Jesus is the worlds most influential man to ever live. Indeed, His message and teachings have become greatly widespread and have won over billions of followers, and in fact, the religion Jesus brought forth now comprises the largest religious worldview on Earth, He is beloved of His followers and even those who don’t believe respect Him. Historians are also interested in Him, and many through their analysis and study of His life have come to the belief that He is God and the prophesied Messiah of the Old Testament (such as Rodney Stark, a world renowned Professor of Sociology at the University of Washington who went on to produce the most comprehensive account of the rise of Christianity in the early centuries of the Roman Empire). Thousands of scholarly works have been published on Jesus, and the historicity of early Christianity and the New Testament. But of course, the mythicists won’t be having any of this.
Mythicists are people who don’t believe Jesus ever existed. To no ones surprise (except for, apparently, mythicists themselves), mythicism being universally rejected by historians on historical grounds. One of the biggest problems for mythicists is the fact that we have people who knew the family of Jesus, which is inexplicable if He didn’t exist — namely, Paul. He says to us in Galatians;
Galatians 1:19: but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother.
Paul, as an early Church leader (who was later killed for the faith) knew quite a lot of acquaintances of Jesus, and he tells us a verse earlier that he had first met Cephas (Peter) before seeing James (watch this hilarious clip where Bart Ehrman slaps around some mythicist radio show host on exactly this point). So, what’s the point of all this about mythicism being false because people like Paul knew the very family of Jesus like His brother James?
Well, in order to get around reality, some mythicists like to completely re-interpret entire passages in order to explain away facts and information that entirely invalidates their position, such as the aforementioned passage in Paul’s epistle Galatians. So, they will say here that when Paul calls James the “brother of the Lord”, he means brother in a spiritual sense, not a brotherly sense. On its face, this response may sound actually coherent, but someone who starts to dig just a little bit realizes why this claim is atrociously false in perhaps every potential manner. So, for this post, we’re going to go over several reasons why we know James was the actual brother of Jesus. When we say brother, that is to say that Mary had not only Jesus, but several other kids — and James was one of them. Mary would have had these children with Joseph, whom the Bible tells us was the husband of Mary. Indeed, the Bible tells us Mary had many children (Jesus was the first).
One thing to point out is that the context of the Galatians quote above allows us to understand that a spiritual brother interpretation of this passage is not valid at all. We shall now take a look at the context.
Galatians 1:18-19: Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; 19 but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother.
Paul is clarifying to us the distinctive position and title that James held (the “Lord’s brother) by contrasting him with Peter, and thus Paul’s statement that James was the “brother of the Lord” cannot bear an interpretation that this was meant in some spiritual brotherly sense, because Peter in this passage was also a spiritual brother, yet was contrasted with James who was an actual brother. When confronted with this, mythicists claim that Paul was actually distinguishing Cephas, an apostle, from James, a mere “brother of the Lord”. In other words, they claim that the title “brother of the Lord” signified a simple rank-and-file Christian, and Paul used this title to contrast with Cephas, who was an apostle, just as we would distinguish between the Pope and a “Christian”. Richard Carrier (a mythicist) claims he’s distinguishing apostolic from non-apostolic Christians. However, a closer reading of Galatians rules out this hypothesis. Doesn’t Paul, right there in Galatians 1:19, call James an apostle?
Galatians 1:19: but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother.
Carrier never addresses this translation, which is preferred by the majority of Greek experts (which is easily demonstrated by a reference to all the alternate translations of this verse compiled on BibleHub). Why doesn’t he demonstrate this is an invalid translation? He doesn’t, he simply assumes his translation. Which is dishonest. It’s clear that Carrier’s entire thesis, literally all of mythicism hinges on this one, slightly particular translation of a single verse in all of Paul’s letters. Historicity doesn’t. And if all that wasn’t troubling enough, John P. Meier in pp. 639-642 of his paper The Circle of the Twelve: Did it Exist During Jesus’ Public Ministry? (JBL 1997) has demonstrated the great ambiguity of the use of the word ‘apostle’ in the New Testament as well as in the letters of Paul. Paul constantly refers to himself as an apostle (Gal 1:1; 1 Cor 9:1-2; 2 Cor 1:1; Romans 1:1, etc). In Romans 16:7, Paul mentions two obscure (that is to say we know almost nothing about them) Christians named Andronicus and Junia/Julia (a woman), and he says they are both apostles. In some of these verses in Paul, being an apostle equivocally means a Christian who goes out to preach to unbelievers (Gal 2:8, Rom 1:5, etc), rather than Carrier’s contrived unstated definition that only applies to the most powerful Christians in the church (in order so that it can’t apply to a “rank-and-file” Christian like James), which he never explains nor defends. At all. Meier states “What is beyond doubt is that in the first Christian decades “apostle” had a range of meanings that extended far beyond the twelve” (pg. 640). This throws Carrier’s entire thesis of Galatians 1:18-19 distinguishing between “apostolic and non-apostolic Christians” into a sprawling chaos, and there is not a single instance in Paul’s letters where the word ‘apostle’ means what Carrier apparently thinks it means. The horse is dead. But there is one thing I love doing — and that is beating the dead horse (not literally! I promise.. I mean spiritually!)
Mark 6:3: Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
The Gospel of Mark (also see Matthew 13:55-56, likely dependent on Mark here, and Acts 1:14) gives us an understanding of the family of Jesus, which included four sons apart from Jesus and several sisters. That means that Jesus did, in fact, have actual brothers and sisters that existed within a physical sense. So the Bible makes it very clear that James was the brother of the Lord in a biological manner. There is more evidence as well, though. One 1st-century historian of Palestine named Josephus tells us something very interesting — a confirmation that is very important that simply cannot be ignored. Josephus’ wrote a work called the Antiquities of the Jews, and in it, he writes this:
…Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them 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: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king, desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim without his consent… [Emphasis added.]
To read the full Josephan passage, click here. Carrier has tried to argue that the phrase “who was called Christ” in Josephus part is an interpolation, but this ridiculous claim has been refuted at length by Tim O’Neill and is not taken seriously by real historians of Josephus anyways, it’s obviously one of Carrier’s confections to explain away a rather awkward detail in the historical record. It’s obvious that Carrier confected this contrived thesis to try to do away with an otherwise uncontroversial mention of Jesus by a first century historian. Anyways, what is made apparent is that the early historian Josephus tells us that Jesus had a brother who was named James. What Josephus tells us makes it incontestable that the spiritual interpretation of James in Galatians 1:19 is a crashing attempt at history. The James Ossuary should also receive mention.
It dates to 70 AD at the very latest and contains an Aramaic inscription that says “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”. This inscription was authenticated by two world-class paleographers named André Lemaire from the Paris-Sorbonne University and Ada Yardeni of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Norman Geisler summed up the data on this inscription very nicely for us all. This is likely a genuine artifact. Only 1.71 people at the time would have been named James with a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus, as well as the fact that ossuaries almost never mention the person’s brother unless that figure were prominent — making it almost doubtless that this is referring to the biblical James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus. This inscription tells us that James was an actual brother of Jesus, and we know this because we are also told in the inscription that his father is Joseph, so this is talking about family. This shows James was the brother of Jesus, not a regular follower and Paul knew him.
All of this evidence collectively demonstrates (even without reference to the James Ossuary) that during the 1st century, the Christian community widely recognized James as a kinsmen of Jesus, and so one must posit a complete discontinuity between Paul’s letters (all written throughout the period of 45-65 AD) and Mark’s Gospel (which was written in 70 AD, only a few years after Paul’s last epistle, and it can be added that Mark was definitely alive when Paul was writing his letters) regarding the matter of James’ identity to maintain that they were not working from the same, widespread 1st century belief of Jesus having a brother named James. Positing such a discontinuity is already strained, but it gets worst.
More importantly, is highly difficult to explain the prominence of James in the early church if he was anything but the brother of Jesus. As Daniel Gullotta, a scholar from Stanford writes, “More problematic for Carrier’s reading is James’ ongoing influence within the early church and the legacy of James’ authority within the developing early Christian tradition” (pp. 335-6, On Richard Carrier’s Doubts JSHJ 15.2-3). According to Paul, James was powerful enough to have people representing him all the way in Antioch (Galatians 2:12) and he was considered one of the three “pillars” of the early church, alongside Peter and John (Galatians 2:9), two disciples of Jesus, and he was even given distinction across “the 500” who saw Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:3-7). How could he have been recognized so much if he was anything but Jesus’ brother? We know that his Christophany was rather late from the creed in 1 Corinthians 15 and he was never among or reputed to be among the disciples of Jesus. How could an otherwise irrelevant, common “brother of the Lord” be so distinguished in the early church? Clearly, this fact about the early church is best explained by the thesis that James was the Lord’s brother as Paul says, something that is attested to in all our evidence. Carrier explains James’ prominence by positing that “James the brother of the Lord” in Galatians 1 is distinct from the pillar James in Galatians 2 (as well as in his weak response to Gullotta), and that the James of Galatians 2 is actually James the brother of John who is mentioned in the Gospels, and thus the pillar trio in Galatians 2 matches the trio of disciples in the Gospels! An impossibility once we realize that Paul mentions two people named “Cephas” and “James” alongside each other in Galatians 1:18-19, and then also names two people named Cephas and James alongside each other in Galatians 2:9 while discussing the same topic. The fact that the same two figures are mentioned alongisde each other in both times on the same topic is incredible evidence that the natural reading of the text is correct, the fact that the ‘James’ never changes. As Craig Evans also pointed out to Carrier in their debate that, James the brother of John was already dead at this point anyways according to Acts. Nevermind! says Carrier, Acts is unreliable. But isn’t it a coincidence that what Acts mentions perfectly fits the natural reading of the text, where James is actually the brother of Jesus? This is clearly the best evidenced, most natural reading of the text, ruling out Carrier’s wishful alternative taken seriously by no more than a few others, and it explains everything. Gullotta summarizes:
Additionally, Carrier’s argument fails to justify why early and widely circulated Christian tradition maintained that Jesus had siblings, one of whom was named James. When the evidence for James is considered all together—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—it renders Carrier’s interpretation inadequate. 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. (pg. 336)
A great thanks to the historian Ehrman for first bringing me to the knowledge of what Paul has to say about this. I also got to go over two very early historical records talking about the life of Jesus, being the first-century Jewish historian Josephus and a remarkably early inscription on an old box, so we truly can have no doubts or issues regarding the historicity of Jesus. Even Carrier admits that this passage is better explained on the fact that Jesus existed, and so he assigns only a 2:1 probability of it favoring historicity. In my reckoning, since every mythicist explanation here is hopelessly riddled with problems, interpretation and translation peculiarities, a better rendering of the probability would be 20:1 (of course Carrier can’t have that since it would throw his Bayesian mess into oblivion). I will go into greater lengths regarding the documentation of the historicity of Jesus in future posts — but this should be good for now! Blessings to all readers.
UPDATE: Carrier’s (and other mythicists) convoluted arguments and beliefs regarding James, the brother of Jesus, has now received another blazing blow by Tim O’Neill in an article that clearly surpasses even this one. This response is so powerful that I have not seen a better disassembly of a thesis as contrived as Carrier’s.
personal notes: refutations: Larry Hurtado 1, Hurtado 2, Hurtado 3, Hurtado 4, Hurtado 5, Hurtado 6, Ehrman 1, Ehrman 2, Ehrman 3, Petterson (academic review), O’Neill 1, O’Neill 2, Ehrman-Price debate, RÖnnblom 1, McGrath 1, McGrath 2 (academic quote), Tucker 1, Gullotta 1, Carrier’s bibliography, Carrier’s flawed interpretation of Philo, Carrier addresses O’Neill, O’Neill once again destroys Carrier