“Is not this [Jesus] the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James… And they were offended at him.” – Mark 6:3 (emphasis added).
Our New Testament affirms that Jesus had both brothers and sisters. Here we will briefly analyze the historicity of Jesus’ brothers with special attention on James.
Our earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark (dated at 70 AD), is particularly insightful for it notes that Jesus was a carpenter before his ministry (6:3) whereas none of our other gospels mention such a detail. However, it is further significant as it mentions that Jesus was “the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us?” According to Mark’s tradition Jesus had both brothers and sisters. In Nazareth, where this narrative takes place, the people “were offended at him” and Jesus “could there do no mighty work” with the exception of miraculously healing a few sick people. One could point to a good historical probability of this event since it is attested to in our earliest gospel as well passes the criterion of embarrassment. It is highly unlikely that any early Christian scribe would make Jesus’ hometown a place where he would be rejected, nor emphasis Jesus’ inability to do “mighty work.” It is also worth noting that Mark 3:21 affirms Jesus being rejected by his own family, for “When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” (3:21). This is probably historical. Finally, Mark also informs us that Mary was the mother of James (15:40; 16:1). According to theologian Chris Price: “The James mentioned is likely Jesus’ brother. Remarkably, James didn’t believe in his brother during Jesus’ earthly ministry, an embarrassing detail the Gospel writers wouldn’t have made up.” (4)
The tradition found Matthew 13:55-56 (dated 80 – 85 AD) is dependent upon Mark (a hypothesis known as Markan Priority), meaning Matthew’s author drew his information from Mark’s account. Matthew’s author would have viewed Mark’s account as authoritative probably because of its earlier composition. Therefore, Matthew does not count as an independent source for the historicity of Jesus’ brothers. Nevertheless, Matthew 27:56 likely does provide an independent account as it mentions that Mary was the mother of James.
Further independent attestation for Jesus having brothers is found within the Gospel of John. Not only does John’s author attest to the fact that Jesus had brothers but it also passes the criterion of embarrassment. John is largely independent of the synoptics (Mark, Matthew, Luke) and thus would count as an independent account. Like recorded in Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ own brothers disbelieved him (7:5) – this is also likely historical. On another occasion John mentions that Jesus and his mother, Mary, and brothers and disciples ventured down to Capernaum where they stayed for a few days (2:12). Unfortunately, John makes no mention of Jesus having a brother called James but he does affirm family relations. It would not, therefore, stretch credulity to believe that one of these brothers would be the James mentioned in our synoptics.
The book of Acts, authored by the same writer of Luke’s gospel, likewise mentions James, Jesus’ brother, on several occasions (12:17; 15:13-21; 21:17-18). Within the Gospel of Luke a James is mentioned in 6:15–16, however, this is a different James and not the brother of Jesus.
Further independent attestation comes from our Pauline epistles, particularly Galatians 1:19. Our earliest Christian writer Paul attests to meeting with Jesus’ brother, James, and his most intimate disciple Peter (1:19) when he visited Jerusalem. Agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman explains that “we have relatively extensive writings from one first-century author, Paul, who acquired his information within a couple of years of Jesus’ life and who actually knew, first hand, Jesus’ closest disciple Peter and his own brother James.” (5)
Another authentic epistle of Paul’s is that of 1 Corinthians, and in 1 Corinthians 9:5 Paul affirms that Jesus had brothers. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 Paul writes that Jesus appeared to many (including Jesus’ brother James) after his resurrection from the dead, however, this is also a creed which means Paul is reciting some very early information that was passed down to him. This information is dated to within just five years of Jesus’ death on the cross thus making it extraordinary early, according to agnostic historian James Crossley: “Now that’s a tradition that’s handed on, this is Paul, we know this is Paul, writing mid-50s, this is kind of gold, this is the evidence I wish we had across the board’ The language of ‘receiving’ and ‘passing on’ is typical rabbinic language” (1). Atheist historian Gerd Ludemann agrees that “the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus… not later than three years… the formation of the appearance traditions mentioned in 1 Cor. 15:3-8 falls into the time between 30 and 33 C.E.” (2). This suggests that we have very early attestation to Jesus’ brother James as well as Jesus’ resurrection appearances to his followers.
Finally, 1st century historian Josephus Flavius writing around the mind 90’s tells us of James’ death as well as his relation to Jesus. In Antiquities of the Jews he affirms that James is “the brother of Jesus who is called Christ” (20.9.1). This passage in Josephus’ work is “almost universally acknowledged.” (3) According to Flavius we are informed that “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.” Here we see that Jesus’ brother met a painful end for his proclamation of the gospel.
Our New Testament canon also has a letter attributed to a James. The author identifies himself as “a servant of God and of Jesus Christ” (James 1:1). However, my lecturer Robert Stegmann, a specialist in Pauline and New Testament fields, collated and taught much of the scholar Luke Johnson’s work. He explains that “Of course, we no longer can recognize the author so simply, be he the “brother of the Lord” (Mark 6:3; Gal. 1:19; 2:9; 1 Cor. 15:7; Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18) or another James of the first generation (Matt. 10:3; Mark 15:40; Luke 6:15–16; Acts 1:13). One must also entertain the possibility that this is a pseudonymous writing, one which intended to make reference to a noteworthy individual – probably, then, the brother of Jesus, one of the pillars of the early church. We simply cannot know which is the case” (6).
In short we cannot know who authored this letter. The author may have been an early Christian with the name James, or any of the other several Jameses mentioned in our New Testament, or it could be a pseudonymous writing attributed to James. Thus it would not count as an additional attestation of James the brother of Jesus.
In concluding it is also worth noting that James’ relation to Jesus as his brother was always assumed by some of our early church fathers, for example, Hegesippus (110 – 180 AD), Origen (184 – 253 AD), and Eusebius (260 – 339 AD). This tradition supports the notion that James’ existence or relation to Jesus as his brother was never disputed.
We have much textual evidence to support the fact that Jesus had brothers and family, and especially a brother by the name of James. All our gospels, with the exception of Luke, affirm that Jesus had brothers. Of these gospel sources Mark and Luke mention James, however, Luke’s account was taken from Mark and thus would not count as independent attestation. Nevertheless, Luke does independently mention that James was Jesus’ brother in the book of Acts. The Gospel of John makes no mention of James, although it does refer to him having brothers and family. The apostle Paul mentions Jesus’ brother James (Gal. 1:19 & 1 Corinthians 9:5; 15:3-8), as does 1st century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius (Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9.1). Significantly, Paul’s mentioning of James in 1 Corinthians 15 is a creed dated back to within just five years of Jesus’ death thus making it early. Lastly, several early church fathers also attest to James being the brother of Jesus, and this would suggest that it was common and assumed knowledge from the earliest times from within and following the 1st century. James the brother of Jesus is attested to in no less than five independent sources (Mark, Matthew, Acts, two Pauline epistles, and Antiquities of the Jews). And that Jesus had brothers is attested to in no less than six independent sources (Mark, Matthew, John, Acts, Paul, and Antiquities of the Jews).
This should put to bed any doubt that Jesus had brothers, as well as a brother called James.
1. James Crossley in a discussion with scholar Gary Habermas on the Unbelievable show. 2015. Available.
2. Ludemann, G. 1994. The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology.
3. Feldman, L. 1997. Josephus, Judaism and Christianity. p. 55–57.
4. Price, C. 2015. Resurrection: Making Sense of Historical Data. Available
5. Ehrman, B. 2012. Did Jesus Exist? Available.
6. Stegmann, R. 2015. New Testament Foundations: Portraits of Cruciformity. A Study of the New Testament.