Finding Jesus’ Sisters

Here’s Matthew 12:46-50:

46While he yet talked to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him.
47 Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee.
48 But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren?
49 And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!
50 For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.

Wonder why Jesus’ sister suddenly makes an appearence in verse 50? She doesn’t. She’s been there all along. She was just hiding behind a plural noun ending. Like many other languages, Greek follows these rules:

when a noun refers to more than one woman, use the plural feminine ending
when a noun refers to more than one man, use the plural masculine ending
when a noun refers to a mixed-gender group, use the plural masculine ending

In this case it is clear that every time ‘brethren’ is used, it meant ‘brothers and sister,’ but only because of the fluke in the verse 50–the fact that Jesus changes to the singular forms from the plural. In most situations, we have no clear indication whether a word such as ‘brethren,’ ‘disciple,’ or ‘men’ includes women. One Greek word, aner, specifically means ‘male’ and is therefore unlikely to have women hiding in it; some scholars argue otherwise, but I think they are trying too hard to find what they want. But another word, anthropos, is translated in the KJV as ‘men’ although is more akin to our ‘people.’ Anthropos is more than twice as common in the NT as aner, and awareness of alternative options for translating it may affect how we read such verses as Matthew 9:8.

This is a reminder that women are sometimes present in the story of Jesus’ life when we don’t expect it. Look for them.

19 comments for “Finding Jesus’ Sisters

  1. Anita Wells
    September 15, 2006 at 4:56 pm

    I heard someone speak on the water to wine miracle at the wedding, theorizing that it was the wedding of Jesus’ sister since he was functioning as the male host (after Joseph’s death). Can’t remember who it was…

  2. September 15, 2006 at 5:08 pm


    If I recall correctly, there was something about the wedding in “Jesus The Christ”, but my memory is fading. Perhaps it was there that you read that.

  3. September 15, 2006 at 6:24 pm

    Interesting observation. Knowing spanish, I am easily able to relate since it uses the same structure. Thanks for pointing this out.

  4. Tatiana
    September 16, 2006 at 10:39 am

    It’s also obvious from the other stories of the Gospel, even as written by men (probably?), that Christ’s companions included many women, and that he gave them the same consideration, respect, and love as he did men. The level of discourse he had with women was at least as high as that with men. Numerous episodes in the gospels strike me as showing that Christ did not partake in the sexism of his time and place and culture. I think that’s interesting to note. I’m not sure I could be a Christian if he had.

  5. Kevin Barney
    September 16, 2006 at 11:11 am

    This is a long-standing and very controversial issue in Bible translation. It was brought to the fore once again when the Today’s New International Version was released, which in large measure was an attempt to make the NIV more gender accurate (and thus in many cases more gender inclusive) in its language. Predictably, many people reacted very negatively to the TNIV and pledged to stick with the NIV.

    Here is a brief discussion of some of the issues, along the lines of Julie’s post:

  6. Jack
    September 16, 2006 at 12:37 pm

    “Predictably” is right. If I were a scholar I too would be miffed at the notion that historical accuracy must take a back seat to modern ideology.

  7. Julie M. Smith
    September 16, 2006 at 1:53 pm

    Jack, in this context, an excellent case can be made that in most passages, ‘historical accuracy’ lines up with ‘modern ideology.’ As I said in the original post, I think it can be taken too far–I’m not convinced that aner can be inclusive, for example. If you want to make the case that anthropos should never be inclusive, then present your evidence, but I think that that is a pretty tough sell.

  8. September 17, 2006 at 11:58 am

    “Anthropos” means “human person.” “Aner” was for (as my Greek teacher put it) “testicular person.” Anthropology is the study of humans, not males. A philanthropist is someone who feels brotherly (siblingly) love for all people, not just males.

    I wish we could just teach the generic masculine again — it’s easier, and less awkward than “he/she,” and it helps current readers misunderstand those who wrote using the generic masculine a bit less.

  9. Kevin Barney
    September 17, 2006 at 4:13 pm

    Oh, Blain, I love “testicular person” for aner. That is pricelss. Who was your Greek teacher?

    You’re quite right that the failure to understand is not only grounded in the original language, but also in the English target language. Often in the archaic Jacobean English of the KJV a masculine is meant to be generic and inclusive of the feminine, but most moderns do not grasp that and assume it is limited to males only.

  10. Mark Butler
    September 17, 2006 at 6:09 pm

    I was taught that (about English pronouns) in elementary school. I am often surprised to hear that others have not (or have forgotten it if they had).

  11. September 17, 2006 at 7:17 pm

    So, with all this, how was it determined that some things (the priesthood, for example) were NOT inclusive?

  12. September 17, 2006 at 9:06 pm

    9 — Diane Johnson at Western Washington University. She’s a delight to work with — I routinely go on for minutes with examples at this point in the conversation, but I’ll skip it due to the context. I’m sad that my impending return toward my first BA will not include any classes with her — I think this will be the first quarter I’ve been there without at least one of her classes — but they’re too short handed in the CS department to cover more than Greek, Latin and the lecture hall classes.

    Topic drift.

    I think the problem has been the politicization of gender, from all angles. Generic masculine is seen as diminishing the feminine, and has doubtless been used that way by some (maybe even by many). I just hate to see the language manipulated to satisfy short-term (historically speaking) concerns, especially when it’s so ineffective at producing the desired results. Or does someone have examples of how “he/she” has helped substantial numbers of people to see gender equality and not be bigots?

    11 — I don’t know, because I don’t know when or how the point was made that priesthood was for men and not women. I tend to think there is more to it than not understanding the generic masculine in a translation of scripture, but I can’t prove that either way.

  13. Julie M. Smith
    September 17, 2006 at 9:46 pm

    ‘Or does someone have examples of how “he/sheâ€? has helped substantial numbers of people to see gender equality and not be bigots?”

    I won’t address the modern usage of he/she, but I will say that I think it is important for women and men and perhaps especially young women to realize that the scriptures are about THEM. Words like ‘brethren’ tend to obscure this fact; words like ‘brothers and sisters’ tend to enhance it. [Oddly, the example in the original post is something of a negative one–it is the disciples and not Jesus’ biological family that comes off in a good light in this story.]

    The issue isn’t that the generic masculine “diminishes” the feminine, but rather that most readers assume that there are no females there. I think it matters greatly whether the reader pictures the ‘men’, ‘brethren’, and, particularly, ‘disciples’ around Jesus as including their own kind.

    I’ve sometimes had the experience of listening to a sacrament meeting talk and assuming that, you know, I was part of the audience. Then the speaker says something along the lines of “. . . and when we do our home teaching . . .” or “. . . we should treat our wives . . .” and I realize that all along I have been eavsdropping on something for which I am not the target audience. It is an eery feeling. No one should have this experience–no one needs to have this experience–the original authors did not intend for anyone to have this experience–while reading the story of Jesus life.

  14. September 18, 2006 at 12:21 pm

    13 — I agree. That’s where teaching the generic masculine can let women/girls know that all of those collective male forms can be seen as inclusive wherever that makes sense. It lets those who wrote with it look less like misogynists than they otherwise would.

    And I figure they can use all the breaks on that account as they can get.

  15. September 18, 2006 at 2:37 pm

    Julie, I love your insight about “eavesdropping.” A number of years ago–when we had only four daughters and no sons–my husband (who had been sensitized by me) was the high council member assigned to administer to the Young Women programs in the stake. At the stake leadership session for youth programs, the presenter wore a scout uniform and discussed scouting for nearly the entire hour. My husband finally said, “What about the Young Women?”


    The good man truly meant no harm, he just…well…forgot. He was a scout, he’d been in YM, he’d served in both, he had sons. His focus simply was not on women, which tends to happen with men who haven’t ever been women. Unfortunately, I think the “eavesdropping” tends to happen unless those in charge (usually men–who have never been a YW or even an old woman) very consciously avoid it.

    “I think it is important for women and men and perhaps especially young women to realize that the scriptures are about THEM.”

    The problem is, they AREN’T. There are many scriptures that simply do not apply to women (and, yes, others that really apply to none of us, but to those directly spoken to).

    When I realized this, as a child, it threw up a barrier. If lots of scriptures don’t apply to me–and I can’t tell from reading them which ones don’t–how can I be sure that ANY of them do? That IS why I ask (and have repeatedly over the years to various groups and folks) how it was determined that the “he” in priesthood, plural marriage, etc., applies only to men. And why I have wondered if it was just a cultural assumption made by someone along the way or if it was directed by God.

    I do trust in our prophets when they have specified particular blessings women receive, but I have still often found myself assuming that many blessings don’t apply to me–because I’m a woman.

  16. Julie M. Smith
    September 18, 2006 at 6:31 pm

    “The problem is, they AREN’T.”

    Hmm, this might need to be its own post, but I think this is a hard case to make if you are talking about Jesus’ life. One of the main themes of the NT is that the role of the OT high priest is now accessible to all (ALL!) believers. Our current temple worship echoes that theme in spades.

  17. September 18, 2006 at 7:34 pm

    I’m not talking about Jesus’ life per se, but the scriptures generally.

    I agree that our current temple worship echoes that. But both the endowment and the sealing are different for men and women. Do those differences make a difference in what we are promised or what applies to us?

    Julie, I’d love to have you address a post to this, if you care to. It would be nice to resolve the issues in my own mind.

  18. YL
    September 18, 2006 at 8:02 pm

    Some of the differences in the revelations about men and women are due to the following:

    1) women get to enjoy the ultimate of God’s blessings in this life without holding the priesthood – whereas men cannot enjoy the ultimate of God’s blessings in this life without holding the priesthood. A classic example is the temple recommend interview: if both a man and a woman answer the recommend questions honestly and favorably, both will get a recommend – with one exception: if the man doesn’t hold the priesthood, he doesn’t get a recommend no matter how worthily he may be living. In relation to other men, LDS men “GET” to hold the priesthood. But in relation to LDS women, LDS men “HAVE” to hold the priesthood. The priesthood is an additional requirement for men.

    2) women generally are more righteous than men, and will follow any good example – male or female – whereas men tend to follow the examples of good men but not good women; a man wants to marry a good woman but not be like one. There are exceptions, of course; President Hinckley would follow the example of a good woman as well as that of a good man. Thus, the scriptures tend to focus on male examples who will influence both men and women.

    3) because women are generally more righteous than men, scriptures of chastisement may apply more to men than to women – in the same way that a mother is more attentive to a sick child than to a healthy one.

  19. Julie M. Smith
    September 19, 2006 at 11:04 pm

Comments are closed.