In stray hints the Gospels give us a little of the framework of that boyhood in Nazareth. The elder Joseph early disappears from the story, and we find a reference to four brothers and several sisters. “Is not this the carpenter?” people at Nazareth asked, “the son of Mary, the brother of James and Joseph, and of Judah and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:3); Matthew adds a word that may or may not be significant “his sisters are they not all with us?” (Matt. 13:56). In ancient times a particular view of the Incarnation, linked with other contemporary views of celibacy and the baseness of matter, led men to discover or invent the possibility that these brothers and sisters were either the children of Joseph by a former wife, or the cousins of Jesus on his mother’s side. That cousins in some parts of the world actually are confused in common speech with brothers may be admitted; but to the ordinary Greek reader “brothers” meant brothers, and “cousins” something different. No one, not starting with the theories of St. Jerome, let us say, on marriage and matter and the decencies of the Incarnation, would ever dream from the Greek narrative of the episode of the critical neighbours at Nazareth, who will not accept Jesus as a prophet because they know his family—a delightfully natural and absurd reason, with history written plain on the face of it—that Jesus had no brothers, only cousins or half-brothers at best. When History gives us brothers, and Dogma says they must be cousins—in any other case the decision of the historian would be clear, and so it is here.
We have then a household—a widow with five sons and at least two, or very likely more, daughters. Jesus is admittedly her eldest son, and is bred to be a carpenter; and a carpenter he undoubtedly was up to, we are told, about thirty years of age (Luke 3:23). The dates of his birth and death are not quite precisely determined, and people have fancied he may have been rather older at the beginning of his ministry. For our purposes it is not of much importance. The more relevant question for us is: How came he to wait till he was at least about thirty years old before he began to teach in public? One suggested answer finds the impulse, or starting-point, of his ministry in the appearance of John the Baptist. It is a simpler inference from such data as we have that the claims of a widowed mother with six or seven younger children, a poor woman with a carpenter’s little brood to bring up, may have had something to do with his delay. In any case, the parables give us pictures of the undeniable activities of the household.