The misuse of James, the brother of Jesus, in Christian apologetics (Part 2)

This is the second and final part of a blog post about James, the brother of Jesus.  I recommend you read these posts in the correct order.  The first part can be found here.

Compared with how little we know about James during Jesus’ ministry, the evidence regarding James after the resurrection is remarkably specific.  Paul is a particularly important witness to James, recording early tradition that leaves little doubt about the prominent role he played after the resurrection.  In Galatians 2:9, Paul describes James along with John and Cephas as “pillars” of the church, indicating he was a vital leader in the early Christian community.  In addition to this, 1 Corinthians 15:7 implies James was central to the Apostles, as Peter was central to the twelve.  The idea that James was well known as a prominent Apostle is interesting because Paul suggests that Apostleship implied a distinct role in the early church, probably involving missionary work. [1]  Outside of Paul, Acts 1:14 lists James along with the other brothers and the mother of Jesus as members of the earliest church community.  Indeed, James appears to have become so highly esteemed by the church that by the second century the author of the Gospel of Thomas was able to declare his leadership appointed by Jesus himself prior to his death – “The Disciples said to Jesus, “We are aware that you will depart from us. Who will be our leader?”  Jesus said to them, “No matter where you come it is to James the Just that you shall go, for whose sake heaven and earth have come to exist.” [2]

There are two accounts of the death of James, both extra-biblical and both in agreement about the violent nature of his death.  The first is recorded by Josephus [3], who wrote at the end of the first century.  Jospehus conveys a relatively simple account about James being stoned in 62 AD after being falsely accused by the High Priest Ananus ben Ananus of breaking the law.  The second account is contained in a quotation from the fifth book of Hegesippus recorded in Eusebius’ fourth-century work Ecclesiastical History [4] – the use of a later quotation being necessary due to the original Hegesippus now being lost.  Though Eusebius was writing at a very late date, it is possible to determine that the completion of Hegesippus’ work occurred between 174 and 189 AD, quite considerably earlier.  However, this narrative of the death of James is considerably more embellished than that of Josephus, containing flattering praise for his virtues and blaming the dastardly Scribes and Pharisees for his dramatic murder, which they carried out immediately after hearing him preach about Jesus by pushing him from the pinnacle of a temple, stoning him and finishing him off by hitting him over the head.   This embellishment, together with its later composition and the second hand source from which we obtain it, suggests Josephus is the more reliable of the two.  Even so, in a recent article Richard Carrier has, in my opinion, has cast significant doubt over Josephus’ account, arguing that Josephus did not in fact originally refer to James, the brother of Jesus at all. [5]  I have reproduced Josephus’ account in full:

But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees,  who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; 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 [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim without his consent. 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. [6]

Carrier offers grammatical and structural reasons for doubting the authenticity of the reference to Jesus and suggests that the phrase “who was called Christ” was later accidentally inserted by over-eager scribes.  Instead, it is argued that Josephus originally recounted the death of James “the brother of Jesus ben Damneus”, the man who later replaced Ananus as high priest.  Indeed, the outcry over the execution of James among influential Jews makes little sense if he were a leader of a little known Christian sect, as does the severe response of the Roman governor Albinus and King Agrippa.  If however Ananus was persecuting a rival by executing his brother, the response of the authorities is more reasonable – they resolved the issue by removing Ananus from office and replacing him with the very rival he had offended, Jesus ben Damneus.

Given the doubts Carrier has raised about the authenticity of Josephus and the dubious and exaggerated character of Hegesippus’ account, it is prudent not to base any assertions about the strength of James’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection upon the accounts of his martyrdom.  Indeed, even if Carrier is incorrect, the degree to which Josephus’ account can be said to be a description of martyrdom is unclear since Josephus does not claim James was killed for his faith, but that he was accused by Ananaus of “breaking the law”.  Rather than relying on the significance of James’ death, it is best to view the position of leadership he attained and the esteem with which he was later held as indications of the reality and strength of his convictions.

In my opinion, the apologist is likely to be correct in suggesting that the strength of James’ convictions flowed from a resurrection appearance.  We have every reason to believe he did experience a resurrection appearance.  Indeed, although the idea that James experienced a resurrection appearance is stated explicitly only once in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 15:7, this passage forms part of Paul’s Creedal formula and can arguably be dated to the very earliest resurrection tradition available to us.  The association of this resurrection appearance with the conversion of James, however, has no basis in the text.  Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 15:7 there is no suggestion of any conversion of James from unbelief to belief – the appearance to James is simply described as one appearance among many for the disciples of Jesus.  It is significant that nowhere in the writings of Paul is the appearance to James compared to that of Paul.  There is evidence to suggest that Paul’s legitimacy as an Apostle was questioned by those in Jerusalem.  It seems unlikely that Paul would not mention James in this context in order to strengthen his own position.  Additionally, it is significant that Paul applies the concept of a resurrection appearance that has transformed someone from being an enemy of Jesus to a friend uniquely to himself, calling himself the “least of the Apostles” because he persecuted the church of God (1 Corinthians 15:9).  Both of these points suggest that Paul was unfamiliar with the suggestion that James’ experience of the resurrection had any role to play in his conversion.

To conclude this two part blog post, it is clear that the evidence we have surveyed does not justify the apologist’s assertion of a causal link between James’ resurrection experience and his conversion.  Though we have good reason to suggest James was an important leader after the crucifixion in the early Christian church, the evidence relevant to James prior to the crucifixion is insufficient to make a strong a claim about James’ disbelief as the apologist needs in order for his argument to be compelling.  One simply cannot state with any certainty what James believed about Jesus prior to the crucifixion.  In addition to this, there is no suggestion of this idea in Paul, someone we might reasonably expect to have knowledge of this tradition if it  had existed through his personal relationship with James and as someone who had a strong incentive to use the tradition to his advantage.  Ultimately, James’ post crucifixion belief in Jesus cannot be conclusively demonstrated to be of any greater significance than the continued belief of the disciples and ought not to be unduly elevated in Christian apologetics.


1. Indeed, one is able interpret 1 Corinthians 9:5 in light of Galatians 1:18-19 in order to find that James and the other brothers of Jesus are considered by Paul to be Apostles.  This means that “all the Apostles” cannot refer exclusively to the Twelve, though members of the Twelve are not necessarily excluded from the category.   Given the absence of John and possibly the rest of the twelve from the category of Apostle, it is reasonable to argue that an apostle was one who played a distinct role (Galatians 2:7).

2. Gospel of Thomas 12, available at http://gnosis.org/naghamm/gosthom.html

3. Jewish Antiquities, Book XX, Chapter 9, Verse 1, available at http://www.ccel.org/j/josephus/works/ant-20.htm

4. Ecclesiastical History Book II. Chapter 23, Verses 4-18, available at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iii.vii.xxiv.html

5. Carrier, Richard, ‘Origen, Eusebius and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200’, Journal of Early Christian Studies, 20:4, pp 489 – 514 (2012)

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

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

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