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Brothers of Jesus

The New Testament describes James, Joseph (Joses), Judas (Jude) and Simon as brothers of Jesus. Also mentioned, but not named, are sisters of Jesus. Some scholars argue that these brothers, especially James,[1] held positions of special honor in the early Christian church.

Catholic, Assyrian, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox, as well as some Anglicans and Lutherans, believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary, as did the Protestant leaders Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, and John Wesley. Those who hold this belief reject the claim that Jesus had blood siblings and maintain that these brothers and sisters received this designation because of their close association with the nuclear family of Jesus, and are actually either his cousins or children of Joseph from a previous marriage.

In the 3rd century, blood relatives on account of their connection with the nuclear family of Jesus, without explicit reference to brothers or sisters, were called the desposyni,[2] from the Greek δεσπόσυνοι, plural of δεσπόσυνος, meaning "of or belonging to the master or lord".[3] The term was used by Sextus Julius Africanus, a writer of the early 3rd century.


  • Jesus' brothers and sisters 1
  • As church leaders 2
  • Degree of consanguinity between Jesus and his brothers 3
    • Etymology 3.1
    • Relationship of Jesus' brothers to Mary 3.2
  • Family trees and pedigrees 4
    • James Tabor's theory 4.1
  • Rejection of Jesus 5
  • Absence of Jesus' brethren 6
  • In popular culture 7
  • References 8
  • Bibliography 9
  • Further reading 10
  • External links 11

Jesus' brothers and sisters

The Gospel of Mark 6:3 and the Gospel of Matthew 13:55-56 state that James, Joses (or Joseph), Judas, and Simon were the brothers of Jesus, the son of Mary. The same verses also mention unnamed sisters of Jesus. Another verse in the Epistle to the Galatians 1:19 mentions seeing James, "the Lord's brother", and none other of the apostles except Peter, when Paul went to Jerusalem after his conversion. The "brothers of the Lord" are also mentioned, alongside (but separate from) Cephas and the apostles in 1 Corinthians 9:5, in which it is mentioned that they had wives. Some scholars claim that Jesus' relatives may have held positions of authority in the Jerusalem area until Trajan excluded Jews from the new city that he built on its ruins.[4]

That the brothers were children of both Mary and Joseph was held by some people of the early centuries; The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church claimed that Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225) was one of them.[5] The 3rd-century Antidicomarianites ("Anti-Mary") maintained that, when Joseph became Mary's husband, he was a widower with six children, and that he had normal marital relations with Mary, but they later held that Jesus was not born of these relations.[6] Bonosus was a bishop who in the late 4th century held that Mary had other children after Jesus, for which the other bishops of his province condemned him.[7] Jovinian, and various Arian teachers such as Photinus held a similar view. When Helvidius proposed it, again in the late 4th century, Jerome, representing the general opinion of the Church, maintained that Mary remained always a virgin; he held that those who were called the brothers and sisters of Jesus were actually children of Mary's sister, another Mary, whom he considered the wife of Clopas.[5][8] The terms "brothers" and "sisters" as used in this context are open to different interpretations,[9] and have been argued to refer to children of Joseph by a previous marriage (the view of Epiphanius of Salamis[10]), Mary's sister's children (the view of Jerome), or children of Clopas, who according to Hegesippus was Joseph's brother,[11] and of a woman who was not a sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus (a modern proposal).[5]

As church leaders

Robert W. Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar, says that according to the Gospel of Mark Jesus' mother and brothers were at first sceptical of Jesus' ministry but later became part of the Christian movement.[12] James, "the Lord's brother", presided over the Jerusalem church after the apostles dispersed and other kinsmen probably exercised some leadership among the Christians in the area until the emperor Hadrian built Aelia Capitolina on the ruins of Jerusalem and banished all Jews from there (c. 135), after which point the Jerusalem Christians were entirely of Gentile origin.[4] Traditionally it is believed the Jerusalem Christians waited out the Jewish–Roman wars (66–135) in Pella in the Decapolis. The Jerusalem Sanhedrin relocated to Jamnia sometime c. 70.

According to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, when Peter the Apostle left Jerusalem, it was James who became leader of the church in Jerusalem and was held in high regard by the Jewish Christians.[13] Hegesippus reports that he was executed by the Sanhedrin in 62.[13]

Sextus Julius Africanus's reference to "desposyni" (blood relatives of Jesus related to his nuclear family) is preserved in Eusebius of Caesarea's Ecclesiastical History:[14][2]

For the relatives of our Lord according to the flesh, whether with the desire of boasting or simply wishing to state the fact, in either case truly, have handed down the following account... But as there had been kept in the archives up to that time the genealogies of the Hebrews as well as of those who traced their lineage back to proselytes, such as Achior the Ammonite and Ruth the Moabitess, and to those who were mingled with the Israelites and came out of Egypt with them, Herod, inasmuch as the lineage of the Israelites contributed nothing to his advantage, and since he was goaded with the consciousness of his own ignoble extraction, burned all the genealogical records, thinking that he might appear of noble origin if no one else were able, from the public registers, to trace back his lineage to the patriarchs or proselytes and to those mingled with them, who were called Georae. A few of the careful, however, having obtained private records of their own, either by remembering the names or by getting them in some other way from the registers, pride themselves on preserving the memory of their noble extraction. Among these are those already mentioned, called Desposyni, on account of their connection with the family of the Saviour. Coming from Nazara and Cochaba, villages of Judea, into other parts of the world, they drew the aforesaid genealogy from memory and from the book of daily records as faithfully as possible. Whether then the case stand thus or not no one could find a clearer explanation, according to my own opinion and that of every candid person. And let this suffice us, for, although we can urge no testimony in its support, we have nothing better or truer to offer. In any case the Gospel states the truth." And at the end of the same epistle he adds these words: "Matthan, who was descended from Solomon, begat Jacob. And when Matthan was dead, Melchi, who was descended from Nathan begat Eli by the same woman. Eli and Jacob were thus uterine brothers. Eli having died childless, Jacob raised up seed to him, begetting Joseph, his own son by nature, but by law the son of Eli. Thus Joseph was the son of both.
— Eusebius of Caesarea, Historia Ecclesiae, 1:7:11, 1:7:13–14

Eusebius has also preserved an extract from a work by Hegesippus (c.110–c.180), who wrote five books (now lost except for some quotations by Eusebius) of Commentaries on the Acts of the Church. The extract refers to the period from the reign of Domitian (81–96) to that of Trajan (98–117), and includes the statement that two Desposyni brought before Domitian later became leaders of the churches:[15]

There still survived of the kindred of the Lord the grandsons of Judas, who according to the flesh was called his brother. These were informed against, as belonging to the family of David, and Evocatus brought them before Domitian Caesar: for that emperor dreaded the advent of Christ, as Herod had done. So he asked them whether they were of the family of David; and they confessed they were. Next he asked them what property they had, or how much money they possessed. They both replied that they had only 9000 denaria between them, each of them owning half that sum; but even this they said they did not possess in cash, but as the estimated value of some land, consisting of thirty-nine plethra only, out of which they had to pay the dues, and that they supported themselves by their own labour. And then they began to hold out their hands, exhibiting, as proof of their manual labour, the roughness of their skin, and the corns raised on their hands by constant work. Being then asked concerning Christ and His kingdom, what was its nature, and when and where it was to appear, they returned answer that it was not of this world, nor of the earth, but belonging to the sphere of heaven and angels, and would make its appearance at the end of time, when He shall come in glory, and judge living and dead, and render to every one according to the course of his life. Thereupon Domitian passed no condemnation upon them, but treated them with contempt, as too mean for notice, and let them go free. At the same time he issued a command, and put a stop to the persecution against the Church. When they were released they became leaders of the churches, as was natural in the case of those who were at once martyrs and of the kindred of the Lord. And, after the establishment of peace to the Church, their lives were prolonged to the reign of Trajan.
— Eusebius of Caesarea, Historia Ecclesiae, 3:20

Degree of consanguinity between Jesus and his brothers

The New Testament names James the Just, Joses, Simon, and Jude as the brothers (Greek adelphoi) of Jesus (Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55, John 7:3, Acts 1:14, 1 Corinthians 9:5)[5]


The etymology of the word "brother" (adelphos) originally comes from "of the same womb" (a-delphys),[16] though, in New Testament usage, the Christian and Jewish meaning of "brethren" is wider, and is applied even to members of the same religious community.[17] In the Bible, the Greek words adelphos and adelphe were not restricted to their literal meaning of a full brother or sister nor were their plurals.[18]

There are several views from an early date over whether the Greek term adelphos applied in these accounts to people described as adelphoi of Jesus means that they full brothers, half brothers, stepbrothers, or cousins. Helvidius, quoting Tertullian in support of his view, claims that the adelphoi were children of Mary and Joseph born after Jesus;[19][5] yet Jerome replied that Tertullian did "not belong to the Church", and he argues that the adelphoi were Jesus' cousins.[20] Some scholars consider Helvidius' view as the most natural inference from the New Testament.[5] In support to this it is occasionally noted that James (Jacob Iakobos) as oldest of the brothers takes the name of Joseph's father (also James, Iakobos in the Solomonic genealogy of Jesus in Matthew), when in Bible times the grandson occasionally gets the name of the grandfather.[21]

The term adelphos (brother in general) is distinct from anepsios (cousin, nephew, niece).[22][23] Second-century Christian writer Hegesippus distinguishes between those who were anepsioi of Jesus and his adelphoi.[24] However Jesus and his disciples' native languange was Aramaic (as in Matthew 27:46; Mark 5:41),[25] which could not distinguish between a blood brother or sister and a cousin.[26] Aramaic, like Biblical Hebrew, does not contain a word for "cousin".[27]

Aramaic and Hebrew inclined to use circumlocutions to point out blood relationships, calling some people "brothers of Jesus" would not have always implied the same biological mother.[18] But, "sons of the mother of Jesus" would have been used to indicate a same mother. Scholars and theologians, who assert this view, point out that Jesus was called "the son of Mary" rather than "a son of Mary" in his hometown (Mark 6:3).[28]

Relationship of Jesus' brothers to Mary

According to the surviving fragments of the work Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord of the Apostolic Father Papias of Hierapolis, who lived circa 70-163 AD, "Mary the wife of Cleophas or Alphaeus" would be the mother of James the brother of Jesus, and of Simon and Judas (identified as Thaddeus), and of one Joseph. This "Mary" is identified by Papias as the sister of Mary the mother of the Lord and aunt of the Lord's. [29] For the Anglican theologian J.B. Lightfoot this fragment in question would be spurious.[30][31]

By the 3rd century the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary was well established and defended by Hippolytus, Eusebius and Epiphanius, important early Christian theologians. This is partly because early church did not accept that Mary had any children apart from Jesus.[5] Eusebius and Epiphanius held that these men were Joseph's sons from (an unrecorded) former marriage.[10][5] Epiphanius adds that Joseph became the father of James and his three brothers (Joses, Simeon, Judah) and two sisters (a Salome and a Mary) or (a Salome and an Anna)[32] with James being the elder sibling. James and his siblings were not children of Mary but were children from a previous marriage. After Joseph's first wife died, many years later when he was eighty, "he took Mary (mother of Jesus)". According to Epiphanius the Scriptures call them "brothers of the Lord" to confound their opponents.[33][34] Origen (AD 184-254) also wrote that "according to the Gospel of Peter the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary." [35]

Jerome, another important early theologian, also held the perpetual virginity doctrine, but argued that these adelphoi were sons of Mary's sister, whom Jerome identified as Mary of Cleopas.[5][36] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church mentions that a modern scholar, whom it does not identify, has proposed that these men were the sons of Clopas (Joseph's brother according to Hegesippus) and Mary, the wife of Cleopas (not necessarily referring to Jesus' mother's sister).[5]

Roman Catholic and Eastern Christianity held doctrine of Early Christianity that Mary was a perpetual virgin;[35] this view was also held by many of the early Protestants, including Luther[37] and Zwingli,[38] as well as John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism.[39] Roman Catholic, following Jerome, conclude that the adelphoi were Jesus' cousins, while Eastern Orthodox, following Eusebius and Epiphanius, argue that they were Joseph's children by his (unrecorded) first wife. But Catholic Church only defined a doctrine that they are not biological children of Mary,[40] their position, either as cousins or stepbrothers (children of Joseph), is not defined as a doctrine.

Modern Protestants view the adelphoi as Jesus' half-brothers or do not specify, since the accounts in the Gospels do not speak of Mary's relationship to them but only to Jesus.[41][42] Certain critical scholars of the Jesus Seminar say that the doctrine of perpetual virginity has obscured recognition that Jesus had full brothers and sisters.[43]

In the Book of Genesis, all the other sons of Jacob are repeatedly called brothers of Joseph, although they were children of different mothers.[44] Similarly, in the Second Book of Samuel, Tamar is described as a sister both of Amnon and of Absalom,[45] though these were David's sons by different mothers.[46]

Family trees and pedigrees

Aside from the genealogies of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke and Gospel of Matthew, there have been several presentations of theories about a family tree of Jesus' immediate nuclear family:

In the article "The 'Brethren of the Lord'" in A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture,[47] gives the following tree.

another Mary

In a book produced by Augsburg Fortress, the official publishing house of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,[48] John J. Rousseau and Rami Arav present the following diagram of relationships in line with their view that the brothers and sisters mentioned were children of Joseph and Mary;[49] Though The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church states that the view of early church (should be including those Fathers) was the "brothers" were son of Joseph by a former marriage.[5]

another Mary
Bishop Judah Kyriakos fl. c. 148–49

James Tabor's theory

The following represents James Tabor's attempted reconstruction. The view has not found wide support among other scholars.

                          Matthat bar Levi
        Eleazar                   |
        |                     Heli/Eliakim
        |                           |
        Matthan              _______|___________
        |                   |                   |
        |                   |                   |
    Mary + GOD         = Joseph (1st) =   Clophas (2nd)
          |                                     |
          |               ______________________|_________
          Jesus          |      |     |      |      |     |
          5 BCE – CE 28. |      |     |      |      |     |
                       James  Jose  Judas  Simon  Mary  Salome
                         d. CE 62     |   d. CE 101
                                 |         |
                                 |         |
                             Zechariah   James
                           alive in the reign of Domitian

Rejection of Jesus

According to the Synoptic Gospels, and particularly the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was once teaching a large crowd near the home of his own family, and when this came to their attention, his family went to see him and "they" (not specified) said that Jesus was "...out of his mind."

Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’
— Mark 3:20–21 New Revised Standard Version.
And He came home, and the crowd gathered again, to such an extent that they could not even eat a meal. When His own people heard of this, they went out to take custody of Him; for they were saying, 'He has lost His senses.'
— Mark 3:20-21 New American Standard Bible.

In the narrative of the Synoptic Gospels, and of the Gospel of Thomas, when Jesus' mother and adelphoi are outside the house that Jesus is teaching in, Jesus tells the crowd that whoever does what God wills would constitute his mother and adelphoi. According to Kilgallen, Jesus' answer was a way of underlining that his life had changed to the degree that his family were far less important than those that he teaches about the Kingdom of God. The Gospel of John states that Jesus' adelphoi did not believe in him, because he would not perform miracles with them at the Feast of Tabernacles.

Some scholars have suggested that the portrayal in the Gospel of Mark of the initial rejection of Jesus by his family may be related to the tension between Paul of Tarsus and Jewish Christians, who — according to them — held Jesus' family in high regard, for example at the Council of Jerusalem.[50][51][52][53][54]

Karl Keating says that in Jewish culture younger brothers (blood siblings) never rebuked, or even advised, their elders, for it was considered great disrespect to do so;[55] but in Mark 3:21, also in John 7:3-4, Jesus' "brothers" are shown doing that.

Absence of Jesus' brethren

There are some events in Scripture wherein existence of brothers or sisters of Jesus not shown, eg. when Jesus lost in the Temple and during his crucifixion, and used to support the view that "brothers" of Jesus are not blood brothers or siblings though some people reject that.

Luke 2: 41-51 reports the visit of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus to the Temple of Jerusalem when Jesus was 12 years old in which Luke did not tell anything at all about the presence of the "brothers". Robert Eisenman is of the belief that Luke sought to minimise the importance of Jesus' family by whatever means possible, editing James and Jesus' brothers out of the Gospel record.[56] In other side, Keating argues that Mary and Joseph rushed without hesitation straight back to Jerusalem, when they realized Jesus was lost, which they would surely have thought twice about doing if there were other children (Jesus' blood brothers or sisters) to look after.[55]

Gospel of John records the sayings of Jesus on the cross, i.e. the pair of commands "Woman, behold your son!" and "Behold, thy mother!" (John 19:26-27), then John states that "from that hour the disciple took her unto his own home". Since the era of the Church Fathers this statement has been used to reason that after the death of Jesus there was no other biological children to look after Mary, and she had to be entrusted to the disciple.[57][58][59] Vincent Taylor points out difficulties in this interpretation of the text: it ignores both the fact that Jesus 'brothers' opposed his claims, and the position of honour of John, the 'beloved disciple'.[60] But Constantine Zalalas argues that it would have been against Jewish custom for Jesus to give his mother to the care of the disciple (John) if Mary had other living sons, because the eldest son would always take responsibility for his mother.[61] Karl Keating supports that by saying: "It is hard to imagine why Jesus would have disregarded family ties and made this provision for his Mother if these four [James, Joseph/Joses, Simon, Jude] were also her sons".[55] Pope John Paul II also says that the command "Behold your son!" was the entrustment of the disciple to Mary in order to fill the maternal gap left by the death of her only son on the cross.[62]

In popular culture

The idea of Jesus having relatives features in the following tales:

  • Dogma (1999) relies on the idea that Jesus had half-siblings conceived by Mary with Joseph, with protagonist Bethany Sloane being Jesus's great-great-great-great-great-grandniece.
  • The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman presents "Jesus" and "Christ" as distinct people, with Jesus preaching the message while his brother Christ calculated how best to use that message to influence others.
  • The Red Dwarf series ten episode "Lemons" includes the idea that Judas was actually the twin brother of Jesus, who died in his place to 'fake' the resurrection and spread Jesus' gospel.
  • Robert Rankin introduced two siblings for Jesus in his novel Waiting for Godalming; Christine, Jesus's twin sister, and Colin, his half-brother (Conceived with God's wife Eartha while he was 'apologising' for his dalliance with Mary), both of whom never made it into the Bible because God gave Jesus copyright control and Bibles were no longer being written by the time Colin was born.
  • Anne Rice uses the idea that Jesus had step-siblings from widower Joseph's prior marriage in her two 'Christ the Lord' novels.


  1. ^ Paul the Apostle refers to James as "the Lord's brother" and as one of the "pillars" alongside Cephas and John Galatians 1:18–19;2:9–10
  2. ^ a b .
  3. ^ .
  4. ^ a b .
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k .
  6. ^ William H. Brackney, Historical Dictionary of Radical Christianity (Scarecrow Press 2012 ISBN 978-0-81087179-3), p. 31
  7. ^ Brackney 2012, p. 57
  8. ^ .
  9. ^ .
  10. ^ a b
  11. ^ .
  12. ^ Funk 1998, pp. 527–34.
  13. ^ a b .
  14. ^ .
  15. ^ .
  16. ^
  17. ^ Bible Hub: Matthew 12:50
  18. ^ a b Bethel (1907)
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ .
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^
  29. ^
  30. ^ THE BRETHREN OF THE LORD J.B. Lightfoot 1865
  31. ^
  32. ^
  33. ^
  34. ^
  35. ^ a b .
  36. ^ .
  37. ^ .
  38. ^
  39. ^ .
  40. ^
  41. ^ .
  42. ^ . The term "half brother" is used to denote parentage, not genetics. In this view, the other brothers and sisters listed in the Gospel passages would have the same relationship to Jesus. However, some Protestants reject the term "half brother" because it is too specific; the Gospel accounts refer to these relatives as brothers and sisters of Jesus, without specifying their parents, and refer to Mary only in relation to Jesus.
  43. ^ Funk 1998, pp. 51–161.
  44. ^ For instance, in 16 of the 36 verses of the chapter Genesis 37.
  45. ^ 2 Samuel 13.
  46. ^ 2 Samuel 3:2-3.
  47. ^
  48. ^ .
  49. ^
  50. ^ .
  51. ^
  52. ^ .
  53. ^ .
  54. ^ .
  55. ^ a b c
  56. ^ Robert Eisenman (2002), James, the Brother of Jesus" (Watkins)
  57. ^ Burke, Raymond L.; et al. (2008). Mariology: A Guide for Priests, Deacons, Seminarians, and Consecrated Persons ISBN 978-1-57918-355-4 pages 308-309
  58. ^ Mark Miravalle, 1993, Introduction to Mary, Queenship Publishing ISBN 978-1-882972-06-7, pages 62-63
  59. ^ Fundamentals of Catholicism by Kenneth Baker 1983 ISBN 0-89870-019-1 pages 334-335
  60. ^ Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St Mark, 1952, MacMillan, London. p248
  61. ^ Constantine Zalalas: Holy Theotokos: Apologetic Study
  62. ^ L'Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English, 30 April 1997, page 11 Article at EWTN


Further reading

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External links

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