“His mother and his brothers arrived. Standing outside they sent word to him and called him.” (Mark 3:31) We hear this verse from the Sunday Gospel and in my time as a priest, I have been asked from time-to-time, “Did Jesus really have siblings like this verse states?” Rather than spending time in a homily, I thought I would just give the answer in this column.
In biblical times, as in our own, the word “brother” is used in many ways. It can indicate sibling, relative, friend, or associate. In Acts 21:7 fellow Christians are called brothers. In the original Hebrew, Genesis 14:14 calls Lot the “brother” of Abraham when in fact, Lot was Abraham’s nephew.
One could argue that in the Greek, the word for “brothers” is adelphoi which literally means “from the same womb.” Yet that does not prove Jesus had brothers. Our English word “brother” literally means “from the same parents” and yet we apply it to all sorts of other relationships: “brothers in arms,” “brothers in Christ,” relatives, friends, and so on. Likewise, the Jews used this specific Greek word to refer both to blood-brothers as well as to other relationships. A good example of this is 1 Corinthians 15:6, where
St. Paul says that Jesus “appeared to more than five hundred brethren [adelphoi] at one time.” It is impossible for a mother to have that many children. Mary is amazing, but even she cannot defy nature
Another proof that Jesus did not have siblings is found in John 19:26-27 at the cross. We know Joseph, Jesus’ foster-father, had already died since there is no mention of Joseph in the Gospels when Jesus is busy about his ministry. So as Jesus is about to die, he entrusts his mother to the care of John the Apostle, who is the son of Zebedee. If Jesus had younger siblings, it makes no sense for him to have John take care of Mary. It would have been the responsibility of the siblings to provide for Mary. But with no siblings, Jesus needed to give Mary to John so that she would not be alone or be without someone to provide for her.
These are just two ways we can see in scripture that Jesus was the only child born of Mary and thus understand why the Church has taught through scripture that Mary was a perpetual virgin.
In the Immaculate Heart of Mary,
Fr. Andrew Heiman