By RAYMOND DE SOUZA, KM
“Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not His Mother called Mary? And are not His brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all His sisters with us?” (Matt. 13:54-57; also Mark 6:2-3).
“And His Mother and His brethren came, and standing outside, they sent to Him, calling Him” (Mark 3:31-33).
St. Paul speaks of “The brethren of the Lord” (1 Cor. 9:5) and that he went to Jerusalem to see Peter but “saw none of the other apostles, except James, the brother of the Lord” (Gal. 1:19).
Acts 1:13 speaks of all the apostles being “with one mind continued steadfastly in prayer with the women and Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and with His brethren.”
But on the contrary, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 510) conveys the faith of the Early Christians and states that “Mary ‘remained a virgin in conceiving her Son, a virgin in giving birth to Him, a virgin in carrying Him, a virgin in nursing Him at her breast, always a virgin’ with her whole being she is ‘the handmaid of the Lord’” (Luke 1:38 — St. Augustine, Sermon 186, 1; PL 38, 999).
History records that belief in the perpetual virginity of the Mother of Jesus is part and parcel of the faith of the early Church, like the Eucharist and the priesthood, which were never defined as dogmas. It is a belief brought to us by the apostolic Tradition, which St. Paul refers to in 2 Thess. 2. Mary’s perpetual virginity has never been the object of a specific definition of dogma by the Magisterium of the Church. The Immaculate Conception and the Assumption into Heaven — which we will discuss in later articles — were clearly defined at a given point of time by the pontifical Magisterium.
The question remains: Who were those “brethren” of Jesus?
Many today who ignore the faith of the Early Christians take offense at the teaching of the Catholic Church on the perpetual Virginity of our Lady. If she had had other children after Jesus, then Catholics folks would be believing in a pious thought, or a fable, if you wish, but, still, no great harm would be done to anybody.
But virginity was countercultural in Mary’s days. In Jewish culture, unlike today, children were seen as a blessing, and to have many children was something to be desirous of and grateful for. A classical example is Jephte’s daughter, who “mourned her virginity” because she would not have the opportunity to be a mother (Judges 11:38) or Rachel regretting her infertility (Gen. 30:1-2). Or Samuel’s mother and Samson’s mother wishing to conceive and give birth to a child of their own.
Before we start the analysis of each of the objections, let us point out a few things that often pass without being mentioned:
1) There is never in Sacred Scripture any mention of Mary’s children. Jesus’ brothers and sisters, yes — not Mary’s children. Never.
2) The Holy Family left for Egypt and came back after the death of Herod — there is no mention whatsoever of a second child being born in exile. If it had happened, why is there no mention of such a fortunate one? Surely to be a true blood-brother of the Savior deserves a mention in the Bible!
3) The Child Jesus at the age of 12 was found in the Temple after three days. In twelve years, it would be natural for them to have a child or two. But no. No mention of any other child. If they existed, there would have been at least a mention of them, such as, “Mary and Joseph left their younger children, Rebecca, Jonathan, and the pesky little David with the folks in the caravan and went back to Jerusalem,” or something like that. But nothing of the sort is registered.
4) Our Lord gave His Mother to the care of St. John, who was a close relative: In the Jewish culture of those days, if you had blood brothers, you would not leave your mother in the care of strangers, or even cousins. Since Jesus left her to the care of St. John, that’s because she did not have other children.
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Do the words “brother” and “sister” in Sacred Scripture always mean blood-brother, or blood-sister, that is, child of the same parents, or at least of one parent? To believe so is to completely ignore the Hebrew language, customs, and ways.
I suppose that most people know that the New Testament was not written in English. Brethren in Hebrew culture does not mean only brothers and sisters from the same father and mother, as in English, but also near kinsmen. Hebrew and Aramaic do not have specific words to differentiate between brothers and cousins — it is the same word. The context tells you what they are talking about. They did not have a “nuclear family” as we have today — father, mother, child; they always had an extended family, including blood-brothers and sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts, etc.
Even in modern languages today, we can cite examples of this kind. In French, the concept of parents and relatives, which are clearly distinguishable in English, are conveyed by one single word: parents. How do you know the difference? The context will tell you what which one we are talking about. English has a most important verbal distinction that does not exist in French, as in the auxiliary verbs can (to be able to) and may (to be allowed to), but in French it is only one word for both: pouvoir. Spanish has a most important distinction in the verb to be: ser and estar. But in English and in French there is only one form: to be in English and être in French. The three English verbs to expect, to hope, and to wait for — which convey three different meanings — have only one equivalent in Spanish: esperar.
I have been a translator and interpreter in romance languages for many years; and translators can appreciate the difficult of translating from one language to the other, when there is no equivalent word.
Sometimes, to make things more complicated, there are certain words virtually untranslatable: saudade in Portuguese, Gemütlichkeit in German, know-how in English, savoir-faire in French, mos in Afrikaans. Sometimes the translator has to use a whole sentence to convey the meaning of a single word.
So, I’d like to suggest to those who are too eager-beaver to attack the Catholic Church on the issue of the virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that they should perhaps learn another language to appreciate the issues involved and avoid taking a text out of context to turn it into a pretext.
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Now here are a few examples from the Bible:
“And Abram said unto Lot, let there be no strife, I pray you, between me and you, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen. For we are brethren.” “And when Abram learned that his brother was taken captive [Lot], he armed his trained servants . . . and pursued them into Dan . . . and he brought back his brother Lot, and his goods” (Gen. 13:8; 14; 15).
Yet Gen. 11:27 tells us that Lot was his nephew, son of his brother Aran, not his blood-brother.
In Esther 15:12, brother is used to mean husband: King Assuerus said, “What is the matter, Esther? I am thy brother, fear not.” But he was her husband.
Next article: “brother” and “sister” in The New Testament.
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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.RaymondeSouza.com.)