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Mary in the Bible (Part 3)

September 20, 2006

Mary in the Gospel of Mark

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Preliminaries

I’d like to begin my biblical study on Mary with what are perhaps the earliest passages of the New Testament, chronologically speaking, where the Mother of Jesus is mentioned. Mark’s Gospel, which is arguably the earliest written, makes reference to Mary, yet Mark is not expressly concerned to provide any information about her. Does this mean that what little he does say about Mary points to her relative non-importance, as many non-Catholics assert? Perhaps so, but only if we are equally willing to admit that the lack of detail of Christ’s crucifixion in Matthew and Mark or the passing-over by Paul of Jesus’ earthly ministry indicate their relative non-importance. My point? Quantity of reference to a person or a principle in Scripture often has little to do with its overall importance (consider what little face-time the Holy Spirit gets when compared to, say, Peter). Besides, what is scarce in Mark with regard to Mary is plentiful in Luke and John.

Turning now to Mark, we find Mary explicitly mentioned in 3:31-35, and referred to in 6:1-6.

Mark 3:31-35:

And (Jesus’) mother and his brothers came; and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting about him and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking on who sat about him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister and mother.'”

Mark 6:1-3

(Jesus) went away from there and came to his own country; and his disciples followed him. And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue; and many who heard him were astonished, saying, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works are wrought by his hands? 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 took offense at him.”

As any Catholic apologist will point out, the Greek word used for brother in Mark’s Gospel is adelphos, which commonly, though not exclusively, indicates blood relationship in common Greek parlance. However, the Bible tends to use adelphos very broadly, hardly using it for blood relationship at all. Consider the following uses:

Rom 9:3: “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren (adelphoi), my kinsmen by race.”

Paul uses the plural form of adelphos to refer to his fellow Jews (his brethren and kinsmen by race), applying the term beyond strictly familial relations and to the entire people of the Old Covenant.

Matthew 5:22-24: “But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother (adelphos) shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council…so if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother. . . .”

Here, Matthew uses adelphos to refer generically to a fellow believer, and specifically to a Jewish believer. Again, notice that adelphos is employed to indicate a familial tie that is religious and not necessarily by blood.

Mark 6:17: “For Herod had sent and seized John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Heriodas, his brother (adelphos) Phillip’s wife; because he had married her. For John said to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’”

Here, Mark himself actually uses the term adelphos again in a broad fashion. It is a historical fact that Phillip was not Herod’s blood brother, but rather his step-brother. Adelphos is used here to refer to someone who was not family.

Other New Testament instances of adelphos and its derivatives used to refer to brethern who are not blood-relatives are Rom 8:29, Colossians 1:2, Hebrews 2:11 and James 1:2. It is also worth noting that the Greek Septuagint, which was the Old Testament translation used by the Gospel writings for quotations, uses adelphos liberally to translate ‘kinsman’, such as in Genesis 29:12 where Jacob tells Rachel that he is her father’s kinsman. Again, this use of adelphos is not for blood-brother, but for kinsman according to religion and tribe.

All this indicates that the use of adelphos by Mark in his Gospel with reference to Jesus’ brothers does not necessarily—or even likely—indicate blood-brotherhood. Minimally speaking, Mark 3 and 6 leave us nothing with which to suspect that the mentioned brothers are, in fact, the sons of Mary since this term is used liberally throughout the New Testament, including in other passages in Mark, to refer to close relations or associations by extended family, by tribe and by religion. Because the people of Israel understood their lineage in terms of their particular tribe (e.g. Tribe of Reuben, Tribe of Judah, Tribe of Levi), their fellow tribesmen were considered to be their brethern, regardless of how remote the actual relation may have been. Thus, Joseph and Mary, being from the tribe of Judah, were by tradition kinsmen. This leaves little wonder why Mark would use adelphos to speak of men and women who were of Jesus’ tribe given that it was the prevailing Hebrew custom of the day.

For further evidence that the brothers mentioned in Mark 3 and 6 are not actually Jesus’ blood-brothers, one can look at the names of these brothers. Mark 6:3 claims that Jesus is the brother of “James and Joses and Simon and Judas.” In Matthew 13:55, Jesus’ brothers are “James and Joseph and Simon and Judas.” We can reasonable conclude that the Joses of Mark is the same person as the Joseph of Matthew.

Two of the brothers, James and Joseph, are mentioned further on in both Mark and Matthew at the scene of the Cross (Mk 15:40; Mt 27:56). This time, they are described as the sons of a Mary, yet this Mary is not described as the mother of Jesus. If James and Joseph are the sons of the same Mary, who is the mother of Jesus, why would Mark not indicate this here? Why would he not associate this Mary with Jesus as he did back in Mark 3:31? Why is the mother of Jesus NEVER said to be the mother of anybody but Jesus?

Perhaps the reason is that Mark is talking about two different Mary’s: One Mary is the mother of Jesus, another Mary is the mother of James and Joseph (and Simon and Judas). This would explain why Jesus’ mother is NEVER called the mother of ANYONE BUT JESUS, where the Mary of Mark 15:40 (and Mt 27:56) is called the mother of James and Joseph. This idea, that Mark is talking about two different Mary’s, is validated when we look at the women who were present at the crucifixion:

Mark 15:40
Mary Magdalene
Mary mother of James and Joses


Matthew 27:56
Mary Magdalene
Mary mother of James and of Joseph
The mother of the sons of Zebedee

John 19:25
Mary Magdalene
Jesus’ Mother
His mother’s sister
Mary the wife of Clopas

Notice that John adds Mary, the mother of Jesus, to the standard list of three women at the Cross. If the mother of Jesus is an addition, then we can be certain that James and Joseph ARE NOT the blood-brothers of Jesus, but perhaps his cousins (if they are the sons of his mother’s sister, who may be Salome). If these adelphoi are indeed his cousins, which seems to be the case, then James and Joseph (and Simon and Judas) would most certainly be called adelphoi (brothers) of Jesus since the New Testament uses this term for close associates by family and religion.

In conclusion, the analysis of the Marcan use of adelphos actually appears to point away from the idea of Jesus having blood-brothers—and, consequently, away from the notion that his mother had other sons. Catholics need not stretch the meaning of Mark 3:31-35 or 6:1-3 in order to answer objections to Mary’s life-long virginity. While Scripture does not indicate whether Mary was a virgin her entire life, it certainly is silent on Jesus having true blood-brothers and sisters. The New Testament is very consistant in noting the mothers of the various men mentioned. Interestingly, Mary is never once called the mother of Jesus’ brothers (adelphoi), but only the mother of Jesus. And equally interesting, we are told later that these brothers (adelphoi) are the sons of a different Mary. It seems that an honest examination of “brother” in Mark 3 and 6 demonstrates that blood-brother is not likely what the term signifies.

My next post will look at the references to Mary in the Gospel of Matthew and in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.


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