Matthew 13:55-56a (ESV)

Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us?


οὐχ οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ τοῦ τέκτονος υἱός; οὐχ ἡ μήτηρ αὐτοῦ λέγεται Μαριὰμ καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοὶ αὐτοῦ Ἰάκωβος καὶ Ἰωσὴφ καὶ Σίμων καὶ Ἰούδας; καὶ αἱ ἀδελφαὶ αὐτοῦ οὐχὶ πᾶσαι πρὸς ἡμᾶς εἰσιν;

I have heard it said that this passage may refer to cousins rather than brothers and sisters.1


αδελφός: 1 a male from the same womb as the reference person, brother.

Within this entry, though there is some text relevant to my question that I'm having a hard time understanding (I have expanded abbreviations for easier reading):

passages like Gen 13:8; 14:14; 24:48; 29:12; Lev 10:4; 1 Ch 9:6 do not establish the meaning ‘cousin’ for αδελφός; they only show that in rendering the Hebrew אח αδελφός is used loosely in isolated cases to designate masculine relatives of various degrees.

The example texts here are instances where αδελφός is used in the LXX to translate אח when it applies to a relationship obviously outside the definition above. I don't understand why that use would be possible when translating Hebrew but not otherwise. Also, I'm guessing these Nazarenes were speaking something other than Greek, so it seems like Matthew (or whoever translated Matthew if you prefer) was, in fact, translating some Semitic language.

Is there evidence that Matthew (and the bystanders he quoted) intended ἀδελφοὶ and ἀδελφαὶ to carry a meaning limited to "from the same womb"?


Might it refer to cousins?2

1. I realize there is a broader use of the word αδελφοί that is made explicit by Jesus (Matthew 12:48-50), was evidently already in the Jewish vernacular (Acts 2:37, etc.), is used extensively by Paul, and has a parallel usage in English, both inside and outside the church. In English this use is obviously distinct, and the passage above would not be confused for the broader sense of "brother" amidst the specific familial references and toward the point being made. I suspect the same is true in Greek. This is the second definition in BDAG and is not the topic of this question.

2. Feel free to discuss half brothers as well. This just seemed less likely to me to have a clear answer in the grammar.

  • @Susan I believe that a word in another language for "cousin" didn't exist back then. Therefore, the word "brother" was more inclusive than it is for us today. Thanks. – John Martin Jul 29 '14 at 13:32
  • @John Martin - there is a word ανεψιος - see Col 4:10. I'm not sure how common it was, though. – Susan Jul 29 '14 at 13:42
  • @John Martin - but the Hebrew word does seem to have been more inclusive, as you say (I'm not sure about the existence of a Hebrew word for that relationship - I don't think so), so it may be that the more Hebrew writers/thinkers didn't feel a need to break out of that even when using Greek. – Susan Jul 29 '14 at 14:08
  • @caseyr547 While my answer leaves "cousin" open from a linguistic stand point, I would be interested in seeing how a Catholic handles the contextual points to argue that cousin should be preferred over brother. Such varying arguments help the site. (I wouldn't mind seeing a Jewish perspective on what they would take the NT text to mean either). – ScottS Aug 1 '14 at 20:35
  • The word cousin " ανεψιος " pronounced " anepsios" is mentioned by Paul in his epistle to the Colossians 4:10 "Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner, sends you his greetings; and also Barnabas’s cousin "ανεψιος " Mark (about whom you received [a]instructions; if he comes to you, welcome him);" (NASB)The word "cousin" does not appear in the Hebrew Scriptures , such expressions are used. Numbers 36:11 " Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah and Noah, the daughters of Zelophehad married their uncles’ sons."(NASB) Compare Genesis 28:2, 29:10. – Ozzie Ozzie Dec 19 '17 at 19:36

Lexical Discussion

The etymology of the word ἀδελφός is "from the collative a ..., denoting unity, and delphús (n.f.), a womb."1 So the chief idea is as BDAG and other lexicons state,2 that of a true brother or sister coming from the same mother (parents).3

However, as you noted, the word can be used in a variety of figurative, yet still physical relation extensions beyond this, and is found so used in Scripture:

  • Of fellow Israelites roughly in age of the speaker (Act 7:2)4
  • Of Moses in his relation to all the rest of Israel (Act 7:23)
  • Of fellow human beings (Mt 5:22)

So usage indicates that the term could be used to make reference to any type relationship considered as uniting of one to another, considered in a more intimate way. This accounts for the even more figurative uses for communities of believers, etc.

A term more explicit of a cousin or other more distant type relation would be συγγενής, which BDAG has as:5

  1. belonging to the same extended family or clan, related, akin to ...
  2. belonging to the same people group, compatriot, kin

And then as was mentioned in a comment, ἀνεψιός is more explicitly a "cousin" (found only in Col 4:10, and the LXX in Num 36:11),6 or perhaps "nephew."7


It could not be ruled out completely on lexical grounds that a cousin could be referred to by the term ἀδελφός, since one could refer to any extended family relation by such a term (as the Jews did of one another). But that conclusion could only be made effectively if the context pointed to such a use, since the term clearly is that of a true brother (or sister) when referring to near family relations. This is even more so since there were words that could have been used to express a more explicit cousin (or more distant kin) relation.

Contextual Discussion

A number of contextual points favor the basic meaning in Mt 13:55-56.

  1. It can be ruled out that the Jews are using the term in the broader sense of being Jewish, as they are not saying "Is this not our brother," but specifically tying Jesus to an explicit group of people.
  2. The naming of the individuals would seem out of place if a mere reference to cousins was in view. Rather, they are making an argument of an intimate connection to specific individuals that they know are closely related, but unlearned to the level that Jesus was demonstrating.
  3. The reference to both father and mother would make it an odd jump to cousin as the meaning for a term that is normally brother/sister; which joins to the next point...
  4. Spiros Zodhiates notes a significant observation (emphasis added):8

The Hebr. word ʾāch (251) encompassed more distant relatives (Gen. 14:16; 29:12, 15); therefore, some argue that this ought to be taken into consideration where brothers and sisters of the Lord Jesus are referred to (Matt. 12:46, 47; 13:55; Mark 3:31, 32; 6:3; Luke 8:19, 20; John 2:12; Acts 1:14). However, the only passage where the brothers of Jesus are not conjoined with His mother is John 7:3, 5, 10. The conjoined mention of the mother of Jesus appears to imply that children of the same mother are meant.


The contextual evidence points so clearly to meaning real brothers and sisters that one has to have a clear bias against such to even consider it to be otherwise in this passage.

Conclusion of Meaning in Context of Mt 13:55-56

That the term ἀδελφός could generally be used of a cousin (or even more distant relative) seems apparent from usages. However, contextually, one could almost not make a more poignant statement of true brotherhood than the text in Matthew 13 (and other texts noting these individuals); only a presupposed bias against such a view would cause one to ignore that evidence.


1 Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000), #80.

2 Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 1:144, states: "In the NT ἀδελφός and ἀδελφή denote either 'physical brotherhood' in the strict sense or more generally the 'spiritual brotherhood' of Israelites or Christians." James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (New Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), #81, states: "1. brother, male sibling ... 2. fellow believer ... 3. fellow Jew ... 4. fellow countryman ... 5. neighbor."

3 Note that a half-brother or half-sister from the same mother would qualify as a true ἀδελφός by even the etymological definition. However, that would be limiting the definition too much, since if two individuals shared the same father but not the same mother, the term is still used (for example, all the sons of Israel were ἀδελφοὶ, even though many had a different mother from the others.

4 Stephen begins his address in Act 7:2 with "Men—brethren and fathers—listen" (my translation of Ἄνδρες ἀδελφοὶ καὶ πατέρες, ἀκούσατε; a number of major translations omit translating Ἄνδρες, "men," probably considering it redundant, since there is no variant in the manuscripts there). An observation I make from this passage is that the distinction Stephen draws by stating both brethren and fathers indicates to me that even though the term ἀδελφοὶ could be used of all men of Israel in relation to their "brother" Stephen, that here he is using it more as a term indicating a lesser subset of those more his age, and using the term πατέρες ("fathers") to distinguish some honor to men older than he (how much older I don't know—probably about a generation). So at least in direct address situations, the Jews perhaps did not use ἀδελφός (or equivalent Semitic term) when addressing one deemed to be their elder, instead using πατήρ ("father") in its more figurative sense.

5 William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), s.v. συγγενής.

6 BDAG, s.v. ἀνεψιός.

7 Zodhiates, #431.

8 Zodhiates, #80.

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  • I’m new here. What is BDAG? – gen-ℤ ready to perish Jan 23 at 5:40
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    @gen-zreadytoperish BDAG is a common acronym for the lexicon noted in n.5, as it was Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich that worked on it. The edition I cited has dropped Gingrich from the editors, but the BDAG acronym is so standard now to refer to it, that the "G" remains. – ScottS Jan 23 at 16:33

In his contribution on Matthew in the Catholic series Sacra Pagina, Harrington notes the three major interpretive positions on this passage:

From antiquity this term [ἀδελφοὶ] has been interpreted in three different ways: Jesus’ siblings, the children of Mary and Joseph (Helvidius); Joseph’s children by an earlier marriage, therefore the step brothers (and sisters) of Jesus (Epiphanius); or relatives such as cousins (Jerome).

Harrington, D. J. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew. (D. J. Harrington, Ed.) (Vol. 1, p. 211). Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

Jerome is certainly among the most ardent supporters of the perpetual virginity of Mary having written an extended treatise in order to defend it against the aformentioned Helvidius. In his treatise, Jerome notes that, "In Holy Scripture there are four kinds of brethren—by nature, race, kindred, love."

As far as I know, nobody takes the four mentioned brothers here to be brethren by race, nor love. This leaves the other two options: by nature (like Jacob and Esau) or by kindred. Here, Jerome lists a number of near-relatives as being called brothers or sisters:

  • Lot, who is Abram's nephew is called his brother (ἀδελφοὶ) in Genesis 13:8 (LXX).
  • Laban and Jacob, who are likewise uncle and nephew, are as well called brothers (ἀδελφός) in Genesis 29:15 (LXX).
  • Similarly Jerome notes that Abram refers to Sarah, his half-sister, as his sister, saying "She is indeed my sister, on the father's side, not on the mother's." (See also Lev. 18:9)

All this is merely to establish the range of meaning for the word. It's exact use here will depend on context. Jerome thus takes his arguments further. He denies that James et al are ever called the sons of Joseph or of Mary. He then draws from a number of texts and testimony in the church to conclude that they are rather the sons of Mary the wife of Clopas, the sister of Mary mother of Jesus.

Davies and Allison (ICC) summarize what is essentially Jerome's position:

If, as is not unnatural, one equates ‘Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph/Joses’ (Mk 15:40 = Mt 27:56) with ‘Mary the wife of Clopas’ (Jn 19:25), it would seem to follow that the brothers named in Mk 6:3 and Mt 13:55 were not the sons of Jesus’ mother but another Mary. The same inference is to hand if one doubts, for the reason that ‘Mary the mother of James and of Joses’ (Mk 15:40) is an unexpected circumlocution for Jesus’ mother, that the Mary of Mk 15:40 can be the Mary of Mk 6:3. It is accordingly at least possible that Jesus’ ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ were not the children of Mary and Joseph; but nothing more definite can be hazarded.

Davies, W. D., & Allison, D. C., Jr. (2004). A critical and exegetical commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew (p. 458). London; New York: T&T Clark International. (empahsis original)

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  • Thank you I though it might not be possible to find the catholic view here – user2134 Aug 4 '14 at 5:31

Luke 2:7 states that Jesus was the firstborn of Mary. Anywhere else he is the only begotten son of the Father. So it is an evidence that Mary had other sons and daughters after the birth of Jesus. I read so many references in other answers and this was not quoted. This verse alone explains everything better than any expert or book would do. That's the power of the Word of God. Amazing.

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    Although "firstborn" in English may imply additional children, I'm not sure that πρωτότοκος does. It echoes the Hebrew בכר, the point of which is the special legal rights afforded to the firstborn, regardless of subsequent births. – Susan Jun 19 '16 at 2:26
  • Your statement is based on conjectures. It's a derivative of πρῶτος which indicates "before" in a succession. This comment is just a showoff, it reminds me of 2Tim.3:7 – Dom Jun 19 '16 at 7:22
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    I can see why you might think that since I didn't provide references. I was actually drawing from the very helpful NIDTTE, which points out that this term is unattested prior to the LXX, where it is the standard (130x) rendering of בכר. Marshall's commentary on Luke 2:7 also points out that the Greek term does not necessarily entail further children. – Susan Jun 19 '16 at 8:24
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    Actually, @Dom Susan is (what I consider to be) one of our best linguistic experts on the site, and if you take the time to review her reference you will probably find she is 100% correct. I can also independently corroborate that πρωτότοκος/firstborn was less a designation of quantity and more an indicator of inheritance and social status from a number of sources. You might also want to take note of the diamond next to her name - you are sassing one of the moderators, and I, for one don't appreciate the sexist textual reference. It appears to be you who are ignorant. – James Shewey Jun 22 '16 at 20:29
  • Lately I tend to be intolerant to intellectuality and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God (see 2Cor.10:4-6), even though I should look more carefully at verse 3,I agree there. The fact that you look at virtual jewelry, and the fact that you bring attention upon yourself, thinking I should care about how you feel about a discussion you are not involved in, nor you contributed to with any reference but your opinion alone, make me understand you are not here for God or His Word (any other reason is useless anyway). – Dom Jun 23 '16 at 22:50

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