John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v.1, ch. 10 : In the Interim... Part II: Family, Marital Status, and Status as a Layman,
pp 316-371

(Detailed summary)

Did Jesus have brothers and sisters, was he married?

  • Let's start by looking at the immediate family of Jesus. We must not forget that at this time it is the extended family and the village that gives a person his identity, and that to break these bonds is to lose one's identity. We can easily imagine that this extended family included part of the village of Nazareth. We know the name of Jesus' mother, Mary, and the name of his father, Joseph. Joseph had probably died when Jesus was 30 or 35 years old. As for Mary, who probably married at about the age of 14, she must have been about 48 or 50 years old when Jesus was crucified.

  • The question of Jesus' brothers and sisters was the subject of a long debate, especially between Catholics and Protestants, where the former gave him the meaning of half-brothers or cousins, and the latter the meaning of true brothers and sisters. It is paradoxical, however, that Luther and Calvin believed in Mary's perpetual virginity and, for them, brothers and sisters of Jesus meant cousins. And if one reads the authors before the Council of Nicaea of 325, the expression brothers and sisters of Jesus meant true brothers and sisters of blood. This is the case of Hegesippus, the converted Jew of the second century.

  • What about the New Testament texts? When we read Matthew 1:25; 13:55; 12:46-50, we can make a number of observations. It is Joseph who gives Jesus his name, and by the same token accepts paternity and gives him Davidic descent. But Matthew uses an ambiguous expression when he says: "but Joseph had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son ". What is the meaning of "until"? Does it mean that Joseph did not have sex before Jesus was born, but afterwards? To answer the question, we need to look at the broader context of Matthew. For example, in 13:55 he writes, "Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Jude?" Naming the biological mother with the brothers and sisters gives the impression that sisters and brothers are to be understood literally, especially since he takes the trouble to separate the legal father from the biological mother. In 12:46-50, some people mention that his mother and brothers want to talk to him, but Jesus replies that his real mother and brothers are those who do God's will; this aphorism would lose all its force if the first part did not designate blood brothers.

  • Let us broaden the context to the whole New Testament and the first centuries of the Christian era. Throughout the New Testament, the word adelphos (brother) never has the meaning of half-brother or cousin. For there was a very specific word for cousin: anepsios. Let us take Paul, in Gal 1:19: "[I saw no one], but only James, the brother (adelphos) of the Lord"; and again in 1 Cor 9:5: "Would we not have the right to take with us a Christian woman like the other apostles, the brothers (adelphoi) of the Lord and Cephas?". Yet Paul knows the word for cousin well, as we see in Col 4:10: "You have the greetings ... of Mark, the cousin (anepsios) of Barnabas". If we turn to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who does not know the New Testament, we see the same thing: in Jewish Antiquities he refers to James using the expression "brother of Jesus".

  • If we now consider the texts of the Fathers of the Church, we must make the same observation. For example, Hegesippus (2nd century) uses the expression "brothers of the Lord" to speak of James, while elsewhere he also speaks of Jesus' uncles and cousins. Tertullian (160-220), although a great promoter of virginity and asceticism, considers the brothers of Jesus as brothers in blood. But it was Jerome (347-420) who introduced the idea of Mary's perpetual virginity and also that of "cousin" to translate the Greek word adelphos. It is based on the fact that the Hebrew word ah, translated as brother, sometimes has the meaning of cousin in the Old Testament. But he overlooks the fact that in these rare cases the author feels obliged to clarify, and that this way of writing is not found in the New Testament. He uses the biblical text to support the ideology of Mary's perpetual virginity which develops in the 4th century.

  • In summary, on the purely historical level, it must be admitted that brothers and sisters of Jesus refers to brothers and sisters of blood. Since we name four brothers, and speak of sisters in the plural, we must recognize at least six persons. This conclusion is based on the criterion of multiple attestation (Paul, Mark, John, Matthew, Josephus). It is also established on the philological meaning of the word adelphos, which never has the meaning of cousin in the whole New Testament.

  • Let us now ask the question: Was Jesus married? The question arises because the Gospels say absolutely nothing on the subject. Some modern biblical scholars have tried to interpret this silence in the light of the Jewish mores of the time, where sexuality and marriage were seen as a blessing from God, to affirm that Jesus must have been married, at least at some point in his life. However, it is very likely that Jesus was single all his life. Why was he single?

    • First of all, if the Christian authors of the first century do not hesitate to give the names of Jesus' immediate family or friends (the Gospels speak of James, Joses, Simon and Jude, the brothers of Jesus, Mary Magdelene, Joanna, wife of Chuza, Herod's steward, Susanna, Mary the mother of James the Less and of Jose, Salome, the women who accompanied him), why should they not also mention the name of his spouse or children? This is also the case of Hegesippus, who mentions Clopas, an uncle of Jesus, and Symeon, a cousin.

    • Secondly, we must not simplify first-century Judaism. It is true that marriage was in the spotlight, but there is nevertheless a certain promotion of celibacy: for example, among the Essenes, the Jewish community founded around the second century BC, a certain number practiced voluntary celibacy by asceticism. The same is true in Qumran, on the Dead Sea shore, where some had remained celibate as they were preparing for the Holy War.

    • Thirdly, there are some great figures who had remained celibate, such as the prophet Jeremiah, who wanted to embody with his life the impending catastrophe that awaited the people because of his apostasy. This is also the case of John the Baptist, the prophet practicing asceticism in the desert and announcing a radical message, who was probably unmarried; at his death, no mention is made of any member of his family, but of the disciples who came to take the corpse for burial (Mt 14:12). Finally, a rabbi like Simeon ben Azzai (early second century), even though he recommended marriage and procreation, had remained unmarried, and replied to those who reproached him for his celibacy: "My soul is in love with the Torah. The others can take care of continuing the world".

    • Fourthly, in Mt 19:12, Jesus makes this statement: "Some have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven". It is likely that this passage from Matthew, which deals with the issue of marriage and divorce, is editorial, i.e. it is Matthew's work in dealing with certain community problems. But it probably takes up an oral tradition dating back to Jesus, because of its incisive and unique character which has no equivalent in the New Testament or in first century Judaism, and which would fit perfectly with Jesus' celibate state. It would reflect his teaching and action which shows an eschatological preoccupation with the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God and the historical urgency of reuniting the children of Israel.

  • Let's end by considering the religious status of Jesus. At a time when the reins of power were in the hands of the priests, Jesus was a simple layman. Reading the New Testament, we see that Jesus had almost no relationship with priests. His many discussions took place with the scribes and Pharisees who were also lay people. The reason is simple: there is a clear hostility between Jesus and the priests as well as the Sadducees, a form of high clergy. In a rare encounter with the Sadducees, the Sadducees try in a somewhat contemptuous way to ridicule Jesus' preaching on the resurrection by bringing up the case of a man who had known several marriages and questioning his situation in the other life. On the other hand, Jesus gives it back to them well with the parable of the Good Samaritan where a priest and a Levite appear as people stuck in their rules and insensitive. This hostility goes back to Jesus and is not a creation of the Church, because at the time the Gospels were written, the Temple was destroyed and with it an active clergy disappeared, and only the Scribes and Pharisees remain. It is easy to understand this hostility: Jesus is a poor peasant from Galilee confronted with the priestly aristocracy of Jerusalem. And his prophetic and eschatological mission clashes with the status quo maintained by the Sadducees and appears as a threat to the priests. Moreover, the anger of Jesus with the Temple vendors is one of the few texts to be found in all four Gospels.

Next chapter: Can we arrive at a chronology of Jesus' life?

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