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.
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 Paul 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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