Thursday, April 25, 2013

Notes on Mark: Degrees of Relationship

MARK 6:1-3
Here is one of the things that separates the Protestants from the Catholics. "Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judah and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?"

This commentary explains the reason Catholics read this passage and still say that Mary was always a virgin. I am not putting this commentary up to start any arguing as I think it highly unlikely that anything I write will change someone's mind on this subject. It is just an FYI sort of thing for anyone who is curious as I was about how they described it.
St. Mark mentions by name a number of brothers of Jesus, and refers in general to his sisters. But the word "brother" does not necessarily mean son of the same parents. It can also indicate other degrees of relationship -- cousins, nephews, etc. Thus in Genesis 13:8 and 14:14 and 16 Lot is called the brother of Abraham (translated as "kinsman" in RSV), whereas we know that he was Abraham's nephew, the son of Abraham's brother, Haran. The same is true of Laban, who is called the brother of Jacob (Genesis 29:15) although he was his mother's brother (Gen 29:15); there are other instances: cf. 1 Chronicles 23:21-22, etc. This confusion is due to the poverty of Hebrew and Aramaic language: in the absence of distinct terms, the same word, brother, is used to designate different degrees of relationship.

From other Gospel passages we know that James and Joses, who are mentioned here, were sons of Mary of Clophas (Jn 19:25). We know less about Judas and Simon: it seems that they are the apostles Simon the Cananaean (Mt 10:4) and Judas the son of James (Lk 6:16), the author of the Catholic Epistle, in which he describes himself as "brother" of James. In any event, it is nowhere said they were "sons of Mary" -- which would have been the natural thing if they had been our Lord's brothers in the strict sense. Jesus always appears as an only son: to the people of Nazareth, he is "the son of Mary" (Mt 13:55). When he was dying Jesus entrusted his mother to St. John (cf. Jn 19:26-27), which shows that Mary had no other children.


  1. Poverty of Hebrew and Aramaic language? Seems like a richness to me, intimately calling close relatives "brother."

    The sordid story in 2 Samuel 13 has long provided an understanding of the Mark 6:1-3 to me, but I've never encountered it in a commentary:

    "David’s son Absalom had a beautiful sister named Tamar, and David’s son Amnon loved her. He was in such anguish over his sister Tamar that he became sick; she was a virgin, and Amnon thought it impossible to do anything to her. [...] Amnon said to him, “'I am in love with Tamar, my brother Absalom’s sister.'”

    The relationship is what we might call half-sister and half-brother. Due to David's many wives, Tamar and Absalom by Maacah and Anmon by Ahinoam.

    Similarly, we are all brothers and sisters, as the hymn goes, "with God as our Father ..."

  2. It is rich to call everyone brothers and sisters in terms of our understanding of the family of God. However, I must agree with the author that it is linguistic poverty to have no other ways to delineate relationship. It is much like American English's poverty in having to explain whether bi-monthly means twice a month or every two months ... when one could simply use the word "fortnight" and know that means "two weeks." :-)