The never-ending “brother of the lord” proof for the historical existence of Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

James McGrath has posted that it is time to return to the Jesus mythicism question. He writes:

It’s time to return once again to the subject of Jesus mythicism, the stance that denies the overwhelming consensus of professional historians and scholars that there most likely was indeed a historical Jesus of Nazareth.

Translated, that means it is “time to return to addressing those who question the conventional wisdom bequeathed to us from our society’s Christian heritage.” The use of the word “consensus” makes it sound as if the belief in the the historicity of Jesus is a position arrived at by serious research on the part of all those “professional historians and scholars”. But we know that is not the case because Bart Ehrman let a terrible secret out of the bag when he wrote:

Odd as it may seem, no scholar of the New Testament has ever thought to put together a sustained argument that Jesus must have lived. To my knowledge, I was the first to try it . . . 

I also find the phrase “most likely” confusing in the context. “Most likely” suggests to me that there is some room for doubt, however slim. The words suggest something short of “definitely” or “without doubt”. Yet the very suggestion of any doubt at all is what appears to offend McGrath.

Another framing word in his introduction is “denies’. That word allows him to follow up with “denialist” to characterize sympathy with the mythicist argument. Denialism suggests irrational stances and is hardly a fitting word to be used of scholarly disagreements. Would not the word “disagrees” be more appropriate and accurate?

Next, McGrath comes to the immediate point of his pot:

Evidence about his brother James (Jacob) is an important factor in historical reasoning on this subject.

By adding Jacob in parenthesis beside the name James indicates to the reader that the author is aware of subtleties in the primary sources and so is presenting a scholarly argument.

But what follows is a quotation by someone who regularly demonstrates a lack of awareness of the fundamentals of methods of historical research and who routinely uses personal insults to smokescreen the weaknesses and fallacious nature of some of his arguments.

The post to which McGrath directs readers rests on the most fundamental errors of historical research. Its author, Tim O’Neill, simply assumes that the letter to the Galatians that he sees before him is just what a mid-century Paul originally wrote. To raise the well known fact that textual variants were the norm for ancient letters, especially Paul’s, and that there is indeed evidence that points to the possibility that Paul did not write those words.

After more loaded language and ad hominem aspersions against mythicists (they are too predictable and too numerous to bother discussing one by one here) McGrath does actually say something that I fully agree with:

Each piece of evidence needs to be evaluated on its own merits. And the fact that some evidence does not confirm something should never be treated as undermining what the positive evidence shows.


Unfortunately, McGrath appears to be so committed to the historicity of the central person of his own religious faith that he can allow no room whatever for any suggestion of doubt. That one piece of “evidence” (I would call it “data” waiting to be interpreted to see whether or not it is evidence for or against a proposition) appears to be all he needs to establish not merely “most likely” but that there “definitely without any shadow of doubt” was a historical Jesus.

If you know my sibling and they mentioned me, but you have also heard a number of improbable things about me (whether that my parents won the lottery just in time to pay the medical bills after I was born, that I have been interviewed by MTV News and E! Online, or that I have a tenure track position at a university), the latter details should not be evaluated as reasons to doubt my historicity. This sort of probability calculation may be appropriate to figuring out the likelihood that some individual in theory would happen to have my unique combination of characteristics. But once my existence is established, even ludicrous claims that turn out to be false do not make my existence less likely.

I have bolded and italicized the last words. Here McGrath contradicts his opening claim in which he indicated that the historicity of Jesus was the “most likely” explanation to account for the data. Rather, he concludes by saying that there is nothing that could make the existence of a person any “less likely” once it has been established by the meeting of one known to be the person’s sibling. That sounds to me as though he takes Galatians 1:19 as definitely, unequivocally, establishing the historicity of Jesus.

I think at this point it is time to examine each piece of evidence and evaluate it on its own merits. And that means going back to the most fundamental rules of assessing the nature of the documents we have and the totality of data that bears upon the question. That’s what I have tried to do in my post Does “Brother of the Lord” settle the Jesus myth question?


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Neil Godfrey

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14 thoughts on “The never-ending “brother of the lord” proof for the historical existence of Jesus”

  1. “Each piece of evidence needs to be evaluated on its own merits.”

    Ancient anonymous texts aren’t “evidence.” They are, at best, curios of one particular religious sect among hundreds of other sects writing similar fantasy fiction.

    A story about a man who travels to the third heaven in time is not “evidence” that a man actually travelled to the third heaven, or that a third heaven exists. It’s evidence that somebody wrote down a fantasy they had. A story about a man who came back from the dead is not “evidence” that a man actually came back from the dead.

    1. The whole thing is as historical as “gone with the wind” and the evidence, as it were, is pretty much the same. It’s fiction, and they can’t show it’s not. McGrath has admitted as much. They work under the assumption that there is an historical core.

  2. H. Detering showed already long ago (in Der Galaterbrief in seiner ursprünglichen Gestalt) that the whole first visit to Jerusalem is an anti-Marcionite interpolation for the purpose of an attempt at the harmonization of the epistle with the canonical acts of the apostles. This way, Paul was turned into an errand boy of the judeo-christian pillars.

    1. Detering’s argument is certainly a possibility I always keep in mind. But in its own right it is not likely to overthrow the conventional assumptions underpinning the “brother of the Lord” question.

  3. Thank you Neil. However your discussion on 25/2/18 is far superior; and McGrath’s biases are evident. Neil could you please consider doing a Vridar review of a 1961 speech that I believe exposes the myths of WW1 and WW2. If you are familiar with the views of Benjamin H. Freedman, could you please listen to his speech at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhFRGDyX48c Historians and diplomats I ask about this tell me that Freedman has oversimplified the history and/or is a”snake-oil salesman”. As with the Jesus myth theory, I am inclined to suspect the powers that be of propogandists (i.e. the institutionalised church in the case of Jesus, and the Zionist corporatocracy in the case of the war on terror that has not really petered out). Hence I believe Freedman and see his warning as relevant and factually based. Neil another great review that I hope you could consider one day is of Joseph Atwill and his “Caesar’s Messiah”. Along with his discussions with Acharya S. I consider his work worth absolutely considering. Unfortuantely he is not well respected by Robert M. Price ! But Robert Eisenman does respect him. Likewise, though I enormously respect Noham Chomsky, he does not wish to investigate 911 ! He just keeps saying rhetorically “Who flew the planes into the buildings?” – case closed. I feel very awkward disagreeing with Chomsky ! The dance continues.

  4. I don’t know about the “Brother of the Lord” passage in Paul, but Paul says (in 2 Cor 5:16) there used to be a κατὰ σάρκα outlook (pre conversion) that related to Jesus as a mere crucified criminal (I’m speculating), and then a new perspective (post conversion) where God had revealed His resurrected Son in Paul (Galatians 1:16), whereby he now sees Christ according to His true, higher, resurrected spiritual nature (κατὰ πνεῦμα, Romans 1:4).” Every one of the usual commentaries online suggest 2 Cor 5:16 implies an earthly Jesus, see http://biblehub.com/commentaries/2_corinthians/5-16.htm

    1. “after the flesh” and all such mysterious language smacks to me of a gnostic cult. The writer’s use of “we” smacks of leaders of the cult exerting their authority. While there may be several ambiguous texts supporting an interpretation that there actually was a real person who was a carpenter-prophet, it is clear that the genre, politics and background of the Bible support the view that the New Testament is fiction, satire, fraud and propaganda based first on the messianic angelology of the BCE/CE Jews of the day (the epistles) then later exploited by the Roman leaders (the Gospels and Acts) to quell further Jewish rebellion and unify all citizens. When I was a Christian you could never convince me of this. Only when I lost my faith did things start to make sense.

  5. Hi Neil,

    I’m not sure whether anyone has noticed this before, but while arguing over at McGrath’s blog, I was struck by 1 Cor. 1:11-12.

    “My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’”

    Isn’t it strange that Paul should identify one of the factions by the claim “I follow Christ” when all the factions were Christians and, therefore, also followers of Christ? He seems to be singling out one group by a description that might logically be applied to all the groups. Is it possible that Paul’s Corinthian readers understood which faction was identified by the phrase “I follow Christ” even though the other factions were also followers of Christ? By the same token, could they also have understood that a particular group was designated by “[spiritual] brothers of the Lord” and could his Galatian readers have understood that a particular James was designated by “[spiritual] brother of the Lord”?

    1. I take “One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ’.” to mean there were several different theologies circulating, or perhaps several different versions of a broad theology.

      If there were, at that point, several different theologies then perhaps Apollos and Cephas were not then espousing a Christ-following theology. Perhaps they were preaching a more pagan or pagan-Gnostic theology(?)

      1. I had never considered that. Paul seems to be trying to convince the Corinthians that their divisions were superficial, but I’m not sure we can take it for granted that that was the case.

      2. My first thought was that those “of the Christ” faction claimed to “free spirits” whose claimed Christ himself as their direct authority, presumably via visions or something akin to that experience. Others followed other apostles who were understood to have been privileged recipients of visions of Christ.

    2. Interesting observation. I am not aware that the analogy has been addressed before. Perhaps McGrath will change his mind about Galatians 1:19 when you point it out to him. (Or he will ban you instead for being a smart arse who thinks for himself and notices what the data actually says.)

      Do let me know, if you will, of any further responses to your observation anywhere.

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