Aug 26 2008

16- Q. & A. ON THE GOSPEL II: Brothers of the Lord

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Questions and Answers On the Gospel II

Question: Who are the Brothers of the Lord that are mentioned repeatedly in the Gospels?  A detailed answer is requested because this issue has acquired renewed interest due to the discovery of an ossuary (ancient burial box for bones) in Jerusalem, on which the words, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” were engraved.  This has been hailed in the media as the “Oldest archeological record of Jesus”, referring to an article in “Biblical Archeology Review”. Has this any effect on our Orthodox Dogma?

Answer: Briefly, this discovery, even if approved by all experts as authentic, does not affect the Orthodox Dogma.  The Orthodox Church, and most of her fathers, teachers and service books teach that the brothers of the Lord, James, Joses, Simon and Judas, are children of the righteous Joseph the carpenter from his first wife who died few years before St. Mary was espoused to him (see the Coptic Synaxarium, 26th of Abib, departure of St. Joseph the righteous man).

For a detailed answer, we include here a copy of a study written by Philip Schaff at the end of the 19th century.  Although a Presbyterian (Protestant), Philip Schaff concludes in this Note that the Orthodox Church teaching in this issue is the most tenable explanation, and is supported by the earliest writings of the Church teachers.  He also admits that when he as a protestant has advocated the Protestant view (that they are children of St. Mary), he “did not give sufficient weight to the second theory (the Orthodox)”.  Professor Philip Schaff is author of the 8-volume book “History of the Christian Church” and editor of the well known Series, “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers”.


James and the Brothers of the Lord

By Philip Schaff 1

There are three, perhaps four, eminent persons in the New Testament bearing the name of James (abridged from Jacob, which from patriarchal memories was a more common name among the Jews than any other except Symeon or Simon, and Joseph or Joses):

1-     James (the son) of Zebedee, the brother of John and one of the three favorite apostles, the proto-martyr among the Twelve (beheaded A.D. 44, see Acts 12:2), as his brother John was the survivor of all the apostles.  They were called the “sons of thunder.”

2-     James (the son) of Alphaeus, who was likewise one of the Twelve, and is mentioned in the four apostle-catalogues, Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13.

3-     James the Little, Mark 15:40 (ó μίκρός, not “the Less” as in the E.V.), probably so called from his small stature (as Zacchaeus, Luke 19:3), the son of a certain Mary and brother of Joseph, Matt. 27:56 (Μαρίαήτού ̀Ιακώβουκαί̀Іωσήφμήτηρ); Mark 15:40,47; 16:1; Luke 24:10.  He is usually identified with James the son of Alphaeus, on the assumption that his mother Mary was the wife of Clopas, mentioned John 19:25, and that Clopas was the same person as Alphaeus.  But this identification is at least very problematical.

4-     James, simply so called, as the most distinguished after the early death of James the Elder [son of Zebedee], or with the honorable epithet, Brother of the Lord άδελφόςτούΚυρίου), and among apostolic-writers, the Just, also Bishop of Jerusalem.  The title connects him at once with the four brothers and the unnamed sisters of our Lord, who are repeatedly mentioned in the Gospels, and he as the first among them.  Hence the complicated question of the nature of this relationship.  Although I have fully discussed this intricate subject nearly forty years ago (1842) in the German essay above mentioned [not included here], and then again in annotation to Lange on Matthew (Am. Ed. 1864, pp. 256-260), I will briefly sum up once more the chief points with reference to the most recent discussions (of Lightfoot and Renan).

There are three theories on James and the brothers of Jesus.  I would call them the brother-theory, the half-brother-theory, and the cousin-theory.  Bishop Lightfoot (and Canon Farrar) calls them after their chief advocates, the Helvidian (an invidious designation), the Epiphanian, and the Hieronymian theories.  The first is now confined to the Protestants, the second is the Greek, the third the Roman view.

(1) The Brother-theory takes the term άδελφοί
in the usual sense, and regards the brothers as younger children of Joseph and Mary, consequently as full brothers of Jesus in the eyes of the law and the opinions of the people, though really only half-brothers, in view of his supernatural conception.  This is exegetically the most natural view and favored by the meaning of άδελφός
(especially when used as standing designation), the constant companionship of these brethren with Mary (John 2:12; Matt. 12:46; 13:55), and the obvious meaning of Matt. 1:25, and Luke 2:7, as explained from the standpoint of the evangelists, who used these terms in full view of the subsequent history of Mary and Jesus.  The only serious objections to it is of a doctrinal and ethical nature, viz., the assumed perpetual virginity of the mother of our Lord and Saviour, and the committal of her at the cross to John rather than her own sons and daughters (John 19:25-27).  If it were not for these two obstacles the brother-theory would probably be adopted by every fair and honest exegete.  The first of these objections dates from the post-apostolic ascetic overestimate of virginity, and cannot have been felt by Matthew and Luke, else they would have avoided these ambiguous terms just noticed.  The second difficulty presses also on the other two theories, only in a less degree.  It must therefore be solved on other grounds, namely, the profound spiritual sympathy and congeniality of John with Jesus and Mary, which rose above carnal relationships, the probable cousinship of John (based upon the proper interpretation of the same passage, John 19:25), and the unbelief of the real brethren at the time of the committal.

This theory was held by Tertullian (whom Jerome summarily disposes of as not being a “homo ecclesiae” i.e. a schismatic), defended by Helvidius at Rome about 380 (violently attacked as a heretic by Jerome), and by several individuals and sects opposed to the incipient worship of the Virgin Mary; and recently by the majority of German exegetes since Herder, such as Stier, De Wette, Meyer, Weiss, Ewald, Wieseler, Keim, also by Dean Alford, and Cannon Farrar (Life of Christ, I. 97 sq.).  I advocated the same theory in my German tract, but admitted afterwards in my Hist. Of Ap. Ch., p. 378,that I did not give sufficient weight to the second theory.

(2) The Half-Brother-theory regards the brethren and sisters of Jesus as children of Joseph by a former wife, consequently as no blood-relations at all, but so designated simply as Joseph was called the Father of Jesus, by an exceptional use of the term adapted to the exceptional fact of the miraculous incarnation.  This has the dogmatic advantage of saving the perpetual virginity of the mother of our Lord and Saviour; it lessens the moral difficulty implied in John 19:25-27; and it has a strong traditional support in the apocryphal gospels and in the Eastern Church.  It also would seem to explain more easily the patronizing tone in which the brethren speak to our Lord in John 7:3,4.  But it does not so naturally account for the constant companionship of these brethren with Mary; it assumes a former marriage of Joseph nowhere alluded to in the Gospels, and makes Joseph an old man and protector rather than husband of Mary; and finally it is not free from suspicion of an ascetic bias, as being the first step towards the dogma of perpetual virginity.  To these objections may be added, with Farrar, that if the brethren had been elder sons of Joseph, Jesus would not have been regarded as legal heir of the throne of David (Matt. 1:16; Luke 1:27; Rom. 1:3; 2 Tim. 2:8; Rev. 22:16).

This theory is found first in the apocryphal writings of James (the Protevangelium Jacobi, the Ascents of James, etc.), and then among the leading Greek fathers (Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, Gregory of Nyssa, Epiphanius, Cyril of Alexandria); it is embodied in the Greek, Syrian, and Coptic services, which assign different dates to the commemoration of James the son of Alphaeus (Oct. 9), and of James the Lord’s brother (Oct. 23).  It may therefore be called the theory of the Eastern church.  It was also held by some Latin fathers before Jerome (Hilary of Poitiers and Ambrose), and has recently been ably advocated by Bishop Lightfoot (l. c.) followed by Dr. Plumptre (in the introduction to his Com. on the Ep. of James).

(3) The Cousin-theory regards the brethren as more distant relatives, namely, children of Mary, the wife of Alphaeus and sister of the virgin Mary, and identifies James, the brother of the Lord, with James the son of Alphaeus and James the Little, thus making him (as well as also Simon and Jude) an apostle.  The exceptive ????, Gal. 1:19 (but I saw only James), does not prove this, but rather excludes James from the apostles proper (comp. είμή in Gal. 2:16; Luke 4:26,27).

This theory was first advanced by Jerome in 383, in a youthful polemic tract against Helvidius, without any traditional support2, but with the professed dogmatic and ascetic aim to save the virginity of both Mary and Joseph, and to reduce their marriage relation to a merely nominal and barren connection.  In his later writings, however, after the residence in Palestine, he treats the question with less confidence (see Lightfoot, p. 253).  By his authority and the still greater weight of St. Augustin, who at first (394) wavered between the second and third theories, but afterwards adopted that of Jerome, it became the established theory of the Latin church and was embodied in the Western services, which acknowledges only two saints by the name of James.   But it is the least tenable of all and must be abandoned, chiefly for the following reasons:

(a) It contradicts the natural meaning of the word “brothers,” when the New Testament has the proper word for cousin (άνεψιός,
Col. 4:10, comp. also συγγενής, Luke 2:44; 21:16; Mark 6:4, etc.), and the obvious sense of the passage where the brothers and sisters of Jesus appear as members of the holy family.

(b) It assumes that two sisters had the same name, Mary, which is extremely improbable.

(c) It assumes the identity of Clopas and Alphaeus, which is equally doubtful; for the former is a Hebrew name, while the latter is an abbreviation of the Greek Κλεόπατρος.

(d) It is absolutely irreconcilable with the fact that the brethren of Jesus, James among them, were before the resurrection unbelievers, John 7:5, and consequently none of them could be an apostle, as this theory assumes of two or three.

Renan’s theory: I notice, in conclusion, an original combination of the second and third theories by Renan, who discusses the question of the brothers and cousins of Jesus in an appendix to his Les évangiles, 537-540.  He assumes four Jameses, and distinguishes the son of Alphaeus from the son of Clopas.  He holds that Joseph was twice married, and that Jesus had several older brothers and cousins as follows:

1- Children of Joseph from the first marriage, and older brothers of Jesus:

a-      James, the brother of the Lord, or Just.  This is the one mentioned Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3; Gal. 1:19; 2:9,12; 1 Cor. 15:7; Acts 12:17, etc.; James 1:1; Jude 1:1, and Josephus and Hegesippus.

b-     Jude, mentioned Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3; Jude 1:1; Hegesippus in Eusebius’ Hist. Eccl. III. 19,20,32.  From him were descended those two grandsons, bishops of different churches, who were presented to the emperor Domitian as descendants of David and relatives of Jesus.  Hegesippus in Eusebius’ Hist. Eccl. III. 19,20,32.

c-      Other sons and daughters unknown.  Matt. 13:56; Mark 6:3; 1 Cor. 9:5.

2- Children of Clopas, and cousins of Jesus, probably from the father’s side, since Clopas, according to Hegesippus, was a brother of Joseph, and may have married also a woman by the name of Mary (John 19:25):

a-      James the Little, so called to distinguish him from his older cousin of that name.  Mentioned Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40; 16:1; Luke 24:10; otherwise unknown

b-     Joses, Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40,47, but erroneously (?) numbered among the brothers of Jesus: Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3; otherwise unknown.

c-      Symeon, the second bishop of Jerusalem (Hegesippus in Eus. III. 11,22,32; IV. 5,22), also erroneously (?) put among the brothers of Jesus by Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3.

d-     Perhaps other sons and daughters unknown.


After submitting this study without editing or modification, we like to make it clear that we do not like to attack the belief of any other church, but we offer this study as an illustration that unbiased scholarly research, in an atmosphere of faith and love, should lead to a better convergence of opinions.  We would like also to emphasize that we do not think that holding either of the second or third theories is a vital issue, a dogmatic error or a “heresy” in any sense, but all what we desire is to keep the correct teaching which is supported by the original tradition of the Church when it was in its manifest life as well as in its essence “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic”.  Our final purpose from this answer is to study and understand the word of God, in order to realize its holiness, and keep it in our life, as commanded by our Lord.


  1. In “History of the Christian Church”, by Philip Schaff, vol. I “Apostolic Christianity”, pp. 272 – 275, 3rd revision, Reprinted 1991 WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI.  It is published as a “Note” after the discussion of  § 27- James, the Brother of the Lord, pp. 264 – 271, which includes sources referred to in this “Note”.
  2. The passage quoted from Papias in support of this theory is taken from Jerome and belongs not to the sub-apostolic Papias of Hierapolis, but to a mediaeval Papias, the writer of an Elementarium or Dictionary in the 11th century. See Lightfoot, p. 265 sq.

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