Does Scripture say that the Lord Jesus had any half-sisters? That is, after the divinely conceived Christ Child was born, did Mary give birth to daughters of Joseph? Only two passages, one in Matthew and one in Mark, which may or may not refer to the same event, indicate that he may have had any. Neither passage gives their names. In fact, outside these two passages there is no mention of them at all.
Does this really matter? To me, it does. If I call this an error in the original manuscripts, I call in question the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture in which I believe, (in those manuscripts). If I say it is an error or insertion during translation, then I detract from the concept of God’s guiding and protecting the men who produced the King James Authorized Version. If I believe in the plenary verbal inspiration of Scripture in the original manuscripts, and that the translators of the King James Version were guided by God to preserve His Word’s accuracy, I end up having to believe that our Lord had half-sisters. Perhaps that was God’s intention. He does often test us to show us how faithful we really are. Perhaps he just wants to see if we will go to a certain length and no more, to accept that these sisters existed without making statements about them that Scripture does not support.
All four Gospel writers refer to half-brothers of Jesus - that is, sons of Mary begotten by Joseph. (They are also mentioned in other books of the New Testament.) Matthew (1:25) says that Joseph, after being told by an angel not to put away Mary because she was with child, took her as his wife and “did not know her until she brought forth her firstborn Son.” This implies to me that they had a normal marital relationship afterward. Two Gospel writers, Matthew and Mark, recorded comments by Jesus’ neighbors in Galilee when they took offense at his ministry, (Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3), mentioning that he had brothers who lived among them and listing four names: James, Joses, Simon, and Judas. In both of those passages, the townspeople also said He had sisters who lived with them. Both passages say plural “sisters.” Matthew includes the word “all” when they say, “…and his sisters, are they not all with us?” Mark does not say either “all” or “both.” This says there were at least two and possibly three or more. No one, though, mentions their names in these passages or anywhere else.
What do the Scriptures validly say or imply about Jesus’ half-brothers or half-sisters? How much can we really tell?
They had to be younger than Jesus, since He was the firstborn. Can we tell how much younger?
I think there is evidence that the oldest of them was at least three or four years younger than Jesus. When the Magi came to Jerusalem and asked King Herod where to find the King of the Jews, Herod asked detailed questions about when they saw the star. When he chose to kill male children two years old and younger, this indicated Jesus’ approximate age.
I have noticed that Luke’s account of Christ’s birth, the most detailed of all four Gospels, leaves no room for Joseph and Mary to have had the Magi visit at Jesus’ birth, nor to flee with him to Egypt. Luke has them taking the Child to the Temple as soon as the legally fixed time for Mary’s purification was over, where Anna and Simeon saw Him and praised God, and right after that going back to Nazareth. What we do have is the comment by Luke shortly afterward, in chapter 2, that the parents of Jesus made the trip to Jerusalem for the Passover every year. We also have the description of the natal star guiding the Magi to “the house where the young Child was.” Not the stable they stayed in when he was born.
The trip Joseph and Mary made to Bethlehem when Christ was born, for the Roman census, was unplanned by them. (Not unplanned by God, of course.) In addition, not only was Joseph returning to his city of birth, so were many others. This would explain the crowded inns. If they went annually after that for the Passover, Bethlehem was a short journey from Jerusalem and Joseph presumably had relatives or knew people there. Joseph being a careful, responsible man, (which I think is a valid conclusion from Scripture), he would have ensured that their future trips were planned better. This makes it reasonable that they would be in a house with the toddler Jesus when visited by the Magi. There is no room to suppose they had any child but Jesus when they went to Egypt, nor when they returned to Nazareth, so their next child was most likely born at least four, perhaps five years after Christ.
Was it much longer afterward than that? I don’t think so. In John’s gospel, (7:1-10), Jesus’ brothers were actually challenging him to go to the feast in Jerusalem when it says he was avoiding Judea because of the religious and political leaders seeking to kill him. This suggests that they were adults also. If Jesus was thirty or slightly older, his oldest half-brother would have been no more than twenty-six (or so) years old. If he and the others were much younger, I doubt they would have been speaking to their eldest brother this way. Also, Jesus told them to go by themselves, which they did. (He then went after all, “as it were in secret”). This also says to me that they were adults.
(UPDATE): I was contradicting myself earlier when I said that Luke’s account (in chapter 2) of Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem at age 12 suggested to me that, although his parents went for the Passover feast every year, this was the first time they took Jesus. I already said that they took him for the first two or three years, or the Magi would not have found them together. There is really nothing indicating whether he did or did not go with them after returning from Egypt, although Joseph's stated distrust of Herod Antipas, the new ruler, might have caused them to leave him in Galilee at first. But by the time Jesus was 12, had they had any more children? The way that Luke wrote does not suggest to me the presence or absence of other children, either. It skirts the entire issue. The way that Joseph and Mary were not concerned at first that Jesus was not with them when starting the trip back to Nazareth, because they assumed he was “in the company,” shows that multiple families traveled together and that it was normal for them to look after each other’s children. It was when they had traveled long enough to have met up with most of the other families that Jesus’ parents realized they had no more places to look and headed back to Jerusalem. They might have had other children with them and let them stay with relatives in the group while they went back. Or they might have left those additional children back in Nazareth with friends or relatives who did not make the trip. The Scripture rules nothing in or out.
Did Jesus’ half-sisters come to believe in Him as their personal Messiah to save them from their sins? The Scripture does not tell us directly. However, in Acts 1:14, we are told that, “These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers." None of the four brothers mentioned by Matthew and Mark is specifically excluded, so all may have come to believe between the Resurrection and Pentecost. (It was stated in John 7:1-10, cited earlier, that they had not while their brother was living.) There is no reference to His sisters. Although they may be grouped anonymously with “the women,” his mother is mentioned directly. Luke, being a physician, was careful with details, so why would he not have said, “and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers and sisters”?
Jesus said more than once that His ministry and His message would split families apart, with some coming to faith in Him and some not. Evidently his four brothers did. (It is interesting that, when choosing the Twelve, Jesus chose six of them with the same names as three of His brothers, James, Judas, and Simon. There were two of each. None of the Twelve was named Joses.) His mother was a believer also. If his sisters never came to faith in Him as their Saviour, while this is tragic, it might explain why the Scriptures are so silent about them. Jesus said that a prophet “is not without honor except among his own people.” As he said of others, they may have loved social acceptability more than acceptance by God.
If it was possible for these women who grew up with Jesus, an older brother who never sinned and was never thoughtless or inconsiderate, to fail to receive Him as Saviour, we need to be careful to pray for our own brothers and sisters. We need to be careful about ourselves.
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