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The virgin birth of Jesus

Did Jesus have 4 brothers & 2 sisters (or more)?
 Or were they half-siblings, cousins or just friends?

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Possible biblical references to Jesus "brothers" and "sisters:"

bullet An incident in the synagogue in Jesus' home town:
bullet Mark 6:3: People in the synagogue in Jesus' home town asked: "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him."
bullet Matthew 13:55-56: These verses were apparently based on Mark's account. He has the people ask: "Is not this the carpenter's son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? "
bullet People at Jesus' execution:
bullet Mark 15:40-41: These verses listed Jesus' female supporters who were present: "There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome ... and many other women which came up with him unto Jerusalem."
bullet Matthew 27:55-56:  "And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him: Among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee's children.
bullet People at the empty tomb:
bullet Mark 16:1: "And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him."
bullet A family visit while Jesus is preaching:
bullet Matthew 12:46-47: "While he yet talked to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him. Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee."
bullet A discussion at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles:
bullet John 7:3-5: His brethren therefore said unto him, Depart hence, and go into Judaea, that thy disciples also may see the works that thou doest. For there is no man that doeth any thing in secret, and he himself seeketh to be known openly. If thou do these things, shew thyself to the world. For neither did his brethren believe in him.

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Various religions' teaching about Jesus' "brothers:"

Current teachings vary, concerning Jesus' conception and what the Christian Scriptures (New Testaments) refer to as his "brothers.

bullet Liberal theologians typically teach that Jesus was the first child of many conceived by Mary and Joseph via sexual intercourse, as for any other human. In Galilee, this often happened before marriage. Couples lived together in a type of trial marriage until the woman became pregnant or gave birth. At that point, they got married.

In support of this belief, they quote many of the references in the Christian Scriptures referring to Jesus' "brothers."
bullet Other Protestant churches, the Baha'i Faith and Islam generally teach that Jesus was conceived by Mary when she was a virgin as a result of the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. She and Joseph later had additional children. 5
bullet Eastern Orthodox Churches teache that Jesus' "brothers" referred to in many places in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) were in fact Jesus' step-brothers fathered by Joseph during a previous marriage. It presumably had ended when Joseph's former wife died. 1
bullet The Roman Catholic church teaches that Mary remained a virgin all of her life. Jesus' "brothers" were in fact his cousins or close associates. "...the terms "brothers" and "sisters" are generic words that indicate a close relationship with Jesus, but not necessarily a kinship." 1,2
bullet Many religious leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the largest of the Mormon denominations) once taught that Mary conceived Jesus after God came down to Earth and engaged in sexual intercourse with her. However, this is now rarely taught within the church, and was never  proclaimed as a formal belief of the church.

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Some arguments favoring Jesus "brothers" being step-brothers, cousins, or friends:

The Roman Catholic concept that Mary, the mother of Jesus, remained a perpetual virgin requires that Jesus four brothers, as mentioned in the synagogue passages of Mark and Matthew, were not his full brothers. Further his two sisters were not full siblings. Rather, they were step brothers, cousins or friends. Some arguments in favor of this are:

bullet It might be argued that the Mary, the mother of "James the less and Joses" who was present at Jesus' execution, is not Mary the mother of Jesus. If she were, then she would have undoubtedly have been referred to directly as such by Mark and Matthew. If this same James and Joses are the persons previously discussed in the synagogue incident in those same Gospels, then the two males would be at most step-brothers or cousins of Jesus. They might even have been simple friends. If that is true, then Juda, and Simon -- the other two "brothers" referred to in the synagogue event -- might not have been Jesus' full brothers either. Also, the two or more daughters who were called sisters of Jesus may not have been full sisters. 4
bullet In John 19:26-27, it is widely believed that Jesus gave his mother over to the care of one of his disciples - traditionally believed to be John:

"Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home."

Some argue that he would not have made this arrangement if Mary had any sons to look after her. In Jewish law, the eldest son would have had the responsibility of caring for his mother. If he was unable to do so, then the next oldest would take over, and so on. 4 We know that James the "brother" of Jesus was alive decades after Jesus' execution because he was head of the Jerusalem Jewish Christian church.  On the other hand, Jesus might have simply wanted to identify the disciple that he loved as a quasi family member.

There is nothing in the text that shows that Jesus actually assigned his beloved disciple the responsibility of caring for his mother. He is merely recorded as saying that the disciple should be considered like a son to Mary.

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Possible archeological evidence?

A fascinating archeological find which some scientists thought may support the liberal and Protestant Christian position surfaced on the antiquities market in the mid 1980's. It is an ossuary (bone box) dating from the 1st century CE  with the Aramaic inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." James, Joseph, and Jesus (actually Yeshua) were common names at the time. However, a small possibility exists that the inscription might refer to the Joseph in the New Testament, the husband of Mary, and two of their four sons Jesus and James. Ben Witherington, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, commented:

"The dominant Catholic tradition is that the brothers of Jesus are actually cousins because Mary didn't have any more children, or they were step brothers in that they were Joseph's sons by a previous marriage. This inscription could call into question that doctrine."

Bible Archeological Review editor Hershel Shanks said:

"It could be, probably, the most significant archaeological discovery of this generation...the most important find in the history of New Testament archaeology."

It appears that the part of the inscription that says "brother of Jesus" is a forgery, but that the rest is genuine. 3 More details.

Tests show that this same ossuary may be the missing ossuary from a crypt discovered in Jerusalem in 1980. That crypt had ossuaries from the Herodian era, identified as for a Yeshua (Jesus' Hebrew name); a Maria (the Latin for Maria, Jesus' mother's name); a Maria Mariamne e Mara (Greek for "Mary known as the master" -- a possible name for Mary Magdalene); and a Yose (the name of a "brother" of Jesus, and others. Some suggest that this may be the tomb of Jesus' family. Other theologians. historians, and archeologists recoil from the suggestion, and suggest that the tomb might simply be of a family whose members coincidentally had identical names to Jesus' family. A statistician agrees that this is possible, because Yeshua, Mary, Yose, etc. were common names at the time. However, he computes the odds of this happening as miniscule. More details.

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  1. "Did Jesus have brothers?" at:
  2. "Brethren of the Lord," at"
  3. Gordon Govier, "Stunning New Evidence that Jesus Lived: Scholars link first-century bone box to James, brother of Jesus," Christianity Today, 2002-OCT-21, at:
  4. Fr. William Saunders, "Brothers and Sisters of Jesus," The Arlington Catholic Herald, 1994-JUL-21. Online at:
  5. "Lillie," "How many brothers did Jesus have? And did he have sisters too?" 2006, at:

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Copyright 1996 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Essay last updated: 2007-DEC-18
Written by: B.A. Robinson

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