Did Jesus Really Have Half-Siblings?
- David A. Croteau Author & Professor
- 2020 4 Dec
Jesus had at least four brothers (Matthew 13:55): James, Joseph (also referred to as Joses), Simon, and Judas (also referred to as Jude). He also had at least two sisters (Matthew 13:56), since the word for “sister” is plural. Even though the Greek word for “brothers” and “sisters” does not require that someone be a blood relative, it is most likely that these six people are children of Joseph and Mary and half-siblings of Jesus.
Why Is This Question So Controversial Among Christians?
The question of the perpetual virginity of Mary is what drives this controversy. If Mary was perpetually a virgin, then Jesus would have no blood relatives. If Mary remained a virgin until Jesus was born, but then had relations with her husband Joseph, that opens the possibility for Jesus having half-siblings. They would be half-siblings since Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father due to the virgin birth.
Three views emerged in early church history. First, that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were children of Mary and Joseph after Jesus was born (referred to as the Helvidian view). Second, that they were children of Joseph from a prior marriage to Mary (referred to as the Epiphanian view). Third, that they were first cousins of Jesus (the traditional Roman Catholic view).
The idea that they were first cousins of Jesus is least likely. While it is true that the Greek words for “brothers” and “sisters” can be ambiguous, there was a word for “cousin” in the New Testament. For example, Colossians 4:10 says, “Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you greetings, as does Mark, Barnabas’ cousin (concerning whom you have received instructions: if he comes to you, welcome him)” (CSB). It is striking that nowhere in the New Testament, or the first two centuries of Christianity, are they referred to as Jesus’ cousins.
Why Are There Objections to Jesus Having Half-Brothers?
The main objection to Jesus having half-siblings is the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. This doctrine has been held by many in the early church through the Reformation. The key verse is Matthew 1:25: “but (Joseph) did not have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. And he named him Jesus” (CSB). The controversy centers around the word “until.” This word communicates the end of a period of time. For example, Matthew 2:13b contains a command for Joseph to “take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you.” Joseph was not to keep Jesus and Mary in Egypt forever, but “until” he was told otherwise. Matthew 2:15 says that they stayed in Egypt “until Herod’s death” (CSB), the same word used in both Matthew 1:25 and 2:13. So this word does not indicate a perpetual state, but a time period that will eventually cease. The New Testament says that Mary remained a virgin until Jesus was born, but it gives no indication that she remained a virgin after this point.
The view that these siblings were the children of Joseph from a prior marriage is also driven by the belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary. Early Christian writings such as the Gospel of Peter (not actually written by Peter), the Protoevangelium of James (not actually written by any James in the New Testament), and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not written by the Apostle Thomas), writings from the second century, all seem to hold to this view. The Protoevangelium of James appears to communicate that it would be inappropriate for Mary to bear other children besides Jesus (see Chapter 10), so this doctrine probably gave rise to the Epiphanian view.
There isn’t much information to be conclusive about these children being biological children of Mary. However, if someone does not hold to the perpetual virginity of Mary, then this would be the most natural reading of the biblical text. Matthew 1:25, as discussed above, appears to imply that Mary only remained a virgin until Jesus was born. Matthew 13:55 is the most important verse on this issue: “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother called Mary, and his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas” (CSB)? The way this verse is structured links Mary more closely with Jesus’ half-brothers than with Joseph. In fact, Joseph (Mary’s wife) isn’t even named in the passage. Therefore, these are most likely Mary’s children and the half-siblings of Jesus.
What Do We Know about the Half-Siblings?
The most prominent half-sibling of Jesus was James. This is not to be confused with James the son of Zebedee, brother of John (see Matthew 4:21). James the son of Zebedee was executed early in Christian history according to Acts 12:2. Jesus’ half-brother James is referenced several times in the New Testament. Besides Matthew 13:55, we know that Mary and Jesus’ brothers (probably including James) went to talk to Jesus while he was ministering (Matthew 12:46; Mark 3:31; Luke 8:19-20). John 2:12 references a wedding that Jesus attended with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples. Since “brothers” and “disciples” are distinguished, these are most likely the sons of Mary, half-brothers of Jesus, and probably included James. John 7:3-5, 10, says that Jesus’ half-brothers did not believe in Him. This is a clear indication that the word “brothers” doesn’t refer to people who are part of Jesus’ community but are related biologically.
Acts 12:17 and 15:13 indicates that James was a leader of the church in Jerusalem. Apparently, sometime after John 7 took place and before Acts 12, James converted to Christianity. It’s possible that his conversion is related to Jesus appearing to James as referenced in 1 Corinthians 15:7: “Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles” (CSB).
Paul refers to James as Jesus’ brother in Galatians 1:19. He also referred to James, Cephas (that is, Peter), and John as pillars of the church (Galatians 2:9), indicating that James was a leader in the church in Jerusalem when Galatians was written (probably around AD 49-50). Finally, most Evangelical scholars believe that the Letter of James was written by Jesus’ half-brother (see James 1:1). Early church history says that James remained the leader in the church in Jerusalem until he was martyred in AD 62.
Less is known about Jesus’ other half-siblings. Some early church historians believe that they were traveling missionaries. 1 Corinthians 9:5 references them in the context of traveling ministers of the gospel: “Don’t we have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife like the other apostles, the Lord’s brothers, and Cephas” (CSB)? This indicates that Jesus’ brothers were well-known by the Corinthians. Jude 1:1 declares that the author is the brother of James, most likely the half-brother of Jesus. Jude refers to himself as a “servant of Jesus Christ,” causing some to doubt that he was Jesus’ half-brother. While alternative proposals for the identification of Jude have been suggested, none of them are more likely than him being Jesus’ half-brother. In Eusebius’ church history, he provides an interesting story about the grandsons of Jude as they were brought before the emperor Domitian near the end of the first century. While they claimed to be farmers around Rome, the accuracy of this account has been called into question. Regarding Jesus’ other half-siblings, the New Testament has almost nothing definitive.
The debate over Jesus having half-siblings is closely connected to the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. While great historical figures such as Augustine, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Wesley all appear to affirm this doctrine, the evidence in Scripture is lacking. The most natural reading of the biblical text is that Joseph and Mary had at least six children after Jesus was born: at least four sons and at least two daughters. Since Jesus was not the biological child of Joseph, they are Jesus’ half-siblings.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/MichaelTruelove
David A. Croteau (Ph.D. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Professor of New Testament, Associate Dean, and Director of the PhD program for the Seminary and School of Ministry at Columbia International University. His publications include Urban Legends of the Old Testament (co-author with Gary Yates, B&H, 2019), Urban Legends of the New Testament (B&H, 2015), Tithing After the Cross (Energion, 2013), and You Mean I Don’t Have to Tithe (Pickwick, 2010).