Did Jesus have siblings? How many kids did Mary and Joseph have? At first glance, this seems like a rather easy question with a straightforward answer. The Gospels mention four brothers of Jesus and his “sisters” (plural). So it would seem Mary and Jospeh had a full house of kids.
Our Catholic and Orthodox friends would say, “Slow down… not so fast! I don’t think that means what you Protestants think it means.”
Why is that?
Did Jesus have siblings? Consider the Doctrine of Perpetual Virginity.
Because Catholic and Orthodox theology maintains the perpetual virginity of Mary. According to their understanding, the only child she bore and birthed was Jesus. What about the references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters in the Gospels? They point out correctly that words often have a range of meanings and this is true for the words translated “brother” and “sister” in the Gospels. So in view of Mary’s perpetual virginity, the references don’t refer to Jesus’ actual brothers and sisters. They are either step-siblings from a previous marriage of Joseph’s or cousins from his extended family. Mary only had one Child: Jesus.
So which is it: Mary and Joseph had a houseful of kids or Mary only had one? The only way to answer this question is to look at specific biblical texts about Jesus’ family that mention his “brothers” and “sisters.”
Did Jesus have siblings? Consider the Gospel accounts.
Take, for example, Matthew 13:55-56. Jesus is in his hometown of Nazareth and the townsfolk are amazed at his teaching and his miracles because they remember him as a little kid growing up there and his family is still living there. So they say, “Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is His mother not called Mary, and His brothers, James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us?”
Here we’re obviously talking about Jesus’ literal immediate family. His actual dad, the carpenter. His actual mom, Mary. And even though words can a have range of meanings, context determines meaning in a given case. Since the context here is Jesus’ literal mom and dad, the only legitimate way to understand “brother” and “sister” here is actual brothers and sisters.
Even though words can a have range of meanings, context determines meaning in a given case.
The context is the same in Mark 6:3. “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And are His sisters not here with us?” Notice that Jesus is called the “son of Mary and the brother of…” Since the passage is describing that actual mother-son relationship in the first half of the sentence, that indicates the meaning of brother and sisters in the second half of the sentence. Context determines meaning.
All of the other passages that refer to Jesus’ siblings need to be read in light of the clear meaning of the two texts above. So when Paul refers to “James, the Lord’s brother” in Galatians 1:19 or “the brothers of the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 9:4-5, we understand that he’s referring to his actual siblings.
Did Jesus have siblings? Same mother, different father.
True, to be completely precise they are half-siblings, because Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ biological dad. But they are Mary’s children. There is nothing in the Bible to suggest that Mary was a perpetual virgin, and there is no theological reason why she should be. Virginity is not a holier way of life than sex within a biblical marriage. In fact, Matthew’s version of the Christmas story implies Mary was only a virgin until Jesus was born. Matthew 1:24-25 says that Joseph took Mary as his wife, and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a son.
It is true that the word “brother” does have a range of meanings. It can refer to “fellow Jew” or “kinsman.” It can be used in a metaphorical sense, such as referring to fellow Christians as brothers. But it’s not true that there weren’t other words to refer to cousins or relatives as is sometimes claimed when you google this question. Greek does have words for these extended family relations and they both show up in the New Testament (e.g., “cousin” in Colossians 4:10 and “relative” in Luke 1:36).
So how many kids did Mary and Joseph have? Mary’s firstborn was Jesus. He had four brothers: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. And since there are plural sisters mentioned, that means at least two. So Mary and Joseph had a houseful of at least seven kids!
For more from John, see johnwhittaker.net.