I am copying a comment by Earl Doherty here as a post in its own right. Doherty apparently attempted to post it on McGrath’s blog in response to McGrath’s post, James the Brother of the Lord and Mythicism, but was confronted with word-length issues. James was responding to Earl’s Menu Entree #3 in his Antidotes post.
For ease of referencing I copy James McGrath’s post below, followed by Earl Doherty’s response:
Neil Godfrey has posted a “response” from Earl Doherty that nicely illustrates, as usual, why mythicism is not taken seriously by most people, but more importantly pretty much anyone with actual expertise in history and a genuine interest in applying historical methods to learn about the past.
The post is in fact intended to provide an “antidote” some brief responses to mythicist claims that I offered in a post a while back. My own view is that it fails miserably, but I am not exactly an impartial observer. But since brief responses are only persuasive if one is familiar with the wealth of evidence behind them, presumably it may be useful for me to say a little more. Rather than trying to say something about each of Doherty’s points, let me focus on one in this post: how he, as a mythicist, treats the references by Paul to “James the brother of the Lord.”
In my post, I emphasized the importance of context. I perhaps should also have mentioned the importance of attention to detail. The suggestion that mythicists sometimes offer – that Paul’s reference to James as “brother of the Lord” uses “brother” in a non-literal sense – is not inherently implausible. The Synoptic Gospels, and Matthew’s Gospel in particular, offer lots of statements attributed to Jesus which make a wide array of people his “brothers.” Acts refers to Christians as “the brothers” on numerous occasions, and Paul in his letters does the same.
But that is precisely why most interpreters believe that Paul is using brother in a literal sense in Galatians 1:19. If all Christians were Jesus’ brothers, then singling out James using this phrase makes no sense. And if all Christians were Jesus’ brothers, then using the same term to denote a special category of leader makes no sense. And so we are left with one far more obvious option – one that is in fact encouraged by those same Gospels that also provide evidence of that wider usage: that James was the brother of Jesus in the most mundane and literal sense of those words.
Mythicists, like most critics of mainstream science and history, seem to think that if one can merely make a case that their interpretation is not impossible, then there is no reason to not adopt their conclusions rather than those of mainstream scholarship. And that was the point in my earlier post’s mention of “James the brother of the Lord” – the phrase could in theory mean any number of things. But actual attention to the evidence makes one meaning more likely than the others – and that even without considering the later history of who James was thought to be and how these references to him were understood.
It is precisely this sort of attention to detail and concern for plausibility and likelihood that mythicism lacks. And like Intelligent Design and other forms of pseudoscience, it makes appeals to the general public rather than trying to make a case in serious professional publications, showing that its claims and arguments can pass the first basic hurdle of peer review. It might still be found unpersuasive when subjected to the critical scrutiny of experts. But at least it would be clear that it is something that is felt to at least contribute to the academic conversation. Mythicism isn’t even there yet, and as with most pseudoscientific and pseudohistorical ideas, it doesn’t seem like its proponents are even trying yet.
Most of the post by Doherty is him saying that an “unbiased” observer would reach mythicist conclusions or at least take mythicism more seriously than is currently the case. What this illustrates is that mythicists are as prone to think that they are unbiased and their opponents are biased as everyone else is. We all like to think that it is simply bias that prevents others from seeing that we are right – and sometimes that is the case, and sometimes it is the reverse. That’s why we need mainstream historical scholarship, with the checks and balances provided to individual and group bias by the presence of scholars who are atheists or agnostics or represent a wide spectrum of different religious traditions, not to mention different institutional, national and local contexts. Many in the guild would love to be able to say something controversial enough to get a book deal with Harper Collins and supplement their meager educator’s income. Yet such experts consistently reach a different conclusion than mythicists even so. And the example of the “brother of the Lord” illustrates why. The division is not between the biased and the unbiased. The division is between those intimately familiar with the relevant methods and the relevant evidence and concerned to do justice to them, and those who are not.
Posted by James F. McGrath
Earl Doherty responds:
OK, let’s boil down Jim McGrath’s argument against my “brother of the Lord” comments and see what it entails:
(1) Referring to James as ‘the brother of the Lord’ when all sorts of people in the NT, Gospels and epistles are referred to as ‘brothers’ in the sense of fellow-believers, “makes no sense.” Presumably, if everyone is treated as a ‘brother’ in the sense of religious brethren, why use the phrase of James? Would it not be redundant and unnecessary?
(2) If other fellow-believers could be considered brothers of the Lord, how could the same phrase be understood as signifying a leader’s role for James?
(3) Therefore, the ambiguous phrase must have its other meaning, that of ‘sibling.’ This is the deductive process by which historicists judge Galatians 1:19’s meaning.
Because McGrath (seconded by his fellow historicists) regards the above reasoning as air-tight and conclusive, this is supposed to prove they are justified in automatically dismissing mythicists as inattentive to detail, having no concern for plausibility and a case amounting to “pseudoscience.” They can contribute nothing to “academic conversation.” Well, that’s an awful lot to claim on the basis of the very meager and hardly exhaustive argument made above. But this is typical of historicists, who have always thought that there can be nothing to the mythicist case, and thus the least amount of effort will topple it over. McGrath appeals to “the division between those intimately familiar with the relevant methods and the relevant evidence and concerned to do justice to them, and those who are not,” as though the reasoning above regarding “brother of the Lord” is a good example of those methods and treatment of evidence. It is anything but.
First of all, I do not regard the phrase in Galatians 1:19 as necessarily meant to signify that James is the leader of the Jerusalem group, as though some special emphasis on him is entailed in the use of the definite article “the brother…” (I rather think it is not so meant.) But neither can historicists claim that this supposed emphasis points toward an exclusive status for James as “the sibling” on the basis that other “brethren” did not enjoy that status. (I’m not sure if McGrath has such an argument in mind, he does not spell it out.)
Well, the definite article as signifying emphasis or exclusivity does not work in either case. I point out in Jesus: Neither God Nor Man (p.61-2), that the inclusion of the definite article does not have to mean that Paul is intending a stress or special status for James. “James” and “brother” are in grammatical apposition. In such a structure, Greek linguistic practice generally inserts a definite article between them, even if all that was meant was “a brother of the Lord” (Greek has no indefinite article to convey that). In Greek, and especially Koine, this rule may not always be followed, but when it is we are given no necessary intention of stress. One of many examples is 1 Cor. 16:12 where Paul refers to “Apollos (the) brother” (Apollō tou adelphou), which hardly singles him out as some kind of special or exclusive brother, and certainly not a sibling; most translations render it “our brother Apollos.”
So all we really need to prick McGrath’s confident ‘air-tight’ bubble is to argue that there could be a feasible situation in which Paul would feel it necessary or desirable to point out that James was “a brother of the Lord” in the sense of a member of the sect, so that it would not be redundant or “make no sense.” We don’t have to conclusively identify what that situation was; the evidence doesn’t supply one. But if we can reasonably speculate, that’s all that is needed. I suggested in JNGNM:
“Earlier (Paul) has referred to Peter without identifying him in the same way. Perhaps Paul’s readers [in Corinth] were more familiar with Peter than with James. Perhaps there was another James attached to the Jerusalem circle who was not a member of the original sect known by the name…”
I’ll break in here to point out that it is quite feasible that the Jerusalem group, when formed, called itself “brothers of the Lord” (with “Lord” maybe even referring to God), and that it is members of that original core group—to which other apostles (like Paul, and perhaps even Peter) have subsequently associated themselves—who are referred to in 1 Cor. 9:5.
In JNGNM I then offered this analogy (Note 28):
“If I was involved in the Teamsters Union and had contacts with its Head Office, and I wrote a letter to someone detailing my visit to that group, I might refer at one point to the Teamsters members in general, and at another point mention I had lunch with Joe, and also met Frank, a Teamsters member, later that day. The person I’m writing to knows Joe and that he is a member, but needs to have it pointed out that Frank is also a Teamsters member. Paul’s language would not have had the luxury of an indefinite article, and if he were writing such a letter he could, following a common grammatical practice, have inserted the definite article between “Frank” and “Teamsters member” no matter what he was or was not implying.”
So when we give the matter more in-depth thought than McGrath has deigned to give it, we see that it is quite conceivable that Paul’s phrase, with “brother” having the meaning of “brethren,” could indeed “make sense.” Speculation, yes, although speculation is rife throughout established biblical academia. The question is, to what extent may we judge feasibility for such speculation? Surely by weighing other aspects of the text and wider evidence which would tend to argue against sibling-hood for James and thus make it more likely that “brother of the Lord” did indeed mean fellow-believer (just as the vast number of appearances of adelphos in the epistles does).
I’m sure it was noticed that McGrath did not address my point that the letters attributed to James and Jude made no such sibling association with Jesus for their authors. He also failed to consider, if Paul recognized James as Jesus’ sibling, why James was accorded, on the basis of that sibling relationship, no authority in the disagreements he had with Paul and his views on the Law, or why Paul would not have had to justify why he did not so accord; or how Paul could ever have said, as he does only a few verses later in Galatians (2:6), that the pillars in Jerusalem had no importance, that God did not recognize any special status for them (not even James as a sibling of His own divine Son, apparently). We could also wonder how it could be that if James was a sibling of a Jesus who actually existed, why teachings had not been accorded to the latter as they are in the Gospels (see Mark 7) making all foods clean, something Paul could have thrown into the debate pot in the argument over eating with gentiles in Gal. 2:11-14. And of course, there is the question of why the entire body of non-Gospel first-century documents of Christianity as a whole, not just James and Jude, never back up Galatians 1:19 by referring to James or anyone else at all as having been a sibling of Jesus on earth.
Clearly, the counter-argument put forward by McGrath suffers from an almost embarrassing superficiality and short-sightedness, dealing neither with most of the mythicist arguments surrounding the interpretation of this verse, nor even recognizing the depth of the question. Should that not warrant an accusation against historicists of inattention to detail and lack of concern for plausibility? Has McGrath’s argument really contributed anything substantial to the “scholarly conversation” over this passage? It certainly makes the “relevant methods” of professional scholarship he touts seem to be sorely lacking.
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