Lectionary #101, Gospel Mark 6: 1-6
“Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?”
I have been asked many times how we should understand this passage from Mark’s gospel describing the brothers and sisters of Jesus. To respond effectively it is necessary to recall the Catholic teaching on divine revelation. In the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), of the second Vatican council, we read that the apostles’ commission to proclaim the Good News they received from Jesus was fulfilled through their preaching, practices, and observances, as well as through what they and their disciples committed to writing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Dei Verbum 7). Catholics further believe that while this divine revelation is fixed at the end of the apostolic era development in the understanding and articulation of it takes place over the centuries through the aid of the Holy Spirit (Dei Verbum 8).
In brief, while we honor and revere the sacred scriptures, they are not the only means of God’s self-revelation. We therefore never contradict the scriptures in our Church’s teaching, yet we do hold as true things that are not found in the scriptures, such as the very contents of the Bible itself—a point that immediately stymies the “Bible only” conception of revelation. We also hold things to be true which require us to interpret the scriptures in a particular manner, and to rule out other interpretations.
Were the Bible a history book we would not think twice about reading today’s gospel literally, assuming that James, Joses, Judas, and Simon were blood brothers of Jesus. However, the gospels are not historical or biographical accounts in the sense of modern literature, and since Catholics believe in the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary—naturally implying that she had no children other than Jesus—it follows that we do not believe that the brothers named and the sisters mentioned in today’s gospel are full siblings of the Lord.
There are several possible ways to understand this passage then: the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus mentioned in Mark could have been children of Joseph by a previous marriage, or close relatives regarded as family, or adopted children of a deceased relative of Joseph. While we will never know the definitive answer, all of these interpretations are feasible in the societal structure of Jesus’ era.
To be clear, while each of these interpretations of Mark falls within the range of possibility, their main support is found outside of the gospel, in the Catholic belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity, itself related to the mystery of Christ. Like many matters of faith that were not immediately apparent to the earliest Christians, patristic commentators did not realize the importance of the perpetual virginity of Mary, but that is not surprising because they had no reason to consider the matter or to question the literal interpretation of Mark 6. When the Church’s understanding of the mystery of Christ and of the Virgin Mary’s critical role within that mystery developed in time (see Dei Verbum 8 above), Catholic believers began to read this text in a non-literal way.
Arguments based on Mark 6 that seek to debunk the perpetual virginity of Mary fall flat, since they do not take account of the Catholic theology of revelation and the development of doctrine noted above, and end up foundering on the shoals of fundamentalism—waters that should always remain foreign to Catholics. Let us then avoid making a simplistic shipwreck of our faith and “put out into the deep” (Luke 5:4), confident that we have received the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, and humbly asking for the grace to hear his word and keep it, for “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house” (Mark 6:3-4).
Father Edward M. Mazich, O.S.B.