The misuse of James, the brother of Jesus, in Christian apologetics (Part 1)

A relatively common argument made in Christian apologetics is that James, the brother of Jesus, became a believer in Jesus only after the crucifixion and that this conversion was a direct result of a personal resurrection appearance to him.  Once this is established, the apologist then speculates about the likely nature of the resurrection appearance to James, arguing that only a physical bodily resurrection could have formed an experience powerful enough to adequately explain his transformation from someone who had rejected the message of his brother during his lifetime to someone who later became of the central leaders of the early church in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death (and who may have suffered martyrdom as a result). A good example of this kind of argument is given by William Lane Craig, who in a recent talk argued, “Most of us have brothers.  What would it take to convince you that your brother is the Lord?  So that you would be willing to die for this belief?  Can there be any doubt that the reason for this remarkable transformation in James is because, in Paul’s words, ‘then he appeared to James’”? [1]  In the following two blog posts I intend to examine the evidence relevant to James and to evaluate the validity of the apologetic argument.  In this, the first blog post, I examine James prior to the resurrection.

The evidence we have for James prior to the resurrection is limited to that contained in the gospel accounts and is of questionable reliability.  Indeed, a major difficulty in establishing the unbelief of James is that the gospels never treat him as an individual but rather they group him together with the rest of Jesus’ family, rarely even mentioning him by name.   And although the gospels unambiguously portray the family of Jesus in a negative light and contain several passages that liken them with those who rejected him, the consistency of this negative portrayal across the gospels is not particularly impressive given that Luke and Matthew appear to draw their knowledge of the brothers of Jesus entirely from the traditions recorded in Mark.

The first reference to James in the gospels is Mark 6:3, which lists the four brothers of Jesus; James, Joses, Judas and Simon. [2]  The gospels’ understanding of the brothers of Jesus is conveyed particularly neatly in the story contained in Mark 3.20-21 and Mark 3.31-34, which through its portrayal of both the actions of relatives of Jesus and of Jesus’ response makes it clear that they did not have an amicable relationship.  Indeed, these passages state that the mother and brothers of Jesus believed him to be “out of his mind” and has Jesus declare in response that his true family was not that of blood relations but consisted of those who did God’s will.  Of course, the natural inference from this response is that in Jesus’ opinion, his blood relations did not do God’s will, perhaps suggesting the primary reason for their poor relationship was disagreement about the truth of Jesus’ message.

In addition to this story, Mark 6:1-6 records that Jesus was not supported by the people of his home town.  Mark suggests that they were enraged by what they regarded as his impertinent wisdom, and has the people of the town question his authority and then slur him by referring to him as “Mary’s son” (it was considered an insult at the time to refer to someone as the son of his mother alone, as this implied doubt about paternity and thus illegitimacy).  Mark further states that the lack of faith of the inhabitants was so complete that Jesus could not perform significant miracles as a result. [3]  Jesus responds to the lack of faith of his home town by declaring that “A prophet is not without honour except in his own town, among his relatives and his home”, thus connecting the attitude of his neighbours with that of his relatives and reinforcing the point made about the relationship between Jesus and his relatives earlier in the gospel.

Establishing the historicity of these traditions is a complicated matter.  On the one hand, it is clear that both the tradition about the family of Jesus believing him to be mad and the rejection of Jesus by his home town were felt to be embarrassing by the early Church (see footnote 3).  One might conclude on the basis of this embarrassment that the traditions are unlikely to be fabrications.  On the other hand, it is important to note that for a contemporary Gentile [4] reader of Mark’s gospel, these stories of Jesus’ rejection were likely to be deeply symbolic of the wider failure of Israel to respond to his message – the ultimate consequence of which would be his crucifixion.  Thus it is likely that Mark, who is preoccupied throughout his Gospel with developing an apologetic for a crucified Messiah, found these traditions useful because they emphasise Jesus’ rejection and serve to heighten the theatrical tension of the gospel by acting as a pointer toward the climax of the story.  If this is the case, Mark did not consider the traditions embarrassing but actually had an incentive to create such stories!

Furthermore, if one accepts that Mark intended to create a clear narrative about a rejected Messiah, it follows that Mark would be reluctant to include historical details that would contradict his depiction of Jesus as one who had been rejected.  The inclusion of contradictory detail (like a family member following Jesus) would undermine the coherence of the narrative and disrupt the thematic unity of the gospel.  This point, together with the fact that we have no traditions about the brothers of Jesus as individuals, means that the evidence is fatally unreliable and unspecific, and that determining any concrete historical details about any particular brother is problematic.

In conclusion, while the evidence concerning the brothers of Jesus is consistently negative, we are unable to discern historical facts specific to James with any degree of certainty.  Though it seems unlikely that the traditions about Jesus’ family and home town are simply fabrications, at the same time it is clear that Jesus’ family is used to narrate a particular symbolic and apologetic point and that ruling out the possibility that one of Jesus’ brothers may have followed him prior to his crucifixion is unjustified given the poor quality of the evidence available.

The second part of this blog post can be found here.

2. There seems to be little doubt that these were the literal, blood brothers of Jesus, with later attempts by the Church Fathers to reinterpret their relationship to that of cousins being a consequence of the development of the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary.

3. Incidentally, it is fascinating to trace how the later gospels treat this highly embarrassing admission.  Matthew 13.58 says Jesus chose not to perform miracles because of their lack of faith.  Luke has Jesus draw a parallel between himself and Elijah and Elisha and transforms the story from being one of his inability to perform miracles to one him taking a deliberate decision not to perform them (the comparison of Jesus to Elijah in Luke 4:26 corresponds to 1 Kings 17:6,14,22, while the comparison of Jesus to Elisha corresponds to 2 Kings 5:5,9-10,14).  It is interesting to note that it is Luke who draws the parallel with the Old Testament rather than Mark – if the story was Midrash, one might expect an explicit parallel to be drawn in the earlier account and to become less obvious over time.

4. It is generally accepted that Mark was writing for a Gentile audience.

5. For example, in John 7:1-5, it explicitly states that his brothers did not believe in him, and John 7:6-8, when compared with John 15:18-19,makes it clear that while the world hates Jesus because of his message and hates his disciples due to their relation to him, the world did not hate his brothers.


2 responses to “The misuse of James, the brother of Jesus, in Christian apologetics (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: The misuse of James, the brother of Jesus, in Christian apologetics (Part 2) | bibleLAD·

  2. Pingback: Why does John include the mother of Jesus at the crucifixion? | bibleLAD·

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