What If James Really Were “the Brother of the Lord”?

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by Neil Godfrey

Since posting the following I have pointed to another detail that gives further reason to pause before assuming Lord = Jesus in Galatians.

Galatians 1:19

but I saw none other of the apostles, but James the brother of the Lord.

Fear not. I will not here repeat the arguments that James was/was not the brother of Jesus. I have been through them often enough.

Here I will do nothing more than share a little datum that stubbed my toe as I was wandering through yet another tangent on another question. It returns us possibly to the very time period Paul is thought to have written his letter to the Galatians.

Many of us with an interest in the question know how often people cite that passage, without a second thought, as “James the brother of Jesus”. Who else could the Lord be?

So I was pulled up when I learned that such an unconscious bias is not limited to that one passage. In a scholarly study on another early Christian piece of writing, one that some scholars even consider to be possibly contemporary with the writings of Paul, the Didache, there is this footnote on the Didache’s use of the term “Lord God”:

Niederwimmer judges that “the Lord God” would have been intended in the original Jewish context but that here it refers to the “Lord Jesus” (Didache, 105). This demonstrates that even seasoned scholars can unknowingly transport into the Didache their bias in favor of identifying Jesus as Lord. They acquire this bias in studying Paul and in participating in Christian piety. It is difficult for them, accordingly, to imagine how the Didache can be true to Jesus while absolutely being centered upon the presence, the purposes, and the saving grace of the Father. Niederwimmer refers to the “original Jewish context” without even for a moment reflecting that Jesus himself and the movement he left behind were solidly rooted within a Jewish context.

Milavec, Aaron. 2015. “The Distress Signals of Didache Research: Quest for a Viable Future.” In The Didache: A Missing Piece of the Puzzle in Early Christianity, edited by Jonathan A. Draper and Clayton N. Jefford, 59–83. Atlanta: SBL Press. pp. 72f

Milavec reminds us that Jesus himself is said to have taught others to anticipate the coming of the Kingdom of God, that is, the God of the “Old Testament” where are found numerous prophecies that God himself, the one we might think of as the Father, was to descend to establish his rule on earth. Accordingly, we should keep in mind that Jesus’ earliest followers understood his references to Lord as references to the God he called Father.

It may sound a bit over the top to think that anyone would suggest James could be given a religious title associating him as something more than another “Friend of God” (as other biblical figures were known to be) but then again there is so much we don’t know about that early period. Among those who bequeathed to us the Gospel of Thomas James was said by Jesus to be the very person for whom heaven and earth came into being (GThom 12) — whatever that means. (Not to mention that in the second chapter of the same letter to Galatians Paul expresses his failure to be impressed by the status of James in the church and documents James representing a form of Christianity that he himself opposed.)

I’m not arguing that “brother of the Lord” definitely refers to God rather than Jesus. I am saying we have reasons not to be dogmatic and to always be willing to question our assumptions.

See also comment below: Milavec points out that it would have been blasphemous among those outside Paul’s followers to have called Jesus Lord.


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34 thoughts on “What If James Really Were “the Brother of the Lord”?”

  1. Revelation 12 depicts a heavenly Christ who has brothers on earth (the woman in Rev 12 gives birth to Jesus in heaven and later to “other offspring” on Earth, “those who keep the commandments of God”). See in particular verses 1-2, 13, 17.

    1. I think those siblings were the sect (nasar), not genetic siblings. They were likewise branches of the tree, who was also the lady who was featured in rev 12. I’m referring to Margaret Barker btw.

  2. After Robert Eisenman books on James the brother of Jesus I don’t see reasons to doubt that one of those Jesus the historian Josephus wrote about was the one referred to as Lord.

    1. A few pages later Milavec adds that the earliest Christian communities (outside of Paul’s circuit, that is) would have considered it blasphemous to call Jesus Lord.

      . . . . it would have been blatantly blasphemous for members of the Didache communities to even imagine that Jesus might somehow adopt Mai 1:11 as referring to himself and, accordingly, direct that the gentiles should offer pure sacrifices to him. Even as late as the early third century, Christian communities were still struggling with whether it was fitting to offer prayers to Jesus (e.g., Origen, On Prayer). Thus, it would be ludicrous to imagine that the Didache, given its Jewish horizon of understanding, would have entertained anything but a strict monotheism. The words of Mal 1:11 thus could only be understood as “having been said by the Lord God” (Did. 14.3).

      p. 75

  3. Barker, Margaret (1992). The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 82. ISBN 978-0-664-25395-0.

    [Per] Sir. 51.10: ‘I appealed to the Lord (kyrios), the Father of my Lord (kyrios), not to forsake me in the days of affliction’, which is the earliest use of the two Lords I have found.

    The Ascension of Isaiah is an Apocalypse expanded by Christians at the end of the first century; it has two Yahwehs: ‘And I saw how my LORD and the angel of the Holy Spirit worshipped and both together praised the LORD’ (Asc. Isa. 9.40). This implies that for the first Christians both Father and Son were known as Yahweh, since there follows this: ‘And I heard the voice of the Most High, the Father of my LORD as he said to my LORD Christ who will be called Jesus ‘Go out and descend through all the heavens’ (Asc. Isa. 10.7).

  4. Excellent point, Neil. I was expecting you to mention Hong Xiuquan (whose claim to being Jesus’s brother, based upon visions, cannot be used to support Jesuis’s existence, but is a counter to those who would claim that Jesus’s brother must only mean physical), but this is a completely new perspective for me – and I had been so fascinated by the reference in GThomas to James as the reason why Heaven and Earth came into being.

    1. Years back I did a lot of study into Hong and the Taiping Rebellion, prompted mainly from Hong’s conversion via a seventh-day Christian who was associated with the family branch of cults/sects/churches from which emerged Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God (to which I belonged). A few weeks ago I undertook to dig out my old notes and borrow more resources and perhaps do posts on Hong, too — but I finally decided I already had too much on my plate. Another time, hopefully.

    2. But you are right. I used to think of Hong as the “unanswerable” response to the claim that Galatians 1:19 “proved” the historicity of Jesus. What happened to me that caused me to forget his little “factoid”? I will have to post on him soon.

        1. In “Did Jesus Exist?” Ehrman comments that:

          “But as a clinching argument Price appeals to the nineteenth century revolutionary leader in China named Taiping Messiah Hong Xiuquan, who called himself “the Little Brother of Jesus.” Price finds this figure to provide compelling evidence of his view. In his own words “I find the possible parallel to the case of Hong Xiuquan to be, almost by itself, proof that James’ being the Lord’s brother need not prove a recent historical Jesus.” That is, since Hong Xiuquan was notreally Jesus’ brother, the same could be true of James.

          Now we are really grasping at straws. A nineteenth-century man from China is evidence of what someone living in the 30s CE in Palestine thought about himself? Hong Xiuquan is living 1800 years later, in a different part of the world, in a different social and cultural context. Among other things, he is the heir of eighteen centuries worth of Christian tradition. He has nothing to do with the historical Jesus or the historical James. To use his case in order to cinch the argument is an enormous stretch, even by Price’s standards.”

          1. Two thoughts.

            1. Ehrman is wrong: his name was Hong Xiuquan; Taiping Messiah is a garbled reference to his titles as the claimed Messiah and leader of the Taiping state.

            2. Ehrman conflates the idea that “a nineteenth-century man from China is evidence of what someone living in the 30s CE in Palestine thought about himself” with the idea that “a nineteenth-century man from China is evidence of what someone living in the 30s CE in Palestine may have thought about himself”. Since Hong Xiuquan definitely believed himself to be Jesus’s brother based upon visions and reading texts and convinced others about this “fact”, this makes more possible (though by no means plausible) the idea that James may also have believed himself to be Jesus’s brother based upon visions and reading texts and convinced others about this “fact”. If there were no Hong Xiuquan, there would be no historical model through which Price and others could try to explain James’s alleged claims about himself through kinship gained through visions.

              1. In what way is it a “questionable historical analogy”? Do you deny that Hong Xiuquan believed himself to be Jesus’s brother based upon visions and reading texts and convinced others about this “fact”?

                And I did not say that it was a reliable historical model, merely a possible (but not necessarily plausible) explanation for how James could have regarded himself as Jesus’s brother even in the absence of their having common parents. Hypothetically, Hong Xiuquan’s “visionary kinship” model is compatible with a historical Jesus. James could have become convinced that Jesus was his brother (either while Jesus was still alive or after Jesus’s death) through visions/mystical experiences and studying scripture.

              2. Your language seems either confused or imprecise. You said: “merely a possible (but not necessarily plausible).” Does this mean you consider it “unlikely” that the case of Hong Xiuquan is representative of the case of James?

              3. John MacDonald: my use of the term “merely a possible (but not necessarily plausible)” is, admittedly, a way for me to state in a few words what is, when expanded, some very complicated thoughts that I have about the idea that James, as the Lord’s brother, is definitive proof that Jesus existed as a person upon the Earth who was crucified and preached.

                1. Authentically Pauline?: The entire corpus of letters attributed to Paul is so controversial that I am not hostile to the idea that the phrase “Brother of the Lord” in this context is an interpolation. Arguments to this effect have been made apparently even by believing Christians.

                2. Accurate?: Even if it be assumed that the phrase “Brother of the Lord” in this context is authentically Pauline, there arises the issue of whether Paul was reporting true things about James’s claimed status. Paul’s letters, after all, must be seen in the context of his effort to control a factitious religious movement and collect money from them. In this context Paul may have lied in order to increase his credibility among his followers. Alternatively, he may have made a mistake in his recollection of the meeting and the names/titles of those whom he met (as, ironically, Ehrman did with his talk of a man named Messiah Taiping Hong Xuiquan).

                3. Representing James’s claims about Himself?: It must be remembered that this is not a letter in which James says “I am the Brother of the Lord, which means…”; rather, it is a report (which for the sake of argument may be accepted as true) in which Paul met James the Brother of the Lord. Paul may have believed that this meant that he was talking to a James who was claiming to be Jesus’s biological brother, but this does not meant that James himself necessarily interpreted it this way.

                4. The ambiguity of the phrase “Brother of the Lord”: Since the writing and discussion by Paul took place in a religious context, I will not seriously consider the possibility that “Brother of the Lord” referred to a secular authority. Others, such as Joe Atwill, are welcome to that. But even confining the phrase “Brother of the Lord” to divine figures within Christian context, it is ambiguous. Lord could mean YHVH or Jesus. Certainly, the idea of any person claiming to be YHVH’s brother is strange – but there have been religious movements that claimed that YHVH had a wife, and Christians claim the YHVH had a son (among whom Mormons make him YHVH’s physical son, conceived through intercourse with Mary). James may have claimed that he was YHVH’s brother. In this context, it is interesting to note that in GThomas, James is sad to have been the reason that Heaven and Earth were created, which may be the remnant of the idea that James was himself a divine figure.

                5. Brother of Jesus in What Sense?: Conceding that James had meant to present himself as Jesus’s brother, it is in this context, and this context only, that the possibility arises that James had, like Hong Xiuquan, understood his brotherhood with Jesus being based purely upon spiritual connection/visions arises. In this context, it is useful to note that within the Bible, only Acts (not the Gospels) unambiguously shows that Jesus’s physical brother, named James, had a role in the Christian movement – and Acts is increasingly being recognized as piously motivated piece of historical fiction at best, meant more to unite Christian sects than to provide an accurate account of Christianity.

                All of this is a long way of saying that I am not sure whether James, like Hong Xiuquan, based his kinship upon some religious experience. It is possible, and the case Hong Xiuquan makes it more possible in that now no one fully appraised of the facts can say “no one has ever claimed to be Jesus’s brother based upon religious experiences and convinced others to follow him as a religious leader” – Hong Xiuquan’s career destroys such an argument. But there are so many other possible explanations of this phrase – some of which I was going to touch upon but decided not to – that I cannot in good faith say that it is likely that James was some type of Hong Xiuquan figure. But it deserves serious consideration, I believe.

              4. It’s not out of the question that someone would invent having a brother. For instance, classicists like E.L. Bowie suppose that Hesiod in “Works and Days” may have invented the character of his own brother for rhetorical purposes. I suppose the James passage in Galatians could be an anti-docetic interpolation or something?

              5. Price (2018). Bart Ehrman Interpreted. p. 103. ISBN 9781634311588.

                Is it possible that any texts in the Pauline epistles that imply belief in a recent historical Jesus might be secondary scribal insertions? Bart Ehrman does not suffer interpolation theories gladly.

                This approach to Paul can be thought of as historical reconstruction based on the principle of convenience. lf historical evidence proves inconvenient to one’s views, then simply claim that the evidence does not exist, and suddenly you’re right.

                It is only the mythicists, who have a vested interest in claiming that Paul did not know of a historical Jesus, who insist that these passages were not originally in Paul’s writings. One always needs to consider the source.

                The trouble is: these suggestions were not first made by Mythicists. William O. Walker, Jr., discusses a whole raft of proposed early interpolations, not one of them the proposal of a Mythicist. Each suggestion comes with its own reasoning. Here are a few, from various non-Mythicist scholars.

                Galatians 1:18-19:

                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.

          2. See the extract from Did Jesus Exist? per Ehrman (24 October 2013). “Jesus’ Brother and the Mythicists (Part 2)”. The Bart Ehrman Blog.

            The one mythicist with qualifications in NT studies is Robert Price, a smart, interesting, and good guy (unlike some of the others …). But he too doesn’t think Jesus existed and he too has to explain then how it is that Paul knows his “brother.” One of the other possibilities that Price sets forth is the one I discuss below, again in an extract from my fuller study, Did Jesus Exist.

            Per “On Bart Ehrman Being Pot Committed”. Richard Carrier Blogs. 11 July 2014: I commented that “Ehrman appears to be in a fugue state” @ https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/5977#comment-26181

            • I wonder is this is more of the same?

          3. Ehrman twists Price’s words and attacks a straw man. Price did not say that Hong “clinched” any particular self-identifying mindset of a first century Palestinian — as Ehrman accuses Price of arguing. Price said — even on the basis of Ehrman’s quotes — that the Hong case demonstrated the possibility that the phrase “brother of the Lord” could have had a figurative meaning. And Erhman knows that there is even such evidence of a figurative interpretation in the noncanonical literature of early Christianity.

            Ehrman is, once again, lazily slapping the argument aside without dealing with it, and with Price’s actual words, with full honesty. His entire book, Did Jesus Exist?, is an exercise in very, very shoddy scholarship. Ehrman has tried to since give the impression he actually read the books he criticized but the only evidence he has provided for his claim proves that he didn’t read them with any seriousness at all.

            1. Again, I think a vaguely similar analogy (Hong calling himself the little brother of a Jesus who he believed was an actual historical person vs, according to mythicists, James calling himself the brother of someone who was not a historical person), is hardly something to base an interpretation on. As I said, unless the Hong analogy makes it “likely” the James passage is talking about a spiritual/cultic brother, we should still conclude is is “likely” James was being identified as a biological brother. Saying the Hong instance is a “possible” analogy isn’t really helpful, because I could also say, if you accept there was an empty tomb, it is “possible” Jesus’ corpse was beamed up by space aliens. “Mere possibility” isn’t really helpful in making hermeneutic arguments.

              1. Given that figurative language is often created by presenting words in such a way that they are equated, compared, or associated with normally unrelated meanings.

                · Circa 1850 Hong Xiuquan declares his brotherhood to the putative Jesus (c. 4 BC – c. AD 33).

                · If Hong Xiuquan is not a liar or lunatic, then he must be speaking figuratively.

                · Is it possible that James was a liar or lunatic?

                · Is it possible that James was speaking figuratively — if James did declare his brotherhood to the putative Jesus (c. 4 BC – c. AD 33) ?

              2. If I may interject — I don’t see any problem with pointing to one event in “all history” to make a useful analogy to another “single event in all of history”. Analogies point to something about human behaviour that goes beyond the unique. Analogies alert us to how humans behave and when those behaviours are comparable. Scholars make analogies with rare events in other times and places “all the time”. Ehrman is ridiculing Price for something that is a common procedure among scholarly arguments. Take, for example, how scholars took seriously and extrapolated much information from the analogy of Yugoslav oral story tellers and the oral story tellers of the Jesus tradition — the latter for which we have only assumption and no real evidence anyway!

              3. Price is not making an argument in the sense you are suggesting and even the words of Price that Ehrman quoted make that clear. Ehrman has misread what he quoted. All Price is saying is that we have an instance of human experience that alerts us to what is possible in human experience and that our minds should be kept open. He is NOT saying that the Hong event is a positive piece of evidence to establish the figurative language of the Galatians passage. That is an Ehrman distortion. He is simply pointing to how human/historical experience demonstrates to us that one interpretation should not be held dogmatically and that there is indeed some room to debate the question.

                “Mere possibility” is indeed something that every researcher needs to always keep in mind in any research. That is not hyper scepticism. It is about keeping an open mind. Ehrman appears to refuse to countenance the possibility he could be mistaken and resorts to distortion of Price’s point.

              4. @ Neil

                Christine Serva points out that:

                A weak analogy occurs when a person draws a comparison between two concepts, situations, or things to link them together in an argument, even though the connection between the two is not strong enough to make the case. It’s a type of fallacy or flaw that can damage an argument. For instance, let’s say you want to argue that apples and oranges taste the same because they are both fruits and are similar in size. It doesn’t matter if apples and oranges share a few similar characteristics, both types of fruit taste entirely different.

                Sometimes described as a false analogy or a faulty analogy, the weak analogy makes a case by relying too heavily on irrelevant similarities without acknowledging that two concepts, things, or situations may be quite distinct from one another in a more relevant way. As such, the qualities you’re comparing, like the physical appearance of apples and oranges, provide us with no information about how they taste.

                Since it’s easy to identify what two items or ideas have in common, you’ll probably be able to come up with statements that use this fallacy with relative ease. Just like the apples and oranges comparison, you can probably find a way to make any two beliefs relate to each other. The ease by which you can find connections between two things illustrates why it’s not an effective and logical way to draw conclusions.

                I think Price’s analogy is weak for the reasons Ehrman outlined: “A nineteenth-century man from China is evidence of what someone living in the 30s CE in Palestine thought about himself? Hong Xiuquan is living 1800 years later, in a different part of the world, in a different social and cultural context. Among other things, he is the heir of eighteen centuries worth of Christian tradition. He has nothing to do with the historical Jesus or the historical James.”

                I guess we’ll just agree to disagree.

              5. I don’t disagree with Christine Serva at all. I agree with everything you have quoted from her.

                Christine Serva is talking about a quite different use of analogy than that exercised by Price with Hong.

                One is trying to make an argument from an analogy.

                The other is conceding that one should be open to other possibilities because of analogous human experience.

                Price is not saying that there is any more similarity between Hong and James than that, like the apples and oranges, “they are round”. He is NOT saying that therefore they taste the same etc. He is not saying that Hong proves his interpretation of James.

                Christine Serva simply does not address the latter which is really just a truism — and what Ehrman misrepresented about Price’s point.

                (For all my disagreements with Price on other points, I believe Price has far more nous about historical methodology than Ehrman has. Ehrman appears never to have thought about the questions apart from reflections from his desk without even consulting what others have said before him, and he accordingly makes grotesque errors of logic, logical fallacies in his methods, and then misrepresents those who disagree with him.)

            2. Neil, could you please say more about the evidence of a figurative interpretation of “brother of the Lord” in the noncanonical literature of early Christianity?

              1. The First Apocalypse of James begins:

                It is the Lord who spoke with me: “See now the completion of my redemption. I have given you a sign of these things, James, my brother. For not without reason have I called you my brother, although you are not my brother materially. And I am not ignorant concerning you; so that when I give you a sign – know and hear.”

                Similarly, the Book of Thomas gives Jesus an additional brother . . .

                The savior said, “Brother Thomas 5 while you have time in the world, listen to me, 6 and I will reveal to you the things you have pondered 7 in your mind.

                “Now, since it has been said that you are my 8 twin and true companion, examine yourself, and learn 9 who you are, in what way you exist, and 10 how you will come to be. Since you will be called my brother, 11 it is not fitting that you be ignorant 12 of yourself. And I know that you have understood, 13 because you had already understood that I am the knowledge of the truth. 14 So while you accompany me, although you are uncomprehending, 15 you have (in fact) already come to know, and you will be called ‘the one who 16 knows himself’. For he who has not known 17 himself has known nothing, but he who has known himself 18 has at the same time already achieved knowledge about the depth of the all. 19 So then, you, my brother Thomas, have beheld what is obscure 20 to men, that is, what they ignorantly stumble against.” 21

                And the well known saying of Jesus in both canonical and non-canonical (e.g. Gospel of Thomas) gospels:

                His disciples told him: “Your brothers and your mother are standing outside.” He responded, “These here who do the will of my father are my brothers and my mother. These are the ones who will enter the kingdom of my father.”

              2. Thanks, Neil. Out of curiosity, are there any others you’re aware, or is it these three?

                In any event, the fact that there was a figurative understanding of being Jesus’ brother around at the time massively helps Price’s basic point. Essentially, the mythicist could posit that certain men who eventually ended up leading the primitive church—the chief man being was James—had experienced visions in which Jesus declared them to be his spiritual brothers in a special sense that others weren’t. Gradually, this description became affixed to these men, who came to be known as “brothers of the Lord”, which then explains why Paul uses the epithet in Galatians. This may even be able to explain the passage on James in Josephus, if one takes it to be authentic.

                I’d be interested in hearing what others here think about this proposal.

              3. I can’t think off hand of any others. The whole question is one I have been putting off for years, now. To add vexation to the question I have recently been informed of another French work, one by Bernard Barc, « Siméon le Juste, l’auteur oublié de la Bible hébraïque » (Brepols 2015), in which Barc, a now retired academic scholar, argues that Simon the Just (3rd-2nd century BCE) composed the whole Hebrew Bible by himself.

                It sounds like a life-time will be required to sort through all the various theses.

      1. Price (2009). “Jesus at the Vanishing Point”. In Beilby, James K.; Eddy, Paul R. The Historical Jesus: Five Views. p. 66, §. The Traditional Christ-Myth Theory:

        [Per] Hong Xiuquan, a nineteenth-century revolutionary leader: he proclaimed himself “the Little Brother of Jesus.” Obviously he didn’t mean he was a blood relative of the ancient Jesus of Nazareth. . . . James’s title may have implied something like that, especially since that is pretty much the same thing Gnostics meant when they called Thomas the twin of Jesus, though they didn’t think Jesus had been a flesh-and-blood mortal.

        1. Price (2011). “James the Just”. The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems. p.351–352. §. Stranger in Paradigm:

          So the notion of James as the Lord’s brother may denote his membership or leadership in a missionary circle. For James’ fraternal connection to have denoted his status as the visible twin of an invisible Christ is plausible but equivocal, since one may as easily see the transformation going the other way: a natural brother being theologically “docetized.” And yet I must say I find the possible parallel to the case of Hong Xiuquan, the Taiping Messiah, the Younger Son of God, to be, almost by itself, proof that James’ being “the Lord’s brother” need not prove a recent historical Jesus. We know it didn’t in the one case, so we cannot be sure it did in the other. And the option of James’ connection to a historical Jesus being a fictive link (like that of the twelve tribes to Jacob) seems to me by itself sufficient to obviate the whole problem.

          NB: “James the Just: Achilles Heel of the Christ Myth Theory?” was delivered as a paper at the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion Conference: “Scripture and Skepticism” Conference, Davis, CA. January 25–28, 2007.

        2. Price (2018). Bart Ehrman Interpreted. p. 108. ISBN 9781634311588.

          Is it most natural to take “brother of the Lord” as denoting Jesus’ biological brother? Is any other reading special pleading? Let’s step back for another look at what’s going on in such decisions. Stanley Fish says

          something very important about evidence: it is always a function of what it is to be evidence for, and is never independently available. That is, the interpretation determines what will count as evidence for it, and the evidence is able to be picked out only because the interpretation has already been assumed.

          Similarly, R.G. Collingwood:

          The web of imaginative construction is something far more solid and powerful than we have hitherto realized. So far from relying for its validity upon the support of given facts, it actually serves as the touchstone by which we decide whether alleged facts are genuine…. It is thus the historian’s picture of the past, the product of his a priori imagination, that has to justify the sources used in its construction.

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