The mysterious “brothers of Jesus” are mentioned several times in the New Testament. Were they really his brothers? Or something else?
That’s a much more complicated question than it looks. I think a good starting point is with the gospel of Mark.
Most New Testament scholars believe that the gospel of Mark was the first of the four gospels to be written, sometime around the year AD 70.
There’s an interesting story in Mark chapter 6, verses 1 to 6, about Jesus going to his hometown after he’d gotten somewhat famous in the rest of Galilee. You can read it here.
Take a look at verse 3, in which the people of Nazareth complain about Jesus: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him.” (KJV)
There are a lot of interesting points in this one verse. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
What We Learn About the Family of Jesus
Here are four things we learn from this text:
- Jesus was a “carpenter.” This is the only verse in the Bible (other than the parallel verse in Matthew 13:55) that tells us what Jesus did for a living. The Greek word is “tekton” which is a broad term that can include people who work in wood, metal, or stone. So we don’t actually know for sure whether Jesus was a carpenter, or a metal-worker, or a stone-worker.
- Jesus is called “the son of Mary.” That’s rather odd. We know that Mary was married to Joseph. So why isn’t Jesus called the “son of Joseph?” You can probably think of several possible reasons, but we don’t know which is right. We can guess, but we don’t know with certainty.
- Joseph is not mentioned at all in this verse. Most scholars think it’s because Joseph was dead. This seems likely to me, but again, nobody knows for sure.
- Four brothers of Jesus and at least two sisters are mentioned. The brothers are named James, Joses, Judah, and Simon. The sisters aren’t named, and we don’t know how many there were.
What Does it Mean by “Brothers?”
Scholars have debated for centuries what the words “brothers” and “sisters” mean. You might think it’s “obvious” what these words mean, and it certainly would be obvious if the Bible was originally written in English. But the New Testament was originally written in Greek, and it’s about people who spoke Aramaic. So there’s always the possibility that something got lost in the double-translation from the Aramaic story world to the Greek texts to the English translations.
It’s worth noting that there are several other New Testament texts that refer to these “brothers.” We’ve already mentioned Matthew 13:55, which is Matthew’s restatement of the text in Mark. In Mark 3, Matthew 12, and Luke 8, there are three parallel stories about Mary and the brothers of Jesus coming to look for him. Also, the apostle Paul talks about “James, the Lord’s brother” in Galatians 1:19. And Paul also mentions the “brothers of the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 9:5.
The elephant in the room is that there is an ancient tradition that says Mary was a perpetual virgin. Maybe you don’t believe the tradition, and maybe you do, but the point here is that many people over the centuries have believed it. And, for them, that means these “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus can’t be born of Mary.
Three Theories on the Brothers of Jesus
So here are the three main options that Christians have come up with over the years on the brothers (and sisters) of Jesus: (These theories are discussed in more detail in a Wikipedia article here.)
- Joseph was married earlier to another woman, by whom he had four sons and at least two daughters. This first wife died and then Joseph married Mary, who was already pregnant with Jesus. (This view is common among modern Eastern Orthodox Christians.)
- Joseph married Mary, who was already pregnant with Jesus, and Jesus was the only child in this nuclear family. The four “brothers” and the “sisters” were actually cousins of Jesus, born to his uncle Clopas and aunt Mary. Either this uncle Clopas was the brother of Joseph, or this aunt Mary was the sister of his mother Mary, or both. (This view is common among modern Catholics.)
- Joseph married Mary, who was already pregnant with Jesus, and then they later had four more sons and at least two more daughters. (This view is common among modern Protestants.)
And there are other theories held by various Biblical scholars which I won’t go into, because it gets complicated very quickly. My friend, Prof. James Tabor, has written extensively about this on his blog and in his books. (James is one of the directors on the archaeological dig I’ve worked on several times. We agree on many things and disagree on many things, and we can have a spirited discussion without getting angry.)
Which Theory is Right?
Large groups of Christians have defended each of these major options. Various of the early church fathers supported each of these options.
Which theory is right?
That’s a loaded question. There are some strong theological opinions bound up here, and sometimes people get extremely angry.
I think we don’t all have to agree on the answer. We can discuss it without getting emotional. Different people have different beliefs and we can respect other people’s beliefs, even if we don’t agree. The reason I’m blogging about it here is that not everyone is aware that there actually are different viewpoints. I was raised not knowing that Options 1 and 2 existed. I had an email from one of my fans not long ago who didn’t realize that Option 3 existed.
The main point of this blog post is to point out that there are several live options, and that people of good will can disagree on which is right.
I was raised Protestant, and grew up believing Option 3 is correct. (As I mentioned above, for a long time, I didn’t know there even were Options 1 and 2. I thought everyone believed Option 3.)
My view is that we can’t know for certain which option is correct. It looks to me like most historians and New Testament scholars believe that the “brothers” and the “sisters” are best understood as being sons and daughters of both Joseph and Mary, as in Option 3. But not all historians. Not all New Testament scholars. History is fuzzy.
How a Novel is Different from History
Historians often will lay out all the evidence and then make a list of the possible interpretations of the evidence, the way I did above. Usually, they say which interpretation they think is most likely. But they leave open the possibility that one of the other interpretations could be right.
It works fine to keep our history a bit fuzzy. None of us knows everything. We have to always remember we could be wrong.
But fuzziness doesn’t work so well in writing a historical novel.
If you’re writing a novel about Jesus, and if all the members of his family are important characters in the novel, then you can’t dither around by quoting probabilities. You have to make a definite choice and stick with it, even though you know the choice might be wrong.
Because a novel is not fuzzy. A novel is written in sharp focus.
I’m currently polishing up Book 1 in my Crown of Thorns series on the life of Jesus. I had to decide early how to refer to these “brothers” of Jesus—James, Joses, Judah, and Simon.
I decided to write them as biological children of Mary and Joseph. Some people will agree with this choice. Some will disagree, but they’ll realize that it’s just a story, which means I make no claim to be exactly right on things we can’t know for sure. And I suppose some will disagree and be angry about it.
No matter which option I choose, somebody somewhere would disagree, so I might as well just choose the one that makes the most sense to me.
So that’s what I’ve done. If I catch a little heat for it, that’s okay. Heat comes with the job.