James Brother of the Lord: Another Case for Interpolation

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by Neil Godfrey

Never throw out old books. I have caught up with my 1942 edition of Jesus Not A Myth by A. D. Howell Smith. The book is an argument against mythicism as it was argued by a range of authors in its day: J. M. Robertson, Thomas Whittacker, L. Gordon Rylands, Arthur Drews, Bergh van Eysinga, L. Couchoud, Edouard Dujardin and W. B. Smith. It’s a refreshing book for its professional spirit and respectful tone, and for its acknowledgement of both weaknesses and strengths of the mythicist case.

Here are two excerpts from the discussion concerning the question of the Galatians 1:19 reference to James the brother of the Lord. Pages 76 and 77/8. Keep in mind that the author is arguing against mythicism and for the historicity of Jesus. He not only acknowledges the possibility of interpolation, but goes on to explain a possible motive for it. I have marked the argument for interpolation in bold type.

Unless the allusion is interpolated, Paul had an interview with a brother of Jesus, who was one of the three “pillars” of the Church of Jerusalem (Gal. i, 19). There is a critical case of some slight cogency against the authenticity of Gal. i, 18, 19, which was absent from Marcion’s Apostolicon; the word “again” in Gal. ii, 1, which presupposes the earlier passage, seems to have been interpolated as it is absent from Irenaeus’s full and accurate citation of this section of the Epistle to the Galatians in his treatise against Heretics. Robertson maintains that the “Brothers of the Lord” were originally a religious group. Perhaps there was such a group, the members of which claimed to belong to the Davidic clan and so could regard themselves as kinsmen (“brothers” in the loose Oriental sense) of the coming Messianic king of David’s line. But Robertson admits, as one would expect all persons of common sense to do, that the designation “brother of the Lord,” as applied to James in Gal. i, 19, cannot be a group name. Drews, however, finds no difficulty in supposing this, and even equates the name with Christians generally. On the strength of 1 Co. ix, 5, where Paul insists on his right to “a wife that is a believer, even as the rest of the Apostles, and the Brethren of the Lord, and Cephas,” Draws concludes: “There it is evident that the expression by no means necessarily refers to bodily relationship, but that ‘Brother’ serves only to designate the followers of the religion of Jesus.

Why, then, does Paul distinguish the “Brothers of the Lord” from “the other Apostles” and Cephas? Were the latter not “followers of the religion of Jesus”? Drews offers an additional explanation of James’s fraternal relation to Jesus. James, it appears, “was specially so called, because the Lord at his death had confided to him the sons of his mother.” These words are cited from Jerome, who was determined to explain away everything in the New Testament that conflicted with his theory of the perpetual celibacy of Joseph, the putative father of Jesus. “The sons of his mother” Drews expounds as meaning “the members of the community at Jerusalem.”

Who was the James who is called in Gal. i, 19 “the brother of the Lord”? Eisler has given a number of reasons, not without weight, for identifying this “pillar” with James the Son of Zebedee. If, as has been surmised, Gal. i, 18, 19 is an interpolation, the principal object of which is to stress the pre-eminence of Peter, there is no other passage in this Epistle to throw light on his origin. . . . . .

. . . . . . It is certainly strange that three favourite disciples of Jesus (Peter, James, and John) should play so prominent a part in the beginnings of the Church of Jerusalem, and that, when James has been executed, another man of the same name should at once mysteriously take his place. If Drews, instead of building on Jerome’s quibbles, had delved more carefully into the New Testament and other data on the three traditional early Christian leaders of the name of James, he might have opened a fruitful line of research. . . . .

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19 thoughts on “James Brother of the Lord: Another Case for Interpolation”

  1. I posted this on Dr. McGrath’s blog, but the comment section is now so long it is unlikely to be noticed, so I am making this point here.

    Since so much of the argument here from Dr. McGrath concerns the meaning of “brother of the Lord” in Gal 1:19, I am surprised no one has brought up early Christian commentary on this verse. James is arguing that a biological understanding is the most obvious here and that other suggestions are weak in comparison.

    However, there are two sources to consider that may make this reading not so much more plausible than the non-genetic reading. First I point to the First Apocalypse of James from the Nag Hammadi library. It opens with Jesus calling James his brother “although you are not my brother materially.” This is Gnostic literature and so has an agenda, but it does appear that the spiritual reading is plausible.

    More interesting is Origen, Contra Celsum 1.47. There he cites this particular passage but says James was called ‘brother’ by Paul because he was righteous and had the right doctrine. From what I can tell, this is the earliest commentary on this verse.

    With these sorts of statements from our earliest commentators on this matter, it seems that Dr. McGrath’s reading is not necessarily the default as it was not for Origen. Had Doherty cited these sources, perhaps his case could have been better. I won’t claim that this means the non-genetic meaning of ‘brother’ is probable now, but it does take away some of the advantage by James wants to use against mythicists.

    1. If a church father says something contrary to “the plain sense of the text,” it’s because he’s embarrassed by it. Embarrassment means the original text is true.

      If a church father says something that coincides with the “the plain sense of the text,” it’s because it’s authentic. Pride means the original text is true.

  2. I’m glad you brought up the First Apocalypse of James. It’s one I used to wonder about in connection with the larger question of family relationships ascribed to “founding apostles” of Christianity. This larger question surely needs to work with the following data:

    1. Jesus’ Twin: “Thomas” Judas.
    2. And the way a James conveniently replaces a James the brother of John and son of Zebedee.
    3. And then there’s James the Son of Alphaeus — and what do we do with Dale and Patricia Miller’s claim that Alphaeus designates a substitute for one lost? And note that this James appears in the list when we would have expected Levi the Son of Alphaeus to have appeared instead.

    We have three James’s, two make their appearances as substitutes for another, and we have a twin of Jesus. Surely one’s thinking must be ossified if out of this curious complex one insists, as a starting and guiding assumption, a rigid literal and historically-literal interpretation of just one of those several relationships.

    1. Yes, I remember a while back having a discussion with McGrath about how he could be sure that there was not an identical twin of Jesus and what method he used to determine this. I don’t recall his exact response but it seemed to involve a lot of handwaving to distract from the fact that his “history” only includes canonical documents.

  3. For Paul, James is the brother of the Lord, a companion of Peter, and an important figure in the Christian community in Jerusalem.

    In Mark, James is one of Jesus’ biological brothers, but Jesus’ family members think he is crazy and they play no role in his mission.

    In Luke/Acts, Jesus family members no longer think he is crazy and the brothers of Jesus are with the apostles in the upper room: however, James is never identified as as being one of them.

    The confusion about James’ relationship to Jesus seems to go back to the earliest Christian writings.

  4. The First Apocalypse of James appears to have Docetic elements, hence the line that James was not Jesus’ brother “materially.” As Painter writes, “What is being denied is the material being of the Lord. [This work] manifests a docetic christology. Thus the Lord says, ‘James, do not be concerned for me … I am he who was within me. Never have I suffered in any way, nor have I been distressed. And this people has done me no harm …’ (31.15-24),” (Just James p. 171).

    As Butz writes, these Gnostics believed that “[o]nly the human form of Jesus suffered, not the transcendent Christ, who only “possessed” the body of Jesus,” (The Brother of Jesus p. 128).

    So of course their writings would reflect this belief when dealing with the issue (as it appears to have been) of James’ relationship to Jesus. The Protevangelium of James deals with it by positing that Jesus’ brothers were sons of Joseph by a previous marriage, and Origen and orthodox Christians deal with it in their ways for similar reasons, to protect the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. Thus these kinds of explanations are suspect.

    I see a similar pattern in the NT gospels. Mark is clear the Jesus had a brother named James (without any explanation), and while Matthew picks this up, he is now at best a “half” brother because Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit. Then Luke and John don’t even mention James as being Jesus’ brother at all.

    All I see is a consistent pattern of downplaying and denial of a blood relationship between James and Jesus, whether by the orthodox or gnostics (including Marcion), which is totally understandable. As far as I can tell offhand, the only people who do not try to diminish, cover up or “explain” this relationship are (maybe) Paul, Josephus, Hegesippus and the Ebionites, and this is arguably because, unlike other people, they had no reason to.

  5. Then again James and his brother Jesus could have existed as a Jewish cult with no connection to Christianity other than names used by Paul in his writings and later either as separate traditions or from Paul incorporated into the Gospels.

    In which case you get your biological connection without a bunch of dancing around and your mythical Christ without the dancing about the biological connections.

  6. Paul called James “the Lord’s brother”, and Paul also placed James into an interesting place in the summary of Jesus’ appearances. Paul said that Jesus appeared to James last (except for to Paul himself) — after to Peter, to some twelve, and to some 500. Both these elements — Jesus’ brother and last appearance — are included in Paul’s understanding of James’ role.

    If Paul understood Jesus to be a mythical being, not a human being, then Paul understood that James was specially made into Jesus’ brother by some mystical method. The many people who had experienced the appearances of Jesus previously were not subjected to this same method and did not become Jesus’ brothers. The method was applied only to James (and perhaps to a few others, such as Jude), who experienced the very last appearances of Jesus. (Paul experienced the very last appearance, but did not become Jesus’ brother).

    My explanation for this situation is that before James joined this religion, The Way, he was an extraordinary person who potentially could extraordinarily improve the religion’s resources and influence. Therefore, the religion’s leaders were willing to offer extraordinary status and privileges to James in order to persuade him to join the religion. James would immediately become one of the top leaders, would be allowed to veto all further mystical appearances, and even would be honored as a mystical brother of Jesus.

    As a modern comparison, think about Tom Cruise and the Church of Scientology. I don’t know the circumstances of Cruise’s entry into Scientology, but he obviously brought extraordinary wealth, celebrity and friendships to Scientology. I assume that Scientology has reciprocated by elevating and honoring Cruise to an extraordinary extent within Scientology. I imagine further that Cruise’s joining Scientology might have made the entire difference between a future of prosperity and a future of decline for Scientology.

    What extraordinary contribution did James potentially offer to the early Christian religion? I can only guess. Money? A noble ancestry? An existing network of influential friends? A proven ability to heal illnesses? Maybe. Or maybe it was some bizarre object (an amulet, an ark, a magic rock) that eventually was discredited and forgotten.

    Whatever James contributed, he as a late-comer was welcomed straight into the religion’s top leadership and was honored as Jesus’ brother. And after James experienced a mystical appearance of Jesus, afterwards nobody else (except Paul) ever experienced such an appearance that was recognized as valid by the Church’s leadership.

  7. Caligula called himself the brother of Jupiter.

    If only he had called himself the brother of the Lord Jupiter, this would have been overwhelming evidence for the historical existence of the Lord Jupiter, on a scale that it would be approaching creationism to deny.

    1. Good one. Let’s not forget, either, that the ancients could identify the very cave where Jupiter was hidden when the tyrant wanted to kill him soon after his birth. That piece of information was obviously true since anyone trying to make it up later would have been exposed by more knowledgeable audiences as a liar.

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