Friday, 2 March 2012

Jesus' Brothers and Sisters

As we have seen, the long ‘silence’ between Our Lord’s infancy and His manhood is interrupted only by His visit to Jerusalem and His appearance before the Temple teachers at the age of twelve (see Lk. 2: 41ff). On returning to Nazareth, Luke tells us that Jesus was ‘subject’ to His ‘parents’ and that He matured intellectually and physically (see vs. 51-2). Beside Mary and Joseph, ‘relatives and acquaintances’ (v. 44) would have met Jesus. Although the information is meagre, it is nonetheless useful and important.
In case we are tempted to think that Jesus had a lonely childhood, the evidence indicates the presence of other children in the family circle. At a later period after the beginning of His ministry, they—at least the boys (!)—are even named. Teaching in the synagogue during a return visit to Nazareth, astonished and offended listeners said, “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” (Mk. 6: 3). Since Joseph is not mentioned, he was possibly dead by now. Probably trained by Joseph, Jesus ‘the carpenter’ possibly ran the family business with His brothers after their father’s death.

More importantly, Mark’s evidence suggests that those mentioned were Jesus’ half brothers and sisters. In other words, after His own miraculous birth, Joseph and Mary— as husband and wife—had other children in a normal, natural way. Matthew’s account of Christ’s birth surely indicates this: ‘Joseph … took to him [Mary] his wife, and did not know her [in a marital sense] till she had brought forth her first born son’ (Matt. 1: 24-5; for ‘know’, see also Gen. 4: 1). While the use of ‘till’ does not necessarily imply that a previously non-occurring event took place afterwards (see Gen. 28: 15; 1 Sam. 15: 35; Ps. 110: 1; Ps. 112: 8; Matt. 12: 20), the reference to ‘brothers and sisters’ of Jesus makes it difficult to deny in this case. This view is strengthened by the fact that Matthew calls Jesus Mary’s ‘first born son’. This seems to imply that other children followed.

Such a view has not commanded general agreement. The identity of these ‘brothers and sisters’ was hotly debated among the early Church Fathers of the 3rd and 4th centuries. First, some—including Origen, Clement of Alexandria and Epiphanius—argued that they were children of Joseph by a previous marriage. Thus they had no blood-relationship with Jesus. Second, Jerome and Augustine (of Hippo) argued that these ‘brothers and sisters’ were really ‘cousins’. Third, Helvidius – taking a more natural view of the evidence - taught that they were true siblings of Jesus.
In reply to the first view, there is simply no evidence for it in any of the Gospels. In reply to the second view, the Greek words translated as ‘cousin’ (anepsios, see Col. 4: 10, NKJV and sungenis, see Lk. 1: 36, AV) are not used of the ‘brothers’ of Jesus. In Mark 6: 3, Jesus is called their ‘brother’ (Gk: adelphos). Two other significant statements confirm this. First, when Jesus was teaching on a previous occasion, Mary and His brothers (and possibly His sisters) sought His attention. We read: “Look, your mother and brothers (Gk: adelphoi) are outside seeking you” (Mk. 3: 31-2). Second, when relating the attitude of Jesus’ brothers to His claims, John states that ‘even his brothers (Gk: adelphoi) did not believe in him’ (Jn. 7: 5).
It is often claimed that ‘brother’ may be used in a broader sense than a sibling. This is quite true. The Israelites were to regard one another as ‘brethren’ (Heb: achim; see Gen. 14: 12, 14; Num. 32: 6), a fact confirmed in the New Testament (see Acts 13: 26). Furthermore, fellow Christians—irrespective of family or ethnic grouping—viewed one another as ‘brethren in Christ’ (see Col. 1: 2). However, these are derivative and metaphorical uses of ‘brother’ (Heb: ach; Gk: adelphos). Obviously, the very first and thus source example of the word in Genesis 4: 2 can only mean ‘brother of the same womb’. As we have seen, if ‘brother’ is used in a wider sense of ‘relatives’ or ‘kindred’, moledeth (Hb) and sungenis (Gk) rather than ach and adelphos are the words used.
It is also said that if Mary had other sons beside Jesus, Our dying Lord would not have placed His mother in the care of the Apostle John (see Jn. 19: 27). In view of the fact that—at that time—‘his brothers did not believe in him’ (Jn. 7: 5), Jesus clearly wished believing John rather than unbelieving brothers to care for her. What became of his ‘sisters’ we simply do not know. They were probably married and busy caring for their children in Nazareth or elsewhere by then.

Happily, ‘his brothers’ were eventually converted. They were members of the early Church together with Mary (see Acts 1: 14). The Apostle Paul supplies us with two important details about one of them. First, he tells us that the risen Lord Jesus ‘was seen by James’ (1 Cor. 15: 7). Second, Paul refers to him as ‘James, the Lord’s brother’ (Gal. 1: 19). Since Jewish Christians were ‘brothers of Christ’ in both ethnic and spiritual senses, Paul must mean that James was a ‘blood (half) brother’ as well.
Furthermore, of all Our Lord’s ‘brothers’, the career of James in the New Testament is important. After the Apostle John’s brother James was martyred by Herod (see Acts 12: 2), James - probably ‘the Lord’s brother rather than the Apostle James ‘the son of Alphaeus’ (Mk. 3: 18) - was a leader of the Jerusalem church (see Acts 15: 13). He was also the likely author of the Epistle of James. Instead of describing himself as an apostle, the author calls himself ‘a servant’ (literally ‘a slave’ from Gk: doulos). (James ‘the son of Alphaeus’ would have followed apostolic usage in his introduction had he been the author.)

First, unless there is something basically sinful about marriage, there is no reason to imagine that Joseph and Mary simply lived as brother and sister after the birth of Jesus. God’s gift of marriage was also available to them (see Heb. 13: 4). Apart from being the mother of the unique Son of God, Mary was also an example of motherhood in being the mother of Joseph’s sons and daughters. This is her lasting legacy to the Church, not as a ‘Mediatrix’ or ‘Queen of Heaven’ but as a dear sister in Christ. Although he and Luther seemed reluctant to question the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity, John Calvin rightly corrects the unbiblical errors of Rome’s view of Mary:

How necessary this warning became, in consequence of the gross and abominable superstitions which followed later, is known well enough. For Mary has been made Queen of Heaven, the Hope, the Life and Salvation of the world; and in fact, their insane raving went so far that they just stripped Christ and adorned her with the spoils. And when we condemn those accursed blasphemies against the Son of God, the Papists call us malicious and envious. Nay, they spread the wicked slander that we are deadly foes to the honour of the holy virgin. As if she had not all the honour that belongs to her without being made a goddess! As if it were honouring her to adorn her with sacrilegious titles and put her in Christ’s place! It is they who do Mary a cruel injury when they snatch from God what belongs to Him that they may deform her with false praises (Comment on John 2).
Second, just as physical descent from believing parents does not – of itself – make us Christians, even being a half brother to Christ did not convey spiritual life and privileges. Just as Mary trusted Christ for salvation (see Lk. 1: 47), so her other children were only Christians by faith in Him. Even James boasted no other relationship with Jesus than that enjoyed by all other believers (see Jas. 2: 1). Since Jesus is the ‘elder brother’ of all who believe (see Heb. 2: 17), may we rejoice in this precious saving spiritual relationship with Him. Irrespective of any other privileges or disadvantages, all may share this ‘belonging’ in the family of God. Amen!

 Supplied by Rev. Dr Alan C. Clifford, Norwich Reformed Church

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