TWH: Jesus had at least four brothers and two sisters, born by Joseph and Mary after the birth of their first son, Jesus. Let's take a look at what data we find in the New Testament. Jesus’ family is mentioned in each of the Gospels, Acts, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and James, a letter written by one of Jesus’ half-brothers. One or more of his brothers and sisters are mentioned in Mark, John, Acts, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and James. The first reference to his brothers (possibly including his sisters) is found in John 2:12. Jesus’ family attended a wedding in Cana. When the wine ran out, Mary brought the dilemma to Jesus’ attention (John 2:3). It became the opportunity for Jesus’ first miracle, and he turned water into wine.
After the marriage banquet, John says Jesus, his mother and brothers (ἡ μήτηρ αὐτοῦ καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοί), and his disciples left and went to Capernaum (John 2:12). The reference to “the brothers” can be gender-inclusive, referring to his brothers and sisters (e.g., uses in the New Testament letters). Given the setting (i.e., a marriage banquet) and the presence of Jesus’ mother, it probably includes one or more of Jesus’ siblings of the opposite sex.
The second mention of his siblings occurs in Matthew 12 and Mark 3, on one of the most significant days of Jesus’ ministry. On this day (see Matt 13:1), the miracles Jesus performs are ascribed to Satan and his power (Mark 3:22). This constitutes the formal rejection of the legitimate heir to the Davidic throne by the nation of Israel. It is on this day that Jesus begins to speak to the people using parables (Matt 13:3, 10–11). A crowd informs Jesus that his mother and brothers are outside the home (see Matt 13:1; ἐξελθὼν ὁ Ἰησοῦς τῆς οἰκίας) where he was teaching. In Matthew’s Gospel, his family is looking for him because they want to speak with him (Matt 12:46). In his messages delivered in Rome, which Mark transcribed, Peter says only that they were looking for him (Mark 3:32). Jesus uses the opportunity to teach on relationships that are greater than those based on deoxyribonucleic acid. The fellowship that believers have in Christ is greater. When they are lifted out of the domain of darkness and put into Christ's kingdom, they are also placed into the Body. They become members of a new family. And this family is characterized by doing the will of the Father (ἂν ποιήσῃ τὸ θέλημα τοῦ πατρός μου). Like the reference in John 2:12, the use of οἱ ἀδελφοί in Matt 12:46 and Mark 3:32 could include one or more of Jesus’ sisters. The main support for the inclusion is Jesus’ use of ἀδελφή in Matt 12:50 and Mark 3:35.
The third reference to Jesus’ siblings in the Gospels is found in Mark 6. Jesus returns to his hometown with his disciples and began teaching in the synagogue. The members of this synagogue would have been more familiar with him than any other synagogue in all of Israel. Like other teaching episodes (e.g., Matt 7:28–29), the audience is shocked by the authority in Jesus’ teaching (Mark 6:2). They wonder about his content and the wisdom he possesses as he teaches. Nevertheless, they remain unbelievers, and, Peter recalls, they were offended by the things he was teaching (Mark 6:3). In fact, their unbelief was so terrible that Jesus could only perform a few miracles (Mark 6:5). As much as they were shocked by Jesus’ teaching, Jesus is shocked by their unbelief (Mark 6:6). For Jesus, the miracles should have brought the people to repentance (see Matt 11:21). Mark 6:3 and Matt. 13:56 are the only passages that clearly show that Jesus had sisters. Were it not for these passages, such an idea would only be presumption. The audience in the synagogue mentions Jesus’ trade (ὁ τέκτων), his mother, four of his brothers (James, Joses, Judas [not Iscariot], and Simon), and his sisters (plural).
The fourth reference to Jesus’ siblings occurs in John 7 (vv. 3–5, 10). This account, which takes place about six months after the feeding of the 5,000 (Carson, 305), stresses the state of unbelief that characterized Jesus’ siblings. In John 7:3, Jesus’ brothers tell him to go to Jerusalem to parade his miraculous powers. They accuse him of showing his powers “in secret” (ἐν κρυπτῷ). And they misunderstand Jesus’ ministry when they refer to him as someone who “is seeking to be in the limelight” (ζητεῖ αὐτὸς ἐν παρρησίᾳ εἶναι; John 7:4). They basically call him an attention-seeker. As Jesus states later in the episode, nothing could be further from the truth. He is not seeking his own glory, but the glory of the one who sent him (John 7:18). John annotates their comments in 7:5, saying “not even his brothers were believing in him.” What was characteristic of those who sought his life in Judea is also characteristic of his brothers at this point in his ministry.
Acts, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and James confirm that more than one of Jesus’ brothers did not remain in their unbelieving state. In Acts 1:14, his brothers (plural) are gathered together with the pre-Pentecost group of disciples, which included some women, Jesus’ mother, and the apostles (minus Judas Iscariot). These brothers were active in Great-Commission work. Paul mentions them alongside the apostles in 1 Cor 9:5 as taking along their “sister wives” (ἀδελφὴν γυναῖκα) during their missionary travels. Paul visits with one of Jesus’ brothers, James, who he refers to as “the Lord’s brother” (τὸν ἀδελφὸν τοῦ κυρίου), after being saved by Jesus and receiving three-years worth of instruction in Arabia (Gal 1:15–19). The main goal of his visit to Jerusalem was to get to know (ἱστορῆσαι) Peter, not necessarily James. The only other apostle he saw was James, and this appears to be brief in comparison to the fifteen days Paul stayed with Peter.
Did Jesus have brothers and sisters? Yes. Were they born to Mary? Yes. The theological issue that arises surrounding Jesus’ siblings is owed more to fourth-century efforts to redefine Mary (Tàrrech, 121). Nevertheless, the straightforward understanding of the biblical texts is that Mary had children (sons and daughters) with Joseph following Jesus’ birth. This is the same position of Helvidius, who argued against Mary’s perpetual virginity. Jerome argued for her perpetual virginity and believed the siblings mentioned were not half-brothers, but cousins. Epiphanius believed Joseph was a widower when he married Mary, and he already had at least six children (mentioned in Mark 6:3). Jerome and Epiphanius were clearly influenced by an apocryphal text entitled The Protoevangelium of James. Mary is clearly a virgin when she conceives Jesus in her womb (Matt 1:18, 25). The only period of abstinence in Joseph’s and Mary’s marriage is found in the same verses mentioned above. Joseph recognized the importance of the child she was going to give birth to. He abstained from having any marital relations with her “until she gave birth to a son” (ἕως οὗ ἔτεκεν υἱόν). If she had remained a virgin until her death, the ἕως clause would have been entirely unnecessary. In fact, it is misleading if her marriage with Joseph lacked this sort of intimacy after Jesus’ birth.
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_____. “Who Was James? Footprints as a Means of Identification.” Pages 10–65 in The Brother of Jesus: James the Just and His Mission. Edited by Bruce Chilton and Jacob Neusner. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
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