If Jesus had brothers and sisters, who were they? And how did he identify them? Thinking about his family relations raises many layers of questions, and the answers vary according to the great diversity of theological perspectives among the followers of Jesus.
If Jesus was Mary’s first-born, did she have more children with Joseph afterward? Did Joseph already have children before coming to Mary, making them stepbrothers to Jesus? Does the ambiguity of Jesus’s siblings imply that Mary might not have been a virgin at Jesus’s birth? Did Jesus think he only had spiritual siblings?
Some of the accounts of Jesus’s family in the New Testament seem straightforward and answer the question decisively. But then other passages muddy the waters and leave us wondering.
In the Gospel of John, we learn that early in his career, “his mother, his brothers, and his disciples” traveled with him after the wedding at Cana. Yes, he has brothers and a mother.
But later, Jesus complicates the question about his relationship to his brothers by denouncing any biological claim to siblings and identifying his family members as those who do the will of God. A crowd sitting around him told him that
“Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:32-35)
In the same Gospel of Mark, however, people who heard him teaching in the synagogue still tried to make the connection between the Jesus they knew who had brothers and sisters and the Jesus they heard in the synagogue. They identify his known siblings by name.
What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 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? (Mark 6:2-3)
Yes, he has brothers and sisters
According to Mark and Matthew, Jesus has sisters and four brothers named James, Joses, Judas, and Simon. That should settle the question for us.
But the Biblical accounts of Jesus and his siblings are inconsistent. And it doesn’t help that we have different spellings for some of the names, such as Joses sometimes as Joseph, and Judas possibly as Jude. What should we take as historically accurate, if anything at all?
In the Gospel of Luke, we find an agreement that there are brothers named James and Judas (not Iscariot). But they are now mixed with the twelve disciples named by Jesus. And with duplicate names, it is not clear which ones are specifically identified as Jesus’s biological brothers and which are brothers who do the will of God. No blood relations with Jesus are specified, and this category seems to emphasize Jesus’s claim that his family consists of those who do God’s work. Biological connections are meaningless to Jesus.
He chose twelve, whom also he named apostles; Simon, (whom he also named Peter,) and Andrew his brother, James and John, Philip and Bartholomew, Matthew and Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon called Zelotes, And Judas the brother of James [also, confusingly in some translations, Judas is the ‘son’ of James], and Judas Iscariot, which also was the traitor. (Luke 6:13-16)
The family who does the will of God
Biological brotherhood neither qualifies nor disqualifies one for discipleship. Judas (not Iscariot) is likely the brother of Jesus, but he holds no special relationship with Jesus among the disciples. This Judas was also probably known as “Jude,” the author of the letter in the New Testament by that name, but there are no known stories of interaction between Jesus and Judas.
James, the other brother of Jesus listed among these disciples, occupies a less important role among the disciples than the other James (the brother of John), and therefore he is often referred to as “James the Less.”
However, this same brother James was later known as the chief spokesman for the Jerusalem church and noted for his fulfillment of Jewish law. With this more elevated role among the followers of Jesus, he was later identified as “James the Just” and is also the author of the New Testament letter bearing his name.
To further complicate Jesus’s relationship to James, the author(s) of Luke and Acts refers to two men named James among his disciples. One of them is clearly the brother of John, the son of Zebedee. But the other James, who must be Jesus’s brother, is identified as “the son of Alphaeus.” Did Mary have another husband named Alphaeus, thus giving James the name “Less” (sometimes translated as “Younger”)? Or was James simply another person who is not Jesus’s brother? We are left wondering.
Siblings known from other sources
A few other important texts not as well-known as the canonical texts provide more information about Jesus’s family identity. One is the “Infancy Gospel of James,” (or the “Protevangelium of James”), which is more familiar to the Roman Catholic tradition because of its emphasis on Mary, the mother of Jesus. In its account of the trip to Bethlehem before Jesus’s birth, Joseph, the betrothed of Mary, is concerned with the order from Augustus to register the new child (Mary’s baby). He says,
I will register my sons, but what shall I do with this child?
In this well-loved ancient book, Joseph already had children before the birth of Jesus. One of them is named Samuel, not named as one of Jesus’s brothers in the Gospel of Mark. Are Joseph’s sons half-brothers to Jesus? According to this Infancy Gospel of James, the author is “James the Just” who identifies himself as Jesus’s brother. He is the one who appears in the Gospel of Mark’s list of brothers. These blood relations to Jesus remain murky.
A twin brother?
However, there was still another kind of brother to Jesus: his twin! Biologically, of course, this causes problems! But it is significant that one of the disciples’ names (listed in the New Testament) is “Thomas,” which means “twin.” In the Gospel of John, which includes the only action of Thomas in the biblical canon, Thomas is the “one called Didymos” [i.e. “twin”]. And according to another early text, the Syrian Acts of Thomas, this same Didymos Judas Thomas was Jesus’s twin brother.
Before we scoff at the idea of a twin brother, we should return to Jesus’s own definition of his siblings. Due to Jesus’s rejection of blood relations, many early writings explore the possibilities of Jesus as both human and divine.
One option envisions two levels of being, with the human that endures pain, and the divine that cannot suffer or die. A twin would be a brother who does the will of God as Jesus does and remains above the consciousness of mortal suffering. In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus claims to have been carried by a human who is sacrificed on the cross. But the divine Jesus remains unharmed.
While his followers struggled to come to terms with these two levels of being, Jesus consistently identified with the one who was untouched by mortality. He was the living Jesus from the divine realm. Only those who couldn’t understand him held him in the limitations of blood relationships where suffering dominates everyone. Jesus claimed his only true identity with a divine origin, inviting others to join him. These were the brothers he claimed as his own.