Apologetics for the Masses - Issue #129

Bible Christian Society

Perpetual Virginity of Mary - The "Brothers" of Jesus

The Church teaches that Mary was a perpetual virgin.  She was not only a virgin before Jesus was born, but remained so after Jesus was born.  Yet, as many Protestants point out, the Bible does indeed mention the “brothers” of Jesus.  For example, Mark 6:3, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon…”

The “brothers” of Jesus are clearly mentioned, and even named, in the Bible.  So, Mary did indeed have other children and, therefore, the Catholic Church is wrong when it dogmatically teaches that she was a perpetual virgin, right?  Well, not so fast.

First of all, one needs to realize that there was no word for cousin, or for nephew or niece, or for aunt or uncle in ancient Hebrew or Aramaic – the words that the Jews used in all those instances were "brother" or "sister".  An example of this can be seen in Gen 14:14, where Lot, who was Abraham’s nephew, is called his "brother."  Some Bible translations might say “kinsman” because the translator knows that Lot was not Abram’s brother, but the actual word used in the Hebrew is “brother”.  Lot, however, is clearly identified as Abram’s nephew in Gen 11:27, “Terah was the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran was the father of Lot.”  So, Lot was Abram’s, or Abraham’s, nephew.  Yet, Scripture refers to him as Abraham’s brother.

Second, let’s get the "big picture" regarding Jesus’ "brothers" by looking at some verses that describe the scene at the Crucifixion:

1) Matthew 27:55-56, “There were also many women there, looking on from afar…among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.” 

2) Mark 15:40, "There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome…"

3) John 19:25, "But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene."

What do we see in these three passages that pertains to the perpetual virginity of Mary?  Well, we see that Mary, the mother of James and Joseph (or Joses), is specifically mentioned in the passages from Matthew and Mark.  Isn’t that interesting?  Where else do we see James and Joses mentioned?  In Mark 6:3, which is the verse mentioned above that contains the reference to Jesus’ "brothers."  And who are two of those brothers?  James and Joses.  But wait a minute, I thought James and Joses were sons of Mary the mother of Jesus?  Not according to Scripture.  Plus, when we look at the passage from John, it seems that Mary the mother of James and Joses is further identified as Mary the wife of Clopas, and she is also further identified as the "sister" of Jesus’ mother.  Which means, that James and Joses, the "brothers" of Jesus, would actually have been the cousins of Jesus.  Which makes perfect sense because the Jews referred to all close male relatives as their "brothers." 

In other words,  it seems that the James and Joses identified in Mark 6:3 as the “brothers” of Jesus, indeed had a mother named Mary, but it was not the same Mary who was the mother of Jesus.  This scriptural fact would tend to negate Mark 6:3 as "proof" that Mary, the mother of Jesus, had other children.  It would, in fact, add to the argument for her perpetual virginity.  

There are only two possible arguments someone could make to counter this line of reasoning: 1) The James and Joses mentioned in Matthew 27 and Mark 15 are not the same James and Joses mentioned in Mark 6:3; or 2) To concede that James and Joses were not the "brothers" of Christ, they were instead close relatives, but to still argue that the other "brothers" named in Mark 6:3 – Judas and Simon – and the "sisters" mentioned there, really were the sons and daughters of Mary the mother of Jesus…really! 

The problem with the former argument is that there is absolutely nothing in the Bible that would suggest the James and Joses mentioned in Matthew 27 and Mark 15 are not the same ones mentioned in Mark 6:3.  People who have the same name are clearly distinguished in the New Testament.  For example, we see that there were several women named Mary amongst Jesus’ followers.  We also see that they are clearly identified as separate individuals when they are mentioned in the Scriptures so that there is no confusion as to which Mary is being talked about.  In Matt 27:61, it even mentions the "other" Mary to distinguish Mary, the mother of James and Joses, from Mary Magdalen.  It didn’t just say, "Mary and Mary," or, "The two Mary’s." 

So why would anyone think that the James and Joses in Matt 27 and Mark 15 are anyone other than the James and Joses of Mark 6:3?  In none of the verses that mention these two names does it have any other identifier that would distinguish one pair of James and Joses from another pair of James and Joses.  It seems that there was but one pair of brothers named James and Joses who were apparently well known by the early Christian community. 

In the latter argument above, to concede James and Joses as being close relatives, and not brothers, of Jesus, yet to try and still argue that Judas and Simon were indeed Jesus’ brothers – sons of Mary – is a very weak argument.  If two of the four "brothers" of Jesus listed in that verse are actually cousins of Jesus, then doesn’t it make perfect sense that the other brothers listed there are cousins as well, and that the "sisters" are also cousins?  Think about it.  First of all, if Judas and Simon were also sons of Mary, wouldn’t they have been listed first instead of James and Joses?  After all, wouldn’t you list the actual "brothers" of Jesus ahead of the cousins of Jesus in a list of "brothers" of Jesus?  Secondly, the fact that it has been shown the word "brothers" is referring to at least two "cousins," not blood brothers, proves that  you cannot automatically assume the word "brothers," as used in Mark 6:3, absolutely refers to sons of the same mother.  The word "brothers" in Mark 6:3 has lost its clout in trying to prove that Mary was not a perpetual virgin.

Furthermore, let’s look at Galatians 1:19.  Paul is talking about when he went to Jerusalem to consult with the chief of the Apostles, Peter, and while there, “I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother.”  So, we have James, the “brother” of Jesus as mentioned in Mark 6:3, and James, the “Lord’s brother,” as mentioned in Gal 1:19.  And this time James, the Lord’s brother, is identified as an apostle.  So, if I’m a Bible-only believer – in other words, if the Bible is my sole rule of faith when it comes to all things related to the Christian Faith – then I have to admit that the James in Mark 6:3 and the James in Gal 1:19 are the same James.  There is nothing in Scripture to tell me otherwise.

But there’s a problem for those who would say this James is the son of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  You see, this James is clearly identified as an apostle.  Yet, of the two apostles named James that we find in the list of the twelve apostles (e.g., Matthew 10:1-4), one of them had a father named Zebedee and the other had a father named Alphaeus – neither one of them had a father named Joseph!  So, the Apostle James, who is one of the "brothers of the Lord" from Mark 6:3, cannot actually be a blood brother of Jesus, because he is either the son of Alphaeus or the son of Zebedee, not the son of Joseph.  He has to be a cousin or some similar relation to Jesus, not his brother. 

Now, there is one line of Catholic tradition (small “t” tradition), that identifies the James in Galatians 1:19 as not being one of the original twelve apostles.  However, someone who goes by the Bible alone and who does not put any stock in “tradition” cannot use the argument from tradition, because they only accept the Bible as the authority in matters Christian.  So, using the Bible alone, one cannot argue that the James in Gal 1:19 is a “third” James who had at some point been named an apostle, because the Bible nowhere mentions such a thing.

So, when we look at the “brothers” of Jesus in the broader context of Scripture, rather than just focusing on Mark 6:3, we see that the argument against the perpetual virginity of Mary has no foundation in the Bible.  We also see that Mark 6:3, when taken in a broader scriptural context, tends to actually strengthen the argument for Mary as having been a perpetual virgin.

Another point to consider: If Jesus had had any brothers, if Mary had had any other sons, would the last thing that Jesus did on earth be to grievously offend his surviving brothers? In Jn 19:26-27, right before Jesus dies, it says that Jesus entrusted the care of His mother to the beloved disciple, John. If Mary had had any other sons, it would have been an incredible slap in the face to them that the Apostle John was entrusted with the care of their mother!  In Jewish society, when the father died, the care of the mother would pass to the eldest son.  If he died, then the care of the mother would pass to the next eldest son, and so on.  The fact that Jesus gave the care of His mother over to the Apostle John provides strong evidence that there were no other "brothers" of Jesus.  If there had been, then one of them would have naturally assumed care for their mother at Jesus’ death. 

One other passage to consider is Acts 1:14-15, "[The Apostles] with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and with His brothers…the company of persons was in all about a hundred and twenty."  A company of 120 persons composed of the Apostles, Mary, the women, and the "brothers" of Jesus. Let’s see there were 11 Apostles at the time.  Jesus’ mother makes 12.  The women, probably the same three women mentioned in Matthew 27, but let’s say it was several dozen or so, just for argument’s sake.  So that puts us up to 80 or 90 or so.  Which leaves the number of Jesus’ brothers at about 30 or 40! Do you think Mary had 30 or 40 children?  We would have to have a dogma that proclaimed the perpetual labor of Mary!  No, Scripture does not contradict the teaching of the Catholic Church about the "brothers" of Jesus, not when Scripture is properly interpreted in context.


There are two other passages from Scripture that I wish to mention to support the biblical argument for the perpetual virginity of Mary – Ezek 44:1-2 and Luke 1:34.

"Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut.  And he said to me, "This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut."

If a gate of the temple which has been used by the Lord is so holy that no one else shall enter through that gate, then how much moreso the gate by which the Lord entered into this life to bring salvation to all mankind?  Mary is the gate through which the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered, and therefore it (her womb) shall remain shut and no one else will enter by it.   

Luke 1:34, "Then said Mary unto the angel, ‘How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?’"  Mary, after being told by an angel she was going to conceive a child in her womb, asks the angel, "How shall this be?"  If Mary was planning on having normal marital relations with Joseph, then this has to be one of the dumbest questions of all time.  Think of a woman, any woman, who is engaged to a man.  This woman is hoping to have many children with her soon-to-be husband.  An angel appears to her and says, "You shall conceive a child in your womb."  What would the woman say?  She would say, "Great!"  "Wonderful!"  "Awesome!"  She would not say, "How can this be?"  She would know that once she got married, and she and her husband engaged in the marital act, that the natural result would be a child.  So, again, if Mary was planning on having normal marital relations with Joseph, then this was a really dumb question. 

But, if Mary had taken a vow of perpetual virginity, if she had made a vow to God to remain a virgin for her entire lifetime, then this question makes perfect sense.  Why else ask that question?  Now, someone might say, "Well, Mary simply had never had the birds and the bees talk with her mom, so she simply didn’t understand the physical process involved."  Sorry, by her own words, we see that Mary clearly knows that one has a child by "knowing" a man.  This was a Jewish euphemism for engaging in the marital act.  So, if it is not out of ignorance that Mary asks that question, what then?  Mary asks that question because she knew that she and Joseph were not going to have physical relations.  That is the only thing that makes this question make sense.  Ask someone who does not believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary the question of why Mary asked this question, and see what they say.  I’ll bet it doesn’t make a whole lotta sense.

So, we see that the Bible actually presents some pretty strong evidence – Old Testament and New – for Mary being a perpetual virgin.  There is no direct "proof" of that from the Bible, but there is a strong case to be made using the Bible.  What objections are raised then, by those who say the Bible proves Mary was not a perpetual virgin?  Outside of the passages like Mark 6:3 which refer to Jesus’ "brothers" and "sisters," which I have already shown are not referring to other children of Mary, there is one Bible passage that is usually laid down as the trump card by folks who object to the Church’s teaching on this matter.  That passage is Matthew 1:24-25, which says, "When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son…" 

"See," they say, "It says Joseph knew her not UNTIL she had borne a son.  Which means that he did "know" her after she had borne a son.  Therefore, Mary was not a perpetual virgin." 

Does the use of the word "until" automatically mean that something was true up to a certain point of time and then it was no longer true?  Absolutely not.  Let’s look at 1 Tim 4:13.  Paul writes to Timothy and says, "Until I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching."  Does that mean that Timothy, after Paul visited him, never again publicly read the scripture or preached or taught?  It does if "until" automatically means things change after the "until" condition is met.  So, ask those who throw Matthew 1:25 at you if Timothy stopped the public reading of scripture, stopped preaching, and stopped teaching after Paul arrived. 

Also, ask them if Jesus is to reign forever or not.  They will undoubtedly say, "Yes, Jesus will reign forever."  Then simply take them to 1 Cor 15:25 which says, "For He [Christ] must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet."  Which means, using the same interpretative model they used for Matt 1:24-25, that Jesus is not going to reign forever.  He only reigns "until" He puts all His enemies under His feet, then He no longer reigns.  After all, the word "until" means that things change after the "until" condition is fulfilled. 

Yet, Scripture tells us very plainly that Jesus will reign forever: Luke 1:33, "and He shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of His kingdom there will be no end."  Rev 22:5, "And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they [Father and Son] shall reign for ever and ever." 

So, it seems that Jesus does reign forever, even though Scripture says He will reign "until" all of His enemies have been defeated.  Which means the word "until" does not absolutely denote a change of condition.  One more example that proves this is from Acts 8:40.  In Acts 8:40, it tells us that Philip preached the gospels all over the place "until" he came to Caesarea.  So that means he stopped preaching the gospel after getting to Caesarea, right?  I don’t think so.

Does the word "until" ever signify a change of condition?  Absolutely.  In fact, that is the most common usage of the word.  However, as I have clearly shown, it is also used to simply show the way things are up to a certain point in time, without necessarily indicating a change of condition after that certain point in time.

So, Matthew 1:24-25 is simply letting you know that Jesus’ birth was a virgin birth.  That Joseph had no relations with Mary before Jesus’ birth, thus fulfilling the prophecy of a virgin giving birth.  There is no intent here to imply that Joseph did then have relations with Mary after the birth of Jesus. 


Apologetics for the Masses