Dear Rev. Know it all,
A question came up at Bible Study last night. One of the group insisted that the Bible says Mary had other children than Jesus, and that, though Jesus was miraculously conceived, Mary and Joseph were just like any other married couple. Also, I noticed that there is no genealogy of Mary in the Bible, and that the genealogies of Joseph in Matthew and Luke seem to contradict each other. If Joseph wasn’t actually the father of Jesus, how can Jesus be descended from David?
Gene E. O’Lojey
These are two important and interrelated questions. It is true that the Bible says Jesus had brothers. It doesn’t say that Mary had other children. One thing is not the same as the others.
The first question asks about something usually called “the perpetual virginity of Mary.” We believe that Mary remained a virgin her whole life. This is emphatically believed by both Catholic and Orthodox Churches and even by the first Protestant reformers, Zwingli, Luther and Calvin. Since it’s not directly mentioned in the Bible, it was not included in Protestant creeds. Only modern evangelical Protestants insist that Mary and Joseph were the parents of other children. In doing this, they try to de-emphasize the reverence that traditional Christians have for the Blessed Mother.
Well, what does the Bible say? James and Joses are mentioned in Mark 6:3. "Is he (Jesus) 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? And they took offense at him." This would make it seem that Mary had children. However James and Joses are mentioned again in Mark 15:40, which mentions among the women present at Jesus' crucifixion a "Mary, the mother of James the Less and Joses". This would make it seem that they are cousins of Jesus, by a different Mary. Catholic tradition favors the “cousins” approach. It was taught by St. Jerome and other Church fathers that the term "brother" in biblical times had a broader meaning and included cousins and other more distant relatives as well.
The Greek and Eastern Churches follow a different but very ancient tradition that’s first recorded in the Protevangelion of St. James. It was probably written around 150AD. Here is a quote from the Protoevangelion (Book I chapter 7. Vs12,13)
“And the high-priest said, ‘Joseph, you are the person chosen to take the Virgin of the Lord, to keep her for him. But Joseph refused, saying, I am an old man, and have children, but she is young, and I fear, for fear that I should appear ridiculous in Israel.”
Some traditions even say that Salome was the name of Joseph’s first wife who had died, leaving him a widower. This tradition was held by all the Western Church fathers until after St. Ambrose, as well as the Greek fathers.
Fr. Bargil Pixner, the great, recently deceased Benedictine scholar and archeologist has some interesting ideas that tie together the Protoevangelion and the archeology of the Holy Land. Many authorities maintain that a vow of celibacy was unheard of at the time of Christ, and thought the Pharisees certainly didn’t believe in permanent celibacy, there were some Jewish who did.
In the Qumran “Great Temple Scroll,” (11QMiq), we read, “When a young woman makes a vow of continence to the Lord.... and her father hears about it....and says nothing about it.... the vow will be binding on both father and daughter. The same holds true for a married wife in respect to her husband. If he confirms the vow, both spouses will be obligated to it.”
Fr. Pixner points out that Royal Davidic family was late in returning to the Holy Land after the Babylonian exile. They only returned in the century before the time of Christ, and when they returned and settled in places that had associations with radical sects of Judaism, such as the Essenes, that preached the immanent coming of the Messiah. The traditional place of Mary’s early childhood in Jerusalem adjoins the temple and was an Essene neighborhood. The traditional site of the Last Supper and Pentecost are in the Essene quarter in southwest Jerusalem. John the Baptist, a close relative of Jesus seems to have been involved in one these groups, and was quite possibly the leader of one.
Fr. Pixner pays serious attention to the old stories of Mary’s childhood that are found in the Protoevangelion because they reflect the beliefs and practices of the Messianic sects like the Essenes. The Davidic family would have had common cause with these groups who longed for the Messiah to purify the temple, the priesthood and the monarchy. It only makes sense. After all, job prospects would certainly have looked brighter if the Herod/Maccabee family were tossed out of the monarchy and the Davidic family restored. That is certainly the backdrop of the Gospel, and explains Jesus’ strained relation with some members of His family. They wanted revolution. Jesus preached conversion.
So, the story may go something like this. Mary was raised in the shadow of the temple and served as some young Jewish girls did with the traditional women’s tasks of sewing and weaving. (Please no politically correct grumbling. History is history and I would never dream of asking women to do that sort of thing for the Church in this enlightened age.) She may have taken a vow of virginity, with the permission of her father, Joachim and when it came time to arrange her marriage, Joachim may have found an older, widowed relative to marry her and thus protect her vow. None of that is inconsistent with the Gospel or the customs of the time.
Though the Protoevangelion has a lot of fanciful material in it, it does seem to reflect very old stories. These traditions seem what the relatives of Jesus believed in the first century, and there were quite a few relatives around. Julius Africanus was a Christian historian born in the Holy Land around 160AD. He claims to have gotten his information from the family of Jesus, who were called the “desposyni,” that is “the family of the master.” Their identities were well known in the ancient world. Some of the relatives of Jesus claimed special distinction in the early Church. The bishops of Jerusalem all seem to have been relatives of Jesus up until 135AD when the city was destroyed by the emperor Hadrian. (By the way, none of these relatives of Jesus ever claimed descent from Him, no matter what the DaVinci Code claims.)
The family of Jesus and the first believers didn’t forget these things. The memory of families in the traditional societies goes back centuries, even in families without famous members. Certainly, Jesus would have been well remembered and the stories about Him cherished by His relatives. These old stories don’t die out.
It always amazes me that we in the 21st century think we know better than those who were Jesus’ close relatives in the first years of Christianity. We have received these things from them. It is the consistent tradition of Christianity until very recent times that the relationship between Mary and Joseph was not a typical marriage, and that Mary was perpetually a virgin. The Bible witnesses to this too, when Jesus asks John to care for His mother. The Scriptures say that she lived with him from that day on. (John 19:26,27) If she had other children, custom and family feeling would certainly have dictated that she live with them, but the evidence of Scripture is clear that Mary stood alone at the foot of the cross. Thus, we have the witness of both Scripture and very strong tradition that Mary was Ever-Virgin.
Your second question is also very important and actually related to your first question, “Why do the Gospels not have a genealogy of Mary and why do the genealogies of Joseph seem to contradict each other?” the answer is really quite simple. The same Julius Africanus mentioned above learned it from the relatives of Jesus. (Look in Eusebius Ecclesiastical History Chapter 7.) The Jews, as many other cultures, have a way to keep family lines from dying out, if a man dies leaving no sons to keep his name alive. This is called a levirate marriage. Deuteronomy 25:5-6 says that a brother should marry the widow of his deceased brother if his brother has no sons. The firstborn child is considered the firstborn son of the deceased brother. (In certain cases in the Middle East, adoption rather than actual marriage, is also used to keep families from dying out.) Julius Africanus claims that he was told by Jesus’ relatives Joseph’s lineage comes such levirate relationships. The Gospel of Matthew records the biological genealogy of Joseph and the Gospel of Luke records the legal genealogy of Joseph. Eusebius of Caesarea in this same chapter 7 points out that Mary’s genealogy is essentially the same as Joseph’s because people married within families, and they still do in much of the Near East.
How are these two things related? Simple. Your friend at the Bible study said that “The Bible says....” the Bible doesn’t say that Mary had other children. It says that Jesus had brothers named James and Joses. The text no where says that Mary was their mother. Your friend thinks he knows the bible, but he doesn’t know it very well.
The Bible when taken alone and out of its context does say that Joseph is the son of both Eli and Matthan. Look at the genealogies. They don’t match at all! The Church could have edited out difficult passages, but she never has. She kept them and guarded them as family treasures passed down through the ages. The Bible is our book. By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we wrote it, (at least the later parts) we compiled it and we have faithfully passed it on from generation to generation. It can only be read and understood in the light of the traditions we have received and that the Church has studied since the very beginning. Modern arrogance is no substitute for the authority Christ gave His Bride, the Church.