• On the Historicity of Jesus, Part 2.

    This is the second installment of my series on Richard Carrier’s Historicity of Jesus. The first can be found here.

    The Achilles’ Heel of Mythicism

    If there is anything like a ‘knockdown drag-out’ argument for a historical Jesus, it’d have to be Paul’s reference to James, the “brother of the Lord” in Galatians 1:19. In the past mythicists have mostly handled this badly, and in fact it was really about the only reason I leaned towards believing in a historical Jesus. It was just one piece of evidence, but it was a really good one: here we see Paul, one of our earliest Christian authors (writing just 20 years or so after Jesus was supposed to have lived) making an off-the-cuff the comment that seemed to be a great reason to believe that Jesus really lived.

    So how does Carrier explain this one? He first begins by noting that the using of terms like ‘brother’ and ‘brethren’ are commonly used in Paul’s letters in a symbolic manner, as when Paul says Christ appeared to over 500 brethren at once (1 Cor. 15:3-6) and more generally that all Christians were the ‘brothers of the Lord,’ since Christ was ‘the firstborn among many brethren’ (Romans 8:29). Of course, if “James, brother of the Lord” meant “James the Christian” we must ask why Paul needed to specify that the James in question was a Christian (wouldn’t that have been obvious enough?). Carrier adduces a couple of possibilities on p.589. I think the most convincing reason Carrier gives is that Paul was trying to distinguish the James mentioned in Galatians 1:19 from James the apostle (mentioned later in the same letter). Of course, this presupposes that James the Apostle was not one and the same as James “the brother of the Lord,” but this is not an ad-hoc proposition: we know James the apostle couldn’t have been Jesus’ brother because that James was John’s brother (Mark 5:37), and Jesus didn’t have a brother named John (Mark 6:3). [This is just a brief summary of Carrier’s arguments on this issue, the book itself makes a much fuller case].

    I think this establishes that there is a good, non-ad-hoc mythicist explanation for 1 Galatians 1:19.

    However, establishing that an explanation is very plausible does not establish that it is the most plausible. I still think that there is a sense in which the Galatians passage argues (modestly) for an historical Jesus. The name of the one Paul calls ‘the Lord’s brother’ is James, and Mark 6:3 says Jesus had a brother names James. Let us consider both the mythist position on this and the historist position.

    Under the proposition that Jesus really lived, Jesus had a brother names James who must have later on played a role in the church (perhaps not as an apostle, but as somebody at least) and that explains the two passages reasonably. The probability of the evidence is close to 100% under the historicist framework.

    Under the proposition that Jesus was a myth, the gospel of Mark created fictional brothers named James, Joses, Simon and Judas but prior to that Paul called someone named James ‘the brother of the Lord.’ What are the odds that Paul would call someone the brother of the Lord who just so happened to have the same name as one of the fictional brothers mentioned in Mark?

    In order to find out, we need to know how frequent these names were in ancient times. Richard Bauckhaum has a handy table of male name frequencies in the ancient world in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses p.85-88, which I will be drawing on to make this estimation.

    We also need to understand what it is that we are finding the probability of. We are not searching for the probability that Paul would identify a “brother of the Lord” as someone named James specifically. After all, if the passage in Galatians read “Judas, the Lord’s brother,” or “Joses, the Lord’s brother,” or “Simon, the Lord’s brother,” defenders of the historical Jesus would be making much the same argument that they are now (hindsight is 20/20). So, we need to find the probability that one of the names Mark listed would end up being the same as the name of the guy Paul mentions.

    If you have trouble understanding what I’ve laid out above, think of it like this: Under the historicist theory, one would reason that (1) Paul identifies someone as ‘the lord’s brother,’ (2) James, Judas, Simon and Joses are ‘the lord’s brothers,’ so (3) The person Paul identifies will be named either James, Judas, Simon or Joses. It’d be a fallacy to find the probability of Paul mentioning James specifically, because the historicist theory allows for more possibilities than that.

    Using Richard Bauckham’s table,* we find that out of 2549 name occurrences, there are 235 Simon’s, 159 Judas’s, 212 Jose’s (Joseph’s) and 35 James’s. Adding those together, the frequency of someone being named either Simon, Judas, Joses or James is 641 out of a total of 2549 name occurrences, which breaks down to just over 25%.

    In short: it’s my judgment that Paul calling someone a “brother of the Lord” is at just as probable under the mythicist theory as the historicist one, especially given Carrier’s arguments and scripture citations on this point (see discussion above). It is also my judgement that the fact that Paul identifies this “brother” as someone with the same name as one of the brothers listed in Mark is more probable under the historicist explanation than under the mythicist explanation. In particular, the probability of the evidence in question is close to 100% under the historicist theory whereas it is about 25% probable under the mythicist theory. In other words, this is a “red jelly bean” for the historicist theory.

    So What Does this Mean?

    It has surprised me greatly that what I once viewed as a very strong argument for a historical Jesus has turned out to be only very modest support. Moreover, this is about the only piece of evidence for an historical Jesus of which I know (I’ve looked into the issue before, and have come to the conclusion that most claimed evidence is actually very doubtful). Carrier’s arguments against the other Pauline passages seem solid (though I may rethink them in the future). We’ll have to weigh this piece of evidence for a historical Jesus against the evidence for mythicism.

    End Notes

    * Bauckham lists 2,625 name occurrences. I removed the 76 name occurrences that are derived from the New Testament (I figured that using name occurrences derived from the new testament might be circular since what we are analyzing is a name from the new testament, but if you choose to include all those name occurrences in your calculation the result would be slightly more favorable to mythicism).

    One More thing: I assumed that the probability of the evidence was 100% under historicism. However, Paul could plausibly have used fictive kinship terminology under the historicist theory, which means that the probability of the evidence is somewhere greatly below 100%, and in my opinion it is plausibly somewhere between 50 – 100%. Given what we know from Paul’s letters on how he used ‘fictive kinship’ terminology, it seems to me that under historicism it is equally likely that either (a) Paul would use ‘brother of the Lord’ to refer to a literal brother or (b) use it to denote someone was a Christian. If the latter, the probability that this person would be named James is the same under historicism as it would under mythicism. If the former, it’d be about 100% likely, assuming that Mark didn’t get the names of Jesus’ brothers wrong or something strange like that. All in all that would make the probability of the evidence 62.5% under historicism (averaging out the 25% prediction under possibility ‘a’ and the 100% prediction under possibility ‘b’) and 25% under mythicism. Notably, Carrier himself decides to estimate the whole ‘brother of the Lord’ issue as being about twice as likely under historicism as mythicism (which is roughly what I have here), even though he doesn’t think the odds are like that, and his Bayesian equation still comes out in favor of mythicism.

    Category: Uncategorized

    Article by: Nicholas Covington

    I am an armchair philosopher with interests in Ethics, Epistemology (that's philosophy of knowledge), Philosophy of Religion, Politics and what I call "Optimal Lifestyle Habits."


    1. The author of Luke knew Mark’s Gospel, and deliberately removes the name ‘James’ from the list of Jesus’s brothers, and never even hints that James the church leader had been a brother of Jesus.

      This rather indicates that he knew that James the church leader had not been a brother of Jesus.

        1. You are correct. Luke dropped the entire list of the brothers of Jesus from Mark.

          There is not one word in Luke/Acts which suggests that Jesus had a brother called James.

    2. The part 2 is more persuasive than part 1, for me.

      But maybe your eventual error is to think that Mark is true under the historist thesis.

      Mark is fiction even if Jesus existed. Then, the possibility that Mark invented the 4 brothers of Jesus exists beyond the fact that Jesus existed (with brothers or not) or not.

      Neil Godfrey cited Fredriksen about Mark, when he wrote:

      Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James (=Jacob), Joseph, Judas (=Judah) and Simon (=Simeon)? (Mark 6:3)

      Although the names may have been common, to find these particular names all bracketed together is still striking. Jacob, Joseph and Judah are three of the most prominent of Israelite patriarchs, and Simeon, too, is strongly associated in this status with Judah. As historical Jesus scholar Paul Fredriksen remarks:

      It’s a little like naming a string of Olsons Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin: the names themselves convey a close identification with the nation’s foundational past. (Jesus of Nazareth , p.240)

      But Richard Carrier, too, uses the Gospels to explain that his thesis is not ad hoc. You write:

      James the Apostle was not one and the same as James “the brother of the Lord,” but this is not an ad-hoc proposition: we know James the apostle couldn’t have been Jesus’ brother because that James was John’s brother (Mark 5:37), and Jesus didn’t have a brother named John (Mark 6:3).

      1. Yes, Carrier also mentions the plausible possibility of Mark inventing the names of Jesus’ brothers for symbolic reasons in the gospel of Mark. However, it is perfectly plausible under historicism that Jesus really had brothers with those names (all four of those names were very common in that time period).

    3. Also, you can’t rule out that the author of Mark was familiar with Paul’s letters and could have borrowed James the brother of Jesus from Galatians. It might not be independent. With the other two objections, it seems this point is not nearly as strong as Nicholas had hoped.

    4. “I think the most convincing reason Carrier gives is that Paul was trying to distinguish the James mentioned in Galatians 1:19 from James the apostle (mentioned later in the same letter). Of course, this presupposes that James the Apostle was not one and the same as James “the brother of the Lord,” but this is not an ad-hoc proposition: we know James the apostle couldn’t have been Jesus’ brother because that James was John’s brother (Mark 5:37), and Jesus didn’t have a brother named John (Mark 6:3). [This is just a brief summary of Carrier’s arguments on this issue, the book itself makes a much fuller case].”

      I think Paul called James the brother of the Lord because he wanted to distinguish him from James the brother of John, who according to ‘Acts’ was still alive during Paul’s 2 weeks visit at Peter’s home in Jerusalem (around 38) but was executed around 42.

      But according to Carrier, both these “James” were Christians and if “brother of the Lord” meant “Christian” (as Carrier thinks), then “James brother of the Lord” would not distinguish him from John’s brother. Consequently, brother of the Lord would mean blood brother of Jesus and when James is mentioned next, in the so-called council of Jerusalem (around 52) and about the Antioch dispute (same year), it is James the brother of the Lord.

      Note: according to my research, Jesus’ disciples and James never became Christians. That would certainly go against Carrier’s theory that “brother of the Lord” means “Christians”.

      Explanations here: http://historical-jesus.sosblogs.com/Historical-Jesus-Blo-b1/%22Nazarenes%22_NOT_Christians-b1-tag%22Nazarenes%22_NOT_Christians.htm

      About brother(s) of Jesus or the Lord:

      Cordially, Bernard

    5. I think that the most we can say is that there were two or more men named James in Jerusalem at the time of Paul’s first visit and that the one Paul met was known to the Galatians as “the brother of the Lord.” I don’t think that Paul gives us enough information to determine who the other one was (or the other ones were).

    6. Hi NIcholas,

      Waiting Carrier on this same topic, I want describe (apologizing for my English) what I think would be missing in OHJ about this controversial argument of brother.

      The different reasons given to brother affair in Mark 6:1-6 are the following:

      1) pastoral reason/ethyological myth (how the true christian must abandon their relatives, Carrier’s position and not only his)

      2) biographical reason (the episode happened really how it is written, apologist’s position)

      3) political reason (disparage the biological family of historical Jesus) that reflects a historical dispute (secular historicist’s position).

      The proof in OHJ pro myth is simply perfect only is you grant Carrier his premise that the James ”son of Zebedee” in Mark is not a literary clone of the same James of Gal 1:19 but is a distinct person.

      My proof pro Myth of the same point (that James is not biological brother of Jesus) is based on:

      4) literary reason (exaggerate the James identity) that reflects a political reason (disparage the historical opponent of Paul). Note that this literary reason is not the same of ‘Patriarc names’ reason.


      1) a strong case may be made that Mark draw strongly from pauline epistles.

      2) Mark reads Gal 1:19 and Gal 2: he didn’t know prima facie if the James there mentioned is the one and same (or not). In doubt, even if he in his mind suspected that James in all Galatians is one and the same, he cloned James in 2 Jameses: James the brother of Jesus and James son of Zebedee (with a pun anti-Pillars in the name ”Zebedee”, you can read this books.google at page 143).

      3) Then is very probable, by (1) & (2), that there is a direct literary link between ”James, the brother of Lord” (Gal 1:19) and the James of Mark 6:1-6 (and other references to Jesus relatives in Mark).

      4) the fatidic question: Mark was inventing that ”biological” meaning for the pauline costruct ”James the brother of Lord”? Or Mark was only making explicit his original prima facie obvious meaning (brother of Lord = brother of Jesus in the flesh)?

      5) the more probable solution: Mark was introducing for the first time the ”biological” meaning for the expression ”James the brother of Lord” (read in Gal 1:19) because he want to vehicle a literary hoperbole with esoteric meaning: James the Pillar (the same James Lord’s brother of Gal 1:19) can be reputed even the biological brother of Jesus ( = the hiperbolic exaggeration – and then literary, not historical – of James’ reputed identity) but if he doesn’t believe to Paul’s Gospel about Christ, then he will never be the true Christian, i.e., the true brother of Lord (= the true original meaning of Gal 1:19 – Carrier docet – for the esoteric Mark).

      Then the conclusion is cruel: James is not an apostle (for the reasons described in OHJ) and he is even a false brother of Lord: he is out from Church.

      6) then the messianic secret (or part of it) get to climax when the mother of James (i.e. James the Pillar) – and simbolically, the mother of old, corrupted Israel – is responsible to prevent with her silence an already degraded Peter to meet the risen Jesus in Galil of Goym, where is already present the first and the greatest of apostles, Paul. (the esoteric meaning: The historical James is guilty of having opposed Peter against Paul)

      Possible objection:

      why from (4) it follows (5) and not other historicist plausible conclusion? Because the first that introduces the idea that James is supra-valuated from other Crhistians, at the point of be considered Pillar – although God didn’t consider him more important than other ”brothers of Lord” at all – is Paul in Gal 2:6, 9.

      Mark, in virtue of points (1) and (2), is very likely to bring to the extreme hiperbolic conclusion this implicit point of disparagement anti-Pillars in Paul, given how is evident that Mark draw from pauline epistles so diffusely (especially regard the disputes theme in his Gospel).

      I’m curious to know why in OHJ this point is not made (only his gratuitous premise is that the Jameses of epistles and the Jameses of Gospel are all the same historical person). Maybe Carrier has a little neglected the strong weight of literary dipendence of Mark on Paul.
      best wishes,

    7. I have three problems with the “James the Christian”-explanation:
      1. It does make sense that Christians in a certain way were brothers of the lord to Paul as Jesus is “the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom 8,29) and Christians are adopted as sons of God (Gal 4,5 Rom 8,15). But if in fact “brothers of Christ” would simply have meant christians it is strange that Paul (nor anyone else in the epistles) doesn’t use it much more often. That can of course easily explained in the historistical view: as Jesus had actual brothers calling other christians brothers of Jesus would have been extremely confusing and therefore it wasn’t done. So in fact historicity wouldn’t necessarily lead to the Christians needing a differentiation but simply to them just using the term only when referring to the actual brothers of Christ. So I would say that if Jesus were historical we would expect “brother of Christ” to be used rarely but in situations were it suggested authority. (as it was usual for brothers of messianic figures to become important in their movement) As far as I know all the letters only use it twice, while, as you and Carrier note, he really uses “brothers” very often. So if both are interchangeable (as they would be from the mythical point of view) why does he use the one much more often then the other?
      2. Mentioning that he met a completely unimportant christian named James would really be kind of pointless for Paul and giving the name would also be really weird. The Galatians would have no idea what he was talking about. And remember that the point of the whole thing is that he didn’t receive his authority from someone else but christ:
      “17 I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus. 18 Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.”
      Mentioning James in this context at all would be much more likely if he was an important figure in christianity, and clarifying that he is a christian would be pointless if he were a known christian figure or an apostle (as the above translation suggests) and mentioning James by name would also make much more sense if the Galatians had heard of him, which would only be likely if he was a specific figure which could be identified by calling him „brother of the lord“. But if he was a specific known figure adding “who is a Christian” would really not help the Galatians realize who he is. And how likely was it that James was the only Christian Paul met apart from Kephas? He stayed with Kephas for fifteen days! (and it really doesn’t make sense for Paul to make this stay take longer than it was as the whole point is that he didn’t receive much from the Christians in Jerusalem) One could argue that James was simply one Christian who at one point went to the Galatian community and so they knew him, but he had no important title, but then it would really be pointless to clarify that he is a christian but not to say that he went to them.
      Even if verse 19 can translated in a way were James is not an apostle (and the problem of the name being useless to the Galatians) the logic of the passage requires for him to be a christian to even being mentioned, because it is about Paul not having received authority from other christians: if he mentions him in that context he has to be a christian. But the more natural reading is “the only other apostle I met was James the (earthly) brother of Christ.”
      If Paul here only means “James who is a Christian” that would be completely irrelevant, highly implausible and would be basically unintelligible for the Galatians. If in fact he means “James the worldy brother of the worldly Jesus” there simply is no problem here.
      3. The only other passage in which “brothers of the lord” are mentioned also becomes really weird if we assume that by “brothers of the lord” it means Christians:
      1Cor 9, 5 “Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas”
      There are two problems:
      a) From the mythical point of view Paul here is saying: “the apostles (who are Christians) and the Christians and Kephas (who is a Christian) do this.” Why would he say it this way? How can there even be an argument about whether this is okay if all Christians did it? Isn’t it sort of weird that he is saying to the Corinthians (Christians) “Christians have the right to do this” as if they are not part of that group (minor point). And it really doesn’t make any sense that what all Christians did was taking a wife and journeying around.
      b) In this overall paragraph (9,1-12/-18) Paul is all about the authority he has as an apostle. Mentioning a right of all Christians here really doesn’t fit into his overall point here, brothers of the lord only makes sense if it also talks about a specific privileged group within early Christianity.
      So the only other passages talking about the brothers of the lord also seems to make much more sense in the context of a historical Jesus.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *