Jesus Mythicism 2: “James, the Brother of the Lord”

Jesus Mythicism 2: “James, the Brother of the Lord”

It makes sense that the sect which survived Jesus’ execution would be more likely to leave an early historical trace than Jesus himself, given his relative obscurity in his lifetime. Seeing that this sect seems to have been led initially by his brother James, it also makes sense that we would get early historical references to James. This is why two references to Jesus’ brother, one contemporary and one by a non-Christian historian, represent a crucial flaw in the claim that Jesus never existed.

Sometime in the 50s AD Paul of Tarsus wrote a letter to the Jesus Sect community he had established in Galatia, in what is now Turkey. He was concerned that the Galatian community had been contacted by people from the Jesus Sect community in Jerusalem who had undermined Paul’s authority. This seems to have been over the question of whether to be a Christian a Gentile believer had to first become a Jew and follow the Torah, including undergoing circumcision and maintaining kosher dietary practices. Paul maintained that Jesus’ death had done away with the old Covenant with the Jews and so made this unnecessary. As several (rather sanitised) accounts in Acts relate, this led to a conflict with the Sect leaders in Jerusalem. So in his letter to the Galatians, Paul assures them that he is “an apostle sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus” (Galatians 1:1), expresses amazement that they “are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ” (1:6) and says “some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ” (1:7).

The crux of the argument these “people” appear to have made against Paul’s authority seems to have been that he was subordinate to those who had been members of the Jesus Sect before him, and so did not have the same authority as these more senior members. Paul argues strenuously that his teachings had been revealed to him by Jesus himself – “I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” (1:12). He tries hard to stress his independence from “those who were apostles before I was” (1:17), though in doing so he has to admit that he did meet with at least two of the Jerusalem elders:

“Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days.  I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.” (Galatians 1:18-19 – though see below on variations in this can be translated)

So here he is forced to admit he did meet with two “who were apostles before I was”. One was Peter, and as an Aramaic speaker himself Paul uses the original Aramaic form of his nickname, “Cephas”. And the other is James – “τὸν ἀδελφὸν τοῦ Κυρίου” – the brother of the Lord. Given that we have multiple early Christian sources that say Jesus had four brothers (and some sisters), that the eldest of them was called James and that this James was a leader of the earliest Jesus Sect community in Jerusalem, this has long been read straightforwardly as a reference to Jesus’ sibling. And given that non-existent, non-historical and purely mythical beings cannot have flesh and blood siblings who can be directly attested in this way, this is a strong piece of evidence that a historical Jesus did, in fact, exist. As Bart Ehrman has commented wryly:

“And so Jesus’ brothers were his actual brothers. Paul knows one of these brothers personally. It is hard to get much closer to the historical Jesus than that. If Jesus never lived, you would think that his brother would know about it.” (Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth p. 148)

Even the most determined proponents of the Jesus Myth thesis are forced to admit that this passing reference is difficult to get around. A few try some rather weak gambits to dismiss it, claiming that Paul saw visions (which is true) and so was psychotic and delusional (which does not follow at all) and so can be ignored. Others simply try to claim he was lying about meeting James. Neither of these dodges work, given that Paul is not talking about seeing James in a vision, is not boasting about meeting Jesus’ brother and is actually mentioning it in passing in a way that rather undercuts the argument for his independent authority that he is trying to make. So all but the most boneheaded of Mythicists have to admit that Paul did indeed meet this James.

This leaves Mythicists with the problem of trying to argue that this reference to meeting “the brother of the Lord” is not, in fact, a reference to meeting Jesus’ actual sibling. And they are also forced to admit that this is a considerable problem to overcome, with even the inevitable Dr. Richard Carrier PhD (who has a doctorate) saying “I assign it 2:1 in favor of historicity” (“Did Jesus Have Actual Brothers” in On the Historicity of Jesus: The Daniel Gullotta Review). Elsewhere he makes a similar, though rather backhanded, admission of the difficulty this reference poses to Mythicism by saying it is “in my opinion the only actual evidence [‘historicists’] have” (On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, p. 582). Fellow Mythicist Robert Price is rather more frank, stating “[the] most powerful argument against the Christ-Myth theory, in my judgment, is the plausibility of …. ‘the Caliphate of James'” (Price, The Christ-Myth Theory and Its Problems, p. 333). So how do Mythicists try to get around this piece of evidence? Broadly speaking, by arguing that the word “brother” here is figurative rather than literal and that this is a reference to a believer called James, not to a literal flesh and blood relative. On the face of it, this expedient seems it could work, though as we will see, it actually requires some highly contorted and contrived argument.

There is absolutely no doubt that Paul did use forms of the word ἀδελφός (“brother”) in a purely figurative sense and that this was a term used for fellow believers. We can find multiple examples – e.g. “Sosthenes, our brother” (1Cor. 1:1), “Timothy, our brother” (2Cor. 1:1), “Quartus, the brother” (Rom 16.23) etc. as well as a large number of uses of the plural form to refer to the “brethren” to whom these letters were addressed. This means that the idea that “τὸν ἀδελφὸν τοῦ Κυρίου” in Galatians 1:19 is figurative has, at least, a prima facie plausibility. The problem lies in the fact that it is only in this passage that the form “brother of the Lord” is used. And there is only one other place where another version of this construction is found – in 1Cor 9:3-6:

“This is my defence to those who sit in judgement on me. Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord (καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοὶ τοῦ Κυρίου) and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?”

The problem these examples pose for the idea that all of these references to “brothers” are figurative and simply means “fellow believers” is that in both Galatians 1:18-9 and 1Cor 9:5 the “brother/s of the Lord” are mentioned alongside and separate from other believers. In 1Cor 9:3-6 these “brothers of the Lord” are distinct from “the other apostles” and from “Cephas”, despite them being believers as well. And in Galatians 1:18-19 this “James, brother of the Lord” is somehow distinct from Cephas again, despite Cephas being a believer. So if these uses of ἀδελφός simply mean “a believer”, why this distinction? And why is it only to be found in the two examples where the word is not simply a form of ἀδελφός, but is part of the specific phrase “ἀδελφὸν/ἀδελφοὶ τοῦ Κυρίου” (brother/brothers of the Lord)?

The mainstream reading of these two passages answers this question very easily: James and the other siblings of Jesus were believers, but were distinct from other believers because they were his literal brothers. But the Mythicists cannot accept that reading because if they do … their whole theory collapses. So here is where the tangled, contrived, motivated readings begin.


James and the Brothers of Jesus

James and Jesus’ other brothers have had an interesting history in the traditions of Christianity – largely one which has progressively downplayed and marginalised their significance. They first appear reasonably early in the earliest gospel (Mark 3:31-35) and are mentioned by name a few chapters later:

“Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.

‘Where did this man get these things?’ they asked. ‘What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? 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 offence at him.

Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honour except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.'” (Mark 6:1-4)

Synoptic cognates of this episode can be found in Matt 13:54-57 and Luke 4:16-30, though the latter does not have the reference to his siblings. Traditionally, the Marcan text above, with its reference to a “prophet [being] without honour …. among his relatives and in his own home”, has been taken with other texts as evidence that his brothers were not followers of his. Given that Acts 1:14 explicitly depicts “Mary the mother of Jesus, and … his brothers” with the disciples in Jerusalem directly after the resurrection and depicts James as one of the leaders of the early Jesus Sect there (see below, but the key texts are Acts 12:17, 15:13-21 and 21:17-26), this has led to a long tradition that his brothers only came to believe in Jesus belatedly. This has been challenged more recently by Robert Eisenman and, with rather more credibility, by John Painter (Just James: The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition , 1997) and Jeffrey J. Butz (The Brother of Jesus and the Lost Teachings of Christianity, 2005). Both Painter and Butz argue that the traditional readings of the gospel accounts of Jesus “rejecting” his family (Mark 3:31-35, with Matt 12:46-50, Luke 8:19-21), his family thinking he was “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21) or his brothers not believing in him (John 7:5) are all based on dubious translations or misinterpretations of the texts and that James and the brothers, along with his mother Mary, were part of his following from the beginning.

Painter and Butz both make solid cases for this, and at the very least it has to be accepted that the traditional interpretation rests on some surprisingly slender reeds. Even if the interpretation that they only came to be followers later is maintained, there is no getting around the consistent early representation of James as a leading figure in the early Jesus movement, as indicated in the Acts texts noted above. And his status as “the first bishop of Jerusalem” has deep roots in the earliest Christian writings. The Gospel of the Hebrews (as reported by Jerome) and the Apocryphon of James both refer to a post-resurrection appearance by Jesus to James, which Paul also mentions in his list of those to whom the risen Jesus was said to have appeared (1Cor 15: 3-8). The Gospel of Thomas depicts the disciples asking who will “rule over us” once Jesus had departed and has Jesus replying “you should go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being” (Thomas 12:2). Later accounts of the Nazorean, Ebionite and Elkesaite variants of early Christianity mention that these sects held James in particular esteem and even traced their traditions to him. The second century Christian writer Hegesippus gave a detailed, if highly hagiographical and rather fanciful, account of James which is preserved in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, II.1, saying “James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles.” Eusebius also records a similar statement by Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215 AD), who wrote “Peter and James [son of Zebedee] and John after the ascension of our Saviour, as if also preferred by our Lord, strove not after honour, but chose James the Just as bishop of Jerusalem.”

So while the traditions regarding James have several clearly ahistorical elements, the idea that he was the leader of his brother’s sect in Jerusalem is strongly attested. And this is in spite of the fact that this became increasingly awkward for later Christians to acknowledge. Traditions that regarded Peter as the preeminent follower of Jesus and leader of the early sect seem to have been forced to acknowledge James’ high status even though this did not fit with their conception of the apostolic succession. Eusebius also records that after James’ execution his (and Jesus’) cousin Simeon, “the son of Clopas”, succeeded him. Other traditions survive of an ongoing memory of descendants of Jesus’ family, with Hegesippus mentioning descendants of Jesus and James’ brother Judas who “took the lead of every church as witnesses and as relatives of the Lord. And profound peace being established in every church, they remained until the reign of the Emperor Trajan” (Eusebius, III.32). He also mentions these desposynoi (meaning “of or belonging to the master or lord”) again at III.20, relating another story from Hegesippus about them being brought before Domitian because they were regarded as descendants of King David but were released when they “showed their hands, exhibiting the hardness of their bodies and the callousness produced upon their hands by continuous toil”, proving they were merely simple peasants.

These memories of the importance of James and other descendants of Jesus’ family were awkward for the early Christian sect because they worked against the idea that authority was based entirely on apostolic succession and the conception of Jesus as a divine saviour rather than a prophet from a family with prophetic authority. They became still more awkward with the rise and development of the concept of Jesus’ mother not just being a virgin when she conceived him, but that she also remained “ever virgin” – making the existence of James and the other siblings a problem for exegetes who wanted to maintain this popular idea. The western tradition dealt with this by maintaining these brothers were actually Jesus’ cousins; an idea which is the doctrine of the Catholic Church to this day. The eastern tradition, with perhaps a better grasp of what the Greek word αδελφοι can mean, took the path of claiming they were half-brothers of Jesus – older children from an earlier marriage of Joseph’s – with this being the teaching of the Orthodox traditions today. The concept of Mary’s eternal virginity was rejected by the sixteenth century Protestant reformers, and so that tradition has maintained the idea that they were Jesus’ actual younger siblings. But theological concerns have caused Protestant scholars to downplay James’ status and authority for other reasons. Luther’s theology was based on the Pauline idea of “salvation by grace”, but his Catholic opponents pointed to contrary texts in the epistle attributed to James to justify their doctrine of “salvation by works” (see James 2:14, 2:24 and 2:26). This meant that Luther and the other reformers took something of a dim view of James, increasing his marginalisation in the western Christian tradition.

But despite all this, there are sufficient early references to James to make his co-called “caliphate” as the brother and successor of Jesus most likely historical, for all its awkwardness for later Christians. And this increases the difficulty for Mythicists who need to make James’ status as a flesh and blood, historical sibling of the historical Jesus go away.

Brothers or “Brothers”?

As already noted above, in both Galatians 1:18-9 and 1Cor 9:5 the “brother/s of the Lord” are mentioned alongside and separate from other believers, which poses a problem for Mythicists who want to argue that the use of the words “brother” and “brothers” here is purely figurative and simply means “a believer, a follower of Christ”. If, however, these uses of “brother/s of the Lord” refers specifically and literally to Jesus’ siblings, this distinction from the other believers makes perfect sense. This is why this is and has always been the way these two texts have been read, but Mythicists have to find a way to avoid this interpretation at all costs.

So enter the indefatigable champion of convoluted Mythicist apologetics, Dr. Richard Carrier, Phd (who has, in case you didn’t realise, a doctorate). I will have to apologise in advance, gentle reader, for the amount of detail I am about to go into when analysing Carrier’s arguments regarding these two texts. This is, unfortunately, necessitated by the fact that his reasoning is characteristically contrived and convoluted, but also because Carrier has the rather petty habit of accusing any critic of his thesis of having not actually read his book if he thinks he can get away with it. So forgive me if the analysis below seems overly detailed – I’m simply trying to be thorough.

Carrier leaves the attempt to neutralise the implications of Galatians 1:18-9 and 1Cor 9:5 until toward the end of his clunky opus, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. He begins with 1Cor 9:1-6:

“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. This is my defence to those who sit in judgement on me. Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?”

If “the brothers of the Lord” simply means “believers, followers of Christ”, why are they listed separately to “the other apostles” and “Cephas”? Carrier admits that it is at least “possible” that this is because the term refers to Jesus’ literal siblings, saying it could have been “policed in such a fashion that it was only ever used of Jesus’ actual kin” and says it may be that “even though every Christian was in fact a brother of the Lord and all knew it, they were forbidden to refer to themselves with that specific sequence of words – instead they could only call themselves ‘brother'” and not “brother of the Lord”. (p. 584) But he then declares that while it is possible, it is less likely than his alternative explanation, declaring this “makes the ‘brother of the Lord meant Christian’ the simplest hypothesis (it requires the fewest ad hoc assumptions)”. But the only “ad hoc assumptions” in the literal interpretation of “brothers” here are ones Carrier has loaded onto the text, not ones found anywhere in the actual words of Paul. In considering the literal interpretation he assures us that it is possible the term “brothers of the Lord” could have been “policed in such a fashion that it was only ever used of Jesus’ actual kin” and says it may be that Christians were forbidden to refer to themselves with that specific sequence of words”. The problem here is that all this rigid stuff about the term being “policed” and its use for anyone other than Jesus’ siblings being “forbidden” is entirely in Carrier’s head. Nothing in the text requires or even suggests any of this “policing” or “forbidding” that Carrier imagines – these are simply things he piles on top of the words used to try to make the literal reading somehow seem unlikely (though he also never actually says why this would be less likely; he simply asserts this, in typical Carrier style). There is no need to imagine this weirdly rigid “policing” scenario. Paul simply has to use the term “brothers of the Lord” to differentiate these literal brothers from the figurative ones he refers to elsewhere.

So by this strange argument Carrier proceeds as though he has somehow disposed of the literal interpretation of “brothers” here, which still leaves him with the issue of why this particular category of believers is listed separately to “Cephas” and “the other apostles”. He considers some alternatives and then concludes thus:

“Paul must mean by ‘brothers of the Lord’ … simply Christians  – and in particular Christians below apostolic rank. That finally makes the point of his argument clear: if even regular Christians were being given the privilege (of being supported by the communities they traveled to on church business), then surely Paul should be, being an actual apostle.” (p. 586)

But his reasoning here is not only strange, but it does not appear to be supported by the text. Paul begins by stressing his apostolate status (“Am I not an apostle? …. If I am not an apostle to others then at least I am to you”), then brackets his reference to the “brothers of the Lord” with people who are also apostles: “the other apostles” and then “Cephas”. So what qualifies all these people, including Paul? Apostolate status. The whole force of his argument depends on all of the people he refers to being apostles, which means Carrier’s attempt to claim “brothers of the Lord” is a distinct category of “Christians below apostolic rank” makes no sense. Given that his attempt to exclude the literal reading of “brothers” also failed, that is precisely the reading we are left with.

Carrier tries to dismiss the literal reading of “brothers” still further by arguing that the “authors of the Gospels show no knowledge of [the brothers of Jesus’ even having been believers, much less apostles; even less privileged ones” (p. 587). As noted above, however, a sound case can be made for the brothers as followers despite the tradition of interpreting the key gospel texts otherwise. That aside, Carrier is forced to accept that they were known to have, at least, become followers given that Acts 1:14 has “Mary the mother of Jesus, and … his brothers” with the disciples in Jerusalem after the Resurrection and before Pentecost, so he falls back on saying the author of Acts “shows no knowledge of them ever doing anything, much less being apostles”. This, of course, is predicated on his interpretation that the “James” mentioned several times in Acts and depicted as having pre-eminent status in the early Jesus sect is in fact James, son of Zebedee, and not James the brother of Jesus. This is a highly dubious reading, given that James the son of Zebedee is depicted as being executed at Acts 12:2 and the “James” who held such high status appears in the narrative several times afterwards (see Acts 12:17, 15:13-21 and 21:17-26). Carrier tries to get around this with more of his contorted arguments. In his recent blog post replying to Daniel Gullotta’s critique of his book (see above) he argues:

“Basically, Acts is unreliable. Especially in chronology. When Acts contradicts Paul, sound historical method requires us to side with Paul. Because unlike the author of Acts, Paul is an eyewitness to what he reports.” (“Did Jesus Have Actual Brothers” in On the Historicity of Jesus: The Daniel Gullotta Review)

The problem with this argument is the chronology in Acts actually does not contradict Paul. In Galatians Paul refers to meeting “James the brother of the Lord” (Galatians 1:19), presumably sometime in the 30s AD and not long after his conversion ( detailed in Acts at Acts 9:1-31, with his visit to Jerusalem at Acts 9:26-29). Paul then says that “after fourteen years” (Galatians 2:1) he went to Jerusalem again and met “James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars” (Galatians 2:9), which would be sometime around 50 AD as detailed in Acts 15:1-21. James the son of Zebedee is depicted in Acts as being executed between these two episodes (Acts 12:2), so there is no problem with the chronology at all and certainly no “contradiction” between the sequence of events in Acts and Paul’s references. Elsewhere (see here) Carrier tries to argue that the encounter with James and the other “pillars” mentioned in Galatians 2:9 occurred before the execution of James son of Zebedee in an earlier visit to Jerusalem implied by Acts 11:29-30, concluding with his characteristic scholarly eloquence that the “chronology in Acts is fucked”. But the only thing that seems decidedly fornicated here is Carrier’s contrived argument. There is nothing in Acts 11:29-30 to suggest this was when he met “the pillars” and Paul’s references to that meeting in Galatians 2 fits the account of the “Council of Jerusalem” in Acts 15:1-21 far more neatly. There is no contradiction between Paul’s references and the chronology in Acts, which means the James of Galatians 2 is not the executed James son of Zebedee, but James, the brother of Jesus.

Carrier needs this James to be different to the James of Galatians 1:19, however, because he needs to maintain his position that there (as in 1Cor 9:5) the term “brother of the Lord” means “a Christian below apostolic rank”. Since the James of Galatians 2:9 clearly is of high rank, and probably an apostle, he cannot be the run-of-the-mill, non-apostolic Christian brother of Carrier’s reading of Galatians 1:19. So Carrier needs them to be two different Jameses and the one in Galatians 2 to be the still living and not yet executed son of Zebedee. Writing of his first visit to Jerusalem after his conversion, Paul says:

“Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.” (Galatians 1:18-19)

Again, Carrier cannot have “brother of the Lord” here mean, literally, Jesus’ sibling. So he attempts to bring this text into line with his argument that “brother/s of the Lord” is a reference to any ordinary, non-apostolic Christian, by separating the James of Galatians 1:19 from the “pillar” called James in Galatians 2. Aside from his contorted “the chronology in Acts is fucked” argument, above, he does this by arguing that the “James and Cephas and John” of Galatians 2:9 are actually Peter along with James and John the sons of Zebedee, noting these three are listed together multiple times in the gospels (see Mark 5:37, Mark 9:2, Matt 17.1, Luke 5:10, Luke 8:51 and Luke 9:28). The first problem with this argument is that in all of these examples James and John are always listed together, due to the fact they were brothers. Whereas in Paul’s reference James is listed first and John last, separated by the mention of Peter/Cephas:

James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars” (Galatians 2:9)

“Peter, James and John the brother of James” (Mark 5:37)

“Peter, James and John” (Mark 9:2)

“Peter, James and John the brother of James” (Matt 17:1)

James and John, Zebedee’s sons, were Simon’s partners” (Luke 5:10)

“Peter, John, and James” (Luke 8:51)

“Peter, John, and James” (Luke 9:28)

It makes sense that these two are always referred to together, even when the fact they are brothers is not referred to explicitly – this is common practice when referring to siblings. So it would be odd for Paul not to do so in Galatians 2. And while the gospel references often seem to put these brothers with Peter in some kind of higher category than the rest of the disciples, there is nothing to indicate that James had any pre-eminence over the other two in this trio, so it is hard to see why Paul would not only list James first but depict James as having some kind of authority over Peter in Galatians 2:12. None of these problems arise if we accept the usual reading that this is not James son of Zebedee, but is actually James the brother of Jesus.

That the James of Galatians 2 is the same one referred to in Galatians 1:19 also makes the most sense rhetorically. As one commentator notes:

“The decisive consideration in arriving at this conclusion is the literary convention that requires an author of a closely argued narrative to stipulate that a different person is being referred to (should that be the case) when the same name recurs in the same account. Otherwise intended readers could be misled or at least confused.” (William R. Farmer, “James the Lord’s Brother, According to Paul” in James the Just and Christian Origins, ed.s Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans, Brill,1999. p. 133)

So this is most likely not some ordinary, sub-apostolic Christian that Paul mentions in passing along with Cephas/Peter – it is the brother of Jesus and the James who was the pre-eminent pillar of the Jerusalem community.

Carrier tries to further sustain his idea that “brother/ of the Lord” refers to ordinary, non-apostolic Christian believers by reference to the grammar of Galatians 1:17-19, asking:

“Why didn’t Paul just say ‘of them that were apostles before me [1.17] I met none except Peter and James [1.18-19]’?” (pp. 588-89)

Here he refers to an argument by L. Paul Trudinger ( ἝΤΕΡΟΝ ΔΕ ΤΩΝ ΑΠΟΣΤΟΛΩΝ ΟΥΚ ΕΙΔΟΝ, ΕΙ ΜΗ ΙΑΚΩΒΟΝ: A Note on Galatians I 19.” Novum Testamentum, vol. 17, no. 3, 1975, pp. 200–202), who analyses the grammar of this sentence and concludes that the best reading is in fact “Other than the apostles I saw none except James, the Lord’s brother” (Trudinger, p. 201). Obviously this reading helps Carrier, because it means the sentence is excluding James from the category of “the apostles”, bolstering Carrier’s reading of “brother” as meaning “a non-apostolic Christian”. Trudinger’s interpretation has been criticised, however, by George Howard ( “Was James an Apostle?: A Reflection on a New Proposal for Gal. I 19.” Novum Testamentum, vol. 19, no. 1, 1977, pp. 63–64), who argues that the extra-Biblical examples used by Trudinger to support his reading are not valid:

“ἕτερος in each instance makes a comparison between persons or objects of the same class of things. Thus while the Corcyraeans might have been forced against their will “to make friends other than those they now had”, the ἑτέρους belong to the same species of beings as the former, that is, both are friends. Again, while Ether is described as “being an element other than the four”, still it is an element along with the four.” (Howard, p. 63)

So what Howard is saying here is that the grammar has Paul making a distinction between James and the other apostles, but still includes James in the category of “apostle”. Carrier dismisses this in a footnote, arguing this “is refuted by the fact that both the apostles and James are of the same class (they are all Christians, which is precisely Paul’s point)” (p. 590, n. 101). He elaborates on this in one of his many blog posts that try to pick a fight with Bart Ehrman:

“Ironically, in his attempt to answer Trudinger, George Howard, the only person to answer Trudinger in the peer reviewed literature (OHJ, p. 590, n. 101), observed that the examples Trudinger referenced still involve ‘a comparison between persons or objects of the same class of things,’ such as new friends and old friends belonging to the general class of friends, and indestructible elements and destructible elements belonging to the general class of elements. But that actually means Cephas and James belong to the same class (Brothers of the Lord, since Jesus is ‘the firstborn of many brethren…’), which entails the distinction is between Apostolic and non-Apostolic Brothers of the Lord, just as Trudinger’s examples show a contrast being made between destructible and indestructible elements and old and new friends. Howard’s objection thus actually confirms the very reading I’m pointing to. It thus does not in fact argue against Trudinger at all—who would agree both Cephas and this James belonged to the same class of things: Christians.” (“Ehrman and James the Brother of the Lord”)

Unfortunately for Carrier, this line of argument does not work. His authority here, Trudinger, quotes Lightfoot on the syntax:

” ἕτερον [“other”] is linked with εἰ μὴ [“if not”] and cannot be separated from it without harshness, and that ἕτερον [“other”] carries τῶν ἀποστόλων [“of the apostles”] with it” (Trudinger p. 200, citing J.B. Lightfoot, St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, p. 228).

So Trudinger’s argument depends on the “class of things” in question being “the apostles”, not “brothers of the Lord”/Christians. This means Howard’s objection to Trudinger’s reading stands. This also means the reading that Carrier’s argument depends upon, where James is explicitly excluded from the category of “apostles” (i.e. “Other than the apostles I saw none except James, the Lord’s brother), has a major problem. Howard concludes: “Some ambiguity may still remain, as Lightfoot and Burton explain …. however the ambiguity that does remain lies within the force of εἰ μὴ [“if not”], not ” ἕτερον [“other”]” (Howard, p. 64).

Carrier’s attempt to argue that the James of Galatians 1:19 is simply a “brother of the Lord”; i.e. an ordinary, non-apostolic Christian, therefore has major problems on several fronts. It is also a strange way to refer to any old “brother of the Lord”/ordinary Christian, given its use of the definite article (τὸν). After all, Paul says “THE brother of the Lord”, not “A brother of the Lord”, which Carrier claims is effectively what he is saying. If Paul really was saying (or meaning) “A brother of the Lord” he could simply have left off the definite article. Or he could have written ἀδελφός τίς τοῦ Κυρίου, “a brother of the Lord” or perhaps εις τὸν ἀδελφὸν τοῦ Κυρίου, “one of the brothers of the Lord”. These would express what Carrier wants the text to be saying rather better than “THE brother of the Lord”, which implies something of significance in identifying James in this way. Incidentally, Carrier also claims in his rather snotty response to Daniel Gullotta’s critique that “Trudinger argued that the James in Galatians 1 is not the apostolic James in Galatians 2.” This is complete nonsense. Trudinger argues that Galatians 1:17-19 means Paul did not regard James as an apostle, but he makes absolutely no mention of Galatians 2 and definitely does not argue that there are two different Jameses in Galatians 1 and 2. Carrier is imagining he has allies that do not exist.

Josephus on James

Despite Carrier’s convoluted efforts, the reading of “brother/s of the Lord” in the Pauline material as a literal reference to Jesus’ siblings remains the best interpretation. This leaves the Mythicist thesis with a critical flaw, given that non-existent, unhistorical, celestial mythic beings cannot have flesh and blood earthly siblings known to Paul and, in at least one case, met by him. The inconvenient existence of Jesus’ brother is further bolstered by the fact he is attested outside of Christian texts – in Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XX.200-203:

“When, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Messiah (τον αδελφον Ιησου του λεγομενου Χριστου), 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 Sanhedrin without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.”

Unlike the other, hotly contested reference to Jesus in Josephus – the so-called “Testimonium Flavianum” at Ant. XVIII.63-4 – this reference is almost universally regarded as genuine and as referring to the Jesus and James of the Christian traditions. And this reference has added weight given that Josephus was not commenting on something that happened long before his time on the other side of the Empire. He was a younger contemporary of James, being around 25 when James was executed, and was a fellow citizen of Jerusalem, a small city of roughly 80,000 inhabitants. It seems he was in the city when James was executed, though it may be he returned to it very soon afterwards, having just been on an embassy to the Roman Senate on behalf of the Temple priesthood (see Josephus, Life, III). Either way, as a member of the priestly caste himself, the young Josephus would have followed the circumstances of the deposition of the high priest Ananus very closely. So all this makes Josephus’ passing mention of James rather close to direct testimony and certainly makes it hard to dismiss as some kind of rumour or Christian story.

All this means that this reference to James and, through him, to Jesus is quite difficult for Mythicists to dispose of. Among recent scholars, very few have tried to argue that this account is somehow spurious. One of the few to do so is Tessa Rajak in a footnote in her Josephus: The Historian and his Society (Duckworth, 1983, p. 131, n. 73), where she argues that this passage’s depiction of Ananus is at variance with the one in Jewish War IV.319-21 and so the Antiquities XX.200-203 account is an interpolation. There are several problems with this proposal. Firstly, it is not unusual for someone to have two differing assessments of a politician in relation to two different circumstances or issues. After all, if a modern writer expressed approval for President Obama’s healthcare policy in one work, but condemned his use of drone strikes against terrorist groups in another, this would not be good grounds to consider one of these to be spurious. Secondly, as Louis H. Feldman points out in response to Rajak’s note, it is unlikely that a Christian interpolator would refer to Jesus as “the one called the Christ” and says “a Christian, we may suggest, would have said ‘the one who was the Christ'” (Feldman, Josephus, the Bible, and History, Wayne State University Press, 1989, p. 48, n. 22). Thirdly, the idea that a Christian interpolator would invent this complex historical anecdote, complete with the death of a Roman procurator and the deposition of a high priest, just to slip in a passing reference to James and an even more oblique reference to Jesus makes little sense. Contrary to Mythicist fantasies about Christian writers salting the historical sources with interpolated references to Jesus to prop up his historical existence, there simply were no Jesus Mythicists in the ancient world and so no need for Christians to insert this kind of reference. Unlike the elements in the Testimonium that all scholars agree are  interpolated, this reference serves no apologetic purpose and bolsters no theological claims. The Testimonium’s additions helped Christians support the claims that Jesus was the Messiah and had risen from the dead, by allowing them to point to a Jew (supposedly) stating this things as facts – things that were most hotly disputed by Christianity’s Jewish opponents. But this passing reference does nothing like this and bears no hallmarks of a apologetic Christian addition to the text.

This last objection is also the most serious flaw in the most recent attempt at arguing this passage is a wholesale interpolation, made by Nicholas P.L. Allen (“Josephus on James the Just? A re-evaluation of Antiquitates Judaicae 20.9.1”, Journal of Early Christian History, Volume 7, 2017, Issue 1) in a rather bizarre article that reads more like an undergraduate’s Reddit post than anything usually found in peer-reviewed journals. These issues make the idea that this passage is not genuine extremely difficult to sustain.

Carrier, Yet Again

So enter, yet again, the relentlessly ubiquitous Dr. Richard Carrier, PhD (he has a doctorate in history from Columbia, in case you were not aware). Carrier does not try to argue that the whole passage is interpolated, probably because he recognises the problems with this outlined above. Instead, in his article “Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200” (Journal of Early Christian Studies, Volume 20, Number 4, Winter 2012, pp. 489-514), he argues that only the words “who was called Messiah” were added, probably when a marginal note was mistaken for a correction by a later copyist and inserted into the text. This means, according to Carrier, that the text originally did not identify the Jesus who was the brother of the executed James with this phrase and this Jesus was actually the “Jesus son of Damneus” mentioned at the end of the passage, not Jesus of Nazareth. Et voilà – a solid reference to Jesus as a historical person by a Jewish historian disappears.

You may not be surprised when I tell you, gentle reader, that Carrier’s argument is critically flawed.

Firstly, in Carrier’s article in the Journal of Early Christian Studies he argues that the phrase “who was called Messiah” is “exactly the kind of thing that a scholar or scribe would add as an interlinear note to remind himself and future readers that—so the scribe believed—the Jesus here mentioned is Jesus Christ, as we would do today with an informative footnote or marginal note.” (p. 495). But is it “exactly the kind of thing” we’d find in such a note?  Carrier doesn’t bother to actually argue this; in typical style, he simply asserts it. No alternatives are explored, no argument is made why other possible kinds of notes are somehow less likely – we’re simply told that this is the case. No attempt is made to explain, for example, why this (supposedly) marginal note agrees grammatically with the (supposed) main text; with λεγομενου Χριστου in the genitive, so it is in the same case as Ιησους.  Surely that alone argues against the idea that this phrase is a marginal or interlinear note to some extent, but Carrier does not bother to even address any alternative ideas – a characteristic of his writing.

Though he does address the structure of the phrase a little in his second argument as to why this element is not original to Josephus’ text, when he claims the idea it is a later note to the text is supported by the fact that it is a “a participial clause — remarkable brevity for something that would sooner otherwise spark a digression or cross-reference, had Josephus actually written those words.” (p. 495). But, again, he does not bother to support this idea by showing other examples of known marginal glosses or interlinear notes, nor does he interrogate it by showing that other uses of the present participle λεγόμενος (“called”) in Josephus do indeed tend to spark “a digression or cross-reference”. In fact, if we do Carrier’s work for him and look at how Josephus uses that verb elsewhere we find that, in fact, it usually looks exactly like what we find in the Antiquities XX passage, with a quick reference to someone or something being “called” something and no digression, cross reference or even explanation as to why it was “called” this at all.  Some examples:

” … he should find them between Jerusalem and the ascent of Engedi, at a place called ‘the Eminence’, and that he should not fight against them.”(Antiquities IX.11)

” … Pacorus left with Herod two hundred horsemen, and ten men, who were called ‘the Freemen’…”(Antiquities XIV.342)

“Jonathan and his colleagues …. raised a report of their own contrivance, that Roman horsemen were seen at a place called ‘Union’, in the borders of Galilee … “(Life 54)

In all of these examples we see Josephus using forms of the participle λεγόμενος to briefly note what people or places are “called” with no digressions or cross references at all. And there is an even closer parallel found in the same book as the James reference:

“As soon as the king heard this news, he gave the high priesthood to Joseph, who was called Cabi, son of Simon, formerly high priest.”(Antiquities, XX.196)

So why did Carrier not look at these and other similar usages of this kind of phrase and make an actual argument why they are not marginal glosses while the XX.200 one is? Assertion is not argument.

But Carrier’s article is very strong on unsupported assertions. He goes on to claim:

“[W]e would certainly find here an explanation of why this Jesus was called “Christ,” what that word meant …. and why Josephus thought it important to mention either, since the passage as written leaves no stated reason why either Jesus or his moniker Christ is mentioned at all.” (p. 496)

But he does not explain why we should “certainly” find this. And, as the multiple examples above show, this is completely wrong anyway. Josephus often referred to people and places and says they were “called” something without bothering to explain why or what the thing they were “called” meant in that context. The text we have in Antiquities XX.200 reads perfectly naturally without any such explanation – he says Jesus was the one “called Messiah” precisely because, a few lines later, he mentions a second Jesus, this one the “son of Damneus”, and he wants to differentiate between them. Josephus does this consistently in passages where he mentions two different people with the same name, which is something (given the number of Jewish figures or Seleucid kings with common names in his narrative) he does often (more on this below).

Carrier’s third argument as to why the phrase “who was called Messiah” is not original notes that the same phrase is found in Matt 1.16. He admits that the phrase was “not impossible for Josephus to construct on his own” (p. 497), but he assures his readers with his usual blithe confidence that it is “far more probable” it came from a Christian hand.  Again, this is just asserted, with no exploration of examples of the use of the phrase του λεγομενου Χριστου in Christian writings apart from Matt 1.16 to support this claim of probability. This is perhaps because there are very few. Origen refers to Jesus as being “called Christ” in Contra Celsum I.66 and IV.28, as does Justin Martyr in First Apology XXX. Apart from these examples, Christian writers actually tended to assert Jesus was the Messiah rather than referring to him merely being “called” such in an abstract way, for obvious reasons. So this construction is actually highly unusual for any Christian writer and so distinctly odd for Carrier’s hypothesised glosser. But, yet again, Carrier does not bother exploring any of this.

In this fourth argument Carrier says that the phrase could not be original to Josephus because the passage in Antiquities XX.200 says the Jews were outraged at the death of this James. So, he argues, it is “inexplicable” and “makes little sense” that this outrage would be on the behalf a member of a sect that was both “hated” and “illegal”, and so this James cannot be any Christian and must be someone else. There are multiple problems with this argument. To begin with, we have very little idea how “hated” the Jesus sect was in the 60s AD or even how distinct a “sect” it was within the Judaism of the time. Even Acts, written some decades later and with the polemical purpose of showing the Jesus sect to be persecuted by the Jewish authorities, depicts its members preaching openly, teaching in the Temple itself, taking part in Jewish rituals there and being defended by at least some of the Sanhedrin. The idea that the sect was actually “illegal” is even more difficult to defend since while the author of Acts plays up the afflictions of the Christians at the hands of the Jewish authorities, not even he claims they were anything but occasionally censured.

But leaving these unsubstantiated claims about Christians being “hated” and their sect being “illegal” aside, we can still read the reported outrage as making sense if this James was indeed a Christian. After all, Josephus says that the action against Ananus was taken by “the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws” because “they disliked what was done”. So the text tells us that it was the “breach of the laws” that was the problem for these equitable citizens and even if the Jesus sect was “hated” or even “illegal”, it’s still perfectly reasonable that “equitable citizens” would object to them being treated in a way that was itself illegal. Especially if some of these citizens also had a political beef with the High Priest and wanted a way to remove him. So the text makes perfect sense as it stands.

Finally, Carrier claims the mention of the death of this James in Antiquities XX.200 “does not agree with any other account of the death of James the brother of Christ” (p. 497). Here he is referring mainly to the only substantial account we have, that found in one of the fragments of Hegesippus. But it is hard to tell why we should expect a passing mention of an execution that has few details at all, as we find in Josephus, to have much “agreement” with a detailed account, as we find in Hegesippus – there’s simply not much in Josephus to overlay with Hegesippus. Nor should we be surprised that Josephus’ terse and fairly neutral account might be different in many respects to Hegesippus’ florid Christian hagiography. Nor would it be at all surprising that we would find some difference between the brief account by a citizen of Jerusalem who was 25 at the time and most likely in the city when the execution and its political aftermath occurred and that of a Christian chronicler who was born almost a century after the event was was writing up to half a century later again.

Carrier concludes his five arguments for thinking that the “who was called the Messiah” is not original to Josephus’ text by noting they are “not a conclusive proof” and admitting “[o]ne can advance explanations on all counts” (p.497). The issue then becomes which explanation is the most probable. And at this point the reader would expect him to examine that issue and look at the relative value of the alternative explanations, particularly if that reader is aware of some of the many problems with Carrier’s arguments noted above. But, bizarrely, Carrier goes on “I will not delve any further into that debate”(p. 498). Really? How convenient. Perhaps he was aware that such “delving” into alternative readings would expose his arguments’ many flaws. Once again, Carrier is better at shifty polemics than thorough and exacting scholarly analysis. He has a point to get to and he does not want pesky things like alternative interpretations to distract from his pushing on to reach it.

So what about the supposed removal of an original phrase?

As we have seen, all five of Carrier’s arguments for the phrase “who was called Messiah” as an interpolation have serious flaws and, despite his considerable efforts to make it appear otherwise, his overall case is weak. But it gets worse. This is because he not only has to argue that this phrase was a later addition by a Christian scribe (via a hypothetical marginal note), he also has to come up with a way an original phrase that identified this Jesus as “son of Damneus” came to be removed and the supposed marginal note – “called the Messiah” – was put in its place. The way he does this is contrived in the extreme:

“In fact, the text may have originally said, “the brother of Jesus ben Damneus, the name for whom was James, and some others.” Since “Jesus ben Damneus” appears again a few lines later (and as I have argued, it is more likely that Josephus actually meant this Jesus), a scribe who saw a marginal note “who was called Christ” (τοῦ λεγομένου Χριστοῦ) scribbled above “ben Damneus” (τὸν τοῦ Δαμναίου), regardless of how or why it came to be written there, may have inferred a dittography. This is a common scribal error where a copyist’s eye slips to a similar line a few lines down (by mistaking which “Jesus” he had left off at), then realizes he had picked up at the wrong place, but corrected himself and then wrote a superlinear phrase intended to replace the erroneous material. A later copyist would then interpret the earlier copyist’s correction as calling for the erasure of “ben Damneus” as a dittograph, omit the words, and replace it with the gloss, “who was called Christ.” ” (p. 512)

Got all that? So Carrier’s thesis involves using his flawed five arguments against the authenticity of the “who was called Messiah” phrase, then the supposition that this was a marginal note and then this further supposition where another scribe erases the original “son of Damneus” and replaces it with “who was called Messiah”. It is exceedingly difficult to not find this tangle of contrived hypotheticals to be anything more than an ad hoc “just so story” confected to explain this passage away.

And note the word “may” in the first sentence of his thicket of suppositions above. This whole idea of not just the scribal insertion of a marginal note, but the removal of an earlier identifier of this Jesus as “son of Damneus” is hurried into a dense paragraph on the second last page of Carrier’s 25 page article, and it is qualified by a word that suggests this may or may not have happened.

How Josephus uses identifying appellations

If Carrier’s mere “maybe” is not what happened, then his whole argument is in contradiction to the way Josephus identifies people via adding appellations to their name. Nowhere in any of his works that I can find does Josephus refer to someone by their name alone when introducing them to his narrative for the first time (e.g. “Jesus”) and then refer to them by their name and an appellation a few sentences later (e.g. “Jesus, son of Damneus”). This is for the very obvious reason that it would be highly confusing to do so.

So it seems that Carrier’s tangled alternative – the contrived one involving suppositions piled on suppositions and multiple imaginary scribes, which dangles by the slender thread of that little word “may” and is rushed into a contorted paragraph at the very end of his article – is critical to keeping his whole argument from collapsing.

Unfortunately for Carrier, this requires Josephus to do something else he seems to never do: use an appellation when introducing someone to the narrative and then using it again when mentioning them a few sentences later. Here are some examples of Josephus introducing a person to his account and using patronymic appellations to identify them:

“And now King Agrippa took the [high] priesthood away from Simon Cantheras, and put Jonathan, the son of Ananus, into it again and owned that he was more worthy of the dignity than the other.” (Antiquities, XIX.313)

Then five sentences later he refers to this Jonathan again (XIX.316). Does he call him “Jonathan, the son of Ananus” this second time? No, he simply calls him “Jonathan”.  Here is a second example; one which was referred to on another point above:

“As soon as the king heard this news, he gave the high priesthood to Joseph, who was called Cabi, the son of Simon, formerly high priest.” (Antiquities, XX.196)

A sentence later he refers to this Joseph again, but not as “Joseph, who was called Cabi” or as “Joseph, the son of Simon”. He simply calls him “Joseph”. We see the same pattern where Josephus refers to two people.  First he names them and identifies them with patronymics:

“There was one Judas, the son of Saripheus, and Matthias, the son of Margalothus, two of the most eloquent men among the Jews, and the most celebrated interpreters of the Jewish laws, and men well beloved by the people, because of their education of their youth; for all those that were studious of virtue frequented their lectures every day.” (Antiquities, XVII.149)

Then a few lines later he refers to them again. Again, he doesn’t call them “the son of Saripheus” or “the son of Margalothus”. He simply calls them “Judas and Matthias” (XVII.151) and refers to them again this way at XVII.157.  Yet another example:

“The like accident befell Glaphyra his wife, who was the daughter of king Archelaus, who, as I said before, was married, while she was a virgin, to Alexander, the son of Herod, and brother of Archelaus.” (Antiquities, XVII.349)

Again, in the following lines Alexander is simply called “Alexander” (XVII.350) and the appellation “the son of Herod” is not repeated.

There are many more examples, but it should be clear this pattern seems consistent. Given this consistency, there is a critical problem with the idea that Josephus called this Jesus “the son of Damneus” at XX.200 and this was removed later due to some confusion over him repeating that identifier some lines later at XX.203.  This does not seem to fit with the way Josephus identifies and refers to figures in his narrative. So are there any circumstances in which he does repeat an identifier that he has used a little earlier in the same passage?

As it turns out, there are. Though unfortunately for Carrier they do not support his argument – quite the opposite.

Like the various high priests, the Hasmonean rulers in Josephus’ history tend to share a number of personal names in common, so – again – he uses patronyms to differentiate between them.  For example, in Book XIV of Antiquities he refers to “Alexander, the son of Aristobulus” many times and once again we see the pattern noted above: he uses the patronymic appellation the first time this Alexander is mentioned and then in the immediately subsequent narrative refers to him simply as “Alexander”, given that he’s already identified who he means:

“Some time after this, when Alexander, the son of Aristobulus, made an incursion into Judea, Gabinius came from Rome into Syria, as commander of the Roman forces. He did many considerable actions; and particularly made war with Alexander, since Hyrcanus was not yet able to oppose his power, but was already attempting to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, which Pompey had overthrown, although the Romans which were there restrained him from that his design.” (Antiquities, XIV.82-83)

He goes on to refer to him simply as “Alexander” a further five times in the subsequent account: once more at XIV.83 and then at XIV.84, XIV.85, XIV.89 and XIV.90. He then moves on to a different anecdote, this one about Aristobulus, so when he returns to Alexander he again calls him “Alexander, son  of Aristobulus” (XIV.100) and then refers to him again simply as “Alexander” the next time he is mentioned in the new anecdote (XIV.102). We see the same thing further on in Book XIV – he moves onto other topics to do with Crassus and the Temple treasure before turning back to mention Alexander’s death, whereupon he is referred to as “Alexander, the son of Aristobulus” once more (XIV.125).

The next section of his narrative concerns the activities of Julius Caesar in the east and two more Alexanders are mentioned, so Josephus is careful to differentiate them from Alexander son of Aristobulus by referring to them as “Alexander, son of Jason” and “Alexander, the son of Dositheus” (XIV.146). The daughter of “Alexander, the son of Aristobulus” is mentioned at XIV.300, so Josephus is careful to call him that, especially since a further Alexander is mentioned at XIV.307, who in turn is designated “Alexander, the son of Theodorus”.

So here we see a wider pattern where Josephus uses an identifying appellation when a figure with a common name is (i) introduced to an anecdote he is relating, (ii) is re-introduced at a later point after other narrative anecdotes have been related and (iii) when there are others with the same name being referred to in the same part of the narrative or soon after it.

If we take this and look once again at XX.200-203 we can see that a “Jesus” is mentioned at XX.200. According to Carrier’s “maybe”, this is “Jesus, son of Damneus” and so the original text would have designated him as such here, with this being removed and then replaced by the alleged marginal note “who was called Messiah” by Carrier’s complex series of hypothetical scribal emendations. But then we get a “Jesus, the son of Damneus” mentioned at XX.203.  Which for Carrier’s “maybe” to work means Josephus called him this twice within a couple of sentences. But, as we have just seen, this was not Josephus’ practice. He does not repeat this kind of appellation unless he moves on to a new anecdote in this narrative or there is another figure with the same name in the narrative and he needs to differentiate between them.

This means he would have referred to “Jesus, the son of Damneus” at XX.200, but just used “Jesus” the next time this person is mentioned at XX.203. And that means there would be no second “the son of Damneus” to imply a dittograph to the second of Carrier’s hypothetical scribes. So his whole contrivance collapses.

Further, if Josephus wanted to emphasise that the “Jesus” of XX.200 was indeed the same one at XX.203 he would have used methods we see him use elsewhere.  For example:

“At length Zamaris the Babylonian, to whom Herod had given that country for a possession, died, having lived virtuously, and left children of a good character behind him; one of whom was Jacim, who was famous for his valor, and taught his Babylonians how to ride their horses; and a troop of them were guards to the forementioned kings.” (Antiquities, XVII.29)

Or again:

“Now he and his posterity, who were in all fifteen, until king Antiochus Eupator, were under a democratical government for four hundred and fourteen years; and then the forementioned Antiochus, and Lysias the general of his army, deprived Onias, who was also called Menelaus, of the high priesthood, and slew him at Berea.” (Antiquities, XX.234-35)

But he doesn’t do this in XX.200-203. The most likely conclusion then is to read the text as we have it (especially since Carrier’s five arguments for “called Messiah” as an interpolation are so weak) and to see the reference to “Jesus, who was called Messiah” at 200 and “Jesus, the son of Damneus” at 203 to be examples of what Josephus does consistently when referring to different figures with the same name – using identifying appellations that differentiate between two different people with the same name. In other words, we should read the passage as virtually every Josephan scholar on the planet does, because it makes the most sense that way. Occam’s razor slices Carrier’s contrived nonsense to ribbons and leaves a direct historical reference to James, the brother of Jesus, intact.


The more naive kind of online Mythicists are fond of the argument that there “should” be contemporary references to a historical Jesus if he existed and so their lack  means he did not exist. This simplistic argument fails largely because it overestimates the likelihood of contemporary attestation of anyone in the ancient world and is ignorant of the fact that we have no contemporary references to any of the various other early first century Jewish preachers, prophets and Messianic claimants and so cannot claim we “should” have any for this particular one. It also ignores that, even in the highly exaggerated accounts in the gospels, Jesus’ career is depicted as both brief and obscure. gMark stresses that his renown spread across “all Galilee” – a tiny backwater region that could be crossed in a day. And if all the events and indicators of time passing in the synoptic gospels are added together the whole of his “career” only takes up two or three weeks. Further, unlike Theudas or the Egyptian later in the century, whose followings were substantial enough to necessitate the mobilisation of whole units of Roman troops, even the gospels depict Jesus’ movement being suppressed via a quick scuffle in a garden involving only an element of the Temple guard. The most laudatory sources available make it clear that Jesus was, in his time, fairly insignificant.

So it is hardly surprising that while we have no notices of his existence from his fairly brief and ill-fated career, we do have references to him as the sect he founded grew. And in those references we also have direct attestation of his flesh and blood brother, James.

These references to James, particularly Galatians 1-2 and Antiquities XX.200, are the Achilles Heel of Jesus Mythicism. The better educated Mythicists acknowledge the problems these references pose for their creaking thesis and the convoluted and tangled lengths that Mythicism apologists like Carrier have to resort to is further testimony to the flaws exposed by this evidence. Paul met Jesus’ brother. Josephus was a younger contemporary of the same brother and close to the events of James’ execution in his home city. James, the younger sibling of Jesus existed. And therefore so did Jesus of Nazareth.

24 thoughts on “Jesus Mythicism 2: “James, the Brother of the Lord”

  1. How exactly would it help Carrier to argue that the James referred to is the son of Zebedee? And, more generally, what should we make of the fact that Peter (Cephas) and the sons of Zebedee were real people (if that is what Carrier concedes)?

    On what basis can Carrier accept that those people existed but deny the existence of Jesus? It would be like arguing that the Argonauts were real but denying the existence of Jason.


    1. “How exactly would it help Carrier to argue that the James referred to is the son of Zebedee?”

      His argument requires that the James of Galatians 1:19 is not an apostle, so that he can sustain his interpretation of “brother” as meaning “an ordinary Christian who does not have apostolate status”. If the James of Galatians 2:9 is the same person, it doesn’t make sense that this ordinary, non-apostle Christian is also one of the “pillars” alongside Peter and John. So he has to maintain that this James is a different person, the son of Zebedee and an apostle. All this is just more evidence of how tangled Mythicist arguments have to get to sustain their thesis.

      “On what basis can Carrier accept that those people existed but deny the existence of Jesus? It would be like arguing that the Argonauts were real but denying the existence of Jason.”

      There are a few Mythicists who claim all these people are “fictional” and that Paul also didn’t exist. A couple go so far as to claim that the wicked Constantine and Eusebius cooked up the entire first three centuries of Christianity, forged all ante-Nicean Christian documents and invented all of these “fictional characters”. Carrier’s narcissism and weird commitment to this contorted thesis of his has made him a bit of a loon, but he is not a total idiot. He believes that he can put enough distance between what Paul says and a historical Jesus to maintain the idea that Jesus is mythical. But Paul is giving direct attestation of Peter, James and John here, so it would be very hard to argue they too did not exist. So he has to find ways to accept they existed while reshaping Paul’s references to Jesus mean that, somehow, he did not.


      1. It seems to me that reading “the brother of the Lord” as meaning “just another Christian” is a bit strained right off the bat. Paul went to Jerusalem to confer with the church big-wigs, so in context the reader would assume that anyone mentioned in that sentence was someone in that set. Identifying James as the one who is Jesus’s brother (as opposed to some other James who might have been around) makes sense; mentioning some random James that Paul happened to see and making clear that he’s a Christian is so much superfluous text.


  2. Wow that was a great article. I suspect you will get a torrent of how it could have been scenarios from Carrier anytime.

    This verse below seems to me another awkward explanation for fact about a historical Jesus that was well know by his followers but needed to be explained.

    What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, YAHWEH said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I put thy enemies under thy feet’? If David thus calls him Lord, how is he his son?” And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did any one dare to ask him any more questions.” (Matthew 22:42)

    Basically this verse is arguing the Messiah cannot be an actual descendant of King David because it would create the inappropriate cultural expectation that would require an elder ancestor to call his descendant Lord which was highly inappropriate.

    Of course this strange parable doesn’t work as any ancestor would be required to call their descendant Lord however it seems to explain away the awkward known fact Jesus was not descended from David, yet the Messiah was supposed to be.

    Perfectly consistent with a historical Jesus, this makes no sense with a made up Jesus though.


    1. The traditional Christian exegesis on Matt 22:42 says Jesus is arguing that the Messiah must be more than just a descendant of David, given the Messianic interpretation he gives to Psalm 110:1 – an interpretation that his questioners seem to share. So, the standard Christian interpretation of this text is that it has Jesus claiming to be more than the traditional Jewish conception of the Messiah as a human descendant of David and that this is referring to his divine status. Of course, it can also be read, as you say, as Jesus being depicted as rejecting the idea that the Messiah is to be an actual descendant of David at all. This contradicts the Matthean infancy narrative, particularly the genealogy at Matt 1:1-17, which explicitly mentions David as one of Jesus’ direct ancestors (Matt 1:6). This could be explained by the fact that it preserves an earlier tradition, especially if (as many scholars believe) the infancy narrative is a later addition to the text. It’s interesting that this episode is unique to gMatt. The episode before it is paralleled at Luke 10:25-28 and so seems part of the Q material, but this sequel with the question about David is not there. Of course, this might be because the author of gLuke did find it in the Q material and considered it too odd and too hard to reconcile with his own genealogy (Luke 3:32-38) and infancy narrative to include it.

      Regardless of what it means or how it found its way into gMatt, the issue in this context is how it could be reconciled with Mythicism. Carrier is faced with explicit references to Jesus as a descendant of David is the Pauline texts, which he deals with via the bizarre expedient of having his celestial Jesus created from a sperm bank in the sky. Which shows how, when the chips are down, Mythicists give Creationists a run for their money when it comes to ridiculous ad hoc arguments to sustain their silly ideas.


      1. The oddest thing is this myth seemed to trick everyone…. but him and his internet followers.

        How come no other critical scholar figured this out. How come no ancient critic such as Celsus figured this out. I wonder if these thoughts have crossed his mind.


        1. The lack of any reference to the supposed “Mythic Jesus” form of proto-Christianity required by the Doherty-Carrier thesis is one of its key flaws. Doherty has tried to press references to Docetic forms of Christianity into service and claim that they are, in fact, references to a “Mythic Jesus” conception. This fails because Docetists believed that Jesus had no physcial body and was a purely spiritual being, but also that this spiritual being was here on earth and in historical time. Doherty can’t demonstrate any form of Docetism that did not believe this. I’ve challenged him on why none of the critics of Christianity (eg Trypho or, as you say, Celsus) seem to have noticed this alternative form of Christianity, since referring to it would be a strong argument against Christian claims about Jesus. Yet they seem unaware that any such form of Christianity existed or had ever existed. Similarly, Christian apologists addressed a wide range of “heretical” alternative forms of Christian belief, including several that had not existed for a century or more before the apologists wrote. Yet, again, they seem totally unaware of this “Mythic Jesus” form, despite it (allegedly) still existing in their time and despite it having a plausible claim to being the original form of the faith. But we get silence from them as well. I have yet to see a coherent response on these points from any Mythicist, though most simply resort to conspiracy theories about how such references did exist but got “censored by the Church”. Why “the Church” would censor mentions of just this “heresy” while preserving the apologetics about all the various others is never explained.

          Carrier knows that the lack of any solid evidence for this supposed Mythic proto-Christianity is one of the key flaws in Doherty’s thesis. This is why he has tried to bolster the Doherty model of Mythicism by detailing what he thinks is evidence of this vanished ur-faith. His tangled analysis of the Ascension of Isaiah is one of his desperate attempts to do this, but he bungles that one in typical style. That will be a topic for an upcoming article in this series.


          1. The Spirit of Democracy exists today, on earth, in an historical era. Which helps prove it is an historical person?


          2. You seem to be arguing that the Docetists’ partly immaterial spirit was however, said to be an historical reality, a spirit on this earth. And therefore you conclude, it had a kind of reality, historicality? Therefore still supporting an historical Jesus?

            My objection would be that an historical “SPIRIT” is still too far from what you want to prove. In fact so far from it, that any old mentions of it do present evidence that many in the alleged time of Jesus didn’t really see him as an historical PERSON, say….


          3. I suspect you haven’t quite understood what I’m saying. One the critical flaws in the Doherty-Carrier form of Mythicism is the total lack of evidence that the proto-Christianity posited by this theory – one that believed in a purely celestial, non-earthly and non-historical Jesus – ever existed. Some Mythicists have pointed to references to people who believed Jesus was spiritual rather than physical and tried to argue these are references to this celestial Jesus form of Christianity: e.g. 1John 1:1-4 and 4:1-3.

            The problem with this argument is that these references make most sense as references to Docetism – the idea that the historical earthly Jesus existed, but was purely spiritual in form and only had the illusion of a flesh and blood human. The existence of Docetism does not help the Mythicist at all. The only way, therefore, they can argue these references are to their (supposed) purely celestial, non-earthly and non-historical Jesus and not to a spiritual but historical and earthly Docetic one is by assuming the very conclusion they are trying to prove. We know Docetists exist and these references fit them. We have no evidence these supposed “purely celestial, non-earthly and non-historical Jesus” proto-Christians existed, so to assume the references in question are to the latter is purely circular reasoning.



          4. 1 John 4.2 is commonly taken as an early attempt to address, refute the claims of docetism. Suggesting in turn that docetism was found early; among 1st century Christians.

            So it’s early. And this meant that among very early folks who might be supposed to be close to eyewitnesses to any physical historical Jesus, there was a group suggesting that any such allegations of firm materiality, historically, were not reliable.

            So Jesus’s full material historicality was doubted very early; even by people who were in a position to have access to early reports of it. Or who in some cases could have seen him. If he had been fully real.

            Yet even these very early witnesses do not really fully support an Historical Jesus.


          5. The problem with that argument Kendal is the Docetist full thought he was a real person, who walked the Earth, preached and was crucified. They simply thought that he was a spirit who happened to take on the appearance of a human.

            They never thought of this spiritual Jesus doing his events in the spirit realms, they thought it happened on Earth.

            Doherty’s view requires this to happen in his heavenly realms.


          6. “1 John 4.2 is commonly taken as an early attempt to address, refute the claims of docetism. “

            It is.

            “Suggesting in turn that docetism was found early; among 1st century Christians. So it’s early.”

            Well, it may be earlyish. Though I am much more inclined toward those who date it to the first half of the second century.

            “And this meant that among very early folks who might be supposed to be close to eyewitnesses to any physical historical Jesus, there was a group suggesting that any such allegations of firm materiality, historically, were not reliable.”

            No, this is utter nonsense. Firstly, even the earliest dating for 1John puts it well after the time of any eyewitnesses or even those who had been close to any. And, as I’ve said, the more likely dating makes it much later still. But the critical problem with your statement above is your muddled conflation of “materiality” and “historically”. Yes, Docetists rejected the materiality of Jesus. No, this had nothing to do with rejecting his historicity. Your argument fails because you keep confusing the two.

            “So Jesus’s full material historicality was doubted very early”

            Garbage. This statement is total nonsense.


          7. It would be more accurate to say that the full humanity of Jesus was doubted (quite) early. And it isn’t hard to see how that could have happened. Given the exalted claims made about Jesus, it isn’t surprising that some people might start to doubt whether he was truly human. That would not have happened when there were still many people alive who actually knew Jesus, but when most or all of the eyewitnesses had died off, something like the docetist view could arise.

            And that fits with what we know. First John was written in the late first century, the time when there were no more eyewitnesses. On the other hand, we don’t see Paul addressing the problem of Docetism, presumably because it hadn’t arisen.

            But how do things work on Carrier’s scenario? First, everyone believes in a celestial Jesus. Then people start to think Jesus was a figure of recent history. And then some people start to think Jesus was a historical figure but one who only appeared to be human. But why didn’t the people who wanted to deny the humanity of Jesus just go back the “original” view of a celestial Jesus? Had it been completely forgotten even by the end of the first century?


  3. The brothers of Jesus is a topic I have started to try to research in the last week so fairly perfect timing for me.

    Are there any good books or articles on the subject of the family of Jesus and the community of Nazareth as it relates to Jesus? I’m mostly interested in works that take the approach that they were actual siblings (or at least half siblings) rather than the Roman Catholic view and build from there – are there any good secular or religious texts on that subject?

    You mention a few books about James the Just which sound interesting, but I am unclear if they put much emphasis on the implications that would have on the life of Jesus or whether they are mostly focused on the aftermath?


    1. The books by Jeffrey J. Butz and John Painter that I mention in my article are probably the two best suited to your interests. Both make similar cases for James and the other brothers being followers of Jesus from the beginning, and do so persuasively in my view. Butz goes much further than Painter on the implications of a much more “Jewish” Christianity implied by the leadership of the Jesus Sect by James after Jesus’ death, though since he is dealing with scraps of evidence, this part of his book is more speculative than the earlier section on the interpretations of the NT material. But I think you’ll find both books worth reading. Don’t be put off by the reference to the “Lost Teachings of Christianity” in Butz’s subtitle. I have a rule not to bother with books that have references to “lost secrets” or “the hidden history” or any “conspiracy” in the title or blurbs, so I avoided Butz’s work for a while for this reason. Despite the slightly schlocky title, it’s actually a reasonably scholarly and serious book.


  4. Hey Tim.

    I was left idly wondering: does Carrier give/have any supporting evidence for his claim that ‘the chronology of Acts is fucked’?
    I’d always been left with the impression that ‘Luke’ was generally regarded as a careful historian.


    1. Carrier’s reasoning on the chronology of Acts being unreliable is not made very clearly. He notes some well known chronological problems in that work, particularly the speech it gives to Gamalilel (Acts 5:33-39) which garbles the order of two events, mentioning the uprising of Judas (6 AD), and placing it after the movement of Theudas (c. 45 AD), instead of before it. This speech is also depicted as happening sometime before 37 AD, making it impossible for Gamaliel to have had knowledge of Theudas, given that he was not to arise for at least another eight years or more. The chronology here is clearly gibberish.

      So the author of Luke-Acts can hardly be regarded as a “careful historian” and the early twentieth century assessments (e.g. Meyer) that he can be counted “among the best Classical historians” get repeated by Christian apologists despite the fact modern critical scholars would not agree.

      However, simply noting this well-known chronological error in Acts is not enough on its own to allow Carrier to blithely dismiss the idea that the meeting with the “pillars” in Galatians 2 is not the “Council” detailed in Acts 15, but rather took place in the journey to Jerusalem implied (but not explicitly mentioned) by Acts 11:29-30. So it seems what Carrier is doing here is taking the famine mentioned at Acts 11:27-28 and the fact that Acts 11:29-30 has Paul and Barnabas bringing a “gift” to relieve the community in Judea and is trying to link this to Galatians 2:9-10:

      “They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.”

      Therefore Carrier’s opaque and typically contrived reasoning seems to be that this general reference to Paul, Barnabas and Titus continuing “to help the poor” means the “pillars” meeting of Galatians 2 happened during the famine relief journey of Acts 11 and so before the execution of James son of Zebedee in Acts 12. Got all that?

      Of course, that’s a very slender and dubious thread from which to dangle his entire argument, but that never seems to bother the eternally overconfident Carrier.


  5. Kendal Bixley

    “1 John 4.2 is commonly taken as an early attempt to address, refute the claims of docetism. Suggesting in turn that docetism was found early; among 1st century Christians.”

    Unless, John is from the second century. Either way docetists didn’t deny Jesus was a historical individual, they believed, as Tim pointed out, his humanity was an illusion. This is to say that Jesus APPEARED to be a man.

    > My objection would be that an historical “SPIRIT” is still too far from what you want to prove.

    Actually, no the question is entirely about what the docetists believed about Jesus not what Tim thinks about a spirit being historical.
    The docetists believed Jesus appeared to be a man, but thought that since he was said to be god and a god could not die, that he only APPEARED to be human so in docetism, you have Jesus as an itinerant preacher who gets crucified, that is a person in hisotry.



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