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Who Were Jesus' Brothers and Sisters?

This week we hear from Diane in Inverness, Florida. She writes, “We are looking for more information on Joseph and Mary’s other children. Matthew 13:55-56 says, ‘Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us?’”

Diane wanted to know how many siblings Jesus had, whether or not they were biological siblings, and what we know about them. To begin with, of course, there is the controversy over whether or not Jesus had any biological brothers or sisters. The Roman Catholic Church contends that Mary was a perpetual virgin and had no other children. On the other hand, the Protestant Church and most scholars discount this claim based on the evidence of the scriptural references to Jesus’ family. The further reference that Joseph kept Mary chaste until Jesus’ birth implies, at the least, that normal marital relations ensued following the nativity (Matthew 1.25).

Presuming this is so, how many children did Mary and Joseph have altogether, and what became of them?

Well, as for the names and numbers of Jesus’ siblings, we have only a little to go on outside the biblical references. The Bible doesn’t record Jesus’ sister’s names, but we know there were more than one sister, since the text says, “sisters” rather than “sister.” However, in the Christian traditions we discover that Jesus had two sisters, one named Mary and the other Salome (Protoevangelium of James 19.3-20.4, Gospel of Philip 59.6-11). Outside of this, we know nothing about his sisters. 

On the other hand, we know a bit more about Jesus’ brothers. Matthew and Mark both name four of Jesus’ brothers: James, Joseph (Joses), Simeon, and Judas (Jude) (Matthew 12.55, Mark 6.3). Biblically, what we know about these brothers is limited.

James is the best known of Jesus’ brothers. It is evident throughout the book of Acts that James became the leader of the Jerusalem Church (12.17; 15.13; 21.18) and was quite powerful in that role. The epistle of James is attributed to his authorship, and according to the historian Josephus, James was put to death by stoning in 62 as “a breaker of the law” by Annas II and the Sanhedrim.

While James resided in Jerusalem, the other brothers apparently went out on missionary journeys. Paul refers to the missionary brothers of Jesus as he levies a complaint against the Corinthians in his first letter to that church: “Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who must work for a living?” (1 Corinthian 9.4-6).

Of the three travelers Jude, like James managed to write a letter in which he identifies himself as the brother of James—and tradition suggests thus the brother of Jesus. We know virtually nothing else about him, except that he was supposedly crucified in Edesa.

Simeon and Joses are the brothers of whom we know the least. Again, Paul implies they were missionaries, but to where and to what end they came, we know nothing.

And yet, there is a bit more we do know about other kinsmen of Jesus. It seems that Jesus’ cousin Simeon took the reigns of the Jerusalem Church following James’ martyrdom. Indeed Simeon was so well respected and loved by the church that Hegesippus records that even the governor marveled at his death when he was 120 years old—a phrase indicating Simeon’s righteousness, since tradition dictates that no once since Moses could live over 120 years, but someone as righteous perhaps could live as long (Deuteronomy 34.71)

The last living recorded relative of Jesus is a man named Conon who lived in Pamphylia in Asia Minor. He was a gardener who was martyred for his faith in about 250. What is interesting is the account he gave prior to his death. When asked if he was of the lineage of King David, he replied, “I am of the city of Nazareth in Galilee, I am of the family of Christ, whose worship I have inherited from my ancestors” (Richard J. Bauckham. Bible Review: “All in the Family: Identifying Jesus’ Relatives.” April, 2000. html version). Here, then, is perhaps the last living relative of Jesus, for after his martyrdom the trail of the lineage of Jesus comes to an end.

In any event, what little we know about Jesus’ siblings is shrouded in tradition and mystery. What we do know is that his sisters disappeared in obscurity, as was the fate of many women of the church in that age. And, finally, Jesus’ brothers became active in the work of the church. 

From April 2000 Bible Review. Richard J. Bauckham “All in the Family: Identifying Jesus’ Relatives.” hml version.

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