The Jews were polygamist like many other Oriental peoples. Men of wealth and nobility married several wives and this custom was also followed by men of the poorer classes. In some cases the Jewish law made it mandatory. For instance, if a brother should die before leaving a wife and no posterity, his brother must mate her and bring a child to his deceased brother. Thus, even those who were content with one wife were often forced by circumstances to take another.

The family unity of Easterners is centered in the father. The mother’s side is unimportant. In a family there is only one father, many mothers and the children of all the mothers. In every case, in biblical genealogies, the name of the mother in polygamous families is given with that of her son. This fact explains why the name of the mother is often mentioned in connection with the kings of Israel and Judah. Even today in many Eastern countries where polygamy is still practiced, whenever a son is mentioned, reference is made to his mother as the one who gave birth to him, to distinguish her from other mothers of the family.

There is no doubt that Joseph had other wives. Matthew traces the genealogy of Jesus from Abraham to Joseph. The reference to Mary is to show that Jesus was born of her and not one of the other wives of Joseph. The brothers and sisters of Jesus who are mentioned in the Gospels were not Mary’s children, but children of Joseph by other wives. If they had been the children of Mary, Jesus being the eldest son would have asked them to take care of her. Instead, Jesus placed His mother in the care of John.

George M. Lamsa,
Ethnologist, Aramaic Language Expert
Gospel Light: Comments on the Teachings of Jesus
(compiled and adapted from pages 5, 6, 97, 98, 129)
A.J. Holman, Bible Publishers, 1939