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May 27, 2019

Jesus’ ‘Brothers’ and Mary’s Perpetual Virginity

Dr. Andrew Swafford

It is often assumed that the Blessed Virgin Mary had other children besides Jesus because of the occasional references to Jesus’ “brothers” (see Matthew 13:55); and yet the early Church was firmly convinced that Mary was always a virgin; as St. Augustine states, Mary “remained a virgin conceiving her Son, a virgin in giving birth to him, a virgin in nursing him … always a virgin” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 510, emphasis added).

The Real Story

Importantly, the Church does not hold to Mary’s perpetual virginity based on Scripture alone, but because this is the faith of the Apostolic Tradition, handed down by the Apostles and maintained by the college of bishops; that said, biblical objections to this teaching can be shown to be unfounded for the following reasons:

First, though the New Testament authors write in Greek, they all come from a Semitic background (with the exception of Luke). This is important because in Hebrew, the word for “brother” (ach) was commonly used to refer to relations that go well beyond that of biological siblings. For example, it is clear that Abraham is the uncle of Lot, for Haran—Abraham’s brother—is the father of Lot (Genesis 11:26). Yet Abraham (then “Abram”) identifies Lot as his “brother” in Genesis 13:8 (also see Genesis 14:14). Some translations describe this relation as “kinsmen” because the overall context is clear that the relation is that of uncle-nephew; but what the reader misses with such a translation is the fact that the Hebrew word used to describe this relationship is the word “brother” (ach). Therefore, in a Semitic context, the reference to someone being the “brother” of Jesus does not necessitate the relation of biological siblings, but may refer to something like “cousin,” “kinsman,” or the like.

Secondly, it’s important to remember that these “brothers” of Jesus are never called “sons of Mary,” as Jesus is (see Mark 6:3); that is, they may well be “brothers” in the broad Semitic sense described above, but not sons of Mary—that is, they are not biological siblings of Jesus.

Third, the scene in John 19:26-27 where Jesus entrusts his mother to the beloved disciple—in that cultural context—makes no sense if Jesus had other biological siblings. In other words, it would be unconscionable in a first-century Jewish context for Jesus to entrust his mother to a non-family relation when other biological sons were on hand.

Fourthly, it seems to be the case that some of the “brothers” of Jesus are actually children of a different Mary. That is, in Matthew 13:55 we are told that “James and Joseph” are among Jesus’ “brethren.” St. Matthew later identifies their mother as among the women who followed Jesus, but he does not identify this mother of James and Joseph with the mother of Jesus:

“There were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee … among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Matthew 27:55-56).

Marys at the Resurrection

Interestingly, in the beginning of his resurrection account, St. Matthew describes Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” as going to the tomb (Matthew 28:1). Why call her the “other Mary,” unless he is intending to distinguish her from the Blessed Virgin (see CCC 500)? We may find confirmation in John 19:25 where we read that among those present at the foot of the Cross are: “Jesus’ mother and his mother’s sister, Mary wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” In other words, perhaps the “other Mary” (of Matthew 28:1) is “Mary wife of Clopas.” And perhaps this is the Mary who is mother of James and Joseph (Matthew 27:56; also see Mark 16:1)—in which case, these “brothers” of Jesus clearly have a different mother.

What is clear is that to be a “brother” of Jesus need not imply having the same mother; that is, “brother” is used here to refer to a near kinsman, not a biological sibling.

Thus, the Church maintains Mary’s perpetual virginity because it is the ancient and apostolic faith. And as we have seen, biblical objections to this teaching do not hold up.

You May Also Like:

St. Mark’s Action-packed Gospel

Mary’s May Crowning: Part 7

Reasons to Be Confident about the Historical Jesus

About Andrew Swafford

Dr. Andrew Swafford

Dr. Andrew Swafford is associate professor of theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible, published by Ascension. Swafford is author of Nature and GraceJohn Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again, and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their four children in Atchison, Kansas.

Keep an eye out for his latest project with Ascension, a new Romans study which will arrive in the summer of 2019.

This article was first published on Ascension Blog’s former home, The Great Adventure Blog, in June 2015. To learn more about The Great Adventure Catholic Bible studies, click here.

Painting, Calling of the Apostles (1481), by Domenico Ghirlandaio, sourced from Wikimedia commons 
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