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The "Brothers" of Jesus

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(Last Updated:  05 Jan 2002 )

This page is an adaptation of a handout I provided with a presentation I gave recently on Mary, and it looks at what the New Testament has to say about the brothers of Jesus.  Obviously if they were direct biological brothers then that would have significant implications for the Catholic doctrine on Mary's perpetual virginity.  For more on this topic, see my Mary's Perpetual Virginity links page.

Jesus' "Brothers":

The Women by the Cross:

Scripture Woman #1 Woman #2 Woman #3 Woman #4 Woman #5
John 19:25 - "But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene." Mary (Mother of Jesus) Mary the wife of Clopas (Cleophas), sister1 of Jesus' mother Mary Magdalene    
Mark 15:40 - "There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome"   Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses Mary Magdalene Salome  
Matthew 27:55-56 - " There were also many women there… among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee."   Mary the mother of James and Joseph Mary Magdalene   Mother of the sons of Zebedee (James2 and John)
1Sisters with the same name? (a) They may have been cousins or more distant relatives (the word used for sister is not conclusive); (b) Many manuscripts have the Virgin Mary as "Mariam", and the other Mary as "Maria", so they could have been sisters with similar but distinct names (both names are probably based on "Miriam", the name of the sister of Moses).

2Note that there are two disciples named James: one is the son of Alphaeus, and the other is the son of Zebedee.

James, the Lord's "brother"

 Galatians 1:19 - "But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother."
(a) This apostle James is not the son of Zebedee ("James the Greater"), who had been killed by Herod:
Acts 12:1-2 - "About that time Herod the king laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword;"
(b) The only other apostle James is James the son of Alphaeus (this James is "James the Lesser";  note that there's also another Judas, probably the son of another James).
Luke 6:13-16 - "And when it was day, he called his disciples, and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles; 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor."
(c) The Apostle James, son of Alphaeus, also has a brother called Jude:
Jude 1 - "Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James, To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ:"
(d) Some people think that Alphaeus is another translation of Clopas or Cleophas.  This would mean that James the Apostle, son of Alphaeus/Clopas is the James talked about in Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3, and Jude 1.


James, Joseph/Joses, Simon and Judas/Jude are not sons of the Virgin Mary but of Clopas and his wife Mary/Maria.  Mary the wife of Clopas is the "sister" of Mary the mother of Jesus, which makes the "brothers" actually Jesus' cousins (or possibly more distant relatives).  The apostle James who St. Paul refers to as the Lord's brother is the son of Alphaeus, not the son of Mary or Joseph.

The key to understanding all this is the fact that the word used for "brother" in these passages can have a wider range of meaning than simply an immediate family member.

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