Jesus' Siblings: A Bone of Contention for Catholics

Why the discovery of the bone box of 'James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus' may trouble Catholics.

The discovery of an ancient bone box bearing the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" could make waves among Catholics. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Mary was a virgin all her life, even after the birth of Jesus. If the ossuary is genuine, Catholics may be troubled by evidence corroborating scriptural accounts that Mary gave birth to additional children--including James, the "brother of the Lord."

Several New Testament passages refer to Jesus' siblings. In Matthew 13:55-56, villagers are skeptical of Jesus' powers, saying: "Is not this the carpenter's son? ...Are not his brothers James and and Joseph Simon and Judas? Are not his sisters with us?" The first-century Jewish historian Josephus also refers to James, the brother of Jesus.


Above: Artists' rendering of the ossuary inscription.

Historically, many Catholic scripture experts have contended that the Greek word "adelphos," used in the New Testament passages which describe Jesus' brothers, can mean a cousin, not necessarily a blood brother. The Aramaic inscription on the ossuary of James uses the word "akhui" for brother. According to Protestant scholar Ben Witherington III, both the Aramaic word "akhui" and the Greek word "adelphos" usually refer to a blood brother. Both languages have other words for male cousins.

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Eastern Orthodox Christians reconcile the discrepancy by affirming that Joseph had children by a previous marriage; these would have been Jesus' step-siblings nominally, if not biologically. This view is not incompatible with Catholic teaching, but is not widely held by Catholics. Some Catholics refer to Mark 6:3, where Jesus is called the "son of Mary"--not, as would be expected, the "son of Joseph." That Jesus is called "son of Mary," they say, supports the Catholic belief that Mary conceived Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit and that Joseph was a foster-father entrusted with Jesus' care.

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