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St. Mary the perpetual virgin

In biblical scholarship, discussions surrounding the identity of Jesus' brothers and sisters often reference three main views, each typically named after an early proponent or influential figure associated with that perspective. In reality, these labels aren't very useful and tend to at times confuse matters more than anything else.

  1. Epiphanian View: Named after St. Epiphanius of Salamis, this view posits that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were Joseph's children from a previous marriage. According to this perspective, Joseph was a widower with children when he married Mary, making these siblings Jesus' stepbrothers and stepsisters. This view maintains the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity by noting that she remained a virgin throughout her life and did not bear any other children after Jesus. This view is also found in the Protoevangelium of James.

  2. Jeromian View: Named after St. Jerome, this view asserts that the siblings of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels were actually his cousins. Jerome argued that the term "brothers" (adelphoi in Greek) was used broadly in the Hebrew and Aramaic languages to refer to various kinds of kin, including cousins. Jerome's view also supports the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity by indicating that Mary did not have other children, and that these siblings were children of another Mary, a relative of Jesus' mother.

  3. Helvidian View: Named after the Arian Helvidius, this view contends that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were indeed his biological siblings, born to Mary and Joseph after Jesus' birth. This perspective directly challenges the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity, suggesting that Mary and Joseph had a normal marital relationship and additional children. Helvidius' view was strongly opposed by early Church Fathers and was considered heretical. St. Jerome, among others, wrote vehemently against this perspective.

In the early Church, the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity was widely upheld, and Church Fathers supported either the "Epiphanian" or "Jeromian" views to preserve this belief. The Helvidian view was extremely rejected and did not gain any kind of traction within orthodox Christian thought.

These labels (Epiphanian, Jeromian, Helvidian) are often used in scholarship to succinctly refer to these complex theological positions, but they can sometimes be misleading if taken without understanding the broader historical and doctrinal context. 

For instance, people erroneously label the Epiphanian view as the view of the East and the Jeromian view as the clear cut belief of the West. Modern day scholarship fails to note that there are Eastern Fathers before Chalcedon that are already adopting the view St. Jerome took. To further complicate matters, you can find prominent Eastern saints in the medieval era adopting St. Jerome's view of the brothers and sisters as cousins of the Lord via their Greek reading of the Gospels.

One significant contribution to this discussion was made by St. Jerome, a masterful early Christian scholar and translator. Jerome argued that the brothers and sisters of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels were not His biological siblings from Mary. His conclusion was based on a detailed examination of the Greek terminology used in the New Testament.

The Greek Terms: Adelphos and Adelphe

In the Gospels, the terms adelphos (ἀδελφός) and adelphe (ἀδελφή) are used to describe Jesus' "brothers" and "sisters." These Greek words are commonly translated as "brother" and "sister." However, Jerome observed that these terms were used more broadly in ancient Greek, not exclusively referring to siblings from the same parents.

Syngennis: A Key Insight

It must be noted that the Greek word syngennis (συγγενής) is used in the New Testament to denote kinship or relatives in a broader sense. This word means "kinsman" or "relative" and does not imply a direct sibling relationship. For example, in Luke 1:36, Elizabeth is described as Mary's "relative" (syngennis), underscoring that familial terms in Greek were versatile and often encompassed extended family. It is telling this exact word is used to describe the brothers and sisters of the Lord, thus indicating that they cannot be children of St. Mary.

Biblical Context and Usage

Jerome pointed out that the term adelphos was used in various contexts within the Bible to describe relationships other than biological siblings. For instance:

  • In Genesis 13:8 (Septuagint), Abraham refers to his nephew Lot as adelphos, indicating a broader kinship.

  • In the New Testament, adelphos is frequently used to describe spiritual brotherhood among believers, as seen in passages like Matthew 23:8 and Romans 8:29.

Historical and Cultural Context

In Jewish culture of the time, it was common to refer to cousins and other close relatives as brothers and sisters. This cultural nuance supports Jerome's argument that the brothers and sisters of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels were likely His cousins or close kin rather than His biological siblings.

Support from Early Church Tradition

St. Jerome's interpretation aligns with early Church tradition, which has consistently taught the perpetual virginity of Mary. This doctrine holds that Mary remained a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Jesus, making it impossible that she had other biological children.

St. Jerome's examination of the Greek terms adelphos and syngennis offers a masterful argument that the brothers and sisters of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels were not His biological siblings from Mary. By recognizing the broader semantic range of these terms in ancient Greek and their cultural usage, Jerome rightly concluded that these individuals were close relatives.His scholarly approach underscores the importance of understanding the original language and context of the Scriptures in theological interpretation.

In the realm of biblical scholarship, it is crucial to accurately represent the historical and linguistic context of early Christian writings.

Hegesippus, an early Christian chronicler, is often cited in discussions about the family of Jesus. However, contemporary scholarship generally does not promote a view, sometimes erroneously attributed to Hegesippus, that identifies the siblings of Jesus as his biological children within the Holy Family-think of Bauckham and or Pedrozo.

In fact, a closer examination of the Greek texts attributed to Hegesippus reveals that he supports the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Hegesippus explicitly uses the term "ἀνεψιός" (anepsios), which means cousin, for a clear cut sibling identity marker. This linguistic distinction aligns Hegesippus more closely with the Jeromian view rather than any notion that Jesus had biological siblings.

It is essential to approach early Christian texts with a solid understanding of the original languages and historical context. Misinterpretations often arise when apologists rely solely on translations or lack proficiency in the languages of the original texts. This can lead to significant misunderstandings, particularly in debates regarding theological concepts such as the perpetual virginity of Mary.

Critically, genuine scholarship involves a deep engagement with primary sources and an awareness of the broader historical and linguistic context. For many online Protestants, this is an impossibility. Those who claim expertise without these competencies risk perpetuating inaccuracies. Consequently, it is vital to recognize the difference between legitimate academic inquiry and superficial interpretations that do not hold up under rigorous scrutiny.

In sum, credible scholarship upholds that Hegesippus, based on his usage of Greek terminology, does not challenge the doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity. Instead, his writings are consistent with the view that the "brothers" of Jesus were actually his cousins, thus supporting the traditional teachings of the early Church Fathers. This nuanced understanding underscores the importance of linguistic precision and historical context in biblical studies.


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