It seems hardly a month passes without somebody on Vridar bringing up Galatians 1:19, in which Paul refers to James as the “brother of the Lord.” Recently I ran a search for the phrase here, and after reading each post, it struck me how much time we’ve spent wondering what it means and so little time asking why it’s there in the first place.
What is the function of “brother of the Lord” in that sentence? Notice we can ask this question without raising the hackles of either the mythicists or historicists. Forget what it might mean. Forget (at least for the moment) who you think wrote it. It could have been Paul. It might have been the very first reader who added it as a marginal note or a scribe at some point along the transmission path. Instead, let’s ask why.
It would appear on the surface, at least, that “brother of the Lord” is a kind of descriptor. In other words, it tells us which James Paul met. Since 1:19 is the first time Paul mentions James in Galatians, perhaps that’s why we see it here. But then why didn’t Paul do the same thing in 1 Corinthians, which he probably wrote in the same year?
1 Cor 15:7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. (ESV)
One could argue that since he’d already referred to “the twelve” in 1 Cor 15:5, Paul didn’t need to explain which James he meant. In fact, he may have been reciting an early resurrection credo, and as such everyone would already have known who all the characters were — Cephas, the Twelve, the 500 brothers. They needed no introduction, so to speak.
On the other hand, one could argue that in Galatians Paul could only have meant one James. He was, after all, starting an extended tirade against the Jerusalem pillars, and his Galatian audience would surely have known who he meant. He probably told that story all the time — “Then James sends a bunch of his thugs up to Antioch, and old Cephas is like, ‘I’m not eating with those Gentiles. No way!'”
Nothing would lead a reader of his letters to suspect that Paul ever knew any other prominent follower of Christ named James. Of course, we know of a few others, thanks to the gospels and Acts. Besides the leader of the Jerusalem church, we have James the Lesser, James the son of Alpheus, and James the brother of John (son of Zebedee) — any one of whom might actually be the same James. (See James the Less at Wikipedia.)
In Gal. 2:9, Paul invokes the names of Peter, James, and John as “reputed pillars.” Actually, Paul puts James first, while the Synoptics put Peter in the lead role. Of course, the James in the gospel of Mark is presumed to be a different guy — not Jesus’ brother, but John’s.
The confusion over which trio did what and which James was which emerged early on. Eusebius in Book 2 of his Church History tries to set the record straight:
2. Then James, whom the ancients surnamed the Just on account of the excellence of his virtue, is recorded to have been the first to be made bishop of the church of Jerusalem. This James was called the brother of the Lord because he was known as a son of Joseph, and Joseph was supposed to be the father of Christ, because the Virgin, being betrothed to him, “was found with child by the Holy Ghost before they came together,” as the account of the holy Gospels shows.
3. But Clement [of Alexandria] in the sixth book of his Hypotyposes writes thus: “For they say that Peter and James and John after the ascension of our Saviour, as if also preferred by our Lord, strove not after honor, but chose James the Just bishop of Jerusalem.”
4. But the same writer, in the seventh book of the same work, relates also the following things concerning him: “The Lord after his resurrection imparted knowledge to James the Just and to John and Peter, and they imparted it to the rest of the apostles, and the rest of the apostles to the seventy, of whom Barnabas was one. But there were two Jameses: one called the Just, who was thrown from the pinnacle of the temple and was beaten to death with a club by a fuller, and another who was beheaded.” Paul also makes mention of the same James the Just, where he writes, “Other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.” (Church History, NewAdvent.org)
Competing traditions, two different triumvirates
So it appears that Christians had two parallel, incompatible, and competing traditions. In the first, immediately after the resurrection, Jesus appeared to James the Just, Peter, and John. In the second, Peter, along with the sons of Zebedee, James and John, picked James the Just as the head of the church in Jerusalem. I suspect that the first (Pauline) tradition is older, but in any case, it’s the tradition the Galatians would have known. Just as in 1 Corinthians, when Paul wrote “James,” he naturally intended the person we call James the Just, and his readers knew whom he intended.
The latter tradition probably became more prominent just before Mark wrote his gospel — unless he himself invented the new triumvirate, perhaps with an eye toward expunging James the Just from the record. Mark’s new tradition would shift the center of attention from Jerusalem to Galilee, casting James as an unreliable brother who failed to follow Jesus, not as the pious pillar of the Jerusalem church. In a similar move, the gospel of John displaces James with the Beloved Disciple at the crucifixion when Jesus declares: “Behold, your mother.”
An unlikely title
Returning once more to Gal 1:19, I contend that Paul had no need for any title when mentioning the individual members of the triumvirate in Jerusalem. When Paul says Jesus appeared to James or that James sent some of his goons from Jerusalem, he and his audience knew what that meant. Even if he did apply some title (which I think is unlikely), “brother of the Lord” seems a strange one for Paul to use. We get the feeling elsewhere that Paul didn’t like James very much. We’ve discussed many times at length how the term may have meant coreligionist and not male sibling in this instance. However, in either case, it just sounds too . . . nice.
At this point I’d like to bring in good old Joe Hoffmann, our erstwhile pal. Back in 2009 he wrote:
The early Christians were renowned for their use of familial terms to describe their fellowship, a fact which led to their rituals being castigated as incestuous by pagan onlookers. In short, the use of the term “brother” to refer to James is honorific (religious) rather than genetic. Paul nowhere refers to other “Jameses” –- no biological brother, no “James the Just” or “the righteous” or “the younger.” Those characters are created by necessity and fleshed out in the future, by gospel writers, and perhaps echo late first and early second century confusion over misremembered details of the historical period that Paul represents, more or less contemporaneously. In the light of Paul’s complete disregard for the “historical” Jesus, moreover, it is unimaginable that he would assert a biological relationship between James and “the Lord.” (R. Joseph Hoffmann)
An interpolated title for confused readers
That’s an interesting thought, but I would instead argue that Paul simply had no need to identify James further, and that in the original text, just as in the 1 Corinthians statement of faith, Paul initially referred to James as James. Moreover, I think the text would have remained unchanged by scribes except for the text in Gal 2:9, just a few verses later, in which Paul writes:
And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision. (KJV)
The pressure for interpolation comes from the “pillars” verse, but only once readers and listeners became familiar with the new triumvirate, namely the fictional inner circle of Jesus’ disciples — the three who witnessed the raising of Jairus’s daughter and the Transfiguration. At some point, probably as early as the 70s CE, a scribe inserted a reader’s marginal note [“brother of the Lord”] into the letter. By that time, the title may or may not have had a deeper, theological meaning.
We know that the early Church fathers did not think James was Jesus’ biological brother, and although (as we’ve noted before) that may stem largely from the doctrine of perpetual virginity, the point stands nonetheless. Recall that James was supposed to be extremely, almost preternaturally, pious. Maybe he wasn’t born the brother of the Lord, but earned the title.
We can at least be certain that if scribes inserted the title, it happened quite early. All of our extant manuscripts contain “brother of the Lord.” On the other hand we can see how “Petros” (Πέτρος) began as a marginal note, later inserted into the text in various places. Similarly, in many western manuscripts scribes changed the order of the pillars’ names from “James, Cephas, and John” to “Peter, James, and John,” presumably out of a desire to conform to the order in Mark.
I have argued here that “brother of the Lord” most likely served the function of discriminating from among the jumble of Jameses in the New Testament. However, Paul nowhere else sees the need to tell us which James he’s talking about any more than he needs to explain which John or which Cephas he’s referring to.
I have further argued that the pressure to add a descriptor to the text in Gal 1:19 arose from the reference to the pillars in Gal 2:9. Readers shortly after Paul’s era began to associate “Peter, James, and John” with the trio mentioned in the gospels. We noted indisputable evidence of interpolation pressure from the gospels in both Gal 1:19 and 2:9.
To prevent people from wrongly assuming that Paul meant James, the son of Zebedee, during oral recitations the reader would look up and say, parenthetically, “the brother of the Lord.” Finally, this reading note eventually became interpolated into the text as we have it today.
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