Does “Brother of the Lord” settle the Jesus myth question?

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by Neil Godfrey

On another forum I recently posted a discussion of the passage in Galatians where Paul says he met James, “the brother of the Lord”, setting out why I believe the passage is not necessarily the “slam dunk” that many say it is to prove Jesus was a historical figure. I have other posts on other topics I want to do for Vridar but till I can sort those out I will double up and copy here what I posted on AFA.

Part 1

A passage in Paul’s letter to the Galatians is often touted as irrefutable proof that Jesus was a historical figure:

1:18 Then, after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him for fifteen days; 19 But I saw no other of the Apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. 20 And the things I write to you— see!— before God, I am not lying.
(Hart’s translation)

All manuscripts of Galatians agree that James is said to be “the Lord’s brother”. No exceptions.

If Paul met James who was recognized as the Lord’s brother then obviously the Lord’s brother was a real person. And for good reason “the Lord” is generally assumed to refer to Jesus.

It is obvious, then, that Jesus existed.

Some have tried to object on the following grounds:

1. Paul often speaks of all Christians as “brothers” and “sisters” so in Galatians 1:19 he is simply singling out James as a Christian for some reason.


2. The Lord more commonly refers to God. Therefore “the brother of the Lord” is really some sort of spiritual title. Even if “Lord” did refer to Jesus the phrase was still a spiritual title that described an inner group of leaders or elites in the assembly.

Therefore, it is argued, Galatians 1:19 does not prove the historicity of Jesus.

Those objections are objected to, however:

1. It makes no sense to call James “the brother of the Lord” if that simply meant to point out he was a Christian like all other “brothers and sisters”. The context alone tells us James was a Christian. But so was Cephas (= Peter) whom Paul also met.

2. There is no evidence that an inner group known as “the brothers of the Lord” existed in the early church or that “brother of the Lord” was used as a title for anyone.

I think those objections are sound. (They are possible, but I think more evidence is needed to establish either one as a completely satisfactory alternative to the mainstream view that the passage is telling us that James was the biological brother of Jesus.)

So, then, we are left with a letter by Paul indicating that one of the three great leaders (Paul says they were reputed to be “pillars”) of the Jerusalem church was named James who was the sibling of Jesus.

But that’s where our problems start.

I’ll set out those problems in the next comment. Till then, hopefully someone can add any other points strengthening the case for Jesus’ historicity based on Galatians 1:19.


Part 2

Often one comes across the claim that we know Jesus was historical because Galatians 1:19 tells us that Paul met Jesus’ brother. There are other arguments, of course, but this one is often presented as the slam dunk that ends all reasonable doubt.

When I was a Christian I got into the habit of learning lots of proof-texts to support my beliefs from Scripture. Having proof-texts replaces the need to think carefully and understand more about what the Bible says, where it came from, etc.

It is easy to continue this practice of arguing by means of proof-texts when taking on the question of Jesus’ historicity.

Historical research is not about proof-texting.

Historical research does not consist, as beginners in particular often suppose, in the pursuit of some particular evidence that will answer a particular question; 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. (G.R. Elton, The Practice of History, p.88)

Proof texting is no different from confirmation bias.

“Scientific” historical research requires setting up predictions and testing them, trying to falsify them. In history we make predictions by asking what we would expect to find in the sources if our hypothesis were true.

So let’s test hypothesis (indisputable to many) that Galatians 1:19 is describing a real, historical event and that James, one of the three pillars of the Jerusalem Church, really was the biological brother of Jesus.

If a family brother of Jesus were the/a head of the church, we would expect to find

  • 1 — supporting claims to this effect in the contemporary or near contemporary literature. (We would have more than just a single aside comment in one letter.)
  • 2 — Paul’s letter to the Galatians being used in the following decades in disputes that would have been settled by pointing out that Jesus had a physical brother, head of the church, in concord with Paul.

Both of those predictions fail.

Prediction 1:

In the gospels we read that Jesus did have a family brother named James but those same gospels also tell us that James did not believe in Jesus. In the Gospel of Mark Jesus sets himself in opposition to his family, including James. Jesus applies to himself a proverb about a prophets being rejected by their own family.

Mark 3:
31 And his mother and his brothers come, and standing outside they sent word to him, summoning him.

32 And a crowd was seated around him, and they say to him, “Look: Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside looking for you.”
33 And in reply he says to them, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?”
34 And looking around at those sitting in a circle about him he says, “Look: my mother and my brothers.
35 Whoever does the will of God, this one is my brother and sister and mother.”

Mark 6:
3 Is not this man the craftsman, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they were scandalized by him.
4 And Jesus said to them: “A prophet is not dishonored except in his native country and among his own kin and in his household.”

John 7:
3 Therefore his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go into Judaea, so that your disciples will see these works of yours that you do;
4 For no one does something in secret and expects to be in public view; if you do these things, reveal yourself to the cosmos.”
5 For his brothers did not have faith in him.

According to the gospels James the brother of Jesus was a nonbeliever.

Prediction 2:

I will summarize here. The details are complex. Evidence of the Church Fathers in the second century indicates that Galatians 1:18-19 was not part of either “heretical” or “proto-orthodox” versions of Galatians. Yet one of the major points of dispute between the two was over whether Jesus was truly human or merely a spirit appearing as a human.

I am happy to discuss the details in any follow up discussion.

Okay, two predictions fail.

But that is not of itself enough reason to discard the hypothesis that Galatians 1:19 is “proof” that Jesus was a historical figure. Let’s see if we can find any signs of life yet.

Our conservative historian G.R. Elton taught us that historical research

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.

I’m taking this one step at a time. So next comment I’ll try to cover some of that “review of everything that may conceivably be germane” to the question of Galatians 1:19’s relevance to the historicity of Jesus.

We will still then need to explain how and why Galatians 1:19 says what it does if we have no corroborating evidence and much evidence that is actually contrary to the idea that a brother of Jesus headed the church.

I can imagine many people will find all of this rather exhausting and impatiently insist we cut to the chase and simply say, Hey, Paul met the brother of Jesus so that’s all that needs to be said.

Historical research is a bit more complex than simple proof-texting, however.


Part 3

1. The Book of Acts indicates that James was a (even “the”) leader of the Jerusalem Church but oddly gives no account of who he was or where he came from or how he came to be the deciding voice:

The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. . . . “It is my judgment, therefore, that. . . . “

Acts 15:12ff

Before “Luke” wrote the Gospel and Acts the only record we had of James in the gospels (Mark and Matthew) was negative: James was not part of Jesus’ following. Luke, writing much later, begins to soften the treatment of the physical brothers of Jesus and even says they (without singling out James) were present among the 120 believers at the first Pentecost. Nonetheless, we are left with the unexpected failure to explain how this James acquired this position of preeminence.

Yet we inexplicably find James leading the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. Just a mention that he was the brother of Jesus would go some way to offering an explanation but that’s what we lack.

(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.)

2. The Epistle of James in the NT (probably written before the gospels) 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.…

3. The Epistle of Jude in the New Testament (also probably before the gospels) 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.

4. The list of Jesus’ brothers in the gospels is worth a closer look.

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)

5. 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 and sarcastically denigrates his status as a “so-called pillar”. We have to at least wonder about Paul’s attitude towards “the brother of the Lord”, especially if, like Paul, he had a dramatic conversion experience from not believing in Jesus to becoming a leading follower.

The only reason the brothers, sisters and mother of Jesus are mentioned at all in our earliest gospel is to dramatize the proverb that a prophet is only dishonoured by his own town and family, his own people. They are present for the author’s theological reasons and not simply to pass on historical information.

6. Earliest noncanonical references to James as leader of the church give no hint about him being Jesus’ brother. He is called “camel knees” because his knees are so calloused from praying. But the earliest Church Fathers never suggest that he is the blood brother of Jesus.

There is a James said to be a brother of Jesus called Christ in Josephus’s Antiquities, but that passage has long been a subject of controversy along with the larger passage about Jesus found in Josephus. If Josephus really wrote that that James was the brother of Jesus then he strangely says that all the Jews loved him and were not at all offended by him; in fact the Josephan passage contradicts later Christian tradition about James by claiming that the Jews were outraged over his execution and sought punishment of those responsible.

7. Fundamentals of historical method: Sound research looks for independent corroboration of claims made in the sources. Sometimes a measure of corroboration can come from a study of the provenance and authorship of the sources. Provenance covers tracing the manuscript history of documents. Although all extant manuscripts of Galatians include the “brother of the Lord” passage, one detail worth keeping in mind is that 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).

I have not covered “everything that may conceivably be germane” to the question of James being a brother of Jesus on the basis of Galatians 1:19 but I submit that the above, along with the failure of the two predictions in the previous comment, allow us at least to ask why Galatians 1:19 stands out alone as the only early Christian support for the view that James was the brother of Jesus.

Doubts can be raised against one hypothesis but they are not sufficient to establish an alternative hypothesis.

We still need a cogent explanation for the “brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians.


Part 4

So far Galatians 1:19 stands out as the proverbial shag on a rock as a “proof text” to establish that Paul met a literal brother of Jesus.

Nowhere in the New Testament or in the early Church Fathers do we find any corroborating evidence that James, a leader of the church, was a biological brother of Jesus. This is less an argumentum ex silentio than an argumentum from whatever the Latin is for “the dog that did not bark”.

The anomalous pillar of Galatians 1:19 in the sea of indifferent and contrary data at least permits us to suspend judgment and raise questions.

Look again at the passage:

1:18 Then, after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him for fifteen days; 19 But I saw no other of the Apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. 20 And the things I write to you— see!— before God, I am not lying.

A little later Paul adds John to the trio of leaders or pillars: James, Cephas (= Peter) and John.

Evidently there was no need to explain which Cephas or which John he meant. Everyone knew the names of the big three at the head of the Jerusalem Church.

So why did he need to explain which James he meant?

If everyone knew Peter/Cephas and John how could they not also know which James he meant?

So why would Paul feel a need to explain which James was one of the top three leaders of the Church?

Now we do know that among Christians of a later generation, well after the time of Paul and after we have gospels and Acts being written, we do know that there were indeed a multifarious range of Jameses in the sacred record.

The gospels speaks of

  • James the brother of John and son of Zebedee, also one of the Twelve;
  • James the son of Alphaeus, one of the Twelve Disciples and identified by some with the either of the following two….
  • James the Less — who might(?) be the same as
  • James the brother of Jesus.

It is not hard to imagine a Christian scribe at some point making a note in the margin of his copy of the letter to the Galatians explaining for his readers (even perhaps for his own satisfaction) “which James” Paul meant. That marginal note later came to be incorporated into the text itself. That sort of thing happened more times than can be counted. Such inadvertent insertions are called “glosses”. If copyists came across marginal notes they weren’t always sure if they were meant to be part of the original text so they added them just to be on the safe side.

If that’s what happened then we have an explanation for

  • why James and not any of the other two pillars needed to be identified in a letter to the church;
  • why the passage in Galatians was not used in the early debates over the genuine “humanness” of Jesus even though that section of Galatians was discussed in those conflicts. It was as though that particular verse was invisible to both sides;
  • why other early references to James the Lord’s brother depict him as a faithless outsider without any subsequent explanation as to how he came to be head of the church;
  • why letters forged in the names of James and Jude (names that later in the gospels came to be listed as brothers of Jesus) failed to assert their family status in relation to Jesus;
  • the failure of the gospels and Acts to provide any biographical information about the brothers of Jesus, especially the subsequent conversion of any of them to faith in Jesus and their rise to leadership in the church, apart from little anecdotes functioning to demonstrate how prophecy was fulfilled by having Jesus’ own family turn against him;
  • why the first reference to Galatians 1:19 does not appear in the Christian record until the third century despite it being the only clear reference to the unique family status of such a prominent founding Church leader.

I conclude that there are enough grounds for doubt to allow us to step back from resting our case for the historicity of Jesus on Galatians 1:19.

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22 thoughts on “Does “Brother of the Lord” settle the Jesus myth question?”

  1. The marginal note may not be so innocent. Surely it could be served to specify which James was met by Paul. And in this sense the scribe was innocent.

    But the fact that he specified just that James (nor the son of Zebedee neither James the Less) is in my view a sign of particular deliberate polemic: against Marcion.

  2. Paul is not a reliable witness to the facts of Christian origins. He believed in the real existence of angels, of Satan, of elemental spirits of the universe. Naturally he believed that Adam, Abraham, Moses and a whole host of legendary Old Testament figures were real people. He believed Jesus was the son of David, born of a woman, born under the law, that he was crucified and rose from the dead on the third day. (All of these ideas- as he says-he gleaned from the writings of the Jews or by direct revelation from Jesus) It is not too much of a stretch to posit him believing that some Jews were actually related to the Jesus that he preached and believed in. (See Psalm 22:22 and Genesis 27:29) I don’t think that makes these statements any more worthy of credence than any others. The claims made by James and others to be related to Jesus (if indeed that is what is meant) also should be regarded with suspicion. According to Hegesippus many claimed to be related to Jesus and they “took the presidency of every church, as witnesses for Christ, and as being of the kindred of the Lord.” It seems to me that some had cottoned onto a nice racket by claiming divine connections. We see the same thing in Islam with the dispute between Shia and Sunni. The verses in the gospels where Jesus deals with his family (which gospels were church authorised) seem to be a forceful counter to these claims, as their promulgation would have undermined established Roman authority. We can imagine some Pacific islanders in their cargo cult claiming to be the spiritual or even literal brothers of John Frum. Does that make John Frum a real person? No and neither should any ancient claims made by fervent believers have any weight in determining the historicity of Jesus.

  3. Last weekend I was in my home town talking to Sally and her brother Steve, my son.
    None of the 3 of us are related.

    Both the above sentences are accurate. And real, as in, I really did talk to the two of them.
    Quite a cool event.

      1. Same way, sort of, that:
        “Timothy, [is] my son whom I love,”. 1 Cor 4.17
        Or maybe because:
        ” to instruct you as my own dear children” 1 Cor 14.4.

        There are more possibilities.

        1. Ha, you fooled me. But if the prediction is that a son of Sheamcduff were alluded to as belonging to Sheamcduff’s family, then the fact that I took it that way supports the prediction. Apparently it’s harder to kid the 2nd century Fathers.

          1. Ah but the way we take allusions can be simply due to habit inculcated by a tradition which can be itself a faulty reading of the ancient cultural reality [ I’m currently reading John Van Seters on the mis- translating etc of the Nuzi texts by respected biblical archeologists of times past and the reality of their non-relevance to biblical patriarchal narratives] .

            My thesis, which I’m implying by this series of somewhat tongue in cheek contemporary references, is that we have been conned over the centuries to read into Gal 1.19 ‘the bro of the lord’ a far greater weight that it can bear.

            For example – how can 500 plus ‘brothers’ actually exist in a kin related sense?
            1 dad and 1 mum having 500 + [male] surviving children would seem a tad improbable.
            1 mum and several dads makes no more sense.
            So, maybe 1 dad and 100s of mums can produce ‘500 brethren’?

            Hmm – I’ve never read christian apologists going down that path to explain 1 Cor 15.6.

            So what does ‘brother/brethren et al’ actually mean?

            If Steve can be my son and brother to Sally yet neither related to me or each other?

    1. Actually the event at which Sally was the keynote speaker and which was organized by Steve, and both got in the local rag and local TV news, was well attended. Hundreds of brothers and sisters were present.
      Sorta like 1 Cor 15.6 perhaps.

  4. In a gnostic text, “The First Revelation of James,” Jesus says to James, “For not without reason have I called you my brother, though you are not physically my brother.” The editors of The Nag Hammadi Scriptures date this text at late 2d C. or possibly later, so it would almost certainly post-date the canonical gospels. If the author had read those he/she would necessarily view them as within a mythical context subject to later creative works with different doctrinal purposes. If the author had NOT read the others, then there would obviously a mythical tradition in which various Jesus stories were written. Editor Marvin Meyer. HarperCollins 2007.

  5. Is the Greek text compatible with a reading where James is not an apostle and brother of the Lord is given as his job title? Isn’t that Carrier’s response to this issue? i.e. the passage would mean something like, I didn’t meet any of the other apostles, but I did meet James, who is a brother. However, another Young’s Literal nor Wuest lend credence.

    Also, as is my wont, I would like to point out, following Parvus, that Galatians 1:19 does not specify “brother of Jesus”. In principle, some other “Lord” might be intended. John the Baptist (who perhaps we meet a couple verses later)? Or maybe the High Priest, the lord of the temple – who, at least in the Gospels, happens to have the same byname (?) as Cephas.

    That said, I agree that the simplest solution is that “brother of the Lord” is an interpolation. Indeed, it’s hard to take any single parenthetical/subclause content too seriously: too easily interpolated, even accidentally. In this case, I would tend to suppose that the clarification needed to be added later because, for Paul, there was only one James that he might be talking about. But by the 2nd century, competing stories about James’ relationship to Jesus resulted in two James characters: James Boanerges, the brother of John, and James the Just, the brother of Jesus. At that point, it becomes natural to specify which James is being referred to.

  6. Paul has considerable differences with the ‘so-called “Pillars”‘, but is never reined in by them saying they were J’s besties, lead by his brother, and him just some latecomer who’d had a bang on the head. Instead Paul tells us they all got the skinny from hallucinations and scripture mining like him. He doesn’t have to deal with what would seem to be a slam dunk argument if these people were friends and family of a real person and not all referring to a figment of their imaginations. The ‘Peter’ he mentions seems to be a subordinate and not the same person as ‘Cephas’, which name might just be a variant of ‘Caiaphas’. The Gospels and Acts are decades or more later and the wrong side of possibly three near-genocidal wars, Paul should be read without reference to these far future fictions. Once you do that it should be readily apparent most of this guff is the artefact of eisegesis.

  7. “1. It makes no sense to call James “the brother of the Lord” if that simply meant to point out he was a Christian like all other “brothers and sisters”. The context alone tells us James was a Christian. But so was Cephas (= Peter) whom Paul also met.”

    There’s an interesting assumption there. All Christians are referred to as brothers and sisters or brethren throughout the Pauline Epistles. That being the case, the implication here seems to be that Cephas was not a Christian at that point. This simple explanation is missed or dismissed because everybody knows that Cephas (Peter) is the first disciple and so obviously a Christian.

    However, The Pauline Epistles seem to be the writings of at least two people. Christian X is the one most people think of as genuine Paul and Christian Y interpolates corrections and comments from a pro Mosaic law perspective that clashes badly with X. (He may also have written the pastoral epistles). Since the words of two people are being attributed to Paul by our final editor it’s necessary for him to alter names and attributions. That being the case, Paul may not be Paul and Peter may not be Peter at any given point. The editor may have made other changes to fix resulting problems.

    Taking that into account what’s actually there in early Galations is:
    Somebody has been arrested and is imprisoned. While he is imprisoned a rival is preaching a false gospel to Christians and trying to make them obey the Laws of Moses. He argues against this.
    Somebody says that their authority does not come from men in Jerusalem. We are then told a story about a fanatical Jewish priest who participated in a witch hunt of Christians. News came out that he had converted to Christianity and this was hard to believe.

    Next two groups meet and there is talk of seeming to be pillars, recommendations and integrity. The gospel is told and friendship reached. We are later told that somebody fooled everyone by forsaking Jewish Law and dining with Gentiles.

    Men come from Jerusalem and the diner reverts to type. He is apparently the preacher of the false gospel from the opening and he is denounced as a hypocrite. It’s implied that he deceived everyone and the word ‘spy’ is thrown in at one point earlier.

    Now without the context this all seems to be a coherent continuous argument. I submit that this is all a hostile account of Saul’s ‘conversion’ by Christian X, who believes that it was all a ploy. Therefore ‘Cephas’ is actually Paul and he is not a Christian at that point in the narrative as this is Christian X sounding him out to see if he’s sincere about converting.

    So, after all this James is just some Christian and the use of words is a hang over from the original unredacted text which was distinguishing him from the potential converts.

    And also Paul is the one usually dismissed as ‘later interpolation’!

    The non-appearance of Galations 1:19 until the third century is interesting and I don’t know what to make of that. Perhaps this part of Galations was recognised as unreliable?

    1. It’s time I came out from my hibernation but to see a new post by Tim O’Neill awaiting makes for a wearying start. His opening paragraph is a string of debatable (including some circular) assertions that are presented as opening facts; in fact they ought to be presented as the thesis that O’Neill will proceed to argue. But that’s all part of O’Neill’s approach. That, and his avuncular buddy tone aimed at the more cynical (dare I say even “cultic-like“?) atheists who can trust him to do the research and make the arguments for them. (As a result his article scores relatively high on “clout” but pitifully low on “authenticity” in a LIWC analysis.)

      I have much to catch up on; no doubt I will have to find time to include O’Neill’s post on my to-do list.

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