Q. At a Bible study group in our apartment complex, it was shared with those attending that Jesus had five siblings. What Bible passage does that come from and, if it’s true, why do we call Our Lady “Virgin Mary”? (Some in the group said that Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus’ birth but had five additional children with her spouse Joseph.) (Albany, N.Y.)
A. The perpetual virginity of Mary — before, during and after the birth of Christ — has been consistently taught by the church from the early Christian era. We reflect that belief at Mass when we say, in the Confiteor, “blessed Mary ever-virgin.”
What, then, are we to make of such passages as Mark 6:3, where Christ’s neighbors in Nazareth ask, “Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?”
Traditionally, Catholic biblical scholars have pointed to the fact that the Greek word “adelphos” used in this Marcan passage could mean not just “blood brother” but also such relations as step-brother, nephew or cousin. But there are still other interpretations consistent with the perpetual virginity of Mary.
The second-century protoevangelium of James, for example, described these “adelphi” as children of Joseph by a previous marriage. Likewise, Orthodox churches today speculate that Joseph was a widower who had other children before he married Mary, and some Catholic commentators agree.
(They point to the fact that Joseph is often portrayed in art as an older man and that Joseph had clearly died before the public ministry of Christ, or else his role in that ministry would have been treated in the Gospel accounts.)
That Jesus had no “blood brothers” gains support from the fact that Jesus, on the cross, entrusted his mother to the beloved apostle John; Jewish law dictated that the responsibility of caring for a widowed mother would have passed to the next oldest son, had one existed.
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.