“Mary wasn’t perpetually a virgin. The Bible says Jesus had brothers.”
Ever heard that objection? Interestingly, both evangelicals and atheists raise it. They point to passages like Mark 6:2-4: “Many hearing him were astonished, saying…‘Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?’ So they were offended at him. And Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country and among his own relatives and in his own house.’”
The typical Catholic response is, “That Greek word for ‘brother’ doesn’t really mean a biological brother. It’s more like ‘cousin.’”
That’s an okay response. But the problem is that the Greek word “adelphoi” CAN mean a biological brother, depending on the context.
Fortunately, there’s a deeper answer that’s rooted in Scripture.
Let’s break it down.
1. Explaining the brothers
In verse 4, Jesus says: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own relatives, and in his own house.”
The Greek word Jesus uses for “relatives” (“syngeneusin”) never refers to blood siblings. It means cousins of a different mother.
So in effect, the objectors question Jesus’ authority by calling out his “brothers” and Jesus responds by calling them “brothers from a different mother.”
That explains the “brothers,” but the passage also mentions “sisters.” What are we to make of that?
2. Explaining the sisters
Jesus refers to his “sisters” when he says “…and in his own house.”
Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t deny that he has “sisters.” But he does affirm that they’re relatives. When he uses the word for “house” or “household,” he’s actually referring to the Book of Numbers.
In Numbers chapter 1, God tells the Israelites to take a census of all their tribes. The families are organized and counted in groups of “ancestral households.” So in this case, “households” refers to one’s immediate family and to extended family in the same tribe. Jesus is using Scripture to refer to these women as a kind of distant relative.
3. Pointing out Christian tradition
It’s also worth pointing out that other intelligent Christians like St. Jerome (a biblical scholar) answered the same objections to Mary’s perpetual virginity by explaining passages like Mark 6:2-4, long before modern-day evangelicals and atheists came on the scene.
Even the Protestant reformers upheld Mary’s perpetual virginity. Martin Luther believed it until his dying day, as did Calvin and Zwingli.
So the next time someone tries to tell you that Jesus actually had brothers and sisters, share this little Greek and Scripture lesson with them.