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The “Brothers” of Jesus: A Fresh Look at the Evidence

by Brant Pitre March 01, 2016 2 Comments


Transcript - This video's content is taken from Dr. Pitre's set, The Letters of Peter, James, John & Jude: A Bible Study on the Catholic Epistles. 

Who are the so-called brothers of Jesus that you find mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark?  Did Mary really have other children, or is there some other way to explain this mysterious group of people mentioned in the Gospels.  Now maybe you have not encountered this before, but if you open the Gospel of Matthew, for example, to chapter 13, you'll encounter this group of people that are referred to as Jesus' brothers.  This is what the Gospel says: 

When Jesus had finished his parables, he went away from there, and coming into his own country he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, "Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works?  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?  And are not all his sisters with us?  Where then did this man get all this?  And they took offense at him.

We'll pause there.  Notice, what we have here in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 13, as well as a parallel in the Gospel Mark, is an account of these four men: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas, who were called the brothers of Jesus.  Now there's a long-standing debate about the exact relationship of these men to Jesus.  It goes back to the early centuries of the Church.  On the one hand, in the Catholic tradition, these have always been regarded as the cousins of Jesus.  In other words, they're not the children of Mary, so Catholic apologists will often point to a few key texts in the Bible to support the conclusion that the so-called brothers of Jesus are not actually children of Mary.  So for example, they'll point to the fact that the word brother in the Old Testament, like in Genesis 13 and 14, can be used to describe some other kind of relation, like a cousin or a nephew, with reference Abram and Lot.  Also, they'll point to the fact that in Luke chapter 1, when Mary response to the angel's declaration that she's going to have a baby, her response only makes sense if she has taken some kind of vow of virginity, because she says "how shall this be since I know not man."  In other words, since I don't have relations with a man, even though she's already married.  They'll also point to the account of the crucifixion in John 19, when Jesus gives Mary to John the disciple so that John can take care of her, and entrusts her to John as John's mother.  It seems unlikely that Jesus would've done this if he was survived by brothers, in other words, if Mary had other children it would've been their obligation to take care of her.  Whereas if she only has Jesus, it makes perfect sense that Jesus gives her to John for safekeeping. 

Now what I'd like to do in this video is, in addition to those arguments, I want to approach the question of who were the brothers of Jesus and were they children of Mary?  I want to approach it from another angle.  I want to make the case that we actually can know that James and Joseph and Simon and Judas aren't the children of Mary and Joseph, because the Gospels themselves tell us they aren't, and the early church fathers make clear who these men were.  So let's go back to the gospel itself, and we'll look in the Gospel of Matthew at the evidence for who these men were.  So in trying to figure out who they are we don't just want to look at Matthew 13, we also want to look at the second time Matthew mentioned them.  It's in Matthew chapter 27.  So if you fast-forward to the Gospel of Matthew 27, and look at Matthew's account of the crucifixion, we're going to see something very interesting.  We'll see that Matthew tells us about this group of women that follow Jesus to the cross, and this is what he says, in Matthew 27 verse 55 we read:

There were also many women there [i.e. at the cross], looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him; among whom were Mary Magdalene [number one], and Mary the mother of James and Joseph [number two], and [number three,] the mother of the sons of Zebedee.  

Pause there for a second.  So notice, Matthew's describing the scene at the foot of the cross, and noticed there's lots of Mary's there.  Mary was a very popular name in Judaism at the time of Jesus, because it was the Greek form of the Hebrew name Miriam, Moses' sister.  So we have Mary Magdalene (number one), then Mary the mother of James and Joseph.  Now that second woman is the one that's important for us, because James and Joseph have already been identified in the Gospel of Matthew.  We met them in chapter 13 when Matthew called them the brothers of Jesus.  Now, what's significant about this identification in Matthew 27 for us, is that if you keep reading the account of Jesus' crucifixion and burial, he's going to go on to tell us that this Mary that was at the foot of the cross, also went out to the tomb with Mary Magdalene.  And listen to how Matthew describes her.  In Matthew 27:60 it says that they took "a clean linen shroud, and laid it in his own new tomb, which [Joseph, meaning Joseph of Arimathea,] had hewn in the rock; and he rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, and departed."  And then in verse 61 it says, "Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the sepulchre."  Now who is this other Mary?  Well, as most scholars will argue here, this is a reference to Mary, the mother of James and Joseph, and so this reference here cannot, it simply cannot, be referring to the Virgin Mary, because it's impossible that Matthew would have ever referred to Jesus' mother as, quote, "the other Mary."  Obviously here, the other Mary refers to the mother of James and Joseph, who was at the foot of the cross, so this other Mary is explicitly identified in the Gospel of Matthew as being the mother of the two men called the brothers of Jesus.  So we have a clue here, if this other Mary is their mother, then they can't be the children of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus.  So even if we just had Matthew's Gospel alone, we would have sufficient evidence to identify the brothers of Jesus as some other kind of relation, probably a cousin, the sons of this woman that Matthew very tellingly calls the other Mary.  

But we don't just have Matthew's Gospel, we also have evidence from the Gospel of John.  So if you turn to John's account of the crucifixion, in Johbn 19, we get one more piece of evidence about this woman called the other Mary.  So in John 19:25 we read these words:

Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.

Alright pause there.  So John, again, is giving a slightly different account of the crucifixion.  He's highlighting some of the same people, but he's giving us a little more information.  So he tells us that the Virgin Mary, number one, was present at the foot of the cross.  We know this from John's Gospel.  Second though, it also tells us that Mary's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, was present at the cross.  Now this is very significant, because this Mary, who's called the sister of the Virgin Mary, can be correlated with the other Mary in the Gospel of Matthew, who was called the mother of James and Joseph.  In other words, we have even more evidence of who the other Mary is.  She's identified as, not the wife of Joseph, but the wife of another man name Clopas, and this would of course make Joseph and James, the two sons of Mary, the so-called brothers of Jesus, the children of Mary and her husband Clopas, this other Mary and this, as of yet unknown man, Clopas.  We'll come back to him in just a minute.

Notice here one other point.  The very fact that John refers to the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ, as having a "sister," in Greek an adelphé, named Mary, proves the point that will often be made, that the word brother, adelphos, or the word sister, adelphé, doesn't necessarily always mean a blood brother or a blood sister.  It can also mean a relative of some sort, like a cousin.  Because it seems very unlikely, it's not impossible, but it's very unlikely that the Virgin Mary had a blood sister named Mary as well.  But it would've been very common for her to have a cousin or a relative named Mary, and that's who this other Mary is being identified here as in the Gospel of John.  So when we take the evidence from Matthew's Gospel, and we put it together with the evidence from John's Gospel, it seems quite clear, in fact there's no other way to really read the evidence, that James and Joseph, the so-called brothers of Jesus, are the sons of another Mary who's related to the Virgin Mar,y and who is the wife of a man name Clopas.

Now if that's all we had I think that would be sufficient to settle the point that the brothers of Jesus, the so-called brothers in the Gospels, are in fact his relatives, his cousins.  But that's not all we have, we also have external evidence from the early church fathers that clarify that these otherwise mysterious figures of Mary and Clopas and James and Joseph, the brothers of Jesus, that the early church knew exactly who these people were, and that they also knew that they were not the children of Mary and Joseph.  Instead that they were relatives of Jesus, that is they were his cousins.

In order to see this clearly, we need to go outside the Bible to look at the writings of an early church father named Eusebius.  Eusebius was the most important historian of the early church, he was writing in the early fourth century A.D. a very famous work called The Church History, and in that book he draws together evidence from earlier centuries, and identifies who these so-called brothers of Jesus are.  So let's see what Eusebius has to say about the identity of James, Joseph, Mary and Clopas.  There are three passages in Eusebius that are worth paying attention to if we want to answer the question, who are the brothers of Jesus?  Are they the children of Mary?  The first comes from Eusebius's Church History, book 4: paragraph 22, and it says this:

After James the just had suffered martyrdom, for the same reason as the Lord,  Simeon, his cousin [meaning the Lords cousin], the son of Clopas, was appointed Bishop.  Whom they all propose because he was another cousin of the Lord.

Alright, pause there.  So notice what Eusebius just said.  He is showing here that James, the brother of Jesus, that's what Paul calls him, who is also known as James the Just, the first bishop of Jerusalem, the one who's mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles and in the letters of Paul, after James the brother Jesus was martyred, the next person to be appointed Bishop was Simeon, or Simon, who was another one of the so-called brothers of Jesus.  But as Eusebius makes clear, he wasn't a child of Mary, he was in fact the cousin of Jesus, because he was the son of Clopas.  So the bishops of Jerusalem, starting with James as the first Bishop, and Simon as the second Bishop, were cousins of Jesus, and the early church fathers knew this.  And Eusebius wasn't making this point in any kind of defense of the perpetual virginity of Mary, it was just standard early Christian tradition going back to the early fathers.  

But this isn't the only place he identifies these men.  A second passage in The Church History is also important.  In book 3: paragraphs 11 through 12, Eusebius talks about, again, the martyrdom of James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, and he goes on to give us a little more information about who Clopas was.  Listen to what he writes:

After the martyrdom of James and the capture of Jerusalem which immediately followed, the story goes that those of the apostles and disciples of the Lord who were still alive came together from everyplace with those who were humanly speaking of the family of the Lord (for many of them were then still alive) and they all took counsel together as to whom they ought to judge worthy to succeed James.  They all unanimously decided that Simeon [or Simon], the son of Clopas, whom the scripture of the Gospel also mentions; was worthy of the throne of the diocese there. He [meaning Simon] was, so it's said, a cousin of the Savior.  For Hegesippus [another church father] relates that Clopas was the brother of Joseph. 

Alright, stop there.  So notice, Eusebius clarifies here, not only is Mary the mother of James and Joseph related to the Virgin Mary, Clopass here is identified as a brother or a relative of Joseph.  So this explains who the so-called brothers of Jesus are, they are, once again, his cousins, and everybody knew it.  It was accepted not just by Eusebius, but by other writers, such as Hegesippus.  Finally, I want to add one more text from Eusebius, this is from book 3, paragraph 32 of The Church History.  He also goes on to tell us about another one of Jesus's so-called brothers.  If you remember from the Gospel Matthew, four people were mentioned: Simon, Joseph, James and Jude (or Judas).  How would you like to have that name?  But that was the name of one of the so-called brothers of Jesus, a very common name in the first century.  And Eusebius writes this:

The same writer says that other grandsons of one of the so-called brothers of the Savior [noticed Eusebius says so-called brothers], named Judas, survived the martyrdoms that were taking place, to the same reign, after they given in the time of Domitian, and the testimony was already recorded on them in behalf of the faith in Christ.  They came therefore he writes: “and presided over every church as witnesses belonging to the Lords family.” 

So, the third so-called brother Jesus, named Judas, actually survived well into the late first century, and he was well known to everyone.  And guess who they thought he was? Not the son of Mary, but Jesus's cousin, one of the sons of Clopas.  So in closing then, what do we have before us?  If we look not just at the Gospels, but the Gospels and the writings of the early church fathers, again even those like Eusebius, who in this case isn’t trying to defend the perpetual virginity of Mary, he’s just stating the history of the early Christian bishops in the city of Jerusalem, we see that the evidence converges to show that the so-called brothers of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels, they’re not the children of the Virgin Mary.  It doesn't say that they are the children of Joseph, either from a former marriage or whatnot.  It says very clearly that they were the children of the other Mary, who is the wife of Clopas, and that these men, James the brother of Jesus, Simon the brother Jesus, went on to be the bishops of the early church in Jerusalem.  There’s no mystery about who they were, they were the cousins of Jesus.

So I hope this has helped to clarify this identity of the so-called brothers of Jesus.  If you enjoyed this Bible study and you’d like to go into more depth, click on the link to the Bible study on your right and you can check out my new extended study of the letters of James, the brother Jesus, as well as the letters of Peter and John and Jude, the so-called Catholic epistles, and I'll take you into much more depth, not only about the identity of James, but about what the message of James was in his letter to the early Christian Church.



Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre

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2 Responses

George Hatch
George Hatch

March 17, 2017

Probably the best talk I’ve seen/heard on the subject.

Beth Cook
Beth Cook

January 05, 2017

Thank you for this researched explanation of the relationship of the “brothers of Jesus” to Jesus and his family.

I have heard, from someone in authority, that Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” were actually orphans that Mary and Joseph took into their home to raise, given there were no orphanages at that time. Please comment.

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