TCA Faith for September/October 2014

Editor’s Note: As part of The Catholic Answer’s farewell to Father Ray Ryland, our longtime columnist for TCA Faith, we are delighted to offer some of his most memorable answers to questions, starting with his first column in 2004. 

Who Were Jesus’ “Brothers and Sisters”?

Q. I have some friends from different faiths asking why the Bible says Jesus had “brothers and sisters” and the Church says different. I have read the passages myself and want to know why the Catholic faith says He is the only child that Mary had.

James Middleton, via e-mail

A. This question is often raised. The problem for English translators of sacred Scripture is that ancient languages such as Hebrew and Greek did not clearly distinguish different kinds or degrees of kinship. “Brother” or “sister” was used to designate all of the same family or clan. The word “brother” is also used in the New Testament to designate a member of the Church.

In both Old and New Testament, especially in the Old, “brother” is frequently used as a synonym for “person” or “human being.” We read in Matthew 13:55 the names of certain “brothers” of Jesus: James, Joseph, Simon and Judas. Yet Matthew 27:56 tells us that James and Joseph were sons of a Mary other than the Virgin. Presumably Simon and Judas also were not children of the Virgin.

Strictly on the basis of Scripture, it is not possible to say exactly what the terms “brother” or “sister” mean when used in connection with Jesus. For a correct understanding we have to rely on the teaching of the Church that produced the Scriptures as a compendium of her Tradition. From the beginning the Church has always taught that the Virgin bore only one child, our Savior.

One further consideration: If Mary had other children, why did Jesus, with His dying breath, entrust her into the care of a nonfamily member? In that culture, had she other children, it would have been a deep insult, a betrayal of family loyalty, for Jesus to give her into the care of St. John.

Priests in the Bible?

Q. Someone asked me, where does the Bible state that we are supposed to have priests? My friend argued that there is only one Priest. Why do we need priests to be saved?

Name withheld by request, via email

A. Sacrifice in religion always involves a priesthood. We see this in God’s provision for the Levitical priesthood which offered sacrifice in the Jewish Temple. Jesus Christ has offered the perfect sacrifice. He has also commanded us to share in it: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (Jn 6:53).

At the Last Supper, Our Lord provided the means whereby we can share in his sacrifice: “Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Mt 26:26-28). Jesus thereby empowered His successors, the apostles, to be his priests.

From Pentecost down to the present day, that sacrifice has been offered to the Father by Christ’s priests. Acting in persona Christi (“the person of Christ”), priests make available to us the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, under forms of bread and wine.

Members of Christ’s Mystical Body have a complementary priesthood: “You are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood’” (1 Pt 2:9). They exercise this priesthood primarily by their participation in the Eucharistic action. All this is why we need priests.

Incidentally, ask your friend to tell you where the Bible teaches that the Church’s practices and faith have to be proved from the Bible. The Bible makes no such statement.

Is Judas in Hell?

Q. In another Catholic publication I read a letter asking if Judas Iscariot went to hell for betraying Jesus. In reply, a priest wrote that we don’t know because we cannot know what his thoughts or feelings were just before he died. He may have repented at the last minute. However, at the Last Supper, Jesus said: “Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would be better for that man if he had never been born” (Mt 26:24). Jesus seems to imply that worse than not having been born would be to spend eternity in hell. What is your opinion in this matter?

Paul Wallis, Reno, Nev.

A. The fact that Judas took his own life shows that he was in deepest despair. It’s true we cannot know what went on in Judas’ mind and heart in his last moments or even last seconds. But Jesus would know. And if Jesus knew that Judas would repent at the last moment, surely he would not have said it would have been better for Judas never to have been born.

Furthermore, recall the prayer in which the apostles asked the Holy Spirit to select a replacement for Judas: “Lord … show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this apostolic ministry from which Judas turned away to go to his own place” (Acts 1:24-25). “To go to his own place” are very ominous words indeed! In my opinion, these words, coupled with Our Lord’s words just quoted, leave little room for hope for Judas. But I still pray my opinion is wrong! And remember, this would be only my opinion.

The Church has not declared anyone in hell, including Judas. Let us hope that Judas repented and made a perfect act of contrition before he died!

By the way, in Dante’s Inferno, the author placed Judas in the Ninth Circle of Hell. He is condemned as a traitor and is positioned headfirst inside Lucifer’s central mouth, with his back being skinned for all eternity by Lucifer’s terrible claws (see Canto XXXIV, vv. 58-63).

Baptism of the Apostles

Q. When were the apostles baptized? I feel they were baptized when Jesus poured water over their feet and wiped them with a towel (two items used in baptism). What do you think?

Ted Perzanowski, via email

A. The baptism of John the Baptist was by immersion. From earliest days the Church has also baptized by a threefold pouring of the baptismal water on the head of the candidate. In the light of the Church’s practice, I cannot believe that pouring water over the feet of the apostles would be a valid sacrament.

Ponder again the words of John 13:10: “Jesus said to him [Simon Peter], ‘Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over; so you are clean, but not all.’” These words seem to indicate that the apostles were already baptized. The Last Supper marked Our Lord’s last meeting with the apostles before His passion. Surely well before this the apostles had received the essential Sacrament of Baptism.


Q. I have always believed that our Blessed Mother was and is still a virgin. A non-Catholic (Baptist) pointed out to me a passage in the Bible that disturbs me, and I did not know how to answer. The Protestants do not believe in the Blessed Mother. The passage is Matthew 1:24-25: “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus.” Please explain this.

Aloysius Doyle, Valrico, Fla.

A. Non-Catholics who reject Our Lady’s perpetual virginity use the Scripture you quoted as one of their arguments. In ordinary language, the phrase “had no relations with her until she had borne a son” would imply that she and Joseph had conjugal union after the birth of her Son. The Bible of the Virgin’s time (the Old Testament) uses the word “until” quite differently. Here are some examples.

The raven that Noah sent free “went forth and did not return until the waters were dried up upon the earth” (Gn 8:7, RSV). In fact, the raven never came back. In somewhat the same sense the Old Testament occasionally used the preposition “to.” We read in Samuel 6:23 that “Michal the daughter of Saul had no children to the day of her death” (RSV). Would your non-Catholic informant imply this means Michal had children after her death? Or what about Moses’ grave. Deuteronomy 34:6 reports that no one knows where Moses was buried “to this day.” Again, this does not imply someone would know the location after the time when the sacred writer wrote. The use of “until” and “to” only means an event did not occur up to a certain point.

You may read in 1 Maccabees the use of the word “before” with a similar meaning. After victory in battle, the Maccabean forces “went up to mount Sion with joy and gladness, and offered holocausts, because not one of them was slain before they returned in safety” (5:54, RSV). This clearly does not mean they were slain after they returned.

St. Luke, therefore, is not reporting or even implying that the Virgin and Joseph lived as husband and wife after she had borne her Son. St. Luke’s account of the Visitation makes this even clearer.

When the angel Gabriel told the Blessed Virgin she was to bear a son, she was astonished. She asked, literally, “How will this be since I know not a man?” (1:34), which is a more literal translation of the Greek. The Old Testament commonly speaks of sexual union as “knowing” one another. (Among many other instances, Genesis 4:1 [RSV] records, “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain.”)

Ordinarily, a young woman engaged at this time, soon to be married, would not be surprised at being told she would give birth in the future. Why was Mary obviously amazed? Simply because she had vowed perpetual virginity within the bounds of her approaching marriage. This has always been the Church’s understanding of her consternation. Non-Catholics sometimes argue that a virginal marriage (known technically as a “Josephite” marriage) is “unnatural.” That may be true, but it’s no argument against their being such a marriage. It was “unnatural” for a virgin to bear a Son. And it was certainly “unnatural” for a couple to raise a child who was God in the flesh.

Another argument used by non-Catholics is taken from St. Luke’s reference to Our Lord as the Virgin’s “first-born son” (2:7). Among the Israelites, a woman’s first son was always called “first-born,” even though she later may have had many other sons. In the Old Testament, the term “first-born son” primarily connoted the bearer of special privileges and rights in the family. An appendix to the Catholic version of the RSV explains that the term does not necessarily mean the first of several: “The word is used even in modern times without necessarily implying subsequent births.”

Finally, in Matthew 12:46 and in Mark 6:3, we read about “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus. Non-Catholics assume this refers to children of the Virgin and St. Joseph. But the Greek words for “brother” and for “sister” are very ambiguous terms. Sometimes they refer to an ally (see Dt 23:7). At other times “brother” means a friend (2 Sm 1:26). Christ’s Church has always taught that the meaning of “brother” or “sister” as it pertains to Jesus refers to relatives or friends, never blood brother or blood sister.

Dogma vs. Doctrine?

Q. Could you tell me exactly what the difference is between a dogma and a doctrine? Which is infallible, and do we need to accept both?

Andrew, New York, N.Y.

A. You must keep in mind the distinction between the Church’s “extraordinary” magisterium and her “ordinary” magisterium. A dogma is a teaching solemnly defined by the pope in the exercise of the “extraordinary” magisterium. The Second Vatican Council taught that our Lord Jesus Christ endowed His Church with infallibility “in defining doctrine pertaining to faith and morals” (Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, No. 25). The pope “enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful … by a definitive act he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals.”

A doctrine not solemnly defined, but taught by the pope and the bishops, comes to us through the “ordinary” magisterium. When the bishops, in communion with the pope, teach in matters concerning faith and morals, the faithful must adhere to that teaching with a ready and respectful allegiance of mind.

Then the Vatican fathers added, “This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra.” In other words, his teaching regarding faith and morals must be “acknowledged with reverence,” and the faithful must sincerely adhere to decisions made by him (again, see Lumen Gentium, No. 25). We Catholics are bound — indeed, are privileged — to submit to the teaching both of the “extraordinary” magisterium and the “ordinary” magisterium.

The Fires of Hell

Q. How are we to understand scriptural teaching about the fires of hell? Do persons who wind up in hell literally burn continuously and forever? How is that possible?

Name withheld by request

A. Our Lord often referred to “hell” (see Mt 5:29,30; 10:28; 23:15; Mk 9:45,47; Lk 12:5). He warned against “the hell of fire” (Mt 5:22; 18:9); against “the unquenchable fire” (Mk 9:43); against “the eternal fire” (Mt 18:8; 25:41). Our Lord also spoke of “the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 13:42). (All references are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.)

We have no experience or knowledge of fire which is literally unquenchable. Again, we cannot imagine human bodies being literally and eternally burned but never being destroyed. Recall the words from the Creation story: “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gn 1:31, RSV). Through the processes of nature (like death and decay), God’s creatures are changed, but He never destroys them. The most agonizing pain is that of being burned. To be cast into “the eternal fire” surely refers to the keenest of suffering, but not to being forever incinerated.

On the level of speculation about existence in hell, no one has written more eloquently or more extensively than one of our greatest poets, Dante Alighieri. In 34 cantos he details a journey led by Virgil through all levels of hell in his Inferno. At the sinkhole of hell, Dante finds not fire, but ice. Satan himself is completely sealed in ice.

Whatever one imagines “hell” to be, Our Lord’s words seem to leave no room for a hope that hell will be empty. The Church has condemned the heresy of universalism, which holds that no soul will be lost eternally.


Q. I read that the Catholics and Orthodox split centuries ago, and one of the reasons was over the filioque. I know it has something to do with the Holy Spirit, but what exactly was the filioque?

Name withheld by request, via email

A. The word “filioque” (“and the Son”) in the Nicene Creed refers to the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and from the Son (see Jn 15:26 and Acts 2:33). What has been revealed to us about the external relationships of the Persons of the Blessed Trinity reflects their internal relationships. The Father’s sending the Son into our world reflects the Son’s eternal procession from the Father. The Spirit’s being sent into the world by the Father and the Son also mirrors his eternal procession from the Father and the Son. Sacred Scripture speaks of the Spirit as “the Spirit of his Son” (Gal 4:6) as well as “the Spirit of the Father” (Mt 10:20).

Further, to enshrine and safeguard revelation, this word, filioque, was added to the original Nicene Creed by the Church in the West. Only as they gradually distanced themselves from the jurisdiction of Rome did the separated Eastern churches reject use of this word in the Creed. They claimed that the Spirit proceeds “through the Son.” This, they said, is not the same as “from the Son.”

The Catholic Church’s teaching is often spoken of as one of the chief obstacles to the return of the separated Eastern churches to Catholic communion.

In recent decades, however, prominent Eastern Orthodox theologians and prelates have begun to recognize that procession from the Son and procession through the Son are complementary, not contradictory, statements. The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums up the matter in these words: “This legitimate complementarity, provided it does not become rigid, does not affect the identity of faith in the reality of the same mystery confessed” (No. 248).

The basic issue dividing the separated Eastern churches from the Catholic Church is of course the issue of authority. This is true of all Christian divisions.

Jesus Christ did establish one Church and endowed it with His authority and all His means of grace. Apart from the communion of that Church, the Catholic Church, Christians East and West cannot have access to the fullness of Christ’s revelation. Only in communion with that Church can Christians ever hope to be united as Christ plainly intended they should be.

Who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews?

Q. Who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews? I have heard there is a theory that it was St. Paul. Why is it some writers seem not to like the letter very much?

Ambrose, via email

A. In early centuries the Church in the East generally held that either Paul himself or one of his disciples wrote the Letter to the Hebrews. This view began to prevail in the Church in the West by the fourth century. In the Church of the Middle Ages the letter was generally regarded as one of Paul’s letters. The Council of Trent listed Hebrews among the letters of Paul, but this fact did not authoritatively settle the question of the letter’s authorship. Today it seems reasonable to ascribe the letter to Paul because of its doctrinal content, and to a disciple because of its style.

I can only speculate on the question of why some writers (Scripture scholars? theologians?) might not like the Letter to the Hebrews. The letter is unique among New Testament writings in two respects. It focuses on the high priesthood of Jesus Christ and, by implication, on Christian priesthood. It devotes more attention to covenant theology than does any other writing.

Protestants might not appreciate the letter’s teaching about priesthood. I encountered this attitude in my first semester of seminary at Harvard Divinity School. Our professor of New Testament was internationally known, a charming man. Leading us through the New Testament documents, he called a halt when we came to the Letter to the Hebrews. Scholar though he was, he told us he had no idea what the author was talking about, and so we would simply skip Hebrews in our study of the New Testament.

I was surprised and puzzled by the professor’s cavalier dismissal of Hebrews. “If he doesn’t understand the letter, why doesn’t he try to find out how to understand it?” As I came to know him and know more about him I began to see why Hebrews was so foreign to his thinking. He was a leading Quaker, and also (I could say “therefore”) Unitarian. For him, Jesus was a great moral teacher. Period. Priesthood and high priesthood were no concern of his.

God rest his dear soul. He knows better now.

What is the Griesbach Hypothesis?

Q. I have been trying to study more about Scripture. Would you give me your opinion about the Griesbach Hypothesis?

Ambrose, via e-mail

A. The two principal explanations of the interrelatedness of the first three (synoptic) Gospels are the “two-source” theory and the “two-gospel” theory. The latter is known as the “Griesbach” theory in reference to its 18th-century originator. The “two-source” theory is held today, apparently, by a majority of scholars. It holds that the Gospel of Mark was written first. In writing their Gospels, Matthew and Luke used as their sources Mark; a hypothetical document designated “Q”; and other materials known as “M” and as “L.”

The modern form of the “Griesbach” theory was brought forth by the late William Farmer in 1964. He was a distinguished Methodist scholar who late in life was received into the Catholic Church. (Full disclosure requires my saying we were friends at Union Theological Seminary many years ago.)

This “two-gospel” theory assumes that (as the early Church held) Matthew was written first, while the Church’s life was still centered in Jerusalem. One of its purposes was to stress the intimate relationship between Christianity and its Jewish forebears. Next came Luke, which was primarily addressed to the Gentiles. Luke was not an eyewitness of Christ’s earthly ministry. Peter’s public teaching was transcribed by Mark, protégé of Peter, into our present second Gospel.

Not being a Scripture scholar, my opinion about the relative merits of these theories carries little weight. I will say I find the “two-gospel” theory attractive primarily because it does not have to postulate documents like “Q” and “M” and “L,” as does the “two-source” theory. The Catholic Church has no official teaching on this matter.

Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D., was formerly professor of religious studies, University of San Diego, and adjunct professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He authored “Drawn from Shadows into Truth.”