We are quite sure that many of those who have perused the two last Readings have paused over the passages, in which Saul is represented as stating that, besides Peter, he became known only to “James, the Lord’s brother,”—to consider in what sense this person could have stood in that relation to Christ. This question is in fact both more curious and more difficult than it even appears; and for this reason we may not let it pass unexamined.
This carries our recollection back to the instances in the Gospels, in which our Lord’s “brethren,” and even his “sisters,” are mentioned. Note: Mat_12:46; Mat_13:56; Mar_3:31; Luk_8:19. Now, at the outset, it is very clear, that unless there are very strong and very probable reasons why these terms should not be taken in their plain, primary and natural sense, they ought to be so understood.
Are there any such reasons? Some such have been urged, and it is our task to look into them.
It is alleged, that the term “brother” is too vaguely and comprehensively used in Scripture, to be insisted upon in the literal sense. It does not appear to us, however, to be more largely used than in our own language, particularly by the elder writers, and especially by theological writers; and we might easily undertake to parallel every Scripture instance by some from English authors. Yet in every instance, we know or judge from the subject or context, in what sense the term is used; and if nothing appears to extend the sense, we have no hesitation to take it in its restricted and proper sense. Most stress, however, is laid on the alleged fact, that the term “brother” is often used to denote any near relative. Let us not, in such a case, take anything for granted, but look. We do look and discover that this does not often occur, and that then it does not denote any near relationship, but only one, that of a nephew. The only cases are those in which Lot, the brother’s son of Abraham, is called his “brother,” Note: Gen_12:5; Gen_14:16. and in which Laban applies the same term to Jacob, his sister’s son, Note: Gen_29:15.—that is to say, a man designates as “brother” the children of those to whom he is a brother. Again, these instances occur seventeen centuries before the time of Christ, during which, as was natural, great changes in the use of words took place. Both also occur in the same book. As, therefore, this employment of the word “brother” does not subsequently occur, we may infer that it had dropped out of use. The words “kinsman” and “kindred” are quite in such frequent use as to show that “brother” and “brethren” need not be employed to denote near relationship for want of more definite terms. It seems, therefore, that although the term “brother” was in patriarchal times used to denote the nearest relation next to a brother, that is a nephew, this was not extended to any remoter relations, and eventually ceased to be applied even to that relationship. David never applies the term to the sons of his sister Zeruiah, although much conversation between them is reported. He calls them “sons of Zeruiah.” And in the New Testament itself the same relation as that which subsisted between Laban and Jacob is denoted not by “brother “but by “sister’s son,”—“Marcus, sister’s son to Barnabas, saluteth you.” Note: Col_4:10. “Paul’s sister’s son heard of their lying in wait.” Note: Act_23:16. If this near relationship was not denoted by the term “brother,” is it likely that any remoter relationship should be distinguished by it?
There is, therefore, nothing, we apprehend, in the use of the language alone, to warrant us in taking the terms “brother” and “brethren” in any but the natural and obvious sense.
It then remains to ask, whether there be anything in the circumstances of the case to over-rule this consideration, and compel us to receive the term in any other than its obvious meaning. We know not any; and it seems to us very clear that the idea that these terms were to be taken in any other sense would never have occurred, had not the desire been first felt to throw doubt on the matter, owing to the notions which crept into the church respecting the mother of Jesus—notions which the Roman church still upholds, and which proclaim her to have remained “always a virgin;” and which have lately had their complete development in the formal recognition by that church of the previously private doctrine, that her own birth was no less miraculous (“immaculate” is their word) than that of her son; and this itself having its origin to views dishonoring to the marriage relation, and exaltive of celibacy, which also came to be entertained, but for which there is no Scripture warrant whatever. But we are not bound by Roman views. We are free to see plainly what Scripture teaches; and in the face of what Scripture does teach or intimate, it can only be owing to some taint of the old Roman leaven—the habit of an ancient time—that many among us shrink from the idea, that Mary may have had other children than Jesus. If we turn to the passage in which the “brethren” of Jesus are mentioned, there seems to be every needful indication of the simply natural sense—they are so associated with his mother as would alone, apart from any theory, suggest that they stood in a filial relation to her. In Mat_12:46, we read, “His mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with Him,” or, as Mark (Mar_3:31) relates it: “There came then his brethren and his mother, and standing without, sent unto Him;” and so the parallel place in Luk_8:19. And unless those thus designated stood in the nearest possible relation to our Lord, the reply He gave to the intimation of their presence, loses much of its force; for in declaring that his mother and his brethren were such as heard the word of God and did it, He plainly means that such were as near and as dear as those who stood in the closest natural relation to Him. Substitute any other word for that of “brethren,” and the sense becomes frigid. They appear constantly together as forming one family, in a way scarcely possible among more distant relations. So, in Joh_2:12, “After this He went down to Capernaum, He, and his mother, and his brethren, and his disciples.” Still more emphatic is the collective recognition of the family by the offended Jews at Nazareth: “Is not this the Carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us?” Mat_13:55-56. In this text there are not only brethren, but “sisters.” Now, we say that no one who reads these passages with a free mind, and without being aware of any reasons to the contrary, would take the terms in any other than the primary sense—and who is aware of any such reasons?
Still the term “brethren” does not necessarily imply uterine brethren. It is in Scripture applied to children of the same father, but of different mothers; Note: Gen_42:15; Gen_43:3. Jdg_8:19. or, vice versa, of those l born of the same mother, but by different fathers. Either circumstance is supposable in the present case. There seems, however, every reason to infer, from the Scriptural intimations, that Mary never married again after the death of Joseph. If, therefore, the “brethren” and “sisters” of Jesus were not the children of Joseph and Mary, the probability remains, that they were his children by a former marriage—a probability strengthened by the considerations which have generally led to the conclusion, that Joseph had passed his youth when Mary became his wife.