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Carrier and James the Brother of Jesus

I hope I am not beating a dead horse by going at some length into this discussion of James, the brother of Jesus, in response to the Mythicists, who have a very real stake indeed in saying that he wasn’t really Jesus’ brother, since that would mean Jesus existed.  I’m pursuing the matter in part because it is such a key issue and as well to show that it would be possible to argue to all eternity with Mythicists on point after point after point.  Some of them are truly inexhaustible.  If I wanted to spend my entire life and career doing nothing but answering Mythicists rejoinders to my replies to their responses to my comments on their claims – it could occupy my next twenty years!

I am giving a taste of what it involves here.  The short story: The historical man Jesus from Nazareth had a brother named James.  Paul actually knew him.  That is pretty darn good evidence that Jesus existed.  If he did not exist he would not have had a brother.

Yesterday I explained that in the New Testament “brother” can mean either a literal “blood brother” or a “spiritual brother” – that is, someone who is connected by common bonds of affection or perspective to another, a person who is sympatico with another.  The simplest Mythicist solution to the claim that James was Jesus’ brother is to say that this is what it means.  James was in tune with the heavenly Christ so much that he was his “brother.”

I’ve shown why that doesn’t work in Galatians 1:18-19, where James is called Jesus’ brother.  It’s because the term is used to *differentiate* James from Cephas, to identify him in a way that clarified his distinctive relationship with Jesus, indicating what he was that Cephas was not.  But no one can think that Cephas / Peter was not also Jesus’ “brother” in this spiritual sense.  So the interpretation doesn’t work.

Some Mythicists have realized this and so come up with other explanations for how to explain the passage.  They have to explain it away, because otherwise they don’t have a case that Jesus didn’t exist.  If you want to see some rather imaginative attempts, I give them in my book Did Jesus Exist, and explain why they simply don’t work.    Here I’ll take an explanation that has been given by Richard Carrier in his response to the debate I had with Robert Price a couple of weeks ago. Richard Carrier is the author of On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt and Why I Am Not a Christian: Four Conclusive Reasons to Reject the Faith, among others.

Carrier wrote a very long and detailed response which was meant to show, as is his wont, that I don’t know what I’m talking about.  I have been asked several times by several people to respond to his response, but I know where that will go – it will take a response twice as long as his to show why his views are problematic, he will reply with a reply that is four times as long to show I don’t know what I’m talking about, I will respond with a response twice as long as that to show that I do, he will rejoin with ….

So I’m not going to do that.  I’m simply going to respond to this one key point.  Carrier …

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What If the Mythicists Were Right: Mailbag November 6, 2016
James the Brother of the Lord



  1. Avatar
    jchilders79  November 5, 2016

    I’m glad you focused on this point, Dr. Ehrman. While I do think there’s a lot of value in some of the current mythicists’ work, especially Dr. Carrier, unless this passage and the “born of a woman” and “seed of David” passages are demonstrated to be interpolations, these constitute strong evidence, almost to the point of a moral certitude, that Jesus existed. Where I find value in their work is not so much in challenging his existence, but in presenting evidence that might point to a pre-Jesus Jewish mystery Christ-cult that may have paved the way for the rapid divinization of the historical Jesus and merged with his movement. (Or not. Just something I’m exploring.)

    Thanks for your awesome work, Doc!

  2. Avatar
    puzzles  November 5, 2016

    What was the meaning of “apostle”? I have heard various things such as the Twelve, somebody who founded churches, or somebody who was visited by the resurrected Jesus. Of course James was the first to be visited by the resurrected Jesus according to some traditions.

  3. Avatar
    jc.johanning  November 5, 2016

    Carrier argues in his book “On the Historicity of Jesus ” that according to Paul Trudinger the passage has been mistranslated from the Greek.
    “In fact, the Greek here is quite strange, unless Paul actually meant ‘other than the apostles I saw only James’, meaning quite specifically that this James was not an apostle. Ordinarily, to say you saw ‘no other apostle’ you would write heteron ton apostolon ouk (compare Rom. 7.23; 13.9; etc.) or oudena heteron tōn apostolōn (as Paul usually does: e.g. 1 Cor. 1.14; 2.8; 9.15; etc.) or things similar. But here Paul instead chose the unusual (and for Paul, unprecedented) construction heteron tōn apostolōn . Without oudeis , the word heteron plus the genitive in this fashion more often means ‘other than ’, rather than ‘ another of ’ .”
    -On the Historicity of Jesus

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2016

      There’s nothing particularly weird about the Greek, so far as I can see. I don’t know who Trudinger is. I assume Carrier knows Greek, since he has a degree in Ancient History; I have no way of knowing how good his Greek is. In the verse, heteron (= “other” or “another”) is the accusative direct object of the verb (“see”), and tōn apostolōn is a partitive genitive, indicating that the substantive controlling it is part of the group being mentioned (another one “of the apostles”). The key is what comes next ei me clearly means “except,” so that James, mentioned next is one other of the apostles.

      • Avatar
        jc.johanning  November 7, 2016

        Thanks for clearing this up Dr. Ehrman! It’s easy to be fooled if one doesn’t know the Greek. Carrier always mentions this “mistranslation” in his interviews, so I always had the doubt. Thnx

      • Avatar
        Abaddon  November 8, 2016

        Carrier lists his own qualifications in Greek on his blog as such: “I took a full graduate course in textual criticism under Leonardo Taran at Columbia University, as well as courses in ancient Greek dialects and linguistics and a year long course in papyrology under Roger Bagnall (likewise at Columbia), plus many course-years in Greek and Latin translation and documents. I also presented a paper on textual criticism at an academic conference (at UC Berkeley, but during my tenure at Columbia)”. Some samples of his graduate work in Greek are posted on his website: http://www.richardcarrier.info/papyrus/

        L. Paul Trudinger is published at The Evangelical Quarterly (http://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/eq/1973-1_036.pdf) – note that this is not a mythicist “twisting” the Greek to fit his needs.

        Τhe late James L Boyer, another non-mythicist, also argued this kind of exegesis of this verse in Grace Theological Journal 4.2 (1983) on page 180 (https://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/new_testament_greek/text/boyer-otherconditionals-gtj.htm): “εἰ μή < = adversative conjunction 'but' – It is readily admitted that εἰ μή may often be translated 'but' or 'but only' in English, particularly in those instances belonging to the last-mentioned category… Gal 1:19 is a passage where the difference is of considerable importance, but the issue must be settled on other considerations than the meaning of εἰ μή”

        • Avatar
          Abaddon  November 8, 2016

          Here are the citations of the actual literature referenced:

          L. Paul Trudinger, ‘[Heteron de tōn apostolōn ouk eidon, ei mē iakōbon]: A Note on Galatians I 19’, Novum Testamentum 17 (July 1975), pp. 200-202.

          George Howard, ‘Was James an Apostle? A Reflection on a New Proposal for Gal. I 19’, Novum Testamentum 19 (January 1977), pp. 63-64.

          Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress
          Press, 1979), p. 78.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 9, 2016

          Thanks. That’s very helpful.

        • Avatar
          Pattycake1974  November 11, 2016

          Learning ancient Greek in a general sense is not the same as devoting time, effort, and energy into learning it in order to understand the text of the New Testament. Did Carrier spend a lifetime deciphering Paul’s words or Mark’s or John’s, etc.? Did Carrier study Hebrew? It seems to me that Hebrew would be a very important language to know if a person is that interested in understanding the text of the bible. Maybe he did. I don’t know.

          I think you should consider that when Carrier approaches the bible, there’s a purposeful intention there. Does he allow the text to lead him where it wants to go or is he leading the text to say what he wants it to say in order to argue his point? I see there’s a tax papyrus listed on his website, but where’s all of the NT papryi that he translated?

          • Avatar
            Abaddon  November 16, 2016

            No, Carrier doesn’t claim to speak Hebrew. And yes, he’s fully competent in Biblical Greek exegesis. Obviously, you’re not (even “in a general sense”, whatever that means). Do you care to cite some specific examples of Carrier “leading the text to say what he wants it to say in order to argue his point”? Or are you just speaking in a general sense?

          • Avatar
            Pattycake1974  November 19, 2016

            What I meant was that I’m not aware of Carrier being able to read Hebrew. I’m not sure how he’s fully competent in Biblical Greek exegesis either.

      • Avatar
        thomstark  March 30, 2017

        Carrier has a habit of calling phrases he doesn’t know how to read properly “strange.” Here he says the Greek is “quite strange.” In an exchange with me on Daniel 9, he said that the term “anointed prince” was an “oddity” and a “strange construction.” But he didn’t read it as anointed prince, he kept referring to it as “Christ Prince.” Even after I explained to him that anointed is adjectival not titular here, he still didn’t get it. So we know he has problems with basic grammar. Calling a phrase “strange” seems to be one of his go-to maneuvers for dealing with data problematic to his thesis.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 30, 2017

          Interesting! Thanks. I don’t know how good his languages are. My sense is that, among other things, he doesn’t know Hebrew at all.

          • Avatar
            thomstark  March 30, 2017

            Yes, my engagement with him on his pre-Christian Dying Messiah thesis made it abundantly clear he doesn’t know a lick of Hebrew.

            In the case of Daniel 9, he was trying to argue that because “Christ Prince” was a strange construction, we should postulate that it is missing a conjunction, “Christ and a Prince,” because he wanted two figures in Daniel 9. All of this was a roundabout way of supporting his thesis that Christ died in Daniel 9.

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 5, 2016

    Hmm? Why do you think this issue is so important to mythicists? They sound like fundamentalists spinning all evidence to fit their cognitive biases. In my limited experience, some atheists can be as dogmatic, I hesitate to say more dogmatic, as fundamentalists.,

    If they want to debunk most of Christianity, can’t they get to essentially the same place by claiming that most, but not all, of what the Bible says about the historical Jesus is legendary? This would be similar to what you wrote in “Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet …” Why do they need to debunk the existence of Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2016

      yes, that’s my view. They’d be better off doing that.

      • Avatar
        godspell  November 7, 2016

        But their goals are emotional, not logical. They want to do much more than just convince people Jesus was not God (and never claimed to be, either). They want to erase Christianity itself from existence. Which for them means negating all the central beliefs of Christianity.

        Now you can’t prove a god doesn’t exist. It’s impossible. For all I know, Zeus and Odin are up there having a drink together, and talking about going down to earth in human form to seduce some maidens (I’m not sure Odin does that in any of the Norse myths, but Zeus could have corrupted him).

        You can prove a man didn’t exist. It’s hard to do, when he lived thousands of years ago, but it’s within the realm of possibility. And there’s something about disproving something everybody accepts as truth (even most atheists), that can appeal to certain types of personalities (like the people who try to prove Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, men never landed on the moon, or the earth is flat).

        This is why I don’t envy you your task of trying to persuade them, because their beliefs are not logical. You’ve never, to my knowledge, gone to a gathering of Christians to try and persuade them there is no God. You would have no factual basis for this, and your opinion is basically as good as anyone else’s on that insoluble question. To you, the question of Jesus’ existence is a matter of analyzing the available facts, and making reasonable conclusions based on them. To these people, his nonexistence is an article of faith, and faith exists beyond the realm of logic. Which is fine, as long as it doesn’t PRETEND to be based on logic.

  5. rememberwhite
    rememberwhite  November 5, 2016

    Big fan of Bart’s work here … so forgive me if I link to this point by point assessment of the debate on Carrier’s website. I understand Bart’s point that to refute each and every point would take several books worth …

    For the layman, however, a lot of Carrier’s points seem just as valid as Bart’s points. So in the end it comes down to authority … the fact that Bart has studied for so long at prestigious universities must mean that he has some grasp on the truth at least!

    Here is Carrier’s point by point rebuttal in full …

    Might I add that I enjoy Bart’s humour … a lot … though Carrier doesn’t seem to is evident!

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  November 5, 2016

    Richard Carrier is a hairsplitter who would make the most fastidious Medieval scholastic proud. Dr. Carrier, if for some reason you’re reading this comment, I have to ask you how many spiritual brothers of the Lord do you think can dance on the head of a pin?

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  November 7, 2016

      Talmoore, you crack me up. I read Carrier’s assessment. Okay, I read some of it. When I saw that I had scrolled for 5 minutes, and the side scroll bar wasn’t moving, I knew it was going to be skim-reading for me. People keep saying that his arguments are so well thought out and compelling. He is *the* one who is Bart’s equal in setting forth an argument and could win in a debate against him. I think they’re dreaming. No way. No how. I could be really truthful about some of the tactics I think he uses when setting forth some of his arguments, but I’ll refrain.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  November 7, 2016

        I skimmed Carrier’s reponse as well, and I got frustrated by his almost childish obsession with fallacy hunting. If this debate hinged on important deductive arguments, then, yes, there may be some profit in singling out each and every logical fallacy, but since we’re talking about a painstaking reconstruction of history through limited document evidence, then focusing on logical fallacies in an opponent’s argument comes across as petty and unproductive. Carrier acts like a second year philosophy student who just learned rhetoric and is over eager to use his new toy, even when and where it’s not appropriate.

  7. Avatar
    roycecil  November 5, 2016

    Dr. Bart , what is the earliest historical reference we have of the mythicist position? Was there any, jewish , christian or secular mythisict in the first century? Is it logical/rational to have a myth suddenly develop at a point in time without a whole bunch of people being deluded ? Are there some other examples in history?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2016

      The first to propose the view was a French scholar at the time of the French Revolution. I mention his work in my book Did Jesus Exist?

  8. Avatar
    living42day  November 5, 2016

    Robert Price has also argued that Paul may have used the word “brother” in a spiritual sense–as though the phrase “brothers of the Lord” could be taken as a particular group within the early church. But, given what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:10-17 against factions in the church there, it seems very unlikely that Paul would have tacitly endorsed such a distinction in his letter to the Galatians.

    To his credit, Price does acknowledge that Paul’s contact with James constitutes “powerful evidence that Jesus was a recent historical figure” (Christ-Myth Theory, 333).

    It seems to me that Price often builds arguments around what could be termed “possibilities” with the idea that the cumulative effect of such arguments would somehow undermine the opposition’s case, whereas Carrier presents similar arguments and then treats those “possibilities” as though they reflected what is “probable.”

  9. Avatar
    benholman  November 5, 2016

    Interesting post! So is the James mentioned in Galatians 2.9 someone different then? “James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars”. In Gal 1, isn’t Paul talking about the James of the three pillars that he mentions again in 2.9? Or is he referring to two different James’s in Gal 1 & 2, but just doesn’t make the distinction between them? Because the “pillar” James in 2.9 is thought by the Gospel writers to be the brother of John, not Jesus.

    “And He allowed no one to accompany Him, except Peter and James and John the brother of James.” Mark 5:37

    “And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword.” Acts 12:2

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2016

      No, the James of ch. 1 is also the James of ch. 2. Galatians was written long before Mark and Acts, of course, and is not presupposing knowledge of them (or any of the other Gospels)

  10. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  November 5, 2016

    hello Bart

    i want to ask you a question it may not be relevant to the thread . i have read in the gospel of John 10:8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them.

    thieves and robbers who is refering to in other words who are those thieves and robbers ?


  11. Avatar
    Hume  November 5, 2016

    Bart, I do not know why you say your wife is smarter because that rolls royce of a mind powers through everything!

  12. Avatar
    Hume  November 5, 2016

    Bart, I’ve bought several of your books but not How Jesus Became God, so that aside.

    1. Water into wine at Cana: As useful as it is, do you think this didn’t happen, and whoever wrote this down added this piece?

    2. Also, do you think all the miracles were added/created/made up when the stories of Jesus were told after his death or during his life?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2016

      1. No, I don’t think it happened 2. Definitely mostly after his death, but possibly some during his life.

  13. Avatar
    Pattylt  November 5, 2016

    I want to thank you for giving this detailed response. Quite often the discussions just seem to be “I see it this way and you see it that way”. This discussion explained the interpretation so that I can now see your point of view clearly. I certainly don’t expect you to have to respond in this detail to every mythicist point but I sure wish a group of scholars would respond with this level of detail to some of the mythicists strongests points. I think it would advance the history of what can be known and what will always be speculation and would perhaps make the mythicist position either go away or accept that they might have a point or two to contribute. Not all mythicists are raving conspiracy theorists. Some just see holes in the history (me).
    One quick question: Do you think Paul implies that what makes someone an Apostle is seeing the risen Jesus like he did, not just knowing the earthly Jesus? Mythicists claim that Paul ONLY defines Apostles as those who see the risen Jesus. I think that I don’t know enough to know who to believe! Ha!

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2016

      The word “apostle” means “one who is sent,” and technically would apply to anyone who thinks that Christ or God has sent them on a (missionary) mission.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  November 7, 2016

        Bart, PattIt wrote above, “I sure wish a group of scholars would respond with this level of detail to some of the mythicists strongest points.” That sounds like a good book for you to introduce and edit–an anthology of criticisms of mythicist positions.

  14. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  November 5, 2016

    I replied to pueblo’s comment before seeing this post. Good to know I was on the right track.

    I have a completely unrelated question: When Paul used the word “revelation” in his writings, it seems that he wrote it so frequently that it doesn’t have much of an impact as to what I take it to mean today, as in, some grand, spiritual epiphany. Could Paul have thought a revelation was just an average part of spiritual life, like, speaking in tongues? For example, in Galatians 2– 1 Then after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. 2 I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles.

    There’s probably no way to know for sure, but could Paul’s vision of Jesus have been the point of origin that lead to more spiritual things: revelations, tongues, interpretations, etc… In other words, he didn’t have a revelation about anything until he saw Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2016

      Well, speaking in tongues doesn’t seem particularly “average” to me, but fairly remarkable. But yes, a “revelation” would be a similar manifestation of a divine spirit.

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  November 7, 2016

        I suppose “average” isn’t a good word to describe tongues. When people speak in tongues, it can be rarely, occasionally, or as often as every day if they so choose. Since Paul wrote about having a revelation several times, could that have also been a frequent occurrence for him? As in, having revelations was an accepted and normal part of a Christian’s spiritual life much like speaking in tongues. But when Paul did have a revelation, I’d like to know what was actually happening with him. Are there any good books about this topic?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 7, 2016

          Nothing comes to mind. YOu might try books on Jewish mysticism.

  15. Avatar
    drmightie  November 5, 2016

    Thank you, Prof Ehrman. Excellent right up. Concise and straight to the point. I saw the debate between you and Dr. Price and I have also read Dr. Carrier’s summary of it. I’m no expert in biblical studies but there isn’t any way around what Paul meant in Galatians 1:18 – 19, other than that Jesus had a blood brother. I think with these two verses their whole argument falls apart unless they want to claim Galatians wasn’t written by Paul or that the verses were interpolated.

  16. Avatar
    darren  November 5, 2016

    One thing I’m realizing as the years pass is just how many people want to defend their position, rather than understand and seek truth. I always assumed it would be Christians who would be the most intransigent, but the mythicists — and, come to think of it, Trump supporters I’ve engaged with this year — are the same. Left, right, up, down, whatever. People are crazy sometimes, regardless of their beliefs or politics.

  17. Avatar
    rburos  November 5, 2016

    Thanks for this thread. The common placement of Cephas with James in Galations 1 is a pretty rock solid defense of the hypothesis, and will become part of my arsenal. I’m aware of fundamentalists who hold the same view of James as the mythicists, because of the doctrine of Mary’s eternal virginity. Where would that have come from? I don’t see it as necessary in any way?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2016

      Most fundamentalists don’t hold this view; it’s a Roman Catholic doctrine, that arose from beliefs in the sanctity and sinlessness of Mary, who was taken up to heaven at the end of her life because she had never been connected to/corrupted by sin (such as in the sex act)

  18. John4
    John4  November 5, 2016

    If you are beating a dead horse, Bart, that’s fine with me. Beat away! I very much enjoy your many posts in which you engage in ” this kind of detailed examination” to make your points. The mythisist position strikes me as absurd. But, it does have the benefit of prompting you to share detailed examinations of scripture with us. For that I am grateful. 🙂

  19. Avatar
    jlparris  November 5, 2016

    What motivates the Mythicists? Some seem evangelical in advocating their uninformed positions.

    Is it scar tissue from earlier fundamentalist experiences? Frustration at not being able to find an entry level position teaching? Sleeping during history classes?

    Did your experience at the debate indicate a low level of scholarship and a desire for confirmation bias from audience members?

    From Carrier’s blog: “To be fair to Robert Price, he is in failing health. And he’s a sweet guy. But I have to be honest. Even granting that, he didn’t respond to hardly anything Ehrman said. So there wasn’t actually a debate Friday night. It was mostly just Bart Ehrman making numerous dubious and misleading assertions that were never questioned, combined with Price defending bizarre positions wholly unnecessary to the issue, making mythicism look close to crank.”

    Perhaps Mythicism is crank?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 6, 2016

      yes, that may be what’s motivating some of them. Yes, I was surprised at how many people there didn’t have even basic knowledge about the Bible or early Christianity, but latched on quickly to anything which supported their views. But they were a great group of people, on the personal level.

  20. Avatar
    dragonfly  November 5, 2016

    Maybe we should talk about why mythicists are even trying to argue their case. It seems to me the only way to find evidence that Jesus didn’t exist, is if you already start with that assumption, and go looking for evidence to support it (and ignore evidence that doesn’t). I don’t see how you could come to that conclusion by looking at the evidence without an agenda. And why have you become Carrier’s public enemy no.1? Every other scholar out there also thinks Jesus existed.

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