This is the second installment of my series on Richard Carrier’s Historicity of Jesus. The first can be found here.
The Achilles’ Heel of Mythicism
If there is anything like a ‘knockdown drag-out’ argument for a historical Jesus, it’d have to be Paul’s reference to James, the “brother of the Lord” in Galatians 1:19. In the past mythicists have mostly handled this badly, and in fact it was really about the only reason I leaned towards believing in a historical Jesus. It was just one piece of evidence, but it was a really good one: here we see Paul, one of our earliest Christian authors (writing just 20 years or so after Jesus was supposed to have lived) making an off-the-cuff the comment that seemed to be a great reason to believe that Jesus really lived.
So how does Carrier explain this one? He first begins by noting that the using of terms like ‘brother’ and ‘brethren’ are commonly used in Paul’s letters in a symbolic manner, as when Paul says Christ appeared to over 500 brethren at once (1 Cor. 15:3-6) and more generally that all Christians were the ‘brothers of the Lord,’ since Christ was ‘the firstborn among many brethren’ (Romans 8:29). Of course, if “James, brother of the Lord” meant “James the Christian” we must ask why Paul needed to specify that the James in question was a Christian (wouldn’t that have been obvious enough?). Carrier adduces a couple of possibilities on p.589. I think the most convincing reason Carrier gives is that Paul was trying to distinguish the James mentioned in Galatians 1:19 from James the apostle (mentioned later in the same letter). Of course, this presupposes that James the Apostle was not one and the same as James “the brother of the Lord,” but this is not an ad-hoc proposition: we know James the apostle couldn’t have been Jesus’ brother because that James was John’s brother (Mark 5:37), and Jesus didn’t have a brother named John (Mark 6:3). [This is just a brief summary of Carrier’s arguments on this issue, the book itself makes a much fuller case].
I think this establishes that there is a good, non-ad-hoc mythicist explanation for 1 Galatians 1:19.
However, establishing that an explanation is very plausible does not establish that it is the most plausible. I still think that there is a sense in which the Galatians passage argues (modestly) for an historical Jesus. The name of the one Paul calls ‘the Lord’s brother’ is James, and Mark 6:3 says Jesus had a brother names James. Let us consider both the mythist position on this and the historist position.
Under the proposition that Jesus really lived, Jesus had a brother names James who must have later on played a role in the church (perhaps not as an apostle, but as somebody at least) and that explains the two passages reasonably. The probability of the evidence is close to 100% under the historicist framework.
Under the proposition that Jesus was a myth, the gospel of Mark created fictional brothers named James, Joses, Simon and Judas but prior to that Paul called someone named James ‘the brother of the Lord.’ What are the odds that Paul would call someone the brother of the Lord who just so happened to have the same name as one of the fictional brothers mentioned in Mark?
In order to find out, we need to know how frequent these names were in ancient times. Richard Bauckhaum has a handy table of male name frequencies in the ancient world in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses p.85-88, which I will be drawing on to make this estimation.
We also need to understand what it is that we are finding the probability of. We are not searching for the probability that Paul would identify a “brother of the Lord” as someone named James specifically. After all, if the passage in Galatians read “Judas, the Lord’s brother,” or “Joses, the Lord’s brother,” or “Simon, the Lord’s brother,” defenders of the historical Jesus would be making much the same argument that they are now (hindsight is 20/20). So, we need to find the probability that one of the names Mark listed would end up being the same as the name of the guy Paul mentions.
If you have trouble understanding what I’ve laid out above, think of it like this: Under the historicist theory, one would reason that (1) Paul identifies someone as ‘the lord’s brother,’ (2) James, Judas, Simon and Joses are ‘the lord’s brothers,’ so (3) The person Paul identifies will be named either James, Judas, Simon or Joses. It’d be a fallacy to find the probability of Paul mentioning James specifically, because the historicist theory allows for more possibilities than that.
Using Richard Bauckham’s table,* we find that out of 2549 name occurrences, there are 235 Simon’s, 159 Judas’s, 212 Jose’s (Joseph’s) and 35 James’s. Adding those together, the frequency of someone being named either Simon, Judas, Joses or James is 641 out of a total of 2549 name occurrences, which breaks down to just over 25%.
In short: it’s my judgment that Paul calling someone a “brother of the Lord” is at just as probable under the mythicist theory as the historicist one, especially given Carrier’s arguments and scripture citations on this point (see discussion above). It is also my judgement that the fact that Paul identifies this “brother” as someone with the same name as one of the brothers listed in Mark is more probable under the historicist explanation than under the mythicist explanation. In particular, the probability of the evidence in question is close to 100% under the historicist theory whereas it is about 25% probable under the mythicist theory. In other words, this is a “red jelly bean” for the historicist theory.
So What Does this Mean?
It has surprised me greatly that what I once viewed as a very strong argument for a historical Jesus has turned out to be only very modest support. Moreover, this is about the only piece of evidence for an historical Jesus of which I know (I’ve looked into the issue before, and have come to the conclusion that most claimed evidence is actually very doubtful). Carrier’s arguments against the other Pauline passages seem solid (though I may rethink them in the future). We’ll have to weigh this piece of evidence for a historical Jesus against the evidence for mythicism.
* Bauckham lists 2,625 name occurrences. I removed the 76 name occurrences that are derived from the New Testament (I figured that using name occurrences derived from the new testament might be circular since what we are analyzing is a name from the new testament, but if you choose to include all those name occurrences in your calculation the result would be slightly more favorable to mythicism).
One More thing: I assumed that the probability of the evidence was 100% under historicism. However, Paul could plausibly have used fictive kinship terminology under the historicist theory, which means that the probability of the evidence is somewhere greatly below 100%, and in my opinion it is plausibly somewhere between 50 – 100%. Given what we know from Paul’s letters on how he used ‘fictive kinship’ terminology, it seems to me that under historicism it is equally likely that either (a) Paul would use ‘brother of the Lord’ to refer to a literal brother or (b) use it to denote someone was a Christian. If the latter, the probability that this person would be named James is the same under historicism as it would under mythicism. If the former, it’d be about 100% likely, assuming that Mark didn’t get the names of Jesus’ brothers wrong or something strange like that. All in all that would make the probability of the evidence 62.5% under historicism (averaging out the 25% prediction under possibility ‘a’ and the 100% prediction under possibility ‘b’) and 25% under mythicism. Notably, Carrier himself decides to estimate the whole ‘brother of the Lord’ issue as being about twice as likely under historicism as mythicism (which is roughly what I have here), even though he doesn’t think the odds are like that, and his Bayesian equation still comes out in favor of mythicism.