Jesus' Family

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: New Testament


Since James is thought to be the brother of Jesus, why do some people think that Mary and Joseph had no other children?


In the gospels, James and Jesus' other siblings are called his brothers and sisters. Matt. 13:55-56 reads, "Is this not the carpenter's son? Are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? Are not his sisters with us?" That seems pretty straightforward. Yet, even now in some African countries, the word for brother and cousin is the same and might lead to some confusion. Greek, however, has separate words for those terms; the Greek word for cousin is never used of James or any of the other brothers of Jesus.

Let's address the issue whether or not Mary was always a virgin. Again, Matt 1:24-25 reads, "Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus." If there had been only one child, it would have been superfluous to refer to Jesus as her firstborn son. The term is more likely to be used to distinguish him from other sons that followed. Likewise, Joseph did not "know" Mary until after the birth of Jesus; that would be another unnecessary statement if he had never "known" her at all. The implication is that after Jesus' birth, Joseph "knew" Mary – and other sons followed. And doesn't this make sense? Jews were obligated to obey God's commands. One of the first commands given to mankind was to "be fruitful and multiply." Children were seen as blessings from God. We know from the gospels that Joseph and Mary were devout Jews; there is no reason to think they would not have tried to be obedient to this command.

So where did the notion of the perpetual virginity of Mary come from? Most scholars think it was well in place by the fourth century. Obviously, it was a tradition that evolved over time, meaning it didn't just happen over night. In fact, there is a document called the Book of James or the Protevangelium, which dates to the middle of the second century. It was actually deemed to be heretical by the time of Jerome in the fourth century, but the document expands on the tradition of Mary's virginity. It states that after the birth, the attending midwife declared Mary's virginity to be intact. (We didn't know there was a midwife in that stable, but maybe the exam was done some time later on.) That same document also gave rise to the notion that Joseph was a widower with children. A passage describes in inspiring terms how a young James led the donkey upon which a very pregnant Mary rode on their way to Bethlehem. This James was clearly not Mary's son; she was his stepmother.

The reason Jerome decreed this to be a heretical book did not rest on Mary's virginity. No, the reason he didn't accept the book was because it didn't go far enough. Jerome also advocated the virginity of Joseph! He could not accept the notion that James led that donkey – and this is not hard to believe coming from a man who had a large role in requiring celibacy for all priests. Hence, it was Jerome who decided these were really Jesus' cousins, after all. Jerome was a very influential official; it was no time at all before James was relegated to being a cousin, instead of a brother. Mary's and Joseph's virginity was intact.

Most – but not all -- scholars today are not persuaded by those arguments. The majority believe that James was the brother next in line after Jesus.

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