A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did Jesus have siblings?

July 30, 1999

Dear Cecil:

Did Jesus Christ have brothers and sisters? My friend Kathy and her husband Roy swear they heard that he did during a reading at a Catholic Mass. I find it hard to believe because it seems that it would fly in the face of Mary as the virgin mother, etc. I also find it hard to believe because imagine the pressure of Jesus being your older sibling — i.e., "Your brother can walk on water and you can't even swim." If you can spare some brain cycles on this I'd appreciate it.

Cecil replies:

Got a point there, Swede. Lends new poignance to the refrain "My parents treat my brother like he's God." But that's not the heart of the issue as far as Catholics are concerned (and this is mainly a Catholic hang-up). Controversy over Jesus's sibs springs from one of Catholicism's core beliefs. Sure, maybe they took away our Latin Mass and fish on Friday. But we've still got the virgin birth.

The New Testament contains several references to Jesus's brothers and sisters, the most explicit of which is Matthew 13:55-56, in which the neighbors wonder where Jesus gets off with all this preaching: "Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?"

The words in the Greek original are adelphoi, brothers, and adelphi, sisters. They can be used in a metaphorical, brotherhood-of-man sense, just like their English equivalents. But the context strongly suggests the strict sense, i.e., children of the same mom.

The Catholic take, however, is that the words have yet another meaning: cousins, or perhaps Joseph's children by a previous marriage. This tortured reading is necessary so as not to contradict the aforementioned doctrine of the virgin birth. Just so we're clear, the VB does not mean the Immaculate Conception, the belief that Mary was free of original sin, which was declared Catholic dogma in 1854.  Virgin birth means that Mary remained a virgin despite having conceived Jesus.

Some would have you believe that "virgin" as used in the New Testament (in Greek, parthenos) merely meant "unmarried woman" and lacked our modern connotation of a woman who has not had sexual intercourse. That implies that the notion of Jesus being conceived without sex resulted from a mistranslation. But this argument doesn't hold water. After the angel of the Annunciation has informed Mary that she is about to have a son, Luke 1:34 says, "Then Mary said unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?" — i.e., she was a virgin in the modern sense.

Matthew tells basically the same story (Matthew 1:18ff) and adds, "So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: 'Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,' which is translated, 'God with us'" (Matthew 1:22-23).  Matthew here is quoting Isaiah 7:14.

It seems evident that Matthew meant "virgin" in the sense we use it today. The question is, did Matthew misunderstand Isaiah? The Hebrew word in the Old Testament is almah, which one well known lexicon defines as follows (I rely here on Straight Dope friend of science Bill Baldwin): "girl (of marriageable age), young woman (until the birth of first child)." Kinda ambiguous. An inspection of the seven times almah is used in the OT doesn't make things any clearer — we don't really know what Isaiah meant.   However, we do know that a later Jewish translation of the OT into Greek (the Septuagint, which appeared before Matthew's time), used parthenos in this passage — virgin in the modern sense.  The argument from here on out gets pretty woolly, so I'll spare you.  Suffice it to say that Matthew was not alone in his belief that Mary conceived a child without having had sex, and that this event had been predicted by Scripture.

Still, it's one thing to believe Mary was a virgin before the birth of Christ. It's quite another to believe she was a virgin after. (I know, you secular humanists think the whole thing's for the birds, but work with me on this.) According to Catholic belief, Mary was "ever virgin" — she got married and conceived and bore a child, yet somehow remained a virgin her entire life. The very model of virtuous womanhood, no? At any rate, that's why Catholics are obliged to conclude Jesus had no brothers or sisters, despite the seemingly plain meaning of the text.

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