The project known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together is now in its thirteenth year, following its initial statement, “The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium,” with much-discussed statements on salvation, Scripture, and the Communion of Saints.
The group is currently engaged in studying what can be said together about the Blessed Virgin Mary, and a number of participants were asked to prepare preliminary papers. With the permission of the authors, we will be posting five of these papers over the next five days, papers by Edward T. Oakes, J. I. Packer, T. M. Moore, Cornelius Plantinga, and Matthew Levering.
Did Mary of Nazareth, Jesus’ mother, have other children? A number of biblical texts suggest an affirmative answer. Among them one finds the following:
Matt. 13:53–56: “And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, and coming to his own country he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brethren James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us?’” (parallel Mark 6:3)
Mark 3:31–35: “And his mother and his brethren came; and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting about him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brethren are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brethren?’ And looking around on those who sat about him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brethren. Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.’” (parallel Matt. 12:46“50, Luke 8:19“21)
John 2:12: “After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brethren and his disciples, and there they stayed for a few days.”
John 7:3–5, 10: “So his brethren said to him, ‘Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples may see the works you are doing. For no man works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.’ For even his brethren did not believe in him . . . . But after his brethren had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private.”
Acts 1:14: “All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.”
Gal. 1:18–19: “Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.”
Matt. 1:24–25: “When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.”
Other biblical passages may be relevant:
Matt. 27:55–56: “There were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him; among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.”
Mark 15:40–41: “There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome, who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.”
John 19:25: “But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.”
Serious debate in the Church about whether Mary had other children of her own did not emerge, however, until the fourth century. The three views presented at that time retain adherents today:
1. Helvidius ( a.d. 370s): Mary had other children, namely the brothers and sisters of Jesus mentioned in the gospels.
2. Jerome ( a.d. 382): The “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus are Jesus’ cousins, children of a sister of Mary.
3. Epiphanius ( a.d. 377): The “brothers” and “sisters” are children of Joseph by a previous marriage.
In what follows, I present briefly the arguments of one contemporary adherent of each of the three views, and then offer some concluding reflections in light of the purposes of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
Defense of the Helvidian View
Ben Witherington III is a leading contemporary representative of the Helvidian perspective, which is now the standard scholarly view. In a brief excursus in his recent commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Witherington presents the historical origin and content of each of the three views. Historically speaking, he links the affirmation of Mary’s perpetual virginity too strongly with the Church in the Latin West and with what he calls “the increasing asceticism of the early medieval church.” But his basic point is that “the burden of proof” rests upon those who wish to argue against the Helvidian view. If Mary did not have other children of her own, then why are there numerous mentions of Jesus’ “brothers” and “sisters” in the New Testament? Why not suppose that these brothers and sisters are really brothers and sisters, especially because they keep appearing along with Mary?
Witherington devotes most of his effort to critiquing Jerome’s view that the “brothers” and “sisters” were in fact “cousins,” perhaps because Jerome’s position was the dominant one prior to the rise of historical-critical scholarship and retains its priority in the Catholic Church. Against the Epiphanian view, he raises only one objection (other than the central objection regarding the scriptural “burden of proof”): “The Epiphanian view labors under the difficulty that if Joseph previously had other sons, Jesus could not legally be his firstborn or first in line for the Davidic throne, and it also depends on dubious and weak church traditions.” Against Jerome’s view, he points out that only “seldom if ever” does the Greek word adelphos mean “cousin.” Second, Jerome assumes that “Mary of Clopas was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus,” and Witherington does not find this assumption to be warranted by any textual evidence. Third, Jerome’s view “entails the belief that James the brother of the Lord was one of the Twelve, which contradicts the plain sense of Mark 3:21, 31–35, which distinguishes Jesus’ physical family members from the Twelve.”
Defense of the Epiphanian View
In his essay “The Brothers and Sisters of Jesus: An Epiphanian Response to John P. Meier,” which draws upon his earlier book Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church , Richard Bauckham argues for the possibility, perhaps even the probability, of the Epiphanian view. In response to John P. Meier’s “The Brothers and Sisters of Jesus in Ecumenical Perspective,” Bauckham sets forth arguments that he presented earlier in his Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church and adds a new argument that “may tip the balance of probability slightly in favor of the Epiphanian view.” Bauckham makes clear that he considers Jerome’s view (that the “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus were Jesus’ cousins) to be “very improbable” and that he is not an advocate of the perpetual virginity of Mary, which is not required by the Epiphanian view and in which Bauckham does not believe. His purpose is simply to insist that, historically speaking, the Epiphanian view remains a real option.
Bauckham argues first that Meier’s contention that the word adelphos would not have been used of stepbrothers, cousins, or nephews does not hold water as a linguistic argument. Among other reasons, he notes that Meier himself supposes that Mark’s use of adelphos in Mark 6:17 must have meant “half brother” rather than “brother,” because Philip was Herod’s half brother. Why then should one suppose that the use of “adelphos” with respect to Jesus’ brothers and sisters cannot mean “half brother” or “stepbrother”? And since Luke 2:48 calls Joseph Jesus’ “father” rather than “stepfather”—there being no Greek word for either “stepfather” or “stepbrother”—it would also seem that “if Luke can call Joseph Jesus’ parent or father without implying blood relationship, then it is arbitrary to insist that reference to Jesus’ brothers and sisters must imply blood relationship.”
Bauckham also argues against Meier’s view that “Matthew’s redaction of Mark in Matt 12:46 (Mark 3:31) and Matt 13:55 (Mark 6:3) shows that Matthew thought the brothers and sisters of Jesus were children of Joseph and Mary.” With regard to Matthew 12:46, he notes that the Epiphanian view does not separate Jesus from the “family unit” of Joseph, Mary, and his brothers, as Jerome’s view does. Regarding Matthew 13:55, Matthew’s separation of Joseph from Mary and Jesus’ brothers has the effect of naming the members of Jesus’ family in order of social importance, rather than the effect of affirming that Jesus’ brothers are Mary’s sons.
Bauckham suggests that scholars should pay attention to three Syrian works (unrelated to each other) of the midsecond century, namely the Protevangelium of James, the Gospel of Peter, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas—not for their historical value in themselves but for the possibility that they draw upon a “common tradition” that has historical value. In these works, “the idea that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were Joseph’s children by a previous marriage is taken entirely for granted,” and this idea “is the only piece of nonbiblical information common to these works.” It cannot be ruled out that this idea has historical foundations.
Lastly, Bauckham inquires into why Mark 6:3 has the people of Nazareth call Jesus “the son of Mary” rather than “the son of Joseph,” which was customary. On various grounds, he argues that “even supposing Mark knew the tradition of the virginal conception, it is unlikely that he meant to refer to the virginal conception when he put the designation ‘son of Mary’ on the lips of the people of Nazareth.” He therefore entertains a variety of possible alternative explanations, one of which, he submits, should be “that in Nazareth Jesus would have been known as ‘the son of Mary’ because this distinguished him from the children of Joseph by his first wife.” As Bauckham points out, this practice is found in a number of Old Testament and rabbinic texts, and it would have served to differentiate Jesus from his brothers in Nazareth.
While Bauckham does not seek to prove the Epiphanian view, he does wish, as a matter of historical method, to show that, historically speaking, the Epiphanian view remains as possible as the Helvidian.
Defense of the Hieronymian View
In his essay “The Brothers of Jesus and His Mother’s Virginity,” José M. Pedrozo defends the position taken by Jerome, against the criticisms set forth by John P. Meier. Pedrozo limits his discussion to examining the patristic evidence for the various viewpoints. He argues that Meier exaggerates the place of the Helvidian view before the fourth century. The first example given by Pedrozo comes from Eusebius of Caesarea’s Ecclesiastical History. As Pedrozo says, “Meier seems to think that the simple use of the terms ‘cousin’ and ‘uncle’ in Eccl. Hist. 4.22.4 and the denotation of James as ‘the brother of the Lord’ in Eccl. Hist. 2.23.4 (two texts from different contexts) are sufficient to validate his point of view.” But Pedrozo argues that Hegesippus, from whom the fragment comes, describes Symeon as being elected to replace James, because Symeon, as the son of Clopas, is a second cousin¯second to the first, James. Pedrozo takes up other texts from Hegesippus (found in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History and cited by Meier) in the same vein, pointing out that both Hegesippus and Eusebius describe Judas not simply as Jesus’ “brother according to the flesh” but as someone who is “said to have been” Jesus’ “brother according to the flesh.”
Similarly, Pedrozo notes that the second patristic author cited by Meier as favoring the Helvidian view, Tertullian, “never asserts explicitly that Mary and Joseph had children of their own.” On the contrary, as Pedrozo tries to demonstrate, throughout his corpus “Tertullian simply affirms that Mary was a virgin mother.” Meier also cites a third patristic author, Irenaeus, with respect to his use of the parallel between Eve and Mary, both of whom were virgins at the time of receiving God’s commandment, and both of whom became mothers. Pedrozo finds that Irenaeus, contrary to Meier’s (rather tentative) suggestion, does not imply that Eve’s loss of virginity is analogously paralleled by a presumed loss of virginity on the part of Mary. Pedrozo also faults Meier for failing to discuss Origen’s doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. As Pedrozo concludes, “the claim that the Helvidian position enjoyed antiquity and widespread support cannot be sustained even under superficial scrutiny. Before the fourth century, exactly who was a supporter of the Helvidian position? There is not one single explicit witness in favor of it.”
Even if Pedrozo is right that no theologian prior to Helvidius in the 370s held that Mary had other children, does not Witherington’s basic point still stand, namely that the burden of proof rests upon those who argue that the references in the New Testament to Jesus’ brothers and sisters are not children of Mary and that no such proof can be given? Since the kind of proof required by Witherington is unavailable, one would have to hold, as Witherington does, that Jesus was the firstborn of Mary’s large family. How and why, then, do Catholics continue to affirm that Mary had no other children?
One answer might be dogmatism in the negative sense, the refusal to listen to arguments that tell against ecclesial teachings. In this scenario, the Church obstructs, at least in this case, the believer’s ability to hear the word of the gospel. Another answer, however, might be that the biblical witness to the brothers and sisters of Jesus is unclear, in the ways that Bauckham, for instance, suggests. During the period of intense doctrinal discernment in the early Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, the Fathers did not agree with Helvidius’ view that Mary had other children, and indeed they rejected his view when he proposed it. It seems clear that the early Church, as part of its doctrinal meditation on Jesus, pondered the whole of the biblical witness to Mary. As the Fathers came to know Mary, this knowledge also influenced their exegesis. They read the texts on the brothers and sisters of Jesus in light of what they learned through their meditation on Mary.
This is clearly a different understanding of how the “burden of proof” is taken up exegetically. The burden does not fall to the individual exegete in any time period. Rather, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the burden is an ecclesial task that has as its object the entirety of the biblical witness. When the early Fathers shared in this burden, they concluded both that the New Testament offers no proof that Mary was the mother of the brothers and sisters of Jesus, and that the living Mary discerned through ecclesial contemplation of the biblical texts had no child but Jesus Christ.
Is this understanding of the burden of exegetical proof tenable? I think it is, but only when historical reflection is opened interiorly to faith. The historical probabilities have to be determined in light of one’s understanding of what kind of history is ongoing, and thus what constitutes the best manner to penetrate, exegetically, into that history. In determining historical/exegetical probabilities, in other words, one must begin by inquiring into the nature of history and of exegesis, in light of the activity of the triune God.
Matthew Levering is co-editor of the quarterly theological journal Nova et Vetera and the author, most recently, of Ezra & Nehemiah (Brazos Theological Commentary).