‘Deciphering the Gospels’, by R. G. Price, argues the case for Jesus mythicism, which is the view that Jesus never existed on earth in any real form but was an entirely mythical figure in the same way as Hercules or Dionysus. (The author is not the same person as Robert Price, also a Jesus mythicist author.) I’m an atheist who holds the opposing (and mainstream) view that Jesus was originally a human being of the 1st century about whom a later mythology grew up. I’m therefore reviewing Price’s book to discuss his arguments and my reasons for disagreeing.
The first post in this book review is here. Links to the posts on all subsequent chapters can be found at the end of that post.
Paul and Jesus’s brothers
This verse, for context, is in the middle of a passage in which Paul is letting the Galatians know how little contact he’s ever had with the church (which, to Paul, is a positive, because he believes that this means he’s working solely from what Jesus told him to do rather than from the influence of less enlightened church members), so Paul is stressing how little time he’s spent with the church and how few of the apostles he saw while there. However, he does tell us that as well as staying with Cephas (Peter) during the fifteen days he spent there, he did meet one other apostle, named in the Greek as ‘Iacobus’, a name which our translations consistently anglicise as ‘James’ (as this is the version of the name used in all English works, it’s the version I’ll use as well throughout this post). And, the important point for our purposes… Paul identifies this Iacobus/James as ‘the Lord’s brother’. Since ‘the Lord’ is one of the terms Paul uses for Jesus, this means that Paul is saying he met Jesus’s brother.
Since mythical divine beings don’t typically have real-life flesh-and-blood brothers walking the earth and meeting people, that one passing comment is a pretty significant problem for mythicist theory. Let’s look at what Price has to say about it.
Price gives us two different theories. The first is that ‘brother of the Lord’ was just a general term used for Christians:
Many people, including Earl Doherty and Arthur Drews, have pointed out that the term brother or brothers was regularly applied to apostles and members of the church in general and conclude that this is how it was being used here as well.
Except that it isn’t. There are indeed many examples of church members referring to one another as ‘brothers’, a clearly metaphorical term indicating close bonds of union in shared belief; when Paul used the term in that sense, as he often did, he was implying that the person in question was metaphorically his brother due to their shared membership of the church. Or, even more than that, that the person or people referred to were metaphorically brothers to everyone else in the church. However, there’s a crucial difference in the wording here. In this verse, James isn’t being referred to just as ‘brother’; he’s being referred to as ‘the Lord’s brother’. That’s a very different phrase. Paul wasn’t referring to James as his (metaphorical) brother, but as the brother of the Lord; i.e. Jesus.
Now, it might of course still be meant metaphorically. Maybe Paul meant that James had had a deep enough bond with Jesus for the two of them to be described as brothers even without having an actual blood relationship. However, while that is plausible, it still doesn’t fit well with mythicism. We don’t typically describe actual humans as having even a metaphorical fraternal relationship with divine heavenly superbeings. A child-to-parent relationship, sure; Judaism has used that particular metaphor for millennia, with Christianity following in its tracks. But not a brotherly relationship, with its rather different connotations of a bond between equals.
This, however, does bring us to Price’s second theory; that ‘the Lord’s brother’ was meant metaphorically in a different sense. Not to describe a particularly close bond, but as a title to indicate James’s level of importance in the church, or perhaps his sterling qualities:
If this is the case, then the reason that Paul called James “the Lord’s brother” in Galatians is because James was seen as such a major pillar of the community, whom people called a “brother of the Lord,” which was a title similar to “the Just.”
So this theory is effectively the reverse of the previous one; Price is now theorising that, far from ‘brother’ being meant in the sense of a generic title for any male church member, it was a specific title for this one man in particular. Price thinks that over time this metaphor became misunderstood as a claim that this particular James was literally Jesus’s brother:
This James was only later considered to be a literal brother of Jesus. It was probably the early Christian chronicler Hegesippus, in the late second century, who recorded the first concrete association of “James the Just” as the literal brother of Jesus, helping to cement this view into Church tradition.
The first problem with this explanation is that ‘brother of the Lord’ is not, in fact, similar to ‘the Just’. ‘The Just’ is a title that refers to an important quality of the person described, while ‘Brother of the Lord’ refers to a relationship, not a personal quality. But it’s still possible that this phrase could have been used as a metaphor, and, interestingly, we do have some evidence for this. Price quotes this passage from Origen which was written in the third century:
Paul, a genuine disciple of Jesus, says that he regarded this James as a brother of the Lord, not so much on account of their relationship by blood, or of their being brought up together, as because of his virtue and doctrine.
Against Celsus; Origen
Origen seems to be citing a letter we no longer have, as none of the existing letters attributed to Paul say any such thing. So, this raises the question of whether Paul actually did write something similar to the phrasing Origen here attributes to him. Unfortunately we can’t assume that he did, partly because Origen seems to have been willing to be rather free with his citing of what writers actually said (in the same passage he claims that Josephus attributed the fall of Jerusalem to the killing of James, which isn’t at all what Josephus says) and partly because so many later epistles were falsely claimed to have been by Paul that we can’t assume Origen had a genuine Pauline epistle here.
However, if Paul actually did write the words attributed to him by Origen, then that’s a very interesting contribution to the debate which doesn’t point in the direction Price thinks. If Paul actually found it worth spelling out that James’s appellation of ‘brother’ was not ‘on account of their relationship by blood or of their being brought up together’, then that is strong evidence for an early church who followed a human Jesus. If a group who followed a divine heavenly being did take the highly unlikely step of referring to one of their human members as this divine heavenly being’s brother (and it is highly unlikely, as I wrote above), then it would have been very obvious that this was metaphorical. No-one there would have had to spell out that this wasn’t on account of a blood relationship or being brought up together, because no-one in the group would have thought for a minute that it would be. If Paul really did write those words, then that would point clearly to a human Jesus.
However, since we can’t know whether Paul wrote those words or not, that doesn’t help us. We’re left with the same question as before: how likely is it that a group would describe one of their human members, however virtuous, as metaphorically the brother of their heavenly quasi-divine leader who only dropped in from heaven to visit them? And with the same answer as before: not very likely at all.
On top of this, we have an even bigger problem with Price’s interpretations here: Galatians 1:19 is only one of the two places in which Paul uses this phrase.
The problem of 1 Corinthians 9:5
1 Corinthians 9:5 is, as it happens, also a passing comment in the middle of a mini-rant. Paul isn’t happy about the church refusing to support him financially in his work of preaching the gospel, although he is Absolutely Not Trying To Claim This Support because he considers himself obliged to preach the gospel regardless, but still, hmph, what about all these other church members who get supported for this work the way the scriptures apparently say they should… And, in the middle of this, he happens to make this comment:
Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?
So, Paul not only refers to ‘brothers of the Lord’, he does so in a way that inadvertently makes it clear that they are in a separate category from ‘the other apostles’ and ‘Cephas’. ‘Brother of the Lord’ therefore was clearly an appellation that was given to more than one person, that wasn’t just some sort of generic term for church members overall, and that also wasn’t a term for particularly important church members (or Paul wouldn’t have differentiated ‘the other apostles’ and ‘the brothers of the Lord’ as two separate groups).
And so, yet again, we have something that’s very difficult to explain under mythicist theory but very easy to explain under historicist theory; if Jesus was a real person, of course it was plausible for his parents to have had other children.
So, how does Price explain 1 Corinthians 9.5?
In one of the most notable pieces of question-begging I’ve seen in a while, Price actually quotes this verse in support of his argument by assuming that it can’t mean actual brothers and working from there to claim that this verse therefore proves Paul would use ‘brother of the Lord’ in a way that doesn’t mean an actual brother of the Lord.
The five hundred brothers mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15, as well as “brothers” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 9, are examples that are often cited to show the use of brothers of the Lord in ways that clearly don’t mean literal relatives. […] Some people even try to argue that this mention of brothers in 1 Corinthians 9 means relatives, but this really wouldn’t make sense, for why would literal brothers of Jesus even be a part of this issue, especially since in later accounts where literal brothers of Jesus are discussed, they have nothing to do with him or his movement? Indeed Jesus’s family is portrayed as being rejected by him in the Gospels.
Firstly, I have to point out that the ‘some people’ who believe this mention of ‘brothers’ to refer to actual brothers (or at least actual relatives) include, as far as I know, everyone who’s ever read this passage bar the occasional mythicist. I mean, someone (hiya, db!) is probably going to dig me out an obscure reference to someone somewhere who has argued otherwise, but when practically everyone believes the obvious meaning of a word in a passage to be the actual meaning then I don’t think ‘some people try to argue’ is quite the correct phrase.
Secondly, the passage tells us why Jesus’s brothers would ‘even be a part of this issue’. Paul is complaining that he doesn’t qualify for a privilege (getting church support for himself and a dependant) that some other groups of church members do. The brothers of Jesus are a part of this issue because they do get this privilege which Paul thinks he should have. Price is talking as though there’s some kind of inexplicable mystery about the idea of ‘brothers’ here referring to actual brothers when, in fact, it makes perfect sense in context.
Thirdly, let’s look at Price’s claim that ‘later accounts’ (which I assume from context has to mean the gospels) show Jesus’s brothers as having nothing to do with him/his movement. After going through the very brief references in the gospels to Jesus having a brother called James, which are indeed blink-and-you’ll-miss-them, Price makes this point:
Given that the Gospels were all written after the works of Paul, and that the Gospels serve as a backdrop for the Christian movement, and that the Gospels establish the positions of the major Christian leaders, it would not make any sense for the Gospels to totally ignore James the literal brother of Jesus […] if James the brother of Jesus is the one who was a leader of the Christian community.
Which would be a good point, except that, later in the chapter, Price himself gives us a plausible counterargument without even noticing that he’s done so. Here’s what Price says later in the chapter:
In both the writings of Paul and the Gospels, conflict between James son of Zebedee and the others is shown. […] It appears, according to the writings of Paul, that James and John held to a more Jewish version of the faith and did not embrace the Gentile apostleship.
In the first century, however, James son of Zebedee was considered a pillar of the Christian community, but perhaps later Christians sought to exclude him from tradition and sever ties to his sect.
The references to ‘James son of Zebedee’ here are a little confusing. Price is referring to the ‘James’ mentioned in Galatians 2 (verses 9 and 12), who is not specifically identified but from context is probably the same James mentioned in 1:19. Even if that isn’t the case, this James seems rather unlikely to have been James the son of Zebedee, as Acts 12:2 tells us that that particular James was killed by Herod Antipas quite early on, at a point which would have been well before the visit to Jerusalem to which Paul is referring in Galatians 2. However, via some interesting logic contortions, Price seems to have convinced himself that a) Acts was wrong on this point and b) that this James must be the son of Zebedee rather than any of the other people of this very common name.
However, all that is by-the-by. Setting aside the dubious ‘son of Zebedee’ claim, let’s look at Price’s main point here: the possibility that later Christian authors would have wanted to downplay the importance of an early church member who held to a theology different from that which eventually won out. And Price is onto something there. We know that there was significant conflict in the early church. We know that Pauline theology was the one that eventually won out. And, in view of the conflict described in Galatians, we have reason to suspect that this theology wasn’t the one held by Jesus’s original followers.
So, on the background of that first-century conflict, how would church writers from the Pauline side of the church have dealt with awkward traditions about key members of the early church having held to beliefs that were now considered mistaken? I agree with Price on this one; that would have been rather a strong motive to downplay the importance of these people in the accounts. (It wouldn’t even have had to be a conscious thing; more a case of ‘Well, James was clearly misguided, so let’s focus on what these others had to say’.)
In other words, we have an obvious explanation from Price himself of why the gospels might have wanted to ignore a brother of Jesus who became a leader in the early Christian community; because tradition had preserved the rather awkward information that this brother did not agree with the new belief system that, by the time of the gospels, was being taught as The Truth. As potential motives go, I’d say that’s a satisfactorily convincing one. And so, in fact, we have a good explanation of why the gospels had so little to say about James, and Price is wrong when he thinks we’re forced to fall back on the explanation that James wasn’t an actual brother of an actual Jesus.
Paul makes two passing mentions of brothers of Jesus (one of ‘brothers’ collectively and one of a specific brother), which Price, despite his best efforts, has not managed to explain away. And there’s an important difference between these two mentions and the other information we get from Paul about Jesus; these can’t be easily dismissed as just Paul’s own beliefs.
We’ve had to be very cautious about using other Pauline-derived information as evidence for the historicity side, because Paul himself makes it so clear that he gets his information about Jesus from what he thinks Jesus told him in a vision. Therefore, although Paul clearly did believe that Jesus had lived a human life, and made many comments referring to this, we can’t assume that this belief came from actual knowledge of what the original church were saying rather than from his own belief about what he thought Jesus had said to him in visions. However, the mentions of Jesus’s brothers come from much more prosaic sources. He mentions the brothers collectively because he’s annoyed that the church is giving them and their wives financial support which he himself doesn’t get, and he mentions James in particular because he met him.
So this, unlike most of what Paul says, actually is reliable information. Not theological expositions based on visions, but passing comments about people of whose existence and status Paul has personal knowledge. These two comments that Paul makes in the midst of rants about other issues are very good evidence that the Lord of whom he’s speaking (Jesus) had human brothers. And that, in turn, is good evidence that Jesus was human.