Mary Ever-Virgin and the Brothers of Jesus

One of the four Marian dogmas is that Mary is Ever-Virgin.  Not only was she a virgin when Jesus was conceived in her womb by the Holy Spirit, but she remained a virgin her entire life.

Many Protestants claim this dogma is not Biblical.  Ironically the original Protestants who professed their beliefs were based on Scripture alone were not in agreement with that view.  Luther and Zwingli both expressed belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary.  Calvin was somewhat agnostic on the matter yet held the position that Scripture did not contradict it. 

One of the more common texts used to attempt to prove that Mary did not remain always a virgin are those that refer to Jesus’ brothers and sisters.  The most specific is Matthew 13:55-56 when Jesus was teaching in his hometown of Nazareth and the townspeople proclaimed, “Is not this the carpenter’s son?  Is not his mother called Mary?  And are not his brethrenJames and Joseph and Simon and Judas?  And are not all his sisters with us?  Where then did this man get all this?”  Matthew 12:46 and John 2:12 also refer to the “brethren” (or “brothers” in some translations) of Jesus. 

In Eric Svendsen’s anti-Catholic book “Evangelical Answers” he makes the claim “The New Testament mentions several times that Jesus had biological brothers and sisters.”  He assumes any person referred to as “brothers” or “sisters” of Jesus had to be referring to biological siblings.  Yet the same people who asked the question regarding Jesus’ brothers and sisters also asked the question “Is not this the carpenter’s son?”  John 1:45 also refers to Jesus as Joseph’s son, and Luke 2:33 refers to Joseph as Jesus’ father.  Using Svendsen’s logic from this we must also conclude that Jesus is the biological son of Joseph, since Scripture refers to Joseph as Jesus’ father.  But we know that is not the case.  If Scripture can refer to Joseph as Jesus’ father and we don’t require a conclusion that he is the biological father of Jesus, how can we require a conclusion that people identified as “brothers” of Jesus are biological brothers?

The problem with an assertion that all of these “brothers” of Jesus are biological children of Mary is the Bible never states that.  We are never given their parentage.  While a person may be identified as the “brother” of an individual, that in no way identifies with any certainty the biological parentage of either person.  While I may think it’s reasonable to assume they share biological parents that doesn’t mean I would be right.  And that would especially be true in the Jewish culture at the time of Christ, where the term “brothers” was used in a much broader sense than we are familiar with today.

The early church fathers for the first 250 years of Christian history agreed about the perpetual virginity of Mary.  While they had not yet reached agreement on which books belonged in the New Testament, they had unanimity on this topic.  Tertullian was the only early Christian writer to even question the possibility that Mary may not be ever-virgin, but he later left the church for the heresy of Montanism. 

In approximately 383 Helvidius was the first to make the claim the brothers of Jesus identified in Scripture were children of Mary and Joseph.  St. Jerome wrote a strong rebuke to defend the doctrine of Mary as ever-Virgin as had been handed on to the early Church.  His position was the “brothers” of Jesus were part of a larger family unit that we today would more specifically refer to as cousins. 

There is also a tradition in the eastern church that those identified as brothers of Jesus in Scripture were children of Joseph’s from a previous marriage.  There is certainly nothing in Scripture that contradicts that viewpoint either.  Many assume Joseph and Mary were a young couple in love and planning to be married and have a family, but that too would be an assumption.  It is important to remember the dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church is Mary is ever-Virgin, not the specifics as to who these “brothers” are.  The ideas that they are cousins of Jesus or sons of Joseph are not mutually exclusive, especially given the broader sense of family in that culture than we have today.

The Greek word used to identify the brothers of Jesus is adelphoi.  It is an interesting study to see how this word is used within Scripture and supports the Catholic view that it’s too generic to identify their specific relationship to Jesus.

So do we see in Scripture where adelphoi is used to identify a cousin relationship?  In his anti-Catholic work “Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics,” Ron Rhodes says a definitive no – “While Catholic apologists point to the example of the term ‘brother’ being used of cousins in the Septuagint, there is not a single example of this usage to be found in the New Testament.  We also note that Colossians 4:10 gives us an example of the apostle Paul making reference to Mark the cousin of Barnabas’ showing that in the New Testament a distinction between brothers and cousins are made.“

It is interesting Rhodes wants to only focus on the New Testament and exclude the Septuagint.  The Septuagint was the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by the apostles (for more on the Septuagint and its history you can read here).  Using the Greek Septuagint is the only way word studies can be accomplished across both the Old and New Testament.  And when we turn to the Septuagint, we do indeed see an example of adelphoi used to identify the relationship of a cousin.  In 1 Chronicles 23:22 we read “Elea′zar died having no sons, but only daughters; their kinsmen, the sons of Kish, married them.”  In verse 21 we’re told Eleazar and Kish are both sons of Mahli, so they are legitimately biological brothers.  And the “kinsmen” (adelphoi) the daughters of Eleazar marry are their biological cousins since they are the sons of Kish.

There is another problem with Rhodes assertion.  He cites the single New Testament passage where the Greek word anepsios is used to identify a relationship, and he claims it’s a word that denotes the specific relationship of cousin.  The point he tries to make is if the “brothers” of Jesus were truly cousins, then anepsios would have been used to describe them. 

But not all translations render anepsios as “cousin” – in fact the KJV renders it as “sister’s son” – in other words, a nephew.  And if you use google translate to translate anepsios from Greek to English, it translates it as nephew.  His scholarship is not only very limited (to a word used only once in the New Testament), but also rather shoddy to not recognize that one can hardly make the claim anepsios is the definitive Greek word for cousin.  He also eliminates the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by the apostles from consideration because it would contradict his position. 

We see other usages of adelphoi in the Septuagint that give us a clear picture as just how broad of a family relationship can be described with the word.  In Genesis 14:14 we are told Abraham and Lot are adelphoi, but we know from the text that Lot is the son of his brother Haran, so Abraham’s nephew.  In Genesis 29:15 we’re told Laban and Jacob are adelphoi.  Jacob is the son of Laban’s sister (Rebekah), so he is Laban’s nephew.  When we have enough information about parentage in Scripture, we can easily determine adelphoi is used in a broad family sense and does not denote biological brotherhood. 

What about the possible scenario that these are Joseph’s children from a previous marriage?  If we consider Joseph to be the father of Jesus as the townspeople did and Scripture does, in our world we would see them as half-brothers.  But neither Scripture nor the Jewish culture at the time knows any such distinction as “half.”  When we see those relationships in Scripture, they too are referred to as adelphoi.  For example, the twelves sons of Jacob throughout the Old Testament are all referred to as adelphoi even though they have four different mothers.  And in Acts 7:13 we read “And at the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh.”  We read that Joseph made himself known to his brothers (plural — adelphoi).  But only one of his brothers (Benjamin) shares a mother with him.  Yet they are all his adelphoi because of their common father.  Any children Joseph may have had prior to his marriage to Mary would indeed be viewed as the adelphoi of Jesus.

All we can legitimately know from Scripture about the adelphoi of Jesus is they are in some way related within a broader family unit.  Any claim they are children of Mary is an assumption, not a statement from Scripture.  For this reason, I’ve long held the view that for anyone who truly holds to a belief in sola-Scriptura, the most one can say about the “brothers” of Jesus is Scripture doesn’t give us enough information to determine their parentage.  Yet people often want to go beyond what Scripture says to profess their existence somehow proves Mary was not ever-Virgin and the Catholic church’s position is anti-Biblical.  Under legitimate scrutiny, that view doesn’t hold up.

My next post will continue to look at objections to this dogma based on varied interpretations of Scripture. 

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