Joseph, the Betrothed, and James, the Lord's Brother

A Bible trivia question asks, “How many brothers and sisters — natural children of Joseph and Mary — did Jesus have?” The Bible doesn't say that Mary and Joseph had any “natural children,” but the trivia question lists as its proof Mark 6:3: “Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judah, and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” On this basis the trivia game claims that Jesus had six or more “natural” siblings. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches have always held that Mary had no children with Joseph (as did Martin Luther and John Calvin, generally considered the founders of Protestantism); and that Mary remained a virgin all her life. In the ancient church, Joseph has always been referred to as “the betrothed” to emphasize that though he undertook Mary's and Jesus' protection, he and Mary never consummated their marriage.

A common interpretation of New Testament references to James as Jesus' brother is that Joseph, an older man when he was betrothed to Mary, had a previous wife, James' mother, who had died. The others mentioned by Mark may have been members of Joseph's close family as cousins, or could have been Joseph's offspring by his previous marriage. To refer to close relatives this way is not unusual, as occurred when Jesus, from the cross, referred to John the Apostle, who is believed by many scholars to have been Jesus' second cousin, as Mary's new son, meaning he was being charged with her care (John 19:26).

Has the Church Forgotten?

The ancient church claims that its tradition is reliable because the church was “there” from the beginning and never was lacking in rational sense, nor was it forgetful. The early church tradition says that Mary's “perpetual virginity” was prophesied in the Old Testament: “this gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered in by it. Therefore, it shall be shut” (Ezekiel 44:2).

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In most of the world, Christmas is the most celebrated day every year. Solemn adult versions of the story are told in Gospel readings and recitations in candlelight services in Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches, and children's versions are presented in pageants or plays, not only in churches but even in many non Christian schools.

That Joseph was considerably older than Mary is suggested by the fact that he had apparently died by the time of the crucifixion. That James was an older brother of Jesus, not a younger one, is evidenced by the fact that he came to believe in Jesus late in the Gospels' timeline. Some argue that younger siblings — including all the other five mentioned by Mark — would have attached themselves to an older brother of such charisma as Jesus from their childhood on, as younger siblings generally do. But although much is said about James, identified in early church records as the author of the epistle bearing his name in the New Testament, none of the other “brothers and sisters” mentioned in Mark are specifically kept in the church's tradition.

Jesus' Siblings

It's hard to imagine that the church would have forgotten those alleged step siblings, or that they would have had no role in the early church. Some say the offspring of Joseph and Mary after Jesus would have left a lineage that today would claim blood relationship with God. There has been considerable scholarly discussion concerning these siblings. According to Roman Catholic and Orthodox teaching, no woman whose womb had brought the very God into the world would have been used for any lesser purpose later. One theory, already mentioned, states that the siblings were step siblings or cousins who were already adults by the time Jesus was born. However, some scholars do believe that there is real New Testament evidence that the siblings of Jesus were his blood relatives, actual brothers and sisters.

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