It’s a pretty amazing historical fact that Jesus’ brother — who probably wore the Savior’s hand-me-downs — later in life converted to Christianity. What would it take to convince you that your brother was the Messiah? Suffice to say that would take some pretty miraculous evidence, right?
The Gospel writers tell us that Jesus’ own family thought he was crazy and doubted his claims. (Mark 3:21, John 7:5) But after believing he saw the risen Jesus, James had quite the change of mind. (1 Corinthians 15:7) He became an apostle, led the Jerusalem church, and was even martyred for the faith. This is pretty compelling evidence for Christianity.
Here is where Jesus-mythers try and burst our apologetics bubble. Seeing that myths don’t possess human relatives, they seek to debunk the evidence of James. The vast majority of scholarship — whether they’re Christian or non-Christian — believe that Jesus did exist or had real brothers who became believers. So what makes them think the bulk of historians are wrong?
James, just another baptized believer?
Here’s the nutshell version of the mythicist argument from the popular atheist YouTuber Godless Engineer:
No, Jesus did not have a brother named James. This belief comes from Galatians 1:19 where Paul claims to have met “James, the brother of the Lord.” Paul uses the word adelphos and that can either mean a blood brother or a religious kinsman. Given the context, we can’t determine if Paul meant either type of brother. We can look at Paul’s theology on “brothers of the Lord.” Paul considered any baptized Christian to be a “brother/sister of the Lord.” He even uses the same words to describe this type of brother. Most likely this James was just another Christian.
The mythicists aren’t wrong when it comes to Paul’s use of the word ‘brother’. Paul refers to fellow saints as brothers or brethren dozens of times in his letters.
But there’s a problem with this view. Paul calls James *the* brother of the Lord in Galatians 1:19, not *a* brother of the Lord. If Paul was saying James was just a brother, he likely would’ve left off the definite article. And why wouldn’t Paul call Cephas a brother as well?
Apostles and Brothers
Richard Carrier has argued that there were two different groups in the early church: You had apostles, and you had everyday baptized believers; that is to say, brothers. But nowhere in Paul’s writings do you find in Paul’s letters this definition of someone who is a brother but not an apostle.
And the biggest problem with this view is that James isn’t just another baptized believer. Paul says that he “did not see any other apostle except James, the Lord’s brother.” So there goes that argument. According to Paul, James is *the* Lord’s brother and an apostle.
Because of this problem of the definite article ‘the brother of the Lord’, GA Wells proposed a different solution. He says that the ‘brothers of the Lord’ were a particular group of fervent Messianic Jews, and James was the leader of the sect. After all, there was a group of Christians in Corinth who said: ‘they were of Christ’. (1 Cor. 1:12-15) And Wells goes on to argue that in the Gospels, Jesus does call his followers his brothers. (Matthew 28:10, John 20:17)
The problem here is that both gospels use the same term to describe Jesus’ physical brothers (see Matthew 12:46-50, John 7:5). Secondly, when Jesus says “go and tell my brothers” in Matthew and John, he’s specifically referring to the apostles. He’s not referring to a separate, distinct group of Jewish missionaries. Given that Wells doesn’t believe James or anyone was a member of that group because he doesn’t think Jesus existed or had disciples, this doesn’t support his claim.
Also, when Paul refers to the divisions in the Corinth church, he’s rebuking them for squabbling over who their favorite Christian leader was. It seems more likely that those “were of Christ” were saying their ultimate allegiance was to Jesus (and perhaps they thought they were so spiritual that they needed no one else — which Paul rebukes in 1 Corinthians 12:21).
Finally, Paul reprimands the Corinthians for falling into this kind of division. Why is he suddenly so lenient with this special ‘Jesus fraternity’ with the Galatians? And if James and Peter were leading the Jerusalem church together, why wouldn’t Peter also be a part of this special group? There’s just no evidence that this special group existed.
James was Jesus’ brother.
These mythicist arguments are just plywood-brittle. Jesus had brothers. We know this from Mark and John’s Gospels. Josephus and Paul tell us one of Jesus’ brother’s name was James. The most obvious way of interpreting Galatians is that Paul is referring to Jesus’ flesh-and-blood brother.
James became a believer because he saw the risen Jesus, and he gave his life to proclaim that his brother was the Messiah. This is crazy-powerful evidence that not only Jesus existed, but that he rose from the dead.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.