Relations of the Lord
Harold Cooper, Warrington
A NUMBER OF SCRIPTURES SPEAK of the Lord as having brothers and sisters, Matt. 12. 46-50; Mark 3. 31-35; Luke 8. 19-21; John 2. 12; 7. 3-5; Acts 1. 14, as well as 1 Corinthians 9. 5 where Paul speaks of 'brethren of the Lord' and Galatians 1. 19 where we read of 'James the Lord's brother'. Different views have circulated about the exact nature of this relationship, but the obvious meaning of the terms 'brethren' and 'sisters' is the correct one; they were children of Mary by her husband Joseph and thus as truly related to the Lord as was Mary, the Lord Jesus Christ being her 'Firstborn son', Luke 2. 7.
Two main divergent views were created in the early days of church history to oppose this interpretation of Scripture and in both of them the chief point seems to be to maintain the doctrine of the 'perpetual virginity' of Mary. According to one theory the brethren of the Lord were children of Joseph by a former marriage and so only step-brothers of the Lord, whilst another idea is that the term 'brother' does not always denote actual brotherhood but can mean kinsman so that the relationship to the Lord of those spoken of as brethren might be that of cousin. The natural inference from the language of Scripture is not sympathetic to either of these views, which seem to have more to do with the worship of the virgin, a doctrine beginning to manifest its evil at the time, or the severe and rigorous discipline of the body as a way of spiritual progress which was very popular in those days.
The sisters of the Lord are never named but the brethren are, see Matthew 13.55-56 with Mark 6. 3 where we read of James and Joses, and Judas and Simon. We know from John 7. 3-5 that during the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus his brethren did not believe in Him, but in Acts 1. 14 they are spoken of as being present with the apostles, His mother and several other women, during the time of prayer in the upper room. Attendance at a prayer meeting is a good sign of genuine conversion but we do not know when the Lord's brethren believed on Him, though some suggest that one of His resurrection appearances was to one of these brethren, 1 Cor. 15. 7, 'He was seen of James .. .', but it is not certain that this James was one of the brethren of the Lord. It is usually assumed that this James is to be identified with James, the Lord's brother in Galatians 1. 19, and that he is one and the same as James who became prominent in Acts after the death of his name's sake, James the son of Zebedee, Acts 12. 2, that he wrote the Epistle of James, and that his brother Jude (Judas) wrote the epistle of that name.
All this supposes that two of the brethren of the Lord suddenly became leading men among the brethren, Acts 15. 22-23, when they had only been converted a short time, and that one of them was known as an apostle according to one interpretation of Galatians 1. 19. Divine grace works freely as we know but there is another James, one of the original twelve, who seems to be much more suited to assume leadership after the martyrdom of James the son of Zebedee in Acts 12. 2. The second James in the apostolic band was the son of Alphaeus, according to Acts 1. 13 and Luke 6. 15, and he was also brother of Judas (not lscariot) as Luke 6. 16 would indicate, and he may well have been a cousin of the Lord Jesus Christ.
A key verse in our study is John 19. 25 where we read of certain women being at the cross. 'Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene'. The identity of His mother's sister is important for determining whether there were four women or only three at the cross; much weight is given to the view that the term 'the sister of His mother' is distinct and identifies another woman besides Mary the wife of Cleophas. If the sister of His mother is a fourth woman then it would be Salome, see Mark 15. 40 where she is in the company of Mary the mother of James the less and Joses, and Mary Magdalene, at the time of the crucifixion, and also Mark 16. 1 for her presence at the tomb with these same women. A comparison of Matthew 27. 56 with Mark 15. 40 would indicate that Salome was the wife of Zebedee and thus the one who asked that her sons might sit on the right hand and on the left of the Lord in His kingdom, Matt. 20. 20; Mark 10. 35. We thus see that Salome was the mother of James and John who were so close to the Lord during His life and ministry; along with Peter they were frequently present with Him in some of the most important moments in His life, at the Mount of Transfiguration, Matt. 17. 1 and the Garden of Gethsemane, Mark 14. 33. On this view these two Apostles would be cousins of the Lord Jesus, and this would help in understanding why it was that the Lord commended His mother to John when He was on the cross, John 19. 26-27; there was a close spiritual link for John was the disciple whom Jesus loved, but also perhaps a natural link if they were indeed cousins. Two other points of interest arise here, the first is that the sister of His
mother is another example of how John tends to conceal his own identity in his gospel, not naming his mother here, and then also we see that if there were four women at the cross in John 19. 25 the first two are not named, 'his mother ... his mother's sister' ... but the second two are named ... 'Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene'. There is, however, a good deal to be said in favour of understanding John 19. 25 as describing the presence of only three women at the cross, and referring the term 'the sister of His mother' to Mary the wife of Cleophas. The most obvious sense of this verse is that which allows the word 'and' to separate the persons spoken of, thus ... 'Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and His mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene'. It also follows that because this is the only place where we read of the Lord's mother having a sister, we should be told who this was. If this is correct then this Mary, who is referred to in Matthew 27. 61 and 28.1 as 'the other Mary', is the wife of Alphaeus, father of the two apostles, James and Jude, as seen in Matthew 10. 3; Mark 3. 18; Luke 6. 15-16 and Acts 1. 13. This interpretation means that the cousins of the Lord were the two apostles James and Judas (not lscariot), this James spoken of as 'James the less', a term which means that he is the lesser of the apostles named James, the senior apostle being the son of Zebedee, Mark 15. 40. It has been objected that we cannot be certain that the two names, Cleophas (Clopas is the correct reading) and Alphaeus, refer to the same man, but the identity seems to be confirmed when it is considered that both names are a variation of the same original, and a comparison of the texts already referred to leaves little room for doubt. Another objection to this view is that it involves having two sisters with the name Mary, the Lord's mother and Mary the wife of Cleophas, but perhaps the names were slightly different in some MSS. Another key verse is Galatians 1. 19, where the apostle Paul speaks of seeing James the brother of the Lord, a verse that has been interpreted as showing that this James was an apostle because Paul says, 'saw none other of the apostles, but James ...'. Proper exposition of this verse rests on a right understanding of the word 'but', (A.V. 'save'), which has the sense of 'it is only that', the same words being used in Galatians 1. 7 and Luke 4. 27 in exactly identical fashion.*
In demonstrating to these Galatians that the gospel he preached and the commission he had received both Came by direct revelation from the Lord, the apostle Paul makes it clear that when he went to Jerusalem to see Peter he did not see any other apostles (apart from Peter) but ... it is only that I saw James the Lord's brother, the text does not require that this James be regarded as an apostle. The James of Galatians 1. 19 is the natural brother of the Lord; it would be easy to follow some expositors and give the term the sense of cousin, but it seems impossible to accept that brother here means anything other than a son of Mary. In this verse Paul deliberately distinguishes him from any other James by adding the term, 'the Lord's brother', not to be confused with the James of Galatians 2. 9 and 12, who was an apostle, nor the James of 1 Corinthians 15. 7 to whom the Lord appeared after resurrection, in all these cases the reference is to the son of Alpaeus who became such a prominent and wise leader in Acts and who also wrote the epistle.
* JND'S note on Luke 4. 27 reads, ‘“But” here has the sense of “but it is only”, or “no one else than” I see, Gal. 1. 7, 19’.