Issue 71 / September - October 2009
Did Jesus Have Brothers or Sisters?
The pregnancy of Mary, the greatest example of purity, was a miracle of God and a wonder of divine creation, and the birth of Jesus, peace be upon him, was the result of this miraculous command. The Qurâan stresses the fact that Mary protected her dignity and chastity and that she had never been in contact with any male:
And (mention) that blessed woman who set the best example in guarding her chastity. We breathed into her out of Our Spirit, and We made her and her son a miraculous sign (of Our Power and matchless way of doing things) for all the worlds (Anbiya 21:91).
And also Mary, the daughter of Imran who kept herself chaste (body and soul), so We breathed into it out of Our Spirit, and who affirmed the truth of the words of her Lord (His Revelations â commandments, promises and warnings â to His Messengers), and His Books; and she was of those devoutly obedient to God (Tahrim 66:12).
Her expression of astonishment when she was given the tidings that she was to give birth to a son is clear evidence of her chastity: How shall I have a son seeing no mortal has ever touched me, and I have never been unchaste? (Mary 19:20). It is also revealed in the Qurâan that whoever spoke against or slandered Mary would be subjected to grievous punishment and destruction, for their hearts are sealed from belief (Nisa 4:156). While the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches believe in accordance with the Qurâan that Mary remained chaste throughout her life, some other Christian churches believe that Mary was only a virgin until the birth of Jesus. The main justification for their view is in the New Testament, which uses in various chapters the phrases âbrothers of Jesusâ and âsister of Jesus,â sometimes even referring to them by their names. So for this reason we must look deeper into the meaning of the word âbrotherâ in both the Old and New Testaments and understand the sense in which the word was used. Here I would like to point out that there have been various studies of the Qurâan and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, aimed at understanding this matter, so I think it is appropriate firstly to explore the possibility Jesus having brothers within the boundaries what is said in the Qurâan and hadith, and then continue by examining the sources in the Old and New Testaments.
A. In the Qurâan and hadith
When Hannah, Imranâs wife and Jesusâ grandmother gave birth to Mary she prayed, âI commend her and her offspring to You for protection from Satan eternally rejected (from Godâs Mercy)â (Al Imran 3:36). There have been some who claim that there is a possibility of Jesus having brothers or sisters because the word âoffspringâ (dhurriyya) refers to a plurality, but a majority of the interpreters of the Qurâan have understood the words âher and her offspringâ as referring in particular to âMary and Jesus.â Most scholars refer to the following hadith as a reason for their interpretations:
âIt was reported by Abu Huraira that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said, âThere is no newborn except that (at the moment of birth) Satan disturbs him, so he begins to cry from Satanâs disturbance, with the exception of the son of Mary and his mother,â and the scholars say that this was the result of Hannahâs prayer (Bukhari, Muslim).
The word used for âoffspringâ (dhurriyya) in the Qurâan has a wide range of meaning in the Arabic language; it is used to refer to the children and lineage of a person, a generation of humans and jinns, a household made up of a father, mother and child, and also sometimes used solely for women or fathers and grandfathers. Though most scholars say that the Arabic word for âoffspringâ has a singular referent, there are some who argue the word to be plural. Raghib al-Isfahani argues that this is a word used in both the plural and the singular sense, but in this case it refers to plurality and Said ibn Mansur states that the word for âoffspringâ can refer to both the male and female sexes. Other interpreters of the Qurâan like Al-Baghawi and Qurtubi also state that this word can be used for males and females and at the same time singular and plural. The Arabic word for âoffspringâ is mentioned in various verses of the Qurâan mostly in the singular (e.g. Baqara, 2:124, 128, 266; Al-Imran, 3:34, 36, 38; Nisa, 4:9; Anâam, 6:84, 133) sense but with a plural meaning in a few of the verses (Anâam, 6:87; Raâd, 13:23; Furqan, 25:74) and in one verse it is used to describe a group of people (Yunus, 10:83). If we accept the word in the plural sense and agree that this word means at least âthree persons from a personâs lineageâ it is still impossible to say that the Qurâanâs revelations in any way prove that Mary gave birth to a child other than Jesus. When Maryâs mother made the supplication to her Lord there was no indication of plurality or of the number of Maryâs children, or for that matter if she was to have children at all, for it goes without saying that Mary herself was just a newborn baby at the time. If we take a brief look at the supplication itself, we see that it refers to the likelihood of her having children; so the use of the word âoffspringâ does not provide foundation for a possibility that Jesus may have had brothers or sisters. We also see in the Qurâan that the whole incident was a miraculous event, that the pregnancy and birth were on the Divine command, a miracle of the Almighty. A hadith of the noble Prophet refers to Mary as âAl-Batulâ and ââAl-Adhra,â both meaning âvirginâ or untouched and in the hadith it gives clearer explanations of these words saying, âShe was untouched by man,â and goes on, âShe bore no child other than Jesus.â The term al-adhra means a virgin woman while al-batul has a more extensive meaning-âthe virgin, the woman who withdraws from worldly pleasures, one who devotes herself to worship.â
The conclusion of the examination of both the Qurâan and hadith shows that there is no evidence supporting the claim that Jesus had brothers or sisters, and Ibn Hajar specifically stresses that Mary only gave birth to Jesus and she had no other children.
B. âBrotherâ and âsisterâ in the Bible
The word âbrotherâ in the Old Testament has a very broad meaning; it refers to the immediate descendants of the father, the son and the male relatives as a whole, cousins, in-laws and those with blood ties and even includes friends and those with whom a person has political dealings. The words âbrotherâ and âsisterâ were sometimes used to portray the main family members as we see in the example of the forty two âbrethrenâ of King Uzziah. Another interesting example is in the Song of Solomon, where two lovers are serenading one another, and the young man says in some verses of the song, âHow sweet is your love, my sister, my bride.â
Maurice Bucaille, commenting on the word âbrotherâ in the New Testament states that the words âadelphoiâ and âadelphaiâ in Greek refer to biological brother and sister, and he said that these words, had been defectively translated from Semitic languages, where they had been used to denote âkinâ in the general sense and the people in question were probably cousins. As the word âcousinâ did not exist in Hebrew and Aramaic, the languages spoken by both Jesus and his disciples, they probably had no other option; they could either use the word âbrotherâ or would have to define a person by calling them âmy fatherâs sisterâs sonâ and so on, which is neither easy nor appropriate, and this was the likely reason for Jesus using âbrotherâ for his close acquaintances.
In the New Testament, the equivalent of brother in Aramaic was given as the word âadelphos,â which in the general sense means âbrotherâ or âbrotherly friend,â a kind of sign of closeness to someone. Unlike in Hebrew or Aramaic, the word âanepsiosâ in ancient Greek gave a distinct meaning to the word âcousin,â but those who wrote the scriptures used âadelphosâ or âfriendâ to correspond âcousin.â
So we understand from this that the writers of the New Testament used the same word âadelphosâ from ancient Greek to convey the meaning of âfriendâ and for the meaning of âtwo sons of the same familyâ or âbiological brothers.â This is very confusing when the text is translated into English or any other language.
C. According to the New Testament
One of the reasons for opinions that Jesus had brothers or sisters several verses in the New Testament which say that Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they had come together Joseph realized that she was carrying a child and had decided to leave Mary. But an angel came to Joseph in his dream and told him the truth of the miraculous conception, and Joseph decided to take Mary as his wife (Matthew 1:18â20; Luke 1:27; 2:5). There is no mention in the Qurâan or hadith of Joseph, the person said to be betrothed to Mary in the Bible, and there is certainly no report of the Biblical scriptures found in the Qurâan and hadith stating that Mary married this man called Joseph. However, there are a few weak reports of some historical sources that say that there was a carpenter of the same name who was a member of Maryâs family and both of them were serving at the Temple during the same period.
Another matter which leads the Protestant churches to believe that Jesus may have had brothers and sisters is the verse in the Gospel of Luke saying that Jesus was Maryâs âfirstborn sonâ (2:7). However, this declaration is no reason to believe that Jesus had brothers and sisters, this statement being rather a declaration that her first child would be a holy servant of his Lord (Luke 2:23) a declaration invoking a legislation in the scriptures.
As further evidence, the Gospel of Luke (2:41â52) tells how Jesus attended the Temple in Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover with his parents, that he went missing, and that his parents were searching for him. We see there is no mention at all of any other children except Jesus. To the contrary, the context leads us to believe that there was only one child present.
Another special detail is that according to the Gospel of John (19:26â27), Jesus entrusted his mother to one of the disciples when he was being placed on the crucifix, so immediately the question arises: if Jesus had brothers and sisters, then why did he entrust his mother to someone else? Even if we assume that Joseph, who was claimed to have married Mary was not alive at the time, there being no mention whatsoever of the existence of Jesusâ brothers or sisters at this point is another aspect which seems to invalidate the allegation.
D. The use of the word âbrotherâ in reference to Jesus
It is apparent that when the word âbrotherâ was mentioned in reference to Jesus, in most cases it was actually used as a figure of speech and there is no indication to the contrary. For instance in the verses of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, where Jesusâ mother and brother ask to speak to Jesus while he is talking to his disciples, and he replies, âHere are my mother and my brother! For whoever does the will of my Father in Heaven is my brother and sister and motherâ (Matthew, 12:46â50; Mark, 3:31â35; Luke, 8:19â21) Again, the Gospel of John (20:10â18) claims that following the crucifixion of Jesus, he was resurrected and appeared before Mary Magdalene, telling her âGo to my brothers and say to them I am ascending to my Father and your Father and my God and your God.â This is clear evidence that âbrothersâ was a figurative expression, for it goes on to say, âMary went and said to his disciples.â
Another statement which only appears in the Gospel of John (7:3â10) says that the âbrothersâ of Jesus invited him to leave Galilee and set out for Judea as the Jewish festival of Passover was approaching, but Jesus refused the invitation and told his âbrothersâ to attend the feast, following on in secret later. Again, an event only recorded in the Gospel of John (2:12) states that following the miracle of the wine, Jesus, along with his mother, brothers and disciples went to Capernaum and stayed there for a few days. It is almost impossible to prove that from these narrations in the Gospels that Jesus had any biological brothers or sisters.
In Antiquities of the Jews, a book written by the famous Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, it is claimed that Jesus had at least one brother, Jacob. But a narration of Simon bar Cleopas, who is known to have been a cousin of Jesus, and who is said to have died when he was 120 years old, claims that the man Jacob, the so-called brother of Jesus, was stoned to death in 62 CE at the age of 96. According to this statement Jacob must have been born in 34 BC, which proves that it was impossible for him to be Jesusâ biological brother since this date would make Jacob older than Mary, his supposed mother.
It is interesting that when Lukeâs gospel portrays the same event as the Gospels of Matthew and Mark the word âbrotherâ is not used at all (4:14â30). When we compare the names mentioned with those of the disciples, we see an interesting connection with the names of the supposed brothers: the names given as the four brothers of Jesus, with the exception of Joseph, are among those on the list of the chosen disciples. In the lists given in the Synoptic gospels, the gospel of Barnabas and in commentaries by Al-Tabari and Ibn Kathir respectively, the names Simon and Jacob are both mentioned twice. Another interesting fact is that Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus, is the one name mentioned by all of them.
The word âbrotherâ is similarly mentioned in two verses of the Qurâan, one of them being To the âAd people (we sent) Hud, one of their own brethren (Hud 11:50), in which it is clear there is no indication of any blood tie, and the other is when the sons of Israel address Mary as âO sister of Aaron!â (Mary 19:28). Scholars have stressed the fact that this is not a reference to a biological sister ; as the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, explained in one of the hadith, âThe Israelites used to name their children after their prophets and pious persons who had gone before themâ (Muslim, Tirmidhi, Hanbal). Another present-day example supporting this theory is nuns who refer to each other as âsister,â which is, of course, used in the spiritual sense.
So it is probable that those who were referred to as Jesusâ brothers were actually his spiritual brothers or brothers in religion.
Ahmet Cetinkaya is managing editor at Nil YayĂ˝nlarĂ˝, Istanbul. He is a Ph.D. candidate in theology and his dissertation is on narrations about Jesus in the hadith literature.
1. Fath Al-Bari, VI: 470.
2. II. Samuel, 1:26; Amos, 1:11
3. Deuteronomy, 23:7; Nehemiah, 5:7; Jeremiah, 34:9; Kings 2, 10:13â14.
4. Song of Solomon 4:9â12; 5:1.
5. Maurice Bucaille, The Bible, the Qurâan, and Science, NY: Tahrike
Tarsile Qurâan, 2003, p. 96.
6. Some say, âmaternal uncleâs sonâ (Ibn Kathir, History II, 68) and
âpaternal uncleâs sonâ (Al-Alusi, Tafsir, xvi, 80).
7. See at-Tabari, Tafsir XVI, 64-5; Tarih I, 350; Ibn Kathir, Tafsir III, 113.
8. Eisenman, Robert H.; James the Brother of Jesus, Penguin books,
Paperback edition, 1998, p. 320.
9. Barnabas mentions his own name instead of Simonâs. The gospels
of Luke and Barnabas mention another person apart from Judas Iscariot.
See: Matthew, 10:1â4; Mark, 3:13â19; Luke, 6:12â16; Gospel
of Barnabas, 14; At-Tabari, Tafsir, vi, 14 onward.
10. At-Tabari, Tafsir xvi, 77â78; Fahruddin ar-Razi, Tafsir, xv, 327â328.