The usual word in the Greek language for “brother” is adelphos. It possesses the same latitude of application that the English word possesses. Hence, it can refer to a person who shares the same religion (a spiritual brother). It can refer to a person who shares the same citizenship—a fellow countryman. It can refer to an intimate friend or neighbor. All of these uses are self-evident, and do not encroach upon the literal use of the term.
By far the most prominent use of the term is the literal sense—a blood brother or half-brother, the physical son of one’s mother or father. With reference to the physical brothers of Jesus (i.e., the sons of Joseph and Mary conceived after the birth of Christ), the literal sense is clearly in view in the following passages: Matthew 12:46-48 (the parallel in Mark 3:31-32); Matthew 13:55-56 (the parallel in Mark 6:3; in both passages, “sister” also is used in the literal sense); John 2:12; John 7:3,5,10; Acts 1:14; and Galatians 1:19. Even a casual reading of these verses demonstrates that Jesus had literal, physical brothers. The only reason the face-value import of these verses would be questioned is to lend credence to the post facto Catholic Church doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary.
At least two assertions have been advanced by those who wish to discount the existence of Jesus’ brothers, and thereby defend the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. One attempt seeks to broaden the meaning of the Greek word for “brother” to mean “cousin.” According to this view, the “brothers” of Jesus were actually His cousins—the children of Mary’s sister. The assertion that “brother” has this enlarged meaning is made largely on the basis of the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint). The Septuagint translators sometimes used the Greek word for brother (adelphos) in Old Testament passages in which a near relative or kinsman, who was not technically a physical brother, was under consideration. This claim is true. The Hebrew term for brother (‘ach) occasionally was used to refer to a more remote descendant from a common father who was not technically a brother (Gesenius, 1979, p. 27; Harris, et al., 1980, 1:31; Botterweck, 1974, 1:190). For example, Laban, Jacob’s uncle, was referred to as Jacob’s “brother” (Genesis 29:12,15). Likewise, Abram’s nephew Lot was said to be Abram’s “brother” (Genesis 14:14,16)….
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