Translation of the words "brother" and "cousin"


I’ve heard the argument that the “brothers” of Jesus mentioned in scripture were not literal blood brothers, but were most likely akin to cousins and the like, because the language of the time didn’t have words for those other, familial terms.

How is it then that elsewhere in the Gospel, it describes Elizabeth as being Mary’s “cousin”?

Thanks in advance :slight_smile:


That is incorrect. Greek is a very expressive language. In Greek the word for brother is adelphos, and the word for cousin is anepsios. While it is true that the word adelphos was sometimes used to refer to members of the Christian community, the normative use of the word in Koine Greek in fact means brother. To understand where the word is being used literally, for blood relations, or figuratively in the respect of brotherly love within a community, one would merely look at the passage where it is being used and allow the context of the passage to provide the meaning.


In Luke 1:36 the Greek word used in connection with Mary and Elizabeth is syngenes, a relative – it doesn’t specify “cousin”.

In the case of Jesus and the people described in Matthew and Mark as his “brothers and sisters,” they were evidently not only relatives but living together in the same household. They may have been cousins – the children of Mary’s sister or of Joseph’s brother – or they may have been Joseph’s own children by an earlier marriage.


Well what is the greek word, for cousins or brothers in said text? And is there not some traditions that hold Joseph as ever virgin also?


The word ‘adelphos’ in the Bible can mean any close relationship. For example it is used for Abraham and Lot, uncle and nephew. It is also used for Laban, Jacob’s uncle. Because the original Hebrew and Aramaic did not have a word for cousin or even nephew.


In the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) the word ἀνεψιὸς (cousin) appears just three times, once in Numbers and twice in Tobit. In Numbers 36:11 it translates the Hebrew ben dod, “uncle’s son”. I don’t know what the corresponding Hebrew term is in Tobit. The Hebrew original of Tobit is known only in fragments discovered among the Dead Sea scrolls, and there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to look at the fragments online. 1


The word is αδελφος (adelphos). It occurs 343 times in the New Testament, including fifty-something times in Acts alone. You can see all 343 verses here:


We are not reading the original but translations. When you see cousin for Elizabeth you are reading what a translator decided to use. The Greek word used here is suggenes which means 1) of the same kin, akin to, related by blood 2) in a wider sen sense, of the same nation, a fellow countryman. Using the word cousin makes sense but not all translations do. Other translations have kinsman or relative.


The word can be used either way. But all the ancient churches, with roots traceable to the beginning of our faith, knew that Jesus had no immediate familial brothers. So…there really is no question there.


Original words of conversation or original inspired writing of such a conversation ? For all books of NT I believe the inspired writing is the Greek (except Matt.?)…Therefore the translation of any conversation spoken in Aramaic etc was inspired by the Holy Ghost, to the writer of the original inspired Greek text.

But upon further reading i see what you mean, inferring the different english translations can be skewed. Thank God for KJV…lol…yet one can find what they seek.


There is no unanimous consent of the fathers on this…at best one can only make conjecture of such a thing.

This certainly isn’t one of those things that John included when he wrote that “we know all things by the unction of the Holy Ghost” in my opinion. If one claims any definitive “knowing” on this matter of “brethren” it can be attributed to tradition, and that may or may not be per Holy Ghost, as traditions go.


That is incorrect. The Septuagint (which is the version that is applicable here since we are speaking of Greek linguistic nuance) stipulates that Lot was the son of Abraham’s brother (adelphos). In the case of Lot it does not refer to Lot as adelphos.


That is debatable. We know that there was NOT a universal believe in that sense because we have written records of the arguments presented for and against the understanding that you are proposing. This goes back to the early Church. What we actually see is that later tradition was influenced by apocryphal documents such as the Protoevangelium of James, etc.


There is, however, an additional historical argument, which goes something like this. Belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity has been traced back to a very early period. If Mary had borne other children after Jesus, then people would have known about them and there would not have been the necessary conditions for the belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity to have arisen in the first place.


One example I can think of is the daughters of Eleazar married the sons of his brother Kish, so they married their cousins, not their brothers.

1 Chronicles 23:21-23

21The sons of Merari; Mooli, and Musi: the sons of Mooli; Eleazar, and Kish.

22 And Eleazar died, and he had no sons, but daughters: and the sons of Kish, their brethren, took them.

23 The sons of Musi; Mooli, and Eder, and Jarimoth, three.

21 υἱοὶ Μεραρί· Μοολὶ καὶ Μουσί. υἱοὶ Μοολί· ᾿Ελεάζαρ καὶ Κίς.

22 καὶ ἀπέθανεν ᾿Ελεάζαρ, καὶ οὐκ ἦσαν αὐτῷ υἱοί, ἀλλ᾿ ἢ θυγατέρες, καὶ ἔλαβον αὐτὰς υἱοὶ Κὶς ἀδελφοὶ αὐτῶν.

23 υἱοὶ Μουσί· Μοολὶ καὶ ᾿Εδὲρ καὶ ᾿Ιαριμώθ, τρεῖς.


The problem IMO is that there should be much more testimony from history during those early years, whether from Tradition or elsewhere, for the existence of immediate siblings. Instead, there’s a tiny smattering, mainly from later writers in support of these siblings while the ancient churches east and west have no other position than that no such siblings existed and that, in fact, Mary remained a virgin. It would be hard to imagine that these churches would ever adopt the non-sibling position if that were not the case.


Using the same argument one could say if people had known about God being three in one persons there would not be necesary conditions for Arianism to arise.


If we are looking into “conditions” for rising doctrine one must consider the negative attitude that developed in the church towards marriage and sex, and the elevation of monasticism and singleness, (celibacy) coinciding with the development of some Marian doctrine.


We can only speculate about such things; they may or may not have helped condition subsequent Marian beliefs. But we do know what the churches themselves must have believed- from a quite early period.


As others mentioned, the word used translates best as “kinswoman” - a female somehow related to her. Since they were both pregnant at about the same time, it was assumed they were probably about the same age. If about the same age, more likely they were cousins. The narrative is silent as to whether or not they were close or distant cousins; just related to one another somewhere along the line.

Not to start a whole can of worms or spin off the thread, but to be an only child in those times would have been rather rare indeed. It seems to me that, that would have been commented on more than the fact additional siblings are referenced and named. I don’t believe these to be Joseph’s from some previous marriage (an older widower with several children in tow, a few possibly just as old if not older than Mary, hardly makes for a good marriage prospect for a young teenager - even in the 1st century). Odd too that the parents of said cousins are never referenced.

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