What is meant in the Holy Scripture by "his brethren" and "his sisters"? Was Mary the mother of other sons and also daughters?
NOT long ago we received a letter from a sincere inquirer requesting biblical proof on whether Christ re ally had brothers and sisters. "Please do not send me the views of this or that theologian; I would like definite and conclusive proof from God's Word — the Bible," he said. Let us, then, go through this matter in a detailed exegetical study, noticing exactly what the Bible does say about this common theological question.
The Word "Till" or "Until"
In Matthew 1:25 we read that although Joseph was living with Mary, he "knew her not [that is, he did not have intercourse] till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus." Some commentators have felt that the word " till" does not necessarily indicate that Joseph began to have intercourse afterwards. But the fact is, whenever Matthew uses the word " till," he uses it literally to indicate the end of what was being talked about. For example, Joseph and Mary were in Egypt "until the death of Herod" (Matt. 2:15). The word "until" shows that they were there after the death of Herod — they were commanded to leave Egypt "when Herod was dead" (verses 19-20). A similar example is found in Matthew 5:26: "... Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing." This means that when the uttermost farthing has been paid, it will be possible for one to come out. Thus the word "till" has a specific meaning to Matthew. Matthew, in saying that Joseph did not know Mary "till she had brought forth," indicates that after that great event she was his wife and they began to have normal intercourse. After all, one would correctly gather that that was the reason why the angel appeared to Joseph saying: "Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife" (Matt. 1:20). Therefore, even from the first chapter of the New Testament, the concept of Mary's perpetual virginity is on shaky ground.
The "Figurative" Theory
The same Gospel of Matthew gives us also one very important description of Christ by compatriots who knew Him and His whole family. "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?" (Matt. 13:55-56.) This is the scripture that is often interpreted by some churches as referring to "brethren" and "sisters" in a figurative sense. But are these words used figuratively? Examine the passage again. Is there any reason to suppose that in mentioning His father, mother, brothers and sisters, these people meant His real father (not realizing or believing Christ was conceived of God) and real mother but not His real brothers and, sisters? Is there any reason why the disbelieving Jews would recognize and refer to these individuals as Christ's "brothers" in a figurative sense? The argument against a literal interpretation is not valid. The "brothers" and "sisters" must have been as real as "carpenter's son" and "mother"! We must remember that Christ in this instance was preaching in His home town (Matt. 13:54). People knew His mother and all His relatives. These fellow citizens listed four brothers and "all" His sisters — implying that Christ had at least three sisters, otherwise they would probably have said "both." Christ's family, therefore, consisted of four brothers and at least three sisters, who with Mary, Joseph and Christ made a total of at least ten, a good-sized family — not unusual in those days.
The "Cousin" Theory
One of the theories believed by a large number of people is the "cousin" theory. According to this theory, Mary was a perpetual virgin and — the "brothers" and "sisters" mentioned in the New Testament must have been nothing other than "cousins"! This view rests on the hypothesis that in Greek "brother" (adelphos) can also mean "cousin." But one can imagine what confusion would result if such a common and frequent word did really have two meanings. "Cousin" in Greek is exadelphos, and the word means "from brothers"; thus the people involved are cousins if they come from parents who are brothers. The Greek language, therefore, has a common and usable word for "cousin." But let us ask what Matthew himself meant by " brothers." In Matthew 1:2 we read that "Jacob begat Judas and his brethren." Does this mean that Jacob begat Judas and his cousins? Of course not! In Matthew 4:21 we are told of "two brethren... in a ship with Zebedee their father." Matthew makes it clear that these "brothers" are from the same father and/or mother! But suppose that "brother" could mean "cousin" — a far-out supposition — then what would "father" mean? Was Zebedee the " father" of two "cousins"? Was he the "grandfather"? And, if "brother" means "cousin" and "father" means possibly "grandfather," what does "mother" mean? It is clear from this that if the logic of this theory were correct, Christ had "brothers" who were not brothers, "sisters" who were not real sisters, a " mother" who was not a real mother, and so on — throwing the whole of the New Testament into meaningless confusion. The answer is that Christ had "brothers" and "sisters" — and the words mean exactly what they say.
The "Only Child" Theory
We have already mentioned that many commentators believe that the word "till" in Matthew 1:25 does not necessarily mean the end of something talked about. Many commentators also believe that the word "firstborn" in the same verse does not necessarily mean that others followed afterwards. We shall see from Scripture that the second supposition is just as wrong as the first. First, there is a great difference between a "firstborn" and an "only begotten" child. The distinction is always clear in the New Testament. Matthew uses the word "firstborn" (prototokon). So does Luke: "And she brought forth her firstborn [prototokon] son..." (Luke 2:7). But soon afterwards Luke uses a different word (monogenes) for an only child: "... Behold, there was a dead man carried out, the only (monogenes) son of his mother..." (Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38; etc.). We see, therefore, that the New Testament authors knew the difference between a "firstborn" and an "only begotten" child!
"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?" Matt. 13:55-56
Christ was the firstborn of Mary but the only begotten (monogenes) son of God (John 3:16).
The Disciple Theory
What about the "brethren" being Christ's disciples? The answer is easy and straightforward. The Apostle John wrote: "After this he went down to Capernaum, he, and his mother, and his brethren, and his disciples" (John 2:12). Thus, without the help of any more scriptures, we can see that the Apostle John was familiar enough with the situation to know that His brethren were not His disciples — otherwise He would not have said "his brethren, and his disciples." If one could insist that, in this sentence, "brethren" and "disciples" are the same people, one could also conclude, by the same logic, that "he and his mother" were the same person. The idea is completely nonsensical. Look further into the "disciple" theory. In Matthew 12:46-49 we are told that the disciples were inside the house while His brethren were outside. His brethren came with His mother, and one of the multitude spoke to Christ telling Him that His mother and His brethren had come to speak with Him. An outsider would not have used such terminology had he not seen His real mother and real brethren. That the "brethren" were different from the "disciples" is also evident from John 7:3-10: "His brethren therefore said unto him, Depart hence, and go into Judaea, that thy disciples also may see the works that thou doest." One could also read Acts 1:13-14, where the disciples were praying with Christ's brethren. Thus one more human theory tumbles in the face of scriptural evidence. But let us ask once more: Did Christ have brothers and sisters? The answer from God's inspired Word has to be an emphatic and resounding "yes"! They were brothers and sisters from the same mother — Mary.