Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? (Matt. 13:55 ESV)
I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. (Gal. 1:19)
Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? (1 Cor. 9:5)
Since at least the mid-second century, Christians have debated what exactly these alleged “brothers and sisters” were in relation to Jesus. While I suspect most Protestants today would say they were exactly what the NT seems to call them on its face (i.e., blood siblings), Roman Catholic and Orthodox theology has generally held them to be cousins or step-siblings, making them “brothers” or “brethren” in a looser sense. The chief implication of all this circles back to Mary and beliefs about her perpetual virginity, which, as I understand, even many/most of the Reformers still believed. (See my prior discussion on that subject here.)
Basically, if these siblings were truly blood siblings, then Mary had other children besides Jesus and did not remain a virgin for her entire life. Again, as far back as the Protevangelium of James apocryphon (from encratite circles in second century Syria?), Christians who ascribed to the ever virgin Mary saw the problem with these purported brethren and tried to redefine them. Up to the late fourth century, this remained a disputed issue in larger debates about appropriate asceticism, but from about that point onward, it seems most Christians believed Mary was a virgin for her entire life and that the brethren were not technically Jesus’ real siblings. This historical timing largely coincides with the institutionalization of asceticism in the church, which comes as no surprise.
But is that the best historical explanation of the brothers, and did most Christians take that line before the late 300s? Preserved only in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, we have second-century Christian writer named Hegesippus who explicitly claimed that at least Jude (and probably by extension, James) was known as Jesus’ brother “according to the flesh” (κατὰ σάρκα). Here’s my translation of the most direct passage, where Eusebius summarizes and then quotes Hegesippus:
With Domitian himself having commanded that those of David’s family be rooted out, an ancient account holds that certain sectarians accused the descendants of Jude and holds that this one was the savior’s brother according to the flesh, as they happened to be from David’s family and were holding kinship with Christ himself. And Hegesippus make these things clear, stating thus verbatim: “And from the Lord’s family, there yet existed the sons of Jude, who is called his brother according to the flesh. Those whom they reported as being from David’s family, these the evocatus led to Domitian Caesar. For he feared the παρουσία of the Christ, as even Herod had. And he asked them if they were (descended) from David, and they confessed it.
Some have complained that Hegesippus’ testimony is ultimately just as opaque as the NT passages. After all, what does it means to be a brother “according to the flesh”? Based on a small and late-skewing survey of the phrase in Greek, one scholar decades ago posited that the phrase was ultimately ambiguous, that all it signified was a kind of negative category. After combing through hundreds of far earlier occurrences in the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae over the last few years, however, I can say with some confidence that the phrase really isn’t ambiguous at all. Overwhelmingly, the phrase κατὰ σάρκα means “bodily” or “physical” in the context of family relations.
This is not the place to collate those many occurrences, but I’ll give two that hammer the point home most cogently.
First, there’s John Chrysostom, who was a supporter of the perpetual virginity and who was not oblivious to the problem posed by apparently physical siblings of Jesus. Apparently, Chrysostom had been reading his Eusebius, and in his commentary on Galatians, when he comes to Paul’s words about James (quoted above), he says Paul was paying James all due respect. But make no mistake, Chrysostom reminds the reader, “he was not the brother of the Lord according to the flesh, though he was regarded as such.” To Chrysostom, a rhetorician and native Greek-speaker, it seems “brothers according to flesh” would definitionally have to mean blood brothers and thus sons of Mary.
Or take Eusebius, who recorded these words of Hegesippus for posterity. Based on his usage of the phrase, what would he have supposed Hegesippus was saying? Probably the best place to look here is in Eusebius’ explanation of Jesus’ genealogy (though there are many others that point in the same direction.) Here, Eusebius must acknowledge that Jesus could not be “from David’s seed according to the flesh” (as Paul says in Romans 1:3) if one only looks at Matthew’s genealogy via Joseph, since Joseph himself was not Jesus’ father according to the flesh. As such, Eusebius logically infers that Mary too must have been descended from David: only then can Paul’s words make sense. As in the case of Chrysostom above, this apologetic line from Eusebius strongly indicates that the meaning of κατὰ σάρκα was plain in antiquity. After all, if the phrase could be construed as something general or vague, then Eusebius would not have needed to bother with extended commentary harmonizing Paul and the gospels.
These are just two of the simplest examples out of several dozen, which overwhelmingly point in the same direction. Only in one or possibly two cases can I find instances where the phrase has a discernibly broader meaning beyond “physical” kin.
What would this all mean for Mary and the family of Jesus? To put it conservatively, it means we have a reputable, identifiable Christian source, active in the mid-100s, claiming that Jude was known at the time as the Lord’s blood sibling. This may be our earliest post-NT source to offer commentary on Jesus’ family one way or the other. I leave it to readers to adjudicate the Mariological implications for themselves.
- For an explanation of these terms and a general survey of the history, see the still excellent excursus in J. B. Lightfoot, “The Brethren of the Lord,” in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, (Andover, MA: W. F. Draper, 1870), 88–128.
- Τοῦ δ’ αὐτοῦ Δομετιανοῦ τοὺς ἀπὸ γένους Δαυὶδ ἀναιρεῖσθαι προστάξαντος, παλαιὸς κατέχει λόγος τῶν αἱρετικῶν τινας κατηγορῆσαι τῶν ἀπογόνων Ἰούδα (τοῦτον δ’ εἶναι ἀδελφὸν κατὰ σάρκα τοῦ σωτῆρος) ὡς ἀπὸ γένους τυγχανόντων Δαυὶδ καὶ ὡς αὐτοῦ συγγένειαν τοῦ Χριστοῦ φερόντων. ταῦτα δὲ δηλοῖ κατὰ λέξιν ὧδέ πως λέγων ὁ Ἡγήσιππος· “Ἔτι δὲ περιῆσαν οἱ ἀπὸ γένους τοῦ κυρίου υἱωνοὶ Ἰούδα τοῦ κατὰ σάρκα λεγομένου αὐτοῦ ἀδελφοῦ· οὓς ἐδηλατόρευσαν ὡς ἐκ γένους ὄντας Δαυίδ. τούτους ὁ ἠουοκᾶτος ἤγαγεν πρὸς Δομετιανὸν Καίσαρα. ἐφοβεῖτο γὰρ τὴν παρουσίαν τοῦ Χριστοῦ ὡς καὶ Ἡρῴδης. καὶ ἐπηρώτησεν αὐτοὺς εἰ ἐκ Δαυίδ εἰσιν, καὶ ὡμολόγησαν.” ↑
- In addition to Lightfoot, see also the more recent discussion of Richard Bauckham, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church (New York: Bloomsbury, 2004), 19–32. ↑
- Καίτοι γε οὐδὲ κατὰ σάρκα ἀδελφὸς ἦν τοῦ Κυρίου, ἀλλ’ οὕτως ἐνομίζετο. Commentarius in Epistulam ad Galatas, PG 61:632. ↑
- Questiones Evangelicae 1.1. Claudio Zamagni, ed., Questions évangéliques, SC 523 (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2008). ↑
Questiones Evangelicae 1.9. ↑