by Earl Doherty
The Brother of the Lord
COVERED IN THIS POST:
- brother of the Lord
- the meaning of “brother” in the epistles
- brethren of a sect?
- plain meanings
- apologist objections:
- who is “the Lord”?
- battle of the prepositions
- question begging as methodology
- why not “brother of Jesus”?
- or “brothers of Jesus”?
- separating Cephas and James
- G. A. Wells: a Jewish messianic group?
- more grammar: genitive vs dative
- Josephus’ James
- Ehrman on Robert Price
- “brother of the Lord” as a marginal gloss
- question begging as methodology: Ehrman as beggar
* * * * *
(Did Jesus Exist? pp. 145-156)
In his 5th chapter (approximately halfway through the book), Ehrman says he will “wrap up” his discussion of the historical evidence for Jesus by putting forward two points, two pieces of “Key Data” which confer a “high degree of certainty that (Jesus) was an historical figure.”
The first of these is a favorite of apologists everywhere, because it is so straightforward, so plain. No complex study of a text is required, no knowledge about ancient philosophy or obscure languages is necessary. We merely need to bring an obvious meaning to a five-word phrase, a phrase that is simple even in the original Greek where it is only four words, prefaced by a man’s name: “Iakōbon ton adelphon tou kuriou”:
“James, the brother of the Lord”
What could be simpler? We ‘know’ from the Gospels that Jesus had a brother named James. Here Paul is declaring that when he visited Jerusalem three years after his conversion to get to know Cephas, he also saw “James, the brother of the Lord” (Galatians 1:19). How could Jesus have had a brother if he had not lived on earth? Can mythicists not read?
Fortunately, we can. We can read a host of other appearances of the word “brother” (adelphos) in the epistles. Here are a few:
Rom. 16:23 – Greetings also from . . . our brother Quartus.
1 Cor. 1:1 – Paul . . . and our brother Sosthenes
1 Cor. 5:11 – you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is immoral or greedy . . .
1 Cor. 7:12 – If any brother has an unbelieving wife . . .
1 Cor. 8:13 – If food causes my brother to stumble . . . I will not cause my brother to fall.
1 Cor. 16:11-12 – I am expecting (Timothy) along with the brothers. As for brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to go to you with the brothers.
2 Cor. 2:13 – . . . because I did not find my brother Titus there.
2 Cor. 8:18 – We are sending with him the brother who is praised by all the churches . . .
Phil. 2:25 – . . . to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother and fellow-worker . . .
Col. 4:7 – (Tychicus) is a dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord.
1 Thes. 3:2 – Timothy, our brother and fellow-worker of God in the gospel of Christ.
1 Tim. 3:15 – Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.
1 Pet. 5:12 – Silvanus, the faithful brother . . .
2 Pet. 3:15 – Paul, our friend and brother . . .
Rev. 1:9 – I, John, your brother, who share with you . . .
Brethren of a sect
All of these refer unmistakeably to men who are members of the sect (and there are a handful of occurrences of the word “sister” referring unmistakeably to a female member of the sect). The above amount to 14 out of a total of over 40 in the epistles.
In addition, there are about a dozen which, while ambiguously worded, are also virtually certain to be meant as members of the sect, such as:
1 Cor. 6:6 – Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers [brothers], but one brother goes to law against another, and this in front of unbelievers?
James 2:15 – If a brother or a sister is in rags with not enough food for the day . . .
James 4:11 – He who disparages a brother or passes judgment on his brother disparages the law and judges the law.
1 Jn 2:9 – Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness.
1 Jn 3:10-11 – No one who does not do right is God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love his brother. The latter means a member of sect, since: For the message you have heard from the beginning is this: that we should love one another.
And that’s just in the singular. References to “brothers” in the plural also abound in the dozens, with a clear meaning of “brethren” of the sect, such as:
1 Cor. 15:6 – Then he was seen by over five hundred brothers at once.
Heb. 2:11 – . . . for which reason, he [Jesus] is not ashamed to call (the ones made holy, i.e., believers) his brothers.
1 Pet. 5:9 – You know that our brotherhood throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
In the singular, I have been able to locate in the epistles and Revelation only two usages of the word “brother” having the clear meaning of “sibling”: a reference in 1 John to Cain as the murderer of his brother Abel, and the ascription heading the epistle of Jude: “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James.” In the plural there is technically one, in 1 Timothy 5:2. As far as the world of the epistle writers is concerned, a “plain meaning” of “brother” equals the sense of “brethren” in a religious group; it is at least as natural as the sense of sibling. We in the 21st century rarely employ that sense, so to impose our idea of ‘plain meaning’ on theirs is an unjustified anachronism.
But the apologist objects: “Your examples don’t refer to any of these ‘brothers’ in relation to Jesus!”
1. Who is “the Lord”?
Well, first of all, neither does Galatians 1:19 or 1 Corinthians 9:5. James and the others are not stated as the brothers of Jesus, but brothers of the Lord. Since “Lord” is applied to both Father and Son in the epistles, can we even be sure which Lord is meant here? Consider 1 Thessalonians 3:2 noted above:
Timothy, our brother and fellow-worker of God in the gospel of [i.e., about] Christ.
Here Paul refers to Timothy as a worker for God, a theocentric focus very common in the epistles, and the work they do is to spread the gospel about Christ, who is regularly said to be revealed (using various revelation words) in scripture. We cannot assign the “gospel” to Christ himself, because Paul calls his gospel the “gospel of God” found in scripture (as in Rom. 1:2, 16:25), as well as assigning just about everything else to God. It is God who does the calling, the disclosing, who sends the Spirit. It is “God’s act of redemption” (Rom. 3:24); it is God “who began the good work” (Phil. 1:6). “It is all God’s doing,” says Paul (2 Cor. 1:21). So if this passage seems to suggest a brother in the sect as being linked with God, doing his work on behalf of God, not Jesus, this may give us an indicator of who “the Lord” is in Galatians 1:19 and 1 Corinthians 9:5.
2. The battle of the prepositions
Second, there are in fact—in answer to the apologist’s objection—a number of further cases in which the word “brother” is linked with “the Lord” (never Jesus). While they, too, are ambiguously worded, if they were to be interpreted in terms of Christ we would nevertheless have a clear reference to a sect member, or members, in that linkage.
Eph. 6:21 – “Tychicus, the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord.” (Cf. Col. 4:7 above)
Phil. 1:14 – “…most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God…”
What separates this phrase, in singular and plural, from the “brother of the Lord” in Galatians 1:19 and “the brothers of the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 9:5? A single preposition (in English; in the Greek it is the difference between the genitive case entailing “of” and the dative case with the preposition “en”).
Historicists are convinced that this single difference makes the meanings absolutely unrelated: one means siblings, the other means devotees. Well, I’d hate to have to put money on it.
With this survey in view, we can now consider what Ehrman has to say on the matter.
Question-begging as methodology
In approaching the famous passage in Galatians, Ehrman links Cephas (whom he identifies with the Peter of the Gospels) with James, whom Paul calls (if these are authentically his words) “the brother of the Lord.” Ehrman regards Cephas/Peter as Jesus’ “most intimate companion and confidant for his entire public ministry.” When Paul says that he went up to Jerusalem three years after his conversion, Ehrman admits that he might have gone there to “strategize” with him about his own gospel to the gentiles and other aspects of the movement. However,
But it defies belief that Paul would have spent over two weeks with Jesus’s closest companion and not learned something about him—for example, that he lived.” (DJE? p. 145)
This is undoubtedly the most ludicrous statement Bart Ehrman makes in the entire book. Has he not heard of the concept, the logical fallacy, of “begging the question”? He even begs a question within that statement. If Paul spent time with a man who was Jesus’ closest companion — and knew that (and how could he not?) — then he didn’t need to learn from Peter that Jesus had lived. But there is a second additional fallacy here, in that if Paul was himself preaching a cosmic Christ who had been a Jesus on earth, he had to know that as well, so there was doubly no question about learning from Cephas that Jesus had lived. (Or . . . maybe this is the solution to the traditional Pauline problem! Paul learned about the cosmic Son from scripture, but wasn’t aware that he had been on earth, so naturally he knew nothing about that earthly life and could hardly have referred to anything in it! Peter clued him in about the incarnation to earth!)
But apart from the internal illogic of the statement itself, Ehrman is writing a book about mythicism and the arguments against it. In other words, the existence of Jesus is the subject of the book and the end result sought in the debate. Is Ehrman going to demonstrate that the Galatians passage proves the existence of Jesus by claiming that Paul must have learned about the historical Jesus from Peter since the latter had been his chief disciple and confidant (thus assuming that existence), and that Paul could not have spent two weeks with him without learning the details of his life and even the fact that he had existed?!
The term “begging the question” is almost inadequate to characterize this absurd line of argument.
Why not “brother of Jesus”?
And there’s more. Moving on to James, Ehrman admits that Paul calls him “the brother of the Lord,” not “brother of Jesus.”
But that means very little since Paul typically calls Jesus the Lord and rarely uses the name Jesus (without adding “Christ” or other titles). (DJE? p. 145)
So now we are not permitted to claim that “the Lord” does not mean the human Jesus, says Ehrman, because Paul typically calls (the human) Jesus “the Lord.” The words in brackets here have to be intended by Ehrman, otherwise his claim that this “means very little” would have no force. But that very thought in brackets makes this another blatant case of begging the question. And since it is indeed true that Paul rarely uses “Jesus” without “Christ” or other titles like “the Lord,” this would indicate that for him even the name “Jesus” has no discernible human-man implication, but is part of the terminology for his heavenly Christ and Lord.
But let’s consider another aspect of the question. Ehrman is quite sure that “the Lord” refers to the human Jesus, as are other historicists, and ridicules the idea that it could be anything else. But let’s consider for a moment what Paul would have in mind. If he was indeed speaking of James as a sibling, there is certainly no question that to say “brother of Jesus” would have been the most natural and most fitting way to express it.
It has been suggested that in Greek letter-writing, a respected figure was often addressed, such as a father by a son or a politician by a citizen, as “Lord” rather than by his personal name. It was a mark of deference. True enough. But there is surely a significant difference here. What, for Paul, was the connotation of his term “Lord” in regard to his Jesus? A simple father or respected figure? Let’s consider a few passages:
1 Cor. 8:6 – There is . . . one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and we through him.
Rom. 14:9 – Christ died and returned to life, so that he might be Lord over the dead and the living.
1 Cor. 2:8 – The rulers of this age [which the ancients understood as demon spirits] would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
Eph. 5:29 – (from the Pauline school) . . . but he feeds and cares for it, just as the Lord does the church, for we are members of his body.
Col. 1:15f – (from the Pauline school) (the Son) who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible. . . . He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
The latter passage does not use the term “Lord” but it could certainly be applicable here. This is what Paul, and those who wrote soon afterward in his name, understand by “the Lord,” the figure they worship. Now, in a context of referring to a sibling of the human incarnation on earth of this cosmic figure, would Paul have been likely to call James “brother of the Lord”? Given the associations with this term which are constantly in Paul’s mind, it would be like saying: James the brother of the creator and sustainer of the universe, James the brother of the head of the body which is the church and of which we ourselves are the limbs, James the brother of the Lord of glory.
Given the “Lord’s” exclusively cosmic associations in the epistles, it is quite legitimate for mythicists to question whether Paul would ever have said “the sibling of the Lord.” Such a juxtaposition would be quite jolting. Moreover, Paul is constantly referring to his Christ Jesus as the son of God the Father (and clearly not in the mild biblical sense), as in 2 Cor. 11:31. Would “sibling of the Lord” not conjure up an image of James as a son of God in the same way as well? As Ehrman points out, Paul is capable of referring to the name “Jesus” by itself, though it is a relative rarity. There should have been no impediment or reluctance to referring to James as the “sibling of Jesus.”
If Paul had anywhere given us a sense that he thought about Jesus on the scale of a human man, someone who had experiences on earth, a family and friends, a mother whom he could name, talked of him walking the sands of Galilee, facing the ordinary trials of life, if he had mentioned the sites of his ministry, had talked about what it meant for the Son of God to live in human flesh and the challenges that presented, then perhaps we could be comfortable with him stating that his “Lord” had a sibling. But in the face of that void, the phrase as so interpreted rings anything but true. In the face of that void, the historicist’s smugly insistent claim that Galatians 1:19 can only mean one thing becomes highly dubious and quite unprovable.
(By later in the second century, we find the phrase “brother of the Lord” in reference to James the Just common, but this is building on the earlier occurrence of it; it is the reinterpretation of a traditional phrase which had begun with a different meaning. It now has Gospel-level associations to the term “Lord” which Paul shows no sign of. By now the Christian mind would have envisioned the term much closer to earth, and there would be no sense of anomaly.)
“And so in the letter to the Galatians Paul states as clearly as possible that he knew Jesus’s brother. Can we get any closer to an eyewitness report than this? The fact that Paul knew Jesus’s closest disciple and his own brother throws a real monkey wrench into the mythicist view that Jesus never lived.” (DJE? pp. 145-146)
If a noted New Testament scholar can engage in the special pleading and illogical argumentation we have seen (and it is far from limited to Ehrman), it is no wonder that mythicism can make little headway in winning over hearts and minds within academia—especially minds.
The brothers of the Lord
Ehrman now moves sideways to consider the phrase “the brothers of the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 9:5. He has already noted, he says, that this could not be referring to brothers “in some kind of loose, spiritual sense” (which I essentially agreed with in the way he phrased it previously). But he now presents it this way:
Paul does frequently use the term brothers in this metaphorical way when addressing the members of his congregations. (DJE? p. 146)
Well, we have noted above that Paul, not just frequently, but consistently uses the term in application to fellow believers, fellow apostles, and members of Christian congregations. He actually never uses it in the sense of sibling, though this, of course, does not of itself preclude such a meaning in Galatians 1:19 or 1 Corinthians 9:5. It just puts a damper on Ehrman’s egregious claims.
Separating Cephas and James
In regard to the latter passage, Ehrman repeats his argument that by separating out Cephas and himself from those “brothers of the Lord” he is denying to both whatever status the phrase represents, and thus it could not be the status of being a believer or Christian apostle. Well, as I pointed out previously, Ehrman himself in another passage (15:5-7) does not deny Cephas the status of apostle just because he is named separately from a reference to “the twelve” (under the assumption that this means the Gospel disciples) and to “all the apostles.” Ehrman has made two opposite claims from the same kind of linguistic situation.
In turn, Ehrman thinks to apply his 9:5 claim to the Galatians passage. If Paul mentions Cephas, then says he only saw James, the brother of the Lord, and meant a member of the sect, this would constitute an exclusion of Cephas from being a brother of the Lord in that sense. First of all, this by no means follows from Paul’s statement. There is no necessary differentiation or comparison intended. The two thoughts are separate.
Paul went to Jerusalem to get to know Cephas and spent fifteen days with him. Then he adds that while he was there he did not see any of the other apostles except James, and he identifies him as “(the/a) brother of the Lord.” The fact that, for whatever reason, he made such an identification for James but had not made a similar one for Cephas does not have to imply an intention to differentiate. To claim such an intention (which Ehrman does) is not even valid if we were to understand the phrase to mean sibling of Jesus, for why would Paul be concerned with implying that Cephas was not a sibling of Jesus? The phrase would have been simply a way of identifying James. Thus, playing the differentiation card is a red herring.
But if Paul included the descriptive “brother of the Lord” as a way of identifying James, we may then ask: if it meant a member of the sect, why might that identification have been included and why was Cephas not given the same identification? Reasonable possibilities present themselves.
- From 1 Corinthians we get the impression that Cephas was a well-known figure in the cult’s circles;
- he may have needed no identification as one of the “brethren”;
- or Paul may simply not have thought to include it at that point.
James, on the other hand, is mentioned only in this part of Galatians and as part of the “seeing” traditions enumerated in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7. Perhaps when Paul got to his mention of James, he may have felt a need to supply such an identification.
I made the point in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man (p.62) that one cannot place any significance on the definite article “the” before “brother of the Lord.” Grammatical practice encouraged its insertion, even if only an indefinite-article sense was in mind (Greek had no indefinite article). So claiming a singling out of James by Paul with the implication that no one else enjoyed the same status of “brother” is entirely unjustified. On that basis, too, we can set aside this being an implied reference to James as the leader of the sect.
Context also is against Ehrman. Paul in that letter (let alone anywhere else) gives us no hint that James enjoyed any privileged position due to a sibling relationship with an historical Jesus, and only a few verses later (2:6) he disparages the whole Jerusalem lot as of no importance, not even recognized by God as important. That lack of privilege and connection to Jesus is clinched in 2:7-8 when Paul says that Peter (and presumably the other ‘pillars’) were given their responsibility by God, not by Jesus or by virtue of their association with him, for carrying the gospel to the Jews. Such a context, and the wider one throughout all the epistles which never make any such associations, does not support Ehrman’s preferred reading of “brother of the Lord” as “sibling of Jesus.”
Wells: A Jewish messianic group?
Ehrman now addresses an argument by G. A. Wells, which brings us back to a consideration of “the brothers of the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 9:5. Wells, reflecting J. M. Robertson in 1927, suggested — as have I — that there was a fraternity of messianic Jews in Jerusalem who called themselves “brothers of the Lord.” This explains the term of identification as applied to James, for whatever reason Paul felt it necessary. But Ehrman asks:
And what evidence does Wells cite for such a group of zealous messianic Jews in Jerusalem that separated themselves off from all the other Jerusalem Christians? None. At all. What evidence could there be? No such group is mentioned in any surviving source of any kind whatsoever. Wells (or his predecessor, Robinson) made it up. (DJE? p. 150)
Ehrman confuses a lack of external corroboration with a lack of justification for making a reasonable interpretation of something, especially when there are problems with the preferred alternative and the record as a whole would accommodate it well (which would disallow the accusation of “ad hoc”). If there is no evidence in the epistles that any figures mentioned were physically related to Jesus, that they enjoyed privilege and respect on such a basis, or owed authority and precedence to having sat at his feet, that Jesus himself had appointed anyone to be apostles, or that anyone connected to Jesus — or for that matter to the entire Gospel story — existed within the movement (historicists ignore all these considerations as though they don’t exist), then it is reasonable to postulate other meanings for seemingly ambiguous phrases.
One of those is the one I’ve put forward, perhaps an expansion on that of Wells: that the Jerusalem sect began as a community of monkish Jews who called themselves “brothers of the Lord,” which could even have been a reference to God. This title stayed even when the group expanded its ideas and activities, and its membership.
In fact, we can see an indication of such an expansion in the 1 Corinthians 15:5-7 “appearances” tradition. The sect was already formed when those visions of the Son were experienced. We can’t be sure what the nature of their belief was prior to these pivotal experiences, but they may have produced faith in the existence of the Son and his role (just as happened with Paul in Galatians 1:16), and been the catalyst for prompting a new proselytizing undertaking. In other words, this “brothers of the Lord” sect may have embarked on apostleship to preach their dying and rising Christ, and this may have attracted new members to augment the ranks of “apostles,” members who were not part of the original group and thus did not fall under the appelation that applied to the original members.
There is certainly no need on the basis of the text of 9:5 to deny Cephas membership in the original group. He may well have been added for emphasis by Paul, singled out from the “brothers of the Lord” because of his importance. As I said, Ehrman, in the case of 15:5, makes exactly that sort of denial of exclusion from a separately stated group.
Genitive vs. Dative
Do we have other indicators that “brother(s) of the Lord” may be a devotee and not a sibling designation? We certainly do. I itemized above the occurrence of both singular and plural phrases which link “brother(s)” to “the Lord” differing only by a preposition. Leaving that difference aside for the moment, consider what Ehrman has said. No such group of ‘messianic Christians’ enjoys evidence in the record. Well, what does he think Philippians 1:14’s “brothers in the Lord” refers to? Moreover, it has the ring of a group name, just as the 1 Corinthians 9:5 “brothers of the Lord” does.
The fact that in one case a dative construction with the preposition “en” is used while in another case the genitive is employed is hardly evidence that there is an unbridgeable divide between the two forms of expression. Linguistic practice often has multiple ways of putting the same thing. “The Founding Fathers” and “Fathers of Confederation” hardly entail two distinct groups, let alone two vastly different meanings. (Here, too, we do not have “fathers” used in the sense of physical progenitors, but in a metaphorical sense.)
Nor is it significant that later apocryphal works universally assume that James was Jesus’ sibling. What else would Ehrman expect, given the tradition by that later time? But he once again begs the question by itemizing four “independent traditions” of such a view which include not only both Mark and John (the latter could well have been dependent on Mark, since John shows a clear general dependence on the Synoptics), but Paul himself. One cannot simply declare a correspondence with other passages on the part of the very passages which are the subject of the debate.
Ehrman also throws Antiquities 20, with its “brother of Jesus, called Christ,” onto the pile as an “independent tradition” of the phrase. I have dealt with this passage in instalment 6, as I did quite thoroughly in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man. Ehrman failed to address any of it, especially the point that, like the Testimonium, Eusebius is the first to witness to the presence of that phrase in Antiquities 20.
Naturally, Josephus would hardly have said “brother of the Lord,” nor would Eusebius, or some other interpolator, have made the glaring mistake of making him do so, but Ehrman can hardly appeal to it as a tradition supporting “brother of the Lord” in Galatians 1:19 precisely because it is not the same wording. To declare that both have the same meaning is once again to beg the question. And it illustrates the point that “brother of Jesus” would indeed have been the more natural way to express the idea.
Besides, “brother of Jesus” may even have been written by Josephus, but referring to another Jesus (the son of Damneus mentioned immediately after), with only “called Christ” added by a Christian.
Ehrman and Robert Price
Ehrman spends a lot of space dismissing various possibilities put forward by Robert M. Price for understanding how James could be a brother of Jesus without an understanding of sibling. Ehrman is perhaps partly justified in regarding these as a bit of a “stretch,” especially as applicable in the time of Paul, but my point would be that we don’t need to ‘stretch’ to come up with an understanding of the phrase as a reference to being a devotee of “the Lord,” whomever that referred to.
Could it have been a marginal gloss?
Finally, there is always the feasible possibility that the whole thing began simply as a marginal gloss by a later scribe which got inserted into the text. Here it would have meant sibling and been a case of differentiation: not with Cephas, but with the fictional Gospel apostle James, son of Zebedee. Again, when one considers the epistolary record as a whole, with its absolute silence on anyone said or claiming to be associated with a human Jesus, it is unwise to rule such a possibility out. I’m happy to be on the fence to that one.
Ehrman as beggar
To bring us full circle to his starting strategy of begging the question, Ehrman sums up:
In other traditions that long predate our Gospels it is stated that Jesus had actual brothers and that one of them was named James. (DJE? p. 156)
And what are those “other traditions” predating the Gospels? Why, 1 Corinthians 9:5 and Galatians 1:19, of course. Too bad they could not have been set beside the ascriptions to the epistles of James and Jude, which curiously failed to receive or mention the same tradition. James is simply called “the servant of Jesus Christ.” Jude is called the same, but he is also stated as a “brother of James.” This identification would have been made to clarify who Jude was and to increase the authority of a letter from him by reason of being a brother of James the Just. Normally, this would also have made him the brother of Jesus, a relationship far more effective for creating authority. But nothing in the New Testament record reflects the “normal” run of things.
The point is not that mythicism has made an airtight case that “brother(s) of the Lord” cannot under any circumstances refer to siblings or that it must refer to devotees. The point is that historicist appeals to the phrase as some kind of slam-dunk proof of an historical Jesus can easily be shown to be simplistic, often fallacious, and anything but a giant-killer.
. . . to be continued