Thinking through the “James, the brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians 1:19

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by Neil Godfrey

Some time ago I was attempting to think through the pros and cons surrounding the disputed claims over the significance and meaning of James being described as the brother of the Lord in Paul’s letter to Galatians. I set out the various factors in a discussion of Bayesian probability. But since Bayesian analysis is a scary phrase for some people I have extracted the different pros and cons from that post and set them out here for reference purposes. Being lifted from the original post, some of the points appear here to be in no particular order.

Before I do let’s have a look at another quotation from a historian:

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)

That was the kind of thinking that led to the following list of pros and cons. I’m not interested in dogmatically proof-texting any argument like an apologist. I am interested in attempting to approach questions and evidence according to normative historical principles.


How typical would it have been to identify someone as a brother of the Lord?

1. According to the Gospels Jesus did have a brother named James.

2. Now if in Galatians we read that “James [was] the brother of Jesus” then, of course, we would all agree that such a phrase points to a sibling relationship.

3. But we do have many instances where “brother” is used of Christians and in Hebrews Jesus speaks of having many brethren.

4. “Lord” is a religious title, not a personal name, so there is some small room for “brother of the Lord” being used in a spiritual or non-familial sense.

5. We know of no other instances of people in this context being called the “brother of a spiritual Lord” (or God) so this reduces the chances that Paul was saying James was the brother of the spiritual Lord.

6. But we also have another tradition that Jesus had no siblings at all. So how can that little detail be explained if it were known that James had been the brother of Jesus?

7. We also have information that James was reputed to have been a renowned leader of the Jerusalem church, and his relationship with God was so close that he was known as old ‘camel-knees’, a repetitive strain injury/side-effect from overmuch praying. Our interest is in the likelihood of such a phrase in this context being an indicator that James and Jesus were siblings. So if James were such an unusually holy man then maybe there is some plausibility in the idea that he was known as a special “brother of the (spiritual) Lord”.

8. Another circumstance we do know was common enough in ancient times was the tendency for copyists to edit works, usually by adding the odd word or phrase or more. Sometimes this was entered as a gloss in the margin by way of commentary, with a subsequent copyist incorporating that gloss into the main body of the text. That’s a possibility, too, given what we know of both Christian and “pagan” texts.

9. 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 far removed from the original letter of Paul. 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.

10. On the other side of the ledger we have the likelihood that if Jesus were known as a Son of David then it is reasonable to imagine that his royal heir would be his next-in-line brother, probably James. So “brother of the Lord” may not be such an unusual way to describe him in the letter.


How likely or expected is the evidence we have if James really were the brother of the Lord?

11. If James were known as the brother of the Lord in the early Church we would reasonably expect someone who met that James to tell others that the James he met was “the brother of the Lord”.  (And certainly Jesus is called “Lord” very often elsewhere. So is God, but Jesus is too.) So to that extent the Galatians 1:19 statement about James is just what we would expect.

But see Tim Widowfield’s discussion. He throws cold water on what I thought was such a simple point to make in The Function of “Brother of the Lord” in Galatians 1:19

12. Against this, however, is the problem that if our hypothesis were true — that James, a leader of the church, really were a sibling of Jesus — we would expect to find supporting claims to this effect in the contemporary or near contemporary literature.

13. But in the Book of Acts we have what is surely a strange silence about James being related to Jesus despite his prominence in the Jerusalem church. Additionally, we have the unexpected failure to explain how this James acquired this position of pre-eminence. The beginning of the book indicates only twelve apostles and a total of 120 brethren were the original Christian club. James is not singled out. Yet we inexplicably find James leading the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. It should further be kept in mind that we have no reason to assume that the designation “brother of the Lord” in Galatians was a reference to a “head” of the church as James appears to be in Acts.

14. The letter attributed to James in the New Testament gives no hint that its author knew that the name and person of James was a blood relation of Jesus. One would have expected some such indication in a letter sent to brethren far and wide (to “the twelve tribes”) to alert readers to the presumed author’s authority. This would be especially so if James were a reasonably common name. Given the often contentious nature of early Christian correspondence, it is difficult to explain why any information to enhance the author’s authoritative status would not be made explicit.

15. The letter attributed to Jude in the New Testament is just as unexpected in the way it identifies its author as the brother of James and not Jesus — if indeed our hypothesis were correct.

16. The Gospels indicate that James, though a brother of Jesus, was hostile to Jesus. There are no indications anywhere in the Gospels that this hostility was ever resolved. So on the strength of what we know from the Gospels we must suspect that the James Paul met in Jerusalem was not the same as the brother in the Gospels. If he were the same we would expect some hint somewhere that he came to have a change of heart.

17. Another factor in the Gospel account is the unusual combination of the names assigned to the brothers 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. 

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. (Fredriksen, Paula. 1999. Jesus of Nazareth, p.240)

18. Paul in Galatians expresses no interest in learning about Jesus things that only a brother could know. He even scoffs at the idea that James might have anything to teach him. He is evidently not interested in knowing anything about Jesus in this worldly context.

19. The context in which the brothers of Jesus appear in the first Gospel (Mark) is the theological message that prophets are not accepted by their own kith and kin. The scene is presented to illustrate this message. It sets Jesus in the tradition of other men of God: Abel, Joseph, Jephthah, Moses, David . . . So the purpose is not to convey historical information but to illustrate a theological message and claim about Jesus. Given the absence of any other evidence clearly supporting historicity, this is a point against the historicity of the relationship between the two persons.

20. There is no external witness to Galatians 1:19 till the time of Origen (3rd century) despite its apparent potential usefulness in arguments against Marcionites by “orthodox” representatives such as Tertullian (second century).

21. 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. (p. 76 of Jesus Not A Myth by A. D. Howell Smith.)

This record of evidence and “negative evidence” is all very unexpected if our hypothesis were true. I would say it is “very improbable”.


Given all of the above, let’s weigh the alternatives

Given the considerations listed above, I would say that the evidence is just what we would expect if James were not a literal sibling of Jesus.

It is also just what we would expect (not being attested until the third century despite the anti-Marcionite value of such a concept, and slight hints it did not appear in the text known to Tertullian) if the phrase “brother of the Lord” entered as a gloss.

But if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. I’m more than happy to reconsider any of the above evidence and to add any other points into the mix.


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34 thoughts on “Thinking through the “James, the brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians 1:19”

  1. Paul reckons all Christians who believe/have faith in Christ are sons of god [I think its in Romans- I have faith you will know the precise reference and wording].
    Jesus was also a son of god special because he was the first born of god.
    So – all believing christians are sons of god along with their brother Jesus.
    They are all ‘brothers of the lord’, even the women.
    Its that simple.
    That why Paul can use kin terms dozens of times in the ‘authentic’ epistles for unrelated people.
    James is just one of them and only by ignoring the other elements [we are all sons of god] and references does the James reference rise above banal.

    1. OK I can access a bible now.
      Romans RSV
      Sons of god
      8.14 ff
      “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God….. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ”
      Brothers of Jesus
      “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God;..”
      “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren.”
      Kin terms eg ‘brethren’
      Too numerous to list.

    2. Yes, all Christians are (fictive) brothers of the Lord. The difficulty with Galatians 1:19, however, is that it singles James out a “brother of the Lord” as if that label somehow identifies him from others. Presumably, Peter and John were also brothers of the Lord, too, in the fictive kinship sense, and any other James known to the first readers/hearers of Galatians. So why is James the only one identified as a brother of the Lord?

      1. I believe Richard Carrier has written extensively on this topic. IIRC, he says the James of Galatians 1:19 is not the James who is the supposed brother of Jesus Christ, but a different James. Who would be unknown to readers and needed to be introduced as a brother of the flock.

        1. Yes, Carrier writes in OHJ, p. 589

          So it’s just as likely, if not more so, that Paul means he met only the apostle Peter and only one other Judean Christian, a certain ‘brother James’. By calling him a brother of the Lord instead of an apostle, Paul is thus distinguishing this James from any apostles of the same name — just as we saw he used ‘brothers of the Lord’ to distinguish regular Christians from apostles in I Cor. 9.5.

          I personally find the evidence for interpolation very strong. I can understand the reluctance of Carrier (and Doherty, too) to argue interpolations, but I do believe such arguments deserve more recognition and acceptance. Unfortunately, most biblical scholars are the ones who are so resistant to those arguments. Yet a survey of the “culture of interpolations” in the world of ancient literature surely, in my view, makes them worthy of serious consideration a lot more often than they currently are.

      2. Gidday Neil,
        Well ‘others’ is actually only one person.
        Gal 1.
        18. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days.
        19. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.
        20 ……….
        So Paul saw Peter/Cephas [interestingly my RSV has “Peter’ but the online RSV has “Cephas”], who deserves mention cos of his special status [‘pillar’ and all that] and James the lord’s bro.
        Speculating – if he had seen 3 of the ‘other apostles’ namely Billy, Fred and James, he might have written ..”I saw Billy, Fred and James, the Lord’s brothers.”
        So the moniker ‘brother’ for James in 1.19 is not special or restricted to just him necessarily.
        And on that page of my RSV the word ‘brethren’ appears twice – at 1.11 and 2.4 “false brethren” – its an ubiquitous descriptor of Christians or ‘false’ ones.

        While I’m here there is the interesting similarity with 1 Cor 9.5:
        “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas”
        Now that fits right in with the idea of christians being ‘brothers’ with Cephas being special. Again, no kinship implied.

        I also find this line interesting because I have seen this version/translation:
        “Do we not have the right to take along a sister as wife as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?”
        where adelphe is ‘full, own sister”.
        But … is translated to ‘believer’ whilst adelphos stays as ‘brothers’ in the same line.
        Shenanigans by translators?

  2. 22. The existence of a separate character known as “Mary the mother of James” in Mark, the original witness to the idea that Jesus had a brother named James, suggests the possibility of conflated traditions.

  3. “Brothers of the Lord” as a separate honoured sect within the Christian family of believers found expression in early monasticism. Philo describes the Jewish Therapeutae of Alexandria in the first century as pursuing a life separate from the world and dedicated to God. Eusebius claims that “Philo, when he wrote these things, had in view the first heralds of the Gospel and the customs handed down from the beginning by the apostles.” It is not difficult to imagine that these special Christians amongst the early Christians were named or named themselves “brothers of the Lord”, without implying that they were physically related to the Messiah.
    For more on this point see the Appendix to my new book; Jesus of the Books, A Pragmatic History of the Early Church, soon to be published and available on Amazon.

    1. Earl Doherty also suggested something similar — that brothers of the Lord may have been some special class or group within the Christian community.

  4. I think the ‘brother of the Lord’ verse is an interpolation suggested by the various suggestive references to Jameses and brothers. Interpolated too I think are the ‘made of woman’ and ‘seed of David’ verses.

    If I may paste from my review of Carrier, where I suggested he was making harder arguments than he would need to if he relied on an interpolation theory:

    I am a huge fan of Richard Carrier and of this book, but I have a different, albeit amateur, take on the trickiest evidence mythicists have to negotiate, viz. “James, the Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:19), “born/made of woman, born/made under the law” (Gal. 4:4), and “from the seed of David” (Rom. 1:3). Instead of relying on difficult interpretations of these phrases, I would suggest interpolation. I know it is easy to call interpolation on any phrase one doesn’t like, and Carrier himself does not like to do it without excellent evidence because it lowers the probability of his theory (relying as it does on unproven tampering with the text). However, I am confident enough in the correctness of mythicism on other grounds that these phrases stand out from Paul’s letters as obvious candidates for forgery.

    For the following specific textual grounds for arguing interpolation I rely on Peter Kirby’s work here: http://peterkirby.com/marcions-shorter-readings-of-paul.html

    “James, the Lord’s brother” is contained in a passage in Galatians about Paul’s supposed first visit to Jerusalem which is suspect in its entirety: it was not in Marcion’s text, nor I suspect in Irenaeus’. Of course Catholics accused Marcion of deleting them, but it is no less likely that they added them in. If this line were absent, the figure of James, the human brother of a human Jesus of Nazareth, could still have been invented through a process of imaginative textual reconciliation: in Acts (as Carrier discusses) there is a problem where one James is killed and then another James carries on as the leader of the Church: combine this unidentified James with the brother James named in Mark’s Gospel and Paul’s remark at 1 Cor 9:5 about “the Lord’s brothers”, and (voila!) one has engineered a James, human brother of Jesus, who is a Church leader, then written into Gal. 1. Giving Jesus a human brother would also be an anti-Marcionite statement, to interpolate, since Marcion argued Jesus had no human birth (he descended in adult form). This interpolation solution would allow brother to hold its meaning of human siblinghood, while still not bolstering the case for the historical Jesus. This would also explain why, if this is a brother in the human sense, the sentence does not distinguish this kind of brother from the spiritual kind that Paul wrote about much more often: it wasn’t Paul writing.

    The phrase “born/made of woman, born/made under the law” was not in Marcion’s text of Galatians. Marcion did not believe either of these things about Jesus, but they make sense as something Catholics might have interpolated to use against Marcionites.

    Nor was “from the seed of David” in Marcion’s text of Romans. Marcion believed Jesus had no human birth so dismissing this phrase would spare us having to follow Carrier’s argument about sperm implantation.

    I know Carrier will not make this argument, and there will be some who are loath to accept or to rely on interpolation arguments. Personally, from my reading I have very little confidence in the faithful transmission of the texts: Catholics were clearly willing to forge documents to bolster their theological positions – hence why several letters attributed to Paul are now regarded as forgeries. I have no problem believing they would have inserted anti-Marcionite interpolations. We cannot prove them interpolations, but readers who baulk at Carrier’s most difficult arguments might like to consider this alternative way around his most problematic evidence.

  5. Hi Neil,

    Reading this is a lot easier for me than trying to follow a Bayesian equation. I disagree with your conclusion, but at least I was able to follow your argument.

    1. That the term “brother” can mean cousin or that James with a son of Joseph from a previous marriage.

      The first doesn’t have much going for it (I’ve seen very few references by Catholics that the greek word was used that way). The second is more likely. Joseph seems have dropped out of the Gospel accounts early on so he may have been older and a widower.

      1. Speculation [as to Joe’s marital status] based on zero credible
        information is absolutely valueless.
        The answer to Akenaten’s question is “With great difficulty”.

  6. “We also have information that James was reputed to have been a renowned leader of the Jerusalem church”

    But, as is all information we have on the early church, it is unconfirmed outside church tradition and, of course, the person it is about left zero written record of minself – odd for a person whose people were known fro their writings.

  7. Just curious, and hopefully someone here can answer this, but is there a definite article (i.e. “the”) in the original Greek, or is that added in via translation? In other words, does the passage literally translate as “James, the brother of the Lord” or could it also translate translate as “James, a brother of the Lord”?

    1. Yes, all manuscripts contain the Greek “the” with “brother”. But I don’t think we can read too much into that little grammatical detail because my slight knowledge of koine Greek tells me that “the” was used much more liberally and not necessarily with the same significance as it has in English. It would even use “the” for “the Jesus”, “the God”, “the Mark”, etc.

      1. Further to that, there is no indefinite article in Greek; that is, your only option is hoi, “the”, whereas in English and the Romance languages (and many more) you can say “a brother” or “the brother”

  8. Neil,

    I would very much appreciate your thoughts on a particular point that I have raised on McGrath’s blog a number of times.

    McGrath recently repeated the assertion that “if ‘brother of the Lord’ means ‘Christian’ then it is no more useful as a way of contrasting one Christian James from another who happens to be an apostle, than it is useful as a way of distinguishing between the James and Peter mentioned in Galatians.”

    I have never found this argument persuasive.

    Catholic Online lists forty-seven different Saints named Joseph, along with a Josaphat, a Josef, a Jozef, and a handful named Jose. Many of these men did work, but, as a matter of convention, one of them is known as “the Worker.”

    In a culture without surnames, like that of the early church, means of distinguishing men with the same name were needed. In many cases, they were distinguished by their relatives, e.g., John the son of Zebedee. In other cases, it seems that a sort of nickname was used, e.g., Simon the Zealot, James the Just, John the Baptist. These designations were useful not because there was only one Simon who was zealous (or a Zealot), only one James who was just, or only one John who performed baptisms. They were useful as a matter of convention because people understood them as identifying specific people.

    Even if James was a brother of the Lord in the exact same sense as many other men named James, Paul might have used “the brother of the Lord” in Galatians 1:19 simply because his readers knew which James was commonly identified by that particular phrase. Moreover, Paul wouldn’t even have to have known how James came by that name as long as he knew that his readers knew who was being designated.

    Of course I don’t believe that this is a matter of certainty. Moreover, it is possible that James acquired that designation because he was the unique biological brother of the earthly Jesus. Nonetheless, I don’t see how the fact that many men named James could have been considered brothers of the Lord in the spiritual sense precludes one particular James being designated “the brother of the Lord” as a matter of convention.

    1. Irenaeus did not cite the passage in his attack on Marcion in discussing Marcion’s treatment of Galatians. That’s the point. If the passage were known to him it would have been the weapon to have killed off Marcion’s claims completely.

  9. Couchoud on Galatians 1:19:

    ‘It seemed very much to the point to modify certain historical facts to bring them into line with the correct dogma. Hence another group of corrections were introduced, the most important of which are to be found in the Letter to the Galatians where they aimed at rebutting or weakening Paul’s independence.
    Gal. 2 : 1: “Fourteen years later I went up to Jerusalem”. The Catholic revisor writes “I went up again ( pa,lin )….”. In this fashion he reveals himself to be the author of the verses 1 : 18–20 where an alleged earlier journey of Paul to Jerusalem is reported: “Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles– only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie”. ‘

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