Glad You Asked: Did Jesus have brothers and sisters?

In this episode of the podcast, Alice Camille discusses the scripture passages about Jesus' siblings and how they relate to the Catholic doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity.

Catholics have a veritable treasury of beliefs and traditions about Jesus’ family life, but some of these are only tenuously connected with the information we have from the Bible. While the gospels are full of stories about Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection, we are left to piece together details about his early life and his familial connections on the basis of a few tantalizing passages.

One tenet of Catholic belief is that Jesus was Mary’s only child. Since this is connected with the dogmatic teaching about Mary’s perpetual virginity, it’s a pretty serious tradition for Catholics. What, then, should be made of the scripture passages that reference Jesus’ siblings? Do these references undercut Catholic tradition and dogma?

The guest on this episode of the podcast is going to help clarify this issue. Alice Camille is a nationally known and award-winning writer, religious educator, and retreat leader. She has worked in parishes and campus ministry, and published extensively on scripture, including for U.S. Catholic, in our monthly Testaments column. She has been a guest on Glad You Asked before, discussing other topics pertaining to the Bible. 

Read more about this topic, and read some of Camille’s work, in these links:

The following is a transcript of this episode of Glad You Asked.

Emily Sanna: Welcome to Glad You Asked, the podcast where we answer the questions about Catholicism that are easy to ask but not so easy to answer. I’m Emily Sanna, managing editor at U.S. Catholic.

Rebecca Bratten Weiss: And I’m Rebecca Bratten Weiss, digital editor at U.S. Catholic. On today’s episode, we’re going to get into one of those questions about scripture that has caused a lot of controversy between different Christian groups: did Jesus have brothers and sisters?.

Emily: The Bible says he did. But in the Catholic tradition, it’s believed that Jesus was Mary’s only son–that she had no other children either before or after he was born. So how could he have had siblings?

Rebecca: Our guest today is a long time friend and collaborator. Alice Camille is a nationally known and award-winning writer, religious educator, and retreat leader. She has worked in parishes and campus ministry, and published extensively on scripture, including for U.S. Catholic, in our monthly Testaments column. 

Rebecca: Alice, we’re thrilled to have you as a podcast guest again.

Alice Camille: Thanks for having me back.

Emily: So to start with, can you talk about the passages in scripture where the writers reference Jesus as having siblings?

Alice: Yes, there are actually quite a few, and if it were a simple answer, we could all go home early. But there are actually 11 scripture passages that touch on the subject of Jesus and his brothers and sisters. They show up in all four gospels, in Acts of the Apostles, and in two letters of Paul. Now Mark and Matthew happily repeat the same two encounters. Luke only has one of those. But John’s gospel has four unique narratives about the gospel.

the siblings. So you probably know the stories that get repeated in the parallel Gospels: Mark, Matthew, and Luke. In the first one, Jesus is at home–and at home for Jesus means Capernaum, where he lived as an adult. Capernaum is the base of operations for the whole Galilean ministry. While Jesus is teaching in a house in Capernaum, he’s told that his mothers and brothers are outside, and Mark’s Gospel even includes his sisters. 

But these siblings are not named and they’re not numbered. Jesus seems to show no interest in his family’s arrival. Instead, he asks a question, who are my mother and brothers and sisters? And he looks around the faces in the room and says, here they are. Anyone who does God’s will is my family. 

So the other story in these two Gospels occurs in Nazareth. We’re told Jesus has returned to his native place–that would be Nazareth. He’s teaching at the synagogue. And the townspeople who have known him forever since he was a kid are skeptical of what a big shot he has become. And so in their jealousy of a fellow townie they say, don’t we know his brothers? And here they are named: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. And don’t his sisters live right with us? Who does he think he is?

The fact that the sisters are not named shouldn’t surprise us, although the brothers are named, because this conversation is taking place in a synagogue. There are no women present, and men and women in this society didn’t mingle much. So unless you were married to a particular woman, you’d have no reason to make her acquaintance. But notice, too, that among the brothers, James is mentioned first. Likely he’s the oldest.

His name matters since James, the brother of the Lord, will later lead the Jerusalem community. And another brother seems to be named after his father Joseph. Simon and Judas, the other two, are common names. It’s kind of ironic though that Jesus has a brother named Judas and is betrayed by another Judas. In John’s gospel though, we learn more about their family dynamic. The first story takes place in Cana at a wedding.

Mary is in attendance, along with the disciples. And this is a shift from the other three gospels, because in the other ones Mary is not with Jesus, she’s back in Nazareth with the fam. But Mary jump starts the ministry of Jesus in Cana, so she’s with Jesus and the disciples. And after the miracle of the wine, John says Mary and the brothers of Jesus together join the disciples and they all go to Capernaum.

So it would seem that at least part of the family is with Jesus in his early ministry. The church fathers actually talk about this. Jesus leaves after a couple of days. He goes up to Jerusalem by himself. He cleanses the temple. He gets into trouble. So at least when he’s cleansing the temple, he prefers to do this alone. But then he comes back to Capernaum, we hear this interesting conversation. Things have been too hot for him in Jerusalem. His brothers try to talk Jesus into going back to Jerusalem for a major feast.

They say if he wants to get his teachings noticed, Jerusalem’s certainly a better place than the backwater of Galilee. And this sounds like the brothers believe in his ministry, right? But John is careful to tell us here that they’re saying this because the brothers don’t believe. They’re actually insinuating that Jesus isn’t serious about all this or he’d be in Jerusalem where the action is. So Jesus tells the brothers it’s not his time yet, they should go to the feast without him, and as soon as they leave him alone, Jesus does go up to Jerusalem and resume his teaching. 

The next scene is at the end of John’s Gospel. Jesus is dying on the cross, and he asks the beloved disciple to care for his mother. We know the scene, behold your son, behold your mother. So we wonder, if Jesus did have brothers and sisters, wouldn’t they be taking care of Mary after his death?

But on the other hand, if the siblings don’t believe in Jesus, then it makes sense that Mary would remain with the church and be in the hands of a disciple. And the last gospel reference is after the resurrection. Mary Magdalene bumps into the risen Lord. She’s near the empty tomb. And once she recognizes him, Jesus asks Mary to go tell his brothers that he’s alive. And Mary goes straight to the disciples, not to Jesus’ family.

And this tells us that the disciples have now supplanted the biological family of Jesus in importance. The other three references to the brothers of Jesus are in Acts, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians. They simply mention the brothers of the Lord being in Jerusalem as part of the community. They’re present in the Upper Room at Pentecost along with Mary. And the brothers remain in the Jerusalem Church as it continues to grow. And James, we know, becomes the leader of that church.

Rebecca: So, considering that the Catholic Church teaches that Mary was a perpetual virgin, is there an official Catholic interpretation of these passages referencing Jesus’s siblings?

Alice: I wouldn’t use the term official. I would say the theological position of the church is that Mary is a perpetual virgin, which means her virginity remains unassailable before, during, and after the birth of Jesus. And if this position is to have any meaning at all, then Mary had only one son conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and not naturally by her husband Joseph. 

The church fathers speak of Mary giving birth as light that passes through a pane of glass, not disturbing the integrity of the glass, but just passing through. And the artist William Blake even has a fabulous illustration of this scene: the radiant infant Jesus leaps away from his mother’s unbreached torso and into the arms of a midwife, while Mary sort of leans back in a swoon. And no one has come up with a better demonstration of what virgin birth would look like.

Emily: So I’ve heard people say that these passages actually refer to Jesus’ cousins, or maybe they were Joseph’s children from another marriage. Are these possible ways of reading the passages? Is there a scriptural basis for these interpretations?

Alice: Yes, sanguinity is what we’re talking about here. Blood kinship was loosely defined in Jewish culture–it wasn’t so neatly drawn as we would draw it today. Siblings and cousins were basically part of your tribe. Your tribe was what mattered. We could take the passage of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis who had the same father but different mothers and they were also husband and wife. So marrying within the tribe was encouraged and sanguinity lines would crisscross a lot, and brothers and sisters could also be husband and wife. 

So certainly there’s a suggestion that two of the named brothers, James and Joseph, were actually cousins of Jesus. And this is what the scripture has to say about that. These two are later identified as the children of another woman in the story, who’s also named Mary, who’s present at the cross as well.

And this Mary is called the sister of the mother of Jesus. Now, could two sisters both be named Mary? This would make for a very confusing household, I think we would agree. But these Marys, who are called sisters, might also be cousins, the way Elizabeth is called Mary’s cousin, but clearly she’s much older than the young Mary, and so they were probably more distantly related than first cousins. Also keep in mind that Matthew, who’s telling this story, shows very little interest in the mother of Jesus altogether. Matthew is the one who relates the nativity from Joseph’s perspective. Joseph is the one who gets the annunciation from an angel in the dream, and Mary does not. So Matthew is likely not paying any attention at all to which of the Marys are present at the cross or who their sons might be. He may have assigned this James and Joseph, the siblings of Jesus, to the wrong mother at the cross.

But also, the idea that these so-called brothers were half brothers from an earlier marriage of Joseph is floated around. And this is not in the scriptures, but it gets a special push from second century extra-biblical texts. And these describe Joseph as an older widower when he marries Mary, who dies before Jesus is 18, before he reaches his maturity. 

Making Joseph very old solves several different problems, because it also supports the idea that he marries a woman with whom he has no intimate relations. Later, artists will even portray Joseph as more or less Mary’s guardian: Mary is sort of his ward, rather than his wife. And that solves a lot of problems theologically.

Rebecca: So, you kind of answered this question, but I’m just wondering, in the very earliest days of the church when all of these people were still either around or of recent memory, do we know what the earliest Christians believed about Jesus’ family connections? Did they believe Mary was a virgin? Did they believe that Jesus had brothers. Do we have any evidence on that?

Alice: Well, short of having an interview with them, that would be hard to prove or disprove, but certainly most scholars today acknowledge that to the New Testament writers, James, the brother of the Lord, is the brother of the Lord Jesus, period. They didn’t see it any differently. The evangelists, of course, have no investment in the perpetual virginity of Mary since this doctrine hasn’t been constructed yet. 

And that’s where all of this is going, as you can imagine. The existence of Jesus’ siblings only becomes important after the church develops teachings about Mary being a perpetual virgin and mother, which is a hard enough claim to make if you have one child, much less five or more, as the Gospels say that he did.

Emily: So can you walk us through a little bit about that historical process and the controversies that developed over the centuries when it came to Jesus’ siblings because of this doctrine of perpetual virginity?

Alice: This is really the heart of the matter. Mary’s perpetual virginity is not formulated in scripture at all. It was not a concern until the divinity of Jesus is fully codified by the Church. Once it has been established that Jesus is the uniquely begotten Son of God, then his origins have to be clarified. 

Both Matthew and Luke make clear that Jesus is not Joseph’s son, so that much is clear in the scripture. Mary is with child before she ever has relations with Joseph. Mark’s Gospel has no skin in this game at all because Mark’s Gospel begins with Jesus as an adult. And John’s Gospel doesn’t care about this issue either because it describes Jesus as the divine Word since the very creation of the world: In the beginning was the word and the word was with God. So John also has no interest in how Jesus is biologically conceived. Matthew and Mark are the only two who show any interest.

Rebecca: So when did the teaching begin, of believing that Mary not only had no sexual relationships before Jesus was born but had none after he was born either?

Alice: This certainly happened very early, as it’s evidenced in the writings of church fathers like Ambrose and Augustine who were around in the fourth century. Certainly by the end of the fifth century Mary’s perpetual virginity is an accepted teaching of the church. And we even see it symbolically portrayed in the icons of the Eastern Church where Mary’s veil always bears a star on each of her shoulders and one on her forehead. These three stars represent her virginity before, during, and after the birth of Jesus. This teaching was especially precious to the Eastern Church, which was the first to declare Mary as ever-virgin.

Emily: So why does this matter? Why do people focus so much on this question? Why is the virginity of marrying such an important controversy? What’s at stake here?

Alice: Okay, let’s keep in mind that the teaching of Mary’s perpetual virginity is not about Mary. It’s a statement about Jesus. Everything we say about Mary is always really a statement about Jesus. And it is not a sexual matter, although today we cannot easily hold that together in one place. 

It’s not a sexual matter, it’s a theological one. We’re not really invading the bedroom of these two first century people. We’re not involving ourselves in their most private relationship, which is a matter of history. 

The teaching basically has four purposes. The first one is to highlight that the incarnation is a free gift of God’s grace to the world. The second one is to preserve the uniqueness of Jesus as the divine son. 

The third one, which is really important, is to insist the human race could never provide its own savior. That’s why Mary and Joseph don’t just have a child who ends up being the savior of the world. We couldn’t do this on our own. 

And finally, the teaching is to hold up Mary’s example as the premier disciple. She is the mother of the Church. She embraces God’s will without hesitation, but also without qualification. So Mary embodies the divine will, quite literally, in the teaching of her perpetual virginity.

Rebecca: Thank you so much for answering our questions and for being our guest on the podcast, Alice.

Alice: You’re welcome.

Glad You Asked is sponsored by the Claretian Missionaries.