Mathew 13 says Jesus had brothers and sisters (vv.55-56). I sometimes hear pastors or Bible teachers talk about His “half brothers” or describe Joseph as His “adoptive father.” I guess that connects to Mary being a virgin when Jesus was conceived? How should I understand the natural relationship between Jesus and His family?
I have heard similar descriptions of the Lord’s earthly family. In some cases, it seemed that the speaker just wanted to be technically correct about His birth order. Mary was a virgin when Jesus was supernaturally conceived in her womb and remained that way until His birth (Matt. 1:24-25), but she did complete a normal pregnancy. After that, Joseph and Mary had a succession of natural children (Matt. 13:55-56, Mark 6:3). But sometimes, commentators speculate about aspects of the Lord’s biological origin which Scripture does not confirm.
When using terms such as “half-brother,” context is required since the shifting of family unions normally arises from sin or tragedy. No sin was associated with the Lord’s entrance to this world, and it was marked by joy! Also, the passage in Matthew 13 shows the Biblical pattern of using regular terms (mother, son, brothers, sisters) to describe the Lord’s human relationships. He chose to enter this world in a human body and a specific human family. Note that the passage uses the testimony of hostile witnesses. The people did not have faith to believe the Lord’s divine claims, yet his natural relationships were obvious to them.
Since some teachers and church systems have gone much further and offered very strange claims about the Lord’s humanity, and about his human family, a broad review might be helpful.
Was Mary really Jesus’ mother?
Let us start with Matthew’s record of Jesus’ conception:
“…When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son…” (Matt.1:18-23).
The passage clearly shows that the Lord was conceived in Mary’s womb, yet His conception was not by natural means. The world around us does show immense variety in reproduction, but virgin conceptions do not naturally occur in the human race. Scripture states that it did occur in Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Some commentators try to speculate on what the Spirit did to make this happen, but all such speculation can become dangerous. In Jesus we have the union of the One who is fully God and fully Man, untouched by the sin of Adam yet made sin as the atonement sacrifice for Adam’s race (2 Cor. 5:21). All of this exceeds our comprehension, and God determined that the method for His entrance into this world would also exceed our comprehension. What we do know from Scripture is that following conception, both He and Mary went through a natural pregnancy and birth. He entered the world as human, male, and Jewish and was born in the line of David, which fully proves His right to reign as the King of Israel.
In all this, it was Mary’s unique privilege to be the Lord’s earthly mother. In the gospels she is referred to as His mother, and when the Lord went to the cross, He transferred her elder care to His disciple John (John 19:26-27). Mary was described as “blessed among women” and “the mother of my Lord” by her relative Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45), and Mary’s remarkable prayer of praise and worship is recorded for us (ch.1:46-55). However, besides a few brief references to Mary during her life afterward, not much else is said about her in Scripture.
Unfortunately, a few church systems have adopted many traditions about Mary that have no Scriptural basis, even to the point of supplanting the Lord Jesus as the sole intercessor and advocate before God. Mary’s prayer shows how much she honored God and gave Him praise for fulfilling His Word, so if you hear something else taught about her, please be sure to learn from her example. Check the claim carefully against the word of God.
Was Joseph really Jesus’ father?
Joseph did not have sexual relations with His wife until Jesus was born (Matt. 1:25). His restraint assured that Isaiah’s prophecy (ch.7:14) would be fulfilled without dispute: Mary would conceive and give birth as a virgin. So, Joseph did not provide paternity to the Lord through natural conception. But like his wife Mary, he was given a necessary role. What was it?
One point we must review is Luke’s distinctive note while listing Jesus’ genealogy:
“Jesus, when He began His ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli…” (Luke 3:23).
What does this mean: “As was supposed?” Possibly, Luke was emphasizing that Jesus was not conceived through Joseph, even though everyone assumed He was Joseph’s son. Or, maybe Luke was indicating this was really Mary’s genealogy, and not Joseph’s.1 But it happens again in the Matthew 1 genealogy:
“…and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Matt. 1:16).
Here we find the lineage carried to Joseph, but then it transitions to “the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born.” Again, distance is inferred for Joseph’s connection. However, that distance is not emphasized after this point, and Joseph accepted the role of Jesus’ earthly father. Remember that Jesus was born into a patriarchal society. He took His place in Israel through the lines of earthly fathers, including those of Joseph (Matt. 1) and Mary (Luke 3).
Why was this lineage important? For one thing, it proved His human position was orderly: “But when the fullness of time was come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5).
The Lord was shown to be human by being “born of woman.” But to be “born under the Law” with good testimony, He must also have a father in good standing, and that was Joseph. When Jesus first gathered His disciples, John recorded this testimony by Philip to Nathanael: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote–Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45).
Matthew and John observed how the crowds also understood Joseph in that way: “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” (Matt. 13:55). And, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” (John 6:42).
Joseph and Mary both related to Jesus as normal parents during His childhood. During the events of Luke 2:41-51, which took place when Jesus was 12 years old, Mary stated “Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously” (v.48). Humanly speaking both Joseph and Mary understood their roles, and as a youth the Lord was also subject to them (v.51).
Joseph seems to disappear at some point during Jesus’ adult life. The only references I find that chronologically follow Luke 2 are John 1:45 and 6:42, mentioned above, and Matthew 13, “the carpenter’s son.” In the parallel account of Mark, it is just “the carpenter” (ch.6:3). Mark’s shift in detail might mean that Jesus, and not Joseph, was running the family business prior to His full-time ministry. The transfer of Mary’s elder care to John at the cross, strongly suggests she was a widow.2
What about siblings?
Matthew (ch.13:55-56) and Mark (ch.6:3) both recorded that the Lord had siblings. Interestingly, both passages note that Jesus was teaching in His hometown of Nazareth, and that the local people claimed to know His occupation and human family as proof that He was nobody special. It does not appear that they were using words like “brothers” with figurative or hidden meanings.3 From their point of view, Jesus was just another man and He had a father, a mother, four brothers, and at least two sisters (an exact number is not recorded).4
References to the Lord’s siblings appear occasionally in the Gospel accounts and just a couple other times in the New Testament. In John 7:1-10, we read about Jesus’ family preparing to attend the Feast of Booths. His brothers challenge Him to make a public appearance and John comments “not even His brothers believed in Him” (v.5).
But at least two did believe later. James and Jude had roles in the early church and are recognized as the authors of two New Testament letters. When Paul wrote to the Galatian believers, he specifically made mention of “James, the Lord’s brother” (ch.1:19). The name James was very popular in first-century Israel, and human relationships were one way of distinguishing people with common names.
In Jude’s letter, he introduced himself as “a servant of Jesus Christ and the brother of James” (v.1). Jude’s letter is a brief but strong warning against false teachers, and while a false teacher would be quick to assert a human connection to the Lord, Jude just represented himself as the Lord’s subordinate.
So, what should I do?
I believe this is a situation where Scripture does not give a rule, but it does give examples.
As shown earlier, when Matthew and Luke introduced the Lord by His human lineage, both carefully noted that He was brought into the world by a unique work of the Holy Spirit. They further distance Him from Joseph when presenting genealogy. No human being could claim responsibility for initiating His life. So, I believe our own discussions of the Lord’s humanity should begin with a similar approach. If I speak to an audience that might not understand the unique character of His conception, then that should be stated clearly.
But once that fact was known, the New Testament writers used normal terms. So, we should do the same, with due care not to discount His divinity. The Lord’s human birth and family line were an important proof to Israel that He has the full right to be their Messiah and King. His further claims as the Son of God, divinely and uniquely sent from God, are in perfect balance with His claims as the Son of Man.
All this was planned by God as part of how Jesus would claim the Messianic crown, yet first suffer and die under the Law as God’s perfect, atoning sacrifice for sin. And in this, God has publicly declared “this Jesus…both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).
1. Scholars and commentators widely agree that Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1) is through Joseph, and Luke’s genealogy (Luke 3) follows Mary. Joseph is traced back through Solomon, David, and finally Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham. This proves that Jesus was born in the promised line of Israel and the kingly line of David. He is fully qualified by God’s design to take the throne of Israel and reign as the promised Messiah, which is a major theme of Matthew’s gospel account. In Luke, through Mary he is again descended through David (but not by Solomon), and the three patriarchs, and Adam. Jesus maintains the kingship rights by Mary but now it is clearly proven that He is born through Adam’s line. A major theme in Luke is to present the Son of Man, God’s perfect appointed Man who succeeded where the first man failed (Rom. 5:12-19).
2. Another explanation for the detail difference between Matthew and Mark here, might be this: in presenting Jesus as Messiah, Matthew was interested in who He was (“the carpenter’s son”). In presenting Jesus as the Servant, Mark was interested in what He did (“the carpenter”). But even if these passages are not a strong case for the end of Joseph, the details of John 19:26-27 plainly indicate that Mary needed a home and provider after the Lord’s death on the cross, meaning her husband was probably deceased.
3. This point should be considered carefully because, in order to support strange claims about Mary, some church traditions have also tried to re-explain the meaning of Jesus’ sibling relationships. But Scripture presents the Lord’s siblings as actual siblings in multiple contexts, not as cousins or other relatives.
4. Although the siblings are not mentioned in John 6:42, a similar situation occurred: an unbelieving crowd dismissed Jesus’ divine claims and pointed to His natural parents as their proof. As God Who became Man, He was God the Father’s “only begotten” or “only unique” Son (John 1:14, 18; 3:16-18; 1 John 4:9). But in presenting Himself as human, He was born into a human family with corresponding relationships.