Monday, November 11, 2019

Anonymous Asks (66)

“Did Jesus have brothers and sisters?”

I’m going to answer this as if it reads “earthly brothers and sisters”. In other words, literal siblings, children from the womb of the same mother. We all know of situations in which the words “brothers” and “sisters” are used figuratively in everyday language, particularly in a religious context. In this case we will not bother talking at length about New Testament figurative uses of “brother” or “sister”, as the answer is obvious enough to make this a very short post indeed.

So let’s get the metaphorical usage out of the way quickly.

Figuring out the Figurative

In the gospel of Matthew, the risen Christ tells Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, “Tell my brothers to go to Galilee.” Who shows up in Galilee? Why, the eleven remaining disciples, none of whom (to the best of our knowledge) were relatives of Jesus.

Obviously these women understood that at least in this instance Jesus was making use of a figure of speech. They did not go looking for literal “brothers” to tell. They recognized he was speaking warmly and affectionately about his disciples.

So did Jesus have metaphorical siblings? Absolutely. Nobody disputes that. The question is whether that was all he had.

A Contrast in View

The biblical answer is yes, after Jesus, Mary did indeed have other children, presumably with her husband Joseph, though he is not mentioned much after the early chapters of the gospels. There are several times the gospel writers appear to reference these offspring, and at least one occasion where no figurative interpretation of “brother” or “family” makes any sense at all; in fact, the narrative becomes quite incoherent when read metaphorically.

Consider these verses in Matthew, which tell a story also found in the book of Mark:
“While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’ ”
Where responsibilities to family members are concerned, the conflict between earthly and heavenly priorities poses a frequent difficulty for would-be disciples of Christ. Jesus spoke repeatedly and consistently about how to deal with it.

Confusing Ourselves Unnecessarily

In the passage quoted above, we have the Lord deliberately contrasting literal family members (the first bold reference) with figurative family members (the second). The whole point of what he is saying here is that biological ties are less important than obedience to God. The lesson we should take from it is that if we are trying to live as Jesus did, we will give the highest priority to those who are fellow servants of God, our brothers and sisters in Christ. We will not let our natural, earthly responsibilities to biological family members keep us from discharging our spiritual responsibilities to fellow believers.

But look what happens to the passage if we try to make the “mother and brothers” standing outside the house metaphorical instead of literal. We get nonsense. We get Jesus contrasting a metaphorical mother and metaphorical brothers with more metaphorical mothers and brothers. Not only is the lesson lost, but we end up completely confused. What is he trying to say here?

Theological Baggage

Any person reading the passage for the first time without a lot of imported theological baggage will read it naturally and understand it perfectly. The only way a person might have difficulty understanding it is if someone with a mysterious, unexplained agenda had already told them categorically that Jesus’ mother Mary never had any other children.

Now, why on earth would anyone do that?


  1. In my opinion I find these arguments and conclusions a bit more persuasiv:

    1. The point remains: a normal, natural reading of the text does not lend itself to such contrivances. They are only necessary if the reader has already concluded -- and concluded without a scintilla of positive biblical evidence -- that Mary had no further children.

  2. Well, as far as l can tell your statement similarly offers no scintilla of evidence. The ones offered by the Catholic scholars are just as, if not more, compelling. So it may come down to the best educated and logical guess. Let me offer mine here.

    Marriage between a man and woman is of course very important to us and to God who, we can assume, respects it very much as an institution as he wants us to do also. It is therefore clear that it was known to God that Joseph would certainly not have appreciated that another man (even as God) would inject himself into his marriage. God however knew that Joseph would be able to figure out the circumstances and why it needed to be handled that way. Namely, he knew that Joseph realized that it was God who was getting involved and that it was done this way to protect Mary from the social stigma of illegitimate child birth. Joseph also realized that God needed a male in Mary's live to support her and the child. And God knew that Joseph had the character to do exactly that. That's why in the Catholic tradition Saint Joseph occupies a very special place as a chaste saint who cooperated with God's plan (and we all know how difficult chastity can be). Mary, as the bride of God, was therefore protected and faithful in her status as bride of the almighty while Joseph took on the role of God's faithful servant. It is for these reasons that there CANNOT be another human offspring from Mary since that would contradict God's values concerning marriage and his purposes concerning salvation. And this is exactly what the Catholic Church has recognized and teaches.

    1. Well, as far as I can tell your statement similarly offers no scintilla of evidence.

      Well, my Bible doesn't say Mary remained a virgin, and yours doesn't either. Neither is Mary referred to anywhere in scripture as the "bride of God", nor is there any suggestion that what occurred in Mary via the Holy Spirit constituted a marriage or should be in any way judged by human standards.

      When one says, "There is no evidence in scripture for that", one is either right or wrong. If I'm wrong, let those who disagree kindly produce some! The onus is on the person or institution making such an assertion to demonstrate its validity with something other than statements like "It could have been this way ..."

    2. In that case you seem to ignore the obvious and you seem to (deliberately?) miss the points here. God can absolutely be assumed to be respectful of human relationships and would not just inject himself in them except for the premises I am making. That is exactly why Mary is his bride because that is how God has instituted procreation which he obviously meant to pursue on the human level. Therefore, by recognizing these self-evident facts Mary is considered to be the Queen of heaven by the Catholic believer. There are plenty of miraculous interventions on part of Mary throughout history confirming all this. But, as always, they are ignored if they do not buttress the agenda of the person involved.