James, the brother of Jesus Christ is a perceived threat to the Jesus mythicist’s hypothesis that Christ did not exist as a historical figure.
According to scholar Daniel Gullotta, “It has been claimed that if there is an Achilles’ heel to the Jesus Myth theory, it would be the reference to ‘James, the brother of the Lord’ (Gal 1.19)” (1). This is because to admit that James was really Christ’s brother is to concede that Christ must have existed historically. Otherwise, one is left having to answer the question as to why early Christians would claim that James was the brother of a figure who did not exist?
Scholarly consensus is that James was indeed the fleshly brother of Christ. In fact, he was just one of several siblings (2). The mythicists, however, want to avoid this. For example, Richard Carrier and other mythicists have claimed that the familial language used by Paul renders doubt on James ever being Christ’s biological brother. Carrier writes,
“[That] Paul is unaware of any need here to distinguish biological from adoptive brothers. Since all baptized Christians were the brothers of the Lord, and all Christians knew this, Paul would need to be more specific when using this phrase of actual biological kin” (3).
Carrier wishes to use Paul’s lack of specificity to jump into full-blown mythicism, but this is unconvincing for several strong reasons. When Paul calls James the brother of Christ or the brother of the Lord, he is not, suggests Carrier, meaning an actual physical brother, but merely adoption.
The first problem this faces is that the reference to James as “the brother of the Lord” is unique. The introductions and conclusions to Paul’s letters evidence no one else besides James being singled out as “the brother of the Lord.” Gullotta writes that “Names that do appear across multiple letters, such as Cephas [Peter], Barnabas, Titus, or anyone else, are more typically singled out as a ‘fellow worker in Christ’ or ‘worker in the Lord’ or as other apostles” (4) (see Rom. 16:3, 12, 21; Phil. 2:25; Philemon 1:24; Colo. 4:11). A helpful analysis of the titles Paul gives to his fellow Christians can be found in James Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem: Christianity in the Making (2009, p. 563-571).
Moreover, in the cases where Paul does label Christians as brothers they are never given a title so pronounced as the “brother of the Lord”, as in the cases of Timothy (2 Cor. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:1), Sosthenes (1 Cor. 1:1), Apollos (1 Col. 16:12), and Quartus (Rom. 16:23). One should also acknowledge James’ significance within Galatians: “In Galatians, the James with whom Paul met in Jerusalem carries enough influence to be recognized as a ‘pillar’ (Gal. 2:9) and commands enough respect to have men ‘belong’ to him in Antioch (Gal 2.12). Clearly, this evokes a significant authoritative distinction between James and the rest of the Christian brotherhood, a difference easily explained if ‘brother of the Lord’ signaled his familial ties to Jesus” (5).
What further challenges Carrier’s hypothesis is James’ influence within the early church and in the early Christian tradition. If James was not Jesus’ brother, then why would Paul so prominently highlight his encounter with him in Galatians (1:19)? If James was merely a common Christian brother, why does Paul in Corinthians ascribe to him a special distinction when listing those who had a Christophany, when Jesus reportedly appeared to “five hundred brothers” (15:3-9)?. Gullotta continues,
“Given James’ apparent lack of apostolic status and the fact that he received his Christophany later than other supposed brothers, how does he have the authority or influence to have men represent him in Antioch? Likewise, if Cephas was the first to receive a Christophany, why would James’ name appear before his in Paul’s account of the Jerusalem Council?” (6).
If James was merely another Christian brother it then becomes arbitrary for Paul to afford him such respect and prominence in his writings. Contrary to Carrier, James being Jesus’ brother provides the most adequate answer to these questions.
Finally, Carrier’s hypothesis fails to adequately explain why this early Christian tradition, evidently in wide circulation at the time, maintained Christ to have had siblings, one of whom was called James (7). What is the best explanation for this? It seems the best explanation is that James was indeed a brother of Christ’s, just as Paul said. When the evidence is viewed together the case seems compelling,
“Paul’s reference to James as ‘the brother of the Lord’, the level of authority he commanded within the Jerusalem church, his distinction from the twelve, the apostles, and the other brethren to whom Christ appeared, as well as the well-established tradition that James was Jesus’ brother… Given the sources, the most logical explanation is that James was the brother of Jesus and that this familial connection permitted him great status and influence within the early church” (8).
1. Gullotta, Daniel N. 2017. “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts: A Response to Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 15(2-3):310-346
2. Crossan, John. 1973. “Mark and the Relatives of Jesus.” Novum Testamentum 15(2):81-113; Van Voorst, Robert. 1989. The Ascents of James: History and Theology of a Jewish-Christian Community. Atlanta: Scholars Press; Bauckham, Richard. 1990. Jude and the Relatives of Jesus. Edinburgh: T & T Clark; Meier, John. 1991. A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. 1: The Roots of the Problem. New York: Doubleday. p. 318-332; Painter, John. 2004. Just James: The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press; Ehrman, Bart. 2006. Peter, Paul, & Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 168-169; Sim, David. 2014. “The Family of Jesus and the Disciples of Jesus in Paul and Mark: Taking Sides in the Early Church’s Factional Dispute.” In Paul and Mark: Comparative Essays, Part 1: Two Authors at the Beginnings of Christianity, edited by Oda Wischmeyer, David C. Sim, and Ian J. Elmer, 73-102. Göttingen: De Gruyter; Painter, John. 2016. “What James Was, His More Famous Brother Was Also.” In Earliest Christianity within the Boundaries of Judaism: Essays in Honor of Bruce Chilton, edited by Alan Avery-Peck, Craig A. Evans, and Jacob Neusner. Leiden: Brill.
3. Carrier, Richard. 2014. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press. p. 584.
4. Gullotta, Daniel N. 2017. “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts: A Response to Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 15(2-3):310-346
5. Gullotta, Daniel N. 2017. Ibid.
6. Gullotta, Daniel N. 2017. Ibid.
7. Gullotta, Daniel N. 2017. Ibid.
8. Gullotta, Daniel N. 2017. Ibid.