BIBLICAL SCHOLARSHIP: Did Jesus have brothers? Some scholars say yes

Some prominent Catholic biblical scholars, bypassing centuries-old church doctrine that Mary was a lifelong virgin, say that indeed had brothers.

(RNS)-Did Jesus have brothers?

Some prominent Catholic biblical scholars, bypassing centuries-old church doctrine that Mary was a lifelong virgin, say that indeed he did. The”brothers” of Jesus mentioned in the New Testament were probably siblings, the scholars say.

Protestantism has long taken Gospel mentions of brothers, and sometimes sisters, of Jesus in family contexts. And it has treated the apostle Paul’s references to “James, the brother of the Lord” and “the brothers of the Lord” as evidence that Mary probably had other children.

However, Catholicism has maintained that those brothers were really”cousins”-the view of St. Jerome, a fourth-century father of the church- or”relatives”of Jesus. Some Catholics also cite Eastern Orthodoxy’s view that Jesus’ siblings were children of Joseph by a previous marriage. Even Protestant reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin regarded Mary as a perpetual virgin.

But in commentaries published last year, two U.S. Catholic scholars treated James, the martyred leader of the Jerusalem church, as Jesus’ brother without suggesting cousin or relative as an historical option.

The scholars were Pheme Perkins of Boston College and Luke Timothy Johnson of the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. Both said in interviews that they do not accept the”cousins” interpretation as historically or linguistically accurate.”I think it’s plain ridiculous,” said Perkins.

A third New Testament specialist was more explicit in print last year. Jerome Neyrey of the University of Notre Dame, in an entry on the brothers of Jesus for the HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, concluded: “No linguistic evidence warrants our interpreting Gospel passages about Jesus’ brothers and sister as his cousins. `Cousins’ of Jesus, when noted, were called just that, `cousins,’ not `brothers.’ Therefore New Testament authors apparently understood Jesus’ `brothers’ as blood brothers, not as `cousins’ or `stepbrothers.'” Neyrey said he had softened his original ending to the entry to avoid”spending two to three months of my time speaking to my bishop or Rome.”Nevertheless, he said he still received hate mail after the encyclopedia was published.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that Catholic liturgy celebrates Mary as the ever-virgin despite objections that siblings of Jesus are mentioned in Mark 3:31-35 and 6:3; First Corinthians 9:5, and Galatians 1:19, among other places in the New Testament.

One argument made against actual”brothers,” cited by the catechism, was the partial identity of a Mary by Mark and Matthew in scenes at the cross and tomb. This Mary was called the mother of James and Joses, but biblical experts have differed on whether Mary, mother of Jesus, or someone else was meant.

Defenders of church doctrine frequently point to the Gospel of John in which a dying Jesus commends his mother to the care of that Gospel’s unnamed”beloved disciple.”If Mary had had other children, say defenders of Mary’s lifelong virginity, his mother would not be entrusted to a disciple.

However, scholars note, the”brothers” of Jesus cited in the Gospel of John, are described as non-believers. Thus, they add, that Gospel’s favored disciple is given the task of caring for Mary.

None of the three Catholic scholars who last year broached the sensitive subject in print, nor the author in 1991 of a paper that influenced the shift in thinking, the Rev. John P. Meier of Catholic University of America, have said they were attacking church doctrine.

“To state that this is what the language says (“brothers,”not “cousins”) does not mean one is undertaking a challenge to church doctrine,” said Johnson, a scholar recently praised by fellow conservatives for his book,”The Real Jesus,” which sharply critiqued liberal biblical scholarship.

Compared to Christianity’s central creeds, Johnson said, “Nothing critical or essential to Christian faith rests on this point” of Mary’s lifelong virginity.

Yet, the cherished image of ever-virgin Mary, popularly revered as the Mother of God, has been a flashpoint when academics have dared to touch the subject. Only in the last two decades have scholars tested the waters.

In 1977, Rudolph Pesch of Germany published a major study of Mark in which he rejected the idea that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were instead cousins.

A joint study of Mary by Catholic and Lutheran Bible experts, published in 1978, was more cautious. It declared that”it cannot be said that the New Testament identifies without doubt as blood brothers and sisters and hence as children of Mary. … The solution favored by scholars will depend in part on the authority they allot to later church insights.”A footnote in that book wondered aloud what the Vatican reaction would be to Pesch’s bolder declaration.

By 1991, Meier, then president of the Catholic Biblical Association, provided the answer. Although Pesch”raised a firestorm of controversy among German Catholics “by championing the”true siblings” view,” he has never been officially censured or condemned by Rome for his views, ” Meier said at a meeting of the association in Los Angeles.

Meier presented a full argument on historical grounds that”the most probable opinion is that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were true siblings.” Meier repeated his views succinctly in”The Marginal Jew,” a book on the historical Jesus.

A Catholic traditionalist, writing in The National Catholic Register a few months later, asked how Meier could be”allowed to teach at the Catholic University of America”if he dissents from church doctrine. But Meier has continued to teach and write without censure.

In his paper, Meier argued pointedly that one Gospel story would lose its punch if “cousins”(or”relatives”or” brothers in faith” were meant by the author instead of actual siblings.

The story, in Mark (3:31-35) and Matthew (12:46-50), says that”his mother and his brothers”  for Jesus as they stood outside a group crowded around him. The crowd passed the word that his family was asking for him.”Who are my mother and my brothers?” Jesus asked rhetorically.

Looking at those around him, Jesus continued, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Meier noted that the “punch line”of the story “carries full weight only if the mother, brothers and sisters all have a close, natural relationship to Jesus.

“The final line is weakened if Jesus meant “my male cousin, my female cousin and my mother,” he said.

Put another way, Meier said, “The full force of the aphorism is retained only if the natural relationships mentioned are all equally close and blood-related.”

A theological position most closely associated with the Eastern Orthodox churches is that the brothers of Jesus were sons of Joseph, Jesus’ legal father in the Gospels, by a previous marriage.

Scholars say that stance was probably derived from a non-biblical text of the second century, the Infancy Gospel of James, in which Joseph, a widower, protests against the angelic command to marry Mary: “I already have sons and am old, but she is a girl.”

But Meier characterized the document as “a wildly imaginative folk narrative that is outrageously inaccurate about New Testament events as well as things Jewish.” Notre Dame’s Neyrey recently added that relying on the Infancy Gospel of James is a bad idea.”It’s so full of crazy tales and is hardly a historical or theologically determinative text,” he said.


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