Brethren of Jesus

Q: If Mary had no children besides Jesus, how should we interpret biblical references to brothers and sisters of the Lord?

A: The Greek word for these "brothers and sisters" derives from adelphoi. Diffences of opinion on how this term should be interpreted existed in the early Church until around 380 CE. Tertullian and Helvidius considered these "adelphoi" to be full blood brothers and sisters of Jesus. Epiphanius and Origen considered them to be children of Joseph from a former marriage. Jerome opted for cousins of Jesus, children of another Mary, the wife of Clopas and sister of Mary of Nazareth, Jesus' Mother.

The New Testament says nothing of any children of Joseph and Mary, nor does the earliest tradition of the Church. Various episodes crucial for the understanding of the Holy Family as family are silent: the genealogies of Matthew and Luke; the family pilgrimage to Jerusalem in Luke 2 without mention of brothers and sisters; Mary's entrustment to John at Calvary in John 19 rather than to a son or daughter.

It is true that Catholic exegetes are influenced by the ancient doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity and the singularity of the Christ event. The classic text on this question remains that of Joseph Blinzler. After a careful study of all the relevant texts, he offers this conclusion:

The so-called brothers and sisters of Jesus were male and female cousins. The relationship of Simon and Jude with Jesus occurs through their father Clopas and thus, these were of the lineage of David. Their mother's name is not known. The mother of the Lord's brothers, James and Joses, was a different Mary from the Lord's mother. Either she or her husband was related to the family of Jesus, but the nature of the relationship cannot be ascertained (Joseph Blinzler, Die Bruder und Schwestern Jesu, 1967 quoted according to B. Buby in Mary of Galilee, Vol I of "Mary in the New Testament" series, 1994, p. 44)

Catholic exegesis focuses both on fact and meaning. The Christ event (fact) implies an important spiritual dimension (meaning): Who is this Savior?; What is redemption? Who is His Mother? and what is their relationship? All of these questions lead to interpretation of the fact(s). Interpretations may never contradict facts. However, many facts are open to interpretation if not disproved. The spiritual dimension attempts to lead the reader from facts to significance. It is highly significant that Mary would be totally and exclusively dedicated to this only Son, the Savior of all.

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