Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses,
and of Jude, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us?
And they were offended at him.
Mark 6, 3
Many Protestants often cite the above verse in the Gospel of Mark to support their objection to the Catholic dogma of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. They draw their faulty conclusion by singling out words or terms that catch their attention and apply a modern English semantic or idiomatic usage to them to accommodate their preconceived notions. In the above verse, the two words that draw their attention are “brother” and “sisters.” They presume these terms mean uterine siblings, as they customarily do in modern English and Western culture, and so they adopt this verse as a proof-text against the Catholic de fide doctrine of Mary Ever-Virgin.
However, the word “brother” ( ach/אָח ) had a broad semantic range in ancient Hebrew culture. It did not apply only to male uterine siblings. In Genesis 3:18, for instance, the word is being used to describe the relationship between Abraham and Lot, who were, in fact, uncle and nephew: ‘So Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers.”’ The same goes for the Hebrew word “sister” (achoth/אָחוֹת ). The word did not apply only to female siblings in the immediate family, but also to members of the extended family and even a tribe. We read in Songs 4:12: ‘A garden enclosed is my sister (achoth), my spouse; a spring dried up, a fountain sealed.’ A man, such as King Solomon, could even call his wife sister when expressing his deep affection for her. Thus, we mustn’t carelessly ignore the broad Semitic idiomatic usage of the words “brother” and “sister” when reading the Bible, which often must be read through Jewish lenses – even the New Testament.
Returning to the Gospel of Mark, we see with certainty that the author retains the broad Semitic idiomatic usage of the word “brother” (adelphos/ἀδελφός) in his writing, even though the sacred text has been originally written in Koine Greek. Most of his audience were Hellenistic Jews who would have understood the evangelist’s use of diction. This is evident in Mark 6:17-18: ‘ For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”’ Are we to presume, in accord with our language culture, that Herod Antipas and Philip were uterine brothers? Certainly not! Herod Antipas was the son of Mariamne the Hasmonean, Herod the Great’s second wife. Philip the Tetrarch (Herod Philip 1) was the son of Cleopatra of Jerusalem, Herod’s fifth wife.
And so, the two men are half-brothers, having the same father but different mothers. Mark employs the Semitic idiomatic term because there is no single word for half-brother or step-brother in Hebrew and Aramaic. Unfortunately, some Protestants overlook or choose to ignore this passage when citing Mark 6:3 (cf. Mt 12:46-50) as a proof-text against the Catholic dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity. And they fail to notice or choose not to note that these supposedly biological brothers and sisters of Jesus are never called sons and daughters of Mary in the New Testament, though only Jesus himself is explicitly referred to as her son or male offspring (Mk 6:3; Lk 2:6; Jn. 2:1; Acts 1:14).
Further, Catholics reasonably maintain that James, Joses, Jude (Thaddeus), and Simon were cousins of Jesus. Three of them, save Joses (Joseph), were also apostles of his. ‘And he appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), and James, the son of Zebedee, and John, the brother of James (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means, “Sons of Thunder”); and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddeus, and Simon the Zealot; and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him’ (Mk 3, 16-19). These three apostles are grouped together in the same order, just as they are in 6:3 because they are biological brothers whose father or step-father isn’t Joseph but Alphaeus/Clopas, his brother.
Meanwhile, they are ranked in order according to their age from eldest to youngest. It would certainly be an incredible coincidence if Jesus had uterine brothers not only with the same names but also ranking in the same order of age identically with these three apostles. Further, James and Joses are identified as being the sons of another Mary, the wife of Alphaeus/Clopas, and sister-in-law of our Lord’s mother (Mk 15:40; Mt 27:56; Jn 19:25). This makes them cousins of Jesus.
Now, these “brothers” of Jesus aren’t recorded to have accompanied Mary at the foot of the cross along with the Disciple and the group of women, which is highly unusual in Jewish family culture. The reason is these ‘brothers’ are apostles and cousins of Jesus and are in hiding after they fled from the Garden of Gethsemane when he was arrested (Mk 14:50; Jn 20:19). Protestants, however, contend or presume that our Lord’s brothers refused to attend his execution because they had disowned him for his madness and did not come to believe in him until after his resurrection (Acts 1:14). But if this were so, Jesus would not have entrusted his beloved disciple with the care of his mother (Jn 19:26-27). Surely, he would have foreseen the eventual conversion of his male siblings, who under Mosaic law were required to look after their widowed mother, if this were the case.
Apparently, John was prompted and morally encouraged by the Holy Spirit to be present with Mary beneath the cross as the corporate personality of the Church. The Blessed Virgin’s other children are those who give testimony to Jesus by their acts of faith and keep God’s commandments (Rev 12:17). This is what Jesus meant by calling his mother “Woman” from the cross before he addressed his beloved disciple and brother of his in spirit (Rom 8:29). Mary became John’s mother and he, by his faith, her son in God’s family which transcends all biological blood ties and national boundaries (Mt 12:47-50).
That the apostle James (the Less/Younger/Just) is referred to as “the brother of the Lord” is clear in the following passage: ‘Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother’ (Gal. 1:18-19). The term apostle may indeed apply to any disciple or follower of Christ. But given the context in the above passage, it refers to one who belongs to the Twelve, the college of the Apostles, of which Peter (Cephas) and James, son of Alphaeus, are members. They are in the same league together, so to speak. Ironically, when Protestants refer to this event to prove that Jesus had a brother by the name of James, in support of Mark 6:3, they ignore Verse 18.
Thus, this James who Paul mentions is acknowledged to be an apostle in the same capacity as Peter is. So, when Paul goes to Jerusalem, he sees just two of the Twelve, namely Peter and James the Less (also called the Just), the Bishop of Jerusalem. In other words, he does not see any of the apostles besides Peter and James. Only Peter and James are present from among the Twelve when Paul goes to Jerusalem. James, Joses, Jude, and Simon are called “brothers” because there is no single word for a cousin in the Hebrew-Aramaic language.
The Hebrew term for cousin is בר דוד or ‘bar duḏ,’ which literally stated means “Uncle’s-son”. Jeremiah uses the term, ben dodo, “son of his uncle” (Jer. 32:8). Of course, the son of an uncle is a male cousin, so this term is a circumlocution, not a word as are son (ben) and uncle (dodo). A circumlocution is several words that are used where a fewer number or only one word should or could be used. Syriac Aramaic does have a related word for cousin, which is achyana, but this is also used for kinsfolk in general, not just specifically for a cousin. The Jennings Lexicon of the Peshitta translates achyana as “kinsman or cousin.”
Some Protestants, however, contend that because Mark and Paul wrote their texts in Koine Greek, they would have incorporated the Greek word for cousin, if in fact James and his brothers were cousins of Jesus, seeing that there is such a word in the Greek language (ἀνεψιός/anepsios). Yet, we should keep in mind that the characters in Mark’s Gospel are themselves speaking in Aramaic, and thus as Jews would have used the idiom of their language that served as a substitute. The evangelist wrote a literary work, and diction is a literary device. And not unlike Paul, Mark was addressing an audience that mostly consisted of Jewish converts to the Christian faith who were familiar with the Semitic usage of the word brother. We know for a fact, moreover, that the Semitic usage is preserved in Biblical Greek. Let us look at the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, for our evidence.
The sons of Merari; Mooli, and Musi: the sons of Mooli; Eleazar, and Kis. And Eleazar died,
and he had no sons, but daughters: and the sons of Kis, their brethren (brothers), took them.
The sons of Musi; Mooli, and Eder,
and Jarimoth, three.
– 1 Chronicles 23, 21-23
υἱοὶ Μεραρί· Μοολὶ καὶ Μουσί. υἱοὶ Μοολί· ᾿Ελεάζαρ καὶ Κίς. καὶ ἀπέθανεν ᾿Ελεάζαρ, καὶ οὐκ ἦσαν αὐτῷ υἱοί, ἀλλ᾿ ἢ θυγατέρες, καὶ ἔλαβον αὐτὰς υἱοὶ Κὶς ἀδελφοὶ αὐτῶν. υἱοὶ Μουσί· Μοολὶ καὶ ᾿Εδὲρ καὶ ᾿Ιαριμώθ, τρεῖς.
Hence, the Greek word for “brothers” (adelphos/ἀδελφοὶ : of the same womb) is used in sacred Scripture in reference to cousins in keeping with Hebrew parlance. The daughters of Eleazar married the sons of his brother Kish. So, all four men named in Mark’s Gospel were cousins of Jesus, which explains why James, Jude (Judas/Thaddeus), and Simon (Canaanite/Zealot) are grouped and paired together in the three lists of the Apostles in the synoptic Gospels. The reason why Simon succeeded James the Less/Just as the Bishop of Jerusalem was probably because they were either blood brothers or half-brothers and Apostles of Jesus. Some scholars contend with good reason that Alphaeus and Clopas are one and the same man, which would make the two uterine brothers. But one thing is certain, and that is James, Joses, Jude, and Simon were not male siblings of Jesus. These four men were definitely not “sons” of the Virgin Mary, but of her sister-in-law (acoth/adelphe/sister) “the other Mary,” wife of Alphaeus/Clopas, brother of Joseph.
Finally, for us to see with greater certainty that the “brothers” and “sisters” mentioned in Mark’s gospel are in fact cousins, we must continue to the following verse.
But Jesus said unto them, ‘A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country,
and among his own kin (συγγενής, ές / suggenes), and in his own house.
Mark 6, 4
The plural Greek word used refers to kinsfolk, relatives, or fellow countrymen. This same word is used by Luke in his account of the Annunciation which in the singular form specifically means a cousin: “And, behold, thy cousin (συγγενίς / syngenis) Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren” (Luke 1:36). Thus, Jesus apparently replies with his cousins (relatives or kin) in mind in response to what was said by those who were offended at him.
“Imitate her, holy mothers, who in her only dearly beloved Son set forth so great an example of maternal virtue;
for neither have you sweeter children, nor did the Virgin seek the consolation of being able to bear another son.”
St. Ambrose, To the Christian at Vercellae, Letter 63:111