Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Case for the Real Jesus (6): James the Skeptic?

Steven Carr posted a comment questioning how James could have been a skeptic when his brother was born of a virgin. I have always thought that apologists really overplay this business of James' skepticism, too. Licona, along with Gary Habermas, considers James' conversion from skepticism to belief to be one of their five "minimal facts" coming right after Paul's conversion from persecutor to believer. However, the two cases could not be less similar. For Paul we have evidence. For James, we have wishful thinking.

As noted in a recent post, Paul's is the only eyewitness testimony we have to the resurrection in the New Testament. Although some scholars disagree, most would seem to hold that it is Paul saying in Corinithians 15 that Jesus appeared to him. In addition, Paul himself tells us in several letters that he personally persecuted Christians before this remarkable experience. We cannot eliminate the possibility that Paul may have exaggerated his earlier activities in order to make his conversion all the more remarkable, but we still have to take seriously Paul telling us personally that he went from persecutor to believer.

With James, on the other hand, we ain't got squat. In the single letter attributed to him in the New Testament, he says nothing about any initial skepticism towards Jesus. He says nothing about any resurrection appearances and says nothing about his own conversion. The entire skeptic to believer narrative has been conjured from a couple of vague references by the anonymous authors of the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John. The attempt to blow this up into something comparable to Paul's conversion is ludicrous.

The first proof of James' skepticism offered by the apologists comes in Mark 3:21-23: "Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, 'He is out of his mind.'" I am not sure what the connection is between crowded houses and insanity is, but Mark 3:31 says, "Then Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him."

Finally, Mark 6:1-4, tells the story of Jesus coming home and preaching in the synagogue. 1Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples.
When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard
him were amazed. "Where did this man get these things?" they asked. "What's this
wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn't this the
carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Josezs,
Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him.
Jesus said to them, "Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his
own house is a prophet without honor."
This passage is also found in Matthew 13:53-57 with the interesting difference that "among his relatives" is omitted from Jesus' final comment. These parallel passages seem to be the only two that refer to James the brother of Jesus by name (I confess to somewhat hasty research), and neither one gives any information about his skepticism or his abandonment of skepticism.

So what do we learn about James skepticism from Mark? We never hear anything about what James said, thought, or did individually. The references are all to Jesus' family as a collective group. Speaking as one with eight siblings who have had their disputes over the years, there is never one single opinion held by every member of the family about any other member; everyone has their own take on it. More importantly, Mary the Mother of God is fully implicated in all this. She is clearly part of the group that goes out to take charge of Jesus based on the belief that he is out of his mind. Whatever skepticism you attribute to James has to be attributed to Mary as well. Given the fact that the gospels repeatedly confirm Mary's belief in her son, I just don't see how you can claim that James' skepticism differs from hers.

The next passage cited is John 7:1-5.
After this, Jesus went around in Galilee, purposely staying away from Judea
because the Jews there were waiting to take his life. But when the Jewish
Feast of Tabernacles was near, Jesus' brothers said to him, "You ought to leave
here and go to Judea, so that your disciples may see the miracles you do.
No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing
these things, show yourself to the world." For even his own brothers did
not believe in him. In this passage as in the entire Gospel of John,
James is never identified as Jesus' brother.
The nature of the skepticism of the unnamed brothers is far from clear as they seem to acknowledge that Jesus had already performed some wonderful acts . Licona surmises that they were taunting Jesus, (TCFTRJ p. 121) which may be as good a theory as any, but I can't see this as particularly compelling evidence of what James thought individually even if he was part of this group.

Licona finds one more reason to believe that James was a skeptic.
At the crucifixion, to whom does Jesus entrust the care of his mother?
Not to one of his half-brothers, who would be the natural choice, but to John,
who was a believer. Why on earth would he do that that? I think the
inference is very strong: if James or any of his brothers had been believers,
they would have gotten the nod. (TCFTRJ p. 121)
Personally, I would find this reasoning pretty silly even if I accepted the Gospel of John as an accurate historical document. The reason John got the nod is that he was there. A guy hanging on a cross is not in a position to extract promises from people hundreds of miles away. Jesus wanted his mother taken care of so he asked the guy who was there to take care of her.

The evidence of how James lost his supposed skepticism is just as flimsy as the evidence that he had it in the first place. There seem to be several sources who say that James the brother of Jesus was the head of the Christians in Jerusalem, which would certainly require him to be a believer. Apologists argue that he became a believer as the result of the resurrection appearance mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15, but Paul says nothing about James ever being a skeptic and says nothing that would indicate that James' opinion was changed by that appearance in any greater degree than anyone else.

In sum, we have a decent amount of evidence from Paul's own writings that he was a persecutor of Christians before he became a believer. We have very little evidence about the course of James' beliefs. The idea that his conversion from skeptic to believer is a "minimal fact" on a par with Paul's transformation is maximal crap.

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