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Prominent US Jesuit: it’s a ‘myth’ that there is biblical consensus on Jesus’ birth

December 27, 2011

In an op-ed piece that has appeared in dozens of US newspapers, a leading Jesuit claims that it is a “myth” that “there is biblical consensus on the story of Jesus' birth” and that it is a “myth” that “Jesus was an only child.”

Commenting on the first “myth,“ Father James Martin, SJ writes:

Two of the Gospels say nothing about Jesus' birth. The Gospel of Mark--the earliest of the Gospels, written roughly 30 years after Jesus's crucifixion--does not have a word about the Nativity. Instead it begins with the story of John the Baptist, who announces the impending arrival of the adult Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel of John is similarly silent about Jesus' birth.

The two Gospels that do mention what theologians call the "infancy narratives" differ on some significant details. Matthew seems to describe Mary and Joseph as living in Bethlehem, fleeing to Egypt and then moving to Nazareth. The Gospel of Luke, on the other hand, has the two originally living in Nazareth, traveling to Bethlehem in time for the birth and then returning home. Both Gospels, though, place Jesus' birthplace in Bethlehem.

Father Martin’s comments, while true, lean toward the conclusion that the Gospels lack consensus on the Nativity (with the implication that the evangelists disagree). St. Augustine and others have shown how the infancy narratives are complementary, not contradictory.

Commenting on the “myth” that “Jesus was an only child,” Martin writes:

Catholics, myself included, believe that Mary's pregnancy came about miraculously - what we call the "virgin birth." (Frankly, this has always been easy for me to accept: If God can create the universe from nothing, then a virgin birth seems relatively simple by comparison.) Catholics also believe that Mary remained a virgin her entire life, though many Protestants do not.

So when Catholics stumble upon Gospel passages that speak of Jesus' brothers and sisters, they are often confused. In the Gospel of Luke, someone tells Jesus: "Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you." In Mark's Gospel, people from Nazareth exclaim: "Is not this the carpenter's son? ... Are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us?" Even Saint Paul called James "the Lord's brother."

These passages are sometimes explained away by saying that these are Jesus' friends, relatives, half-brothers or, most often, cousins. But there is a perfectly good word for "cousins" in Greek, which Mark and Luke could have used instead of "adelphoi," meaning "brothers." Many Catholic scholars maintain that Jesus indeed had brothers and sisters - perhaps through an earlier marriage of Joseph. So a virgin birth, but (step-) brothers and sisters.

While he does not deny the dogma of the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Father Martin states it more reasonable to assert that Jesus’ brethren are “(step-) brothers and sisters” than to assert that Jesus’ brethren are cousins. Although it is permissible for Catholics to hold that Jesus’ brethren are children from an earlier marriage of St. Joseph, St. Jerome--who knew his Greek--makes a persuasive case that Jesus’ brethren were His cousins.


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Show 7 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Dec. 28, 2011 7:00 AM ET USA

    I don't agree that it is reasonable, it seems much more reasonable to accept that the brothers and sisters were cousins. Jesus would have said more than He did from the cross, on this matter. It wouldn'tl have been so simple for Him to say the few words He did. Stop being so "reasonable", everyone!

  • Posted by: imanxufan9901 - Dec. 28, 2011 6:08 AM ET USA

    What else would you expect from a Jesuit? Nuff said!

  • Posted by: nickchui7454 - Dec. 28, 2011 1:51 AM ET USA

    No offense to CWN but i thought the headline was misleading. One was expecting standard liberal demythologising but Fr James Martin did none of these things. His position on the brothers of the Lord and also on the gospels are perfectly orthodox theological opinions.

  • Posted by: - Dec. 27, 2011 7:51 PM ET USA

    St. Matthew does not specify where Mary and Joseph lived prior to Jesus' birth, only that He was born in Bethlehem. St. Matthew does have the Holy Family in a "house" when the Wise Men/Magi arrive. This can easily be harmonized with St. Luke's account. In regard to the "brothers & sisters" issue, I have understood that children of male siblings of the father were so considered. The Psalms often distinguish "brothers" from "my own mother's sons." A Patriarchal understanding of relationships.

  • Posted by: Defender - Dec. 27, 2011 6:25 PM ET USA

    But we all know that Fr. Martin and the rest of the Jesuits know everything, certainly more than Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome!

  • Posted by: visions - Dec. 27, 2011 5:37 PM ET USA

    If Our Lord Jesus had step brothers and sisters, why did He entrust His Most Blessed Mother to St John? Just asking

  • Posted by: Don Vicente - Dec. 27, 2011 5:33 PM ET USA

    The idea that St. Joseph was a widower with children from his first marriage is generally held among the Eastern Orthodox. It is a very reasonable explanation for the "brothers and sisters" of the Lord. It is also reasonable to suppose that the elderly St. Joseph died during Jesus' "hidden years." St. Jerome is not the only one who knew Greek, and he was not the most dispassionate of scholars.