'Brother' of the Lord?

Question: St. Paul calls James the “brother of the Lord.” But we Catholics say Jesus had no siblings, calling them “cousins” instead. Is there no word in Hebrew for cousin? I do see a reference to Aaron’s “uncle” Uzziel (Lev 10:4).

Robert Tisovich, Ely, Minnesota

Answer: There are numerous places in the New Testament (Mk 3:31–34; 6:3; Mt 12:46; 13:55; Lk 8:19–21; Jn 2:12, 7:3-5, 10; Acts 1:14; and 1 Cor 9:5) where Jesus’ kinfolk are mentioned using terms such as “brother” (adelphos), “sister” (adelphe) or “brethren” (adelphoi). But “brother” had a wider meaning in the Scriptures and at that time, not restricted to our literal meaning of a full brother or half-brother.

Even in the Old Testament, “brother” had a wide range of meanings. Lot, for example, is sometimes called Abraham’s “brother” (Gen 14:14), but his father was Haran, Abraham’s brother (Gen 11:26–28). So Lot was actually a nephew. The term “brother” could also refer to friends or mere political allies (2 Sm 1:26; Am 1:9). Thus, in family relationships, “brother” could mean any male relative from whom you are not descended. We use words like kinsmen and cousins today, but the ancient Jews did not.

In fact, neither Hebrew nor Aramaic had a word meaning “cousin.” They used terms such as “brother,” “sister” or, more rarely, “kinsfolk” (syngenis), sometimes translated as “relative.” The passage you cite from Leviticus uses the Hebrew word dod, which means “loved one.”

James, whom St. Paul called the “brother of the Lord” (Gal 1:19), is identified as an apostle and understood to be James the Younger, who is elsewhere identified as the son of Alphaeus (also called Clopas) and his wife, Mary Clopas (Mt 10:3). Mary, the wife of Clopas, was one of the women who stood with Jesus’ Mother Mary at the foot of the cross, along with yet another Mary, Mary Magdalene (Jn 19:25).

Even if James the Greater were meant by St. Paul, it is clear that he is from the Zebedee family, and not a brother of Jesus (in the strict modern sense) at all.

The ancient Church was well aware of the references to Jesus’ brethren, but was not troubled by them because they were understood in the broader, more ancient sense. Widespread confusion about this occurred with the rise of Protestantism and the loss of understanding the semantic nuances of ancient family terminology.

Disposing of holy images

Question: What should I do when I need to discard non-blessed articles like calendars, enrollment cards, novena and prayer cards? Most of them have pictures of the saints and the Lord.

Name withheld, Temple, Texas

Answer: There is no Church rule or law on this. Pious custom however would recommend against throwing out images of the Lord or the saints, since seeing them in the trash is unedifying. Thus, if something must be discarded since it is no longer usable, one can do a number of things that will protect the dignity of such images. Paper materials with images of the saints can be burned, or shredded beyond recognition. Broken statues can be further broken up so that the image is no longer recognized. Dented or damaged medals can be further disfigured beyond recognition, buried, or at least sealed in opaque envelopes.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to msgrpope@osv.com. Letters must be signed but anonymity may be requested.