A Note on James
of the major questions that comes up regarding the book and the case
against the existence of Jesus is the issue of James, the supposed
brother of Jesus. Many people think that there is clear evidence that
Paul met Jesus’ literal brother, a man named James, and thus, the
question of whether of not Jesus existed is easily resolved by the fact
that only a real person has a brother.
This issue is addressed extensively in Deciphering the Gospels,
pages 213–229. But because there are so many questions around this
issue, I will provide an overview of the topic here as well.
Questions about “James the brother of Jesus” are anchored on a passage
from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, shown below:
11 I want you to know,
brothers, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did
not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it
by revelation from Jesus Christ.
13 For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how
intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I
was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and
was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when God, who set me apart from
my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal
his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my
immediate response was not to consult any human being. 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 [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other
apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I assure you
before God that what I am writing you is no lie.
Volumes of analysis have been produced in relation to this passage.
Much of the analysis has to do with specific interpretations of the
Greek and a lot of focus is put directly on the passage itself. Far
less attention, however, has been paid to the larger context and
potential corroborating evidence from other sources. Deciphering the
Gospels addresses the question of whether James was a literal brother
of Jesus by looking extensively at evidence from other early Christian
Instead of trying to parse the words of verse 19, the approach taken in
Deciphering the Gospels is to first determine if there is other
evidence that would lead us to the conclusion that the James whom Paul
met was a literal brother of Jesus. What is shown in Deciphering the
Gospels is that in fact all of the other evidence leads to the oppose
conclusion – that the person Paul met was not an actual brother of Jesus.
A high–level overview of that evidence is as follows:
1. The term “brother of the Lord” or
“brothers of the Lord” is used many times in the letters of Paul and
other early Christian writings in ways that clearly do not refer to
literal siblings. Saying "Jesus' brother" would be a much clearer
indication of a familial relationship. Even though Paul did refer to
Jesus as "the Lord", "the Lord" refers to a deity and implies a
religious, not familial, relationship.
2. Paul goes to lengths in Galatians to
make it clear that his knowledge of Jesus has not come from James or
anyone else. He claims that Jesus was revealed to him directly. Paul
goes on in later sections of Galatians to dispute the authority of
James and Peter. If James was Jesus’ literal brother, why would Paul
have such a hostile relationship with him? Why would Paul tout his
gospel as superior to, or even on-par with, that of the literal brother
of Jesus? Nothing in Paul’s letters makes sense if there is a literal
brother of Jesus who knew him intimately and has things to say about
Jesus. Paul claims that Jesus is a mystery that is being revealed by
prophets. Paul says that he is overwhelmed with desire to know Jesus as
intimately as possible, which he claims is only possible via
revelation. If Paul is so eager to know as much as he can about Jesus,
then why would he care so little about Jesus’ brother? Paul shows no
interest in James at all, claims to learn nothing from him and, if
anything, to contradict what James says. That can’t possibly be how
Paul would treat the literal brother of Jesus.
3. Christian scholarship and tradition
holds that “James the bother of Jesus” is the same person as “James the
Just”, who was supposedly leader of the Christian movement in Jerusalem
after Jesus died. This is ultimately a product of confusion. It is
clear that this confusion arose in the late 2nd century
(likely created by Hegesippus). There are no early sources that portray
James the leader as a brother of Jesus. The Gospel of Mark portrays
Peter, James Zebedee and John Zebedee as the leaders of the movement.
Mark does mention that Jesus has four brothers, one of whom is called
James, but the brothers of Jesus are given one line in Mark and never
mentioned again. If “Mark” thought that the leader of the movement
after Jesus’ death was his own brother, then he would have given James
the brother of Jesus a much bigger role in his story. Matthew just
copies his material about James from Mark. The author of Luke and Acts of the Apostles,
however, never names any brothers of Jesus, nor does the author of John.
The fact that the author of Luke/Acts never names any brothers of Jesus
is very significant, because the author of Luke/Acts was clearly trying
to make a definitive account of the state of Christian lore as he
knew it. The whole point of his work was to clarify who all of the
players were and how everything came about. It is clear that whoever
wrote Luke/Acts did not think that James the leader, whom Paul
was a brother of Jesus, because nowhere in either Luke or Acts is any
brother named James identified. There is some confusion in Acts around
James, because at some point in Acts it becomes unclear which James is
being talked about (Zebedee or Alphaeus). But no where in Luke or Acts
is a brother of Jesus named James ever introduced, and so the idea that
any of the “Jameses” in Acts represents the brother of Jesus is a
product of misattribution by early Christian apologists, it is clearly
not the intent of the author. So none of the Gospel writers considered
the James Paul met to be a brother of Jesus, they all associated him
with James son of Zebedee.
4. The letters of James and Jude do not
say that they are they from brothers of Jesus. Traditional Christian
scholarship holds that the letters of James and Jude were written by
literal brothers of Jesus. Neither letter, however, claims to be from a
brother of Jesus. Either these letters were written by the real James
and Jude, who were not brothers of Jesus, or they were written
pseudonymously. If they were written pseudonymously then it is clear
that at the time they were written the belief that James was a brother
of Jesus had not yet been established. Not only that, but the letters
of James and Jude provide no description of Jesus at all and treat
Jesus as a heavenly deity, not a person that they have any personal
Given these observations, what are the possible explanations for the
Galatians 1:19 passage?
It could be that all or part of Galatians 1:19 is a later interpolation
into the text, added after it came to be believed that Jesus was a
person with a brother named James.
It could be that “James, the Lord’s brother” is a designation of
significance like “James the Just”. This would be describing James as
“the Lord’s brother” because he is the leader of the apostles.
It could be that “James, the Lord’s brother” is clarifying that James
is not an apostle at all – that James is, “just a Christian”. This
would be Paul saying that he met the apostle Peter, and also some other
Christian named James.
It could be that “James, the Lord’s brother” is clarifying that James
is not an apostle – but that James is the leader. This would be Paul
saying that he met the apostle Peter, and also James the leader, who is
not considered an apostle. This would be Paul noting that apostles are
of a lower position than the leadership role of James.
But wherever this passage came from and whatever it means, what is clear is that none of the other early Christian sources
indicate that James the leader of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem was a
literal brother of Jesus. Furthermore, nothing in Paul’s letters
indicates that Paul ever talks about two different Jameses. Paul
appears only to ever talk about a single James, whom he indicates is a
leader of the church in Jerusalem.
Even the Gospel of Thomas, which is dedicated to “James the Just”, does
not indicate that James is a brother of Jesus. The first person to
clearly claim that “James the Just” is the “the Lord’s brother” is
Hegesippus around 170 CE. Hegesippus is also known for making many
false and confused statements and to have gotten much of early
Christian lore wrong regarding many other topics. From Hegesippus on
there is increasing commentary and lore built up around the idea that
“James the Just” was the person that Paul met, who was a literal
brother of Jesus, who was the leader of the church in Jerusalem after
Jesus died, who was subsequently killed. According to this scenario, James Zebedee, a main
character in the Gospels, is really a nobody, who played no major role
in anything. He would have been a major disciple of Jesus’ who was
killed shortly after Jesus died and played no significant role in the
later movement. But clearly, James Zebedee in the Gospels is supposed
to represent James the leader that Paul met. The later premature killing-off of James
Zebedee in Christian lore was a device used to
clear the way to replace “James Zebedee” with “James the Lord’s
brother”. This is because James Zebedee is portrayed poorly in the
Gospels, because the Gospel of Mark is a pro-Pauline polemic against
the other leaders of the Jerusalem church, which is why James, John and
Peter are all portrayed poorly in the Gospel of Mark, which sets the
tone for the rest of the Gospels that all copy from Mark.
Indeed, Christian lore around “James” is an entire tangled mess of
confusion, which, at this point, is all dubious. It is clear that there
was massive confusion around all the Jameses: Zebedee, Alphaeus, “the
Just”, the brother of Jesus, and the James described by Paul. It is
likely that all of the Jameses, except the one described by Paul, were
fictitious and that the fictitious James son of Zebedee was meant to
represent the real James described by Paul, who was the leader of the
Jerusalem church, who was later designated in Christian lore as “James
the Just”, who at that point had become a legendary figure only loosely
based on an amalgamation of the real James and the fictious brother of
So the real James was not a brother of Jesus, he was represented in the
Gospels by “James son of Zebedee”. But in later Christian lore “James
son of Zebedee” is given an early death and replaced by the imaginary
“James the Lord’s brother” who becomes the legendary “James the Just”
about whom many fictious stories were produced.
All of this is addressed in much greater detail in Deciphering the
with many quotes and citations to clarify the evidence. The passage
from Josephus that supposedly refers to James is addressed as well.