Kathy Schiffer is a Catholic blogger. In addition to her blog Seasons of Grace, her articles have appeared in the National Catholic Register, Aleteia, Zenit, the Michigan Catholic, Legatus Magazine, and other Catholic publications. She’s worked for Catholic and other Christian ministries since 1988, as radio producer, director of special events and media relations coordinator. Kathy and her husband, Deacon Jerry Schiffer, have three adult children.
“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:3)
Did Jesus have brothers and sisters? The Gospel of Mark would seem to say so.
And not only in the Gospel of Mark. In Luke 8:19-21, the topic comes up again. Jesus is approached by a crowd gathered to hear him speak. The crowd says,
“Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.”
But Jesus, rather than inviting the rest of his family to come on in, dismisses them — using the opportunity to teach about the closeness he feels toward those who keep his word. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks. “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”
Among Protestant Scripture scholars, there are some who point to verses like this as clear evidence that Mary did, in fact, have other children with Joseph after giving birth to Jesus. Biblical scholar James Tabor (Chair of Religious Studies, U-NC Charlotte) lists them on his blog: James, Joses, Judas and Simon and, by some accounts, Mary and Salome.
The Catholic Church, however, rejects such claims, because they fly in the face of the Church’s dogmatic teaching about the perpetual virginity of Mary.
So where do Catholics get this idea that Mary never bore other children? And why would Joseph have accepted that agreement, anyway?
Who is your brother?
In everyday speech, it’s not uncommon to refer to someone as your “brother” when there is no physical blood relationship. We Christians are all “brothers in Christ.” The term “brother” may refer to someone with whom you share a blood relationship; or it may refer to someone who is not biologically related, but with whom you share a common friendship or an ethnic bond.
In the Scriptures, the same is true. The Greek term for “brother,” adelphos, may refer not only to blood relatives, but also to distant cousins or, more widely, to others with whom one shares a spiritual bond.
Consider, for example, Genesis 13:8:
So Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers.”
In this instance the term “brother” is used to describe Abraham and Lot—who are not biological brothers but are, rather, uncle and nephew.
And St. Paul, writing his first letter to the Corinthians (15:6), describes the people who saw Jesus after his Resurrection, including his “brothers”:
Then, he [Jesus] appeared to more than five hundred brothers at the same time, many of whom are with us still, but some have fallen asleep.
Surely, Paul wasn’t trying to claim that Mary had given birth to more than 500 children!
But there are other ways, as well, that the Gospel writers prove that Jesus was an only child.
We know, from the Gospels and from the Acts of the Apostles, as well as from ancient texts, what happened to the Twelve after the Resurrection of Christ. We read of their exploits, spreading the Gospel in foreign lands; suffering martyrdom rather than denying Jesus, whom they know to be the Christ. We know how they died, and where they are buried.
Do the Gospels tell us anything regarding Jesus’ brothers? No. Nothing.
Standing at the foot of the Cross were Mary, mother of Jesus, the two other Marys — Mary of Cleophas and Mary Magdalene — and the apostle John. As he was dying, Jesus gave Mary to John. His words were “Woman, behold your son.” And to John, he said, “Behold your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his home. (John 19:26-27).
If Jesus had had other brothers and sisters, wouldn’t they have been there with him, standing alongside his mother? And wouldn’t they have assumed responsibility for their mother, taking her into their homes? If there had been another blood relative who could provide for Mary, why would Jesus have entrusted her to John?
Another hint: The “brothers” of Jesus cited in John 2:1 and Acts 1:14 are never called the children of Mary, although Jesus himself is.
The teaching authority of the Church
There is yet another reason, though, why we should believe that Mary did not bear other children. That is the consensus of the early Church.
Remember that Jesus promised that he would send the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, who would guide his Church and preserve her from error. Without that promise of Christ, his followers and their descendants could veer farther and farther from Truth, losing their way altogether through false teachings and misguided prophecies. However, we do have Christ’s promise that he would be with us always, until the end of time. With the protection of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity and of the Holy Spirit, we can rest assured that the Church will preserve the Gospel message with fidelity.
From the earliest days following the Resurrection, the Church has believed that Mary was a perpetual virgin, and that Jesus had no biological brothers or sisters.
A non-canonical but highly respected work from around A.D. 150, the Protoevangelium of James, speaks of Mary as a consecrated virgin since her youth. The Protoevangelium explains that St. Joseph was an elderly widower with children, who was chosen to be Mary’s spouse for the purposes of guarding and protecting her, while respecting her vow of virginity.
That viewpoint – that Joseph had children by a previous marriage, who became step-siblings to Jesus – was shared in the fourth century by Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis. It is also believed by many in the Orthodox Church today.
Athanasius of Alexandria, in his Four Discourses Against the Arians, wrote in A.D. 360:
“Therefore let those who deny that the Son is from the Father by nature and proper to his essence deny also that he took true human flesh of Mary Ever-Virgin.”
St. Jerome, writing in A.D. 383 about the Perpetual Virginity of Mary in a debate with Helvidius, said:
“You say that Mary did not continue a virgin: I claim still more that Joseph himself, on account of Mary was a virgin, so that from a virgin wedlock a virgin son was born.”
And in the next century, Pope St. Leo I delivered a sermon in which he said:
“The origin is different but the nature alike: not by intercourse with man but by the power of God was it brought about: for a Virgin conceived, a Virgin bore, and a Virgin she remained.”
Today, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (501) reconfirms the same point:
“Jesus is Mary’s only son, but her spiritual motherhood extends to all men whom indeed he came to save: “The Son whom she brought forth is he whom God placed as the first-born among many brethren, that is, the faithful in whose generation and formation she cooperates with a mother’s love.”