Who is Meant in the Gospels by "Brothers" of the Lord?
Term "brothers and sisters" of the Lord, as used in the Gospels, has a meaning completely different than it is meant in contemporary terms. According to the custom of Eastern peoples of that time, as it is now kept in the life of the Arabic people living in Palestine and Asia Minor, "brothers" means not only the straight relation of brother but also cousins, second cousins, and, in general, all close relatives.
There must not have been any actual brothers of the Lord, as the Mother of God bore only one Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and was called by the Holy Church Ever-virgin because She until the birth of Christ, in giving the birth and after the birth of Christ remained the same as She vowed to God never to enter into marriage. St. Joseph was not a real husband to Her, but he was only Her betrothed, the custodian of Her virginity. It means that brothers and sisters of the Lord in the flesh could only be first and second cousins by maternal lineage — in the lineage of His Most-pure Mother. Blood relatives by paternal lineage did not exist for the Saviour, for He had no father in the flesh.
In the Gospel account, no clarification is given for the "brothers of Christ" although several of them are even mentioned by name: James, Joses, Simon and Judas (cf. Matt. 13:54-56). Much has been written about the "brothers of Christ," many judgements have been made and theories have been proposed, but they all contain contradictions or lack in fact.
If these "brothers" of Christ appeared in the literal sense, that is, they were actual relatives by flesh, then they could have been second cousins. The Apostle Matthew speaks of their mother as being Mary, the mother of James and Joses, the wife of Cleophas, who appears to have been a cousin of the Most-holy Mary. The Apostle John also calls her a sister of His Mother (John 19:25).
These "brothers" of the Lord could have been pseudo "stepbrothers" by the surrogate father Joseph, Her betrothed. They could have been sons of St. Joseph from his real marriage which occurred before his engagement to the Holy Virgin Mary. There is nothing amazing about this, as, for example, according to the Gospel of Mark the genealogy of Jesus Christ is given through the lineage of Joseph, the betrothed, according to Jewish law. The words of the Jews spoken about the Saviour also indicate this possibility: "Whence hath this Man this wisdom, and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter's son? is not His mother called Mary? and His brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us? Whence then hath this Man all these things?" (Matt 13:54-56). An indication supporting this position is given by the Apostle John. "His brethren therefore said unto him, Depart hence, and go into Judaea, that thy disciples also may see the works that thou doest" (John 7:3). It is also known that the opinion that the "brothers" of the Lord are children of Joseph by his first marriage is from the most ancient tradition.
This ancient tradition would not have had any contradiction if the Apostle Matthew called the mother of James and Joseph not only Mary but as the Apostle John named her Mary of Cleophas, sister of His Mother (Matt.27:56; John 19:25); therefore, several scholars came to the conclusion that "brothers" of the Lord were His second cousins by blood.
But as the Holy Orthodox Church does not repudiate the ancient tradition cited above, we consider it necessary to speak about it.
In the Lives of the Saints on December 26, it says that St. Joseph the Betrothed was the son of Jacob. Jacob was the son of Matthan. But Jacob was married, according to the levirate law, to the wife of his brother Heli who died childless. The levirate law prescribes that if a man dies childless, his brother should take his wife and raise up seed unto his brother (Deut. 25:5-6). By this law, Joseph was the son of Heli although according to the flesh he was the son of Jacob. That is why the holy Evangelist Luke in presenting the lineage of Christ called Heli the father of Joseph speaking of Christ thus: "And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli..." (Luke 3:23).
Church tradition indicates that St. Joseph had a wife and children. Thus, Nikiphoros, the ancient Greek historian, following St. Hippolytus says that St. Joseph was married to Salome. "But do not think he added, that this is the Salome that was in Bethlehem and was called the grandmother of the Lord. The former was a relative of Elizabeth and the Most-holy Mother of God, and the latter was a daughter of Haggai, the brother of Zacharias, the father of John the Forerunner. Haggai and Zacharias were sons of the priest Barachus. With Salome, daughter of Haggai as a wife, St. Joseph had his four sons, Jacob, Simon, Jude and Joses, and two daughters, Esther and Thamar or, as some say, Martha. The Synaxarion for the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearers adds still a third daughter by the name of Salome who married Zebedee. But George Kedrin in speaking of the two daughters of Joseph, says that one of them was Maria, who was given in marriage to Cleophas, the brother of Joseph, already after the return of Joseph from Egypt. But it seems that this Mary is the same person as Martha or Thamar (in the Georgian lists of saints among the holy Myrrh-bearing Women St., Thamar is listed under the name of Tamara). No matter what kind of daughter she was and how many daughters Joseph had; in any case, Joseph undoubtedly was married and had sons and daughters. Upon the death of his wife Salome, Joseph lived a widower for the rest of the time passing his days in chastity.
The Holy Gospels bear witness to his holy and immaculate life with the following short but laudatory words, Her husband Joseph, being a just man (Matt. 1:19). And what could be a greater witness? He was so just that his sanctity exceeded that of the other righteous forefathers and patriarchs, for who could be worthy to be betrothed to and the surrogate husband of the Most-pure Virgin Mother of God? And to whom was given the honour to become the stepfather of Christ? Truly, he was worthy of such an honour and of such an appointment on account of his perfectly virtuous life. When he was already an old, eighty years man, the Holy Virgin Mary became betrothed to him, and She was given to him for the protection of Her virginity. So he served Her with reverence and awe as the Mother of God and as his and all the world’s Lady and Sovereign being assured of this by the angel who appeared to him in a dream. He also served the God-child born of Her earning a living for them by the work of his hands. St. Joseph died at the age of a hundred and ten years.