Applying Sound Historical Methodology to “James the Brother of the Lord”

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by Neil Godfrey

It is easy for both historicists and mythicists to to descend to shallow proof-texting when arguing over the significance of Paul’s reference to James, the brother of the Lord, as evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

I am not attempting here in this post to cover all the arguments. I only want to address the necessity for a broad approach to the question and to rescue it from the tendency to reduce it to a simplistic positive/negative point.

Galatians 1:19

I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.

Renowned conservative historian, Sir Geoffrey Elton, warns against deploying such simplistic methods as citing a single piece of evidence to make a case. In this instance, the case is about evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

Historical research does not consist, as beginners in particular often suppose, in the pursuit of some particular evidence that will answer a particular question (G.R. Elton, The Practice of History, p.88)

If that’s what historical research is not, Elton goes on to explain what it is:

it consists of an exhaustive, and exhausting, review of everything that may conceivably be germane to a given investigation. Properly observed, this principle provides a manifest and efficient safeguard against the dangers of personal selection of evidence. (p.88)

Amen! The dangers of personal selection of evidence in historical Jesus research are spotlighted by each reconstructed “historical Jesus” being in some recognizable image of its author.

Jesus historicists are particularly guilty of falling into the trap of “beginners” that Elton warns against when responding to mythicist arguments. Of course they know better when engaging in professional work among their peers. They generally avoid taking mythicist arguments seriously, and this is why they respond like amateurs.

Mythicist Earl Doherty, on the other hand, has discussed the “James, the brother of the Lord” passage within the framework of something pretty close to “an exhaustive review of everything that may conceivably be germane to the investigation”. His views have certainly matured since his first publication, The Jesus Puzzle, in 1999. Others stuck at the proof-texting level of argument have not grown at all in this area of investigation.

One remark in the course of Doherty’s discussion is worth singling out because of its sound advice in how anyone should approach these source texts for most types of investigation. He is discussing the weight placed on the definite article “the/ton” in the passage, by both historicists and mythicists in arguing for a particular emphasis on the word “brother”, but the principle he addresses applies far more widely:

First of all, historicist apologists tend to place an astonishing reliance on this particular phrase, Iakobon ton adelphon tou kuriou, as virtually ‘proving’ the existence of an historical Jesus. But the idea that any secure argument can be made in any direction based on such fine wording in a text is an ill-advised one. That article (ton), together with the phrase itself, is first witnessed to in a manuscript written at a time which is almost two centuries after the original. Given what we know about the evolution of texts, the alterations to manuscripts and so on, it is by no means sure how secure any wording, especially a slight one, in a New Testament text should be considered which is that far removed from the autograph. How can a decision be made about key questions based on this inherent degree of uncertainty, an uncertainty justified by the general instability of the textual record visible in the manuscripts we do have? And yet arguments are formulated on such slender reeds all the time — and not excepting by mythicists. (Jesus: Neither God Nor Man, pp. 61-62)

(This should not, by the way, be interpreted as an attempt to Doherty to sidestep the arguments around this word “ton”, since he does additionally engage them at length and with references to the Greek usage and import of the word in various contexts.)

A related aspect of this argument over the manuscript evidence is the possibility of the phrase, “brother of the Lord”, has been an interpolation, possibly originating as a marginal gloss (“Its wording would easily fit such a thing”), and made some time in the latter second century after a tradition had developed that this James was the brother of Jesus.

Any discussion on whether or not Jesus had literal siblings necessarily embraces Mark’s naming four brothers:

Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James (=Jacob), Joseph, Judas (=Judah) and Simon (=Simeon)? (Mark 6:3)

Although the names may have been common, to find these particular names all bracketed together is still striking. Jacob, Joseph and Judah are three of the most prominent of Israelite patriarchs, and Simeon, too, is strongly associated in this status with Judah. As Paula Fredriksen remarks:

It’s a little like naming a string of Olsons Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin: the names themselves convey a close identification with the nation’s foundational past. (Jesus of Nazareth, p.240)

Add to this the fact that the names are introduced within a narrative that serves the purpose of likening Jesus’ family situation to that of other biblical heroes, like Joseph and David to name only the most prominent ones, and thus conforms to the biblical pattern of being rejected by his own family, and we are entitled to hold some reservations about the authenticity of the list.

I won’t repeat here the details of the arguments about the preponderance of the symbolic use of the term for “brothers” in the New Testament, including by Jesus himself. They are widely enough discussed and probably the most well-known detail among those who have encountered this debate. It is worth adding, all the same, the meaning of “Lord” within the context of some of those early references, too. It as like as not refers to God, not Jesus.

The question of Jesus having a brother named James cannot be confined to just the obvious texts that use the words “brother” etc. Remember Elton’s admonition.

Few scholars would accept the genuineness of the letter of James in the Bible, or that of Jude. Yet even if, or especially if each was written in order to convince readers they really were written by such apostles, then we have a strange fact that this forger forgot to have these names “introduce themselves” by reminding readers they were brothers of Jesus. Jude is said to remind readers he is James’s brother, but Jesus is omitted!

Equally telling is the failure of the author of Acts to breathe a hint that his James, head of the Church, was also a brother of Jesus.

These omissions are serious factors in the broader question of whether there is a genuine historical claim to Jesus having had siblings. They are not facile arguments from silence. When one expects to hear the dog bark and it does not, as Sherlock Holmes knew, something is very likely amiss somewhere. Steven Carr has addressed this point recently in a number of his pointers to historicists, and they do themselves a disservice when they ignore the point.

The point of all this: Galatians 1:19 needs to be viewed within the larger context of the literature, and within the contexts of all places where we have a right to expect to find corroborating evidence. (That does include the Josephus reference, too, that I have not included above. But I have already discussed that here.)

The arguments that approach closest to Elton’s prescription for how historical enquiry should be practiced win the day against proof-texters.

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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Applying Sound Historical Methodology to “James the Brother of the Lord””

  1. The R. Catholic and E. Orthodox positions, as too most of the Reformers follow that tradition that none of these “brethren” (includes sisters) are blood kin. I myself follow that position. But then I am a “believer” of the Ecumenical Councils (the first five at least).

    1. I’d like to think sound historical enquiry can justify the belief that Jesus had no siblings (at least of any interest to the church.) It’s not a matter of proof-texting or massaging verses to rationalize a faith or sceptic position.

      1. There is a story in Eusebius about some of Jesus’ family decades later being question by an Emperor or agents from the Emperor because of a fear that they might have some Messianic plot in mind, and they said that Jesus will come back and judge all men according to their works, so the Emperor dismissed them as simpletons. No wonder the ‘church’ doesn’t care for Jesus’ family–its all about faith, you gotta drink the koolaide or burn. This business about a judgment according to works can’t be allowed to stand. Then the good Samaritan outside the church who doesn’t enrich the priests’ coffers by paying to have his kids baptized might make it to heaven. Oh the horror!

  2. If Paul did not view Jesus as a being who once lived on Earth in fleshly form, at what point did this belief actually come to be commonly held? I am thinking of Papias’ linkng of Jesus to a specific place and time by preferring news as directly as possible from “the Lord’s disciples.”

    1. My view on anything from Papias is conditioned by our having nothing from Papias himself, but only reports of what he is supposed to have said. That 1904 passage from Schwartz I keep quoting here and everywhere else was originally written to raise questions about Papias — we can’t even know if he was a fictional persona for some other author. Nor do we know when his work first appeared and in what context. We do know he was reputed to have written some pretty bizarre stuff. That some biblical “historians” place importance on fourth century claims about him by someone who was composing a largely mythical propaganda history tells us more about biblical standards of “scholarship” than Papias.

      I don’t know if we have the evidence we need to know when or where the canonical story of Jesus began to be widely embraced literally. I sometimes think we see Justin in the 140’s still working out the story of a historical Jesus from his interpretation of Old Testament passages.

      It appears that Marcion (maybe from around 110s/120s to 140s) understood Jesus to have descended from heaven to Capernaum to begin his mission.

      If the Gospel narrative was intended as a new foundational story for a “new Israel” in the wake of the destruction of the old Mosaic cult and economy, and at a time of persecution, I imagine the belief must have begun either in the wake of the destruction of 70 (though there is no evidence of persecution till around 90), or the second war and persecution of the 130s. The latter date would seem to me to fit in with Justin’s time of Gospel narrative creativity.

      Interesting question.

  3. Isn’t Galatians 1:19 the only reference Paul makes to the brother of the Lord? “But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.” Isn’t it obvious that by Peter, James, and John, Paul or Marcion when he wrote Galatians was originally bashing the top three apostles from the inner circle as represented in the gospels? And that an orthodox corrector changed this James to James the Lord’s brother to obscure this obvious fact, and also because the specious book of Acts made the apostle James die before Paul could deal with him?

    I also find 1st Corinthians 9:5 curious. “Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas?” Shouldn’t Cephas be covered in “other apostles” and if James the brother of the Lord is an apostle as Galalatian 1:19 indicates, shouldn’t the brothers of the Lord also be covered just by “other apostles”?

  4. From Paul S above:
    And if ‘brother’ actually means ‘brother’, as in a blood/kin/family sense, then what is the rather unpleasant implication of the apostles taking ‘sisters’ as wives?
    Or is ‘sister’ here considered merely to be a collegiate term used among the ‘brethren’ without implying kinship?
    In which case why, apart from apologetic convenience and only then through gospel coloured glasses, do we bother to consider any of the collegiate terms used by “Paul” to be anything else but that?

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