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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Existence of Jesus Christ

Don Stewart :: Did Jesus Have Brothers and Sisters?

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Did Jesus Have Brothers and Sisters?

The Existence of Jesus Christ – Question 15

The birth of Jesus was the result of a supernatural union between God and Mary. She was a virgin at the time Jesus was conceived. There are some who maintain that Mary remained a virgin throughout her entire life. If this were the case, then Jesus would have been an only child. The Scriptures, however, indicate that Jesus did have brothers and sisters.

1. The Testimony of Matthew: Mary Did Not Remain a Virgin

The first testimony that Mary did not remain a virgin can be found in the opening chapter of Matthew. When Joseph had discovered that Mary was going to have a child, he decided to secretly divorce her. He had not had sexual relations with her and knew the child was not his. But an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him that his wife’s pregnancy was through God, the Holy Spirit. Later we are told,

But did not know her intimately until she gave birth to a son. And he named Him Jesus. (Matthew 1:25 HCSB)

Matthew 1:25 strongly suggest that Joseph had normal sexual relations with Mary after the birth of Jesus. Thus this passage provides a strong argument against any idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary.

Jesus Had Brothers and Sisters

Furthermore, Scripture gives testimony to the fact that Joseph and Mary had other children who were brothers and sisters of Jesus. We are told that the brothers of Jesus went along with Him and His mother to Capernaum:

After this, He went down to Capernaum, together with His mother, His brothers, and His disciples, and they stayed there only a few days. (John 2:12 HCSB)

This occurred after they had attended a wedding in Cana of Galilee.

We also read in Matthew about the brothers of Jesus. It says,

He was still speaking to the crowds when suddenly His mother and brothers were standing outside wanting to speak to Him. Someone told Him, “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to You.” But He replied to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven, that person is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:46-50 HCSB)

The Bible clearly says that Jesus had brothers and sisters.

2. The People at Nazareth Acknowledge Jesus’ Family

On another occasion we are told that the people in His hometown of Nazareth became indignant at His claims:

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

They knew His family well. The crowd mentions four brothers and at least two sisters. Therefore we learn that Jesus had sisters as well as brothers.

3. Jesus’ Brothers Did Not Initially Believe in Him

John tells us that during the ministry of Jesus His brothers did not believe in Him. He wrote,

...so His brothers said to Him, “Leave here and go to Judea so Your disciples can see Your works that You are doing. For no one does anything in secret while he’s seeking public recognition. If You do these things, show Yourself to the world.” (For not even His brothers believed in Him.) (John 7:3-5 HCSB)

At that time, His brothers were not believers.

4. His Brothers Believe in Him after His Resurrection

This all changed after His resurrection from the dead. We are told that Jesus appeared to His brother James. Paul wrote,

After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. (1 Corinthians 15:7 NKJV)

We find His brothers waiting for the coming of the power of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. The Bible says,

They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. (Acts 1:14 NIV)

His brothers, plural, were there. This probably indicates that Jesus made some appearance to them.

5. James Becomes a Leader in the Church

James became an active leader in the church. In fact, he was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. He presided over a council that was held in Jerusalem. We read about this in the Book of Acts:

There was no further discussion, and everyone listened as Barnabas and Paul told about the miraculous signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. When they had finished, James stood and said, “Brothers, listen to me.” (Acts 15:12, 13 NLT)

Paul mentioned James in one of his letters:

Three years later I went to visit Peter in Jerusalem and stayed with him for fifteen days. The only other apostle I saw was James, the Lord’s brother. (Galatians 1:18, 19 CEV)

Paul called James a pillar of the church and compared his authority to that of Peter and John. He wrote to the Galatians,

James, Peter, and John realized that God had given me the message about his undeserved kindness. And these men are supposed to be the backbone of the church. They even gave Barnabas and me a friendly handshake. This was to show that we would work with Gentiles and that they would work with Jews. (Galatians 2:9 CEV)

It is generally believed that the New Testament books, James and Jude, were written by two of Jesus’ brothers, though neither of them calls themselves Jesus’ brother in their introduction. James wrote,

James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad: Greetings. (James 1:1 NKJV)

Jude called himself James’ brother:

From Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and the brother of James. To all who are chosen and loved by God the Father and are kept safe by Jesus Christ. (Jude 1:1 CEV)

They may have been thinking of Jesus’ statement that His mother and brothers and sisters are those who did the will of God—not those who are genetically related to Him.

“For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:50 NRSV)

Consequently the relationship these two had with Jesus, after His resurrection, was based upon their belief in Him—not their blood relationship.

6. There Are Three Views As to the Identity of Jesus’ Brothers and Sisters

Who were these actual brothers and sisters of Jesus? There are three views as to their identities that have become popular. They are as follows.

View 1: They Were Younger Brothers and Sisters of Jesus

The first view states that there were children born to Mary and Joseph after Jesus. Hence, the four brothers and two sisters who were mentioned were His younger brothers and sisters (natural half-brothers and sisters).

This is certainly the natural and simplest way of understanding the totality of the New Testament evidence. We read the following about Jesus birth in Luke:

...she gave birth to her first-born son. She dressed him in baby clothes and laid him on a bed of hay, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7 CEV)

By calling Jesus Mary’s firstborn seems to demonstrate that she had other children after Him. While the word ‘firstborn’ can mean preeminent, it can also mean the first in time. It all depends upon the context. That Mary and Joseph had their own children after the birth of Jesus is consistent with all the other evidence.

The Argument from Jesus’ Kingship

There is also the argument made that Jesus could not have had older brothers and sisters because of His claim to David’s throne. For Jesus to be the legal heir to the throne of David, He had to be the oldest Son. We can explain the situation in this manner.

The Promise to David

King David was promised that his dynasty would permanently rule over Israel. We read of this in First Chronicles. The Bible says,

“But the Lord said to me: ‘You have spilled a great deal of blood and fought many battles. You must not build a temple to honor me, for you have spilled a great deal of blood on the ground before me. Look, you will have a son, who will be a peaceful man. I will give him rest from all his enemies on every side. Indeed, Solomon will be his name; I will give Israel peace and quiet during his reign. He will build a temple to honor me; he will become my son, and I will become his father. I will grant to his dynasty permanent rule over Israel.’” (1 Chronicles 22:8-10 NET)

The Messiah had to be a descendant of King David, through his son Solomon, to fulfill this prediction.

Matthew begins his gospel by tracing Jesus Christ to King David’s family line through his son Solomon:

This is the record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham...David was the father of Solomon (by the wife of Uriah), Solomon the father of Rehoboam... (Matthew 1:1, 6b-7a NET)

Thus, Jesus Christ could not be the legal King of Israel unless He was the legal Son of Joseph for those in Joseph’s line were heir to the throne. While Mary was also a descendant of David through David’s son Nathan, this was not the royal line. Thus, Nathan’s descendants would have no right to the throne.

Since the line of Joseph was the royal line Jesus had to have been legally the eldest Son of Joseph. This is why Joseph could not have had children through a previous marriage. Otherwise, the eldest son in that marriage would have been the rightful heir to the throne.

View 2: They Were Children of Joseph from a Previous Marriage

Some people believe that the brothers and sisters who are mentioned were children of Joseph from a previous marriage (step-brothers and sisters). This would make the four brothers, and at least the two sisters, older than Jesus.

The reason some believe that they were not children of Joseph and Mary is due to the way they are designated in a couple of contexts.

Jesus Is the Son of Mary

In Mark 6:3 Jesus is called the ‘Son of Mary’ and is distinguished separately from the brothers who are named as well as the sisters. However, the fact that He is called Mary’s Son may be due to the fact that Joseph, the husband of Mary, was no longer alive. It certainly does not force us to assume that the other brothers and sisters were children of Joseph from a previous marriage.

They Are Called Jesus’ Brothers

In the upper room were “Mary the mother of Jesus, and...his brothers” (Acts 1:14). Here they were called His brothers, not her sons. Again, this has led some to speculate that they were sons of Joseph from a previous marriage.

However this designation could merely be a way of distinguishing them from Jesus’ other disciples. It does not necessarily mean they were not the children of Mary.

Epiphanius, a fourth century defender of the perpetual virginity of Mary, held the view that these were Joseph’s children from a previous marriage. It was also the view held by the ancient scholar Jerome. Modern defenders of this view include the great scholar Joseph Barber Lightfoot.

However, if this were the case we run into the problem of the firstborn son being the lawful heir to the throne. If Joseph had sons older than Jesus, the eldest would be the rightful heir. This is one of the many facts which seem to rule out any possibility that these were half brothers of Jesus through a previous marriage of Joseph.

View 3: They Were Cousins Of Jesus, Not Brothers And Sisters

There has also been the theory that the brothers and sisters who are mentioned were cousins of Jesus not His actual brothers and sisters. They were the sons of Cleopas who was supposedly a brother or brother-in-law of Joseph.

The support for this argument is the Hebrew and Aramaic use of the term for ‘brother.’ In the Old Testament, we find brother used for near relations:

So Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers.” (Genesis 13:8 NIV)

Lot was actually Abraham’s nephew. We read in the Book of Genesis,

Abram and his allies recovered everything—the goods that had been taken, Abram’s nephew Lot with his possessions, and all the women and other captives. (Genesis 14:16 NLT)

This view would allow Jesus to be the firstborn Son of Joseph and the rightful heir to the throne of David. While this view is theoretically possible there is nothing in Scripture to indicate Jesus’ brothers and sisters were actually His cousins.

Which Solution Is Correct?

While all three solutions have been offered as possibilities, the traditional view is the only option which fits all the biblical facts. Thus, we conclude that Jesus had actual brothers and sisters that were the biological children of Mary and Joseph.

Summary – Question 15
Did Jesus Have Brothers and Sisters?

The New Testament says that God the Son, Jesus Christ, was born to Mary, the virgin. Though she was married to Joseph, the New Testament makes it clear that Jesus was not the biological Son of Joseph. However, Joseph adopted Jesus and thus He was legally the Son of Joseph but not biologically. Thus, Jesus had the proper credentials to be the Promised Messiah.

The Scripture also says that Jesus had four brothers and at least two sisters. Exactly how they are related to Him has been a matter of controversy. There have been three popular views in the history of the church. They include the following.

The natural sense in which to take the references is they were His actual younger brothers and sisters, children of Joseph and Mary. This is the usual way in which they are understood.

There is something else that needs to be appreciated. Joseph was in royal the line of David. To have the proper credentials to be the promised Messiah Jesus would have had to have been the oldest Son of Joseph. If He was not, then He would not have been able to claim the title of Messiah. This is another reason to assume that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were born to Joseph and Mary after Jesus had been born.

However, some people believe they were step-brothers and sisters of Jesus from a previous marriage of Joseph. Thus, Joseph was a widower when he married to Mary. The problem with this view is that Jesus would not have been the oldest Son of Joseph, and thus not legally the heir to David’s throne.

A third view thinks they were cousins of Jesus. It is argued that the words translated ‘brothers and sisters’ can mean cousins in some contexts. While this view allows Jesus to be the oldest Son of Joseph and Mary, and thus legally in line for the throne, there is no reason to assume that this is what the gospel writers meant when referring to Jesus’ brothers and sisters.

Therefore, the best view to hold is that these were Jesus’ younger brothers and sisters born to Joseph and Mary after His birth. Consequently, Jesus would have had the proper credentials to be the promised Messiah.

What Do We Know about Mary, Jesus' Mother? ← Prior Section
Has the Actual Burial Box of James, Jesus' Brother, Been Found? Next Section →
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