Jesus' Brothers

James the Brother of Jesus


The current run of Sunday Scripture readings include the Epistle of St. James, who is listed as first among the "brothers" of Jesus in Mark 6:3; Matt 13:55; Acts 12:17; 15:13-21; 21:17-18; 1 Cor. 15:7; Gal. 2:9. Tradition refers to him as "James the Just" and remembers him as a man of exceptional piety and prayerfulness. Ancient sources tell us that he was martyred in Jerusalem in A.D. 62 by order of the Jewish high priest, having been either stoned, clubbed, or thrown from the pinnacle of the Temple (Josephus, Antiquities 20, 200; Hegesippus, as quoted by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2, 23). Tradition also relates that James was the first bishop of Jerusalem and the first in a line of fifteen Hebrew Christians to hold that position in succession (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2, 1 and 4, 5).

We had a priest who had converted from Anglicanism preach on Jesus' brothers one Sunday a few years ago, and it really confused quite a few of our parishioners, several of who approached me after Mass to ask what he meant. These sorts of issues unsettle the faithful, and have no business being discussed from the pulpit (though I love chewing it over in the pub). Such issues are explainable, but seem to me only to have come about as a result of Protestantism's unskilled clinging to the vernacular. I suppose to understand what I really mean by this, you have to be a student of history, to understand how the canon came about, and what it meant for the Bible to be translated into English/ French/ German, etc. The Bible is an ancient and complex library of books and who better to explain its intricacies than the Church who wrote it, nurtured it and guarded it for twenty centuries? Protestant thinking is based on poor Bible scholarship in the vernacular, a rejection of Apostolic Tradition and is devoid of a proper understanding of the original language Scripture was written but rather utilises a literal sense of the English translation.

The New Testament names four brothers (Greek: adelphoi) of Jesus (James, Joseph (Joses), Judas and Simon) as well as mentioning, but not naming, sisters. The most notable is James, whom Paul calls "the brother of our Lord."

Modern Protestants generally regard the adelphoi as Mary's biological children, by Joseph; since these churches usually view Jesus as the son of God, rather than of Joseph, the adelphoi are seen as Jesus' half-brothers. Of course in order to do this, you have to reject the explicit assertion of the New Testament that Mary was a virgin at the time she conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit. Christian tradition--later infallibly affirmed by the Church--acknowledges that she remained a virgin afterwards. The great majority of Christians acknowledges this: Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox traditions, as well as some Anglicans and followers of Lutheranism. However the mainstream position of the Protestant community dissents. Scholars of the (now broadly discredited) Jesus Seminar suggest that the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity has impeded the recognition that Jesus had brothers and sisters. But they would say that wouldn't they!

Since these brothers are associated with Mary (Mark 3:31-32; John 2:12), if one had only the New Testament one would assume that they were the children of Mary and Joseph, born after Jesus—a view held in antiquity by Tertullian and, as we have said, by most Protestants today. Yet already in the early 2nd century, they were identified as the children of Joseph by a previous marriage (Protevangelium of James 9:2). This interpretation is maintained in much of Eastern Christianity, and Bauckham (Jude Relatives 31) says that it "has better claim to serious consideration than is often nowadays allowed." The claim that he was a cousin of Jesus was introduced in the 4th century by Jerome and became common in the Western Church.

Another dimension to the discussion worth elucidating further is the meaning of the word "brother." The Greek equivalent of the English word brother is, as we have said, adelphos, and this includes the same concepts in its range of meaning. But Greek also has a word for "cousin" (anepsios), which seems to have been the normal word used when referring to cousins. This means that any advocate of the cousin hypothesis would need to explain why this more appropriate word was not used if Christ’s brethren were cousins.

The standard explanation is that the New Testament isn't ordinary Greek. Some have suggested that parts of it may be translations from Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus and the Apostles. It is unknown if or how much of the New Testament had an Aramaic original, but even if none did, Aramaic had a strong influence on it. Probably all the New Testament authors except Luke were native Aramaic-speakers, and much of the dialogue in the Gospels originally occurred in Aramaic. Sometimes the Gospels even tell us the original words (e.g., “Talitha cumi” in Mark 5:41) and it is these specific instances of Aramaic in the Gospels that are often referred to as the ipssima verba; the very words of Jesus recorded in their most literal sense. This is important because the meaning of the Aramaic word for "brother" (aha) not only includes the meanings already mentioned but also includes other close relations, including cousins.

In fact, there was no word for "cousin" in Aramaic. If one wanted to refer to the cousin relationship, one has to use a circumlocution such as “the son of his uncle” (brona d-`ammeh). This often is too much trouble, so broader kinship terms are used that don’t mean “cousin” in particular; e.g., ahyana ("kinsman"), qariwa ("close relation"), or nasha ("relative"). One such term is aha, which literally means “brother” but is also frequently used in the sense of “relative, kinsman.”

The first Christians in Palestine, not having a word for cousin, would normally have referred to whatever cousins Jesus had with such a general term and, in translating their writing or speech into Greek, it is quite likely that the Aramaic word aha would have been rendered literally with the Greek word for brother (adelphos).

I think this is one of those instances where the Protestants have set out to cling to an English translation without really understanding the interconnection of the mysteries of faith. Their desire to discredit Mary and reject the doctrine of her perpetual virginity, coupled with an over-simplistic understanding of the English translation has led them to clearly erroneous conclusions, as I hope has been clearly demonstrated with this post. This demonstrates the importance of the deposit of faith handed down through the generations and how new ideas can lead us away from the truth. In this instance, affecting Christology, lowering it, and changing how we see God revealed to us through the Scriptures.




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