Jesus does not have a brother in some Christian traditions, his mother Mary is a perpetual virgin. For instance the Catholic church holds this theory as a theologoumenon, namely a theological affirmation presented as historical fact of reality perceptible only in faith. Insofar as it intrigues my experience as a paramedic I was wondering what was the point of view of historians as far as I don't have much sources but :

  • Pierre-Antoine Bernheim who points out in James, Brother of Jesus that moreover, Paul never qualifies Peter or John as brother of the Lord.

  • The Gospels and the Pauline writings always use the Greek word adelphos, "brother", and not anepsios, "cousin" which seems to be the point of the historian Fr John P. Meier in A Marginal Jew. According to the language teacher Meha the fact that Greek distinguishes the term brother (adelphos) from the term cousin (anepsios), while Hebrew does not do so, in no way speaks to the question of extending the use of this term of brother to the time.

  • Some excerpts of the Bible one can read in epistle to the Galatians (1, 19), Paul calls James "the brother of the Lord". In the first letter to the Corinthians (9: 4-5), he mentions other brothers of the Lord who have the right to take their wives during their apostolic mission. It is clear in Paul's formulation that compares his rights with "other apostles and the Lord’s brothers, and Cephas (that is, the apostle Peter)," that he does not attribute the qualifier of brother of the Lord only to a few specific individuals.

Do historians support the existence of brothers to Jesus? And, maybe the perpetual virginity of Mary, mother of Jesus? With what methods or support?

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    I'd just like to emphasize to readers that answers should be about the current state of research among Historians who study this field. Theological and anti-Theological analysis is off-topic on this website.
    – T.E.D.
    Aug 22, 2018 at 18:50
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    @T.E.D., yes, it goes without saying! Aug 22, 2018 at 18:53
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    I am sure plenty of Historians ahve studied "the existence of brothers to Jesus" but "the perpetual virginity of Mary" would probably be outside their scope (and impossible to doument anyway).
    – Evargalo
    Aug 23, 2018 at 14:39
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    I heard many times that the word 'brother' was used to mean close relatives, maay be not just cousin but even clan members. I am not sure if this is a purely linguistic issue (the relevant language - aramaic? - has not separate words for 'brother' and 'cousin' or clan member) or if it is a cultural issue (by a custom understandable in a tribal society, all close relatives were just called 'brother' in usual speech, at least when the exact family relationship was not the issue). So really that linguistic link do not anwer wholly the issue
    – Luiz
    Aug 23, 2018 at 16:17
  • Jesus does not have a brother in some Christian traditions, his mother Mary is a perpetual virgin. - The two concepts are not at odds with one other.
    – Lucian
    Aug 24, 2018 at 9:28

3 Answers 3


Historians quite widely agree that there very probably was a historical person called Jesus. They do agree that this person provided the blueprint or projection space for the belief that centered on and around him. A belief that was a Jewish sect during his lifetime and later slowly forming into what we know today as Christianity. I wrote "widely" as there are some – often rather fringe – other theories out there (example: all an invented, sinister ploy).

The historians do not agree about anything about 'that', the Jesus of Christianity. That is because we do not have enough truly independent historical sources about the Jesus. All halfway contemporary sources are documents of faith and therefore inherently a bit dubious for historical research, and this dubiousness for their details weighs heavier as there are no corroborating sources from his lifetime. This is a historical as well as a theological dilemma called Ostergraben (German for Easter trench, or perhaps more fittingly: rift, or chasm, even abyss?). This is the Big Bang for Christianity, and Historians cannot view the past of the person that caused this bang.

Only the living Jesus is of interest for historians, whereas Christians are interested in the living Jesus, the dead Jesus, and especially the risen from the dead Jesus – that is: after Easter – and the developing church, legends, stories, texts and doctrines.

This dilemma persists when looking at the brothers of Jesus. Some texts and surely some of the church traditions report about some of his brothers. James being the most prominent, assumed to be the first leader of the Jerusalem synagogue (as he was a Jewish follower of Christ; to not cause protest here, let's call that "a church" as well) who sent Judaising missionaries to Antioch to enforce a more Jewish Christianity among those followers of the somewhat laxer Gospel that St Paul was teaching there. (Cf Galatians as well as the explanation). So there was very probably a James at least.

Historians have to assume a certain thing that was or perhaps is highly controversial for some denominations of Christianity. Namely that a Jesus was a man, a mortal human being. Born by conventional means to Mary and Joseph (or at least another mortal male as biological father). That leads to the conclusion that he must have been a relatively normal Jewish boy in a biologically ordinary Jewish family. Those kind of families around the Sea of Galilee tended to be somewhat larger than is common today.

If a historical Jesus existed, then we sadly do not know that very much about him from outside biblical sources. But if a Jesus existed, then his brothers and sisters very likely existed as well. The level of detail we know about them is then only slightly less than for the historical Jesus. But keep in mind that for historians that amounts still to "not much".

These "some traditions" that he did not have a brother seem quite contradictory to most of what is canon even in the bible. Although it is not always when a James in the bible is actually the James of Nazareth that would be the brother. This exemplified by the debate around the so called James ossuary. To those who want to believe this is irrefutable physical proof. And this "it's proof" is a legitimate perspective among historians as well. But among historians it is not the only perspective on the matter and it is also not a particularly strong one.

Most strikingly, what is considered the very first

author outside the church to mention Jesus is the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who wrote a history of Judaism around AD93. He has two references to Jesus. One of these is controversial because it is thought to be corrupted by Christian scribes (probably turning Josephus’s negative account into a more positive one), but the other is not suspicious – a reference to James, the brother of “Jesus, the so-called Christ”.

So the very first case of multiple attestation of a historical Jesus that is still generally accepted is from an ancient historian in his Book 20, Chapter 9, 1 of the Antiquities to "the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James".

So far, mainly based on the readings of Gerd Theissen & Annette Merz: "The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide", Augsburg Fortress, 1998. Note that Theissen is a theologian and historian as well as sociologist and not just a representative of a planctus ecclesiae germaniae.

The James who is the subject of this study is not prominent in contemporary church tradition. Roman Catholicism looks to Peter as the apostolic founder of its tradition, and the churches of the Reformation look back to Paul. Even when James is spoken of, the son of Zebedee and brother of John normally comes first to mind. He has become known as the greater James, while our James is sometimes known as "the less" and thought to be the son of Alpheus. With this identification goes the assumption that the so-called brother of the Lord was, in fact, a cousin, distancing him from Jesus. From this perspective he is just James.
One of the aims of this book is to show that the grounds for dismissively regarding James the brother of Jesus as "less" are misguided and that it is necessary to recognize him as a towering figure in the earliest church. Here we exploit a potential double meaning in the epithet "Just James," drawing attention to the tradition of righteousness associated with James, so much so that he came to be identified by the title James the Just. It is not simply that he was regarded as a just man. The title was given to him as the one who, in the minds of those who so named him, epitomized righteousness and justice. But if this was the case, why has his role been almost obliterated from the consciousness of continuing church traditions?
John Painter: "Just James. The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition", Columbia: University of South Caroline Press, 2004.

As already said, information on this James comes mainly from Christian sources, including apocryphal ones. That makes evaluating his historicity a challenge: ample literature (good) all in the same venue (bad). Painter is a theologian with an historical perspective on the subject. He has to conclude his book with

Our journey with Jacob is almost at an end. Unfortunately the story ends with just James. All the promise that first surrounded the figure of the one who, from the beginning of the story of the church in Jerusalem, was known as "the brother of the Lord," failed to be realized. The first of a series of reasons for this is that the mother church of Christendom, the Jerusalem church, suffered the fare of the city, and its members either dispersed before the war or were decimated with the city. Either way, there was a significant break in the history of that church, and it seems likely that it never again attained the leading role which it had played prior to the war. While this may be true, Eusebius gives a list of the bishops of Jerusalem that suggests a continuous history down to the second revolt and destruction at the beginning of the second third of the second century.

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    Thank you for this comment about the lack of information we have on this potential brother. I will let this question open for a week and will accept it if nobody else answers. Aug 23, 2018 at 8:28

Question: Do Historians Support the Existence of Brothers to Jesus

There is an independent accepted historical reference to a brother of Jesus James, which dates back to around 50 years after the crucifixion.. In fact a reference to Jesus's brother James by the Roman historian Josephus is the closest chronological independent proof of Jesus's existence. Josephus writing around 93–94 AD has two references to Jesus one of which relates him to the fate of his brother James.

Josephus, the Antiquities of the Jews (Book 20, Chapter 9, Verse 1). Josephus refers to the stoning of "James the brother of Jesus" (James the Just) by order of Ananus ben Ananus, a Herodian-era High Priest.

Josephus: Book 20, Chapter 9, Verse 1
Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrin without his consent.

Josephus on Jesus
Modern scholarship has almost universally acknowledged the authenticity of the reference to "the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James" (τὸν ἀδελφὸν Ἰησοῦ τοῦ λεγομένου Χριστοῦ, Ἰάκωβος ὄνομα αὐτῷ) and has rejected its being the result of later Christian interpolation. Moreover, in comparison with Hegesippus' account of James' death, most scholars consider Josephus' to be the more historically reliable.
Book 18, Chapter 3, 3 of the Antiquities, a passage that states that Jesus the Messiah was a wise teacher who was crucified by Pilate, usually called the Testimonium Flavianum. The general scholarly view is that while the Testimonium Flavianum is most likely not authentic in its entirety, it is broadly agreed upon that it originally consisted of an authentic nucleus, which was then subject to Christian interpolation and/or alteration. Although the exact nature and extent of the Christian redaction remains unclear, broad consensus exists as to what the original text of the Testimonium by Josephus would have looked like.

Now in addition to Josephus we have the New Testament Pauline epistles. The oldest books in the new testament takes the forms of St Paul writing letters to Christian Communities discussing various topics. In Galatians 1:18-2:10: Paul discusses a meeting with Jesus's Brother James

Galatians 1:18-2:10:
Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia.

The Galatian Epistles are among the 7 undisputed epistles which scholars believe were written by St Paul. Likewise there is historical context in these undisputed letters.

Historical Context for Galatians by Paul

Do historians support … And, maybe the perpetual virginity of Mary, mother of Jesus? With what methods or support?

As for Catholicism and the Virgin Mary, without getting into the validity of the arguments, the Catholic case is presented from multiple sources.

and boils down to 4 points.

1. The meaning of the word adelphos

Adelphos (brother in greek) used in the new testament 343 times, contrary to the understanding expressed in the original question, does have multiple meanings.

Definition Adelphos

  1. a brother, whether born of the same two parents or only of the same father or mother
  2. having the same national ancestor, belonging to the same people, or countryman
  3. any fellow or man
  4. a fellow believer, united to another by the bond of affection
  5. an associate in employment or office
  6. brethren in Christ
    a. his brothers by blood
    b. all men
    c. apostles
    d. Christians, as those who are exalted to the same heavenly place

It can mean siblings, close relatives, even close friends. Take Genesis 13:8:

New American Standard Bible Genesis 13:8
So Abram said to Lot, "Please let there be no strife between you and me, nor between my herdsmen and your herdsmen, for we are brothers.

Only Abram and Lot are not brothers in the bible they are uncle and nephew.

Or in Corinthians 15:6 after the crucifixion, when Paul says Jesus appeared before more than 500 brothers, nobody suggests that Mary gave birth to more than 500 siblings.

New American Standard Bible Corinthians 15:6
After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep;

2. Jesus's brothers in the bible are never called sons of Mary as Jesus was.

Acts 1:14
These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.

3. There are other women named Mary in the bible

James and Joses are called Jesus’ “brothers” (Mark 6:3) and they were born to Mary, just not the Virgin Mary (Mark 15:40]4).

Mark 6:3
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James, and Joses, and Judas, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended in him.

Mark 15:40
And there were also women beholding from afar: among whom were both Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome; who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered unto him; and many other women that came up with him unto Jerusalem.

In fact Mary was the most common name for women in Galilee and Judea at the time. Joseph was the second most common name for Jewish men. And Jesus (Yeshua) was the sixth most common name.

4. Finally, the Consensus of Early Christian Church Leaders

  • The Protoevangelium of James
    The earliest explanation of the “brothers” of the Lord dates from 150AD.

  • Athanasius of Alexandria
    “Therefore let those who deny that the Son is from the Father by nature and proper to his essence deny also that he took true human flesh of Mary Ever-Virgin [Four Discourses Against the Arians 2:70 (c. A.D. 360)]

  • St. Jerome [Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary 21 (A.D. 383)].
    “You say that Mary did not continue a virgin: I claim still more that Joseph himself, on account of Mary was a virgin, so that from a virgin wedlock a virgin son was born

  • Pope St. Leo I Sermons 22:2 (A.D. 450)
    “The origin is different but the nature alike: not by intercourse with man but by the power of God was it brought about: for a Virgin conceived, a Virgin bore, and a Virgin she remained.

The Catholic Catechism sums it all up.

Catechism of the Catholic Church 501:

Jesus is Mary’s only son, but her spiritual motherhood extends to all men whom indeed he came to save: “The Son whom she brought forth is he whom God placed as the first-born among many brethren, that is, the faithful in whose generation and formation she co-operates with a mother’s love .



There is also the "James Ossuary", on which is written in Aramaic "James, son of Joseph, brother(s?) of Jesus".

Here is a summary of the facts:

  1. An ossuary is essentially a bone-box where the bones of the deceased are stored. When a person died his body was laid and stored somewhere safe. It would take maybe two years for there only to be bones remaining, at which point the bones would be put in an ossuary.

  2. On the side of the "James Ossuary" is written in Aramaic "Yacobus, son of Yusuf, brother of Yeshua" or "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus".

  3. You can read on google about the accusation and court case. The Israeli authorities took the owner of the ossuary to court claiming it was a forgery. (Obviously, if it is genuine it is worth a few dollars.)

  4. The court concluded there was insufficient evidence to say it was definately a forgery.

  5. The evidence is thus: all are agreed the box itself is first century. Ossuaries were used in Palestine from 20 BC until 70 AD. The accusation was about the inscription "James, son of.." etc. In particular had "brother of Yeshua" been added in modern times by forgers?

Palestine ossuaries gain "patina" over the centuries. This one had patina. In the groove of the inscription "brother of Yeshua" there was also patina, showing this could not have been written in modern times (unless the forgers had skills that no one else had, which was supposed to be a possibility and was a suspicion of the Israeli authority). In fact the patina was in one of the grooves of one of the letters of the word "Yeshua". The Israeli Authority suggested that the patina had grown in an old fault line on the surface of the box of which the forgers had made use and incorporated into their word "Yeshua".

There were a plethora of experts involved in examining the box and its inscription. Experts in the way Aramaic letters are written, which varied over the centuries, said it was the style which belonged to the decades immediately preceding the Jewish-Roman War around 70 AD, i.e. about 50 to 70 AD. Josephus the first century historian tells us James the brother of Jesus was killed on the orders of Annas the High Priest. According to Josephus, this Annas (Josephus calls him the younger Annas) was one of the sons of the Annas the High Priest, whom Josephus calls "Annas the Elder". Annas the Elder is the one written about in the Gospels and early Acts of the Apostles. The younger Annas was High Priest for only 3 months or so after the death of the governor Festus in 62 (or maybe 63) AD.

In essence, the date of the style of the writing of the Aramaic letters fits perfectly with the date of the death of James the brother of Jesus according to Josephus.

A world authority in first century Aramaic said the phrase "brother of yeshua" was not genuine, and was a sign the phrase was a modern forgery. Then later the same expert did an about turn - the phrase "brother of Yeshua" was definately genuine! Why did he change his mind? The Aramaic word used for "brother" was actually in the plural, so literally for first century aramaic it read "James, son of Joseph, brothers of Jesus". At first the expert believed that "brothers" was never used to mean "brother" in the first century: "brothers" was used to mean "brother" only in later centuries, it was a later development in aramaic. So the inscription was a forgery, the person who wrote it did not know what he was doing. But then the expert found new evidence which showed that actually "brothers" was already being used to mean "brother" in the first century; furthermore there was no way any forger could possibly have known that, he had only just found it out himself.

So this expert in first century Aramaic decided the inscription on the ossuary is genuinely ancient and not a modern forgery. It is of "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus".

Could it be of some other James, and some other Jesus? The mathematical odds of there being another James with a father called Joseph and a brother called Jesus is negligible. I cannot remember the exact figure, but it is so small as to be impossible to be any other James.


Permit me to add here information about how these mathematical odds were arrived at.

Much investigation has been carried out by several scholars interested in knowing the frequency of Jewish names in late antiquity. A summary account of these investigations (together with ground breaking arguments as to the authenticity of the Gospels based on these investigations) can be found in the book "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses - The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony" by Richard Bauckham (Eerdmans, 2006).

For instance, there was Tal ILAN, an Israeli scholar who published in 2002 a "Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity: Part I: Palestine 330BCE-200CE". She looked at the frequency of names by recording names from all relevant sources including "the works of Josephus, the New Testament, the texts from the Judean desert and from Masada, ossuary inscriptions from Jerusalem, and the earliest (tannaitic) rabbinic sources".

Bauckham writes: "It may come as a surprise to many readers that we know the names of as many as three thousand Palestinian Jews who lived during the five centuries covered by Ilan's Lexicon." (Page 68)

Bauckham also summarises the investigations of Rachel Hachlili and others.

Bauckham himself made a comparison of the frequency of names in the Gospels with the frequency of names for the same period and place outside the Gospels using Josephus, the ossuary inscriptions, etc. What he found was a striking agreement between the Gospels and the other sources for the frequency of both male and female names: which lead him to write his book making a very strong argument that the Gospels are "eyewitness testimony". Peter Williams presents the argument of Richard Bauckham on youtube at:


From the studies of Richard Bauckham, Rachel Hachlili, etc, the percentage frequency of the name Yeshua/Jesus amongst men in Palestine in the first century period was 9 percent. For Yacob/Yacobus (James) is 2 percent. For Yusuf (Joseph) it is 14 percent.

So if there are at least two men in a first century Jewish family in Palestine the chances of one of them being called Joseph is 14%, and the chances of another of them being called James is 2%. So the chance of a family having both a Joseph and a James is 14% times 2% or 0.28%. The chance that the father is Joseph and the son is James is half of 0.28%, i.e. 0.14%. All the calculations of probability can be seen in the e-book starting at the bottom of page 14.

Where I find myself struggling with the numbers is that Hershel speaks of the number of possible James "over two generations". In that the styling of the Aramaic letters restricts the Ossuary to the 20 years before 70 AD I would have thought this would only allow for one generation (not two): meaning the potential number of James is half that spoken of by Hershel Shanks.

Postscript: Hershel says there were on the laws of probability 20 James with a father of Joseph and a brother of Jesus. This is a much higher figure than the one others have quoted which is a grand total of 1.71 possible Jameses with these relatives. Well, thanks for that Hershel. Just as I thought we were getting to rock solid evidence he pipes up with 20 possible Jameses, not the less than 2 that I previously read about. I don't know why the discrepancy, but the rarity of naming a brother at all is still highly significant. Over 200 ossuaries have been found, and only one other ossuary has more than one relative named in addition to the name of the deceased. The "Yeshua" inscribed on the ossuary is someone very important.

Post post script: In first century Palestine the frequency of the names was thus:- Joseph (Yusuf) - 14% Jesus (Yeshua) - 9% James (Yacobus) - 2% The different family combination possiblities are 4: i.e. 3 brothers, James is father, Jesus is father, Joseph is father. So the possibility of a family having Joseph as father and Jesus and James as brothers is: 9% * 2% * 14% / 4 = 0.0063%. Or 6.3 families with this combination if the population is 100,000. (Unfortunately, it is difficult/impossible to say how many such families there were (with father Joseph and two sons Jesus and James) because estimates of the total population of Jerusalem in the 1st century vary enormously, as they do for the Roman Empire as a whole.) ]]]

In addition to the above, rarely do ossuaries have the name of even one other relative of the deceased. But the James Ossuary is one of only two ossuaries so far discovered to have two other relatives named. To have the name of a brother mentioned suggests/indicates that the brother would be very well known or important.

If you go to the biblical archaeology webpage linked immediately below there is an offer of the free e-book called "James, the brother of Jesus: the forgery trial of the century" by Hershel Shanks.



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