Brethren of the Lord
In Mt 12:46 ff; Mr 3:31 ff; Lu 8:19 ff, while Jesus was in the midst of an earnest argument with scribes and Pharisees, His mother and brothers sent a message evidently intended to end the discussion. In order to indicate that no ties of the flesh should interfere with the discharge of the duties of His Messianic office, He stretched His hands toward His disciples, and said: "Whosoever shall do the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother." In Mt 13:54 ff; Mr 6:2 ff, while He was teaching in His own town, Nazareth, His neighbors, who, since they had watched His natural growth among them, could not comprehend the extraordinary claims that He was making, declare in an interrogative form, that they know all about the entire family, mother, brothers and sisters. They name the brothers. Bengel suggests that there is a tone of contempt in the omission of the names of the sisters, as though not worth mentioning. In Joh 2:12, they are said to have accompanied Jesus and His mother and disciples from the wedding at Cana. In Joh 7:3 ff, they are described as unbelieving, and ridiculing His claims with bitter sarcasm. This attitude of hostility has disappeared, when, at Jerusalem, after the resurrection and ascension (Ac 1:14), in the company of Mary and the Eleven, and the faithful group of women, they "continued steadfastly in prayer," awaiting the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Their subsequent participation in the missionary activity of the apostolic church appea rs in 1Co 9:5: "Have we no right to lead about a wife that is a believer, even as the rest of the apostles, and the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas?" In Ga 1:19, James, bishop of the church at Jerusalem, is designated "the Lord's brother," thus harmonizing with Mt 13:55, where their names are recorded as James, Joseph, Simon and Judas. When, then, "Jude, .... brother of James" is mentioned (Jude 1:1), the immediate inference is that Jude is another brother of the Lord. In reading these passages, the natural inference is that these "brethren" were the sons of Joseph and Mary, born after Jesus, living with Mary and her daughters, in the home at Nazareth, accompanying the mother on her journeys, and called the "brethren" of the Lord in a sense similar to that in which Joseph was called His father. They were brethren because of their common relationship to Mary. This impression is strengthened by the fact that Jesus is called her prototokos, "first-born son" (Lu 2:7), as well as by the very decided implication of Mt 1:25. Even though each particular, taken separately, might, with some difficulty, be explained otherwise, the force of the argument is cumulative. There are too many items to be explained away, in order to establish any other inference. This view is not the most ancient. It has been traced to Tertullian, and has been more fully developed by Belvidius, an obscure writer of the 4th century
Two other views have been advocated with much learning and earnestness. The earlier, which seems to have been prevalent in the first three centuries and is supported by Origen, Eusebius, Gregory of Nyssa and Ambrose, Epiphanius being its chief advocate, regards these "brethren" as the children of Joseph by a former marriage, and Mary as his second wife. Joseph disappears from sight when Jesus is twelve years old. We know nothing of him after the narrative of the child Jesus in the temple. That there is no allusion to him in the account of the family in Mr 6:3 indicates that Mary had been a widow long before she stood by the Cross without the support of any member of her immediate family. In the Apocryphal Gospels, the attempt is made to supply what the canonical Gospels omit. They report that Joseph was over eighty years of age at his second marriage, and the names of both sons and daughters by his first marriage are given. As Lightfoot (commentary on Galatians) has remarked, "they are pure fabrications." Theophylact even advanced theory that they were the children of Joseph by a levirate marriage, with the widow of his brother, Clopas. Others regard them as the nephews of Joseph whom, after the death of his brother Clopas, he had taken into his own home, and who thus became members of his family, and were accounted as though they were the children of Joseph and Mary. According to this view, Mary excepted, the whole family at Nazareth were no blood relatives of Jesus. It is a Docetic conception in the interest of the dogma of the perpetual virginity of Mary. All its details, even that of the advanced age and decrepitude of Joseph, start from that premise.
Another view, first propounded by Jerome when a very young man, in antagonizing Belvidius, but afterward qualified by its author, was followed by Augustine, the Roman Catholic writers generally, and carried over into Protestantism at the Reformation, and accepted, even though not urged, by Luther, Chemnitz, Bengel, etc., understands the word "brother" in the general sense of "kinsman," and interprets it here as equivalent to "cousin." According to this, these brethren were actually blood-relatives of Jesus, and not of Joseph. They were the children of Alpheus, otherwise known as Clopas (Joh 19:25), and the sister of Mary. This Mary, in Mt 27:56, is described as "the mother of James and Joses," and in Mr 15:40, "the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome." This theory as completely developed points to the three names, James, Judas and Simon found both in the list of the apostles and of the "brethren," and argues that it would be a remarkable coincidence if they referred to different persons, and the two sisters, both named Mary, had found the very same names for their sons. The advocates of this theory argue also that the expression "James the less" shows that there were only two persons of the name James in the circle of those who were most closely connected with Jesus. They say, further, that, after the death of Joseph, Mary became an inmate of the home of her sister, and the families being combined, the presence and attendance of her nephews and nieces upon her can be explained without much difficulty, and the words of the people at Nazareth be understood. But this complicated theory labors under many difficulties. The identity of Clopas and Alpheus cannot be established, resting, as it does, upon obscure philological resemblances of the Aramaic form of the two names (see ALPHAEUS). The most that such argument affords is a mere possibility. Nor is the identity of "Mary the wife of Clopas" with the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus, established beyond a doubt. Joh 19:25, upon which it rests, can with equal correctness be interpreted as teaching that four women stood by the cross, of whom "Mary of Clopas" was one, and His mother's sister was another. The decision depends upon the question as to whether "Mary" be in apposition to "sister." If the verse be read so as to present two pairs, it would not be a construction without precedent in the New Testament, and would avoid the difficulty of finding two sisters with the same name--a difficulty greater yet than that of thre e cousins with the same name. Nor is the identity of "James the less" with the son of Alpheus beyond a doubt. Any argument concerning the comparative "less," as above explained, fails when it is found that in the Greek there is no comparative, but only "James the little," the implication being probably that of his stature as considerably below the average, so as to occasion remark. Nor is the difficulty less when it is proposed to identify three of these brethren of Jesus with apostles of the same name. For the "brethren" and the apostles are repeatedly distinguished. In Mt 12:49, while the former stood without, the latter are gathered around Jesus. In Joh 2:12, we read: "his mother, and his brethren, and his disciples." In Ac 1:13 the Eleven, including James the son of Alpheus, and Simon, and Judas of James, and then it is said that they were accompanied by "his brethren." But the crowning difficulty of this hypothesis of Jerome is the record of the unbelief of the brethren and of their derision of His claims in Joh 7:3-5.
On the other hand, the arguments against regarding them as sons of Mary and Joseph are not formidable. When it is urged that their attempts to interfere with Jesus indicate a superiority which, according to Jewish custom, is inconsistent with the position of younger brothers, it may be answered that those who pursue an unjustifiable course are not models of consistency. When an argument is sought from the fact that Jesus on the cross commended His mother to John, the implication is immediate that she had no sons of her own to whom to turn in her grief and desolation; the answer need not be restricted to the consideration that unknown domestic circumstances may explain the omission of her sons. A more patent explanation is that as they did not understand their brother, they could not understand their mother, whose whole life and interests were bound up in her firstborn. But, on the other hand, no one of the disciples understood Jesus and appreciated His work and treasured up His words as did John. A bond of fellowship had thus been established between John and Mary that was closer than her nearer blood relationship with her own sons, who, up to this time, had regarded the course of Jesus with disapproval, and had no sympathy with His mission. In the home of John she would find consolation for her loss, as the memories of the wonderful life of her son would be recalled, and she would converse with him who had rested on the bosom of Jesus and whom Jesus loved. Even with the conversion of these brethren within a few days into faithful confessors, before the view of Jesus, provision was made for her deeper spiritual communion with her risen and ascended Son through the testimony of Jesus which John treasured in his deeply contemplative spirit. There was much that was alike in the characters of Mary and John. This may have had its ground in relationship, as many regard Salome his mother, the sister of the mother of Jesus mentioned in Joh 19:25.
Underneath both the stepbrother (Epiphanian) and the cousin (Hieronymian) theories, which coincide in denying that Mary was the actual mother of these brethren, lies the idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary. This theory which has as its watchword the stereotyped expression in liturgy and hymn, "Maria semper Virgo," although without any support from Holy Scripture, pervades theology and the worship of the ancient and the medieval churches. From the Greek and Roman churches it has passed into Protestantism in a modified form. Its plea is that it is repugnant to Christian feeling to think of the womb of Mary, in which the Word, made flesh, had dwelt in a peculiar way, as the habitation of other babes. In this idea there lies the further thought, most prominent in medieval theology, of a sinfulness of the act in itself whereby new human lives come into existence, and of the inclination implanted from the creation, upon which all family ties depend. 1Ti 4:3-4; Heb 13:4 are sufficient answer. The taint of sin lies not in marriage, and the use of that which is included in its institution, and which God has blessed (compare Ac 10:15), but in its perversion and abuse. It is by an inconsistency that Protestants have conceded this much to theory of Rome, that celibacy is a holier estate than matrimony, and that virginity in marriage is better than marriage itself. The theory also is connected with the removal of Mary from the sphere of ordinary life and duties as too commonplace for one who i s to be surrounded with the halo of a demi-god, and to be idealized in order to be worshipped. The interpretation that they are the Lord's real brethren ennobles and glorifies family life in all its relations and duties, and sanctifies motherhood with all its cares and trials as holier than a selfish isolation from the world, in order to evade the annoyances and humiliations inseparable from fidelity to our callings. Not only Mary, but Jesus with her, knew what it was to grieve over a house divided concerning religion (Mt 10:35 ff). But that this unbelief and indifference gave way before the clearer light of the resurrection of Jesus is shown by the presence of these brethren in the company of the disciples in Jerusalem (Ac 1:14). The reference to His post-resurrection appearance to James (1Co 15:7) is probably connected with this change in their attitude. 1Co 9:5 shows that at least two of these brothers were active as missionaries, undoubtedly within the Holy Land, and to Jews, according to the agreeme nt into which James entered in Ga 2:1-21, and his well-known attitude on questions pertaining to the Gentiles. Zahn regards James as an ascetic and celibate not included in 1Co 9:5, which is limited then to Jude and Simon. Their marriage indicates "the absence in the Holy Family of that pseudo-asceticism which has so much confused the tradition concerning them" (Alford).
For fuller discussions, see the extensive arguments of Eadie and Lightfoot, in their commentaries on Gal, the former in favor of the Helvidian, and the latter, with his exhaustive scholarship, of the Epiphanian views; also, on the side of the former, Mayor, The Epistle of James; Alford, Greek Test.; Farrar, Early Days of Christianity; Zahn, Introduction to the New Testament.
H. E. Jacobs