Today’s gospel is one of those passages of Scripture that our non-Catholic friends sometimes cite to demonstrate their claim that the Blessed Mother was not perpetually a virgin. “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, asking to speak with you.” See: right there it says that Christ had brothers. Therefore, Mary had other children. Therefore, she was not perpetually a virgin.
In preparing my daily homily, I read some commentary by good old St. Jerome on this scripture passage. And I paraphrase below what he says.
In Sacred Scripture, people are said to be “brothers” in four different ways:
- By nature;
- By nation of origin;
- By other family relation;
- By affection.
By nature, as was the case with Esau and Jacob (we could also refer to others, such as Cain and Abel).
By nation of origin, since all Jews are called brothers, as it says in the book of Deuteronomy: “You shall not set over you a foreigner who is not your brother”.
By other family relation, referring to those who are of one family, as in the book of Genesis, where Abraham said to Lot, “Let there not be strife between you and me, for we are brothers”.
People are also called brothers by affection, of which there are two kinds: special and general.
We see special affection in the fact that all Christians are called brothers, as Christ himself says (in talking about his resurrection): “Go tell my brothers”.
We see general affection inasmuch as all people descend from one father (Adam); thus we are bound together by a tie of consanguinity. And so Scripture says: “Say to them that hate you, you are our brothers”.
Therefore: After which manner are these men called the Lord’s brothers in the Gospel?
According to nature? But Scripture did not say that, as it did not call them sons of Mary or of Joseph.
By nation of origin? But it is absurd that some few out of all the Jews present in this scene should have been called brothers, seeing that all the Jews who were there might have thus been called brothers.
By affection, either of a human sort, or of the Spirit? If that is true, then how were they more his brethren than the Apostles, whom he instructed in his inmost mysteries (and who were already gathered around him)? Or if because they were men, and all men are brothers, it was foolish to say of them particular, “Behold, your brothers seek you”.
It only remains, then, that they should be his brothers by other family relation; not by affection, not by nation of origin, and not by nature.
* * *
Therefore, keeping in mind what St. Jerome demonstrates from Sacred Scripture, we can rely upon the common explanation concerning the fact that in both Greek and Hebrew there is not a word for “cousin” – that they just use the term “brother” to describe various types of family relations. The “brothers” spoken of in today’s gospel were likely cousins of Jesus; in any case, they most certainly were not his biological brothers.
(An analogy exists in some modern languages; for example, in Italian there is no distinction between “grandchild” and “niece/nephew” – it’s the same word for both.)
Tomorrow: a review of the Church’s teaching on the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.