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 Qur’an 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 – commandments, promises and warnings – 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 Qur’an 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 Qur’an 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 “brothers of Jesus” and “sister of Jesus,” sometimes even referring to them by their names. So for this reason we must look deeper into the meaning of the word “brother” 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 Qur’an 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 Qur’an and hadith, and then continue by examining the sources in the Old and New Testaments.
When Hannah, Imran’s wife and Jesus’ grandmother gave birth to Mary she prayed, “I commend her and her offspring to You for protection from Satan eternally rejected (from God’s Mercy)” (Al Imran 3:36). There have been some who claim that there is a possibility of Jesus having brothers or sisters because the word “offspring” (dhurriyya) refers to a plurality, but a majority of the interpreters of the Qur’an have understood the words “her and her offspring” as referring in particular to “Mary and Jesus.” Most scholars refer to the following hadith as a reason for their interpretations:
“It was reported by Abu Huraira that the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said, ‘There is no newborn except that (at the moment of birth) Satan disturbs him, so he begins to cry from Satan’s disturbance, with the exception of the son of Mary and his mother,” and the scholars say that this was the result of Hannah’s prayer (Bukhari, Muslim).
The word used for “offspring” (dhurriyya) in the Qur’an 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 “offspring” 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 “offspring” can refer to both the male and female sexes. Other interpreters of the Qur’an 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 “offspring” is mentioned in various verses of the Qur’an mostly in the singular (e.g. Baqara, 2:124, 128, 266; Al-Imran, 3:34, 36, 38; Nisa, 4:9; An’am, 6:84, 133) sense but with a plural meaning in a few of the verses (An’am, 6:87; Ra’d, 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 “three persons from a person’s lineage” it is still impossible to say that the Qur’an’s revelations in any way prove that Mary gave birth to a child other than Jesus. When Mary’s mother made the supplication to her Lord there was no indication of plurality or of the number of Mary’s 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 “offspring” does not provide foundation for a possibility that Jesus may have had brothers or sisters. We also see in the Qur’an 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 “Al-Batul” and “‘Al-Adhra,” both meaning “virgin” or untouched and in the hadith it gives clearer explanations of these words saying, “She was untouched by man,” and goes on, “She bore no child other than Jesus.” The term al-adhra means a virgin woman while al-batul has a more extensive meaning-“the virgin, the woman who withdraws from worldly pleasures, one who devotes herself to worship.”
The conclusion of the examination of both the Qur’an 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.
The word “brother” 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 “brother” and “sister” were sometimes used to portray the main family members as we see in the example of the forty two “brethren” 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, “How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride.”
Maurice Bucaille, commenting on the word “brother” in the New Testament states that the words “adelphoi” and “adelphai” 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 “kin” in the general sense and the people in question were probably cousins. As the word “cousin” 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 “brother” or would have to define a person by calling them “my father’s sister’s son” and so on, which is neither easy nor appropriate, and this was the likely reason for Jesus using “brother” for his close acquaintances.
In the New Testament, the equivalent of brother in Aramaic was given as the word “adelphos,” which in the general sense means “brother” or “brotherly friend,” a kind of sign of closeness to someone. Unlike in Hebrew or Aramaic, the word “anepsios” in ancient Greek gave a distinct meaning to the word “cousin,” but those who wrote the scriptures used “adelphos” or “friend” to correspond “cousin.”
So we understand from this that the writers of the New Testament used the same word “adelphos” from ancient Greek to convey the meaning of “friend” and for the meaning of “two sons of the same family” or “biological brothers.” This is very confusing when the text is translated into English or any other language.
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 1:18–20; Luke 1:27; 2:5). There is no mention in the Qur’an 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 Qur’an 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 Mary’s 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 Mary’s “firstborn son” (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 (2:41–52) 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 (19:26–27), 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 Jesus’ brothers or sisters at this point is another aspect which seems to invalidate the allegation.
It is apparent that when the word “brother” 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 Jesus’ mother and brother ask to speak to Jesus while he is talking to his disciples, and he replies, “Here are my mother and my brother! For whoever does the will of my Father in Heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew, 12:46–50; Mark, 3:31–35; Luke, 8:19–21) Again, the Gospel of John (20:10–18) claims that following the crucifixion of Jesus, he was resurrected and appeared before Mary Magdalene, telling her “Go to my brothers and say to them I am ascending to my Father and your Father and my God and your God.” This is clear evidence that “brothers” was a figurative expression, for it goes on to say, “Mary went and said to his disciples.”
Another statement which only appears in the Gospel of John (7:3–10) says that the “brothers” 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 “brothers” 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 Jesus’ biological brother since this date would make Jacob older than Mary, his supposed mother.
It is interesting that when Luke’s gospel portrays the same event as the Gospels of Matthew and Mark the word “brother” is not used at all (4:14–30). 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 “brother” is similarly mentioned in two verses of the Qur’an, one of them being To the ‘Ad 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 “O sister of Aaron!” (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, “The Israelites used to name their children after their prophets and pious persons who had gone before them” (Muslim, Tirmidhi, Hanbal). Another present-day example supporting this theory is nuns who refer to each other as “sister,” which is, of course, used in the spiritual sense.
So it is probable that those who were referred to as Jesus’ brothers were actually his spiritual brothers or brothers in religion.
Ahmet Cetinkaya is managing editor at Nil Yayınları, Istanbul. He is a Ph.D. candidate in theology and his dissertation is on narrations about Jesus in the hadith literature.