James the Brother of the Lord and Mythicism

James the Brother of the Lord and Mythicism April 23, 2011

Neil Godfrey has posted a “response” from Earl Doherty that nicely illustrates, as usual, why mythicism is not taken seriously by most people, but more importantly pretty much anyone with actual expertise in history and a genuine interest in applying historical methods to learn about the past.

The post is in fact intended to provide an “antidote” some brief responses to mythicist claims that I offered in a post a while back. My own view is that it fails miserably, but I am not exactly an impartial observer. But since brief responses are only persuasive if one is familiar with the wealth of evidence behind them, presumably it may be useful for me to say a little more. Rather than trying to say something about each of Doherty’s points, let me focus on one in this post: how he, as a mythicist, treats the references by Paul to “James the brother of the Lord.”

In my post, I emphasized the importance of context. I perhaps should also have mentioned the importance of attention to detail. The suggestion that mythicists sometimes offer – that Paul’s reference to James as “brother of the Lord” uses “brother” in a non-literal sense – is not inherently implausible. The Synoptic Gospels, and Matthew’s Gospel in particular, offer lots of statements attributed to Jesus which make a wide array of people his “brothers.” Acts refers to Christians as “the brothers” on numerous occasions, and Paul in his letters does the same.

But that is precisely why most interpreters believe that Paul is using brother in a literal sense in Galatians 1:19. If all Christians were Jesus’ brothers, then singling out James using this phrase makes no sense. And if all Christians were Jesus’ brothers, then using the same term to denote a special category of leader makes no sense. And so we are left with one far more obvious option – one that is in fact encouraged by those same Gospels that also provide evidence of that wider usage: that James was the brother of Jesus in the most mundane and literal sense of those words.

Mythicists, like most critics of mainstream science and history, seem to think that if one can merely make a case that their interpretation is not impossible, then there is no reason to not adopt their conclusions rather than those of mainstream scholarship. And that was the point in my earlier post’s mention of “James the brother of the Lord” – the phrase could in theory mean any number of things. But actual attention to the evidence makes one meaning more likely than the others – and that even without considering the later history of who James was thought to be and how these references to him were understood.

It is precisely this sort of attention to detail and concern for plausibility and likelihood that mythicism lacks. And like Intelligent Design and other forms of pseudoscience, it makes appeals to the general public rather than trying to make a case in serious professional publications, showing that its claims and arguments can pass the first basic hurdle of peer review. It might still be found unpersuasive when subjected to the critical scrutiny of experts. But at least it would be clear that it is something that is felt to at least contribute to the academic conversation. Mythicism isn’t even there yet, and as with most pseudoscientific and pseudohistorical ideas, it doesn’t seem like its proponents are even trying yet.

Most of the post by Doherty is him saying that an “unbiased” observer would reach mythicist conclusions or at least take mythicism more seriously than is currently the case. What this illustrates is that mythicists are as prone to think that they are unbiased and their opponents are biased as everyone else is. We all like to think that it is simply bias that prevents others from seeing that we are right – and sometimes that is the case, and sometimes it is the reverse. That’s why we need mainstream historical scholarship, with the checks and balances provided to individual and group bias by the presence of scholars who are atheists or agnostics or represent a wide spectrum of different religious traditions, not to mention different institutional, national and local contexts. Many in the guild would love to be able to say something controversial enough to get a book deal with Harper Collins and supplement their meager educator’s income. Yet such experts consistently reach a different conclusion than mythicists even so. And the example of the “brother of the Lord” illustrates why. The division is not between the biased and the unbiased. The division is between those intimately familiar with the relevant methods and the relevant evidence and concerned to do justice to them, and those who are not.

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  • I would like to add, that along with the argument that "James the Lord’s brother" is an oddly unique way of saying that James is also a Christian, there is the argument that there was a group called the Lord's Brothers. Unfortunately there is no external evidence to support this, so its also a maybe unsupported by evidence, so why should it be preferred to either a reading which would be normal word use or is supported by evidence(as brother meaning “male sibling” would be on both counts). If we could demonstrate conclusively that Jesus did not exist by some other means, then this passage would have to mean something else. Failing that, it counts against a theory that requires this to be read in an unusual way, and anyone who thinks the natural way to read this is, James, the Christian, or James, the member of the order of the Lord's Brothers for which no other document alludes too, is simply not using basic logic. So while these lines do not invalidate Doherty’s theories, they are certainly problematic to it, and if he cannot admit that, he is far to irrational to be taken seriously.

  • The problem for me is that Paul nowhere else indicates that anyone else that he knew personally ever had any contact with Jesus during his earthly ministry. Paul doesn't seem to know anything that the earthly Jesus said or anything the earthly Jesus did, nor does he give any indication that he learned anything about the earthly Jesus from anyone that knew him. For me, this is the context in which a symbolic reading of "brother" makes more.I will happily concede that you have made a logical argument for interpreting "brother" in the biological sense, but it doesn't seem that much stronger to me than the alternative. You seem to have picked out a specific aspect of Paul's use of the word "brother" in his letters and proclaimed it to be the context in which Galatians should be interpreted. However, I think that Paul's apparent ignorance of the earthly Jesus is just as much a part of the context.I realize that raising the possibility of interpolation makes me guilty of the worst sort of speculative excess, but it strikes me that with all the Jameses floating around in the early church, someone copying Galatians might have been sorely tempted to clarify which James he thought Paul was referring to. It seems to me that the probability is sufficiently non-trivial to make me want to see some sort of confirmation elsewhere that Paul thought that his contemporaries had been followers of Jesus during his earthly ministry before I get off my agnostic fence.

  • "But that is precisely why most interpreters believe that Paul is using brother in a literal sense in Galatians 1:19. If all Christians were Jesus' brothers, then singling out James using this phrase makes no sense. And if all Christians were Jesus' brothers, then using the same term to denote a special category of leader makes no sense. And so we are left with one far more obvious option – one that is in fact encouraged by those same Gospels that also provide evidence of that wider usage: that James was the brother of Jesus in the most mundane and literal sense of those words."Brother James, I accept that the "brother of the lord" quote is evidence for HJ. But you need to qualify the supposed Gospel support for it. Per "Mark" brother James was not only never a follower of Jesus, he thought he was crazy. The follower brother James was not a brother of Jesus. Per "Mark" follower brother James abandoned Jesus. And that's just the specifics."Mark" sure looks like he is taking "brother" figuratively at times:1) All of Jesus' brothers' names are used as important non-brother characters.2) Disciples are defined as being brothers.3) Jesus kindly defines brother as not being a brother.4) In the BA brother will turn in brother.Oh brother! Next thing you know Donald James Trump will question whether Jesus was really born in Bethlehem and doubt his qualification to be Messiah and start the Brither Movement. Anyway, if you are going to invoke Gospel as support for Jesus having a brother James (really), don't just proof-text the evidence for. Give it all.Joseph

  • Earl Doherty continues to illustrate the problems with mythicism here. He thinks that historians are aiming for watertight certainty, and that raising any slight possibility of doubt is enough to make the less likely option he favors equal to that which historians find more probable. Take a look.

  • What do we make of John 7:5-"For even his brothers did not believe in him" (Possibly referencing Psalm 69:8)Doherty made some interesting points in response to Dr. McGrath. A more detailed response in return might be useful.

  • Doherty, though, is convinced that his idea is not simply a what if hypothesis, but is to be preferred over any historicist theory."A survey of those Gospels and the early Christian record as a whole leads the unbiased investigator to judge that possibility as low, and to come to the conclusion that Jesus is very probably an entirely fictional character. In fact, that possibility is so low, with very little concrete evidence to back up Jesus as historical, that the burden of proof devolves on historicist's"As you have pointed out, for Doherty, the only unbiased observers are him and people that agree with him. The arrogance of the position is profound. The beauty of his argument for him is, he lowers the bar of evidence for himself. If we have concluded very probably that Jesus is a fictitious character, then it is very likely that some mythicist solutions is the culprit for Christianity, and he only needs to provide the most coherent such theory and it will be preferred over a historicist position, even if their is less evidence to support that (mythicist) position. The problem is no mythicist has demonstrated that Jesus is most likely a fictional character, only maybe fictitious. Thus the requirement that if you don't buy into their absurd logic, your biased. "Moreover, on what is that prior conclusion based if not on the proofs which the quest seeks? We all know the answer to that: faith and received wisdom; and we also know how reliable such things have always been in the history of ideas.", is insulting to atheist and secular humanist like Ehrman and R.J. Hoffmann who reject Jesus myths. On to other absurdities"..the historicist finds it reasonable to expect that any itinerant exorcist whose impact was so great that he could immediately upon his execution as a crucified criminal be turned into the heavenly Son of God, creator and sustainer of the universe and redeemer of humanity through his resurrection…"His impact so great? How many people were convinced of this? 12? Small groups of people convinced that so and so is some kind of god are a dime a dozen. Doherty needs to get out more, read some books. I've read a whole series of books on men believed to be god who no body has ever heard of. "…could nevertheless leave virtually no contemporary evidence of his existence behind,"I had an exchange herehttp://vridar.wordpress.com/2011/04/20/how-quickly-a-historical-person-can-emerge-from-a-myth-a-case-study/that addresses this. essentially we can't use as evidence against Jesus' existence that he is not mentioned where we don't expect him to be mentioned. Thus it is not evidence against the idea of a complex civilization in the Amazon jungle that it is not mentioned dark age European sources. There is no reason we should EXPECT Philo to discuss Jesus or Christianity. Neil knows this so he had to respond with an unfunny parody that is no more ridiculous than his normal line of thinking. Then there is, "…a willingness among a host of Jews and Jewish converts to accept the blasphemy of turning a mere man into the very emanation of the God of Abraham, then such an historicist has clearly yet to begin giving the matter any thought at all."Does any one doubt that Jews and Jewish converts were willing to "accept the blasphemy of turning a mere man into the very emanation of the God of Abraham" even if Jesus started as a myth, as soon as he was transformed into a historic person, then we have example of Jews converting to this. And let us not forget, our accounts don't have Paul exclaiming "Jews can't get enough of this Jesus shit!" What ever Paul was pitching, it was controversial.

  • Kilo Papa, I'd be interested to know what exactly you think Doherty said that merits a response? My own perspective is that anyone interested can find a more persuasive interpretation of the evidence, illustrating why historians find mythicism unpersuasive, by consulting any mainstream academic commentary or other scholarly book on the passages he mentions.As for the brothers of Jesus in the Gospels, there are two things to note in relation to your question. First, we are not told that all of Jesus' brothers were opposed to him during his public activity, much less that if they were they remained so during that whole period. Jesus is supposed to have said that he would divide families, and if that saying is authentic, he may have had his own in mind as an example.Second, there clearly were latecomers to Christianity like Paul who felt that they nonetheless had a better sense of what the appropriate course for Christianity was than Jesus' family or earlier followers. And so it shouldn't surprise us that some used the classic polemical approach of depicting their opponents in the worst possible light. But it remains the case that Paul's silence in Galatians about how the conflict at Antioch ended suggests that he lost that battle, even if in the longer term he "won the war" (in the sense that his writings and those associated with his views predominate in the New Testament, while there is nothing that can be said with confidence to be authentic that comes from either James or Peter.

  • Paul, a genuine disciple of Jesus, says that he regarded this James as a brother of the Lord, not so much on account of their relationship by blood, or of their being brought up together, as because of his virtue and doctrine.Poor Origen, so deluded.

  • Why could Origen not have been deluded – or simply wrong? Why could he not have chosen to believe something that was historically less likely based on theological motivations?

  • Evan, I will attempt to give an argument, I have been having the damnedest time posting here. Origen was born over a hundred years after Paul died, so had this been a tradition floating around, we have to wonder how accurate it is. Like Diego's "oral legend" being written down 100 years after the fact there is a question if this is really an old interpretation or not. If it is just his interpretation to support his certain belief that the Mother of God would never engage in sinful, dirty sex,(just Google origen, May's virginity and you should quickly find his opinions on that.) then his opinion is little better that Doherty's. It only shows you can rationalize inconvenient text. Origen had also heard other explanations for James not really being a brother of Jesus,” But some say, basing it on a tradition in the Gospel according to Peter, [5264] as it is entitled, or “The Book of James,” [5265] that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary.”fromhttp://mb-soft.com/believe/txua/origenmt.htm# 17 The Brethren of Jesus.This shows us a. there was no clear tradition on hoe to interpret James brother of Jesus, b.People were keen to find away because they believed Mary was a perpetual virgin, and these passages were considered obstacles to that view, because they were acknowledged to imply Jesus was James' brother.

  • It's good to know that Christians in the 3rd century had so little regard for the idea that Jesus had a family that they changed it at will. Why didn't the criterion of embarrassment keep them from doing so?

  • Changed it at will? More like struggled to reinterpret it in light of their evolving beliefs about Mary's perpetual virginity. Making sense of the data requires familiarity with the relevant time periods, changing and evolving beliefs and values, and much else – at least if you want to be persuasive. Unfortunately, mythicists may pepper their remarks with scholarly terms such as "criterion of embarrassment", but rarely do they give the impression that they are actually familiar with the tool, it's use, and it's limitations.

  • And Evan, you seem not to grasp the difference between dealing with sources about George Washington from his time period, and ones written today, to use an example you might perhaps understand. If you cannot grasp that significantly later writers as a rule reinterpret earlier events and accounts about them in light of changed circumstances and new issues, then you really aren't ready to have a serious conversation about history – sorry.

  • Anonymous

    James, I posted a comment on Neil's 2011/04/25 post (on yours vs Doherty's "Brother of the Lord").I'm wondering if you think my post has any merit since no one offered feedback on it. I linked my comment to my website, http://www.bobmoorepainting.com/BlogPhotos where I give a response to Neil's comments regarding Josephus' reference (Antiquities 20.9.1) to "the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ."

  • Hi Bob. Thanks for sharing that. I'm not sure why you didn't get any comments or responses. You make some interesting points, and so perhaps someone will decide to discuss your points here, if not on Vridar.

  • Steven Carr

    Caligula called himself the brother of Jupiter.

    Note very carefully. He did not called himself the brother of the Lord Jupiter.

     That would have been overwhelming evidence for the historical existence of the Lord Jupiter, on a scale that it would be approaching creationism to deny.

    Just ask Bart Ehrman, or wait for his new book. Somebody who styles himself the brother of the Lord clearly has a historical brother known as the Lord.

    It is a smoking gun which blows mythicism out of the water.

    But Caligula omitted any claim  that Jupiter was the Lord. Hence there is no smoking gun pointing to the historical existence of Jupiter. Hence Jupiter is a myth and Jesus isn’t.

    You lose again , mythicists.

  • Of course, how silly of me to have walked into this mythicist trap! If Caligula said he was the brother of a god, then any time a text says that a person is brother of someone with an ordinary human name, you can claim that that person was a god, too!

    / sarcasm