The question most frequently asked about the premise for my new novel, In the Shadow of the King, is this: Did Jesus really have brothers and sisters? My answer is yes, half-siblings—if we take a ‘no zebra’ approach to the Bible. Let me explain.
When I started hospital rounds as a medical student, an attending physician offered this pearl of wisdom: Don’t look for zebras. If you’re at the Kentucky Derby and see an animal with a mane and a tail running on four legs, chances are it’s a horse. His point? Don’t search for obscure, rare explanations for symptoms when the most obvious diagnosis is usually correct.
Scripture explicitly names the brothers of Jesus who were present at the synagogue in Nazareth (see Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3). Yet since at least the 4th century, church scholars have debated the precise relationship between these men and Jesus. Some theorize Joseph had grown children from a prior marriage. Others insist the gospel writers used the word ‘brothers’ but actually meant ‘cousins’ or unspecified relatives. But if we accept a ‘no zebra’ approach to the Word, we conclude the simplest explanation is correct. The brothers of Jesus were just that—children of Joseph and Mary raised in the same household as Jesus.
This scenario in no way negates the fulfillment of the prophecy that “the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son…” (Isaiah 7:14). Gospel accounts stress Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus by the Holy Spirit. Only an angelic visitation convinced Joseph he should marry his already-pregnant fiancée: “Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife:And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus (Matthew 1:24-25, KJV).” There’s no indication Joseph ‘knew her not’ ever. The Bible only emphasizes the couple abstained from marital relations ‘till’ Mary had given birth to Jesus. After that, it’s more likely than not Mary had children with her husband.
For me, imagining Jesus living with pesky little half-brothers and sisters yet never sinning only strengthens my awe and admiration for Him. (I speak as a middle child who gave and received unwanted sibling attention and failed to perfectly love in either situation!) And in fact, in the midst of a Spirit-anointed healing and deliverance ministry, Jesus had to contend with family hecklers. Mark 3:21 states, “When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’” Another time, his brothers tried to wheedle him into changing his plans:
Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do.No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.”For even his own brothers did not believe in him (John 7:3-5).
Thankfully, after their notable absence at the crucifixion, these brothers had a change of heart and came to believe their brother was indeed the long-awaited Messiah. Acts 1:14 says that when the disciples were in Jerusalem after Jesus ascended to heaven, “they all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” Later, Paul indicates these same brothers became evangelists: “Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas?” (1 Cor. 9:5 NKJV). 1st- and 2nd-century historians substantiated that James, the half-sibling of Jesus, became not only a follower of the Way but played a key role in shepherding the early community of believers in Jerusalem before dying as a martyr for his faith.
Only when we accept straightforward scriptural interpretations of Jesus’s sibling relationships do we appreciate the rich story of redemption played out in the microcosm of Jesus’s home. Jesus suffered the rejection and criticism of his brothers just as in the Book of Genesis, his predecessor Joseph was scorned and cast away by his brothers. And like Joseph, Jesus showed love to these brothers despite them being blind to his true identity. Because goodness and mercy were extended instead of the punishment deserved, true repentance and family restoration occurred in both cases. And now, Jesus offers to be our Perfect Brother. We need only receive Him.