Mythicist Richard Carrier’s Misrepresentation of James the Brother of Christ

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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).

References

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.

9 comments

  1. I don’t see much evidence that the tradition circulated all that widely. The author of Luke/Acts never says anything about a biological brother of Jesus named James. Neither Mark nor Matthew nor Josephus says anything to indicate that Jesus’ biological brother ever played any role in his brother’s movement.

    I would also note that 1 Corinthians 15 doesn’t identify the James to whom Jesus appeared as “the brother of Jesus” or “the brother of the Lord.” How do we know that the creed isn’t referring to an appearance to James the son of Zebedee?

    I find Carrier’s argument a bit strained, but I don’t see much to corroborate that Paul meant “biological brother” in Galatians 1:19.

    • I think we are reasonable to hold the tradition circulated widely. We have James in more than one source: Luke/Acts, John, and Paul. I think there are good reasons for supposing Paul mentions James the brother in 1 Cor.; why suppose he mentions James the son of Zebedee rather than James Christ’s brother, especially since James (the brother) features prominently in Galatians?

      What suggests this is a strong tradition to me is that part of it says James was an unbeliever, which is not a trivial detail if you are trying to show that his brother, Jesus, was the Messiah. The fact that James is later mentioned as an important leader in the church also suggests it is deeply embedded in the tradition and in the minds of the early Christians. Regarding Josephus Flavius, he definitely mentions the detail of James’ relation to Christ: “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James… ” (20.9.1),

  2. The problem of course is that James was a very common name, so when the name appears in different writings, the historian must evaluate the reasons for thinking that they refer to the same person or different people.

    The consensus of scholars is that Paul is quoting a pre-existing creed in 1 Cor 15, so I can’t see much reason to look to Paul’s letter to the Galatians to determine which James the composer of the creed had in mind. James the son of Zebedee was present at the Transfiguration, so he was clearly a prominent figure. There are later traditions that tell of an appearance to James the brother of Jesus, but I don’t think that there is much early evidence that points decisively one way or the other.

    There are three first-century writings that refer to Jesus’ brother James: Matthew, Mark, and Josephus. I can’t see that any of them points to James ever playing a role in the early Christian movement. Acts does refer to a prominent James, but it does not identify him as Jesus’ brother. In fact, Luke drops the reference to the names of Jesus’ brothers that is found in Mark.

    Early in Acts we find James the son of Alphaeus and James the son of Zebedee. Midway through the story, the son of Zebedee is killed, and later references are simply to “James.” The simplest explanation would be that this is the son of Alphaeus, but the author has dropped the reference to his father as unnecessary because there is only one James left in the story. The less simple explanation would be that the author is introducing a third James into the narrative without distinguishing him from those who were previously mentioned.

    The earliest reference we have to the man who came to be known as “James the Just” is in Galatians, where he is called “the brother of the Lord.” The next reference is in Acts, where he is not identified as Jesus’ brother despite the author knowing from Mark that Jesus was supposed to have had a biological brother by that name. I would call that sufficiently non-corroborative to leave the question open. I think Carrier gets carried away in trying to turn these references into affirmative evidence that James the Just was not the biological brother of Jesus, but I don’t see anything decisive one way or the other.

    I would also point out the lack of evidence that James the brother of Jesus became a believer as the result of the appearance reported in 1 Cor 15. As far as I know, there are no sources that tell such a story, while there are a couple of apochryphal works that describe him as a follower of his brother prior to the crucifixion. These are of course of dubious historical value, but I think we can say that the earliest known traditions suggest that James went from unbeliever to follower of Jesus sometime during Jesus’ earthly ministry.

    • I note your reservations, but I see no persuasive reason to think that Paul is mentioning James the son of Zebedee instead the brother James in the creed. Paul received part of this creed from the Jerusalem Church in which James and Peter were leaders. Also Paul mentions in the creed that Jesus appeared to the “all the apostles”; so why if he is talking about James the son of Zebedee does he separate him from that category when was an apostle? He wouldn’t; the natural reading is that the James he separates from that category by name is Christ’s brother who is not merely an apostle.

      Did James the brother have an important role in the church? Surely. Paul mentions him as a pillar in the church (Gal. 2:9). Further, would James the brother be with Peter in Jerusalem if he was not important? (Gal. 1:18) And would Paul care to visit him if he weren’t? Moreover, Clement of Alexandria emphasizes James’s important role in the church. Did he read the early Christian writings wrong and mistake the James they referred to? In addition, Josephus says James the brother was stoned to death, which is not something likely to happen if the victim is not dedicated to the cause. So I think this is sufficient to hold James had an important role.

      • Cephas was one of the Twelve, wasn’t he? 1 Corinthians 15:5 says that Jesus “appeared to Cephas and then to the Twelve.” How would appearing to all the apostles after appearing individually to James the son of Zebedee be any different from appearing to the Twelve after appearing individually to Peter?

      • Have you come up with an answer to my question yet? You claimed that Paul wouldn’t separate James the son of Zebedee from the category of “all the apostles,” even though he separated Cephas from the category of “the Twelve” just two verses earlier. Do you have another argument to make, or do you concede that 1 Corinthians 15:7 is ambiguous as to the identity of the James to which Jesus appeared?

        • I still think it seems odd to single out James the son of Zebedee for special mention in the creed. He was one of three who were especially close to Jesus, so if Paul mentioned him for that reason he should have mentioned John, too.

          Further, by the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, James the brother had such a significant leadership role in the church. This means that if you said “James,” everyone would normally think you meant this James unless you said it was another one.

          • I assume that John is not mentioned individually in the creed because he was not believed to be the recipient of an individual appearance. I suppose you might argue that Jesus would not have appeared to James the son of Zebedee individually without also appearing to his brother John individually, but that seems speculative to me.

            As you have noted on this blog, some scholars date the creed that Paul quotes in 1 Cor 15 to within five years of the crucifixion. Therefore, the relevant question is which James was more prominent at the time the creed was composed rather than which was more prominent at the time Paul wrote first Corinthians. James the Just doesn’t make an appearance in Acts until after James the son of Zebedee is killed, which would be some ten years after the composition of the creed.

            Moreover, why would Paul bother to add “the brother of the Lord” to his identification of James in Galatians I:19 if he could expect his readers to know which James he was discussing? The trouble with arguing that Paul doesn’t specify which James is meant in 1 Cor 15 because everyone already knew is that when he does specify a particular James, he is doing so because his readers might be confused about who he was.

            To be clear, I don’t think that there is any reason to think it more likely that the creed is referring to James the son of Zebedee. I am simply noting that the creed is ambiguous.

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