Foundations of Faith|
Did Jesus have other brothers and sisters?
There's more to Mary's motherhood than biology
By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
During Lent, I was listening to a Christian radio station. The
announcer was commenting on the death of Jesus as recorded in the
Gospel of John.
"When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved,
he said to his mother, 'Woman, behold, your son.' Then he said to
the disciple, 'Behold, your mother.' And from that hour the
disciple took her into his home" (Jn 19:26-27).
"Now," the radio commentator said, "what I don't understand is
why Jesus gave his mother to the disciple to care for when he had
brothers and sisters? Why didn't they take care of her?"
Oh, here we go again, I grumbled, denying the virginity of the
Blessed Mother. People like this just love to use the quotes in
the synoptic Gospels about the 'brothers and sisters' of Jesus to
try to deny Mary's perpetual virginity as taught by the Catholic
The basis for these arguments about Mary's ever-virginity is the
mention of brothers and sisters of Jesus in each of the gospels
(Mk 3:31-32; 6:3; Mt 12:46; 13:55-56; Lk 8:19; Jn 7:3). Of
course, the term "brothers" and "sisters" comes from translating
the Greek word, adelphos (pl. adelphoi)- which in turn is a
translation of the Hebrew word ach. Now both of these words can
mean "blood brothers", but they can also mean cousins,
step-brothers, half-brothers; nephews, or other family members.
And we have to understand that family relationships were thought
of differently in the first century Semitic world than today. For
instance, there was no word for what we call "cousin." The debate
has raged for centuries and will no doubt continue.
But what the commentator was really missing wasn't what John's
passage said about Mary's virginity, but what it said about Mary
and each of us. And now, as we face Christmas and the Feast of
Mary, the Mother of God (Jan. 1), is a good time to reflect on
First of all, when Jesus entrusts his mother to the beloved
disciple, he is also placing that disciples into his mother's
care: "Behold your mother." They are to care for each other.
The late Scripture scholar Fr. Ray Brown notes that this act of
Jesus brings Mary and the disciple at the cross into a mother-son
relationship and thus constitutes a community of disciples who
are mother and brother to him - the community that preserve this
gospel. With this, the Johannine Jesus is able to make his final
word from the cross, 'it is completed,' and to hand over his
Spirit to the believing community he is leaving behind (19:30)."
"Clearly," Pheme Perkins of Boston College says about this same
passage, "entrusting the Beloved Disciple and his mother to each
other shows that Jesus' mission is completed in the care and
provision that Jesus has made for 'his own."
Since John already mentioned how much Jesus loved "his own" at
the very beginning of this passion narrative (13:1), we can see
Jesus's concern for his family as meaning more than just blood
This comes into focus in some of those very passages that speak
of Jesus' brothers and sisters - and his mother. In Mark, Matthew
and Luke, we hear Jesus explaining who belongs to his family:
"Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother
(Mt 12:48-50; see also Mk 3:35 and Lk 8:21).
New Testament professor Benedict Viviano, OP, says this passage
in Matthew defines "true disciples as those who obey God and act
out their faith."
And who else obeys God and acts out their faith? The members of
the church, the Body of Christ - the family of Jesus.
Mary has often been called the first disciple, since she was the
first to "hear the word of God and keep it." She is also called
"mother of the church" that is the disciples. And one of the
reasons for her title of "mother of the church" is her place
beside the Beloved Disciple at the foot of her son's cross.
"The words uttered by Jesus from the Cross," says Pope John Paul
II, "signify that the motherhood of her who bore Christ finds a
'new' continuation in the Church and through the Christ,
symbolized and represented by John" (Redemptoris Mater, no, 24).
Her role as mother of the church is thus inextricably linked with
her specific motherhood of Jesus. As she was given to the Beloved
Disciple - to become that disciple's mother in a very real sense
- so she was given to each disciple in that same real sense. Pope
John Paul says that, through this new motherhood, "Mary embraces
each and every one in the Church" (no. 47).
Now, should you ever find yourself in an argument about whether
Mary had other children, remember this. If Jesus had simply
wanted someone to care for Mary after he died, it would have been
expected that he entrust her to some close family member. But he
entrusted her to "the disciple whom he loved." (Remember, in
John's gospel this disciple is an unnamed person, representative
of all the disciples.) By taking her into his home, making her
one of his family, that beloved disciple very truly became Mary's
child, a member of the family of God, a brother to Jesus.
So the point is: Jesus did give his mother into the care of one
of his brothers, to one of her own children. Through that unnamed
disciple, Jesus gave Mary to each and every one of us. He gave
her to you.
That's a neat thing to remember at Christmastime. As you see
representations of the infant Jesus cradled in his mother's arms
- remember the adult Jesus giving that same mother into your very
(Sources: Perseus Project at Tufts University;
bible.cross-walk.com; The New Jerome Biblical Commentary;
Redemptoris Mater; and An Introduction to the New Testament)