Firstborn Son. In Luke’s description of the birth of Jesus on the first Christmas, he explained that Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son” (Lk 2:7). In the original Greek text, Luke used the Greek word protokos, and the New American Bible translates it “firstborn son.”
The Firstborn Controversy. The word “firstborn” has been the cause for much debate. There are some who claim that Jesus is the first son born to Mary, that she remained a virgin until the conception of Jesus, but that after the birth of Jesus, Mary had relations with Joseph and she had four additional sons: James, Joses, Judas, and Simon (see Mk 6:3). The Catholic Church, on the other hand, teaches that the Blessed Mother is the “ever-virgin Mary,” a virgin before the conception of Jesus, and that she remained a virgin for the rest of her life, and that Jesus was her only son (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), No. 499). Moreover, the Church holds that “James and Joseph, ‘brothers of Jesus,’ are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls ‘the other Mary’ (Mt 13:55; 28:1; cf Mt 27:56)” (CCC, No. 500).
Firstborn, A Christological Term. In this context, “firstborn” does not refer to Jesus’ birth order. Fr. Eugene LaVerdiere, a Catholic biblical scholar, believes that protokos would be better translated “firstborn of God” rather than “firstborn son [of Mary],” and that “firstborn” is a way to describe the supreme importance of his birth. Jesus is “the firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15); “the first born into the world” (Heb 1:6); “the firstborn of the dead” (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5), the one who has primacy over all. “Firstborn” means that Jesus is “the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father” (Creed, Council of Nicea, 325 AD).
Firstborn, Jesus, the New Israel. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Chosen People Israel is God’s firstborn son. God said, “Israel is my son, my firstborn” (Ex 4:22). Jesus is the New Israel. Salvation came through the Chosen People Israel, and now salvation comes through the newborn Jesus, the firstborn of Israel.
Firstborn Male, A Special Jewish Designation. Every Jewish firstborn male had the birthright (see Gen 27:7b,27-29), the right of inheritance from his father. The first-born was entitled to a double share of the inheritance (Dt 21:17). Jesus inherited everything from his Father, his co-equal as a Person of the Trinity. “The Father loves the Son and has given everything over to him” (Jn 3:35). It was Jewish tradition that every firstborn male was consecrated to God (Ex 13:2,12,15). God said, “Every firstborn is mine” (Num 3:13a). “I consecrated to me every firstborn of Israel … they belong to me” (Num 3:13c). Subsequently, after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph brought their newborn son Jesus to the Temple, and according to the law of Moses, which stipulated that “every male that opens that womb shall be consecrated to the Lord” (Lk 2:23; see Ex 13:2,12), Mary and Joseph presented Jesus to Simeon to consecrate their newborn and firstborn son to almighty God (Lk 2:22-38). Thus consecrated as “firstborn,” Jesus stands not only as the firstborn of Mary and Joseph, but as the firstborn of the human race, the Messiah, the Son of God.