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James & Jude:
Half- or Step-brothers of Jesus?

The Gospels describe many aspects of Jesus life: the birth stories, the travel to Egypt to avoid Herod’s attempt at killing the new Messiah, the incident at age twelve in the Temple, and the many details in the three years of Jesus ministry, from the time he was thirty (baptized) until he was thirty-three (crucified). Still, there are unanswered questions about other aspects of his life: what did he do from the time he was twelve until he was thirty? Joseph was a carpenter, and so we assume that Jesus was also a carpenter, but what was his life like for those eighteen years? And what about his family? We know about Mary and Joseph, but were there siblings?

A little known fact is that Jesus did have brothers and sisters. They are mentioned in Matthew 13:55 and 56 and Mark 6:3. The verses in Matthew state (NIV): “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas [note, not Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus]? Aren’t all his sister with us? Where then did this man get all these things [teachings]?” Ah, but the Christian view is that these are not the full brothers and sisters of Jesus. Why not? Because Mary was the mother of Jesus, but she became pregnant as a result of a miracle from God and gave birth to Jesus while a virgin, so Joseph was not the father. But the Bible calls them brothers and sisters, so can the Bible be wrong?

The answer to this comes from learning about other cultures. I taught school in Nigeria awhile back, and became friends with one of the students. While we walked around campus and the local city, he would point out brothers of his. I remarked that he had a lot of brothers and he told me that in his culture all brothers, step-brothers, half-brothers, male cousins and second male cousins, etc., were called brothers. So it was with Jesus. In a culture with extended families living close by and depending on each other more than in Western cultures, the lines of distant or not-so-distant relatives break down. See Genesis 13:8 where Abraham calls Lot, who is his nephew, his brother.

So when the Bible mentions brothers it can include other types of relatives. So, like the title says, what kind of brother was James? This breaks down into two different concepts: either James and Judas (also known as Jude) were the half-brother of Jesus or they were the step-brothers of Jesus. The first idea is prominent among Protestants, and the second idea is prominent among Catholics and Orthodox.

Look at the “half-brother” concept first. Protestants accept that after Mary gave birth to Jesus, she and Joseph produced other children, the four brothers and unknown number of sisters mentioned. Thus these siblings were half-brothers and half-sisters to Jesus since they shared the same mother (Mary) but different fathers (God for Jesus and Joseph for the other brothers and sisters).

Now the “step-brother” concept. Catholics and Orthodox believe that after Mary gave birth to Jesus, she remained a virgin her entire life: she and Joseph never consummated the marriage. But what about the brothers and sisters? In this viewpoint, these were children that Joseph produced in his first marriage. So when he was “engaged” to be married to Mary he already had a family of four sons and some daughters. Therefore these brothers and sisters would be step-brothers and step-sisters since they shared the same father but only through marriage since Joseph was not the father of Jesus (since Mary had given birth while a virgin).

Protestant view

  1. Mary gave birth to Jesus
  2. Mary and Joseph married
  3. Mary and Joseph had four sons and an unknown number of daughters together

Catholic view

  1. Joseph had a previous marriage
  2. That marriage produced four sons and an unknown number of daughters
  3. Joseph's first wife died
  4. Joseph became betrothed to Mary
  5. Mary gave birth to Jesus before she married Joseph (before they slept together)
  6. Mary and Joseph never had sexual intercourse
  7. Therefore, Mary remained a virgin her entire life
  8. The idea of a previous wife for Joseph is not in the Bible. Joseph's first marriage and the children it produced were created in order to explain why Mary remained a virgin her entire life, which is an important doctrine in Catholicism

©2009, 2013, 2017 Mark Nickens