Magazine article The Christian Century
Scholars, Churches Debate: Was Jesus an Only Child? (News)
Catholic and Eastern Orthodox church doctrines contend that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin in perpetuity. Orthodoxy says the biblical mentions of brothers of Jesus refer to half-brothers, children of Joseph by a prior marriage. Rome interprets "brothers" to mean either relatives such as "cousins" or brothers in faith. Protestants generally see the brothers (and sisters) of Jesus in the natural meaning of a nuclear family.
But not just Protestants. Some Catholic scholars in recent decades have edged toward not seeing Jesus as an only child.
In his little-noticed presidential address in 1991 to the Catholic Biblical Association, John P. Meier of Catholic University of America said that regardless of church dogma, on biblical and historical grounds "the most probable opinion is that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were true siblings."
Fifteen years earlier, Rudolf Pesch, a German New Testament scholar, took a similar position. In a book on Mark, Pesch said the gospel scene in Nazareth--which calls Jesus "the son of Mary," names four brothers and alludes to "his sisters"--clearly identifies them as blood brothers and sisters and as children of Mary. A joint Catholic-Lutheran study, Mary in the New Testament, wondered whether the Vatican would tolerate Pesch's theory. …