Jesus' "Brothers" and Mary's Perpetual Virginity

by Mark J. Bonocore

In the past few years, I’ve been amazed by the growing number of Christians who have renounced the traditional belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity, citing as reason the “brothers” and “sisters” of the Lord referred to in Sacred Scripture.

Now, while many Protestants regard Mary’s perpetual virginity as a uniquely “Catholic belief,” it should be noted that the Protestant reformers Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli ALL professed this belief as well (for documentation, see for example Mary, Mother of All Christians by Max Thurian, written while he was a Calvinist theologian).

So, while I myself am a Catholic, I present this argument ecumenically using Scripture alone, to prove that these “brothers” and “sisters” are NOT the children of Joseph and Mary, and that the belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity is in no way refuted by the New Testament. So, let us begin in Matthew.

Matthew 13:55 -- Jesus at Nazareth

-- carpenter’s son

-- mother named Mary 

-- brothers: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas

-- sisters “with us”

Matthew 27: 55 -- The Crucifixion

“Among them were Mary Magdalene and MARY THE MOTHER OF JAMES AND JOSEPH, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.”

This “Mary” is obviously the mother of the same James and Joseph mentioned in Matt 13:55.

Matthew 28: 1 -- The Resurrection

“After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and THE OTHER MARY came to see the tomb.”

This “other Mary” certainly corresponds to the mother of James and Joseph, the companion of Mary Magdalene in Matt 27:55. However, she is presented as such a minor gospel character that she is apparently NOT the mother of Jesus.

It’s interesting to note that whenever Matthew mentions the Virgin Mary, he always identifies her as “Jesus’ mother.” (See: Matt 1:18, 2:11, 2:13, 2:14, 2:20, and 2:21, in which the author all but beats us over the head with the phrase “His mother.”) It’s unlikely, therefore, that Matthew is abandoning this point by later identifying her as merely the mother of James and Joseph: a secondary character, less important than Mary Magdalene. Taking all this into consideration, Mary the mother of James and Joseph and Jesus’ mother are apparently two different women. But first, let’s turn to Mark.

Mark 6:3 -- Jesus at Nazareth (possibly the original source)

-- “Is he not the carpenter?” (Jesus had taken over the family business)

-- “The son of Mary” (Very unusual in a Jewish context, in which a son is the son of the father, not the mother)

-- brothers James, JOSE, Judas, and Simon

The same list as in Matt 13:55, with the exception of “Jose” in place of Matthew’s Joseph -- really the same name in Hebrew (Yoshef).

-- “sisters are here with us”

Both in Matthew’s account, and more clearly here in Mark’s, this phrase seems to suggest that these particular “brothers” of Jesus lived elsewhere. (Could they have been traveling with Jesus as His followers?)

Mark 15:40 -- The Crucifixion

“Among them were Mary Magdalene, MARY THE MOTHER OF THE YOUNGER JAMES AND OF JOSE, and Salome.”

Here, Matthew’s “Mary the mother of James and Joseph” reappears as “the mother of ...James and of Jose,” corresponding to Mark’s reference to Jesus’ “brothers” James and Jose at Nazareth in 6:3. If one compares Matthew and Mark’s accounts of Jesus at Nazareth with that of their accounts of the crucifixion, it becomes abundantly clear that they are speaking about the same two relatives of Jesus, whose mother -- like Jesus’ -- happened to be named Mary:


Matthew: James and Joseph James and Joseph

Mark: James and Jose James and Jose

And so, Mark continues...

Mark 15:47 -- Jesus’ burial

“Mary Magdalene and MARY THE MOTHER OF JOSE watched where He was laid.”

Jose corresponds to the one mentioned in Mark 6:3 and 15:40.

Mark 16:1 -- The Resurrection

“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, MARY THE MOTHER OF JAMES, and Salome bought spices so that they might go and anoint Him.”

The same three companions appear again. Here, Mary is called “the mother of James” (a variant of “the mother of Jose” in 15:47). However, there is still no mention, or even a vague implication, that this woman is also the mother of Jesus; but merely a background character like Salome.

Luke 24:10 -- The Resurrection

“The women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and MARY THE MOTHER OF JAMES; the others who accompanied them also ...”

Again, the “mother of James,” but not the mother of Jesus. And, like Matthew and Mark (in 3:35), the author of Luke always refers to the Virgin Mary as Jesus’ mother (See: Luke 1:43, 2:33-34, 2:51, 8:19, Acts 1:14).

“Others” (aka, Salome and Suzanna, etc.)

John 19:25 -- The Crucifixion

“Standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother and HIS MOTHER’S SISTER, MARY THE WIFE OF CLOPAS, and Mary Magdala.”

This mysterious “Mary” appears again; this time called “Mary the wife of Clopas.” If this passage is speaking about three women, rather than four (as it almost certainly is), the comma after “his mother’s sister” may be identifying Clopas’ wife as the sister (or ‘tribal-relative’) of Jesus’ mother. This would explain the gospel writers’ use of the Greek word “adelphos” (as a translation of the Hebrew “ah”), which could mean brother (or sister in the feminine), as well as cousin, nephew, relative, etc. If Clopas’ wife was the sister (i.e., close, tribal relative) of Jesus’ mother, then Clopas’ sons, James and Joseph (Jose), could very well be called Jesus’ “brethren” (i.e., part of His extended tribal family).

This seems to fit, since neither James and Joseph/Jose (nor any of the “brothers”) are EVER called the sons of Joseph.

It is also quite possible that, as John’s gospel so often does, this reference to Mary as “wife of Clopas” is a conscious intention to clear up any questions about the “mother of James and Joseph (Jose)” in the Synoptics -- that is, to clearly distinguish her from Jesus’ mother.


So, with all this evidence in mind, I hold that:

(1) John’s “Mary the wife of Clopas ” is the same person as the Synoptics’ “Mary the mother of James and Joseph/Jose” (the Mary of the cross/tomb accounts).

(2) This Mary is in turn the “sister” (i.e., close tribal relative) of Jesus’ mother Mary.

(3) This is how Jesus is “brothers” with James and Joseph (Jose).

(4) His other “brothers” (Judas and Simon), as well as his “sisters,” and the “brothers” who don’t believe in Him in John 7:5 are from other branches of His extended tribal family.

But, let’s play devil’s advocate.

If James, Joseph (Jose), Simon, and Judas ARE INDEED Jesus’ fraternal brothers, then the Synoptics’ Mary of the cross/tomb (i.e., the mother of James and Joseph/Jose) MUST be Jesus’ mother as well.

And, after all, there ARE certain seemingly-logical arguments to support this:

-- James and Joseph (Jose) ARE called Jesus’ brothers.

-- And, their mother IS named Mary (the same as Jesus’)

-- And, one must admit, it’s also possible that the comma between “His mother’s sister” and “Mary the wife of Clopas” in John 19:25 may be distinguishing two different women instead of identifying Clopas’ wife as the Virgin Mary’s sister.

So, therefore, Mary the wife of Clopas may NOT be a relative at all NOR is she necessarily the same woman as “Mary the mother of James and Joseph/Jose” in the Synoptics.

So, can “Mary the mother of James and Joseph/Jose” be Jesus’ mother as well?

Well, if this is the case, then

(A) Why is she never called the mother of Jesus in the cross/tomb accounts? (Wouldn’t that be easier than constantly “switching” between James and Jose?)

(B) Why is she never called the mother of the other brothers, Simon and Judas?

(C) Why isn’t she simply called the wife of Joseph?

(D) Why is she always listed second (and in Luke, third) after Mary Magdalene?

(E) Why does Matthew refer to her as merely “the other Mary” in 28:1?

(F) Why does John cite a second Mary at the cross: Mary the wife of Clopas? (A character who doesn’t appear in the Synoptics, unless she’s the mother of James and Joseph.)

(G) If John is calling his “Mary the wife of Clopas” the virgin Mary’s sister, how can the word “adelphos” (or “adelphe” in the feminine) be taken literally? Two sisters both named Mary?!

It therefore must be admitted that, if “Mary the mother of James and Joseph/Jose” and Jesus’ mother are one and the same, then

-- The three Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are INTENTIONALLY neglecting to call her Jesus’ mother in their cross/tomb accounts (as if she’s not Jesus’ mother anymore.)

-- The Synoptics are also INTENTIONALLY depicting her as a minor character, less important than Mary Magdalene. And, in the case of Matthew, she’s reduced to merely “the other Mary” in 28:1.

Still playing devil’s advocate, I can imagine only one reason why the Synoptics would “demote” Jesus’ mother like this; since ALL THREE refer to her as “his mother” earlier in their Gospels. Perhaps, as some have argued, the Synoptics are UNDERLINING their accounts in Matt 12:46, Mark 3:35, and Luke 8:19-21, in which Jesus refuses to go out to meet His mother and brothers, but tells His disciples, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Perhaps they’re making a “theological point” by calling her only “the mother of James and Joseph/Jose” in their later, cross/tomb accounts.

Well, although quite flimsy to begin with, this possibility is totally shattered, when one considers that in Acts 1:14 she is again called “the mother of Jesus.” Since Acts is the companion volume to Luke (produced by the same author), it doesn’t make much sense for Luke to call her “Mary the mother of James” in 24:10, and then re-bestow the title “mother of Jesus” in Acts 1:14 if he’s trying to make such a “theological point”.

Therefore, my whole “devil’s advocate” position is undone, and it is proved conclusively that the Synoptics’ “Mary the mother of James and Joseph/Jose” is NOT Jesus’ mother.

And, since this Mary is certainly the mother of the same James and Joseph/Jose who are also called Jesus’ “brothers,” then it’s equally proven that they COULD NOT have been the Lord’s brothers in a fraternal sense.

So, who are these “brothers” of Jesus? I hold that the term “brothers” refers to His entire tribal group: the boys He grew up with, and with whom He was somehow related.

But if these men were “cousins” or “blood relatives,” some argue, why not simply use the word “kinsman” or “relative” as found in Luke 1:36? e.g. in which Elizabeth is described as Mary’s “relative.”

I answer this quite simply. First of all, I claim that His “brothers” and “sisters” were members of His extended family WITH WHOM JESUS WAS RAISED. Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist, on the other hand, would not have been referred to in this sense, because Jesus was not raised with him, although they were of the same blood.

Also, I argue that the term “brother” is used in the Gospels because these particular men were known BY THIS TITLE in the early Church. I give you: 1 Corinthians 9:4-5, in which Paul is defending his right to be called an apostle:

“Do we not have the right to take along a Christian wife, as do the rest of the apostles, AND THE BROTHERS OF THE LORD, and Kephas (i.e., Peter)?”

Since Paul is writing to Corinthians: citizens of a city in far off Greece, it is obvious that the distinguishing TITLE of “brother” was well known to the universal Church, a Church which also knew very well what the title meant.

Conversely, if we take the term “adelphos” literally, that would mean that Joseph and Mary had a total of five sons and at least two daughters. This would make a total of seven children: in essence, a “Biblical Brady Bunch.” :-) Now considering that Joseph’s profession was that of a carpenter; and not that of a shepherd or farmer, in which large families are encouraged to work the land or tend the flocks, it seems rather ridiculous that he could have supported a family of this size, living in a small, most likely mud brick house in a little place like Nazareth.

Also, even assuming (as the early Church writers Clement and Origen did) that Jesus’ “brothers” were the children of Joseph by a wife previous to Mary, Mark 6:3 clearly refers to Jesus as “the carpenter.” Since the family profession was passed on from father to son, how many carpenters could a little town like Nazareth support? Certainly not five!

However, if the term “brothers” refers instead to Jesus’ extended tribal-family group (as I believe I’ve shown it does), we are left with the image of five young boys (among others) playing in the streets of Nazareth:

JESUS: the son of Joseph and Mary

JAMES: and his sibling JOSEPH (or Jose): the sons of Clopas and Mary.



These were the Lord’s childhood friends, with whom He grew to manhood; and given the scope of first century village life, with whom He was almost certainly related. I look forward to any comments or objections you might care to add.

Gloria Deo!

Mark J. Bonocore