The Brothers of the Lord (Acts 1)

A Special Study by Gareth L. Reese

Excerpted from Acts:  A Critical & Exegetical Commentary
(Moberly, MO: Scripture Exposition Books LLC, 2002)
Download a printable PDF of this Special Study



        In Mark 6:3 and Matthew 12:46, four “brothers” (adelphos, Grk.) of Jesus are mentioned.  Matthew 13:55-56 tells of at least two "sisters.”  The theological world has been sharply divided as to the exact relationship of these people to our Lord.



        This statement of belief is so called because of the very clear statement of Helvidius (c. AD 380) that the “brethren” of Jesus were sons of Joseph and Mary.  Helvidius was not the first to believe this way; this view was clearly held in the church of the 2nd century.

        When Helvidius wrote, he was merely restating the belief of many generations before his time.  But as the beginnings of the Roman Catholic Church developed, the gradual growth of the worship of Mary led to the doctrine that Mary was perpetually a virgin, and to the various efforts to explain away adelphos (Grk. for “brother”) as “cousin.”



        Epiphanius (c. AD 380; bishop of Salamis on Cyprus) held the view that Mary had no other children than our Lord.  The “brethren” were Joseph’s children by a former marriage.

        The earliest form of this view seems to be in the apocryphal Gospels.  (Apocryphal = of doubtful authenticity, spurious, counterfeit.)  In the Protevangelium Jacobi, Joseph is represented as a widower of more than 90 years, with a number of children, when he takes Mary for his wife.  The Gospel of Peter adds the thought that Mary is a child of 12 when she is betrothed to Joseph.  Origen inclined to the Ephiphanian view, although he admitted it had no backing other than the legendary apocryphal Gospels and had only a dogmatic or sentimental basis.  The Greek Orthodox and the Eastern sects have generally held to this view.  Many Protestants have also held to the Epiphanian view, among them Luther, Lightfoot, and others.

        On the one hand, “no conclusive objection can be brought against the Epiphanian view.  It is not intrinsically improbable, nor contrary to anything in the Scriptures, that Joseph should have married, lost his wife, and had a family of children by his former wife, when he became betrothed to Mary.” (Ropes, “James” in International Critical Commentary, p.60.)  On the other hand, no real evidence speaks for it.  The Epiphanian view does not agree with Matthew 1:25, “knew her not until she brought forth a son.”  Nor does it agree with the use of “firstborn” in Luke 2:7, which implies Jesus was not the only child of his mother.  Indeed, the apocryphal Gospels afford no trustworthy tradition.  In fact, it seems likely “the Epiphanian view had its roots in the dogmatic assumptions of ascetic theology” (Ropes, p.60).



        “Hieronymian” means “composed by Jerome.”  Jerome (AD 385), while studying in Rome, wrote a reply to Helvidius affirming the perpetual virginity of Mary.  This view reduces the number of persons in the New Testament by the name of “James” to two – both apostles – James the son of Zebedee, and James the son of Alphaeus.  The “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus were held to be “cousins” of Jesus, the children of His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas.

        “Jerome’s theory appears to have been wholly original with him, and both his own efforts and those of later Roman Catholic writers to find support for this view in earlier ecclesiastical tradition have failed” (Ropes, p.58).  It seems Jerome invented the view to protect the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, a doctrine which arose from pagan environs and caused the church to change from the early and natural view as to the identity of the “brethren” to the later, ascetic view.  Augustine adopted Jerome’s view, and it generally has held sway in the Roman Catholic Church.  Some Protestant commentators (e.g., Barnes) have been unduly influenced by Jerome and Augustine.

        Among the weighty objections against the Hieronymian view are these:

  1. Adelphos cannot mean “cousin.”  This is, in fact, impossible, and is fatal to the whole theory.  There is no New Testament or Classical Greek example, as far as this commentator knows, of adelphos being used to denote “cousin.”
  2. Jerome’s interpretation of John 19:25 is very unlikely.  He said that Mary  of Clopas is the sister of the virgin Mary.
  3. It is not proper to identify “Clopas” and “Alphaeus,” as must be done, if one is to hold to Jerome’s views.
  4. To hold Jerome’s theory, one must make an unwarrantable distinction between the James of Galatians 1:19 and the James of Galatians 2:9.



        Having briefly defined the three views concerning the “brothers” of the Lord, there is need to give attention, in detail, to some of the questions that arise as one tries to settle the problem of their relationship to Jesus.

  •  May we identify “James, the son of Alphaeus” and “James, the Lord’s brother” as being the same person?

        A listing of the women who watched the crucifixion will have a bearing on our answer to this question.


        Matthew and Mark each name three women, whence it is thought that Salome was the name of the wife of Zebedee.  Much of our problem lies with John 19:25.  Does John name three or four women?

  1. If three, then Mary, the wife of Clopas, was Jesus’ mother’s sister.  (James the less and Joses would be cousins of Jesus, and Jerome would appear to be correct.)  But it seems unlikely that two sisters would have the same name, i.e., Mary.
  2. If John names four women, then Salome, the wife of Zebedee, was Jesus’ mother’s sister.  Thus, James and John, sons of Zebedee, would be Jesus’ cousins.

        There is much in favor of the idea that John lists four women:  (a) John would be giving two pairs of women, each coupled by “and.”  The first pair is kindred to Jesus, and is unnamed.  It is paralleled by the other pair, which is not kindred, and whose names are given, as was the custom of John.  (b) It accords with John’s custom to withhold the names of himself and all his kindred.  In his Gospel he nowhere gives his own, his mother’s, or his brother’s name, nor does he even give the name of our Lord’s mother, who was his aunt.  (c) This relationship would explain in part why Jesus, when dying, left the care of his mother to John.  It was not an unnatural thing to impose such a burden upon a kinsman.

        The conclusion to this first question then is this:  If John names but three women, then very probably “James the son of Alphaeus” and “James the Lord’s brother” are the same people.  But if, as seems more likely, John names four women, there is no reason to say they are the same man.


  • What are the arguments, pro and con, concerning Jerome’s theory that the “brothers of the Lord” are really “cousins” – being in truth the children of Alphaeus?

        Two key arguments have been advanced in favor of identifying “the sons of Alphaeus” and “the brothers of the Lord.”

  1. If the two men named James (James the son of Alphaeus, and James the brother of the Lord) are distinct, then one of them (the son of Alphaeus, one of the Twelve apostles) disappears altogether from the New Testament after Acts 1:13.  It is argued, therefore, “Would we have James the apostle disappear, and another James – almost unintroduced, which is contrary to Luke’s custom – suddenly taking a prominent position in the church at Jerusalem?”  (By way of reply:  Several of the apostles disappear after Acts 1:13 – e.g., Simon the Zealot, Bartholomew, and Thomas.  And James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, may be considered to have been sufficiently introduced at Acts 1:14, where it speaks of “His brethren.”)
  2. If James the son of Alphaeus and James the brother of the Lord are distinct (it is argued), we have certainly two, and in all probability three, sets of brothers bearing the same names:  (a) James, Joseph, and Simon, the Lord’s brothers; (b) James, Joses, and Symeon, the sons of Clopas; and (c) James, Joses, and Symeon, the sons of Alphaeus.  (By way of reply:  These names were common ones, so not much stress should be laid upon this argument.)

        Whether or not Alphaeus and Clopas are the same man, one being his Hebrew name, the other being the Aramaic equivalent, is another problem.  See McGarvey, Fourfold Gospel, p.224; and Ropes, International Critical Commentary on James, p.58.

        On the other hand, the arguments against making the identification that Jerome did are weighty.

  1. If we say “the sons of Alphaeus” and the “brothers of Jesus” are different people, it enables us to give the term adelphos, “brother,” its natural meaning.  There is a distinct Greek word (suggenēs) for “cousin.”  As Ropes suggested (p.61), absent the need to support the dogma regarding Mary’s perpetual virginity, no one would have thought of trying to make adelphos mean ‘cousin’ instead of ‘brother.’
  2. To make the identification that Jerome did, one must say that some of the “brothers” of Jesus were also His “apostles.”  But the New Testament regularly distinguishes between the “apostles” and the “brothers” of the Lord.  (See John 2:12, 7:15; Mark 3:21,31; Acts 1:14.)  In fact, the “brother of the Lord” could not have been one of the original apostles, for the brethren of the Lord did not believe on Him (John 7:5).
  3. Finally, the “Lord’s brethren” are mentioned in the Gospels in connection with Mary (His mother) or with Joseph (His reputed father).  Never once are they mentioned in connection with Mary (the wife of Clopas), as would surely be the case if Jerome’s theory were true.



        We conclude that Helvidius had things exactly right; namely, that the “brothers” of Jesus were actually half-brothers, the sons of Joseph and Mary, born after Jesus.

        We also conclude that the “brothers” of the Lord and the “sons” of Alphaeus are distinct sets of people.  And if Alphaeus and Clopas are not the same man, then we have three sets of children with the same names.

        Further, we conclude that the “brothers” of Jesus and the apostles are two distinct groups of people.

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