Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Helvidian, Epiphanian, Hieronymian - Who Were Jesus' Brothers?

A discussion on Ben Witherington's Beliefnet blog (The Bible and Culture) about the James Ossuary generated some good comments and responses re: Mary's perpetual virginity, a belief held by Catholic and Orthodox Christians (and also believed by Luther and Calvin). Here is an interesting and informative part of the exchange:

Douglas Bilodeau
July 12, 2009 6:32 PM

I'm curious that no one has brought up the possibility that James could have been an older brother of Jesus by another mother who died before Joseph and Mary were betrothed. This must have been considered before. It might even (for all I know) be compatible with Catholic and/or Orthodox belief. I haven't heard of a doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Joseph, but perhaps it exists, or is simply taken for granted if the possibility of a previous wife is disallowed.

July 12, 2009 7:07 PM

Douglas Bilodeau:

There is an ancient tradition/option/explanation that Jesus' brothers were Joseph's children from a prior marriage. Read, e.g., The Brother of Jesus: James the Just and His Mission, by Bruce Chilton and Jacob Neusner. It's called the Epiphanian position, and advocacy of this view can be found in the Gospel of Peter. (Chilton, Neusner pp. 12ff.)

Kevin P. Edgecomb
July 13, 2009 2:40 PM

Douglas Bilodeau and E are quite right. In fact, the Epiphanian understanding is the canonical position of the Orthodox Church, that James, Joses, Simon, and three or more sisters were the naturally born children of Joseph and a wife prior to Mary. One will find exactly the same position in the Protevangelium Jacobi, which predates any other stated opinion on the matter, and is explicit on the subject concerning numerous beliefs of the earliest Christians in this regard. It supports precisely that position of St Epiphanios and the Orthodox Church.

The Roman Catholic position is that of seeing the brothers and sisters as cousins; this is the Hieronymian position, championed by St Jerome. Whether this can be stated to be an "official" position or not is beyond my competence.

It is the heretic Helvidius who posited that the brothers and sisters are the children of Joseph and Mary, born after Jesus. It is this Helvidian position which is common amongst Protestants and others. That doesn't make its origins any less heretical.

Phil W
July 14, 2009 12:57 PM


There is, of course, a different perspective on the origins of the various theories. The "Helvidian" position has roots in the New Testament itself.

The "Epiphanian" position is based on the apocryphal and heretical (Docetic) work, the Protevangelium of James.

The "Hieronymian" position is based on Jerome's imagination. He could find no precedent for his theory in the writings of the earlier Church fathers.

The "Helvidian" position appears to be the position of the writers of the New Testament (Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke, John). Roman Catholic authors, such as Raymond E. Brown and Mary Ann Getty-Sullivan, agree. Getty-Sullivan writes:
"If we only had the New Testament, one could assume that these are children born to Mary and Joseph after Jesus. This was the opinion of Tertullian and most Protestants today. Yet already in the second century these 'brothers and sisters' were identified as children of Joseph from a former marriage (see the Protoevangelium of James 9:2)." [Mary Ann Getty-Sullivan, Women in the New Testament (Liturgical Press, 2001), 173-174. A very similar statement was made by Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (Anchor Bible Reference Library; Doubleday, 1997), 725-726.]
It seems that those who hold to the "Epiphanian" position believe that a late second-century Docetic writing trumps the New Testament. Even Jerome said that those who considered the Lord's brothers to be the sons of Joseph by a former wife were "following the ravings of the apocryphal writings." [Jerome, Commentary on St Matthew 12.49.]

The "Epiphanian" position was supported by Origen. Commenting on Matthew 13:55-56, he wrote: "They thought, then, that He was the son of Joseph and Mary. But some say, basing it on a tradition in the Gospel according to Peter, as it is entitled, or 'The Book of James,' that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary." [Origen, Commentary on Matthew 10.17.] Note that, according to Origen, only "some" believed in the "Epiphanian" theory; it was not a universal belief of the Church. Note also that Origen did not know of it as an Apostolic tradition; rather, he only knew it to be based on apocryphal gospels.

J. N. D. Kelly writes: "not only the Antidicomarianites attacked by Epiphanius and the Arian Eunomius openly taught that the 'brethren of the Lord' were Mary's sons by Joseph, but Basil of Caesarea, when criticizing the latter, implied that such a view was widely held and, though not accepted by himself, was not incompatible with orthodoxy." [J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (5th ed.; HarperCollins, 1978), 494-495. Citing Basil, Hom. in sanctam Christi gen. (PG 31, 1468 f.).] So, even in the fourth century it was possible for an orthodox person to hold the "Helvidian" view.

Regarding the "Hieronymian" theory, named for Jerome its inventor, scholars are virtually unanimous that it is incorrect.

Joseph A. Fitzmyer writes: "Jerome thought that adelphos could mean 'cousin,' but this is almost certainly to be ruled out as the NT meaning, since there was a good word for 'cousin,' anepsios, found in Col 4:10." [Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Luke (Anchor Bible; Doubleday, 1981), 1:724.]

Similarly, Patrick J. Hartin notes: "One thing, however, is sure, and that is that this term [adelphos] does not designate a cousin, as Jerome understood this term. Greek has a specific word for cousin (anepsios). If a cousin were intended, the New Testament writers would surely have used the Greek word anepsios. See, for example, Col 4:10 …" [Patrick J. Hartin, James of Jerusalem (Liturgical Press, 2004), 32.]

Again, an ecumenical task force reached the same conclusion: "Today most who deny the blood-brother relationship make no attempt to specify the relationship and suspect that all that was remembered in antiquity was that they were relatives or kin. If a specific relationship were remembered, e.g., cousin, some Greek speaker should have begun to use the available specific Greek term, e.g., anepsios, which appears in the NT at Col 4:10." [Raymond E. Brown, Karl P. Donfried, Joseph A. Fitzmyer & John Reumann (eds.), Mary in the New Testament (Fortress Press, 1978), 67.]

Here is a summary of the evidence:
  • The authors of the New Testament, including Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, each tell us that Jesus had brothers. None of these five authors hints that what they mean by adelphoi is anything other than the most natural meaning, i.e., that the brothers are the children of Mary and Joseph, and are therefore biologically the half-brothers of Jesus but legally his full brothers.
  • Writing independently of the New Testament, Josephus also calls James "the brother of Jesus," without qualification.
  • Hegesippus also refers to "the Lord's brother according to the flesh," which indicates in the strongest terms that Jesus and his brothers were related by blood. Also, he distinguishes between brothers and cousins. Tertullian certainly taught that the brothers were the children of Mary and Joseph.
  • Getting their cues from the Docetic Protevangelium of James, Clement of Alexandria and Origen believed that the brothers were the stepbrothers of Jesus, the children of Joseph by a previous marriage.

That is all of the evidence that we possess on this topic from before the fourth century. The view that the brothers were the children of Mary and Joseph survived well into the fourth century. When one actually considers the evidence, the "Helvidian" theory appears to not have heretical origins.
Matthew Schultz July 19, 2009 11:26 PM
Ben Witherington July 8, 2009 8:40 PM Hi Esteban: I understand your point but of course the problem is the perpetual virginity of Mary is not attested in Scripture, indeed the opposite is attested as Matthew's Gospel says--- "Joseph was not knowing her until" means clearly enough in Greek that after the specified period of time he was knowing her....
Fr. Terry Donahue, CC July 9, 2009 8:58 PM You [Ben Witherington] wrote: " Matthew's Gospel says--- 'Joseph was not knowing her until' means clearly enough in Greek that after the specified period of time he was knowing her." It doesn’t seem completely clear to me that "until" (Gk. "heos") implies that the opposite occurs after the specified time period....
Fr. Terry Donahue, Dr. Svendsen has conducted a survey of "heos hou" [εως ου - E] (which is what needs to be looked at, not just "heos" by itself) throughout the New Testament and contemporary ANE literature: "This construction [heos hou] is used in Matt. 1:25 and so is of special interest here. It occurs only seventeen times in the NT, and all are temporal. Two of these have the meaning 'while' (Matt. 14:22; 26:36), whereas the other fifteen occurrences are instances in which the action of the main clause is limited by the action of the subordinate clause and require the meaning 'until a specified time (but not after)'" (Who Is My Mother? [Calvary Press, 2001] p. 52). His survey is extensive, covering many pages, and lists examples such as Matthew 17:9, Luke 22:18, Acts 21:26 and 2 Peter 1:19. The evidence strongly suggests that Matthew did not view Mary as a perpetual virgin.
Fr. Terry Donahue, CC July 27, 2009 9:04 PM I'm familiar with Dr. Svensen's survey and his claim "that heõs hou in all the literature of the two centuries surrounding the birth of Christ, when it means 'until,' always terminates the action of the main clause. That is an irrefutable fact". This claim is demonstrably false. I'd suggest the following rebuttals by John Pacheco and David Palm Heõs Hou and the Protestant Polemic The Non-Rule of Mr. Svendsen
Your Name July 28, 2009 10:07 AM Fr. Terry Donahue, CC: Thanks for the links. While the articles you linked to seem to demonstrate that some of what Dr. Svensen claims about the meaning of heôs hou may be incorrect (since I have not read his paper(s), I don't know exactly what he says or claims other than the short quotes the articles excerpted), I don't think they prove that the meaning of Matthew 1:25 is that Joseph kept Mary a virgin after Jesus' birth.

Note that I'm not saying that's what the critics of Dr. Svensen were attempting to do. Rather, it seems to me that debunking Dr. Svensen's claim leaves us with Matthew 1:25 not clearly saying anything one way or the other re: Mary's postpartum virginity. (And I think that's what the authors of the linked articles say, too.)

I think, though, that if Matthew had wanted to make the point that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus' birth, he would have written something other than (or more than) what he did.


  1. Hegesippus also refers to "the Lord's brother according to the flesh," which indicates in the strongest terms that Jesus and his brothers were related by blood.

    ...which is the exact same expression that we use until today: "James, the brother of the Lord after the flesh". He wasn't a merely-"spiritual" brother of Jesus, as all other Christians obviously are...

    1. Where does it say in the Bible that James was the "brother of the Lord after the flesh"?

      I can point to you where in the Bible it says that Mary was a perpetual virgin. In John 19:28, it is John who takes her into his home. He is presented as her son. This should not be the case if Mary had other children to care for her.

      I support the tradition because I trust the people who gave me the Bible knew more about the tradition than you do.