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December 22, 2000 Issue
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 Church.

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 it.

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 relatives.

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 own arms.

(Sources: Perseus Project at Tufts University; bible.cross-walk.com; The New Jerome Biblical Commentary; Redemptoris Mater; and An Introduction to the New Testament)



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