Paul begins 1 Corinthians 15 by recounting a teaching he had given the Corinthians (c. AD 50/51) which he had himself received from others: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance….” This is technical rabbinical phrasing. One does not innovate on the teachings of the tradition. One faithfully passes it on without innovation or embellishment. It is this commitment which has made Judaism one of the great enduring faith and cultural traditions in all history. And it is this careful commitment to the guarding of tradition over extended periods of time which makes the claim that resurrection belief arose from legendary development in a handful of decades (often complemented with a facile appeal to the “telephone game”) so implausible.
What was it that Paul received? He explains: Christ died, was buried, and was raised. And “raised” here is clearly a bodily resurrection as the rest of the chapter (as well as the background worldview of the time) makes abundantly clear.
Next, Paul lists in this teaching he received several names of those who witnessed the risen Jesus and thereby became converts to him. Among them was the brother of Jesus: “Then he appeared to James….”
This is striking because the gospels give no evidence that the siblings of Jesus were “on board” with his ministry. If anything, the pericope in Matthew 12:46-50 marginalizes family, placing them on the outside while his disciples are on the inside. Even more explicitly, John 7:2-5 avers that the brothers of Jesus openly rejected his teaching:
But when the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles was near, 3 Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. 4 No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” 5 For even his own brothers did not believe in him.
This is hugely significant. According to the criterion of embarrassment in assessing ancient historical claims the testimony which is embarrassing to one’s cause is more likely to be true because it would not have been included otherwise. This is a plausible general principle. And thus it seems highly unlikely that the general incredulity of the brothers of Jesus toward his teaching and ministry would have been included if it had not been true. This means that it is highly likely that James was not a disciple of Jesus during his brother’s life and ministry.
But 1 Corinthians 15, this very early testimony which Paul taught twenty years (or less) to the Church in Corinth after having received it himself years earlier, records James as a disciple. In Acts James is viewed as having become the de facto leader of the Jerusalem Christians (Acts 15:13; Acts 21:18; Gal. 1:19; Gal. 2:9; Gal. 2:12). And for those with an irrational aversion to any first century writings which were later collected into a group and called the “New Testament” there is Antiquities (Bk. 20; ch. 9) where Josephus provides an account of the martyrdom of James in Jerusalem in AD 62.
So here is the problem. We know on solid historical grounds that James did not accept his brother’s teaching during his life. His brother was then crucified, and cursed is he who hangs on a tree (Deut. 21:23). So James would surely have believed his suspicions were confirmed: his brother really was a false teacher.
And yet James clearly changed his mind after his brother died. Why? According to the evidence, he did so based on the belief that he saw his brother alive again. Moreover, this man was no fool for James then became the leader of the Jerusalem Christians for approximately three decades, a role that would have demanded high intelligence and administrative skills, until he was finally martyred for belief in his brother’ identity.
What is the best explanation of James’ transforming belief? That he saw a vision? But remember, he believed his brother died with a curse. “Visions” come within a climate of background expectation. A hypnotist or magician doesn’t choose the person in the audience with their arms crossed skeptically. He chooses the one who is on the edge of their seat ready to be manipulated. That clearly wasn’t James.
So did he make up the whole story? Was it a conspiracy? We could consider this possibility if there was some motivation. So to what end would he feign the experience? So that he could be martyred?
The historian who seeks to reconstruct past events based on available evidence needs something to work with here. If you want to reconstruct a non-miraculous reconstruction of the events you can do so, but it has to work with all the available data and be plausible. For those not closed a priori to the invocation of miraculous causes, the bodily resurrection of Jesus remains the most plausible explanation of the transformation of James.
If you don’t believe me then just ask yourself: what would it take to convince you that one of your siblings was the messiah? I’ll tell you this: my brother is a fine chap. But to believe he’s the messiah? That’d take nothing short of a miracle.