Jesus' Siblings and Virgin Birth

Link to column:

Heaven forfend that I should contradict the Master; I have only a minor addition to a comment in the column.

Cecil says: “Now some would have you believe that ‘virgin’ as used in the New Testament (in Greek, parthenos) merely meant ‘unmarried woman’ and lacked our modern connotation of a woman who has not had sexual intercourse.”

I don’t think the Greek is the source of the confusion or mistranslation. I think the confusion arises from the Hebrew (notably Isaiah 7:14) that precedes the Greek.

The Isaiah verse announces the timely birth of a child to a “young woman”-- Hebrew is almah. The word almah appears elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible in a context that is independent of virginity – for instance, Genesis 24:43, Exodus 2:8, Proverbs 30:19. The usual word in the Hebrew Bible for “virgin” is bethulah.

The Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew bible, around 270 BC) uses the Greek word parthenos as the translation of almah in Isaiah 7:14. Normally, the Septuagint uses parthenos as the Greek translation of bethulah, hence “virgin,” but it is also is used as the translation for almah in Genesis 24:43. The conclusion is that the Septuagint used the word parthenos freely, and did not necessarily imply literal virginity.

Other Greek versions use “maiden” (Greek: neanis in the Isaiah line, which is more accurate.

So the question of whether the word means “virgin” or “young woman” is not focused around the Greek parthenos but around the Hebrew almah.

The problem then arises because Matthew 1:22-23 cites the Isaiah line: "Now all this took place to fulfill the word spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and they will call him Emmanuel.’ So the use of the word parthenos to imply the fulfillment of the Isaiah prophecy.

The dispute in translation is therefore not whether Mary was a virgin – the New Testament text is fairly clear on that – but on whether the Isaiah prophecy (that Jesus’ birth purportedly fulfilled) is about a virgin.

Hope that clarifies.
[Note: This message has been edited by CKDextHavn]

Regarding the multiple meanings of the term “virgin” or “maiden”: One needs to remember that in virtually all pre-industrial societies, a young unmarried woman BETTER be a virgin in the sexual sense, or else. Given that social context, it seems pretty clear that the writers of the New Testament were claiming that Mary had never had sex before Jesus was born. (Unless you credit the claim that Mary was raped by a Roman soldier, which the Straight Dope covered in a past column.

Sometimes there is less to the Bible than meets the eye.

It’s obvious by the scripture cited by Cecil that Jesus Christ indeed had siblings. In fact, the New Testament book of James was written by Jesus’ half-brother.

Why would the fact that Jesus had younger siblings preclude the possibility of a miraculous virgin birth by Mary? He was the first-born. If you accept Christian theology, the incarnate Christ was both human and divine. None of his siblings could make that claim, therefore there was no reason for Mary to remain “ever virgin” after Jesus’ birth.

The fact the Jesus had fully human siblings makes His birth that much more special.

Why the Roman Catholic church ever instituted this convoluted dogma is beyond me. Then again, the Roman Catholic doctrine that the papacy is directly connected to the disciple Peter is highly flawed. If popes and priests can’t be married, why was it o.k. for Peter? See Mark 1:30, where Jesus heals Peter’s (he was also known as Simon, but it’s the same guy) mother-in-law. You can’t have one of those without being married. I once pointed this out to a few Catholic friends who were absolutely shocked. Then again, I imagine the church has a convoluted explanation for that, too.

Link to the column being discussed:

My primary concern with whether or not Christ had blood siblings is less Mary’s virginity than the historical implications of people in the modern age being able to say “I am descended from / related to Jesus Christ.” Criminey. Imagine the televangelist who could claim that. Very, very frightening indeed. As far as can be discerned, Christ had VERY few blood relatives. His cousin, John the Baptist, died childless. His mother was an only child. I don’t think this is coincidence. God knew what he was doing (of course). The only relatives we know of (for certain) were the ends of their lines.

I have posted before to the effect that Isaiah uses the word “almah,” etc. (See CKDex above.)

However, something that ought to be pointed out is that if you read Isaiah 7:14, you can reasonably conclude that Isaiah is referring to a woman who is a virgin AS HE SPEAKS.

He does NOT say that she will conceive a child and REMAIN a virgin.

If you continue to read the Isaiah text, you see that he is speaking to King Ahaz, and outling things to come, with pregnancy and early childhood as a measuring stick. In other words, the things Isaiah predicts will not be instantaneous, but will come fairly soon-- in about eight years.

At any rate, if I said to you “My friend Dina is a virgin now, but I predict that withing a year she’ll have a baby,” you wouldn’t think I’m telling you that Dina will miraculously conceive as a virgin-- you’d understand that sentence as my suggesting that though Dina is a virgin now, she won’t be for long.

This is how we should understand Isaiah.

Shopping is still cheaper than therapy. --my Aunt Franny

Concerning Peter’s mother-in-law: there are two possible explanations.

The simplest, of course, is that by the time he was called by Jesus, Peter was a widower. So far as I know, a widower can become a priest. (Although I think there used to be a principle that a man who married twice and was widowered (sp?) twice could not be ordained to the priesthood.)

The second is that the principle of celibacy evolved over time in both the RC and Orthodox churches.

The position in the Orthodox church, I believe, is that a married man can be ordained to the diaconate or the priesthood, but after ordination cannot marry. Bishops must be celibate from the start.

In the western, Latin church, celibacy went over the centuries from being strongly recommended for the priesthood, to being an absolute requirement. Given the evolution of the position on this issue, Peter’s marriage was not necessarily contrary to the doctrine of the time, although it would be today.

None of which responds to the question, “Why?”

Actually, there is some indication in the historical record of further relatives of Jesus. For example, Gibbon writes in c. 16 of Decline and Fall:

I’ve omitted a footnote, which outlines the evolution of the doctrine of Mary’s virginity (along the lines set out by Cecil, of course). Nor does Gibbon cite his authority, but given his general reputation for detailed knowledge of the classical literature, accuracy in summarising it, and general scepticism about early church writings, I assume he is reliable.

(Sorry for the long quotation, but I think one just can’t get enough Gibbon in one’s daily life.)

buster posted:

Well, you can imagine all you want, but you’d be wrong. That’s because your information on celibacy is wrong. The RCC has no theological problem with married priests. The Church in the West had married priests on a regular basis up to the 8th century. The Eastern Catholic Churches (which are fully a part of the RCC) still have married priests. And even today, there are married Reformed priests who’ve converted to the RCC and have been allowed to be married RCC priests. This Pope or the next may abolish priestly celibacy with a word, since it is a Church rule and practice and not a divine command.

So, there should be no scandal among Catholics (at least, educated Catholics) that Peter was married.

Of course, this leads to the question of why you would even bring up this rant about the Pope in a thread about Mary’s (perpetual) virginity. Did the Pope kill your brother or something?


I heard another spin on Mary as “virgin.” There was an Australian theologian who studied the Qumran sect and Dead Sea Scrolls and opined that “virgin” was to those at Qumran a title, like calling a nun “sister.” Her thesis is that the New Testament has to be read in the Qumran terms–that Joseph married a “virgin,” a nun of that group. That they shunned members who disagreed with them, cf. the Amish shunning today. When they were cast out by the community, they were “dead.” Thus, Lazarus might have been a member who disgreed with the leadership over something and was shunned. Jesus came and raised Lazarus from this “death,” perhaps reconciling him with the Qumran leaders.
I like this alternative way of thinking–explains a lot!


There is little purpose to debating the finer points of a myth.

If you are an adult who believes the myth, it is almost certainly because the myth was successfully drilled into you when you were a baby and is now inextricably tangled up in your mind with psyche, mommy, daddy, family, tribe, and nation. You cannot abandon the myth without abandoning yourself, and no amount of reasoned argument is going to alter your belief. You are incapable of fairly entertaining an alternative.

If you don’t believe the myth, the family life of a certain fabled Middle Eastern soothsayer a long time ago doesn’t much matter. He may have had dozens of siblings, including a brother named Chester who cleaned up after camels, and his mother may have been a camp follower. None of it matters.

What matters, whether or not you believe the myth, are the effects Christianity has or does not have on real people with real mothers and real siblings. Does it make people better? Does it make them worse? Who has some solid statistics? Show me that Christianity is good for the world and I’ll support it. Show me that it is bad for the world and I’ll condemn it. Show me that it doesn’t do much either way and I’ll ignore it.

You made one mistake in explaining your answer. The Catholic Belief is not simply Virgin Birth that is involved. Indeed, most Christians believe in Virgin Birth. However, Catholics hold the belief of the PERPETUAL Virginity of Mary. To say she had other children would clearly upset this. Thanks.

Mike Dana

Why in the world should we worry about whether or not Jesus had any siblings? That does not make him any less than who He is. Also, b/c he is a first born, that can still enable him to be born to a virgin mother.
What a lot of people have alot of trouble with is accepting the fact that Mary was an ordinary, and virgin, Jewish girl whom God decided, in His infinite wisdom, to bless with carrying and birthing His only Son. She was not some priestess, or nun of some wierd Jewish sect. She was an ORDINARY Young Woman. That is actually the good thing thing about Christianity. That God can take ordinary people, like you and me, and with a touch of the heart, can change your lives forever. The fact that she accepted to be touched by God, and carry and raise His Son makes her special. Now, whenever that part of her life was accomplished, what was to keep her from enjoying the pleasures of marriage (i.e. sex)? Nothing. We have no record in the Bible, or elsewhere that tells us that God told Mary to remain a virgin the rest of her life. God does not place those sort of restrictions on us, why should he do so to Mary? Would having sex with her HUSBAND make her any less of a mother to Jesus? No. Would these sibling be any more than half brothers and sisters to Jesus (i.e. saints, divine somehow)? No. If you will read about Jesus’ half brother James you will find that for a while he rejected his half brothers’ teachings, and it was not until he was grown and an adult that he accepted Jesus for who he was: God the Son. That is what it is all about; Accepting Jesus for who he is, and that can turn ordinary people, like Mary and James, into people that we can read about and admire and learn from nearly 2,000 years after they lived.

If you are not part of the solution,
your part of the precipitate.

moriah said:

Not speaking for Buster, but I’d guess that it’s due to 2 things: one, the RCC is the main church where Mary is venerated. For some people, it’s actually close to worship. Therefore, it’s rant on the RCC’ers because they’re weird and worship Mary time. Also, the RCC is suffering from a lack of priests, and yet refuses to allow their priests to marry, even though there are exceptions, as you stated. (They also won’t let women become priests, but that’s a whole 'nother topic, and another rant.)

And FTR, the day the Pope says Catholic priests can be married is the day I return to the church. I don’t see it EVER happening.

Lumpy said

But not in Mary’s society. Jews at that time didn’t believe sex between non-married people to be a sin, although it was frowned on as reckless and immature. (I believe Jews still hold this.) This is why Joseph married her without bringing attention to it.

The reason Catholics hold onto the belief of Perpetual Virginity of Mary is not because of anything found in the Bible. It comes from the Roman pagan cults popular in that day, with which Jewish Christianity was blended to form a new religion. Mary was perpetually a virgin because that’s how Catholic society saw the role of a perfect woman: chaste, untouchable, and worshiped. This is wrapped up in the way Catholicism treats women, sex in general, and sin. No biblical research will change this doctrine, since it’s almost necessary for Catholicism to exist in its present form.

Your Quadell

With respect, Quadell, and as a non-Catholic, are there any citations for this? Because I really am curious as to why the Catholic faith would theorize perpetual virginity for Mary – or why they would continue to hold that as a tenet of their faith, if in fact they do. As a Protestant, I always assumed, based on my reading of the New Testament, that Jesus had siblings (born to Mary and Joseph after Jesus’s birth), and was unaware until reading this column that Catholics didn’t believe that as well. So while I’m not saying your explanation is wrong (about it tracing back to Roman times), I’m wondering how you arrived at that explanation. And I don’t see why such a belief would be necessary to modern Catholicism. Perhaps one of our many Catholic posters can explain it to me?

No footnotes, just my understanding of the Catholic “experience”. Imagine you are a Catholic, saying one of the prayers to the Blessed Virgin. The only mortal ever born without original sin. The most important woman in all human history, to a Catholic. Imagine the reverence that you feel for her.

Now instead, imagine praying to her, and at the same time recognizing that she, throughout her life, did the nasty with Jacob. That’s a different Mary. It’s a different sort of experience. It isn’t the same thing. It’s no longer Catholic in quite the same way. I may be overstating it, but it seems to be one of the fundamental central myths of Catholicism, and that’s why I don’t think it’ll change.

For a parallel, look at the Gnostics. They prayed to Jesus, but they believed Jesus only came to earth in spiritual form, like a ghost, and wasn’t physical. Therefore, he didn’t really suffer on the cross. Praying to a Jesus who suffered the agony of the cross on your behalf is fundamentally different from praying to a spirit Jesus who never felt pain. The difference is big enough that the early church had to persecute Gnostics as heretics. It changes the myth just enough as to be a different religion. I think a Virgin Mary who felt lust for her husband and engaged in sex is also that dramatic a change in the myth.

The way Perpetual Virginity relates to Catholic definitions of sin and sex roles is complex. For now, I’ll just say that the Catholic version of a perfect woman is immature enough to have never known a man, yet mature enough to be a perfect mother. She has no sex drive at all, unlike the goddesses of most religions, and is ultimately a passive vessel for divinity. Many of the Catholic ideals regarding a woman’s place, the imperfection of human desires, etc. are wrapped up in this myth. If Mary slept with Jacob, then sexuality could still be a part of perfection, and we would not have to feel guilty or imperfect for enjoying sex with our spouses. Sex could still be, according to the myth, at some level, okay. And that just isn’t Catholic.

Your Quadell

As a Catholic, I find it my place to give you what I have learned on this topic.
Mary was not just an ordinary women. She was created by God and reserved from the beginning as pure and without stain, given tons of graces, and all through her life on Earth was surrounded by up to 1000 angels who protected her from evil and help in numerous other ways. She was incapable of sinning. She was immaculately conceived, though some think this refers to Christ, as she was conceived in the traditional physical way but without original sin, the new Eve.
The Angel came to Mary when Our Lord was conceived and when told she was to bear a child, replied, “Fiat”, “Be it done unto me according to your word”.
When she gave birth to Our Lord, she did not have to endure the pains of labor, Christ was miraculously brought forth from her womb. This kept her a virgin in her conception and birth, and as she and Saint Joseph made a vow before becoming married that they would always be celibate, she never had occasion to lose her virginity or to have other children.
The best source for information on this is The City Of God, a four volume work by Mary of Agreda, a Catholic nun. She had revelations that were authenticated by the Church and give the history of Our Blessed Mothers life. It starts before the Creation of the world and goes until after her death. The writing of her revelations are from 1655 to 1665 and according to the first book, she was “continually asking to be relieved from the task because she thought herself unworthy.”
Mary was and is ever virgin, Christ was an only child, and there is far more to Faith than one can put in a simple answer. Trying to understand God is like digging a hole on the beach in the sand and trying to put the oceans in it.
Pray and meditate, read and sacrifice, knowledge and wisdom will come to you!!

I apologize to anyone who may have been offended by my “rant” about Roman Catholic dogma regarding celibate priests and nuns. I brought it up only to explain that certain church dogmas are not well understood, and some of those dogmas certainly could be flawed.

As I mentioned in my first post, my Catholic friends were astonished to find that Peter was ever married in the first place. Clearly, the RCC doesn’t talk much about this.

I was afraid that someone may misunderstand my concerns about this apparent lack of communication within the RCC. Sorry. This is just a dialog, not my attempt to insult anyone’s beliefs.

I’m a born-again Christian, but unlike some of my fellow Protestants, I harbor no ill will toward the RCC or Catholics. As someone of my acquaintance once said: “There are plenty of Baptists going to hell, and plenty of Catholics going to Heaven. Only God can change a heart, and only God truly knows what’s in someone’s heart.”


If Mary slept with Jacob, that would be adultery and would truly be a different set of beliefs.

Although there have been various people in the RCC who have equated sex and sin, that is in no way a RCC belief. From my experience, Catholics (with the blessings of the church), are very much into the joys of sex. I am not going to claim that the RCC position on all aspects of sexuality and procreation is in perfect accord with modern North American mores, but there is no teaching of the church that equates sex and sin.

The reason that the RCC holds to the concept of Mary “ever Virgin” is that a whole slew of the earliest theologians (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Justin, John Chrysostom, et al) passed that thought on, and the RCC is not in the habit of reversing “The Fathers” on general opinions of faith.