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Brothers of Jesus: Biblical Arguments for Mary’s Virginity

Brothers of Jesus: Biblical Arguments for Mary’s Virginity

In my previous article, I wrote about the “Hebraic” use of the Greek adelphos: as applying to cousins, fellow countrymen, and a wide array of uses beyond the meaning of “sibling.” Yet it is unanimously translated as “brother” in the King James Version (KJV): 246 times. The cognate adelphe is translated 24 times only as “sister”. This is because it reflects Hebrew usage, translated into Greek. Briefly put, in Jesus’ Hebrew culture (and Middle Eastern culture even today), cousins were called “brothers”.

Brothers or Cousins?

Now, it’s true that sungenis (Greek for “cousin”) and its cognate sungenia appear in the New Testament fifteen times (sungenia: Lk 1:61; Acts 7:3, 14; sungenis: Mk 6:4; Lk 1:36, 58; 2:44; 14:12; 21:16; Jn 18:26; Acts 10:24; Rom 9:3; 16:7, 11, 21). But they are usually translated kinsmen, kinsfolk, or kindred in KJV: that is, in a sense wider than cousin: often referring to the entire nation of Hebrews. Thus, the eminent Protestant linguist W. E. Vine, in his Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, lists sungenis not only under “Cousin” but also under “Kin, Kinsfolk, Kinsman, Kinswoman.”

In all but two of these occurrences, the authors were either Luke or Paul. Luke was a Greek Gentile. Paul, though Jewish, was raised in the very cosmopolitan, culturally Greek town of Tarsus. But even so, both still clearly used adelphos many times with the meaning of non-sibling (Lk 10:29; Acts 3:17; 7:23-26; Rom 1:7, 13; 9:3; 1 Thess 1:4). They understood what all these words meant, yet they continued to use adelphos even in those instances that had a non-sibling application.

Strikingly, it looks like every time St. Paul uses adelphos (unless I missed one or two), he means it as something other than blood brother or sibling. He uses the word or related cognates no less than 138 times in this way. Yet we often hear about Galatians 1:19: “James the Lord’s brother.” 137 other times, Paul means non-sibling, yet amazingly enough, here he must mean sibling, because (so we are told) he uses the word adelphos? That doesn’t make any sense.

Some folks think it is a compelling argument that sungenis isn’t used to describe the brothers of Jesus. But they need to examine Mark 6:4 (RSV), where sungenis appears:

And Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” (cf. Jn 7:5: “For even his brothers did not believe in him”)

What is the context? Let’s look at the preceding verse, where the people in “his own country” (6:1) exclaimed:

“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

It can plausibly be argued, then, that Jesus’ reference to kin (sungenis) refers (at least in part) back to this mention of His “brothers” and “sisters”: His relatives. Since we know that sungenis means cousins or more distant relatives, that would be an indication of the status of those called Jesus’ “brothers”.

What about Jude and James?

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Jude is called the Lord’s “brother” in Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3. If this is the same Jude who wrote the epistle bearing that name (as many think), he calls himself “a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James” (Jude 1:1). Now, suppose for a moment that he was Jesus’ blood brother. In that case, he refrains from referring to himself as the Lord’s own sibling (while we are told that such a phraseology occurs several times in the New Testament, referring to a sibling relationship) and chooses instead to identify himself as James‘ brother.

This is far too strange and implausible to believe. Moreover, James also refrains from calling himself Jesus’ brother, in his epistle (James 1:1: “servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”): even though St. Paul calls him “the Lord’s brother” (Gal 1:19: dealt with above).

It’s true that Scripture doesn’t come right out and explicitly state that Mary was a perpetual virgin. But nothing in Scripture contradicts that notion, and (to say the same thing another way) nothing in the perpetual virginity doctrine contradicts Scripture. Moreover, no Scripture can be produced that absolutely, undeniably, compellingly defeats the perpetual virginity of Mary.

Human Tradition

The alleged disproofs utterly fail in their purpose. The attempted linguistic argument against Mary’s perpetual virginity from the mere use of the word “brothers” in English translations (and from sungenis) falls flat at every turn, as we have seen.

If there is any purely “human” tradition here, then, it is the denial of the perpetual virginity of Mary, since it originated (mostly) some 1700 years after the initial apostolic deposit: just as all heresies are much later corruptions. The earliest Church fathers know of no such thing. To a person, they all testify that Mary was perpetually a virgin, and indeed, thought that this protected the doctrine of the Incarnation, as a miraculous birth from a mother who was a virgin before, during and after the birth.

Dave Armstrong Biblical Catholicism
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About Dave Armstrong

Dave Armstrong
A full-time Catholic apologist since 2001, Dave was received into the Church in 1991. Since February 1997, he has blogged over 2,500 times. Dave is happily married to Judy since 1984, and their four children have all been homeschooled. BiblicalCatholicism.com | Meet Dave
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  • ichosefrancis

    Dave, how would you explain Matt 1:25 to our Protestant brothers and sisters when it says that Joseph did not have relations with Mary until Jesus was born? They like to use that to deny Mary’s Perpetual Virginity.

    • Dave Armstrong

      I dealt with that at the end of my first article: the one before this. For the convenience of readers I’ll copy it here:

      Matthew 1:24-25 Joseph . . . knew her not until she had borne a son . . .

      This passage has been used as an argument that Mary did not remain a
      virgin after the birth of Jesus, but the same Protestant commentary also
      states (my italics again):

      The word “till” [until above] does not necessarily imply that they lived on a different footing afterwards (as will be evident from the use of the same word in 1 Samuel 15:35; 2 Samuel 6:23; Matthew 12:20); nor does the word “first-born” decide the much-disputed question, whether Mary had any children to Joseph after the birth of Christ; for, as Lightfoot says,
      “The law, in speaking of the first-born, regarded not whether any were
      born after or no, but only that none were born before.”

      John Calvin used the same counter-argument in favor of Mary’s perpetual virginity. In fact, in his Harmony of the Gospels, commenting on Matthew 1:25, he thought the contention of further siblings based on this passage was so unfounded that he wrote, “No man will obstinately keep up the argument, except from an extreme fondness for disputation.”

      • ichosefrancis

        Thank you for the reply! I will have to also read your other article! Thank you again!!

        • Dave Armstrong

          You’re welcome. God bless you!

  • Dave Armstrong

    Thanks for your very kind remarks, Wesley. God even uses a poor sinner like me once in a while to help someone along the way a bit. He is good!