Saturday, October 23, 2010

Why I am Agnostic About HJ (13): James the Brother of the Lord

I have been having another interesting discussion with Dr. James McGrath of Butler University on the question of whether our earliest Christian sources support the idea that Jesus was a recently deceased authoritative teacher.  I don't think they do for the following reasons:

  • The earliest epistles don't indicate when or where Jesus lived or died.
  • The earliest epistles don't indicate that any members of the believing community knew Jesus personally.
  • The earliest epistles never refer to any teachings that Jesus delivered during his earthly ministry.
  • The earliest epistles never discuss the meaning of anything Jesus did during his earthly ministry.

The only reference that would seem to establish that Paul thought that his own contemporaries in the community had known Jesus personally is found in Galatians 1:19-20. "Then three years later I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days.  But I did not see any other of the apostles except James, the Lord's brother." Obviously, if Paul thought that James was Jesus' biological brother, he must have thought that Jesus had lived recently and been known to people within the community.  Dr. McGrath seems to rely heavily on this point.

Dr.  McGrath also cites two other passages in our discussion.  In Romans 1:3, Paul writes "concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh," and in Galatians 4:4 he writes "But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law." These verses indicate that Paul thought of Jesus as a human being who walked the earth, but give no indication of when or where that might have happened. They don't provide us any evidence that Jesus was any less mythical or legendary than Adam and Eve.

Given the lack of any other reference that would establish that Jesus was a contemporary of others in the early church, it seems to me that we must consider the possibility that Paul was referring to a spirtual relationship between Jesus and James rather than a biological one.  For example, when Paul lists Christ's appearances in 1 Corinthians 15:6-7, he mentions one appearance to "brothers" and another appearance to "apostles."  Perhaps these were two different groups within the early church.  Perhaps what Paul meant in Galatians 1:5 is that he met with Peter who was one of the apostles and James who was one of the brothers.

Dr. McGrath criticized me for "working hard" to find alternative meanings for the text, but I don't think his criticism holds water.  Biblical scholars regularly consider the possibility that a less obvious interpretation may be the better one if the more obvious interpretation does not fit with the rest of the author's writings.  Given the fact that nothing else in Paul indicates that he thought that anyone he knew had personally known Jesus, and the fact that Paul routinely uses the word "brother" to indicate a spiritual relationship, it doesn't seem like any great stretch to conclude that maybe Paul wasn't referring to a biological relationship here.  The church itself began doing so before too long when many of the Apostolic fathers concluded that Mary must have been a virgin for her entire life.

I also raised the possibility that the text of Galatians had been corrupted.  There were 150 years of copying between the time Paul wrote it and our earliest manuscript.    For all we know some well-meaning scribe copying a manuscript of Galatians in 150 A.D. added "the Lord's brother" in order to clarify which James Paul was talking about.

Raising the issue of interpolations with a biblical scholar can be like waving a red cape in front of bull and Dr. McGrath's response did not surprise me.

But if you want to play the unrestrained emendation game, I can grant your emendations and simply posit earlier excisions of verses that seemed to make Jesus seem too human.

If we had different evidence, we'd draw different conclusions. But mainstream scholarship is about making sense of the evidence we have, not emending it so that it doesn't inconveniently provide evidence, however minimal, that runs counter to the beliefs we already hold.
I understand that we have to make sense of the evidence we have, but we also have to acknowledge its limitations.  Some very eminent textual critics think that it doesn't even make sense to talk about what the original manuscripts contained because we don't have them.  The best we can do is talk about the understanding of the communities that produced the manuscripts that we do have.  We have to be circumspect in asserting certainty about what the "original" meaning of any passage was.

Moreover, I don't think that I am suggesting "unrestrained" emendations.   Given the length of time between the composition of the originals and our earliest manuscripts, the probability that any specific verse was altered can't be trivial even if it may be small.  Because it is small any interpretation that depends on hypothesizing multiple emendations must necessarily be speculative.  However, if positing a single emendation radically changes the evidence for a particular interpretation, I would think it must be taken seriously.

More importantly, I don't need to rely on the possibility that the text was corrupted.  I merely have to posit that a less obvious reading rather than a more obvious reading is correct.  When I do, the case for a recently deceased Jesus who had been known personally to the earliest community gets very shaky, very quickly. The possibility of corruption simply adds an additional level of uncertainty.  Surely my agnosticism is not completely unwarranted.


  1. Well, if his point is that we shouldn't just propose emendations without any evidences, but IIRC didn't Marcion lack the "born of a woman" in Gal 4:4?

    And I've seen pretty good case for seeing the "descended from David" part in Rom 1 being an interpolation (and not in a discussion of mythicism). It wouls be fun to see what McGrath would say about that.

  2. oops... forgot to write down part of the a sentence:

    Well, if his point is that we shouldn't just propose emendations without any evidences then I can probably agree with that,...

  3. A question (why is there ALWAYS a question?) surrounding the phrase “the brother of the Lord.” Notice he does NOT say “brother of Jesus.”

    Paul, elsewhere, refers to “brothers” in Christ. (See 1 Cor. 15:6). The question is whether “brother” is a designation, much like “apostle.” Was Paul merely referring to James as a certain personage in the Church, worthy of the title “brother of the Lord”?

    As near as I can understand it, the Greek allows for both metaphoric and literal interpretation.

  4. Hjalti,

    I'm not sure exactly what the rules of evidence are when it comes to emendations. The inconsistency between a phrase and some overarching theory of about the rest of the author's writings is often itself a piece of evidence that gets a great deal of weight. There seems to be a rule that you can only consider such an inconsistency when you can also show some variant in the manuscript tradition, although I don't know how that rule can be logically defended.


    The certainty with which historicists reject a metaphoric reading of "brother of the Lord" is baffling to me. I can't help but think its largely due to the lack of any other evidence that Paul thought of Jesus as his contemporary.

  5. In Tertullian's "Against Marcion" he never mentions any sort of omission of "James the brother of the lord" in Marcion's Galatians. Which might mean that Tertullian's version of Gal 1:19 also didn't have "James the brother of the lord".

    Also, the Hebrew name "Ahijah" means "brother of YHWH" so unless we want to posit a literal brother of the god of the Jews, then it's not so obvious that Paul meant literal brother in Gal 1:19.

    Paul is also ambiguous about his use of "the lord". Does it always refer to Jesus? In other words, saying that Paul is talking about Jesus when he says "brother of the lord" might be reading too much of our assumptions into Paul.

    Paul claims in 1 Cor 10 that some people "tested the lord and were killed by snakes". How many people were killed by snakes after testing Jesus? Did Paul think that Jesus was present at the Exodus (which is the context of 1 Cor 10).

    Did Paul think that Jesus said "Through men of strange tongues and through the lips of foreigners I will speak to this people, but even then they will not listen to me" in 1 Cor 14?

    So it's not really much of a stretch to think that "brother of the lord" could function as a title, since Ahijah could be interpreted as "brother of the lord".

  6. Sure, demanding direct textual evidence isn't very rational. But unless you can give some reasons for thinking that this specific phrase is an interpolation or an emendation, the suggestion of an emendation or an interpolation will look like a bad case of ad hoc reasoning.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm all for looking for interpolations (and I would love to see someone take a close look at this passage).

  7. Hjalti,

    I can appreciate that. However, I would think the possibility of emendation would make scholars reluctant to claim great certainty about the Paul's intention in the use of a phrase that is only found a single time in his writings. The word "brother" appears 129 times in the epistles attributed to Paul and none of the other relationships are biological.