Was Jesus an Only Child?

One of the strangest (to my mind) teachings that I’ve run into is the “Perpetual virginity of Mary”.  It isn’t the strangest, but it is certainly up there.  Perhaps more amazing is that it can propagate so widely while contradicting clear Scripture.

Twice in the New Testament, an account is listed where Jesus “was come into his own country” (Mt 13:54; Mk 6:1).  His own countrymen did not believe Him, causing Jesus to state, “A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”  Apparently, Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather, was no longer alive, or he certainly would have been mentioned as well.

Notice that they reasoned that they knew Jesus, that He was the carpenter, the son of Mary and they list off His brothers and even state He had “sisters”, plural.  Normally, the men in the family would have been listed off in birth order, so James was most likely the oldest of Jesus’ brothers, then Joseph, Judah and Simon.

People have tried to skirt around these verses by saying “brothers” and “sisters” was meant spiritually.  However, that does not fit the context.  In fact, if that were really what were meant, the culture of the time would have understood that “brothers” can mean relatives and the additional “sisters” would be considered so redundant that it would stand out in that culture where women were often marginalized or even ignored.  Furthermore, the reference to Jesus’ mother makes it clear we are talking about immediate family members.

So, what all this means is:

  1. He had at least six half-siblings!
  2. Mary apparently was a widow.
  3. As the oldest, Jesus would have become the head of the family after the death of Joseph.
  4. After Jesus’ death, the next in line to be the leader of the family would have been His half-brother James.

Think about it.  Jesus’ own brothers didn’t believe in Him (Jn 7:5).  Jesus was supposed to be the leader in the family, but instead He seems to be gallivanting around Judea preaching instead of caring for His physical family.  Hopefully, you can get a better appreciation for what they might have been feeling when we read about them in Mk 3:31-35:

 31There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him.

 32And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee.

 33And he answered them, saying, Who is my mother, or my brethren?

 34And he looked round about on them which sat about him, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!

 35For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother. (Mark 3:31-35, King James Version)

In a culture that would have had stronger family relationships than many do today, this would have been shocking on so many levels.  Of course, our Savior used shocking examples and speech often to get His point across.

Jesus is not here denying that He has a physical family.  Rather, this account is confirming it!  His point is that God is building a spiritual family, and we are all related through Him.

There really is so much more that could be said about the implications of this, but that will have to wait until later.


  1. About two years ago, I got into this discussion with a member of the Eastern Orthodox religion.

    The explanation he used (and stated as if it was somehow a well known fact, so I presume it has some amount of common teaching) is that the brothers and sisters cited there are children of Joseph's from a previous marriage.

    Not kidding.

    He also then took a scripture from Ezekiel regarding the east gate of the temple and no one passing through but the Messiah to be applied to Christ's birth, and then the writings of Solomon in Proverbs where he speaks of being the only youth in his mother's sight or something along those lines as also applied to Christ.

    All very contrived. I pointed out the proper context of those scriptures, and he didn't say much more about it, if I recall correctly, but would not give up the belief.

    I'll have to see if I cannot dig up the discussion and see if there is any reasoning on their end that I missed.

  2. I have a niece who's a converted Catholic – and when I stayed in her home on vacation a couple of years ago, I found a paperback copy of a Catholic cathecism on a shelf in my guest bedroom.

    Quoting from it: "James and Joseph, 'brothers of Jesus,' are the sons of another Mary…. Matthew [28:1] significantly calls 'the other Mary.'"

    I decided that explanation overlooks Luke 8:19 and Galatians 1:19 – but your Wikipedia link tries to explain those verses.

  3. There is more. Not only did Jesus have siblings as you suggest, James became the leader of the Jesus movement following the crucifixion until his own illegal execution at the hands of the High Priest three decades later. Still more. It appears James and the Jewish community in Jerusalem continued to observe Torah, and this became a running conflict with Paul. Much of Pauline theology has its backdrop against this disagreement. Recent NT scholarship has rediscovered James, and his struggle with Paul has been an important interpretive key to the early church and the development of the NT canon. My own contribution to the discussion is my historical fiction novel entitled "A Wretched Man, a novel of Paul the apostle. Click on my name for more info.

  4. Simple – Jesus brothers and sisters were his cousins.

    Go here to read about it:
    On Catholic.com

    When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would conceive a son, she asked, "How can this be since I have no relations with a man?" (Luke 1:34). From the Church’s earliest days, as the Fathers interpreted this Bible passage, Mary’s question was taken to mean that she had made a vow of lifelong virginity, even in marriage. (This was not common, but neither was it unheard of.) If she had not taken such a vow, the question would make no sense.

    Mary knew how babies are made (otherwise she wouldn’t have asked the question she did). If she had anticipated having children in the normal way and did not intend to maintain a vow of virginity, she would hardly have to ask "how" she was to have a child, since conceiving a child in the "normal" way would be expected by a newlywed wife. Her question makes sense only if there was an apparent (but not a real) conflict between keeping a vow of virginity and acceding to the angel’s request. A careful look at the New Testament shows that Mary kept her vow of virginity and never had any children other than Jesus.

    Note: Edited to update broken link

  5. If they were His cousins, then the phrase would have simply been "then came his brethren". "Brethren" can mean relatives (even nephews). However, the fact that it says, "then came his brethren and his mother" means specifically His real-life brothers and mother. Same with the passage that includes His sisters. Women, esp. cousins, would not have ordinarily even been noted in that time and culture unless it specifically meant His real sisters and mother.

    "…she would hardly have to ask 'how' she was to have a child, since conceiving a child in the 'normal' way would be expected by a newlywed wife."

    This is just Scripture twisting, and it is a gross example of it at that. She was not a "newlywed"; they were engaged to be married. As such, she had to remain a virgin until the wedding ceremony. Engagement in that culture was taken very seriously. That's why Joseph contemplated putting her away "privately" so as to not make a big scene out of it (probably out of respect for her, although we are not told that).

    Her not having "known a man" was the result of her purity before the wedding. It has nothing to do with what occurred thereafter.

    As a master craftsman, Joseph would have desired a wife and children for status if nothing else. He would have wanted children to assist in his labors. That might sound harsh, but even this country was built upon people depending upon their children to help out on the family farm. Being a carpenter in those days would have included masonry, plumbing and pretty much any type of construction work. In that culture, it would have been expected to have children in order to help out with the family business.

    As far as a "perpetual virgin" goes, what this basically means is that she had the intent of depriving her husband of children, and probably illegally. It would have hurt his status in the community. It would have amounted to fraud.

  6. If it was a matter of vow, then the only way that such a vow would've really come to be is if she had dedicated herself to the temple and temple work. Being aware of how things work between husbands and wives, it would've been entirely wrong for her to marry as there would be little point in it otherwise–indeed, she would've altogether not married with a vow like that.

    As well, if it were a vow that she had made? Joseph could break it for her. Numbers 30 makes that very clear. The second she was married, he had a right to nullify any vow of virginity.

    And given, not just the need for children in a work culture, you have to consider the Jewish culture and how highly regarded lineage, children, and continuing the family line was. It's inconceivable to assume Joseph would be okay with marrying a young woman that had vowed to remain chaste and would bear him no children for his family line.

    The scriptures never make any claims about Mary being a perpetual virgin. To read that in the scriptures is to come at it with a conclusion already decided and see how they fit. Instead, reading the scriptures as they are makes it pretty clear there was more than just Jesus in that family.

  7. The only question I have about this is, if Mary had so many children, why did the Apostle John have to care of her after the crucifixtion. Also, this would mean that there may be half relatives of Jesus alive to this day. Just questioning??? I never had these questions answered to my satisfaction.

  8. Jonathon Gosselin

    Mr. Carmack,

    I never really had looked at that in that perspective. The more that I stay in the Church of God, the more realistic the understanding of the events in the Bible become.

    I would have to agree with the fact that Christ did in fact had siblings. I already knew about James; however, I was not aware of the fact that He had four other siblings.

    It would appear that I still have a lot of learning to do…

  9. john wrote: "if Mary had so many children, why did the Apostle John have to care of her after the crucifixtion."

    You need to remember that Jesus' brothers didn't believe in Him, in His actions or in His words. In the accounts of the crucifixion, we see many women (Mt 27:55; Mk 15:41), at least 3 of whom were named "Mary" (Jn 19:25), apparently Joseph of Arimathaea (Mk 15:43) and John (Jn 19:26). If His brothers were there, it certainly is not recorded. If they were not there, then it makes sense that Jesus, Who would have cared for His mother even while dying, would have honored her by not allowing her to not be cared for, even for a short period of time.

    "Also, this would mean that there may be half relatives of Jesus alive to this day."

    Perhaps. However, that would not prove much, since it would still be a purely human lineage from two human beings, since Jesus had no offspring.

  10. Thanks John C – I like your answer to my 2nd question about if there may be relatives of Jesus living today. Your answer to the first part of my question is what is usually given. That his brothers and sisters were not converted so Mary lived with John. It just does not seem right given the fact that Jewish families (at least today) are very close knit and care for each other. I know that if I were one of Mary's children, I would have taken it upon myself to want to look after my Mother. Especially if there were daughters, then the natural thing would be to care for your mother. Perhaps she was not close to them but I tend to think that this was a loving family. It's just too bad that the Bible does not really go into Jesus'family life except for a couple of places. In the OT, some of the lineage and and stories go into too much detail at times. We know so much more about David's life, Abraham's life, Jacob's life, etc, then Jesus'family life or

  11. John wrote: "Your answer to the first part of my question is what is usually given."

    True, and I actually forgot to say something beyond that. There are traditions which speak of an elderly woman accompanying John wherever he traveled, but beyond that there is no real evidence that Jesus' brothers, esp. James, did not step up to the place. James, as the second male child, would have been the natural one to take over as head of the family.

    We know that Jesus "was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve" first (after the women, of course), then "he was seen of James; then of all the apostles" (1Co 15:5, 7). James and Jude who wrote the books named after them were most likely two of the half brothers of Jesus.

    If James who wrote the Book of James was, as tradition has it, the half-brother of Jesus, that should give us a special appreciation for what he wrote in there.

    There is one verse in particular that comes to mind.

  12. So an old post, I know, but I was starting on a read of the gospels today with Matthew 1 and saw something that relates to this topic. Right at the end of Matthew 1 is a verse that kind of shoots the perpetual virginity theory to pieces and is very easy to overlook (and yet is all the evidence you really need).

    Matthew 1:24-25 "When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus."

    Seems there was no doubt to the writers at the time that Christ had brothers and sisters, and that the virginity was only until Christ's birth. Otherwise it would've been written as "And he never knew her" or something along those lines.

  13. I thought of your post while reading this today and thought it might help you in your confusion with Catholic teaching about Mary's perpetual virginity.


    http://www.insidecatholic.com/feature/biblical-evidence-for-the-perpetual-virginity-of-mary.html [broken link removed]

    and this:

    http://www.insidecatholic.com/feature/perpetual-virginity-as-prophetic-sign.html [broken link removed]

  14. The two posters in succesion (Andrew & Russ) do make for a interesting comparison about two opposing doctrines.

    At least the first one of gives a freewill opinion by a flesh blood person about another flesh and blood person, who is Mary the mother of Jesus Christ. The other person points to a link that states:

    "So why is her perpetual virginity one of the Four Essential Things Catholics are bound to believe and profess about her (along with her title Theotokos, or "Mother of God"; her immaculate conception; and her assumption)?

    Why are some people bound to believe and profess in a perpetual virginity about a flesh and blood person of Mary?

    Frankly on a positive note. The people in the CoG have enough on their plate dealing with a very few men who would like to bind the sheep into believing they are some kind of conduit between them and God. There is a thankfullness there's no room for an apparition appearing throughout history and even nowadays; that she is a perpetual virgin who like to bind the people in the same kind of purpose.

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