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James the Brother of the Lord

In my previous post explaining why I think the Mythicist position – that there never was a man Jesus – is simply untenable, I pointed out that among the things Paul says, none is more specifically relevant than the fact that he indicates that he was personally acquainted with Jesus’ own brother James (along with Jesus’ disciples Peter and John).

When Paul mentions knowing and spending time with James, it is decidedly not in order to prove that he knew him.  The comments he makes are completely incidental, explaining to people who already know about James how it is that he, Paul, met with him on a couple of important occasions.   One of these occasions was just three years after Paul converted – so in about 36 CE.

At that time Paul paid a visit to Jerusalem to meet with Cephas and James, the leaders of the church there.   Paul is reluctant to mention that he had gone there, since the entire point he is making is that he did not learn anything of relevance for his gospel message from the founders of the church in Jerusalem, but independently knew the truth about Christ’s death and resurrection from a revelation from Christ himself.  So he stresses that this meeting was fully three years after he had already known the truth of the gospel and that he didn’t meet with any of the other apostles, only those two.

Fourteen years later …

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Carrier and James the Brother of Jesus
Paul’s Acquaintances: Jesus’ Disciples and Brother



  1. Avatar
    gavriel  November 4, 2016

    A mythicist I met, claimed that Paul certainly met with someone who claimed to be Jesus’disciples (including a “brother”), but they were all con men who had fabricated the initial sectarian message, and were later joined by increasing groups of gullible believers. How do we disprove that?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 4, 2016

      Probably the same way we disprove the claim that the moon landing was filmed in a TV studio….

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  November 4, 2016

        You have made it abundantly clear that you deem Paul a “convert.” To what? Also, do you consider the members of the Jerusalem church to be converts? They disagree with Paul about many things, but are they co-religionists with Paul or believers in different religions?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 5, 2016

          A convert to belief in Jesus as messiah. (Not a convert *away* from Judaism. He continued to see himself as a Jew)

    • Avatar
      scissors  August 16, 2018


      Ask for evidence. That would be my approach. The whole thing sounds made up.

  2. Avatar
    gavriel  November 4, 2016

    The “fourteen years after” of Gal 2, is that fourteen years after the conversion or after his first encounter with Cephas/James?

  3. Avatar
    godspell  November 4, 2016

    It’s a fascinating discussion, but the Mythicists are cooked either way–if James was only Jesus’ spiritual brother, there still had to be a Jesus for him to be spiritual brother TO. Jesus as an only child would still be a flesh and blood human being. And that is how Paul speaks of him in this context–while, confusingly, still seeing him as this pre-existent angelic being, who had merely been incarnated in the body of a man for a short time.

    Paul knew perfectly well Jesus had lived and breathed and walked around in his own time, but he almost certainly had no experience of that Jesus. To him, his own vision of Jesus was preeminent. He still had to deal with the fact that others in the cult he had joined had actually spoken with the Lord, walked with him, broken bread with him, had earthly relationships with him. I think it probably made him uncomfortable–to feel that he understood Jesus’ will better than anyone, could express it more powerfully–while still knowing that others had known Jesus the Man as he never could. One reason why he and Peter and James could never see eye to eye–each had experienced Jesus in a different way. But at this stage in the development of Christianity, such differences were subsumed by a shared sense of persecution and evangelism.

  4. Avatar
    twiskus  November 4, 2016

    Excellent write up! Thank you!

  5. Avatar
    seward414  November 4, 2016

    I was a mythicist until I started reading this blog. The mythicist argument makes a lot of sense, fills in some important blanks, and ties it all up neatly in a bow. It is attractive to me as a former fundamentalist. But alas, Dr. Ehrman has destroyed it with these pesky little arguments.

    I still wonder why there is so very little overlap between the stories in the Gospels and Paul’s Epistles.

  6. Avatar
    Hficher  November 4, 2016

    The name “James” comes from Yaakov in Arameic. In Spanish is Santiago: from Sant Yago. In Portuguese it derived from San Tiago.

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  November 4, 2016

    I remember your saying that you once – wrongly – entertained a theory about “Cephas” and “Peter” being two different people. I *don’t* remember your explaining why you’d thought that, and what convinced you the theory was wrong. I’d still like to know!

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2016

      Ha! Maybe I should do a thread on that!

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  November 6, 2016

      Peter and Cephas is the same person?

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  November 7, 2016

        “Cephas” and “Peter” are definitely the same person (nicknames meaning “rock,” in different languages). I don’t think anyone doubts that. Bart has told us that at one time he *did* entertain a theory that they were two different people; but he eventually became convinced they were one and the same.

        My *guess* at why he might have thought they were different people? It may have had something to do with that quote from Paul, about the supposedly-resurrected Jesus having appeared “first to Cephas, then to the twelve…” I don’t think that wording, *in English*, would make someone who *already believed Cephas was one of the twelve* doubt it. But there may have been a different implication in Greek.

        (Of course, “the twelve” is puzzling in itself! Unclear whether it was a “nickname” for the group, or Paul actually *didn’t know* Judas had betrayed Jesus and was no longer one of his disciples.)

        • Avatar
          Pattycake1974  November 8, 2016

          I think “The Twelve” was a nickname and Judas was replaced with another disciple. I need to go back and reread Paul’s letters where he mentions Peter/Cephas.

    • Avatar
      yes_hua  November 6, 2016

      Why should we think that Peter and Cephas are the same person? Unless we read the Gospels first, we shouldn’t think that as far as I can see. To say that only one person was called Rocky is like saying that anyone called Rocky now is the foundation of the church. Could just be a nickname. I’m not saying that it changes the story much, but it does weaken the ties between the authentic Paul and the Gospels. I feel that apologists are given a free pass when they get to say, ‘See, Paul knew Peter. Peter met Jesus. They all preached essentially the same thing, just as it says in Acts.’ Then they gloss over the differences between the epistles and the gospels.

  8. Avatar
    Scott  November 4, 2016

    I don’t think a Mythicist will be impressed by arguments that Cephas was Jesus’ closest friend when they don’t beloved Jesus had ANY friends! The other argument – that Paul would not exclude Cephas from among the Brethren of the Lord when he uses the term quite broadly everywhere else – seems more likely to gain traction (of anything can)

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2016

      My sense is that most mythicists aren’t impressed by any counter-arguments!

  9. tasteslikecorn
    tasteslikecorn  November 4, 2016

    What things should the general public look for when searching for books that are historically reputable, while trying to avoid the scholarly works? I usually look at the publisher/imprint, bibliography…what else should we be looking for?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2016

      You should look for books written by qualified experts (notice if they teach at highly reputable institutions and have published significantly in their fields) but that have titles that are not technical and recondite. If you can’t find it at Barnes & Noble, that should be a hint that it’s not for a general audience.

  10. AoSS
    AoSS  November 4, 2016

    Here is, out of what I have seen, the most convincing Mythicist argument in this regard.

    We see that Paul calls Christians “brothers” and “sisters” in quite a few areas (for example, Galatians 5:13, 1 Thessalonians 4:13, etc.).
    Now, I do not know Greek and so the next part may be where it is made or broken, but when we look at 1 Corinthians 9:5 it says,
    “Do we not have the right to take along with us a sister as a wife, as the other apostles and brothers of the Lord and Cephas do?”
    I know that Dr. Price’s translation, seen in “The Pre Nicene New Testament” also includes the word “sister”.
    In this verse it is really unlikely that “sister” is mean in any sort of biological way, but as a more general term for Christians (or certain types of Christians).
    So, the question becomes that if “sister” in this verse is non-biological, why would one assume that “brother” is?
    Brother of the Lord could be the full title of these Christians, and it is shortened to simply “brother” in other areas.
    And if that is the case, then when we see James being called the “brother of the Lord” in Galatians, then one would be unjustified in saying that it is a biological brother.

    My view is that the weakest part of this argument lies in the 1 Corinthians 9:5 passage, where if it made it so that “sister” included “of the Lord” on it that it would solidify this argument. As it is, however, I can see why people can argue it either way.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2016

      Translators usually add “sisters” in order to make the translation more inclusive of all people, even though it is not found in the Greek (as in 1 Cor. 9:5)

      • Avatar
        yes_hua  November 6, 2016

        But does it not further separate Cephas from the Lord’s brothers? Why are they mentioned separately like that?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 7, 2016

          Because they were two different people. One was a disciple and the other was his physical brother.

  11. Avatar
    Tempo1936  November 4, 2016

    In Acts 22:24-29 Luke repeatedly claims Paul is a Roman citizen , even by birth.
    Yet Paul never makes any such a claim in his writings. Is this Why you think Paul was not a Roman citizen and that Luke and Paul never met?
    Was Luke’s claim that Paul was a Roman citizen an attempt to make Paul more credible and important since Acts was written later?

    Was Paul One of the very few well educated Christians to write his letters in Greek ?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2016

      Yes, Paul makes no claim to be a citizen. Not many people were. And it’s one of many reasons for thinking Luke did not personally know him. Most of the early Xn writings (all of the earliest) were in Greek.

  12. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  November 4, 2016

    Is Galatians dated from Paul’s conversion or vice versa? Is Paul’s 2nd meeting with the Jerusalem apostles the same as the “council” of 50 CE and is there reliable evidence that it took place then?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2016

      They are dated symbiotically, and yes, his second meeting is usually (though not always) taken to be the one described as well in Acts 15.

  13. Avatar
    davitako  November 4, 2016

    Some Mythicists like to point out that James referred to there was not an apostle; that Paul means a non-apostolic Christian. To quote them:

    “It appears that when Paul most needs to distinguish non-apostolic Christians from apostles (due to the required force it has on his argument), he always uses the full term for a Christian, ‘brother of the Lord,’ rather than its abbreviation, ‘brother.'”

    Bart, how plausible do you find this explanation?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2016

      See today’s post. Paul definitely considers James an apostle, as he says in Gal. 1:18-19.

  14. Avatar
    stokerslodge  November 4, 2016

    Bart, how was Paul at liberty to persecute the Christian church at a time when Palestine was under Roman rule? Did the roman authority simply turn a blind eye?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2016

      I’m not sure he did this in Palestine. But in any event, Romans reserved capital punishment for themselves, but did not intervene with other forms of local justice and its administration.

      • Avatar
        James  November 6, 2016

        Could you verify that please? I thought that myself for the longest time. However, I remember reading something within the last year or so that this was not always the case.

        • Bart
          Bart  November 7, 2016

          I believe the evidence is laid out by Sherwin White in his book Roman Law and Roman Society (if I remember correctly!)

  15. Avatar
    moose  November 4, 2016

    Mr. Ehrman. I think the question regarding Jesus brother, or brothers, can be answered both logically and theologically. The fact that the brother of Jesus is named Jacob makes the answer all the more obvious.
    Several texts in the Tanakh makes it clear that Jacob/Israel was regarded as the son of God. For example, the famous “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son”.
    If Jacob was the son of God, and Jesus was the Son of God, then Jacob and Jesus had to be brothers in some way or another. This is the logical argument.

    The theological argument comes from the fact that the Tanakh is full of Lamentations from God where he blames Jakob for this and that, and Calls Israel to Repentance.
    Amos: “For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. Yet you have not returned to me,” declares the Lord”.
    Jeremiah: “the word of the Lord has come to me and I have spoken to you again and again, but you have not listened. 4 And though the Lord has sent all his servants the prophets to you again and again, you have not listened or paid any attention”.

    Israel, Judah, Ephraim, Manasseh, Levi and all the other tribes AND Jerusalem would just not listen to God! This fact explains this rather strange verse in Mark:

    “Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”
    33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.
    34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and mother.” – Mark 3:31

  16. Avatar
    jhague  November 4, 2016

    20 In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!

    Do you think it is proper to infer that Paul states that he does not lie because people were accusing him of lying? He seems to need to support himself like this throughout his writings.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2016

      That’s one option. Another is that he just wants them to know he’s telling the truth, the very truth, so help him God. Not because others were accusing him of not telling the truth, but because he wants them to realize: REALLY, I never talked with other apostles before this!!!

  17. Avatar
    jhague  November 4, 2016

    By the time Paul had his second visit to Jerusalem (fourteen years after his first visit), this disciple James, the son of Zebedee, had already been martyred (44 CE; Acts 12).

    As a side note, we know that Peter was not released from prison by an angel. So does that somewhat make this entire story in Acts not necessarily historical? We know that Acts is not generally historical and in this story, the point seems to be that Peter escapes from prison with the help of an angel. According to the story, he was arrested only because it pleased the Jews to see James be executed. If Peter was not really in prison (why should we think that he was since it is unlikely that he would have gotten out) then why should we believe a story in Acts that James was executed?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2016

      Mainly because, unlike the Peter episode, it is not told as a narrative with a theological/religious lesson,but is just stated as a bald fact. Plus this is the only one of Jesus’ closest disciples whom Paul shows no evidence of knowing a few years later, which might suggest he wasn’t around to be known.

  18. talmoore
    talmoore  November 4, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, though I can’t think of any reason to think that Jesus couldn’t have a biological brother, the possibility that he had a brother James who became a leader of the post-Crucifixion Church raises questions that I did not consider until I had to resolve them in the narrative of my Jesus novel. Namely, the problem is this: Was James part of the group of followers who travelled to Jerusalem and took part in the Passover festival with Jesus et al., and so, therefore, was James there when Jesus was arrested? If so, why isn’t he mentioned in the Gospel accounts as such? (One would think that Jesus’ actual brother being part of the pre-Crucifixion followers would be a rather important detail to include.) But if James wasn’t a part of the group of followers who went with Jesus to Jerusalem for the Passover, why not? Was James skeptical of Jesus before the Crucifixion, but came to believe post-Crucifixion? (And if so, why?) Was James much younger then the rest of the disciples so he was not awarded any respect or honor until after Jesus died? Out of all the books I’ve read so far, no one has offered any helpful answers to this question, and it’s one of the biggest sticking points so far in my Jesus novel narrative. Where to place James the brother of Jesus?!?

    For now I’ve tentatively filled the gap — so to speak — by making James a much younger brother of Jesus, too young to journey to Jerusalem with Jesus et al.; and only after Jesus dies, and the remaining followers return to Galilee is James recruited by the disciples to join the revitalized movement based around the “resurrected” Jesus. In the epilogue, James has worked his way up into the Church’s heirarchy, and after a few years has become its ostensible leader (at which point Paul enters the picture at the very end). And after the death of James the son of Zebedee, James the brother of Jesus becomes de facto leader. Anyway, I’m not totally satisfied with that solution, but it’s the best I can come up with for now. If you, Dr. Ehrman, have any better ideas I would certainly, very much appreciate them. They don’t have to be solid theories, but merely plausible scenarios, because, after all, this is a work of fiction.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2016

      In the NT James is not a believer in Jesus until *after* his death, based (see e.g., John 7), probably, on a resurrection appearance (see 1 Cor. 15:3-8).

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  November 6, 2016

      According to mark, Jesus’ mother and brothers thought he was crazy. So maybe James realised he was wrong after the resurrection. Or maybe mark just made that bit up.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  November 7, 2016

        Yes, in a short narrative such as the Gospel of Mark that idea is easy to just drop in and out, without asking too many questions. But in the longer narrative of a novel, where motivations and behaviors have to seem plausible and ring true, it comes across as (for lack of a better word) far-fetched. That is, it seems like a hackneyed trope rather than a genuine human action. Hence my difficulties.

        • Avatar
          dragonfly  November 8, 2016

          Well if you’re interested I’ll try to explain how I imagine it (briefly). I find it interesting that mark never mentions Jesus’ father Joseph. Yet his mother and brothers are the ones who try to stop him from preaching. Is Mary a single mother? A widow? Or worse? I imagine Jesus going to hear John the Baptist preach a particularly charismatic speech, where Jesus has that incredible feeling of revelation where an idea clicks with both the left and right sides of the brain simultaneously. He now knows his purpose. He first tells his family, to which his mother says “yes dear” and goes back to whatever she was doing. His brothers are the same. So he goes out and starts his ministry. All the while his mother is hoping he will snap out of this phase he’s going through, and his brothers are a bit miffed that he’s not working to help support the family like they are. If it were me, that’s exactly how my family would be. So I don’t see any this as far fetched at all. (But you probably don’t have a family like mine.)

          • talmoore
            talmoore  November 9, 2016

            The part that I find far-fetched is that James would go from incredulity or ambivalence to sudden true believer AFTER Jesus’ death. It sounds like some melodramatic epiphany that comes across as phoney if not within the context of some inspiritional religious novel a la Ben Hur or The Robe. I’m purposely trying to avoid as much as possible that kind of corniness. I want the novel to feel real and thought-provoking, to feel gritty and poignant, to feel naked and spine-chilling. Not uplifting or inspirational at all.

  19. Avatar
    Wilusa  November 4, 2016

    Can’t help feeling a need to bring this to others’ attention:

    “SAN DIEGO — A newsletter from a San Diego Catholic church has warned parishioners they’ll go to hell if they vote for Democrats.

    “The San Diego Union-Tribune says a flier inserted in the Oct. 16 bulletin of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church called voting Democratic a mortal sin. It cited five policies – including support for abortion and same-sex marriage – that will doom supporters to eternal damnation.

    “On Oct. 30, the bulletin itself took a Hillary Clinton quote out of context to claim she’s influenced by Satan. It also criticized immigration policies and gun control.

    “The church doubles as an election polling site.”

    Obviously, I’m appalled. And ashamed that I ever did call myself a Catholic.

  20. Avatar
    Stephen  November 5, 2016

    Prof Ehrman

    In Gal 2:9 Paul at least implies that Peter and James and John knew what he was up to with the Gentiles and signed off on it. But in v 12 and following he writes about “certain people” From James who he refers to as the “circumcision faction”. So what was the actual Jamesian point of view here? That gentiles could join the movement, not be circumcised,but that the observant Jews would have to separate themselves to maintain ritual purity, or, that gentiles could join the movement but they had to be circumcised and observe the law? Here Paul seems to be responding to the former but if so why call your opponents the “circumcision faction” if they accepted that gentiles did not have to be circumcised? And if it’s the latter then doesn’t that contradict the idea that the “pillars” understood and approved Paul’s mission?


    • Bart
      Bart  November 5, 2016

      Yes, the concern seems *not* to have been whether the gentiles could have salvation through Christ, but whether Jews had to continue observing the law so strictly that they had to limit their contacts with non-Jews

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