The usual word in the Greek language for “brother” is adelphos. It possesses the same latitude of application that the English word possesses. Hence, it can refer to a person who shares the same religion (a spiritual brother). It can refer to a person who shares the same citizenship—a fellow countryman. It can refer to an intimate friend or neighbor. All of these uses are self-evident, and do not encroach upon the literal use of the term.
By far the most prominent use of the term is the literal sense—a blood brother or half-brother, the physical son of one’s mother or father. With reference to the physical brothers of Jesus (i.e., the sons of Joseph and Mary conceived after the birth of Christ), the literal sense is clearly in view in the following passages: Matthew 12:46-48 (the parallel in Mark 3:31-32); Matthew 13:55-56 (the parallel in Mark 6:3; in both passages, “sister” also is used in the literal sense); John 2:12; John 7:3,5,10; Acts 1:14; and Galatians 1:19. Even a casual reading of these verses demonstrates that Jesus had literal, physical brothers. The only reason the face-value import of these verses would be questioned is to lend credence to the post facto Catholic Church doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary.
At least two assertions have been advanced by those who wish to discount the existence of Jesus’ brothers, and thereby defend the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. One attempt seeks to broaden the meaning of the Greek word for “brother” to mean “cousin.” According to this view, the “brothers” of Jesus were actually His cousins—the children of Mary’s sister. The assertion that “brother” has this enlarged meaning is made largely on the basis of the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint). The Septuagint translators sometimes used the Greek word for brother (adelphos) in Old Testament passages in which a near relative or kinsman, who was not technically a physical brother, was under consideration. This claim is true. The Hebrew term for brother (‘ach) occasionally was used to refer to a more remote descendant from a common father who was not technically a brother (Gesenius, 1979, p. 27; Harris, et al., 1980, 1:31; Botterweck, 1974, 1:190). For example, Laban, Jacob’s uncle, was referred to as Jacob’s “brother” (Genesis 29:12,15). Likewise, Abram’s nephew Lot was said to be Abram’s “brother” (Genesis 14:14,16).
However, it must be noted that the decision of the Septuagint translators to adjust to the nuances of the Hebrew term does not prove that the Greek term adelphos had the meaning of “cousin” in the passages referring to Jesus’ kinsmen. After listing a few Old Testament verses where a broader meaning than strictly “brother” is in view, Bauer noted that such passages “do not establish the meaning ‘cousin’ for adelphos; they only show that in rendering the Hebrew ‘ach, adelphos is used loosely in isolated cases to designate masculine relatives of various degrees” (Arndt and Gingrich, 1957, p. 15, emp. added). In other words, no linguistic justification exists to support the notion that adelphoi could refer to the “cousins” of Jesus. The Septuagint translators employed adelphos for ‘ach in those passages where additional contextual evidence clarified the intended meaning. No such contextual evidence exists in the allusions to Jesus’ brothers in the New Testament, and is therefore an irrelevant comparison.
When we come to the New Testament, where the reference to the brothers of Jesus occurs, Von Soden correctly listed only two possible meanings for adelphos, namely, “either ‘physical brotherhood’ in the strict sense or more generally the ‘spiritual brotherhood’ of Israelites or Christians” (Kittel, 1964, 1:144). A broadened meaning for adelphos (to refer to a cousin) does not exist in the New Testament. As Walther Gunther clarified: “In no case in the New Testament can adelphos be interpreted with certainty in this sense” (Brown, 1975, 1:256). That’s putting it mildly. McClintock and Strong explained: “[W]hen the word is used in any but its proper sense, the context prevents the possibility of confusion…. If, then, the word ‘brethren’…really means ‘cousins’ or ‘kinsmen,’ it will be the only instance of such an application in which no data are given to correct the laxity of meaning” (1968, 895, emp. in orig.). Lewis stated even more decisively: “ ‘Brothers’ (adelphoi) never means ‘cousins’ in New Testament Greek” (1976, 1:181, emp. added). Indeed, the Greek language had a separate and distinct word for “cousins”—anepsioi (e.g., Colossians 4:10). When a nephew was meant, the relationship was clearly specified (e.g., Acts 23:16). To summarize: “There is therefore no adequate warrant in the language alone to take ‘brethren’ as meaning ‘relatives,’ and therefore the a priori presumption is in favor of a literal acceptation of the term” (McClintock and Strong, 1:895).
Further, when referring to Jesus’ brothers, the expression “his brothers” occurs nine times in the Gospel accounts and once in Acts. In every instance (except in John 7:3,5,10), the brothers are mentioned in immediate connection with His mother, Mary. No linguistic indication whatsoever is present in the text for inferring that “His brothers” is to be understood in any less literal sense than “His mother” (see Alford, 1980, pp. 152-154). Likewise, the contemporaneous Jews would have construed the terms “brothers” and “sisters” in their ordinary sense—like our English words—unless some extenuating circumstance indicated otherwise. No such circumstantial indication is present.
Additionally, if the phrase “brothers and sisters” means “cousins” in Matthew 13:55-56 and Mark 6:3, then these “cousins” were the nephews and nieces of Mary. But why would the townspeople of Nazareth connect nephews and nieces of Mary with Joseph? Why would the townspeople mention nephews and nieces at all while omitting other extended family relatives? The setting assumes that the townspeople were alluding to the immediate family of Jesus. Barnes noted that to recognize these brothers and sisters as the sons and daughters of Joseph and Mary is the “fair interpretation,” and added, “the people in the neighbourhood [sic] thought so, and spoke of them as such” (1977, 1:150). As Matthews commented, “Joseph, Mary, and their children were recognized as a typical family of Nazareth, and when Jesus began his unusual career, they merely asked if He was not a member of this family mentioning their names. If these children were nephews and nieces of Mary, why are they always associated with her and not with their mother?” (1952, pp. 112-113, emp. added).
A second assertion maintains that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were the children of Joseph by a previous marriage. Of course, this alleged prior marriage is without any biblical support whatsoever. The New Testament is completely silent on the matter. To postulate its occurrence, at best, is to introduce a question regarding Joseph’s own marital eligibility in his relationship with Mary.
In addition to the verses that allude to the brothers and sisters of Jesus, a corroborative verse is seen in Matthew 1:25. When Joseph awoke from a dream, wherein an angel of the Lord explained the circumstances of his wife’s pregnant condition, Matthew wrote that Joseph “knew her not until she had borne a son.” Use of the word “knew,” a common euphemism for sexual intercourse, means that Joseph and Mary abstained from sexual relations prior to the birth of Jesus. While it is true that the Greek construction heos hou (until) does not necessarily imply that they engaged in sexual relations after the birth of Jesus, the rest of the New Testament bears out the fact that where this phrase followed by a negative occurs, it “always implies that the negated action did take place later” (Lewis, 1976, 1:42, emp. added). Bruce observed: “Subsequent intercourse was the natural, if not the necessary, course of things. If the evangelist had felt as the Catholics do, he would have taken pains to prevent misunderstanding” (Nicoll, n.d., 1:69). Alford agreed: “On the whole it seems to me, that no one would ever have thought of interpreting the verse any otherwise than in its prima facie meaning, except to force it into accordance with a preconceived notion of the perpetual virginity of Mary” (1980, 1:9).
The insistence that Mary remained a virgin her entire life is undoubtedly rooted in the unscriptural conception that celibacy is spiritually superior to marriage and child bearing. In both the Old and New Testaments, the Bible speaks of marriage as an honorable institution that was intended by God to be the norm for humanity from the very beginning of the Creation (Genesis 2:24; Proverbs 5:18-19; Matthew 19:4-6; 1 Corinthians 7:2; Hebrews 13:4). Mary’s marriage to Joseph, and their subsequent production of offspring after the birth of Jesus, had the approval and blessing of heaven. To engage in hermeneutical gymnastics in an effort to protect a doctrine conceived from a misassessment of the sacred and divine nature of marriage and family is the epitome of misplaced religious ardor.
M’Clintock and Strong well summarized the evidence which supports the conclusion that Jesus had literal, uterine brothers: “[S]uch a supposition is more in agreement with the spirit and letter of the context than any other, and as the force of the allusion to the brothers and sisters of Jesus would be much weakened if more distant relatives are to be understood” (1968, 1:895). It is reassuring to know that Jesus experienced familial and fraternal ties. He had four brothers and at least two sisters (Matthew 13:55-56; Mark 6:3). He experienced what it was like to have His own brothers reject God’s truth (Matthew 12:46-50; John 7:5). Fortunately, those brothers, especially James, later embraced the truth and became active members of the church of Christ (Acts 1:14; 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; 1 Corinthians 9:5). “We do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15). “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same” (Hebrews 2:14).
Alford, Henry (1980 reprint), Alford’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Arndt, William F. and F. Wilbur Gingrich (1957), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).
Barnes, Albert (1977 reprint), Notes on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Botterweck, G. Johannes and Helmer Ringgren (1974), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Brown, Colin, ed. (1975), The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Gesenius, William (1979 reprint), Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Harris, R. Laird, Gleason Archer Jr., and Bruce Waltke, eds. (1980), Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (Chicago, IL: Moody).
Kittel, Gerhard, ed. (1964), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Lewis, Jack P. (1976), The Gospel According to Matthew (Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing Co.).
Matthews, Paul (1952), Basic Errors of Catholicism (Rosemead, CA: Old Paths Book Club).
McClintock, John and James Strong (1968 reprint), Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Nicoll, W. Robertson (n.d.), The Expositor’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).