This article is based on a chapter in my 2013 book God or Godless, a collection of twenty short debates coauthored with atheist John Loftus.
What would it take to persuade you that your brother is the long-expected messiah? Quite a lot, I suspect. You grew up with the guy. You saw him scrape his knee, fail algebra, accidentally break mom’s favorite teapot … and then lie about it. Is it any wonder that thinking of your sibling as the messiah strains your credulity far beyond the breaking point?
So perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that when Jesus began to make messianic claims he too was met with skepticism from his siblings. We can know this because the gospels give no evidence that the siblings of Jesus supported him during his ministry. Indeed, in Matthew 12:46-50 Jesus quite intentionally distances himself from his family. Even more explicitly, John 7:5 states that “even his own brothers did not believe in him.” (NIV)
From the perspective of a historian, this detail is very significant. When historians assess the likelihood that a given historical claim is true, they appeal to several principles, and one of those principles is called the criterion of embarrassment. According to this criterion, historical claims which are embarrassing to one’s cause are more likely to be true because the individual would have no reason to lie about them. For example, if Dave tells you that he caught the biggest fish at the lake, you’d be skeptical because he could have a reason to lie about that. But if Dave tells you he caught a small fish, you’ve got a good reason to believe him. Surely he wouldn’t lie about that.
The fact that Jesus’ brothers didn’t believe in him is an embarrassing detail, like catching a small fish. Thus, it seems highly unlikely that this detail would have been fabricated. And that means that we have excellent historical reasons to believe that the siblings of Jesus – including his brother James – were not his disciples during his ministry.
Why does this detail matter? It matters because after the church was established, James not only became a disciple of his brother, but he even emerged as the de facto leader of the Christians in Jerusalem (see Acts 15:13; Acts 21:18; Gal. 1:19; Gal. 2:9; Gal. 2:12). Interestingly, this testimony is confirmed by Jewish historian Josephus in his work Antiquities (Bk. 20, ch. 9) where he observes that James was eventually martyred for his Christian faith.
To sum up, while James was a skeptic of his brother during his life, he became a disciple of his brother and a leader in the church after Jesus was crucified. The question is why? What persuaded this skeptic that his crucified brother was the messiah? After all, the Torah declares that “anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse.” (Deuteronomy 21:23) So if anything, one would assume the crucifixion would have confirmed James’ skepticism. And yet, inexplicably, James became a leader of the Christians.
Again I ask, why? What changed James’ mind?
In fact, Paul provides the answer in 1 Corinthians (written about AD 55) where he recalls: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance….” (15:3) This language is technical rabbinical phrasing signaling that Paul is sharing an important teaching which he received, and which must be protected and passed on faithfully. Paul then explains that Christ died, was buried, and was raised back to life. He then lists several people who witnessed Jesus raised again and became converts as a result. And included in that list is James, the brother of Jesus.
But wait, if we’re acting as critical historians, then we should ask how a historian might explain this account. For starters, is it possible that this is simply a legend that grew over time? The answer is no. 1 Corinthians is written a mere twenty years after the events, and Paul is citing teaching in the letter that he received much earlier than that. There simply is not enough time for legend to develop.
So we must accept that James saw something. But is there a natural explanation? In short, could he have seen a vision, a hallucination? That seems very implausible. Remember, James was a skeptic of his brother’s ministry, so he had no expectation to see him raised again. Visions occur within a climate of background expectation. As a case in point, a hypnotist or magician doesn’t call the scowling skeptic in the audience up on stage. Instead, he chooses the fawning fan that is on the edge of her seat, ready to be manipulated. Skeptical James was not the fawning fan, and he was definitely not susceptible to seeing a vision.
So what did he see? I would submit that the best explanation for the extraordinary change in James is the one the church has always accepted. And it’s the same explanation that Paul gives us: James saw his brother raised from the dead.
And so we return to the question with which we began. What would it take to persuade you that your brother is the long-expected messiah? Speaking personally, I can say that my brother is a fine chap. But to believe he’s the messiah? That’d take nothing short of a miracle.