top of page

Jesus had Brothers and Sisters

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

In my posts called The Books of the New Testament and Twelve Ordinary Extraordinary Men, I omitted something on purpose so as to not make any of my Catholic readers uncomfortable. As I was preparing to write on the difference between an apostle and a disciple and The Jerusalem Council; I realized I was going to have to omit this information again. I decided I should just address it. Let’s just get it out there so I don’t have to dance around it anymore.

Jesus had brothers and sisters. Well, technically they are half-brothers and half-sisters. Jesus had a different Father. Protestants believe that James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote the book of James; and that Jude, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote Jude. Both James and Jude were unbelievers until after Jesus was crucified. What made them suddenly turn into believers? The only explanation is they saw the risen Christ. James went on to become the leader of the Jerusalem church and led the Jerusalem Council.

This is one of those things that doesn’t seem like a big deal. But the very first time I taught this information I had a rather large class with some students from a Catholic background. When I said the book of James was written by Jesus’ brother, one lady said very emphatically that Jesus did not have any brothers or sisters! I was confused by her strong reaction. She asked a few more questions about Jesus having brothers and sisters and we went to the Bible Scripture verses. Later I asked a Catholic friend about the student’s reaction to finding out Jesus had brothers and sisters and she also seemed caught off-guard. I found out Catholics are taught Mary stayed a virgin her whole life thus making it impossible for Jesus to have half-brothers and half-sisters. This is called the “perpetual virginity of Mary.” I have a lot of Catholic friends and even some relatives and I did not know Catholics believe this.

In the account of Jesus' birth, Luke 2:7 tells us And she gave birth to her firstborn son. This statement indicates there were more children afterwards.

Let’s look at the Scripture which says Jesus has brothers and sisters.

  • Matthew 13:55-56 - His mother is Mary and His brothers are James and Joseph and Simon and Judas and He has sisters (not mentioned by name or how many.)

  • Matthew 12:46-47 just says His mother and brothers.

  • Mark 3:31-32 – His mother and His brothers; Your mother and Your brothers

  • Mark 6:3 – the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses (a Greek variant of Joseph) and Judas and Simon; His sisters

  • Luke 8:19-21 – His mother and brothers

  • John 7:3, 5 – His brothers

  • Acts 1:13-14 – verse 13 mentions the disciples and then the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.

  • 1 Corinthians 9:5 – the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas (Peter)

  • Galatians 1:19 – James, the Lord’s brother

Let’s think this through and look at different scenarios.

The Protestant viewpoint: These brothers and sisters referred to in Scripture are the half-brothers and half-sisters of Jesus. They are the other children born to Joseph and Mary after the birth of Jesus. [This viewpoint is offensive to Catholics who revere the Virgin Mary in a way Protestants do not quite understand.]

The Catholic viewpoint has two possibilities:

1. These brothers and sisters of Jesus referred to in the Bible are step-brothers and step-sisters (unrelated by blood). This means that when Joseph was engaged to Mary he already had a family of at least four sons and at least two daughters with his first wife.

  • The whole reason Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth was because Caesar Augustus had ordered that a census be taken and they had to return there for that census. (Luke 2:1-5) If Joseph already had children from an earlier marriage, they would have had to be there too. Why is their existence not mentioned? In Matthew chapter 2 Herod the king hears about the baby born who is King of the Jews. Herod orders the slaughter of all the male children in Bethlehem and its vicinity, from two years old and under. But an angel of the Lord warned Joseph in a dream and they fled to Egypt with Jesus. They stayed in Egypt until Herod the king died. If Joseph had other children from a previous marriage, again, where are they? And what happened to that first wife? Why wouldn’t it have said that Joseph is widowed? But in all fairness, the Bible doesn’t tell us everything we wonder about and it doesn’t give us all of the details. God only tells us what we need to know. So perhaps there were other children hanging around in the manger when Jesus was born. That concept sort of blows my mind!

  • Mary was probably around 13 -15 years old when she had Jesus. And believing she went the rest of her life as a virgin seems unbelievable to me. First of all, how would anyone else know that? What is wrong with her having sex with her husband? God designed sex between a man and a wife. There is nothing sinful or dirty or shameful about it. In ancient Jewish culture having many children was considered a great blessing – a gift from God. So why wouldn’t they have had sexual intercourse and had more children?

2. These people referred to in the Bible are not really half-brothers or half-sisters or step-brothers or step-sisters, but some other relative such as a cousin. I read in a Catholic article that in that culture all brothers, half-brothers, male cousins, and other male relatives were all called brothers. I haven’t ever seen that in any of my reference books, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I am well aware of their culture of extended family and taking care of relatives. And in the epistles, the writers often refer to other believers as “brothers and sisters.” But that doesn’t occur in the gospels. In the gospels it seems a very clear distinction between His disciples, other disciples, and His brothers and sisters. The terminology of referring to believers as brothers and sisters does not occur until after the risen Christ.

  • The Greek word adelphoi (“brothers”) and adelphai (“sisters”) in the original language manuscripts was specifically used in these Scripture verses referring to Jesus’ brothers and sisters and seems to indicate they were either half-brothers/ sisters or step-brothers/ sisters. My ESV text note for Matthew 13:55-56 says there is no historical information to support the view that these were some other relative like a cousin.

So why do Protestants think the Lord’s brothers, James and Jude, wrote the New Testament books of James and Jude rather than someone else? I looked at 3 Bible commentaries, 3 study Bibles, 1 regular Bible, and 3 books of the Bible reference books – a total of 10 sources.

The book of James was written by the half-brother of our Lord Jesus Christ:

All of these sources say James, the half-brother of Jesus, either was the author of the book of James (8 sources) or “most likely” or “probably” the author (2 sources).

There are four men named James in the New Testament. James the apostle, son of Zebedee and brother of John, was martyred in A.D. 44, which is probably before the book of James was written. See Acts 12:1-2. James the son of Alphaeus (also known as James the Less) is almost unknown except that he is listed as a disciple. Catholics believe the apostle, James the Less, wrote the book of James. James the father of Judas in Luke 6:16 was even more obscure than James the son of Alphaeus and can be ruled out as the author. James, the half brother of our Lord is well-known. This James presided at the Council at Jerusalem in A.D. 50. See Acts 15. He is talked about in Josephus’ history (a first century Jewish historian.) He is most likely of the four to be the author of the book of James.

Some of the sources say James was known as "James the Just" in Josephus’ history. My ESV Bible (often used by seminary students) says: “The historicity of James the Just is well confirmed in historical literature (e.g., Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20. 200-201; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23).”

The book of Jude was written by the half-brother of our Lord Jesus Christ:

Jude was a very popular Jewish name. There are seven Judes or Judases in the New Testament. Five of them can be eliminated as the author because we know Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus didn’t write it and the other four are obscure mentions of Jude. That leaves the apostle Thaddaeus who was also known as Jude (the common Catholic belief); or Jude, the half-brother of Jesus. Because the way this letter is addressed in Jude 1:1 – Jude, a bond-servant of Jesus, and brother of James,… and because verses 17 and 18 seem to differentiate the author from the apostles; most scholars believe it was Jude, the half-brother of Jesus.

1 of my 10 sources didn’t say who wrote Jude. 3 sources say Jude, the half-brother of Jesus wrote it. 6 sources say Jude, the half-brother of Jesus most likely wrote it.

What I found particularly interesting was in one of my commentaries it says Eusebius documents that Domitian, in his persecution of Christians in A.D. 96 ordered the arrest of "the grandsons of Jude, the brother of Jesus." And "said to have been the brother of the Lord according to the flesh."

My thought process turned to does it really matter if Jesus had brothers and sisters and does it matter who wrote the books of James and Jude? To me although I believe the half-brothers of Jesus wrote the books of James and Jude and that is why I teach that; in the scheme of things it doesn’t matter if they were half-brothers, step-brothers or some other relative.

Here is what does matter. The 27 book New Testament Canon is based on each book must have apostolic origin. That means each book must have been written by an apostle or someone very close to an apostle who wrote the teaching of an apostle. Apostles had special anointing and authority given to them by the resurrected Christ. Irregardless if:

  • James the Less (the apostle James, the son of Alpheus) or James, the half-brother of Jesus wrote James

  • Jude (the apostle also called Thaddeus) or Jude, the half-brother of Jesus wrote Jude

the books still have apostolic origin.

And why does apostolic origin matter? If as Christians we believe the Bible is the Word of God, then the Bible becomes authoritative for our lives. The authorship of these books speaks to the very authority of the canon of Scripture. Apostolic origin means we can trust the teaching to be that of our Savior's.

But certainly your eternal destination or whether you can call yourself a Christian doesn’t hinge on whether James or Jude were the Lord’s brothers. If you don’t believe that, fine. Let’s agree to disagree and be respectful of each other’s positions. And as always I think it is a good thing to know where another believer is coming from.

[I was looking something up and came across this in the preface of Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis (1): "Some people draw unwarranted conclusions from the fact that I never say more about the Blessed Virgin Mary than is involved in asserting the Virgin Birth of Christ. But surely my reason for not doing so is obvious? To say more would take me at once into highly controversial regions. And there is no controversy between Christians which needs to be so delicately touched as this. The Roman Catholic beliefs on that subject are held not only with the ordinary fervour that attaches to all sincere religious belief, but (very naturally) with the peculiar and, as it were, chivalrous sensibilty that a man feels when the honour of his mother or his beloved is at stake. It is very difficult so to dissent from them that you will not appear to them a cad as well as a heretic. And contrariwise, the opposed Protestant beliefs on this subject call forth feelings which go down to the very roots of all Monotheism whatever. ..."

As a Protestant, a Catholic's belief in Mary's perpetual virginity is foreign to me. We have two different viewpoints. And that is alright, at least as far as I am concerned. I will try in the future to handle this subject with more compassion and diplomacy.]

(1). C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (HarperCollins Publisher, 1980), IX,X. (affiliate link)

341 views2 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page