Jesus’ Family—Who Were They?
IN MANY parts of the world, during December you often see scenes of the infant Jesus in the tender care of his mother, Mary, and his adoptive father, Joseph. Such family scenes may attract even those who do not profess to be Christians. Since the focus is on Jesus, what do the Scriptures tell us about Jesus’ human family?
Jesus had a most interesting family background. He was born to a virgin named Mary, thus becoming a member of the human family. According to the Bible, his life was transferred from heaven to Mary’s womb through holy spirit. (Luke 1:30-35) Before the miraculous conception of Jesus was announced, Mary had become engaged to a man named Joseph, who was thus to become Jesus’ adoptive father.
After Jesus’ birth, Joseph and Mary had other children, Jesus’ half brothers and sisters. That is evident from the question inhabitants of Nazareth later asked about Jesus: “Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary, and his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us?” (Matthew 1:25; 13:55, 56; Mark 6:3) We can conclude from this that Jesus’ immediate family consisted of his parents, four brothers, and at least two sisters.
However, some today do not believe that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were children of Joseph and Mary. Why? “The Church,” says the New Catholic Encyclopedia, “from its earliest days taught that Mary was always a virgin. In view of this, then, there can be no doubt that Mary did not have any other children.” The same reference work claims that the words “brother” and “sister” can refer to “some one or ones united in a religious or other common bond” or to relatives, perhaps cousins.
Is that really the case? Even some Catholic theologians, disagreeing with the traditional doctrine, support the view that Jesus had fleshly brothers and sisters. John P. Meier, former president of the Catholic Bible Association of America, wrote: “In the N[ew] T[estament] adelphos [brother], when used not merely figuratively or metaphorically but rather to designate some sort of physical or legal relationship, means only full or half-brother, and nothing else.”* Yes, the Scriptures indicate that Jesus had brothers and sisters who were born to Joseph and Mary.
The Gospels mention other relatives of Jesus, but let us now focus on Jesus’ immediate family and see what we can learn from them.
“The Brothers and Sisters of Jesus in Ecumenical Perspective,” by J. P. Meier, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, January 1992, page 21.