Mary 6 – Brothers

In the comments to Elizabeth Esther’s post, there were primarily two objections from Scripture raised against the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. The more common one asks about his brothers — two of whom are also considered to have written books of the New Testament. If Mary didn’t have any more children, how is it that Jesus had brothers? I think the fact that it’s such a common and sincere question illustrates how completely disconnected so many modern Christians have become from the historical tradition of the Church. It was my impression that most of the people who asked about Jesus’ brothers in the comments on EE’s post weren’t consciously disagreeing with the tradition of the Church; rather, they knew nothing about it.

The oldest, and I believe most likely, tradition is that Joseph was an older man, a widower, and a father. Thus the siblings of Jesus were Joseph’s children from his prior marriage. That feels right to me on multiple levels. First, we are told that Joseph had earned the name or reputation of tsadiq or righteous. In the context of an externalized honor-shame culture, that public name is even more significant. While I suppose it’s possible a young man could be numbered among the tsadiqim, it feels more like the sort of recognition an older, more established man would have earned — especially in a culture that already tended to respect age over youth.

Also, the snippets of encounters in the Gospels (Mark 3:31-32 and Matthew 12:46-47) have always felt to me more like older brothers trying to straighten out a younger sibling who isn’t doing what they expected him to do. But perhaps that’s just the eldest sibling (and eldest first cousin, for that matter) in me.

And finally, we know that Joseph died sometime after teaching Jesus a trade, but before the Theophany at our Lord’s baptism. While people can and could die at any age from many causes, this fact fits with the idea that he was an older man when he was betrothed to Mary.

A different tradition arose in the West, casting Joseph as a younger man closer to Mary in age. In that tradition, the brothers of Jesus are actually his cousins raised in close proximity to him and possibly even in the same household. (The nuclear family as we understand it is quite different from ancient households and families.) That’s certainly possible. It’s true that ancient Aramaic used the same word for all close male relations of a similar age or generation. And the Greek word used also does not necessarily describe a sibling relationship, though it can. From everything I’ve been able to discover, this tradition arises later and exclusively in the West. Jerusalem and the regions in the Gospels are all in the East and this tradition never took root there. For both those reasons, it seems less likely to me.

Finally there is John 19:25-27 to consider.

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.

I’ve only been a member of a Southern Baptist Church as a Christian, so I’m familiar with the modern, Protestant understanding of the above passage. Basically it goes that as the eldest son, Jesus was responsible for his widowed mother and since his brothers did not believe he was the Messiah and had rejected him (an assertion, I’ll note, for which there really isn’t any evidence), he chose to have John care for Mary. I suppose that makes sense to our modern sensibilities, but it’s completely anachronistic. First, all the sons of a widow were responsible for her care. And it was an automatic obligation on the eldest surviving son. It wasn’t something that had to be passed along.

Now, think back to my post on the way honor-shame culture works. In that culture, if others believe that I have done something wrong, even if I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong, I am still shamed and dishonored. So under the above interpretation of John’s gospel account, what’s really happening is that Jesus, John, and Mary are all colluding to publicly shame her other sons. I just don’t believe that’s the case. It doesn’t fit the character of any of them as captured in the gospels. It’s certainly difficult to imagine James, after being so dishonored by Jesus himself, becoming the first leading Bishop of the Jerusalem Church and such an influential early Christian figure.

No, the most reasonable interpretation of the text is that Jesus was Mary’s only son so he gave her into the care of John to ensure she didn’t suffer the fate of widows with no sons. (The ancient world was pretty harsh and there was no social safety net. Widows with no sons often did not survive long.) That’s not to say that his community of followers and extended family wouldn’t have cared for Mary anyway, but by doing this Jesus faithfully discharged even this last obligation. Remember, in Christian understanding, Jesus is the one, true faithful man and the fulfillment of faithful Israel.

Of course, John is known as the theological gospel and everything in it has multiple layers of meaning. This text is no different. However,  those layers of theology are grounded in an actual event. At least, most Christians agree it’s an actual event.

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