Corpus Christi Blog

Brant Pitre explains the so-called “brothers” of Christ mentioned in last Sunday’s Gospel

07-15-2018Weekly ReflectionBrant Pitre

(The following comes from a transcript of a video in which Brant Pitre explains the Mass readings from last week.)

Let's look for a few moments at an issue that is really, frankly, rather a big issue for a lot of Catholics, and that is the whole reference to the brothers of Jesus. I don't know about you, but I remember being a young Catholic and hearing this particular passage, Mark’s gospel in particular, read at Sunday Mass and wondering, “well wait, I thought Mary was perpetually virgin, who are these so-called brothers of Jesus?” What is the gospel referring to here? And it doesn't just mention his brothers, it even mentions his sisters as well. So who are all these brothers and sisters of Jesus, are they the children of Mary?

Because if they were the children of Mary, obviously then the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary would make no sense, it would be a false teaching, it would be a false idea. And I even remember being challenged by non-Catholic friends or family members, you know, “why do you Catholics say Mary remained ever virgin when the gospel doesn't just mention the brothers of Jesus, it actually names the brothers of Jesus, and associates them in the same passage with Mary?” …they’re not just appearing, they’re appearing in the context of Jesus being called the son of Mary, so they’re kind of juxtaposed with the appearance of Mary. So let’s go back to Mark 6:1-6 and look at that for just a minute. Now before I say anything about this, a brief caveat. I could talk about this subject for a solid hour easily, this is not the place to do that. If you want more on the subject of the brothers of Jesus, I recommend two sources. First, I cover it in my audio bible study called Mother of the Messiah, but I also treat it in more depth in my book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of Mary, where I have a whole chapter just on the perpetual virginity of Mary and the whole question of the identity of the brothers of Jesus. But for now, I just want to make a couple of brief points about the brothers of Jesus.

First, the word that is used for brother in Greek is adelphos, and this word has multiple meanings that have to be determined by context. Now the primary meaning of the word adelphos is exactly the same as it is in English, it means what we would call a blood brother. In other words, a child of the same mother, a sibling born from the same mother, and we actually see Mark himself use the word adelphos in this way earlier in the gospel. For example if you look at Mark 1:16 when Jesus begins to call the disciples he says: …passing along by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net in the sea; for they were fishermen. The Greek word there is adelphos and whenever we encounter that word, Simon and Andrew his brother, we assume rightly that what that means is that Simon and Andrew were siblings, they had the same parents, they had the same mother,  that therefore Andrew was the brother of Simon Peter. That's the primary meaning of the word adelphos, brother. However, in Greek the word adelphos can, in other contexts, mean a close relative or what we would call a cousin. Now in those cases, the meaning has to be determined by the context.  In other words, there has to be some clue in the context that would make you think that the word doesn't mean a sibling but rather a relative or a cousin. Let me give you a couple of examples of this.

The best example of how brothers can mean cousins in the Old Testament is from the Book of Chronicles, 1 Chronicles 23. Sometimes people will point to other passages, Genesis 14, where Abraham uses the word brother to describe Lot who is his nephew, and that’s okay, but I think 1 Chronicles 23 is best because it’s actually referring to cousins in a very specific way. So if you look at 1 Chronicles 23:21-22 this is what it says: “The sons of Mahli [were] Eleazar and Kish. And Eleazar died, but he had no sons, only daughters. And the sons of Kish, their brothers, married them.” Right, now in that case the word for brother in Greek is adelphoi and the RSV actually translates it as kinsman but the literal Greek word is brothers in the Septuagint, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament or acheihem in the original Hebrew. Now what’s good about this one is you can see there that Eleazer and Kish are blood brothers, they have the same parent, they have the same father, Mahli. But what happens is Eleazar dies, he doesn't have any sons he only has daughters and so they end up marrying the sons of Kish, who are called their brothers but who are explicitly from the context obviously the sons of their uncle and therefore their cousins. And this is just one example. I can give you many more examples of this. For example, the First Century Jewish writer Josephus, in his book on the Jewish war, it's book 6 paragraph 356-357, actually uses the word brothers, again in the same way, and then switches to the word relatives or cousins as synonyms. So in 1 Chronicles 23 we know that the word adelphos can't mean sibling because if the daughters of Eleazar were marrying their siblings they would be committing incest, that’s the first problem. And then the second problem is even more direct, namely that the text itself tells you that their so-called brothers are not the sons of their father but the sons of their uncle and therefore their cousins.

What that establishes for us is a principle. Whenever you see the word adelphos in the gospels you should ordinarily assume that it means brother, just like in English, a sibling, unless there's something in the context that gives you evidence to the contrary. So now when we come back to the Gospel of Mark, the question really becomes, is there anything in the context that would suggest to us that the word brother means something other than sibling? In other words, is there anything to suggest that these brothers of Jesus (James, Joseph, Simon and Judas) are not the children of Mary? Now for most Catholics what we would say is, well the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity is what gives me reason to think that those men are not the siblings of Jesus. But for non-Catholic Christians who don't accept that doctrine, who don't accept that tradition, that argument is not going to carry any weight for them. So it's also important to be able to point out that there is not just a doctrinal reason for thinking adelphos doesn't mean brother here but that there's a literary reason, that there’s an exegetical reason in Mark's gospel itself. What is that reason? Well it's real simple. Two of these brothers, James and Joseph the first two mentioned, are elsewhere identified in the Gospel of Mark as the sons of another woman named Mary. In Mark 15:40, if we fast-forward to Mark's account of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, James and Joseph this pair of brothers, appear later in the gospel. And this is what it says. After Jesus dies on the cross it says: “There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salo’me, who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.” Notice Mark singles out three women there at the foot of the cross: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and then Salo’me. And then, later on in the account, Mark’s going to refer to this woman again. He’ll call her Mary the mother of Joseph in Mark 15:47 and then he'll call her Mary the mother of James in Mark 16:1, so just alternate between the two brothers. So what's going on here? Well scholars agree, and this is not just Catholic scholars but Protestant scholars too, commentators on Mark, recognize that when Mark refers to James and Joseph, these two brothers in Mark 15 & 16, this is clearly the same two James and Joseph that Mark referred to in chapter 6 who are there called the brothers of Jesus. He introduces them here without any explanation and assumes that you recall these two figures from earlier in the gospel. Now the question becomes, who is this woman Mary, their mother, who’s at the cross? Mark identifies her as one of the women who travels with them from Galilee, but what scholars have pointed out is that she cannot be the same woman as the mother of Jesus because elsewhere in Mark's gospel whenever he wants to refer to Mary, the mother of Jesus, he would just call her the mother of Jesus. The other gospel evangelists do the same thing, that’s the obvious way to refer to his mother. And so they pointed out that it doesn't make any sense to refer to the mother of James and Joseph as the mother of James and Joseph and not the mother of Jesus unless she is a different woman. So who is she? Well she’s the mother of these two men who are called the brothers of Jesus in Mark 6. And so when you put those two things together, Mark 6—them being called his brothers, and then Mark 15 & 16 which they're called the children of this other woman named Mary, it becomes really clear then that the word brother has to mean something other than sibling. It brings us to the second definition, that they must be relatives of Jesus, they must be his cousins, they must be relatives of some sort. Now if you have any doubts about that, in Mark 6, Jesus actually says as much, but you can't see it if you're just reading in English. After these brothers of Jesus get named James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas in verse three, Jesus responds to the scandal of the community by saying something interesting. He says, “a prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin.” Now in English we don’t really even use kin anymore...we might associate it with the southern part of the United States, people talk about somebody being kin as being their relatives. But the Greek word there syngenēs literally means relative, but it can also be translated as cousin. For example, the old King James version of the Bible and the Douay-Rheims use this word to refer to Elizabeth. When Gabriel appears to Mary he says Elizabeth, your syngenēs, your cousin, is now with child, and we all think of Elizabeth as Mary’s cousin. But what we tend to miss because the way this is translated is that Jesus basically just identifies for you what the nature of this relationship was. Who has he just been rejected by, the members of the town of Nazareth, including James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas, they’re mentioned as not just being his brothers but as those who are among the Nazarenes. Well what does Jesus say? He's not accepted by his own town or among his own cousins. The Greek word there is syngenēs, he’s not accepted by his cousins or among his relatives. So another reason for thinking that these brothers and sisters of Jesus are not his siblings but actually his cousins is precisely because that's what Jesus calls them. He says a prophet is not accepted among his cousins, among his relatives, the syngenēs.
In summary then, what we’re saying here is that Mark's gospel itself and Jesus’ own words give us reason to believe that when Mark mentions the brothers of Jesus he is not referring to children of Mary. Notice that they’re never called the sons of Mary, they’re just called the brothers of Jesus. If they were called the children of Mary that would be a whole different ballgame. Mark’s gospel itself never calls these brothers or sisters of Jesus the children of Mary, but rather gives us evidence to believe that two of them, James and Joseph, are in fact the sons of another woman named Mary, who Mark very tellingly calls the mother of James and Joseph and not the mother of Jesus.

At the risk of complicating matters even more, I just want to add one last observation that I think is really important. It’s not from Mark’s gospel but it comes from the Gospel of John. If you go to John’s gospel, chapter 19, verse 25, he actually makes clear that this Mary that’s at the foot of the cross is the sister of the virgin Mary. He identifies her as Mary, the wife of Clopas. And what’s fascinating about that identificationis, if John’s referring to the same woman as Mark, we know from early church history, like Eusebius, that Clopas was regarded as the uncle of Jesus and the father of James and Simon, who are some of the first bishops of Jerusalem, and who obviously have some of the same names as these so called brothers of Jesus. So when you put all of the evidence together, Mark, having the Mary being identified as the mother of James and Joseph, Matthew identifying that woman as the other Mary, and then John’s gospel calling her the wife of Clopas, who we know from church history as the uncle of Jesus, it puts together a picture that helps make clear why the gospels use the word brothers to refer to these men, James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. It’s because they are the children of Mary and Clopas, they are the children of Jesus’ uncle Clopas and therefore they were his cousins, or his brothers in the common Semitic idiom. So, there is the holy family of Mary and Joseph who have one child, Jesus, and then the relatives of Jesus, Mary, the wife of Clopas, and then their four sons, James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas—two of whom are actually identified by church historians as the first two Bishops of Jerusalem. And I think that last point is really important because it shows us that these so called brothers of Jesus are not obscure figures in the early church, they were actually very famous. James was the first Bishop of Jerusalem, so the idea that James, the first Bishop of Jerusalem, could have been a son of Mary, and at the same time the doctrine of her perpetual virginity have arisen is just absurd. The reason early Christians believed that Mary was both perpetually virgin and that James the Bishop of Jerusalem was the brother of Jesus, is because they understood that calling him the brother of Jesus was a way of expressing the fact that he was a close relative of Jesus, that he was a cousin of Jesus. Because remember, Christianity grew out of Jewish roots, it grew up in a Jewish context, and it’s only centuries later when people begin to lose that understanding of the Semitic meaning of the word brother to be able to refer to a cousin or relative, that people began to raise questions about who exactly were these brothers of Jesus and were they the children of Mary. That comes out much, much later. In the early church, people understood that brother could have multiple meanings and that if the context gave us clues that they were children of someone else then that was the reasonable interpretation of these texts.

Now don't take my word for this though because the Catechism of the Catholic Church actually explicitly deals with this question. The Catechism gives us an official magisterial interpretation of this entire section in the teaching on the perpetual virginity of Mary in paragraphs 499-500. The Catechism says:

[T]he Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the “Ever-virgin.” Against this doctrine the objection is sometimes raised that the Bible mentions brothers and sisters of Jesus [Cf. Mk 3:31-35; 6:3] The Church has always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary. In fact James and Joseph, “brothers of Jesus,” are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls “the other Mary.” [Mt 13:55; 28:1; cf. Mt 27:56]

So I was focusing on Mark earlier, but the Catechism goes even further. Because if you look at the gospel of Matthew’s account of the crucifixion he’s even more explicit. Not only does he call her “Mary the mother of James and Joseph” but he calls her “the other Mary.” Now it is absurd to assume that Matthew would ever refer to Mary the mother of Christ as “the other Mary,” when at the beginning of his Gospel he frequently calls her “the mother of Christ” or the “mother of Jesus.” So the Catechism is saying here that this is clearly the children of another Mary. And then finally it ends by saying: “They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression.” And there it cites a few passages from the Old Testament in which brother is used to refer to a relative or a cousin of some sort who is not a sibling. 

In closing then, I think is important for us to recognize that although some Catholics in the pew may be scandalized by the reading from today and have a reaction to it that makes them wonder, “well, wait what about the perpetual virginity of Mary?” the reality is, that this passage from the Gospel of Mark in no way undermines the perpetual virginity of Mary, actually it supports it because it provides evidence to the fact that James and Joseph, two of the so-called brothers of Jesus, are actually children of another woman named Mary, who is mentioned in the Gospel of Mark as simply “the mother of James” or “the mother of Joses.” One of whom, by the way, would go on to become the Bishop of Jerusalem and one of the first leaders in the early church, whom Paul tellingly refers to as James, the so-called brother of Jesus, in the Book of Corinthians and the Book of Galatians. So in closing then, the gospel for today is packed, there’s a lot in there but it brings home to us the fact that Jesus the Messiah, who is revealing himself through his words and actions in the Gospel of Mark, is going to be a prophet who is not accepted and will ultimately be rejected, not just by his own relatives in his hometown, but by the people of Jerusalem, who will bring him to the cross and ultimately through the cross to his resurrection.