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Do Protestants Believe Jesus Had Brothers?

Updated on August 10, 2014
Albrecht Durer's woodcut, "Christ Taking Leave of his Mother"
Albrecht Durer's woodcut, "Christ Taking Leave of his Mother" | Source

In the New Testament, Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55, describe James, Joseph, Judas and Simon as being the brothers (in the original Greek, "adelphoi") of Jesus. In Galatians 1:19, the Apostle Paul mentions "James, the Lord's brother." Some facets of Christianity believe that Jesus' brothers were biologically related to him, that they were his mother's sons. Other facets say that "brothers" in this sense means "half brothers" or "cousins."

Ironically, the question of whether Jesus had brothers historically has been less about Jesus and his brothers and more about Mary and whether she would have had any other children besides Jesus. In the answer to the question we see shifting attitudes toward Mary as well as toward women and childbearing.

Virginity of Mary

What is at stake in this dispute is the nature of Mary, Jesus' mother. The author of the Gospel of Luke makes it clear that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus because Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. In the third and fourth centuries, Christian theologians extended the doctrine of the virgin birth to include the perpetual virginity of Mary. In other words, they believed that Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her life after Jesus' birth. The rationale behind this belief was the fact that Mary was the theotokos, the one who gave birth to Jesus, who was God. According to Father John Hainsworth of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, it was common for people in the first century who had experienced a close encounter with God to separate themselves sexually from their spouses. Since Mary carried the God-man in her womb, for her to go on to have other children would have been unlikely if not inappropriate. Therefore, the "brothers," of Jesus must have been cousins, neighbors, or Joseph's children by a previous marriage.

Variety of Belief

Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church believe in the perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary. The Catechism of the Council of Trent, published in 1566, claims that not only was Jesus conceived without a human father, he was born without pain and "without injury to [Mary's] maternal virginity." The catechism also affirms Mary's choice to remain a virgin for the rest of her life.

Reformers

The Protestant Reformers of the 15th and 16th century did not seem to call into question the medieval doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity. In the Lutheran Smalcald Articles, Mary is referred to as "the pure, holy and always Virgin Mary." The Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli said, "I firmly believe that Mary. . . forever remained a pure, intact Virgin." John Calvin affirmed the doctrine as well.

Modern Protestants

Modern Protestants tend to reject the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity. Protestants, when compared with Catholics and the Orthodox, give Mary a less exalted place in liturgy and devotion. According to Paul F. Palmer, author of "Mary in the Documents of the Church," Protestants see Mary as a fallen human being who was obedient to God when she accepted the role God gave her. They site Matthew 1:25, "[Joseph] did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son," as evidence that he and Mary were eventually sexually intimate and, therefore, could have had children after Jesus. Consequently, most modern Protestants have no reason to translate the word "adelphoi" as anything but "brothers."

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