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?…” (D-R)

    There is much in what Elizabeth – filled with the Holy Spirit – says here (and following) to and about Mary that supports the Catholic view of our Blessed Mother. The following words are crucial to a discussion of Mary’s perpetual virginity: “blessed is the fruit of thy womb … the mother of my Lord”.

    It is clear FROM SCRIPTURE that Mary was to only have one child, the mother of [our] Lord!

    If this were not the case Elizabeth (inspired by the the Holy Spirit) would have said, “blessed ARE the FRUITS…” or “blessed is ONE OF the fruits of thy womb”. And if these arguments could be dismissed as pure semantics the problem still exists in denying the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity that were Mary to have had other children they, equally the fruit of her womb (as testified to by the Holy Spirit) would have been blessed in some way. What happened to these people? Why is the Early Church silent about Jesus’ brothers and sisters who were as equally blessed as Him. The answer is that there were none.

    Holy Scripture leaves no room to argue that Mary had other children than Jesus who were not equally blessed, so the two alternatives are Mary’s perpetual virginity or Christ’s blessed siblings that vanished into thin air.

    As a former evangelical Protestant I know just how difficult and seemingly irrelevant Mary’s perpetual virginity seems to be, but it really is saying much more about Jesus than it is about Mary – just like calling Mary the Mother of God (this doesn’t raise her up but emphasises that Jesus was a real man born of a real woman – fully human). Without perpetual virginity lots of problems arise, e.g. as above Jesus would have been breaking the law by ‘giving’ His mother to the blessed disciple if there were other siblings, there would have been grave doubts about Jesus’ paternity (thus putting his divinity in question) if either Mary had had other children or if Mary had gotten pregnant after her marriage to Joseph, can you image family conversations along the lines of, ‘so, which of the little tykes did Simeon say was the Saviour of the World?’, or, ‘Mummy, why didn’t the Angel Gabriel tell you that *I* was going to be born?, etc.

    The perpetual virginity takes a little getting your head around and getting used to as an idea (unless you’re a cradle catholic, i suppose) but it is fundamental to our understanding of…..


  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Your observation is interesting. Does this mean you do not believe in the Virgin Birth?

  • Rich

    ACTUALLY, the “natural understanding” was that the Blessed Virgin had no other children but Our Lord. This
    was accepted for almost 2000 years by Catholic, Orthodox, and early Protestants. Read Matt 27 and Mark 15 for further information on who the parents of these brethren were. Also, the Bible is very clear and very carefully written, because no where does it state that MARY had other children. Read some of the writings of the early preachers, aka The Fathers of the Church.

  • FrancesM

    It seems apparent to me, Father, after many years of discussing this topic with Catholics and non-Catholics, that those who deny the Perpetual Virginity of Mary have a diminished appreciation of the Incarnation, as if one can isolate the Incarnation of Christ from other factors (i.e., His being born a Jew; His being born of a particular woman; that particular woman being a virgin before His birth and remaining a virgin after; that particular woman remaining virginal in the midst of a marriage).

    Marital intimacy is a beautiful affirmation of the covenant of marriage, but it would be a desecration to impregnate in the ordinary way for ordinary purposes a womb consecrated to God. Especially in Mary’s case God Himself consecrates her womb (as opposed to a human man consecrating a virgin to God). So the desecration violating what is holy would be unjust to God’s honor, to say the least. Contemplating the mystery of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary reveals not so much her prerogatives and her glorious role in Salvation History, but more reveals Who it is Who was born to such a mother. Those who cannot see this are in essence anti-incarnational, seeing the body as insignificant to the soul’s – particularly Mary’s! – response to God.

    Thus the import of the Incarnation is often reduced to a “Jesus and me” salvation that leaves no room for all that He does for us through His Church (Baptism, Eucharist, preservation of authentic apostolic teaching authority, e.g.) that joins us not just to Him but through Him to all Who are in Him (the Communion of Saints) – including His Mother who, because she is His, is also ours. The lack of understanding of Mary’s role in salvation history and her prerogatives as Mother of God is an implicit diminution of the reality of Who Jesus is and what His Church is.

  • flyingvic

    How can a sinless life of perfect obedience have any relevance to humankind unless that life was fully human? How can God be described as being incarnate unless Jesus was fully divine? To this paradox the church adds the apparent paradox of the Virgin Birth. Faith seeks to believe all three, as part of the mystery of the Incarnation. St John, at the beginning of his Gospel, seeks to unfold that mystery. The Roman Catholic Church – at least in the person of some of the posters here – seeks to explain that mystery, and ties itself in some right royal knots in doing so. I guess I’m happier with the mystery than with the attempts at explanation.

  • http://www.philomenasmile.wordpress.com Anna Dawson

    A good explanation is the Protoevalgelion of James–basically the story of Mary from her conception to the birth of Jesus. It’s not in the canon, it’s apocryphal, but one of the few “worthwhile reads” of noncanonical books and has been deemed an acceptable tradition which could be historically accurate, although not inspired so not a requirement of the Faith to believe. It tells of Joseph as an older widower, chosen by God, who already had at least two sons, so he was not under pressure to make more with his new wife, whom the temple priests entrusted to his care when she entered puberty, and was no longer appropriate to dwell in the temple as she had since she was two. They chose him because (aside from the sign from God saying “Pick Joseph!”) he would be able to protect her chastity. It’s a good story, even if it’s not inspired. For being apocryphal, it is not one of the “this will change Christianity forever!!” heresy-driven books; nothing in it is contrary to the faith.

  • Gina Nakagawa

    I think all of this brother and sister misconception derives not from an inadequacy of Biblical vocabulary, but a total ignorance of the familial relationships which still exist among any number of African, Middle Eastern and Far Eastern cultures. Here first cousins are “brothers and sisters” In the West we have fraternal organizations which refer to their members as “brothers.” With the logic used to discredit the Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Mother, all Marines (the “Band of Brothers”) would have to have the same mother and father (my heart goes out to the Mother, even though large families are a *blessing,* the number of children this woman would have had to bear is mind boggling!) As to Joseph’s age, we do not know. I never pictured him as an old man even though I have always loved the depiction of him as a gray-haired, gray-bearded man holding the Christ Child who is playing with his beard. We forget that this was not the usual run-of-the-mill sex-obsessed “modern” Western male. This was the foster father of the Son of God. This was a man the Bible called “just.” I am sure that he had all of the graces necessary for his part in Salvation History no matter his chronological age. Holy Family, pray for us and guide us.

  • http://www.SwanseaAcupuncture.net Dr. Eric

    The idea comes from the Protoevangelium of James, while not in the Bible, it was a very influential book and as far as I can tell, it doesn’t contain any errors that contradict the Bible.

  • Andy s

    Or C) they are cousins or D) second cousins….your summary conclusions don’t add up…with all these “brothers” around, why did Jesus leave his mother in the care of John?
    Jesus was God and man. As also fully man, and Jewish, where “Jewishness” passes from mother to child, his mother’s status was certainly not irrelevant to him. Not only did he love Mary as we love our mothers, he chose from among all women throughout all history to be his mother…kind of a big deal anyway you slice it.
    I believe I understand the intent of what you are saying, which seems charitable in spirit, but how can two different views be Biblically correct?
    Since Catholics don’t believe Mary is equal with Jesus…and Protestants relegate the mother of the Savior unnecessarily, I am very unclear on your last point…I think the key issue is that it does matter very much…inasmuch as the argument is that Mary carried sinful human brings in her womb after Jesus.

  • Andy s

    Could you explain how a purely spiritual being could have physical, sexual intercourse with a human woman? Or…are you saying you believe Jesus was the biological son of Joseph? Something different?

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    God did not have sexual intercourse with the Virgin Mary. God the Son–the second person of the Holy Trinity was conceived in her womb by miraculous means which we cannot explain.

  • Everett

    The tradition of Joseph being an aged widower does come from the Protoevangelium of James written in the middle of the second century. It was rejected as spurious rather quickly; there’s nothing from Scripture or Church history that gives it any credence. The reason given most often to explain the brothers and sisters is found in Jerome’s tract against Helvidius in the latter part of the second century, namely, the brothers and sisters are really cousins. There is a Greek word for cousin (anepsios), and it’s found in Colossians 4:10. There’s also a word for even more distant relatives (suggenes) that describes the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth (Luke 1:36). But over and again, when the evangelists speak of Christ’s brothers and sisters, they always use the words adelphos and adelphe. When the same word is used for Peter and Andrew (Matthew 4:18) and James and John (Matthew 4:21), it’s given its natural meaning….brother. The note on Mark 6:3 in the Catholic “New American Bible “is instructive: The question of meaning here would not have arisen but for the faith of the church in Mary’s perpetual virginity.”

  • http://notrelavant Mary Culling

    I have always understood that both Mary and Joseph took
    a vow of virginity. Mary conceived of the Holy Spirit. Mary was Jesus’
    biological mother and Joseph was his foster father. I believe that Jesus had no siblings
    He was an only child but He had cousins.
    To enable Mary to conceive Jesus of the Holy Spirit She would have had to be sinless
    and totally pure as I believe Jesus, who is perfection, could not have been conceived
    in any less a person. I also believe Joseph would have had to have been a man of the
    highest degree of holiness to even be considered as the foster father of Jesus.

  • Doug

    “What reason would Jesus’ “brethren” have not to be obliged by the 4th Commandment to honor Mary and care for her after Jesus’ death?” A very good one: the command of Jesus. It’s not until the Ascension [at the earliest] that we find any of Jesus’ brothers being obedient to the Way. John therefore was the best choice as her spiritual guardian.
    “Would Jesus have set aside the 4th Commandment?” What “4th Commandment”? Please read Gal 3:13; Mt 5:17,18.
    “It’s our faith. Believe.” Yes; you believe. I read the the Word of God. John 17:17

  • Doug

    “as far as I can tell, it doesn’t contain any errors that contradict the Bible.”
    According to many posters here, we’re discussing one right now. :-)

  • Doug

    I agree with your statement (!) … except for … well, you know. :-)
    BTW did you know that’s a stumbling block for many Muslims? They just cannot abide the thought of Allah [El'oah, Heb] doing anything of the kind. I show them to Adam’s creation as coming from the same source: Jehovah’s holy spirit. (Q’uran has the creation story.) “And the Lord God formed man of the slime of the earth: and breathed into his face the breath of life, and man became a living soul.” Gen 2:7, Douay “Breath” as you know is the same word for “wind” or “spirit”; the same in Arabic.

  • Doug

    ‘vow(s) of celibacy’
    Many vows are mentioned in the Bible, and many are specified. Why not this one, the alleging of which supports so much controversy even on the part of the “Church Fathers”?
    “o enable Mary to conceive Jesus of the Holy Spirit She would have had to be sinless” Not a scriptural idea. One of your Church’s favorite scriptural quotes is Lu 1:28, “And the angel being come in, said unto her: Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you: blessed are you among women.”
    “Blessed” Mary certainly was; what a privilege! “Full of grace” does not have to mean “sinless”. But if that meaning is insisted upon, then there are TWO sinless people to consider: Mary and her Son. This denies the all-important ransom or redemption that only Christ could offer: One perfect man taking away the sin of one imperfect man.
    And what do you make of Lu 2:24? “to that which is said in the law of the Lord” is something you should research yourself, in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy.

  • Charles Fernando


    Your briefing about the holy couple is well said. I am ashamed of myself, at times, doubtful about these matters. Now I feel refreshed and start walking in the way of my religion.

    Thank you

  • http://www.ipertisalithias.gr Alex

    Wish you knew Greek, you would appreciate this debate proving that Mary’s virginity was not perpetual, and that in fact Jesus did have brothers and sisters. Just in case someone knows Greek, go here: http://www.ipertisalithias.gr/index.php?cat=2&id=2&bg=18#article
    There’s also an article refuting infant baptism in english under the category of “Topics in various languages”.

  • Mary Freeman

    I agree Joseph wasn’t an old man and he certainly wasn’t a widower when he became engaged yo Mary.