Who are then the “brothers” of Jesus mentioned in several places in the Gospels?
Mark 6, 1-4 — He went away from there and came to his own country; and his disciples followed him. And on the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue; and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works are wrought by his hands! 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?” And they took offense at him. And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”
To understand these verses, we must keep in mind how the Gospels were translated from the original languages spoken by the main protagonists. Jesus, his family and disciples, spoke Aramaic. That was the language commonly used in Palestine in the first century. Like in many other parts of the Mediterranean under Roman rule, Greek and Latin were also spoken (John 19, 19-22). In Hebrew and Aramaic, there is no specific word for “brother”. The word aj is translated by the evangelists as adelphos (also adelphoi,) the Greek closest equivalent, meaning “brother”. That is why it is commonly rendered as “brother” in the modern translations.
The term aj is used in Aramaic and Hebrew to indicate a close familiar relation, or a close friendship. Saint Paul even uses the word pseudo-adelphos “false brother” in reference to his Jewish co-nationals who pretended to be Christian brothers while in reality wanted to turn the Christian congregations into Jewish cults (Galatians 2, 4). In reality the word adelphos, means “brother” in its broadest possible sense, and it could not be consistently translated as “sibling.” If that was done, many passages of the Bible would make no sense at all. This is very similar as the use we make today of the word “brother” in the English language. The popular anthem “God Bless America” has a line that reads “[God] crowned thy good with brotherhood from sea to shinning sea.” It would be absurd to infer from that usage that all Americans are sons and daughters of the same physical mother.
We find many uses of the words adelphos and adelphoi in the Bible. When all these passages are considered, it is easy to see how the word is applied. In fact, these passages would make no sense if adelphos was understood as “sibling” and not as the broadest sense of kinsman or kinswoman.
Luke 1, 36 — And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.
Elizabeth is Mary’s close relative. While some translations of the Bible use the term “cousin” in this verse, that use is improper because in Hebrew and Aramaic there is no actual word for “cousin.”
Luke 22, 32 — […] but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren […]
It is obvious that Peter was not being instructed by Jesus to go and instruct his siblings. Jesus is clearly referring to Peter’s brothers and sisters in the Christian community.
Acts 1, 14-15 — All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers. In those days Peter stood up among the brethren—the company of persons was in all about a hundred and twenty […]
It is rather obvious that Jesus could not have one hundred and twenty siblings, that would be absurd. See also Acts 7, 26; 28, 17 among many other examples where adelphoi is used to indicate brotherhood only in its broadest sense.
Genesis 14, 14-16 — When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred and eighteen of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. And he divided his forces against them by night, he and his servants, and routed them and pursued them to Hobah, north of Damascus. Then he brought back all the goods, and also brought back his kinsman Lot with his goods, and the women and the people.
This is another example, this time in the Old Testament. When the Hebrew translated the Old Testament into the common Greek spoken in the Ancient World they used the word anepsios (cousin) in this case (Genesis 11, 26-28). Yet Lot is called Abraham’s “brother” (adelphos) in Genesis 29, 15. There are many examples like this throughout the Old Testament also (2 Samuel 1, 26, 1 Kings 9, 13).
Luke 2, 41-51 — Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom; and when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the company they went a day’s journey, and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances; and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when they saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” And he said to them, “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” And they did not understand the saying which he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them; and his mother kept all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.
Saint Luke the Evangelist makes no mention of any siblings of Jesus in this detailed relation of the finding of Jesus in the Temple. In fact Saint Mark writes of Jesus as “the son of Mary” (Mark 6, 3) in the singular. Neither Luke, not Mark make mention of any siblings. Many argue that there could have been children of Joseph, who could have been a widower. However, it is almost certain that Joseph was himself also virgin, just as Mary. It only makes sense that the Holy Family was fully consecrated to God, just like Jesus was. In fact, that would make perfect sense considering Mary’s question to the angel in Luke 1, 34.
Mark 6, 3 — “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?” And they took offense at him.
In this verse we find four men that are called brothers of Jesus. Some quote this scripture as a definite proof that Mary had other children. Of course this is another case in which the Greek word adelphos is translated into the broadest meaning of the English word “brother”. Yet, even if we assume that James, Joses, Judas and Simon are actual brothers of Jesus, then we must add at least two sisters that are not mentioned by name in this passage. That would elevate the total number of siblings of Jesus to six. At the time of his preaching in the synagogue we know Jesus was about thirty years old (Luke 3, 23).
For Mary to be a “maiden” fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 7, 14, she should have been at least about sixteen at the time Jesus was born. Then, she would be about forty-six years old by the time Jesus began his ministry and preached at the synagogue. The four men mentioned here are old enough to be recognized as members of the community. Yet we know that, even if Mary would have had four sons in rapid succession after the birth of Jesus, all of them would be under thirty years of age by the time Jesus began his ministry. Not very old for the standards of the time and yet, old enough to take care of their mother if the oldest brother were to die. Yet, when Jesus dies, he trusts his mother to the care of Saint John! (John 19, 27). Such action on the part of a firstborn would be unconceivable in the context of the Jewish society of those days! Imagine a woman, the mother of at least seven children being left destitute by her own offspring, having no other recourse than to be taken care of by the family of a young friend of her eldest son. That would have been a certain scandal that the Gospel writers would not have failed to mention.
Additionally in John 19, 25; Matthew 27, 56 and Mark 15, 47 we read that James and Joses are close relatives of Jesus but not his siblings. They are listed as sons of Mary, the wife of Cleopas, also mentioned in Matthew 27, 61 and 28, 1 as woman other than the mother of Jesus. To further complicate the matter, James is called “the son of Alpheus” in Matthew 10, 3. Since there are no other references to this man named Alpheus in the Gospels, there is no way to know for certain who he was. It is likely that Alpheus was another name for Cleopas. Many persons in the Bible had both a Hebrew and a Greek name (i.e. Peter, Kepha; Saul, Paul).
Finally, some will argue that sometimes Jesus is referred to as Mary’s first-born. That does not imply that Mary had other sons or daughters later on. In Jewish culture the first-born was consecrated specially to God (Exodus 13, 2-12; Exodus 34, 20). If someone is referred to as the first-born, that does not necessarily mean that there has to be a second-born.
Assuming that Jesus had siblings creates a series of problems and contradictions that are impossible explain away. There is simply no way to—logically or biblically—deny the fact that Jesus was the only son of Mary and had no siblings.