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Did Jesus Christ have brothers and sisters? My friend Kathy and her husband Roy swear they heard that he did during a reading at a Catholic Mass. I find it hard to believe because it seems that it would fly in the face of Mary as the virgin mother, etc. I also find it hard to believe because imagine the pressure of Jesus being your older sibling--i.e., "Your brother can walk on water and you can't even swim." If you can spare some brain cycles on this I'd appreciate it. --A fan in Sweden

Got a point there, Swede. Lends new poignancy to the refrain "My parents treat my brother like he's God." But that's not the heart of the issue as far as Catholics are concerned (and this is mainly a Catholic hang-up). Controversy over Jesus's sibs springs from one of Catholicism's core beliefs. Sure, maybe they took away our Latin Mass and fish on Friday too. But we've still got the virgin birth.

The New Testament contains several references to Jesus's brothers and sisters, the most explicit being Matthew 13:55-56, in which the neighbors wonder where Jesus gets off with all this preaching: "Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?"

The words in the Greek original are adelphoi, brothers, and adelphi, sisters. They can be used in a metaphorical, brotherhood-of-man sense, just like their English equivalents. But the context strongly suggests the strict sense, i.e., children of the same mom.

The Catholic take, however, is that the words have yet another meaning: cousins, or perhaps Joseph's children by a previous marriage. This tortured reading is necessary so as not to contradict the aforementioned doctrine of the virgin birth. (The VB, by the way, is different from the Immaculate Conception, the belief that Mary was free of original sin, which was declared Catholic dogma in 1854.)

Now, some would have you believe that "virgin" as used in the New Testament (in Greek, parthenos) merely meant "unmarried woman" and lacked our modern connotation of a woman who has not had sexual intercourse. That implies that the notion of Jesus being conceived without sex resulted from a mistranslation. But this argument doesn't hold water. After the angel of the Annunciation has informed Mary that she is about to have a son, Luke 1:34 says, "Then Mary said unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?"--i.e., she was a virgin in the modern sense.

Still, it's one thing to believe Mary was a virgin before the birth of Christ. It's quite another to believe she was a virgin after. (I know, you secular humanists think the whole thing's for the birds, but work with me on this.) According to Catholic belief, Mary was "ever virgin"--she got married and conceived and bore a child, yet somehow remained a virgin her entire life. The very model of virtuous womanhood, no? At any rate, that's why Catholics are obliged to conclude Jesus had no brothers or sisters, despite the seemingly plain meaning of the text.

Why is salt used with ice to make ice cream, yet you pour salt on icy sidewalks to melt the ice?

--ML, via the Internet

Back to the simplicities of chemistry. Salt lowers the freezing point of water, typically to the mid-20s Fahrenheit. If the air temperature is greater than the mid-20s, ice sprinkled with salt will melt.

In an ice cream maker, you want to rapidly lower the temperature while whipping air into the cream mixture using the crank. The water dripping from ordinary melting ice will remain at a constant temperature of 32 degrees. The water from a melting ice and salt mixture, however, will drop to the mid-20s due to the lowered freezing point. The lower the temperature, the quicker the ice cream freezes and the sooner you can stop cranking and enjoy.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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