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“Was Jesus an Only Child?” Part I

Karl Keating of Catholic Answers wrote an essay on the perpetual virginity of Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ, giving reasons for and answering objections to Catholic teaching on this subject. The essay appeared first as a tract titled The Brethren of the Lord. Later it was uploaded to the Catholic Information Network, a computer bulletin board system which can be accessed from throughout the country.

Jack Kilmon, a Protestant who participates on the board, prepared an extensive file in rebuttal and published it on the BBS. He denies Keating’s conclusions and the Catholic doctrine. As a regular contributor to the BBS, I feel invited to offer some observations. I shall repeat Kilmon’s whole file here, only changing the order of some of his paragraphs.

The Catholic Answers’ text The Brethren of the Lord, written by Karl Keating, supposedly gives the Roman Catholic position regarding whether or not Jesus had brothers (or sisters). Essentially, that position is that Mary was always a virgin throughout her life and had no progeny after Jesus. My position is that Mary did indeed have other children after the birth of Jesus. Let us look at the “evidence” presented by the Roman Catholic instructional file and compare that evidence with the facts, historically and scripturally.

Keating relies heavily on the tired and inaccurate premise that “brother” in the New Testament, like its counterpart in the Old Testament, really means “cousin” or “kinsman.” The instructional file assumes that the reader is unfamiliar with biblical languages, idioms, and customs and attempts to capitalize on that.

He uses examples from Genesis and Chronicles, Kings, Samuel, etc. to “prove” that the Hebrew usage of “brother” was ambiguous concerning the degree of blood relation, and to that degree is correct. However, the “brother” usage in question was written originally in Greek, therefore using Old Testament Hebrew to interpret New Testament Greek is textually absurd. This writer goes far afield logically and historically to “prove” the Roman Catholic position.

Kilmon obscures the state of the question by alleging a “premise that ‘brother’ in the New Testament, like its counterpart in the Old Testament really means ‘cousin’ or ‘kinsman.'” No one holds such a premise. Both Hebrew and Greek dictionaries report that there are words in both languages whose primary meaning conveys uterine brother/sisterhood, but that these words are also used in both languages with much wider meanings: half brother/half sister, wife, kinsman, fellow tribe member, and so on, but not, as a matter of fact, cousin.

Kilmon is in some confusion about “cousin,” as we shall see here and there; but cousinhood per se does not pertain to our present question. Neither Keating nor anyone else to my knowledge holds that brother/sister words in Hebrew and Greek “really mean ‘cousin’ or ‘kinsman'” or anything else to the exclusion of their primary meaning.

(See Gesenius, et al., Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966); Liddell, et al., Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961); Bauer, et al., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969). A full bibliography will appear at the end of next month’s conclusion to this article.)

In my view, Keating assumes nothing about his readers’ knowledge of biblical languages. He does not make a parade of Hebrew or Greek, but nothing he says violates those languages. Kilmon, however, must demonstrate his own familiarity with biblical languages, at least in the texts relevant to this discussion, because he offers to help his readers “get a few things straight as far as languages are concerned.”

Let’s get a few things straight as far as languages are concerned. The Old Testament passages that are referenced in this instructional file were written in Hebrew prior to the sixth century B.C. The Hebrew words for “brother” are achhvr, and amit. There is a Hebrew word for “cousin,” dud-n.

This list of Hebrew words suggests some competency in biblical Hebrew, provided that these words occur in the Bible with the meanings given them here. There is no problem with ach, found in many Bible passages with the meaning “brother.”

The case is otherwise with hvr (chaver). This word never means “brother” in the Bible, but rather “united, associate, fellow, companion.” Its feminine form chavereth means “wife” (Gesenius, pp. 288-289). ‘Amith likewise never means “brother” in the Bible, but rather “associate, fellow, relation” (Gesenius, p. 765).

The “word” dud-n presents a special difficulty. There is no such word in Hebrew. (There is dudh, meaning “pot, kettle, basket.”) Perhaps Kilmon is reaching for dodhan, “uncle’s offspring, cousin.” But this is a modern Hebrew coinage, not biblical Hebrew.

As Keating has said, biblical Hebrew uses circumlocutions for “cousin”: ben dodh (“uncle’s son”) and bath dodh (“uncle’s daughter”) (Gesenius, pp. 120, 123). The three instances of the somewhat rare Greek word anepsios in the Septuagint (Numbers 36:11; Tobit 7:2, 9:6) are translations of ben dodh.

So far Kilmon has not set us straight about his Hebrew words. He has not distinguished between biblical Hebrew and later forms of the language, and he has not discerned that dud-n is not Hebrew at all. But for our present purposes it is much more important to get straight about biblical Greek.

The New Testament was written in Greek as its original language.

This unqualified statement introduces an effort to prove Kilmon’s earlier statement that “using Old Testament Hebrew to interpret New Testament Greek is textually absurd.” Because unqualified, the statement is inaccurate.

A large number of passages in the four Gospels and in the first fifteen chapters of Acts seem to be translated from the Aramaic, the language of Christ, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew. Certainly the oral sources of the words and deeds of Jesus were Aramaic. Torrey held that all four Gospels are translations from Aramaic into Greek. (See bibliography in Elliott Maloney’s Semitic Interference in Marcan Syntax (Ann Arbor: Scholar’s Press, 1981).)

Without going as far as Torrey does, others have held that Matthew’s original Gospel (his first draft, so to speak) was written in Aramaic and then translated into Greek, with additions either by the apostle or by one of his disciples. In any case, some explanation must be found for the heavily Semitic flavor of the Greek in much of the Gospels and Acts.

Kilmon’s unqualified statement that Greek is the original language of the New Testament must raise some questions about his scholarship and his knowledge of biblical languages and of the provenance of certain New Testament books.

The Greek adelphos is not like the Hebrew ach, meaning “blood relation.” Adelphos, as used to describe Jesus’ brothers, is very precise Greek and means “from the same womb.”

As he begins to consider the Greek word adelphos, Kilmon commits the “etymological fallacy.” This fallacy lies in supposing that the etymology of a word will unfailingly and adequately yield its actual meaning. Etymologically, adelphos is one of a family of words generated by the compound root adelph-, wherein a = “same” and delph = “womb.” Kilmon supposes that adelphoi and adelphai, used to describe Jesus’ “brothers” and “sisters,” are “very precise Greek” and mean “from the same womb.” This is a half-truth and a serious blunder, fatal to his further argumentation.

David Hill (University of Sheffield) writes:

“Etymology is no sure guide to the semantic value of words in their current usage…such value has to be determined from the current usage itself and not from derivation. The etymology of a word…is not a statement about its meaning, but about its history, and the historical past of a word is not a reliable guide to its present meaning.” (Greek Words and Hebrew Meanings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967, p. 3). See also James Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961).)

Now we shall look at some examples of the actual usages of words of the adelph- family in classical and Hellenistic Greek. (Here I omit for brevity the many extant examples of their use to describe uterine brother/sisterhood and the non-familial usages of these words.)

Plato (Critias 109c) says that Hephaestus and Athena were brother and sister by birth (physin adelphen). Mythology buffs will remember that they were both children of one father, Zeus, but by different mothers: Hephaestus’s mother was Hera; Athena’s mother (albeit under strange circumstances) was Metis. Again, Plato (Laws XI, 924e) speaks of “that brother [adelphos] who is born of the same father or of the same mother ….” (Plato is very precise here because he is laying down the laws of inheritance in a model state.) I omit citations from the very numerous passages in which Plato uses adelph- words as adjectives meaning “kindred, akin, cognate.”

Menander, an Attic comic poet of the late fourth and early third centuries B.C., in an extant fragment of his play The Farmer, line 12, shows us a young man complaining because his father is forcing him to marry his adelphe. She is his half-sister, born of the same father as he, but of a different mother.

In the Oxyrynchian Papyri (P. Oxy. IV, 744), we read a letter from a certain Hilarion to his adelphei, Alis. The names are Greek and the language is Greek, although these papyri were found in Egypt. The letter dates to the late first century B.C. Its editors say that Alis was probably Hilarion’s wife. She is pregnant, and Hilarion tells her to expose the baby, when born, if it is a girl. Egyptians of that time sometimes married their uterine sisters, but it is not known that Greeks did so. It was not a Greek custom.

In the collection Royal Correspondence of the Hellenistic Period,Text 36, pp. 156-163 (C. Bradford Welles, Yale University Press, 1934), there is a letter of the Syrian Seleucid king Antiochus III to the governor of Caria in Asia Minor in which he calls his wife and queen, Laodice, his sister (adelphes). Actually, she is known to have been his cousin and the daughter of King Mithridates of Pontus. The letter proclaims Laodice a goddess and decrees temples and priests in her honor.

These examples from sources outside the Bible are sufficient to disprove Kilmon’s simplistic statement: “Adelphos. . . is very precise Greek and means ‘from the same womb.'”

The Greek word for “cousin” is anepsios and is used clearly in Colossians 4:10.

I presume the point Kilmon makes here is that Matthew 13:55 and other texts would have used anepsios instead of adelphos if James and the others were Jesus’ cousins and not his uterine brothers.

This point has no force because adelphos can have a wider meaning than uterine brother. Also, as I said before, neither Keating nor anyone else supposes that adelphos means precisely “cousin.” It is better rendered “relative” or “kinsman,” as will be clearer when we consider the influence of the Septuagint on New Testament Greek diction. Anepsios is rather too precise a word for Jesus’adelphoiAnepsios means “first cousin” or sometimes merely “cousin.” Now every cousin is a kinsman, but not every kinsman is a cousin. Therefore, adelphos, not anepsios, was the appropriate word to use in Matthew 13:55 and elsewhere to describe Jesus’ relatives.

In spite of this, “cousin” is clearly translated to anepsios in the Septuagint in Numbers 36:11 and Tobit 7:2. The Hebrew idiom is absolutely not related to the New Testament Koine usage of adelphosfor “brother.”

The anepsios uses in the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) are translations of the Hebrew circumlocution ben dodh (“uncle’s son”). There a Greek word meaning precisely “cousin” is appropriate.

But in the Gospel passages we are considering, a more general word will do: adelphos, relative. In any case, it is irrelevant to say, as Kilmon does, that “the Hebrew idiom [he has to mean ben dodh] is absolutely not related to the New Testament Koine usage of adelphos for ‘brother.'”

First, we are not talking of New Testament usage of adelphos for “brother,” but of its wider meanings. Second, no one equates ben dodh with adelphos. Kilmon begs the question of what adelphosmeans and misunderstands the reality of Hebrew influence on the Greek of the New Testament.

The writer [Keating] also tries to confuse the Greek concept with the Hebrew concept by citing Septuagint sources. Remember again that the Septuagint was translated from Hebrew to Greek (a very clumsy process), while the New Testament was originally written in Greek.

The Septuagint–the name means “seventy,” from the legend that seventy rabbis did the work–is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, commissioned by the Jews of Alexandria in Egypt. It was begun in the time of Ptolemy Philadelphus and took 148 years to complete (283-135 B.C.).

Herbert Smyth (Greek Grammar, Introduction, F, N. 2) characterizes the translation as “partly literal, partly tolerably free.” There was a need felt for such a translation because the Jews of Egypt and largely throughout the rest of the D.aspora had lost their ability to speak, read, and understand Hebrew from the middle of the second century B.C.

The Septuagint began to be read in synagogue worship, so that for many Jews at the time of Christ, and for some time thereafter, the Septuagint was the Bible. This became true also for several generations of early Christians. The influence of the Septuagint on the Greek language as spoken and written by the Jews of the D.aspora and even in Palestine was enormous. (One could rightly compare the Septuagint translation in this respect to the influence of the King James Bible, another translation, on the development of the English language.)

Almost eighty percent of the Old Testament citations and allusions in the New Testament come from the Septuagint, not from the Hebrew Bible. Stylistically, much of the New Testament, particularly the four Gospels and Acts, is heavily dependent on the Septuagint. Even Luke, who can write a Greek so pure as to be reminiscent of Thucydides, generally prefers to write “Jewish Greek” in the manner of the Septuagint.

The editors of the Oxford Annotated Bible (RSV) write:

“Since all the authors represented in the New Testament appear to have been either Jews or Jewish proselytes before becoming Christians, it is natural that their use of Koine Greek was colored by their familiarity with the special characteristics of the Hebrew Old Testament (the Septuagint). Here and there the Gospels and the first half of Acts preserve in Greek certain turns of expression which reflect an underlying Aramaic idiom, which was the mother tongue of Jesus and his disciples” (“Introduction to the New Testament,” p. 1168).

David Hill writes:

“The vocabularies of the Greek Old Testament and the Greek New Testament have a great measure of similarity, and research into the syntax of the Greek of the Septuagint has revealed its remarkable likeness to that of the New Testament” (op. cit., p. 16).

Hill and others go so far as to posit the existence among Hellenistic Jews of a special vernacular Greek with a pronounced Semitic cast which found literary expression in the Septuagint and later on in the New Testament.

Hill continues: “The language of the New Testament…reveals in its syntax and–more important for our work–in its vocabulary [the italics are Hill’s] a strong Semitic cast, due in large measure to its indebtedness to the Jewish biblical Greek of the Septuagint” (ibid., p. 18).

In view of all this and of my own work with the Septuagint and the Greek New Testament, I must disagree with these statements by Kilmon: (1) “Using Old Testament Hebrew to interpret New Testament Greek is textually absurd”; (2) “The Greek adelphos is not like the Hebrew ach, meaning ‘blood relation'”; (3) “The writer [Keating] also tries to confuse the Greek concept with the Hebrew concept by citing Septuagint sources”; (4) “The Hebrew idiom is absolutely not related to the New Testament Koine use of adelphos for ‘brother.'”

All of these statements ignore the historical reality of the Septuagint. It is in fact impossible to understand the Greek of the New Testament without reference to the Greek of the Septuagint; and it is likewise impossible to understand the peculiarities of Septuagint Greek without reference to the original Hebrew Old Testament.

The writers and very early readers of the New Testament were largely speakers of that special Jewish-flavored Hellenistic Greek of which I have written. Furthermore, being Jews, they were “Septuagint-conditioned.” They were used to the Septuagint usage of adelphos as the ordinary Greek rendering of the Hebrew ach in its many familial and extra-familial meanings–meanings much broader than uterine brother/sisterhood.

And as we have seen, as early as Plato the words of the adelph- family were not confined to uterine brother/sisterhood in mainstream Greek. Therefore, texts which call James, Joseph, Simon, and Jude adelphoi of Jesus do not prove that these were Mary’s children and younger siblings of Jesus.

This writer [Keating] also attempts a very creative interpretation of the word “firstborn” in Matthew 1:25 and Luke 2:7 by using a clear non sequitur relationship between two opposing cultures.

The attempt to explain “firstborn” (rashit avn) in Israel [by reference to] an Egyptian funerary inscription is logically, historically, culturally, and linguistically irrational. Furthermore, Israel was male-line structured while Egypt was female-line structured. Did the author forget this, not know it, or choose to ignore it?

To clarify Kilmon’s remark here, I shall quote a little of Keating’s essay:

“The other argument used by Fundamentalists [against Mary’s lifelong virginity] concerns the term ‘first-born.’ They say Jesus could not be called Mary’s ‘first-born’ unless there were other children that followed him.

“But this is a misunderstanding of the way the ancient Jews used the term. For them it meant the child that opened the womb (Ex. 13:2, Num. 3:12). Under the Mosaic Law, it was the ‘first-born’ son that was to be sanctified (Ex. 34:20). Did this mean the parents had to wait until a second son was born before they could call their first the ‘first-born’? Hardly.

“The first male child of a marriage was termed the ‘first-born’ even if he turned out to be the only child of the marriage. This usage is illustrated by a funerary inscription discovered in Egypt. The inscription refers to a woman who died during the birth of her ‘first-born.'”

The inscription under discussion is not Egyptian in language. It is not about an Egyptian woman. It was found near the site of an ancient Jewish colony in Upper Egypt.

It is a Jewish epitaph or gravestone inscription, dated the second day of the month Mechir (January 25), A.D. 5 and discovered at Tell el Jehudijeh (the Mound of the Jews), the ancient city of Leontopolis. Leontopolis was a Jewish settlement near the southern border of Egypt, the site of a Jewish temple built in 130 B.C.

The inscription was published and analyzed by Lietzmann in the Zeitschrift fër die neuetestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche, 22, 1923, p. 283. The language is Hellenistic Greek. The deceased woman’s name was Arsinoe (a charming Greek name meaning “woman with uplifted mind”). She had a hard life, says the inscription, and died giving birth to her “firstborn” child (prototokou teknou).

Theologically, the inscription is interesting because it reflects the Jewish belief of that time and place in an afterlife of happiness and in the immortality of the soul. Kilmon is quite wrong to suppose a conflict here between two cultures.

The only thing Egyptian about the epitaph is its geographical provenance. Arsinoe was a Greek-speaking Jew, one of those numerous Hellenists of the D.aspora, some of whom figure in Acts 6:1.

I cannot understand the relevance of the remark about Israel’s male-line structure and Egypt’s female-line structure. Apart from the fact that Jews in Egypt observed their own ancestral laws, though in a somewhat limited way, in any culture it is the woman who bears the child and who sometimes dies in childbirth. Anyway, there is really no need here to talk of Egyptians at all.

More important, “firstborn” in the New Testament is an original Greek rendering (prototokon). There can be no creative interpretation of this Greek concept. If Mary would not have had other children it would not have been written uion prototokon but, instead, uion monogene.

There is no confusion between these concepts in New Testament Greek that purportedly “carries over” from Hebrew. You will find monogene effectively used in John 3:16. The Gospel writers had a clear choice between monogene and prototokon and chose “firstborn.”

Much of this is refuted by the evidence of the grave inscription described above, in which the “firstborn” child was also his mother’s only-begotten.

Moreover, “firstborn” in Jewish law and religion was not a mere numerator for a child. It was a legal term, a formal terminology used to situate a boy within a special legal and ritual context, determining for him certain duties and privileges within the family and the community.

The ceremony which so situated the “firstborn” was to take place on the thirty-first day after his birth. He was at that point legally and ritually the “firstborn” even if he turned out to be the only child. (Encyclopedia Judaica, volume 6, column 1309.)

About monogenes (“only begotten”) and prototokos (“firstborn”): These words are not synonyms and in no way can they be inter-changeable. The “clear choice” Kilmon asserts does not exist, and there is no basis for it. Also, I am not sure the Evangelists would ever have written that Jesus was the monogenes son of Mary, even though she had no other children.

My reason for thinking this is that in the New Testament monogenes is used of Jesus only to describe his relationship to his eternal Father: Only with respect to the Father is Jesus ever called the Only Begotten Son (John1:14, 1:18, 3:16, 3:18; 1 John 4:9).

I suspect (one cannot be sure) that the word monogenes had early taken on a sacred and special connotation in Jesus’ case and, when applied to him, was reserved to express his unique and eternal Sonship.

Another consideration about “firstborn” occurs to me which may commend itself to those who love to meditate on Sacred Scripture. Luke was Paul’s friend and fellow worker. When Luke wrote in his Gospel, “She gave birth to her firstborn son,” was he thinking of Paul’s words in Romans and Colossians, written several years before the Gospel, describing Jesus as the “firstborn” among many brethren, the “firstborn” of all creation, the “firstborn” from the dead?

If so, then in his Gospel Luke is hinting that we believers are the many brethren of Christ. We are his family, his brothers and sisters, and Mary his Mother is, in the order of grace, the Mother of us all.

The Church has always celebrated this, and so we “take Mary unto our own,” as the beloved disciple did beneath our Brother’s Cross (John 19:27). She had no other children but Jesus according to the flesh; but by her “firstborn” Son’s grace she does have other children: us, her Son’s disciples, united to him with her in faith and grace. This is our Catholic faith, in full harmony with all Scripture.

Your writer [Keating] does make one true statement in this text and that is, “we have to look at the context.”

Let’s look at the context of some of the biblical references that this writer himself provides. Matthew 12:46 couples brothers with mother…(h)e meter kai (h)oi adelphoi autou…”his mother and his brothers.” Anyone that translates adelphoi as “cousins” or “kinsman” in this context has no understanding of biblical Greek and a vivid imagination! It is obvious that Matthew is talking about a family!

Looking at the context does not mean going beyond the evidence. In this text of Matthew (the most Semitic in language of all the Evangelists) we find the word adelphoi. In the light of what we have learned about the adelph- word family, it is useful to read a few lines from Keating here:

“There is another point, perhaps a little harder for moderns, or at least Westerners, to g.asp. It is that the attitude taken by the ‘brethren of the Lord’ implies they are his elders.

“In ancient and, particularly, in Eastern societies (remember, Palestine is in Asia), older sons gave advice to younger, but younger never gave advice to older–it was considered disrespectful to do so.

“But we find Jesus’ ‘brethren’ saying to him that Galilee was no place for him and that he should go to Judaea so his disciples could see his doings, so he could make a name for himself (John 7:3-4). Another time, they sought to restrain him for his own benefit, saying ‘He must be mad’ (Mark 3:21).

“This kind of behavior could make sense for ancient Jews only if the ‘brethren’ were older than Jesus, but that alone eliminates them as his brothers german, since Jesus, we know, was Mary’s ‘first-born.’

“Consider what happened at the foot of the Cross. When he was dying, Jesus entrusted his mother to the apostle John: ‘Jesus, seeing his mother there, and the disciple, too, whom he loved, standing by, said to his mother, “Woman, this is thy son.” Then he said to the disciple, “This is thy mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own keeping’ (John 19:26-27).

“Now the Gospels mention four of his ‘brethren,’ James, Joseph, Simon, and Jude. It is hard to imagine why Jesus would have disregarded family ties and made this provision for his mother if these four were also her sons.”

These are valid observations and remarks pertinent to Jewish culture. Yet in his whole essay Kilmon avoids taking notice of them. This oversight considerably weakens Kilmon’s essay.

This is Part I of a two part series. Read Part II here.


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