Dear Friends in Jesus Christ…,
Fundamentalists insist that “brethren of the Lord” must be interpreted in the strict sense. They most commonly make two arguments based on Matthew 1:25: “[A]nd he did not know her until (Greek: heos, also translated into English as “till”) she brought forth her firstborn son.” They first argue that the natural inference from “till” is that Joseph and Mary afterward lived together as husband and wife, in the usual sense, and had several children. Otherwise, why would Jesus be called “first-born”? Doesn’t that mean there must have been at least a “second-born,” perhaps a “third-born,” and so on? But they are using a narrow, modern meaning of “until,” instead of the meaning it had when the Bible was written. In the Bible, it means only that some action did not happen up to a certain point; it does not imply that the action did happen later, which is the modern sense of the term. In fact, if the modern sense is forced on the Bible, some ridiculous meanings result.
Consider this line: “Michal the daughter of Saul had no children till the day of her death” (2 Sam. 6:23). Are we to assume she had children after her death? There is also the burial of Moses. The book of Deuteronomy says that no one knew the location of his grave “until this present day” (Deut. 34:6, Knox). But we know that no one has known since that day either.
The examples could be multiplied, but you get the idea—nothing can be proved from the use of the word “till” in Matthew 1:25. Recent translations give a better sense of the verse: “He had no relations with her at any time before she bore a son” (New American Bible); “He had not known her when she bore a son” (Knox).
Fundamentalists claim Jesus could not be Mary’s “first-born” unless there were other children that followed him. But this shows ignorance of the way the ancient Jews used the term. For them it meant the child that opened the womb (Ex. 13:2; Num. 3:12). Under the Mosaic Law, it was the “first-born” son that was to be sanctified (Ex. 34:20). Did this mean the parents had to wait until a second son was born before they could call their first the “first-born”? Hardly. The first male child of a marriage was termed the “first-born” even if he turned out to be the only child of the marriage.
The Holy Family
Fundamentalists say it would have been repugnant for Mary and Joseph to enter a marriage and remain celibate. They call such marriages “unnatural” arrangements. Certainly they were unusual, but not as unusual as having the Son of God in one’s family, and not nearly as unusual as having a virgin give birth to a child. The Holy Family was neither an average family nor should we expect its members to act as would members of an average family.
The circumstances demanded sacrifice by Mary and Joseph. This was a special family, set aside for the nurturing of the Son of God. No greater dignity could be given to marriage than that.
Backing up the testimony of Scripture regarding Mary’s perpetual virginity is the testimony of the early Christian Church. Consider the controversy between Jerome and Helvidius, writing around 380. Helvidius first brought up the notion that the “brothers of the Lord” were children born to Mary and Joseph after Jesus’ birth. The great Scripture scholar Jerome at first declined to comment on Helvidius’ remarks because they were a “novel, wicked, and a daring affront to the faith of the whole world.” At length, though, Jerome’s friends convinced him to write a reply, which turned out to be his treatise called On the Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Mary. He used not only the scriptural arguments given above, but cited earlier Christian writers, such as Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr. Helvidius was unable to come up with a reply, and his theory remained in disrepute and was unheard of until more recent times.
So, if it is established that the “brethren of the Lord” were not Jesus’ brothers or half-brothers through Mary, who were they? Prior to the time of Jerome, the standard theory was that they were Jesus’ “brothers” who were sons of Joseph though not of Mary. According to this view, Joseph was a widower at the time he married Mary. He had children from his first marriage (who would be older than Jesus, explaining their attitude toward him). This is mentioned in a number of early Christian writings. One work, known as the Proto-evangelium of James (A.D. 125) records that Joseph was selected from a group of widowers to serve as the husband/protector of Mary, who was a virgin consecrated to God. When he was chosen, Joseph objected: “I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl” (4:9).
Today, the most commonly accepted view is that they were Jesus’ cousins. Of the four “brethren” who are named in the Gospels, consider, for the sake of argument, only James. Similar reasoning can be used for the other three. We know that James the younger’s mother was named Mary. Look at the descriptions of the women standing beneath the cross: “among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Matt. 27:56); “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 Salome” (Mark 15:40).
Then look at what John says: “But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25). If we compare these parallel accounts of the scene of the crucifixion, we see that the mother of James and Joseph must be the wife of Clopas. So far, so good.
An argument against this, though, is that James is elsewhere (Matt. 10:3) described as the son of Alphaeus, which would mean this Mary, whoever she was, was the wife of both Clopas and Alphaeus. But Alphaeus and Clopas are the same person, since the Aramaic name for Alphaeus could be rendered in Greek either as Alphaeus or as Clopas. Another possibility is that Alphaeus took a Greek name similar to his Jewish name, the way that Saul took the name Paul.
So it’s probable that James the younger is the son of Mary and Clopas. The second-century historian Hegesippus explains that Clopas was the brother of Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus. James would thus be Joseph’s nephew and a cousin of Jesus, who was Joseph’s putative son.
This identification of the “brethren of the Lord” as Jesus’ first cousins is open to legitimate question—they might even be relatives more distantly removed—but our inability to determine for certain their exact status strictly on the basis of the biblical evidence (or lack of it, in this case) says nothing at all about the main point, which is that the Bible demonstrates that they were not the Blessed Virgin Mary’s children.
God Bless You,
NIHIL OBSTAT: I have concluded that the materials
presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors.
Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum, August 10, 2004
IMPRIMATUR: In accord with 1983 CIC 827
permission to publish this work is hereby granted.
+Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, August 10, 2004