Did Jesus have brothers? A Historical Inquiry

Historical investigation of any religion comes with certain challenges and controversies. It is almost impossible to avoid it. I remember reading about the life of Muhamed and discovering several important aspects of his life that were not accepted as a genuine history among the majority of Muslim believers. It still is a problem in Islam that can even today unfortunately lead to serious violence and terrorism. In regard to Christianity, the history of the Biblical (New Testament) scholarship had its ups and downs. One can easily name a few scholars from the early Modern period who experienced the dangerous consequences that historical criticism of the origins of Christianity can bring upon a person. Francisco Sánchez de las Brozas (better known as El Brocense) comes to mind. He was a Spanish humanist and a classical philologist who lived in the 16th century. He was among the first scholars to question the historical reliability of the infancy narratives. One of his criticisms was that Jesus was not born in the stable nor were his parents rejected by an innkeeper as commonly thought, but that Mary gave birth in a private home belonging to friends or relatives. Consequently, his students reported him to the Spanish inquisition (a secular institution that was juridically not connected to the Catholic Church) and El Brocense learned that raising questions about centuries-old religious traditions can be an unpleasant experience.

One of the most controversial questions about the life of Jesus is something most of you never thought about. It revolves around a simple historical question: Did Jesus have brothers? Why would that be controversial? It is because of the Perpetual (ἀειπάρθενος) virginity of Mary – a Catholic doctrine (that some Lutherans and Anglicans also adhere to) according to which Mary (the mother of Jesus) was a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Christ. This is one of the four Marian dogmas of the Catholic Church. A belief shared also by the Easter Orthodox churches. The perpetual virginity of Mary was officially established as orthodoxy (the right belief) at the Council of Ephesus in 431. It is worth noting that the tradition of Mary’s perpetual virginity first appears at the end of the 2nd century – in a text called Proto-Gospel of James. So, where is the problem? The problem lies in the fact that the New Testament mentions Jesus’ brothers on a several occasions. For example, Mark 6,3:

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?”

Similiarly, in his epistle to Galatians, Paul refers to James as the “brother of the Lord” (ἀδελφὸν τοῦ κυρίου). Moreover, we have a non-Christian source from the 1st century! A Jewish historian Josephus, writing at the end of the 1st century, mentions James as the brother of Jesus (ὁ ἀδελφός, Ἰησοῦ).


Nevertheless, the perpetual virginity of Mary was firmly established in the Catholic Church by the 5th century. In no small measure, this doctrine was rooted in the view that sexual relations necessarily involve sinful activities. Mary, according to Catholic doctrine, did not have a sinful nature. She was herself conceived without the stain of original sin (this is the doctrine of the immaculate conception). Since she did not have a sinful nature, she was not involved in any sinful activities, including sex. So, who are those brothers mentioned in Mark 6,3? One stream of the Catholic tradition (going back to the end of the 2nd century) claimed that these people were Joseph’s kids from his previous marriage. That would make them Jesus’ stepbrothers. Eventually, this view became marginalized by an even more radical stance that was defended by one of the most influential Christian thinkers from late antiquity. He alone pushed the discussion even further. St. Jerome, a very important fourth-century father and theologian, was a fierce supporter of the Perpetual virginity of Mary. But he went a step or two further. Jerome lived during the years of the ascetic “explosion” within the Christian world. This was the time when Christian asceticism (which, of course, always included abstinence from sex) was on the rise. Jerome himself was an ascetic who firmly believed that the superior form of the Christian life is asceticism – more worthy than life in monogamous marriage. He consequently projected his ascetic worldview on the New Testament documents and the life of Jesus and his family. Jerome concluded that not only Jesus’ mother but also his father were ascetics. Even Joseph never had sex. Consequently, the brothers of Jesus mentioned in the New Testament were not really his brothers. They weren’t his stepbrothers either! According to Jerome, they were Jesus’ cousins. This became the predominant position of Christianity in the West during the Middle Ages, while the view that the brothers and sisters were children of Joseph by a previous marriage remained a dominant theory in the East.

So, what do we make of it from a strictly historical point of view? As a preliminary note, I have to emphasize that it is impossible to get into the detailed discussion here. So, this will be a sort of a short observation about several key points related to the possibility that Jesus really had brothers. First of all, when the New Testament (Paul and Mark) talks about Jesus’ brothers, it uses the Greek word ἀδελφός that literally means a male sibling. In the New Testament ἀδελφός occurs 343 times and consistency in the meaning (“male sibling”) is extremely high. It is true, as st. Jerome argued, that Aramaic and Hebrew did not have distinctive terms for “brother” and “cousin”. However, in only one example from the Greek Old Testament (2 Chronicles 23,22) ἀδελφός means a cousin. In that case, the immediate context makes the exact relation clear. In other words, context strongly suggests that kind of reading of the word ἀδελφός. Furthermore, analogy between the Old and the New Testament is a failed one since these are two linguistically different collections of texts. The Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) is a translation from a original Hebrew text (Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew!). The New Testament was originally written in Greek. If one wants to argue that Mk 6,3 actually talks about cousins, he or she has to show

a) that the immediate context suggests such an odd meaning of the word and/or

b) strong Semitic background of Mk 6,3.

Another argument Jerome made was that he connected Mk 6,3 and Mk 15,40. In the latter case, Mark mentions James and Josephs, sons of Mary – the sister of Jesus’ mother! Jerome argued that these James and Joseph are the same people from Mk 6,3. Therefore, they were Jesus’ cousins. The problem with this is the fact that the James of Mk 15,40 is specifically called Ἰακώβου τοῦ μικροῦ – “James the Younger” or “James the Small” – it depends how you translate the word μικρός. He is called that in order to differentiate him from other James’s known in the context of Jesus, and is never used as a description for James the brother of Jesus. Moreover, there is a perfectly good word for cousin in Greek: it is ἀνεψιός. And Paul knew this term since he used it in his Epistle to Collosians. Same Paul who designated James, who he, btw, personally knew, as the “brother of the Lord”. Another point to make is that in Mark (1,29-30) we are introduced to James, his brother (ἀδελφός) John, and their father Zebedee. To my knowledge, not a single theologian in the history of Christianity claimed that these James and John were actually cousins and that Zabedee was really their stepfather or uncle. Why would theologians, working solely on a historical and philological grounds, judge differently in the case of Mk 6,3 and claim that James, Joses, Jude, and Simon were actually cousins of Jesus?


I think that the straightforward reading of the New Testament documents suggest that these people were actual brothers of Jesus. Jerome had very strong reasons for not wanting Jesus’ brothers to be his actual brothers. He came from an ascetic worldview and he insisted that sexual relations were not conducive to true spirituality. Therfore, he argued, neither Mary nor Joseph had not have sex. They both, in Jerome’s mind, were like him – ascetics. How strong his ascetic mindset was is shown by the fact that Jerome was involved in the condemnation of Jovinian who was declared a heretic because he argued that the life in a Christian marriage is as holy as the celibacy is.

The way I see it is that Jerome projected ascetic mindset that was quite popular in his days to the world of the 1st century Judaism. This was not the view a majority of the Jews in Jesus’ day would held. Certainly there were ascetic-minded Jewish groups (e.g. Esenes), but for the vast majority of Jewish people, being in marriage and having kids was a social norm. And I don’t see any good historical piece of evidence that would suggest that Mary and Joseph were exceptions. In closing, I can only quote a great Catholic scholar John P. Meier who after close examination of the sources concluded:

Needless to say, all of these arguments, even when taken together, cannot produce absolute certitude in a matter for which there is so little evidence, Nevertheless, if- prescinding from faith and later Church teaching- the historian or exegete is asked to render a judgment on the NT and patristic texts we have examined, viewed simply as historical sources, the most probable opinion is that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were true siblings.

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