Matthew 13:55 – Did Jesus have brothers, or was Mary a perpetual virgin as Roman Catholicism claims?

Problem: Evangelicals and Catholics agree that Mary was a virgin before she gave birth to Jesus (Mt. 1:23), but what about after? The Catholic Catechism (1994) states,

The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary’s real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man. In fact, Christ’s birth “did not diminish his mother’s virginal integrity but sanctified it.” And so the liturgy of the Church celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the “Ever–virgin.”[1]

Solution: Mary remained a virgin in conceiving her Son, a virgin in giving birth to him, a virgin in carrying him, a virgin in nursing him at her breast, always a virgin.[2]
A Biblical Response
While we feel that this doctrine (like the bodily assumption of Mary) is relatively harmless, it is still never mentioned in Scripture. Geisler and MacKenzie write, “Even [Catholic scholar Ludwig] Ott admits that there is no direct reference to Mary’s perpetual virginity in any text of Scripture.”[3] By contrast, the Bible states that Mary was only a virgin before Jesus’ birth, but not after. It also teaches that Jesus had other half-brothers and half-sisters. Consider these Scriptures below:

Mary was a virgin UNTIL she gave birth
(Mt. 1:25) [Joseph] kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.

The NT refers to Jesus’ brothers
(Mt. 12:46-47) While He was still speaking to the crowds, behold, His mother and brothers were standing outside, seeking to speak to Him.

(Mt. 13:55) Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas.”

If the mother and father are literal, why aren’t the brothers literal, too?

(Mk. 6:2-3) When the Sabbath came, He began to teach in the synagogue; and the many listeners were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things, and what is this wisdom given to Him, and such miracles as these performed by His hands? 3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Are not His sisters here with us?” And they took offense at Him.

(Jn. 2:12) After this He went down to Capernaum, He and His mother and His brothers and His disciples; and they stayed there a few days.

(Jn. 7:5) For not even His brothers were believing in Him.

(Acts 1:14) These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.

(1 Cor. 9:4-5) Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas”

(Gal. 1:19) But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord’s brother.

Because of these passages, we feel that the Bible does not teach the perpetual virginity of Mary. However, Catholic apologists respond in a couple of different ways:

ARGUMENT #1: The Greek word of “brother” can be translated as “cousin.”
Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong argues, “The Greek word for brother in the New Testament is adelphos. It is evident from the range of possible definitions of adelphos, that Jesus’ ‘brothers’ need not necessarily be siblings of Jesus on linguistic grounds, as many commentators, learned and unlearned, seem to assume uncritically.”[4]

While the word adelphos does have a wide semantic range (e.g. brother, spiritual brother, cousin, etc.), its primary translation is a literal brother. Let’s consider two alternate interpretations:

Adelphos as “cousin”?
Catholic apologists that adelphos can be rendered as a “cousin.” However, Geisler and MacKenzie write,

There is no single example where adelphos is used for ‘cousin’ in the New Testament. There is a word for ‘cousin’ (anepsios), as in Colossians 4:10, where Mark is described as ‘the cousin [anepsios] of Barnabas.’ But this word is not used in Matthew 13 or in any passage referring to Jesus’ brothers and sisters.[5]
In order to see if this is the translation that should be adopted in the NT, we need to consider the context. Consider this usage in Matthew 13:55: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary, and His brothers (Greek adelphos), James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?” This passage mentions adelphos with Jesus’ literal father and mother. We hold that a consistent interpretation holds that these are literal brothers, as well. The interpretation of “cousin” doesn’t fit well with this passage.

Adelphos as “spiritual brother”
Sometimes the word is used in contrast to Jesus’ disciples (or spiritual brothers). For instance, John writes of Jesus’ “mother and His brothers and His disciples” (Jn. 2:12). Other times, Jesus’ brothers didn’t believe in him (Jn. 7:5). Of course, this would mean that this could not refer to his followers; otherwise, they wouldn’t be considered followers at all. Moreover, Matthew 13:55 would speak against this interpretation.

ARGUMENT #2: Jesus had to give his mother to John.
Catholic apologist Dave Hunt argues, “Mary is committed to the care of the apostle John by Jesus from the Cross (John 19:26-27). Many Protestant interpreters agree with the Catholic view that Jesus likely would not have done this if he had had brothers (who would all have been younger than he was).”[6]

However, in this culture, it would have made more sense for Jesus to give his mother to his cousins—not his disciples. So, this argument would work against the Catholic view as well. Moreover, since Jesus’ brothers were unbelievers (Jn. 7:5), it makes sense that Christ would give his mother to “the disciple he loved.”

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 499.
[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 510.
[3] Geisler, Norman L., and Ralph E. MacKenzie. Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995. 302.
[4] Armstrong, Dave. A Biblical Defense of Catholicism. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute, 2003. 194.
[5] Geisler, Norman L., and Ralph E. MacKenzie. Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1995. 302-303.
[6] Armstrong, Dave. A Biblical Defense of Catholicism. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute, 2003. 197.


“Is not this the carpenter’s son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? (Matt 13:55)

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