By RAYMOND DE SOUZA, KM
“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, Joseph, Jude, and Simon? And are not also his sisters here with us? And they took offense at him” (Mark 6:3).
So, after all, Jesus appears to have had four brothers, named James, Joseph, Jude, and Simon, as well as two or three sisters, right? Let’s investigate the issue.
Three women are called “Mary” in the New Testament: Mary, the Mother of Jesus; Mary Magdalene; and “the other Mary.” And, because of this, a little confusion has been established, which gave an excuse to anti-Catholic bigotry to raise its ugly head against the perpetual virginity of Our Savior’s Mother.
“Then he [Joseph of Arimathea] rolled a large stone to the entrance of the tomb, and departed. But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the sepulcher” (Matt. 27:61).
“Now late in the night of the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the sepulcher” (Matt. 28:1). So it appears that Mary Magdalene used to hang out with that mysterious “other Mary.”
Who was that “other Mary,” and why is it important to find it out?
St. Mark tells us something about her: “And Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of Joseph beheld where he was laid” (Mark 15:47).
Aha! “The other Mary” was the mother of a man called Joseph, not St. Joseph of course, but one of the disciples of Jesus.
“Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas [the other Mary], and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25).
Now we know more about “the other Mary”: She was the wife of a man called Cleophas. The plot thickens.
“And many women were there [on Calvary], looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the Mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Matt. 27:56).
So the other Mary, the wife of Cleophas, had another son alongside the one disciple Joseph. His name was James. Not the other James; he and John were the sons of Zebedee, whom Jesus called the “sons of thunder.” No, this James and his brother Joseph were the sons of the couple Cleophas and Mary.
Why is this important? Because the aforementioned brothers James and Joseph, who were sons of Cleophas and Mary, are mentioned in St. Mark’s Gospel as brethren of Jesus!
“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, Joseph, Jude and Simon? And are not also his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:3).
As there was no distinct word for “cousin” in those days, as explained in a previous article, those two young men Joseph and James were the sons of Uncle Cleophas and Auntie Mary, therefore Jesus’ cousins. And they had two more brothers, Jude and Simon (not Simon Peter).
That is why the Apostle James was called the “brother of the Lord” by St. Paul:
“But I saw none of the other apostles, except James, the brother of the Lord” (Gal. 1:19). James was the son of Uncle Cleophas and Auntie Mary.
So, on the cross, Jesus gave His Mother to the care of Cousin John, son of Cleophas and Mary, to be his mother: “Son, Behold thy Mother” and “From that hour he took her into his own home” (John 19:26-27).
There was no problem for John to look after two mothers.
As I pointed out before, if Mary had other children, it would be against Jewish customary law for Jesus to give His Mother to a kinsman, even a cousin, let alone someone who was not a relative. It would be unthinkable in terms of good Hebrew traditions. And Jesus came not to destroy, but to fulfill.
So, according to Scripture itself, those four men were Jesus’ cousins — brethren, in contemporary Jewish parlance.
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Another possible question: Were Jesus’ brethren the children of St. Joseph from a previous marriage?
Some have speculated that such brethren came from St. Joseph’s first marriage. Possible? Yes. Likely? Definitely not. If he had been a widower, and then married again, it is not likely that he married again to remain celibate, or would agree that his new wife should make a vow of virginity. If he were to remain a celibate, he would do it as a single man, or a widower.
St. Jerome explains: (+ AD 420): “Suppose that the brethren of the Lord were Joseph’s sons by another wife. But we understand the brethren of the Lord to be not the sons of Joseph, but cousins of the Savior, the sons of Mary, His mother’s sister” (Contra Helvidius). That’s the other Mary we talked about in the beginning, the wife of Cleophas and mother of four sons, James, Joseph, Jude, and Simon.
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The dialogue between our Lady and the Angel Gabriel raises another interesting aspect, in the light of the Eastern Gate and the Ark of the Covenant: Did she — and St. Joseph — actually make a vow of virginity?
Many commentators, especially St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae, Pt. III, Q. 28, Art. 4), argues that this is how her perplexity at hearing the angel’s announcement that she would bear a son makes sense.
“But Mary said to the angel, how shall this happen, since I do not know man?” (Luke 1:34). Now she was espoused to Joseph, and had a clear idea of how babies are conceived and born. This question of hers makes no sense if she had not determined to remain a virgin. Otherwise, in the natural course of events in married life, she would eventually conceive and become a mother of the son of God. What she was asking was, “How can I have a child while remaining a virgin?”
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A final and beautiful explanation of the verb to know in “And he [Joseph] did not know her till she brought forth her firstborn son. And he called his name Jesus” (Matt. 1:25) is inspired in a comment by St. Augustine:
During their engagement, St. Joseph knew that she was a good, faithful, pious, hard-working girl, the ideal wife. Fine. But what he did not know was that She the Woman whose heel crushes the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15), who appears in Heaven under a crown of twelve stars (Apoc. 12:1), the one who was blessed among women, who was full of grace, with whom the Lord was (Luke 1:28), whom all generations would call blessed, to whom the almighty had done great things (Luke 1:48-48).
Joseph knew nothing of this till the Child was born in Bethlehem, and the star came, and the Magi with their gifts of gold to honor His princely nobility; incense to honor His divinity; and myrrh to honor His role as propitiatory Victim; and the angel calling the shepherds, and the glory of God shining around them, and the multitude of the angelic hosts praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men of goodwill.”
Wow! Joseph was amazed! Now he finally knew who she really was!
He could say with St Augustine: O beauty ever ancient and ever new, so late have I known thee!
Next article: summing up.
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(Raymond de Souza is director of the Evangelization and Apologetics Office of the Winona Diocese, Minn.; EWTN program host; regional coordinator for Portuguese-speaking countries for Human Life International [HLI], president of the Sacred Heart Institute and a member of the Sovereign, Military, and Hospitaller Order of the Knights of Malta. His web site is: www.RaymonddeSouza.com.)