Thursday, January 04, 2018

James, the brother of the Lord

This post is an offshoot from another post that I have half written, and which will emerge in due course. It concerns the 'Minimal Facts' approach to 'prove' the resurrection. One of the main four minimal facts concerns the initial skepticism, conversion, and rise to church leadership of James, the brother of Jesus.

However, I'm not sure this extrabiblical story has any solid grounding in history, so let's look at the character of James in the new testament and in the early church writings.

James in the Gospels

In the gospel of Mark (the first gospel written), James exists only as a name in a list of Jesus' brothers in one verse (Mark 6v3)
"Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him."
That is the only place where James is named in the gospel of Mark. He is also named in an equivalent verse in Matthew (13v55), but is not named in the other two gospels. There is no character of James the brother of Jesus in any of the gospels.

Jesus' (unnamed) brothers do have a very minor role in the gospels. After the wedding in Cana in John chapter 2, Jesus, his mother, brothers and disciples spend time together. No antagonism between Jesus and his brothers is implied, quite the opposite.

However, the (skeptical) character of James in the gospels is inferred largely because of this verse:
"Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” For even his own brothers did not believe in him." John 7v3-5
This is a confusing statement, verses 3 and 4 imply that the brothers know that Jesus is doing some form of wondrous works (i.e. they apparently believe in his power), but verse 5 states that they didn't believe in him (in what way did then not believe?). Furthermore there is this story in Mark 3v20-21:
"Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”"
So, by inference, James (assumed to be part of 'his own brothers' or 'his family') thought that Jesus was 'out of his mind' and 'did not believe in him'. From this somebody deduced that James was not a follower of Jesus, and was therefore 'a skeptic'. Sorry, what? Is that really the best we can do? It is really, really unclear to me that we know anything at all about the character of James from the gospels. Surely on this basis we have to list Mary as a skeptic too?

It is interesting to note that Matthew's retelling of Mark's story in chapter 12 omits the verse about Jesus' family thinking he is 'out of his mind'. In Matthew, the family just turn up and want to speak to Jesus, and he ignores them. We learn nothing at all about the character of Jesus' mother and brothers from Matthew. Likewise in Luke.

In Summary, Matthew and Luke have nothing negative to say about James or any of Jesus' other family members, they are really non-characters. Mark names James in a list, and while he does note that Jesus 'family' thought he was out of his mind, there is no explicit mention of James in connection to this. John does not name James anywhere. But Jesus' unnamed brothers do express a very minor degree of skepticism.

Based on gospel evidence, it is far from clear that James the brother of Jesus did anything at all, or had any massively negative views about Jesus or his message.

Before we move on, I'd like to think through this again. The claim made by apologists is that Jesus' brother James was skeptical about his ministry, then later had a post-resurrection appearance by Jesus, changed his mind, became a follower and then became one of the main leaders in the Church in Jerusalem. He was later martyred.

Keep that sequence in mind. At the time of writing of the gospel accounts, generally taken to be post 70AD, James would have been a legend of the early church - one of the pioneering Church leaders, one of the most notable martyrs, someone important. Basically, he'd be considered a core character in any history of the early church that anyone would write. If you want to suppose that Mark was written pre-70AD, the same sort of reasoning applies, but James might still be a key character in the church, having not yet died.

Now consider the evangelists writing their gospels. Knowing who James would become, would Mark leave James as merely a name on a list? Would he mention the apparent skepticism of James in such an oblique way? Would he not have made James more of a character? I think if Mark knew who James would become, he would certainly not write about him in the way presented here. My conclusion - the first evangelist did not know the stories about James, the brother of Jesus, converting and becoming a leader in the Church.

What about Matthew and Luke? If they knew about James's story would they have modified Mark's story to make James even more anonymous? I doubt it. Conclusion, it looks unlikely that Matthew or Luke knew the story of James.

Finally John, who doesn't even name James in his gospel. Did he know about the conversion and rise of this skeptic to be the leader of the Jerusalem church? No. It doesn't look likely at all.

Basically, I think that the gospel stories themselves suggest that James the brother of Jesus was not a key player in the life of the early church. Maybe there was a James who was important, as we will see, but the gospel evidence suggests that this character was not identified with the brother of Jesus.

Before we move on, it is worth mentioning at this point that the gospels list two other characters called James - one the brother of John and son of Zebedee, and the other one the son on Alphaus. These are both characters, not merely names on a list.

James in Acts

Next we go to Acts. What does it tell us about James the brother of Jesus after the death of Jesus? Nothing. 

None of the mentions of any character named James in the book of Acts explicitly refer to him as the brother of Jesus. None of them.

James the brother of John is killed in Acts 12v2. After this there are three references to someone called James who is a leader of the church in Jerusalem. The book of Acts does not tell us who this James is; if this is James brother of Jesus, or James son of Alphaus. But given that Luke-Acts has never even mentioned that Jesus had a brother called James, our only reasonable conclusion is that the second James in Acts is the only other James previously mentioned, James son of Alpheus. Luke-Acts gives us no other character to assume. It would also make sense if the James in question was one of the disciples, not some non-character who hadn't been on the scene or part of the story before. If the other James was an outsider from the original apostle group, surely the writer of Acts should have introduced him in some way?

James in Paul

So from where do we get the idea that the leader of the Jerusalem church (after the death of James son of Zebedee) was James the brother of Jesus? We get it from one reference in Galatians 1v19:
"18 Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie."
That's it. About three years after his conversion, Paul met someone called "James, the Lord's brother" in Jerusalem, and he lists him in the same breath as mentioning the apostles.

No other mention of James in the writings of Paul specifies which James he means. In fact, it sounds as if Paul thinks there is only one James of note. Poor James son of Zebedee and poor James son of Alphaus, if Paul means the other one. Paul, it would seem, doesn't rate them.

In the creed at the end of 1 Corinthians, someone called James is named as being one of the recipients of a post-resurrection appearance of Christ. It doesn't say which James. Again, if you read Paul, it looks like he only knew of one James. Paul knows of no James who was martyred and then replaced by another James. Paul's writings only refer to one James, and aside from the Galatians verse above, he doesn't add any describing words.

It looks to me like somebody, sometime after the writing of the epistles and the gospels, contrived the skeptic-appearance-church leader story out of this very limited information. Apparently that is enough to make it a 'fact'. It all hangs on one verse in Galatians.

But let me go back to that one verse again before I move on. The plain reading of the verse is confusing. It suggests that the James under discussion was not an apostle. Paul plainly says "I saw none of the other apostles". These verses might have said 'the only apostle I saw was Peter, and I also saw James, the brother of the Lord'. What can we do with this? On one interpretation it suggests there was a character called James, who wasn't one of the original disciples, the group now known as apostles. This fits with the story. Or maybe this verse should be read the way it traditionally has, something like 'I saw none of the other apostles, except James, the brother of the Lord, I did see him', which would label this character as both a brother of Jesus and as an Apostle.

The creed in 1 Corinthians 15 says:
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
There is a parallel here between verses 5 and 7. V5 has "to Cephas, and then to the Twelve" whereas V7 has "to James, then to all the apostles". Were the apostles and the Twelve different groups of people? I've heard it suggested that they were. The Twelve (a symbolic name, I guess, because if the gospel accounts are accurate, then Judas was gone by this time) were the disciples who knew Jesus during his lifetime, the apostles were those who claimed to have post-resurrection visions of Jesus. These need not be the same groups of people.

I've also heard it claimed that this creed was an early attempt to unite two rival branches of early Christianity - the one that viewed Cephas and the Twelve as the founding fathers, and the one who viewed James and the apostles as the original guys. By putting both groups in the same creed, with equal standing, the author of this creed (pre- or post-Pauline? Certainly not Paul himself) tried, successfully as it seems, to unite the two rival proto-religions into one big happy family that became the Catholic (universal, i.e. unified) church.

James beyond the NT

If we go beyond the NT, the sources muddy the water quite a lot. There are snippets in Eusebius (3rd/4th century), some of them attributed to Hegesippus (mid/late 2nd century), whose writings are now lost to posterity, other than the quotes in Eusebius.

There is also one reference in Josephus (late 1st century) which, if judged to be authentic, would be the closest in time to the real character, if there was one. This is in Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 9, where it says:
"so [Ananus] assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned"
This passage doesn't tell us much about James, or about Jesus, other than that James was considered by the sanhedrin to be a lawbreaker and was executed by stoning. According to Josephus, this execution was unpopular and led directly to the removal of Ananus as high priest and the appointment of someone called Jesus ben Damnaus as high priest.

Richard Carrier observes that if the clause 'who was called Christ' is removed from the Josephus passage, the story still makes sense but has a different spin - James the brother of someone called Jesus is executed, and as some form of recompense for this someone called Jesus is promoted to high priest. It makes a lot of sense if these two Jesus characters are actually the same character. Carrier supposes that some reader of this text added a marginal note "who was called Christ" (perhaps even questioning this?) at some point and when this document was copied, the scribe, thinking that this was an omission from the earlier document, inserted it into the text. Its possible, and has certainly happened in the transmission of other ancient documents.

Hegesippus, quoted in Eusebius, says this:
"James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles. He has been called the Just by all from the time of our Saviour to the present day; for there were many that bore the name of James. He was holy from his mother’s womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh. No razor came upon his head; he did not anoint himself with oil, and he did not use the bath. He alone was permitted to enter into the holy place; for he wore not woolen but linen garments. And he was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people. Because of his exceeding great justice he was called the Just, and Oblias, which signifies in Greek, ‘Bulwark of the people’ and ‘Justice,’ in accordance with what the prophets declare concerning him."
Does this sound at all like the child of a carpenter from Nazareth? Whoever this James was, he was raised as a Nazirite, and became the high priest - the only one permitted to enter the holy place in the temple; so he must have come from a priestly family.

Were it not for the 'the brother of the Lord' clause in the above passage, we would not consider this description as in any way coherent with the descriptions of Jesus' brothers in the gospels. Hegesippus' description leaves no room for the skeptic-turned-believer hypothesis - the James described here was holy from before he was born!

I suspect what we have here is a legend of a Jewish (not necessarily Christian!) holy man, possibly a high priest, called James. This is coherent with my supposition above that the James named by Josephus was brother of Jesus ben Damnaus, who must have also come from a priestly family as he became the high priest.

At some point along the way though, possibly due to Hegesippus himself, this character was merged with the largely unknown character of James, the brother of Jesus, who had just been a name on a list until then. My suspicion is that Hegesippus co-opted the well known character of James the Just, and made him a Christian saint, by identifying him as the brother of Jesus.

If that's not the case, then either Hegesippus is wrong about the character of James the brother of Jesus, or the gospels are wrong about him. We can't keep both as reliable historical accounts of the man, that's doublethink.

Clement of Alexandria (late 2nd/early 3rd century) also briefly mentions James the Just, claiming that following the resurrection, Peter, James & John deferred to James the Just as bishop of Jerusalem. While the whole notion of a 'bishop' in Jerusalem immediately following the resurrection seems a bit anachronistic, this shows that James the Just and James the brother of Jesus were clearly identified as the same person by the late 2nd century (which is consistent with Hegesippus as well). However, this is fully a century after the alleged guy lived!

In conclusion

So it looks to me like this:
  • The earliest Christian documents (Paul's letters) know of only one character called James, who is a leader in the Jerusalem church. Only one verse in Galatians 1 identifies him as the brother of Jesus.
  • The other early Christian documents (the gospels & Acts) know nothing about the character of James, the brother of Jesus. This seems inconsistent with later claims about his character.
  • From the mid 2nd century onwards, James (the brother of Jesus), James the Just (a 1st century priest and holy man) and James (the 'bishop' of Jerusalem) were merged into one character.
Were it not for that verse in Galatians, the whole thing simply looks like a legend that has grown in the telling. So what are we to do with the verse in Galatians?

Robert M. Price, in his commentary on Galatians in "The Amazing Colossal Apostle" (which I am still reading and will review on this blog eventually), agrees with the claims of W.C. Van Manen (1842-1905) that Galatians was written not by Paul, but by Marcion in the early 2nd century. This claim appears to be largely based on the observation that Tertullian wrote that Marcion 'discovered' the letter of Paul to the Galatians, that is, this epistle was unknown to the church before Marcion. Price's analysis suggests that Marcion wrote the core of the epistle, but that the 1st chapter - including the verse we are discussing here - was added at a later date, by another editor, which places this verse squarely in the mid 2nd century. This coheres with all my suppositions above, resolving the problem in the chronology.

So there you have it. A very long winded rebuttal of one of the five 'minimal facts' used as part of Habermas & Licona's apologetic. For this one at least I am convinced that this isn't a 'fact'. But I guess I have a long way to go to bring down the whole argument!


Ron Price said...


I share your general scepticism, but it seems to me that your thinking is going astray.

Firstly the Christian claim that James the brother of Jesus was the leader of the church in Jerusalem is very misleading. The word "church" implies that James was a "Christian". Yes, he was a follower of Jesus, but he was never a "Christian" because he was never an admirer of Paul and it was Paul who created the theology which underpins Christianity and gave rise to the "churches" whose members first became known as "Christians".

The birth of Christianity only becomes intelligible when we see it as arising from a clash between the established religion of Judaism and the emerging religion of Christianity. In Rom 9-11 Paul tried to resolve the contradictions which arose between Judaism and his radical new theology, but his attempt failed to avert a decisive split between the old religion and the emerging religion.

Why did Mark say so little about James the brother of Jesus? This apparent ignorance should be seen in the context of Mark's treatment of Peter. Mark frequently denigrated Peter (most harshly in Mk 8:33). But Paul must have despised James even more than Peter (Gal 1:11-12). So probably Mark disliked James so much that his account made no mention of James as an early follower of Jesus. Like some Soviet miscreant, he was erased from the picture. James had been the leading follower of Jesus from the beginning, but he was faithful to his Jewish roots, so he rejected Paul's elevatiion of Jesus to (divine) Son of God.

Luke had to kill off the fictitious 'James the son of Zebedee' (a hangover from Mark's gospel) so that in Ac 12:17 he could refer simply to "James", i.e. the well-known brother of Jesus.

Against R.M.Price (no relation), my investigations clearly indicate that Galatians is without the slightest doubt a genuine letter of Paul, and that it is intact. Indeed it's the *only* one of Paul's extant letters to churches which has survived without interpolation, amalgamation or rearrangement.

Ricky Carvel said...


Interesting thoughts, which I'll need to think more about, thanks.

I'm not convinced by some of your reasoning though. (Then again, I'm not necessarily convinced by my own reasoning, this is all highly speculative!) Particularly your claim that James was 'erased from the picture' by Mark. Mark's gospel does not look like one in which the role of James has been down played, rather it looks like a story in which James has no role at all, other than as a picture on the wall in the background. He is not a character, but also he is no more of a character than Simon, Joses and Judas, and no less of a character than them. There is no attempt to remove him from the picture, he simply does not feature as a focus.

I'm also not convinced by your comment about Luke. Luke has two characters called James, one of them gets killed off, the named character after that point must be the other. Luke and Acts, explicitly, are intended to inform the reader, not assume the reader knows anything about any of the characters. If Luke was introducing a new James character he would have said so.

At least, that's my reading of the NT data.

And out of interest, what are your reasons for taking Galatians as the only authentic and unedited epistle, but not the others?

Ron Price said...

I agree that Mark's gospel looks like a story in which James the brother of Jesus had no role at all. This was the author's intention, and reflects his antagonism towards James. Why this antagonism? Because James never accepted (Pauline) Christianity. If the true story of the ministry of Jesus had been told, I believe that James would have had a role second only to Jesus.

Whether the character of James the brother of Jesus (not elaborated in the gospels) would have been introduced by the author of Acts surely depends on how widely known this James was. I think he would have been widely known as the leader of the Jerusalem group who was bitterly opposed to Paul and his teaching.

With regard to the genuine letters of Paul, there is good evidence for interpolations in 1 Thessalonians and the Corinthian correspondence, late additions to the end of Romans, and rearrangement of the Corinthian and Philippian letters. This leaves Galatians as the only church letter by Paul not interfered with. My page hypothesis (for which see my web site) confirms that Galatians has probably not suffered any significant changes, for otherwise the structure/page match would probably have been distorted beyond recognition.

VinnyJH57 said...

James the brother of Jesus also appears in a couple of apocryphal works. In the Gospel According to the Hebrews, he is at the last supper. After Jesus is arrested James vows not to eat until he sees Jesus again, which he does when the risen Christ appears to him. In the Gospel of Thomas, he is one of Jesus’ most important followers.

It seems unlikely that either work has much historical value, but they are some evidence of the early church traditions concerning James. Depending on when you date the Gospel According to the Hebrew, you have a reasonably early tradition corroborating the James of 1 Cor. 15. as the brother of Jesus rather than the son of Zebedee. More detrimental to Habermas’ claims, the earliest tradition seems to be that James became a follower of Jesus prior to the crucifixion and not as a result of a post-resurrection appearance.

barry said...

A few questions from an atheist:

1 - Can the atheist bible critic be reasonable to agree with the the Christian scholarly consensus that James the Lord's brother rejected Jesus' claims for the entire duration of Jesus' earthly ministry? If new Christians can be reasonable to "accept Christ" at a point in their life before they know how to answer skeptical arguments, why can't new skeptics be reasonable to reject miracle claims in the bible before they know how to answer Christian apologists?

2 - Can the atheist bible critic be reasonable to infer that "James" is one of the relatives Mark 6:3 says refused to honor Jesus? Wouldn't it be safe to assume that if any member of Jesus' biological family DID 'honor' him before he was crucified, the gospel author, who knew how intimately his culture connected one's honor to one's family, would have specified any such family member for the reader? Yet as late as Acts 1 when Peter decides to find a replacement for Judas, the group of Christians on the scene set forth Matthias and Justus, two men having no historical connection to Jesus' biological family. If any of Jesus' biological family had been a true follower of him at any point during his life, you'd figure that they would be the one most likely chosen by the others as the best candidates to replace Judas. Such family members would have knowledge of Jesus that extends to his childhood, knowledge that would be less likely held by non-family members who become his disciples.

As an atheist bible critic, I find the failure of the gospels to specify that any of Jesus' relatives followed him during his earthly ministry, to be a silence that screams.

3 - Can the atheist bible critic be reasonable to infer that the relatives of Jesus who were skeptical of him during his earthly ministry, had first watched at least one of Jesus' magic shows, and so their skepticism was based on their belief that the "miracles" they witnessed Jesus doing were nothing but tricks? Or is it more reasonable to suppose that such skeptical family members, despite likely hearing numerous reports from many different people of Jesus doing real miracles, always managed to be looking the other way, or out of town, or otherwise too irrationally unconcerned to go actually watch Jesus to decide for themselves? Sorry, but if Jesus was every bit as popular as the gospels say, I find it highly unlikely that his biological family members would never go check out the claims for themselves. And since familiar honor or dishonor was a bigger issue for people in that culture than it is for modern westerners, that's another reason to say the inference that they'd go see a magic show before deciding whether Jesus was the real deal, is more likely than the idea that they were just somehow never concerned enough to check things this thoroughly.

If your Christian brother was causing in your city today a ruckus equal to what Jesus was causing (Mark 1:44-45), with scores of people claiming to be healed by him, wouldn't YOU go and see the events FOR YOURSELF to decide whether they are real or fake?

4 - Can atheist bible critics be reasonable to conclude that the skeptical members of Jesus' family likely wouldn't be skeptical, had the miracles of Jesus they saw been genuinely supernatural? Sure, there's always a possibility that somebody will choose to be skeptical even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, but this is a historical inquiry, therefore, what's probable trumps where merely possible. Wouldn't the social realities of the collectivist honor/shame culture warrant the assumption that Jesus' relatives would likely be careful in any investigation they might make of the actions of Jesus that were causing such uproar?

Cosmogenes said...

That "James" may have been the author of the Epistle attributed to a "James"