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Old 26th February 2018, 06:49 AM
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vridar vridar is offline
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Default Re: The Historicity of Jesus: Does "Brother of the Lord" settle the question?

I have collated the four posts here so the entire argument can be seen in one go:

Part 1

A passage in Paul's letter to the Galatians is often touted as irrefutable proof that Jesus was a historical figure:

1:18 Then, after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him for fifteen days; 19 But I saw no other of the Apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. 20 And the things I write to you— see!— before God, I am not lying.

(Hart's translation)
All manuscripts of Galatians agree that James is said to be "the Lord's brother". No exceptions.

If Paul met James who was recognized as the Lord's brother then obviously the Lord's brother was a real person. And for good reason "the Lord" is generally assumed to refer to Jesus.

It is obvious, then, that Jesus existed.

Some have tried to object on the following grounds:
1. Paul often speaks of all Christians as "brothers" and "sisters" so in Galatians 1:19 he is simply singling out James as a Christian for some reason.
2. The Lord more commonly refers to God. Therefore "the brother of the Lord" is really some sort of spiritual title. Even if "Lord" did refer to Jesus the phrase was still a spiritual title that described an inner group of leaders or elites in the assembly.
Therefore, it is argued, Galatians 1:19 does not prove the historicity of Jesus.

Those objections are objected to, however:
1. It makes no sense to call James "the brother of the Lord" if that simply meant to point out he was a Christian like all other "brothers and sisters". The context alone tells us James was a Christian. But so was Cephas (= Peter) whom Paul also met.
2. There is no evidence that an inner group known as "the brothers of the Lord" existed in the early church or that "brother of the Lord" was used as a title for anyone.
I think those objections are sound. (They are possible, but I think more evidence is needed to establish either one as a completely satisfactory alternative to the mainstream view that the passage is telling us that James was the biological brother of Jesus.)

So, then, we are left with a letter by Paul indicating that one of the three great leaders (Paul says they were reputed to be "pillars") of the Jerusalem church was named James who was the sibling of Jesus.

But that's where our problems start.

I'll set out those problems in the next comment. Till then, hopefully someone can add any other points strengthening the case for Jesus' historicity based on Galatians 1:19.

Part 2

Often one comes across the claim that we know Jesus was historical because Galatians 1:19 tells us that Paul met Jesus' brother. There are other arguments, of course, but this one is often presented as the slam dunk that ends all reasonable doubt.

When I was a Christian I got into the habit of learning lots of proof-texts to support my beliefs from Scripture. Having proof-texts replaces the need to think carefully and understand more about what the Bible says, where it came from, etc.

It is easy to continue this practice of arguing by means of proof-texts when taking on the question of Jesus' historicity.

Historical research is not about proof-texting.
Historical research does not consist, as beginners in particular often suppose, in the pursuit of some particular evidence that will answer a particular question; it consists of an exhaustive, and exhausting, review of everything that may conceivably be germane to a given investigation. Properly observed, this principle provides a manifest and efficient safeguard against the dangers of personal selection of evidence.

(G.R. Elton,
The Practice of History, p.88)

Proof texting is no different from confirmation bias.

"Scientific" historical research requires setting up predictions and testing them, trying to falsify them. In history we make predictions by asking what we would expect to find in the sources if our hypothesis were true.

So let's test hypothesis (indisputable to many) that Galatians 1:19 is describing a real, historical event and that James, one of the three pillars of the Jerusalem Church, really was the biological brother of Jesus.

If a family brother of Jesus were the/a head of the church, we would expect to find
  • 1 -- supporting claims to this effect in the contemporary or near contemporary literature. (We would have more than just a single aside comment in one letter.)
  • 2 -- Paul's letter to the Galatians being used in the following decades in disputes that would have been settled by pointing out that Jesus had a physical brother, head of the church, in concord with Paul.
Both of those predictions fail.

Prediction 1:

Mark 3:31 And his mother and his brothers come, and standing outside they sent word to him, summoning him.
32 And a crowd was seated around him, and they say to him, “Look: Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside looking for you.”
33 And in reply he says to them, "Who is my mother and who are my brothers?”
34 And looking around at those sitting in a circle about him he says, "Look: my mother and my brothers.
35 Whoever does the will of God, this one is my brother and sister and mother.”
Mark 6:3 Is not this man the craftsman, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they were scandalized by him.
4 And Jesus said to them: “A prophet is not dishonored except in his native country and among his own kin and in his household.”
John 7:3 Therefore his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go into Judaea, so that your disciples will see these works of yours that you do;
4 For no one does something in secret and expects to be in public view; if you do these things, reveal yourself to the cosmos.”
5 For his brothers did not have faith in him.
In the gospels we read that Jesus did have a family brother named James but those same gospels also tell us that James did not believe in Jesus. In the Gospel of Mark Jesus sets himself in opposition to his family, including James. Jesus applies to himself a proverb about a prophets being rejected by their own family.

According to the gospels James the brother of Jesus was a nonbeliever.

Prediction 2:

I will summarize here. The details are complex. Evidence of the Church Fathers in the second century indicates that Galatians 1:18-19 was not part of either "heretical" or "proto-orthodox" versions of Galatians. Yet one of the major points of dispute between the two was over whether Jesus was truly human or merely a spirit appearing as a human.

I am happy to discuss the details in any follow up discussion.

Okay, two predictions fail.

But that is not of itself enough reason to discard the hypothesis that Galatians 1:19 is "proof" that Jesus was a historical figure. Let's see if we can find any signs of life yet.

Our conservative historian G.R. Elton taught us that historical research
consists of an exhaustive, and exhausting, review of everything that may conceivably be germane to a given investigation. Properly observed, this principle provides a manifest and efficient safeguard against the dangers of personal selection of evidence.
I'm taking this one step at a time. So next comment I'll try to cover some of that "review of everything that may conceivably be germane" to the question of Galatians 1:19's relevance to the historicity of Jesus.

We will still then need to explain how and why Galatians 1:19 says what it does if we have no corroborating evidence and much evidence that is actually contrary to the idea that a brother of Jesus headed the church.

I can imagine many people will find all of this rather exhausting and impatiently insist we cut to the chase and simply say, Hey, Paul met the brother of Jesus so that's all that needs to be said.

Historical research is a bit more complex than simple proof-texting, however.

Part 3

Continuing with our "review of everything that may conceivably be germane" to the question of James historically having been the biological brother of Jesus.....

1. The Book of Acts indicates that James was a (even "the") leader of the Jerusalem Church but oddly gives no account of who he was or where he came from or how he came to be the deciding voice:

The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. . . . “It is my judgment, therefore, that. . . . "

Acts 15:12ff
Before "Luke" wrote the Gospel and Acts the only record we had of James in the gospels (Mark and Matthew) was negative: James was not part of Jesus' following. Luke, writing much later, begins to soften the treatment of the physical brothers of Jesus and even says they (without singling out James) were present among the 120 believers at the first Pentecost. Nonetheless, we are left with the unexpected failure to explain how this James acquired this position of pre-eminence.

Yet we inexplicably find James leading the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. Just a mention that he was the brother of Jesus would go some way to offering an explanation but that's what we lack.

(It should further be kept in mind that we have no reason to assume that the designation “brother of the Lord” in Galatians was a reference to a “head” of the church as James appears to be in Acts.)

2. The Epistle of James in the NT (probably written before the gospels) gives no hint that its author knew that the name and person of James was a blood relation of Jesus. One would have expected some such indication in a letter sent to brethren far and wide (to “the twelve tribes”) to alert readers to the presumed author’s authority. This would be especially so if James were a reasonably common name. Given the often contentious nature of early Christian correspondence, it is difficult to explain why any information to enhance the author’s authoritative status would not be made explicit.
3. The Epistle of Jude in the New Testament (also probably before the gospels) is just as unexpected in the way it identifies its author as the brother of James and not Jesus — if indeed our hypothesis were correct.

4. The list of Jesus' brothers in the gospels is worth a closer look.

Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James (=Jacob), Joseph, Judas (=Judah) and Simon (=Simeon)? (Mark 6:3)
Although the names may have been common, to find these particular names all bracketed together is still striking. Jacob, Joseph and Judah are three of the most prominent of Israelite patriarchs, and Simeon, too, is strongly associated in this status with Judah.

It’s a little like naming a string of Olsons Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin: the names themselves convey a close identification with the nation’s foundational past.

(Fredriksen, Paula. 1999. Jesus of Nazareth, p.240)
5. Paul in Galatians expresses no interest in learning about Jesus things that only a brother could know. He even scoffs at the idea that James might have anything to teach him and sarcastically denigrates his status as a "so-called pillar". We have to at least wonder about Paul's attitude towards "the brother of the Lord", especially if, like Paul, he had a dramatic conversion experience from not believing in Jesus to becoming a leading follower.

The only reason the brothers, sisters and mother of Jesus are mentioned at all in our earliest gospel is to dramatize the proverb that a prophet is only dishonoured by his own town and family, his own people. They are present for the author's theological reasons and not simply to pass on historical information.

6. Earliest noncanonical references to James as leader of the church give no hint about him being Jesus' brother. He is called "camel knees" because his knees are so calloused from praying. But the earliest Church Fathers never suggest that he is the blood brother of Jesus.

There is a James said to be a brother of Jesus called Christ in Josephus's Antiquities, but that passage has long been a subject of controversy along with the larger passage about Jesus found in Josephus. If Josephus really wrote that that James was the brother of Jesus then he strangely says that all the Jews loved him and were not at all offended by him; in fact the Josephan passage contradicts later Christian tradition about James by claiming that the Jews were outraged over his execution and sought punishment of those responsible.

7. Fundamentals of historical method: Sound research looks for independent corroboration of claims made in the sources. Sometimes a measure of corroboration can come from a study of the provenance and authorship of the sources. Provenance covers tracing the manuscript history of documents. Although all extant manuscripts of Galatians include the "brother of the Lord" passage, one detail worth keeping in mind is that there is no external witness to Galatians 1:19 till the time of Origen (3rd century) despite its apparent potential usefulness in arguments against Marcionites by “orthodox” representatives such as Tertullian (second century).

I have not covered "everything that may conceivably be germane" to the question of James being a brother of Jesus on the basis of Galatians 1:19 but I submit that the above, along with the failure of the two predictions in the previous comment, allow us at least to ask why Galatians 1:19 stands out alone as the only early Christian support for the view that James was the brother of Jesus.

Doubts can be raised against one hypothesis but they are not sufficient to establish an alternative hypothesis.

We still need a cogent explanation for the "brother of the Lord" passage in Galatians.

Part 4

So far Galatians 1:19 stands out as the proverbial shag on a rock as a "proof text" to establish that Paul met a literal brother of Jesus.

Nowhere in the New Testament or in the early Church Fathers do we find any corroborating evidence that James, a leader of the church, was a biological brother of Jesus. This is less an argumentum ex silentio than an argumentum from whatever the Latin is for "the dog that did not bark".

The anomalous pillar of Galatians 1:19 in the sea of indifferent and contrary data at least permits us to suspend judgment and raise questions.

Look again at the passage:

1:18 Then, after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him for fifteen days; 19 But I saw no other of the Apostles except James, the Lord’s brother. 20 And the things I write to you— see!— before God, I am not lying.
A little later Paul adds John to the trio of leaders or pillars: James, Cephas (= Peter) and John.

Evidently there was no need to explain which Cephas or which John he meant. Everyone knew the names of the big three at the head of the Jerusalem Church.

So why did he need to explain which James he meant?

If everyone knew Peter/Cephas and John how could they not also know which James he meant?

So why would Paul feel a need to explain which James was one of the top three leaders of the Church?

Now we do know that among Christians of a later generation, well after the time of Paul and after we have gospels and Acts being written, we do know that there were indeed a multifarious range of Jameses in the sacred record.

The gospels speaks of
  • James the brother of John and son of Zebedee, also one of the Twelve;
  • James the son of Alphaeus, one of the Twelve Disciples and identified by some with the either of the following two....
  • James the Less -- who might(?) be the same as...
  • James the brother of Jesus.
It is not hard to imagine a Christian scribe at some point making a note in the margin of his copy of the letter to the Galatians explaining for his readers (even perhaps for his own satisfaction) "which James" Paul meant. That marginal note later came to be incorporated into the text itself. That sort of thing happened more times than can be counted. Such inadvertent insertions are called "glosses". If copyists came across marginal notes they weren't always sure if they were meant to be part of the original text so they added them just to be on the safe side.

If that's what happened then we have an explanation for
  • why James and not any of the other two pillars needed to be identified in a letter to the church;
  • why the passage in Galatians was not used in the early debates over the genuine "humanness" of Jesus even though that section of Galatians was discussed in those conflicts. It was as though that particular verse was invisible to both sides;
  • why other early references to James the Lord's brother depict him as a faithless outsider without any subsequent explanation as to how he came to be head of the church;
  • why letters forged in the names of James and Jude (names that later in the gospels came to be listed as brothers of Jesus) failed to assert their family status in relation to Jesus;
  • the failure of the gospels and Acts to provide any biographical information about the brothers of Jesus, especially the subsequent conversion of any of them to faith in Jesus and their rise to leadership in the church, apart from little anecdotes functioning to demonstrate how prophecy was fulfilled by having Jesus' own family turn against him;
  • why the first reference to Galatians 1:19 does not appear in the Christian record until the third century despite it being the only clear reference to the unique family status of such a prominent founding Church leader.
I conclude that there are enough grounds for doubt to allow us to step back from resting our case for the historicity of Jesus on Galatians 1:19.
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