Monday, April 9, 2012

Ehrman's "Did Jesus Exist?" (3): Were Jesus and James Biological Brothers.

Bart Ehrman writes that "two points are especially key.  I think that each of them shows beyond a shadow of reasonable doubt that Jesus must have existed as a Palestinian Jew who was crucified."  (p. 144) One of those points was that no Jew would ever invent a crucified messiah.  As I noted in an earlier post, I don't find this argument convincing.  Ehrman's other key point is that our earliest source Paul claims to have known Jesus biological brother James.  I think that this argument is stronger, but "beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt" is really over the top and I am surprised and disappointed that Ehrman would ever claim that it yields such certainty.

One of the things that bothers me about Did Jesus Exist? is how imprecise Ehrman is at times.  He is often accused of giving misleading impressions by Christian apologists, but I have always found him to be very careful to be accurate about the evidence.  However, in Did Jesus Exist? he writes  "Paul knew Jesus' brother, James, and he knew his closest disciple, Peter, and he tells us that he did." Although this post is going to discuss the question of James, I want to note how inaccurate this statement is concerning Paul and Peter.  Paul never tells us that Peter was Jesus' closest disciple or that he was Jesus' disciple at all or that he even knew Jesus or that Jesus even had disciples.  All we know from Paul is that Peter witnessed an appearance of the risen Christ. 

Moving on to James, lets look at what our first century sources tell us:
  • Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55 both say that Jesus had several several brothers, one of whom was named James.  However, James was a common Jewish name and neither Mark nor Matthew give us any information that would help us identify a James mentioned by anyone else as being the same person.
  • Luke indicates that Jesus had brothers, but he doesn't name any of them.  Luke identifies two men named James as being among the twelve apostles, James the son of Zebedee and James the son of Alphaeus.  The son of Zebedee is killed in Acts 12 and the name James comes up again in Acts 15:13 and Acts 21:18 referring to a man who is a leader among the Christians in Jerusalem.  The father of this James is not identified.  The most natural reading of Luke-Acts is that this is the earlier mentioned son of Alphaeus whose father is not identified because there is only one James still in the story.  There  is no obvious reason to think that Luke would introduce a new James into the narrative without distinguishing him somehow from the one already mentioned.
  • In Galatian 1:18-19, Paul writes "I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother."  This occurred three years after his conversion.  In Galatians 2:9, Paul refers to James as a "pillar" of the Jerusalem community.  Since Paul is perfectly clear that every Christian is a brother (or sister) of the Lord, there would be no reason to call this particular James the brother of the Lord unless Paul thought that he had some unique relationship to the Lord, e.g., he was the biological brother of Jesus.  Although it is hotly contested by mythicists, for the sake of this discussion let's accept that the most natural reading of Galatians is that this James is the natural brother of Jesus in addition to being a spiritual brother.
  • Around 90 A.D., the Jewish historian Josephus wrote: 
    And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus... Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.
    Antiquities of the Jews 20-9.  Josephus doesn't say anything about James being a Christian or leading the Christians in Jerusalem.
The issue then is whether we have reason to think that the James who was a leader of the Church in Jerusalem was the biological brother of Jesus referred to by Mark and Matthew. The relevant considerations would seem to be:
  • The most natural reading of Paul is that the pillar of Jerusalem was Jesus' natural brother.
  • The most natural reading of Luke-Acts is that the James in Acts 15 and 21 was not the same person as the James in Matthew and Mark.  Rather, he was the son of Alpheaus.
  • Josephus doesn't help much as he doesn't give us any information that would allow us to identify his James as a leader of the Christian community.  His James could be the James mentioned by Mark and Matthew without being the same one mentioned by Luke and Paul.
The next issue is what the less obvious readings of Luke-Acts or Paul might be.  For Luke-Acts:
  • Luke didn't know that the James he described was Jesus biological brother.  This is possible of course but I don't think it helps the historicists' case.
  • Luke omitted the fact that James was the biological brother because he wanted to downplay James' authority for essentially political reasons.  This is plausible, but I'm not sure we can have any certainty on the point.
  • Luke didn't bother mentioning that James was the biological brother of Jesus because he assumed that everyone knew it.  This is not impossible, but I don't find it very convincing.
We can also imagine alternative readings of Paul:
  • Paul was merely referring to James as the brother of the Lord in a spiritual sense.  Certainly plausible even if not most likely.  Richard carrier thinks that this is the most probable although I don't completely follow his argument on this point.
  • Paul is using "Brother of the Lord" as a title.  Even though all Christians are theoretically saints because they are all sanctified, sometimes saint is used in titular way to designate someone who particularly exemplifies sainthood, e.g., Saint Paul, Saint Theresa, Saint Vincent de Paul.  By the same token, it is possible that some group of early Christians were designated "brothers of the Lord" based on their spiritual qualities.  Possible, but I don't see how we can ever confirm it.
  • Paul simply used "the Lord's brother" to distinguish James from other people who had the same name.  For example one James might have been known "James the Lord's brother" and another might have been "James the Lord's servant" even though everyone in the community was both a servant and a brother (or a sister) of the Lord.   After all, this same James later became known as "James the Just" even though every Christian had been justified by faith.  Perhaps one of the James in the early Christian community had gone rogue and been cast out.  Writing to the Galatians many years later, Paul simply wanted them to know that the James he had met was the good one, i.e., "James the Lord's Brother" rather than "James the Heretic."  Plausible but of course there is no evidence to establish this.
  • Paul didn't write "the Lord's brother."  It was an interpolation by a later scribe who wanted to clear up any confusion about which James was being referred to.  Plausible but unverifiable.
Weighing all the evidence, perhaps we want to favor James being the biological brother of Jesus.   Paul is the earlier source.  Maybe we think that the alternative readings of Paul are less plausible than the alternative readings of Luke.  I can see this as a reasonable conclusion.

What I cannot see is anyone thinking that the issue is settled "beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt."  That's just crazy talk.  That would suggest that we are as confident as we could possibly be and that we cannot imagine any evidence that would make us more confident.  Personally, I can think of several things.

  • Luke could have referred to the James in Acts 15 and 21 as "the brother of Jesus."
  • Luke could have named James as one of the brothers of Jesus who was with the apostles in the upper room in Acts 1.
  • Paul could have referred to James as "the brother of Jesus" rather than "the brother of the Lord" and he could have done so several times.
  • Paul could have referred to other brothers named by Mark or Matthew as "brothers of the Lord."
  • Matthew and Mark could have indicated that James became a follower of Jesus.

If any of these things would make us more confident--and I believe that all of them would--then I don't see how we can possibly claim to be sure beyond a reasonable doubt now.  Their is a lack of perspective in Ehrman's assertion of confidence that I find troubling.


  1. Vinny, if you are interested in the case for it being a part of an interpolation, you might want to check out the case on p. 104 (106 in the pdf-file) in this book by a german nt-scholar.

  2. Hjalti,

    Thanks. I'll take a look. I've always suspected that there might be more to the story.

  3. This may be very simplistic, but I surmise Luke knew there was a leader in the early church named “James” but did not know which James it was and deliberately made no external reference to avoid being incorrect.

    While I know it is an argument from silence, it seems astounding to me Paul would be intimately familiar with Jesus’ “closest disciple” and family, without demonstrating any knowledge regarding Jesus himself. If you could talk to Peter—wouldn’t you ask what Jesus said, what he did, where he went, what he was like, what people around him did, how the miracles happened, etc.? Or with James, what Jesus was like as a child, (especially in light of Luke’s story of a 12-year-old brilliantly astounding scribes and priests)? Yet after allegedly interacting with these two key individuals, Paul gives us…nothing. Provides no reference (outside the Eucharist) to his recipients using Jesus’ words, actions or miracles. Nothing.

  4. Dagoods,

    That's my problem, too. It seems far fetched to me that this would be the only thing in Paul to indicate that he thought any of his contemporaries knew the earthly Jesus.

    It seems clear to me that the purpose of referring to him as "James the Lord's brother" is not to communicate biological information but merely to distinguish him from other men named James who were known by the Galatians to have been in Jerusalem at the time. He was later called "James the Just," but we wouldn't infer from that that no one else was just.

    I do think it's possible that Luke didn't know enough about the James in Acts 15 and 21 to know which James he was, but to me that really knocks the hell out of the idea that there was a consistent early tradition making James the natural brother of Jesus. It seems to me that is was always a point of contention.