In recent discussions and reading, I’ve encountered on more than one occasion mentions of James the brother of Jesus as having been skeptical of Jesus during his public activity, and also mentions of him and Paul as two skeptics who were “converted”.
I have no particular wish to counter that claim, if it is correct. But I certainly do have an interest in critically evaluating it so as to evaluate whether it is likely to be correct or not. And it seems to me that there is, at the very least, reasonable doubt.
Let us begin with James, Jesus’ brother. I recently had passed on to me a copy of a small booklet published by Sean Freyne, entitled Retrieving James/Yakov the Brother of Jesus. Flipping through it, I found some quite common claims repeated (pp.4-5): On the one hand, James is presumed to be included in the generic references to Jesus’ brothers in Mark 3:31-35 and parallels, and John 7:2-10. On the other hand, Freyne notes that “The most plausible inference would be that Jesus and James were somehow at odds during this period, but personal animosity is scarcely provable” (p.4).
Such evidence needs to be contrasted with the reference in the Gospel tradition to families being divided because of him, which might lead us to believe that he had some supporters within his own family. But even if there were antagonism or otherwise soured relations between Jesus and James, this does not in any way lead to the conclusion that the estrangement lasted until Jesus’ death. In the early Jewish-Christian work known as the Gospel of the Hebrews, James is depicted as fasting and eagerly anticipating seeing Jesus alive! While there is no real reason to think the scene is historical, it does suggest that the Jewish Christians who produced that work did not think Jesus and James were estranged in the period immediately following the crucifixion, and there is no indication that this represented a changed state of affairs.
This is important because James is sometimes listed as a skeptic who was converted, and converted skeptics are often appealed to as evidence of a religion’s truthfulness. It does not seem that the evidence we have regarding James fits unambiguously into this category.
When we turn to Paul, we clearly are dealing with an opponent who becomes a proponent of the movement he once persecuted. But here too we could easily be misled by the assumption that the account of Paul’s Damascus Road experience is historical, or if historical that it is straightforwardly so. Paul mentions having had visionary experiences, but never describes a “conversion experience” with details resembling what is narrated in Acts.
Paul’s persecution of the church requires prior awareness of Christianity. He mentions that he had relatives who joined the Christian movement before he did (Romans 16:7). Is it not possible that Luke has confused the order of two significant events (just as we know that events are not always related chronologically in the Gospels), and that Paul was first struck by blindness or some other illness, a Christian prayed for his recovery in spite of Paul’s persecution of the movement, and as a result Paul changed his mind about them – and eventually had an experience that persuaded him that he was called not only to cease persecuting Christians but to spread their message himself? These are the details we find in Acts 9:1-19 – with one relatively minor but nevertheless important difference in chronological order. And without a confidence about the precise chronological arrangement of material in our narrative sources that no one who has studied the Gospels critically can have, the assumption that Paul went from persecutor to proclaimer of Christianity as a result of a direct encounter with or vision of Jesus cannot be regarded as having a high degree of certainty.
None of this proves that ‘Christianity is false’, or that ‘religious experiences are the result of nothing more than the workings of the human subconscious’. But it does suggest that it may be unjustified to regard Christianity as being in a category all of its own, with irrefutably powerful historical evidence in its favor that other religions do not have. On the contrary, the evidence we have does not prove, but certainly seems compatible with the viewpoint, that people were drawn to Christianity in its earliest years for much the same reasons, and by way of many of the same processes, as result in conversions today. And if that is the case, then it may be that the appropriate questions to ask about Christianity are not “Can its claims about past events be proven beyond reasonable doubt?” but “What was/is it about Christianity that has led people to have a positive life-changing experience in connection with it?”