The Virgin Mary’s “Sister,” Mary the Wife of Cleopas

Question: “Did the Virgin Mary have a sister? Wasn’t She the only child of St. Joachim and St. Ann? However, in the Gospel of St. John, it says “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and Mary Magdalene” (John 19:25).

Answer: If John 19:25 intended to make a distinction between “his mother’s sister” and “Mary the wife of Cleopas” there would almost certainly be another “and” separating them in Greek, but there is not:

“ειστηκεισαν δε παρα τω σταυρω του ιησου η μητηρ αυτου και η αδελφη της μητρος αυτου μαρια η του κλωπα και μαρια η μαγδαληνη.”

You don’t find any Church Father interpreting this text as suggesting anything other than that the sister in question is Mary the wife of Cleopas.

This question plays an important role in the question of who the “brothers of the Lord” are, and whether the Virgin Mary was ever virgin, or whether she had other children by St. Joseph.

One of the key passages brought up by Protestants that reject the Tradition of the Church on this issue is  Matthew 1:25: “And [Joseph] knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus.”

First of all we must remember that the Bible was not written in English. The word translated “till” in this verse is the same word translated “until” (or “unto” in the KJV) in Matthew 28:20: “…And behold I am with you always, even until the end of the age.” If we follow the logic of the Protestant argument in the first chapter of Matthew, we have to conclude that Christ will not be with us after the end of the present age. Also even in English, when we say “Joe refused to repent till the day he died,” we obviously do not mean to suggest that he did repent afterwards. The point of this verse is plain. It leaves no room for doubting that Christ was not the result of relations between the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph—it says nothing about what happened thereafter, one way or the other.

St. Jerome wrote a very detailed treatise on this subject that one can find in several readily available translations—it is titled “The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary”. Not only was this view held universally in the Early Church, but the Early Reformers all believed it. as did John Wesley.

Nowhere in the NT does it say that the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph ever moved beyond betrothal. The Bible speaks of St. Joseph’s “espoused” wife even when she was “great with child” (Luke 2:5) —but never mentions a marriage happening thereafter. In Jewish culture, a betrothal gave a couple all the responsibilities of marriage, but none of the privileges. Once betrothed, one could only break the betrothal with a divorce. Nevertheless, the couple was not permitted to have marital relations until after the public celebration of the marriage.

Protestants often assume that the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary is designed to  glorify to the Virgin Mary, and not God. But the doctrine is actually important because it highlights the  uniqueness and holiness of her Son. Consider the following verse:

“Then said the LORD unto me; This gate shall be shut, it shall not be opened, and no man shall enter in by it; because the LORD, the God of Israel, hath entered in by it, therefore it shall be shut.” (Ezekiel 44:2).

This has always been interpreted by the Fathers of the Church to be a typological reference to the Virgin Mary and the Incarnation. When we consider that God took flesh from the Virgin’s womb, it is not difficult to imagine that this womb would remain virgin. If God would not allow men to pass through an earthly gate because God had entered in by it, how much more would this be necessary when speaking of the womb by which God became man?

Why then did the Virgin need St. Joseph? That question is valid even if one believes she had other children later — why did she need St. Joseph to give birth to Christ. The answer is obvious: virgins do not as a rule give birth, and Christ would likely have grown up an orphan had he been born to a single mother, because she would have been stoned to death as an adulteress. Of course God could have constantly intervened to protect her and her Son, but that is not normally how God operates in history.

But Protestants object: “Mary had other children. James is called The Lord’s brother. The brothers and sisters who came for Jesus while he was teaching are not cousins as Catholic’s claim, like there is no Greek word for cousin.” There is a Greek word for “cousin,” but there is no Aramaic word for “cousin,” and this is the language Christ and the Apostles spoke. In Aramaic (and also Arabic) if you want to precisely refer to a cousin, you would have to say “the son of my uncle,” or “the daughter of my aunt”. But such circumlocutions do not roll off the tongue, if, for example, you are calling out to your cousins “Hey, sons-of-my-uncle! Come here!” So instead, in Aramaic, the word “brother” or “sister” can be used in reference to kinsmen.

It is extremely unlikely that the Virgin Mary had another sister from the same parents who was also named Mary (John 19:25). And so clearly the term “sister” is being used in some broader sense. What is also very interesting is that this Mary, who is not Christ’s mother but who also just happens to be the Virgin Mary’s sister, also happens to have kids with the same names as Christ’s brothers. See: Matt 27:56, Mark 15:40, 16:1; Luke 24:10; John 19:25. The Matthew account has Mary the mother of James and Joseph. Mark has Mary the mother of James the Less and Joses. John has “his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas”. All accounts mention Mary Magdalene separately and Matthew mentions the mother of the sons of Zebedee (who could not also be married to Clopas). This suggests that Mary the wife of Clopas, who is Mary’s sister, is the mother of James and Joses, etc.

The Apostle James, the Son of Alpheaus is not necessarily the same as James the less. They are not connected in the Gospels, though this connection is possible. James the less was the son of Cleopas, but, it is possible that “Cleopas” is a variant Hellenized transliteration of the Aramaic name “Chalphi”.

Then we have the very early testimony of Hegesippus who states plainly that the brethren of the Lord were the Children of St. Joseph’s brother Cleopas and his wife Mary. .

“After the martyrdom of James and the conquest of Jerusalem which immediately followed, it is said that those of the apostles and the disciples of the Lord that were still living came together from all directions, with those that were related to the Lord according to the flesh (for the majority of them also were still alive), to take counsel as to who was worthy to succeed James. They all with once consent pronounced Symeon, the Son of Cleopas, of whom the Gospel also makes mention [note the Gospels only list Symeon as one of the Brother’s of the Lord], to be worthy of the episcopal throne of that parish. He was a cousin, as they say, of the Savior. For Hegesippus records that Cleopas was a brother of Joseph” ((Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 3:11) note: Hegesippus was a 2nd Century Palestinian Jew. Eusebius preserves one of the few fragments left of his works, since he had access to the great library of Ceasarea and of Alexandria—the contents of which were mostly lost later).

“Some of these heretics, forsooth, laid an information against Symeon the son of Clopas, as being of the family of David, and a Christian. And on these charges he suffered martrydom when he was 120 years old, in the reign of Trajan Caesar, when Atticus was Consular legate in Syria. And it so happened, says the same writer, that, while inquiry was then being made for those belonging to the royal tribe of the Jews, the accusers themselves were convicted of belonging to it. With show of reason it could be said that Symeon was one of those who actually saw and heard the Lord, on the ground of his great age, and also because the Scripture of the Gospels makes mention of Mary the [wife] of Clopas, who, as our narrative has shown already, was his father. The same historian mentions others also, of the family of one of the reputed brothers of the Savior, named Judas, as having survived until this same reign, after the testimony they bore for the faith of Christ in the time of Domitian, as already recorded. He writes as follows: They came, then, and took the presidency of every church, as witnesses for Christ, and as being of the kindred of the Lord. And after profound peace had been established in every church they remained down to the reign of Trajan Caesar: that is, until the time then he who was sprung from an uncle of the Lord, the aforementioned Symeon son of Clopas, was informed against by various heresies, and subjected to an accusation like the rest, and for the same cause, before the legate Atticus; and while suffering outrage during many days, he bore testimony for Christ: so that all, including the legate himself were astonished above measure that a man 120 years old should have been able to endure such torments. He was finally condemned to be crucified….” [St. Hegesippus [who reposed 170 ad], Fragments from his five books of commentaries on the acts of the Church, Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 8, p 762]

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