Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother. 20 (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!)Who is this James? The question is interesting in itself. It is also interesting because the interpretation that says this James is family to Jesus (a son of Mary and/or Joseph) is one of the pieces of evidence upon which defenders of Jesus' real historical existence rely: if he had a brother in the literal sense then he must have been a real man. If, however, this James were Jesus' brother in a merely metaphorical sense, then it would not support his real existence.
There are four possibilities for the identity of this James. He could be: (i) James 'the Just', who in Christian tradition was one of Jesus' literal brothers; or (ii) James the apostle, the son of Zebedee and brother of John; or (iii) James the other apostle, the son of Alphaeus; or (iv) another, otherwise unknown James.
I will argue that this James is most likely to be either (iv) another, otherwise unknown James, who was simply a regular member of the Christian faith community in Jerusalem, or quite possibly (i) James the literal brother of Jesus, but in that case only as a late interpolation into Paul's epistle, and a newly reinvented legend in the history of the early Church.
(N.B. in this post I will not discuss the appearance of James, the brother of Jesus, in Josephus, as I am convinced by Richard Carrier's argument that Christian scribes misidentified another James, brother of Jesus, as the one they were interested in.)
From Galatians 2, we know that men called Cephas (Cephas in Aramaic and Petros in Greek mean "stone" or "rock", so this is Peter), James and John were leaders of the Church in Jerusalem in the first Christian generation: they "seemed to be influential" and "seemed to be pillars".
We have already seen Paul in Gal. 1:19 calling someone named James "the brother of the Lord". Most readers have concluded that this is James the Just, the literal brother of Jesus, who is not the same as James the pillar (although it is possible that they are meant to be the same person).
This reading creates a difficulty, however, for this James barely exists in the rest of the New Testament. In the Luke-Acts series, for example, we are introduced to "James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon" and "James the son of Alphaeus", yet at no point are we introduced to any James the brother of Jesus. Peter, John and James (son of Zebedee) are the disciples of Jesus who have the highest status, since he takes them to witness events that not all the disciples see, such as the Transfiguration on the mountain. This James, the brother of John, is killed by Herod in Acts 12, leaving James the son of Alphaeus as the only living James who has so far featured as a Christian in the Luke-Acts series.
However, further on in the same series of events, Peter is arrested and then rescued from prison by an angel, upon which he visits "Mary, the mother of John whose other name is Mark" (who may or may not be the same Mary who is mother of our James and John) and commands this Mary and her servant to "tell these things to James and to the brothers". Now since this James cannot be the deceased James the son of Zebedee, one would assume this is James the son of Alphaeus, suddenly risen for no apparent reason to sufficient status to be named ahead of the other apostles.
In Acts 15 and 21, there is a James who is a leader of the Church in Jerusalem, now making an authoritative speech determining Church policy towards Gentile Christians, and being singled out as the leader of the elders who confirm this policy to Paul in person. In no way does Luke-Acts identify who this James is. As far as the logic of Luke-Acts goes, as a stand-alone literary unit, the only James left alive who makes any sense is James the son of Alphaeus.
Furthermore, at no point does Luke-Acts introduce any such person as James the literal brother of Jesus. In fact, where Mark briefly names one of Jesus' literal brothers James, in the words of the synagogue congregation—"Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon?"—Luke, who depended heavily on Mark's Gospel for writing his own, has omitted to mention the brothers at all, instead citing the line: "Is not this Joseph's son?"
There is therefore no evidence whatsoever for James the brother of Jesus being known to the writer (or at least final editor) of Luke-Acts. Indeed, Luke has gone so far as to write him out of the story he received from Mark. It is difficult to believe that Luke intends one of the primary leaders of the Jerusalem Church to be a man he refuses to even identify, let alone provide with a back-story or description.
More likely, either Luke meant that James the son of Alphaeus was a leader after the execution of James the son of Zebedee, or else something has gone bizarrely wrong with the organisation of the book of Acts, so that James the son of Zebedee's execution has been transposed into an anachronistic time before the continuing acts of his life. This is not impossible, given that some historians believe that John's Gospel has suffered a misarrangement of its plot.
Either way, the unlikelihood of Luke-Acts containing James the brother of Jesus as a character frees us to consider the possibility that Paul's "James, the brother of the Lord" is not James the literal brother of Jesus.
If Luke did not identify a James, the brother of Jesus, let alone ascribe him any prominence in the Church, then perhaps neither did Paul.
Gal. 1:19 has normally been translated thus: "But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother." This suggests we are searching for a prominent brother James who may or may not be identical with James the pillar. However, the verse might actually have meant: "But other than the apostles I saw none, except James the brother of the Lord". This study considers this alternative translation before remarking that a "parallel construction" clearly has a meaning similar to the usual translation of Gal. 1:19. However, while I am not a student of Greek, it appears to me that this "parallel construction" does not actually use the same word, "heteron" ("another of" or "other than"), so it can hardly be used to tell us how Paul tended to use the word. One might equally say, with Richard Carrier (On the Historicity of Jesus, 590) that the fact that Paul does not use the phrase he elsewhere uses to mean "another of" suggests he does not mean it in Gal. 1:19.
If the alternative translation is a viable possibility, then in what sense would this non-apostolic James be "the brother of the Lord"? He could be one of Jesus' literal brothers mentioned by Mark, or he could be a metaphorical brother of Jesus.
To consider what kind of brother Paul is thinking of, let's look at the other place where the phrase appears in his epistles (though in plural). In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul defended his rights as an apostle:
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? ... 5 Do we not have the right to take along a sister as wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?Here, sister obviously means a Christian believer, a member of the faith community, not one's literal sister. For Paul, all Christians were adoptive sons of God, and therefore adoptive brothers of Jesus, and of each other. Paul often called his readers "brothers". However, when Paul talked about the Jews, he called them: "my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh." That is to say, he specifically noted that they were his biological kin, not his spiritual brothers. Since all Christians were brothers of Jesus, the Lord, the title "brother of the Lord" might have merely meant "member of the faith" absent any qualifier about literal, biological brotherhood.
Perhaps, then, the "brothers of the Lord" in 1 Cor 9 are simply ordinary Christian men in general. Paul never used the word "Christian" to describe a member of the community, so it is readily conceivable that "brother of the Lord" was what such a person was called. If so, then, as Carrier suggests (p. 590 again), "brother(s) of the Lord" might be the phrase Paul used when he was specifically distinguishing an ordinary Christian or ordinary Christians from the apostolic elite (who had "seen" the risen Jesus for themselves). In 1 Cor 9, these are ordinary Christian men, as distinct from the apostles; in Gal. 1, James is an ordinary Christian as distinct from James the apostle.
Since Luke-Acts does not introduce any person who is James, the brother of Jesus, and since Paul may be talking about James, an ordinary member of the faith, there is good reason to conclude that it is at least equally likely that there never was a leading James who was the literal brother of Jesus.
No other New Testament text in any way promotes James the brother of Jesus as a major figure. When Paul mentions James as a recipient of an appearance from the risen Jesus, there is no qualifier to indicate which James. Presumably it was obvious who was meant: the only important James there was, James the pillar. James son of Alphaeus does not seem to have been important. There wasn't even any James, the literal brother of Jesus, in the picture to be potentially confused with James the pillar.
The unhelpful Epistles of James and Jude
The New Testament contains an epistle named for one James, but which James it is supposed to be from is never suggested. It is addressed to "the twelve tribes in the Dispersion" whom it calls "brothers": thus the writer calls the Diaspora Jews by the appellation "brothers". Apart from the ascription of the epistle to one James, there is nothing in it to tell us anything about any such person. The only clue is that the epistle sits alongside epistles from John and Peter, and therefore presumably was included in this trio of ascribed authors to present writings from the three pillars. To be honest, the text is barely Christian at all, with only a few distinctively Christian lines, and might easily have been originally a text for Jews living in the Diaspora, just as the opening address indicates.
There is also an epistle apparently written by "Jude ... brother of James." However, most historians identify this as a late, pseudepigraphical ascription, since the letter is written from a point in time when the Christian faith is already old—"you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ"—and its creed set in stone as orthodoxy: "the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints". Neither of these letters makes any play of authority from being a brother of Jesus, or of delivering knowledge peculiar to a brother who grew up with him, or any such thing, suggesting that the ascriptions were merely added to secure authority for unrelated letters.
An interpolated brother?
If, however, Gal. 1's James the brother of the Lord was in fact originally meant to be a literal brother of the man Jesus, then the verse still faces another difficulty: it might well be an interpolation.
Irenaeus, of the second century, apparently had a copy of Galatians in which Gal. 2:1 did not say what our modern copies say—"Then, fourteen years after, I went up again to Jerusalem..."—but omitted the word "again". This can be seen in the Latin here, even though English translations tend to write "again" into the text as if it really did agree with our Bibles say. My suspicion is that if Irenaeus' text of Galatians did not say Paul went up to again to Jerusalem, then it equally did not contain the first visit which features in our Gal. 1: he never mentions it.
Tertullian, of the second to third centuries, witnesses to a Marcionite text of Galatians in which Paul's first visit (Gal. 1:18-20) does not exist at all, and as in Irenaeus the word "again" is missing.
Moreover, the first visit passage contains the verse: "(In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!)" Contrary to intention, this rather draws the critical reader's mind to the question of why this particular passage required special insistence as to its veracity!
It is possible that the Marcionites deleted the first visit and the word "again" in order to minimise Paul's dependence on the Jerusalem apostles, for they were committed to the belief that only Paul had understood the true message of Jesus, and that this message had been conveyed to him privately by revelation after the first apostles had failed to understand. It is also possible that the orthodox interpolated the first visit and the word "again" to impose dependence on the Jerusalem apostles on Paul as part of a campaign to domesticate him for orthodox consumption. (For more on this, see Joseph Tyson's Marcion and Luke-Acts, especially chapter 2 on Marcion, online here.)
Looking at the first visit passage, I espy a possible attempt by an interpolator to introduce an event which increased Paul's dependence on the Jerusalem apostles (by having him visit them after three years, rather than only after fourteen), yet at the same time take care to preserve the logic of the passage: allowing that Paul only met Peter and James (or the apostles and James, on the alternative reading) in order to remain compatible with Paul's assertion that "I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea". Jerusalem was the main city of Judea, so as it stands the fact that Paul was known to the leaders of the Church in Jerusalem is somewhat of a contradiction; but perhaps by minimising the number of people Paul met there the author seeks to protect some sense in which Paul was still unknown in Judea.
That the Marcionites did not delete from texts they received I tend to credit, since the texts they used (as reconstructed from writings of orthodox heresiologists like Tertullian) seem to contain material one would have expected Marcionites to delete if such were their common practice, so difficult do they seem to be to make compatible with their beliefs. Such is the Gal. 2:2, which was apparently in the Marcionite text, which has Paul going to Jerusalem (the "second" visit) to consult with the apostles "in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain." The line can with difficulty be safely interpreted in line with Marcionite beliefs, but I imagine it would have been readily deleted if that was how they operated.
If the first visit was indeed an orthodox, anti-Marcionite interpolation, then it would make more sense for that moment in early Christian history to be the moment when a belief in the role of James, the literal brother of Jesus, came to the fore. Marcionites believed that Jesus had no literal family, as he had descended in adult appearance at the beginning of his preaching career. It would therefore make sense for orthodox advocates of Jesus' more natural life on Earth to counteract Marcionite claims by appealing to evidence that tended to prove Jesus had such a natural life: for instance by inventing the legend that one of the brothers mentioned in Mark's Gospel was a leader of the Church through whom the apostolic tradition had passed. If James, the literal brother of Jesus, was a leading apostle, then the Marcionites would look ridiculous for denying Jesus had literal family.
The legend might have emerged from a combination of the Markan mention of James as one of Jesus' brothers, and the confusion in Acts wherein, as we have already seen, James the son of Zebedee dies only for another, unidentified James to appear as leader of the Church. By a simple harmonisation of Mark and Acts, James the literal brother of Jesus could be reinvented as James the leader of the Church. And if that were so, then this newly invented James might readily be inserted by an orthodox interpolator into Galatians 1 where his newly invented apostolic authority could most conveniently serve to make Paul, the Marcionites' renegade hero, a loyal follower of the Jerusalem Church.
Some may doubt that such a large legend could be invented in the second century about the early days of Christianity. But as I have shown before in a look at Eusebius as the Church's first historian, the resources available to the orthodox Church for constructing its history were pitifully thin. There was a severe lack of records and reliance on legend. A legend that could plausibly claim support from a Gospel, Acts and a Pauline epistle would have stood a good chance of acceptance: all the more so when it boosted orthodoxy against "heresy".
I have argued that "James, the brother of the Lord" is most likely to be either another, otherwise unknown James, who was simply a regular member of the Christian faith community in Jerusalem, or otherwise quite possibly James the literal brother of Jesus, but in that case only as a late interpolation into Paul's epistle. In light of the evidence and the motivation for such an interpolation, I rather favour the second of these theories.