James, according to our gospels and historian Josephus, was the brother of Jesus Christ. He was also radically converted after allegedly witnessing the risen Jesus. Christian apologists have routinely pointed out that this is a powerful line of evidence for anyone wishing to make an apologetic for resurrection of Jesus as a historical event. Essentially this is because our gospel traditions affirm that James was a convinced skeptic who rejected Jesus; this is independently attested in Mark (3:21; 6:2-4, 6) and John (7:5; 19:25-27). Atheist historian Ludemann agrees with these traditions, saying that “James had no religious link with his brother during Jesus’ lifetime” (1). Even more radically, James becomes a leader in the early church, an act that has him not longer after martyred.
James’ martyrdom also passes the criterion of embarrassment. Essentially, this criterion argues that the early church would not make up an embarrassing detail, a detail that would make them look silly, if it didn’t actually happen. In other words, that the early writers would include such details suggests they are trying to report events as they happened, as theologian Chris Price explains: “Remarkably, James didn’t believe in his brother during Jesus’ earthly ministry, an embarrassing detail the Gospel writers wouldn’t have made up. In fact, John 7:5 just states, “For even his own brothers didn’t believe in him.” But we also know as a matter of history that James becomes a leader in the early church (Galatians 1, Acts 15), worshiping his brother as messiah and Lord to the point of eventually dying for that belief” (2).
This demonstrates an embarrassing flaw in James, the very leader of the Jerusalem church – an unlikely detail to have been invented. Scholar and exegete Gary Habermas tells us that “For it to be remembered over many decades, James’ unbelief was probably rather staunch” (3).
Thirdly, that Jesus appeared to James is attested early. Paul names James as a receptor of Jesus’ post-mortem appearance in the early creed (1 Cor. 15: 3-7) that dates to within three to five years of Jesus’ death. This negates any accusation of later legendary embellishments, according to Ludemann: “Because of 1 Cor. 15:7 it is certain that James ‘saw’ his brother” (4). In fact, this is certain as Paul had direct access to James and spoke with him regarding the gospel on at least two occasions (Galatians 1-2).
Subsequently, something dramatic must have happened to James because in Acts 1:14 he is recorded as being among the disciples after Jesus had appeared to him and convinced him. James is clearly an important figure in the early church as he is mentioned first in the list of disciples by Paul (Gal. 2:9). In other words, James went from a) skeptic to a b) disciple and then to a c) leader.
Fifth, James was willing to suffer and die for his faith in the risen Jesus. In fact, James does die as a martyr as recorded by Josephus Flavius who tells us that James “the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ… was delivered to be stoned” (5). This passage (the second reference to Jesus in Josephus’ writing) is, according to ancient Judaism scholar Louis Feldman, “universally acknowledged” (6). Yet, we also have further corroboration of this by Hegesippus, a church historian who writing around 165 to 175 AD, who also confirms that James was stoned (7). Furthermore, a little later the church historian Eusebius quotes Josephus, Hegesippus, and Clement of Alexandria regarding the martyrdom of James (8).
The Christian may argue that this all well suggests and attests to the sincerity of James. For example, if it is alleged that James only claimed to see the risen Jesus in order to become a leader in the early church, he would have surely recanted this in the face of being stoned to death with rocks. None of the disciples or early Christians had anything to gain from their commitment to the proclamation of the risen Jesus. In fact, they were persecuted for such a belief and never recanted their faith.
For these several reasons we can know confidently that James was converted to faith in Jesus after his experience of the risen Jesus. Reginald Fuller writes that “It might be said that if there were no record of an appearance to James the Lord’s brother in the New Testament we should have to invent one in order to account for his post-resurrection conversion and rapid advance” (9).
I hold that the best explanation for the historical data is that resurrected Jesus really did appear to his skeptical & unbelieving brother James, and thus convinced him that he had been raised from the dead. This Paul tells us (1 Cor. 15), this James believed, and it is what he lived & and eventually died for.
1.Ludemann, G. 1994. ibid. p. 109.
2. Price, C. 2015. Making Sense of Resurrection Data. Available.
3. Habermas, G. 2003. The Risen Jesus and Future Hope. p. 22.
4. Ludemann, G. 1994. Ibid. p. 109.
5. Josephus, F. 95 AD. Antiquities, 20.9.1.
6. Feldman, L. quoted in A Rabbi Looks at Jesus of Nazareth (p. 129) by Jonathan Bernis.
7. Hegesippus, fragments from His Five Books of Commentaries on the Acts of the Church, 1.
8. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.23.
9. Fuller, R. 1980. The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives. p. 37.