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The Brothers & Sisters of Christ

downloadQuestion 261

Last Sunday in the Gospel reading it made mention of the “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus. Did Mary have other children after Jesus or are the words “brothers and sisters” to mean friends and family instead?

Also, why do we as Catholics refer to Mary as “ever virgin”? She was a married woman. Why would she have remained celibate in a loving marriage? Where is the basis for this in the Bible? Why is it important to Catholics that Mary never went on to have more children or to share in a physical relationship with her husband?

Response

I have spoken about this before and thus some of the material in this response is repeated from a previous question.  No one denies that the Bible mentions brethren of Christ, as in Mark 6:3. Such references are a real stumbling block for Protestants to believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity. Many Catholics might also suffer from such confusion, particularly in the absence of good catechesis and preaching on the Blessed Mother. While there are biblical supports, Marian teaching is an area where the importance of Sacred Tradition is proven. Our beliefs about her have been passed down from the days when she was treasured as our Lord’s most intimate living witness in the early Church. Since she was not the direct mother of the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus, she is entrusted to John at the Cross. The family of faith will take care of her and in return she will manifest a spiritual motherhood among them. Protestants generally agree with Catholics that prior to the birth of Jesus, Mary was a virgin. The prophecy of a virgin with child in Isaiah 7:14 is fulfilled in Matthew 1:23. The scene of the Annunciation confirms her virginity. The angel Gabriel tells her that she will conceive and bear a son (Luke 1:31). Mary immediately asks how this could be since she has not known man, in other words, had sexual relations. The angel makes it clear that the agency for her pregnancy would be divine power: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35).

The brothers and sisters of Christ have always been regarded as cousins of Christ. Mary lived in the early Church and this is the truth that has been passed down to us by those who knew. This is an element of Sacred Tradition. The Jews referred to such relations as brothers and sisters and we translate it literally. Expanded families of uncles, aunts, cousins, etc. lived together. The truth of Mary’s perpetual virginity was always held by the Church, East and West. Indeed, even the early Protestant reformers like Luther, Zwingli and Wesley insisted that such was dogma.

The following quoted text intimates that the people speaking do not know what they are talking about:

“‘Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary, and his brethren James and Joseph and Simon and Jude? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Then where did he get all this?’” (Matthew 13:55-56).

“‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, Joses, Jude, and Simon? And are not also his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him” (Mark 6:3).

They cannot fathom where Jesus has received his special authority and wisdom; indeed, by designating him as “the carpenter’s son,” they are even in the dark about his virgin birth as the incarnate Son of God. If they can be wrong about St. Joseph being the father of Jesus, then a cursory reading of these Scriptures may lead us into a similar error regarding Mary and the other family members. Note that they are listed as kin to Christ, cousins perhaps, as nothing more can be certainly determined from the Oriental custom of calling all such, brothers and sisters. Not once is Mary called their mother. Actually, the phrasing is quite careful to separate Mary, as the mother of Jesus, from these other brethren. Another point of interest is that Jesus on the Cross entrusts Mary to his apostle John, rather than to these kin. If they were actually half brothers and sisters, such would have been understood as a great insult to the family. It just was not done. Another point of correction is the presence of Mary as the beloved matriarch of the early Church. She was protected and cherished by the believing community. This same family of faith, who knew Mary so intimately, would transmit as part of our living tradition the truth that Mary remained a perpetual virgin. Also, such virginity was befitting the dignity of Jesus Christ as the unique God-Man and Savior. Looking at the Scriptural citations, there are certain practical problems to the use of these bible passages in opposition to Catholic teaching. Look at the names of the brethren here; Mark 15:40 informs us that James the younger and Joses (Joseph) were the sons of another Mary who was related to the Virgin Mary. As for the others, they may have been cousins, or if a second century work entitled The Protevangelium of James is to be trusted, the children of Joseph from a previous marriage. The image of a widower would collaborate the tradition that Joseph was much older than Mary. Such a view was also supported by other ancient authorities: Origen, Eusebius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Epiphanius. St. Jerome, knowledgeable in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, argued that they were cousins. He contended that Mary (a sister to the Virgin Mary?), the wife of Clopas (also known as Alphaeus), was the actual mother of the brothers and sisters of Christ.

Here are some other interesting Bible citations:

[Two of the brethren of Christ are listed as children of another Mary]

“And some women were also there, looking on from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Less and of Joses (Joseph), and Salome. They used to accompany him and minister to him when he was in Galilee— besides many other women who had come with him to Jerusalem” (Mark 15:40-41).

[Semitic usage of brother and sister applied also to nephews, nieces, cousins, and others]

“He recovered all the possessions, besides bringing back his kinsman [BROTHER] Lot and his possessions, along with the women and the other captives” (Genesis 14:16).

“Laban said to him: ‘Should you serve me for nothing just because you are a relative [BROTHER] of mine?’” (Genesis 29:15).

“Then Moses summoned Mishael and Elzaphan, the sons of Aaron’s uncle Uzziel, with the order, “Come, remove your kinsmen [BROTHERS] from the sanctuary and carry them to a place outside the camp” (Leviticus 10:4).

St. Joseph is the step-father of Christ and protector of the Holy Family. Yes, according to Jewish law he was married to Mary but she also has an overriding spousal relationship with the Holy Spirit. Just as Moses took off his sandals to step upon holy ground when he approached the Almighty in the burning bush; Mary is the ultimate holy ground. She belonged to the Lord and he avoided even the slightest profanation. The ultimate reason this belief is held by Catholics is that it is true and has always been believed. St. Joseph steps back, as he does when they find the teenager Christ teaching the teachers in the temple. He says not a word and the conversation is entirely between Jesus and Mary. Our Lord says to her, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). Note that there is no sign or mention of other children or siblings running around.

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