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This still provides us with several options: the “brethren” could be half-brothers (Mark 6:17 uses “adelphos” to describe the half-brothers Philip and Herod Antipas [10]), children of Joseph’s from a previous marriage, or they could be cousins. Since they seem to be in the company of Mary quite often, this would tend to indicate the former. There are many scriptural examples of the term “brother” being applied to two people who did not share the same parents. Some are listed here:

  • Gen 14:14   Lot is refered to as Abraham’s brother when actually, he was the son of Abraham’s deceased brother, Aran (Gen 11:26-28). Thus Lot was really Abraham’s nephew.
  • Gen 29:15   Jacob is called the “brother” of his uncle Laban.
  • 1 Chron 23:21-22  The daughters of Cis and Eleazar married their “brethren” but Cis and Eleazar had no sons. The girls married their cousins.

In addition, sometimes the terms referred to someone who was kin, but not close kin (Deut 23:7; 2 Kings 10:13-14; Jer 34:9); a friend (2 Sam 1:26; 1 Kings 9:13; 20:32) or someone who was an ally (Amos 1:9).

The non-canonical Protoevangelium of James regards Jesus’ “brothers” as children from a previous marriage of Joseph’s (8:3; 9:2). It is also possible that they were cousins, since Aramaic/Hebrew lacks a simple term for this. (Modern Hebrew does have a word for cousin but it is recent. It did not exist in the first century.)

If the word could mean “brother” or “cousin”, how do we know in which sense it is being used here? There are several passages in Scripture which give us a view to the relationship between Jesus and these individuals.

Mark 3:21   Jesus’ “brothers” thought He was out of His mind and went to take charge of Him. No younger brother would ever make such an assessment of his older brother in Jesus’ time. For them to have been older “brothers”, they must have been the result of a prior marriage of Joseph’s.

Mark 6:3    Jesus is referred to as “the son of Mary”, not “a son of Mary”. The Greek expression used here implies that He is he only son [Keating, 1988: 284].

Luke 2:41-51  This is the passage dealing with Jesus in the temple at Jerusalem at the age of twelve. Note that there is no mention of other children here.

John 7:3-4  A younger brother would not take it upon himself to advise an older brother. The reasoning here is similar to that given for Mark 3:21.

John 19:25-27  In this passage Jesus is on the cross and He tells John to take care of Mary, His mother. Apparently Joseph was dead by this time and Mary had no one to take care of her. If Jesus had brothers, Mary would have been their responsibility. Some people feel that Jesus did this not because He had no brothers, but because His brothers were not believers. The trouble with holding to this view is that

1) Turning Mary over to John’s care flies in the face of the prevalent Jewish customs if there were other brothers to care for her.

2) These “brothers” thought that Jesus was not in the best of mental health. They most likely would have protested Jesus’s action, especially since He was dying a criminal death, and taken their mother back from John. If they failed to do so, they would look bad to their neighbors.

3) Even though they were not believers then, Jesus would have known that they would be converted at Pentecost.

Since we know that Mary did remain in John’s care, it is very unlikely that Jesus had brothers who were children of Mary and Joseph.

Why doesn’t the Bible just use cousin, nephew or whatever when that is what is meant? Neither Hebrew nor Aramaic have a word for “cousin”. [5] The idea could be expressed by saying “the son of my father’s sister” or something similar, but that is very clumsy and would almost never be used. Greek does have a word for “cousin” (anepsios), and, since the New Testament was written in Greek, there would be no reason to use “brother”. For the most part, however, it wasn’t done that way. (Col 4:10 uses  anepsios for cousin to describe the relationship between Mark and Barnabbas. However, this passage was written by the highly-educated Paul, not a Judean fisherman.) In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, “brother” (Greek “adelphos” for the Hebrew/Aramaic “ah”) is used even when it is true cousins which were being discussed. The New Testament authors followed the Septuagint usage.

It is reasonable to ask if any of the people named as “brethren” can be demonstrated to be other than a true brother. Let’s take the case of James. In Matthew’s gospel (27:56) he reports that Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee were present at the crucifixion. (Some would say that the second Mary was the mother of Jesus, but then why not identify her as such rather than using the younger brothers.) Mark 15:40 identifies them as Mary Magdalen, Mary the mother of James the Less and Joseph, and Salome. But John 19:25 identifies the second Mary as the wife of Cleophas, not Joseph. Therefore, the mother of James the Less, Joseph and Salome was not the same Mary who gave birth to Jesus.

This James (the Less) is also identified as the son of Alphaeus in Matt 10:3. There are two possible explanations for this:

1) This Mary was originally married to Alphaeus, widowed and then married to Cleophas.

2) Alphaeus and Cleophas (Gr, Clopas) are the same person. He may have taken a Greek name similar to his Aramaic name, such as Saul when he changed his name to Paul.

Hegesippus, the second century historian, says that Cleophas was the brother of St. Joseph, making his sons Jesus’ cousins, or brother in the Jewish usage of the time. [From a fragment recorded in Eusebius Pamphilius’ Ecclesiastical History 3,11,1 and 4,22,4.]

© 2017 Gary J. Sibio. All rights reserved.


What do you think?

Written by Gary J Sibio


  1. This is certainly interesting, Gary. It is however not accurate to say “Neither Hebrew nor Aramaic have a word for “cousin””. In Biblical Hebrew this meaning was indicated in exactly the same way as in modern Hebrew, and a parallel usage is attested in related Semitic languages such as Assyrian. The term used is in fact more precise than our ‘cousin’: ben-dod, bat-dod, ben-doda and bat-doda. Each of these not only conveys the idea of cousin, but specifies the gender of said cousin as well as whether they are the offspring of one’s uncle or one’s aunt. So, far from Hebrew not having a word for cousin, it in fact possessed a much more precise means of expressing the concept than does English. So, to say, “The idea could be expressed by saying “the son of my father’s sister” or something similar, but that is very clumsy and would almost never be used” is simply wrong. Number 36:11 contains a clear example: לִבְנֵי דֹדֵיהֶן which may be translated as “to their male cousins, children of their uncle”. That English sounds very clumsy indeed, but that is only because our language lacks the concision and precision of Hebrew in this case – the Hebrew is anything but clumsy and longwinded!

    • Can you provide an example in the Old Testament where the suggestions you provided for “cousin” were actually used? Using the Blue Letter Bible website, all of the examples I could find use the Hebrew ‘ach which the ESV translates as kinsman, a rather generic term.

      • I should also add that I think the so-called brothers and sisters were actually Joseph’s children by a previous marriage so they wouldn’t be cousins anyway. In fact, since Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father, they wouldn’t technically be kin in any sense of the word. Of course their neighbors, not knowing of the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth, would not be aware of that.

        • OK. I see that. My next question would be why is it so seldom used? It seems that the more generic ‘ach is the term generally used. If they could be more precise, why weren’t they. Numbers was written by Moses and is, therefore, one of the earlier books of the Bible to be written. Perhaps the usage fell out of favor.

          • The usage is also attested in post-biblical writings, so it does not appear to have fallen out of use. It’s important to bear in mind that the Bible is not a book of grammar, any more than it is a book of food. It is not a catalogue of every grammatical usage, any more than it is a catalogue of every item of food eaten. I have read the argument that the Hebrews did not eat eggs, based on the fact that there is no mention in the OT of eggs as a food source. I trust you can see the absurdity of that argument. It is equally wrong to infer a similar conclusion based on the absence (or scarcity) of a particular grammatical usage or idiom.

    • That happens in any translation of anything. However, even if you read the Bible in the original Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, you would still miss stuff because of cultural differences.