In the Old Testament, the word brother usually refers to the blood relationship of siblings (Exodus 4:14;
Judges 9:5). In fact, the book of Genesis addresses the difficulties of sibling rivalry, or the “brother problem”: Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1); Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25-28); Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37-50). In each instance, the younger brother is the one favored by God. (See also Genesis 37-50 among Jesse's sons,
2 Samuel 1:26.)
The New Testament also reflects the use of the word brother to designate a physical relationship. Luke mentions that Herod and Philip are brothers (Luke 3:1). Among the disciples, Simon and Andrew are siblings (Mark 1:16); so also are James and John (Mark 1:19). The four brothers of Jesus are mentioned in
Mark 3:31 and named in
Mark 6:3. Other examples of physical brothers are found in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:28), the story of the disputed inheritance (Luke 12:13), and the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:1).
The term brother is also used in the Old Testament to signify kinsmen, allies, fellow countrymen. The word is used in
Genesis 13:8 to describe the relationship of Abram and his nephew, Lot (“we be brethren”). Solomon and Hiram of Tyre are called brothers after they entered into political alliance with one another (1 Kings 9:13). Often, the term brothers is found in apposition to the phrase “the children of Israel” (Leviticus 25:46;
Judges 20:13; cf.
Numbers 25:6). Basic to this idea is the notion that the tribes and nation of Israel descended from a common father.
This shift of focus from blood to spiritual kinship is found in the teachings of Jesus when He designated as brothers those “which hear the word of God, and do it” (Luke 8:20). The fledgling Christian community continued this emphasis on brother as expressing a spiritual relationship. Paul regularly addressed the Christian community as brothers (1 Corinthians 1:10;
1 Thessalonians 1:4). In fact, in most of the New Testament passages where brethren is used to designate the entire Christian community (male and female), the word may be better translated as “fellow Christians” (Philippians 4:1-9). The dual function of the term brother as describing both a physical and spiritual relationship bears eloquent testimony to the importance in the Christian community of both the family of flesh and the family of faith. See Sister; Early Church; Paul.
Mikeal C. Parsons