Daily Lent Devotionals: March 15

The Cross, the Virgin, and Her Son—But Where Were the Other Sons?

"But No Man Laid Hands Upon Him" by James Tissot, 1886-94. "Is the Christ to come from Galilee?" (John 7:40-44) (click to enlarge).

"But No Man Laid Hands Upon Him" by James Tissot, 1886-94. "Is the Christ to come from Galilee?" (John 7:40-44) (click to enlarge).

Continuing on the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was an eyewitness to her own Son’s execution, we come now to the question: Why did Jesus commend his beloved mother to his disciple John, and not to any of his own family? This begs another question: Who—and where—was Jesus’ family during the most difficult hour of his life?

It is universally agreed that Mary would have been a widow by this time, Joseph not being mentioned anywhere after the childhood years of Jesus. But one of the most hotly-debated issues between Protestants and Catholics is whether Jesus had any siblings. Many in the early church taught that Mary was a “perpetual virgin” and had no other children after Jesus. This was the majority view starting in the 4th century, including Jerome (347-419), Epiphanius of Salamis (310/320-403), Augustine (354-430), and Gregory Nazianzus (329-390). Even the 16th century Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli and Martin Bucer agreed with this teaching. More recently, J.C. Ryle wrote that the the theory that Mary had other children is “very untenable and grossly improbable.” 1

But Scriptural evidence is clear and indisputable that Mary did not continue to be a virgin after the birth of Jesus. The first main evidence is that Jesus had siblings. After attending the wedding at Cana, Jesus “went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples” (John 2:12). In Mark 6:2-3, those who heard him preach asked one another, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?”

“Brothers”= Disciples, Cousins, Others, But Never Brothers
Roman Catholics argue that “brothers” and “sisters” here are Jesus’ disciples or cousins, and admittedly, this reading may have merit in some contexts (Matt 12:50, 14:3; Acts 3:17, 7:23; Heb 7:5). However in both passages above, the familial contexts are very clear. In John 2:12, his “brothers” are mentioned after his “mother.” In Mark 6:2-3, after they heard his authoritative teaching, his audience was astonished and incredulous, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands?” In other words, how could a carpenter’s son, from an unheralded family, in an insignificant town, in disreputable “Galilee of the Gentiles” (John 1:46; 7:41; 7:52; Isa 9:1-3), have such learning and power?

How else could “brothers” and “sisters” in the above texts be interpreted in light of John 7:3-5: “So his brothers said to him, ‘Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.’ For not even his brothers believed in him” (emphasis added). First, Jesus’ “disciples” and “brothers” are again distinctly separated. Second, are we to accept that Jesus’ disciples, called “brothers” of Jesus, “did not believe in him”?

The second primary evidence against Mary’s perpetual virginity are texts about the sexual relationship between Joseph and Mary as husband and wife. Matthew 1:18 tells us that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by a man-woman physical union, “When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” The verb “to come together” (Greek synerchomai) here means “to unite in an intimate relationship in a sexual context. 2 Matthew reiterates the same idea a few verses later, “but [Joseph] knew her not until [heos hou] she had given birth to a son” (Matt 1:25).

Catholics acknowledge that the verb “know” denotes physical union between husband and wife (see Gen 4:1), but argue that the word “until” does not necessarily mean that there was sexual union after Jesus’ birth, saying, “the Greek word translated ‘until’ does not imply normal marital conduct after Jesus’ birth, nor does it exclude it.” 3 However, the phrase heos hou (or heos, heos hotou) in other places in the New Testament (Matt 17:9, 24:39; cf John 9:18) always implies that the negated action actually took place at a later time. For example, “Jesus commanded them, ‘Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead’” (Matt 17:9).

Don’t Give Up on Your Unbelieving “Brothers”
Lastly, a text from the Old Testament is not often cited in these discussions, but this text is significant in its implications. Jesus quotes Psalm 69 twice in the Gospel of John. In John 15:25, he warns his disciples that the world will hate them, because “They hated me without a cause,” quoting Psalm 69:4. In John 2:17, after he drove away the Temple merchants, his disciples remembered what was written about him in Psalm 69:9, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

And within the words of Psalm 69:4-9, in verse 8, we find these words: “I have become a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my mother’s sons.” Since Jesus considers Psalm 69 as a psalm written about him, it is not a reach to apply this verse about his rejection by his “brothers,” his “mother’s sons.”

So if Jesus had brothers (and sisters), where were they as he was being put to death? And why would Jesus commend his mother to his disciple John, and not to them? The answer is in John 7:5, “For not even his brothers believed in him.” Jesus knew this from Scriptures, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household” (Matt 13:57). Perhaps all the way to his crucifixion, his brothers were not believers.

But it was not a hopeless situation, for where do we find Jesus’ brothers after the resurrection? They were in the upper room in Jerusalem, with all the twelve apostles: “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers (Acts 1:14; emphasis added).


Notes:

  1. J.C. Ryle, John in Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1873), rep. 1999, 350.
  2. Walter Bauer, Frederick Danker, William Arndt, William, F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 970.
  3. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Matthew Chapter 1,” http://www.usccb.org/bible/matthew/1/. Accessed March 15, 2012.
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