Did Jesus have Brothers and Sisters?

The word used in the Greek New Testament for "brothers" is adelphoi, which means "from the womb" and literally means brothers who are born from the same mother. Unfortunately this word and Jesus' title as Mary's "first born" have been misunderstood to mean that Joseph and Mary had an intimate marriage relationship after Jesus' birth that resulted in brothers and sisters (Mt 1:25; 13:46; Lk 2:7; Jn 7:3; Acts 1:14). This has never been a teaching of the Church. All the Fathers of the Church maintained that Mary remained a virgin all of her life. The problem in interpretation stems from a misunderstanding of Jewish/Israelite cultural traditions and the failure to take into account that the sacred writers of the New Testament were writing in Greek but thinking in Hebrew/Aramaic.

In Luke 2:7 Jesus is said to be Mary's "first born son." "First born" was a title of the first son to "open the womb" of a woman and who was designated the father's heir: Consecrate all the first born to me, the first birth from every womb, among the Israelites. Whether man or beast, it is mine ... When Yahweh has brought you into the Canaanites' country, as he swore to you and your ancestors that he would, and given it to you, to Yahweh you must make over whatever first issues from the womb, and every first born cast by animals belonging to you: these males belong to Yahweh (Ex 13:1, 11-12, NJB). The title was not determined by whether there were other sons or daughters. Human "first born" sons were redeemed by a tax and the animals were offered in sacrifice (Ex 34:19-20; Num 3:46-47; Lk 2:23).

There is also confusion concerning the use of the Greek word heos in Matthew 1:25: He had no relations with her until [heos] she born a son, and he named him Jesus. The Greek word heos in the New Testament and the Greek translation of the Old Testament and the Hebrew word ad in the Hebrew translation of the Old Testament do not have the same sense of meaning as our use of the word "until." We usually understand the word "until" to mean a certain act did not take place for a period of time and then after that time the act did take place. This is not the way the word heos is used in the Bible. Instead, the word can mean an act did not take place for a period of time and then continued to not take place; heos is used as an adverb of continuance (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon, # 2193, page 268). Here are some examples from the Old Testament Septuagint (Greek) translation and from the New Testament where heos is used in this way:

Jesus did not have brothers and sisters, but He did have step-brothers, sisters, and cousins. There is no separate word for cousin, half-brothers/sisters, or step-brothers/sisters in Hebrew or Aramaic. The only way to designate a "cousin" was to indicate that a certain person was the son of your mother's brother, etc. In Hebrew and Aramaic any kinsman or a countryman was a "brother." This peculiarity of the Hebrew language is evident in other passages in the New Testament that are clearly not speaking of blood relationships. In Acts 1:14 and 16 Peter addresses the 120 disciples [men and women] praying and waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit in the Upper Room of Jerusalem and calls them adelphoi. In Peter's great homily at the Feast of Pentecost he preaches the risen Christ to the Jewish crowds and calls them adelphoi (Acts 2:29, 37). Later when Peter preaches to the Jew at the Temple, he also calls them adelphoi. Adelphoi (meaning, "from the womb") is the only word used for "brothers" in the entire Greek New Testament.

Throughout the book of Acts and all of Sts. Paul, James and John's letters to the Church, the New Covenant believers are all refereed to as adelphoi (the plural form can be used to indicate both sisters and brothers / male and female kinsman). The point is, in the New Testament the Greek word adelphoi is being used in the Hebrew sense of kinsman/ kinswoman or covenant brother or sister. We know from the Bible and other sources that Jesus had several kinsmen who became prominent in the Jerusalem New Covenant Church. Both James and Simon became Bishops of Jerusalem (according to tradition they were a stepbrother and a cousin to Jesus). Both Jesus' kinsmen James and Jude wrote books of the New Testament that bear their names. If Mary had other sons, it would have been inconceivable that Jesus would have left her in the care of John at the foot of the cross instead of telling John to make sure that another son cared for her (Jn 19:26-27).

It has always been a teaching of the Church that the "brothers and sisters" of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels are either the children of Joseph by a previous marriage (see the ancient document The Protoevangelium of James) or cousins. It is a dogma (truth) of the Catholic Church that Jesus' birth "did not diminish his mother's virginal integrity but sanctified it." The Roman Catholic Church affirms the perpetual virginity of Mary of Nazareth in God's plan of salvation in three parts: in her virginal conception of Christ; in giving birth to Christ, and her continuing virginity after His birth:

The usage of this triple formula to express the fullness of this mystery of faith became standard with St. Augustin e (354-430 AD), St. Peter Chrysologus (c. 400-450 AD), and Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461 AD). See CCC #596-507; 964.

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." And so the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the "Ever-virgin."
Catechism of the Catholic Church 499

For more information on this subject see Karl Keating's book Catholicism and Fundamentalism, pages 282-289. Also see This Rock Magazine, September 2003 "Bad Aramaic Made Easy: There is No Word for Cousin,' pages 18-22.

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2011 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.