One of the points people make when arguing for Jesus’ historical legitimacy refers to a phrase found in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians:
“Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.”
The argument historical Jesus advocates make is that Paul says he had eye witness of one of Jesus’ siblings. Therefore, Jesus must have been a real person.
One of the deficiencies with this claim is that it relies on eye-witness testimony of a man who admittedly never even met human Jesus, and who also had ongoing delusions throughout his life which fueled a magnificent zealotry and dogmatic rigidity. But even if Paul did see James, whom he called “the Lord’s brother,” does that mean that the man he saw was actually James? Does that mean James was Jesus’ brother? Perhaps, as Richard Carrier points out, “the Lord’s brother” was a title given to baptized Christians.
These points, although not central to this post’s thesis, ought to cast considerable doubt for anyone arguing for Jesus’ existence by invoking Galatians as support for their claim.
Rather, my central response to such a claim has less to do with James’ identity, and more to do with Paul’s identity. Aside from those concerns about who James was and whether he had any siblings, I think Paul’s identity, at least in terms of the epistle to the Galatians, is even more dubious than his supposed reference to James’ kinship with Jesus.
With regards to Paul’s eye witness view of James, Paul writes
I swear to you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.
Why did Paul feel compelled to defend his integrity? Was there an issue with Paul’s reliability? Did he expect people to call him a liar?
Yes! Even fundamentalist Christians must leave some room in their worldview for the fact that Paul did not get along with all other Christians. The people who were skeptical of this epistle’s writer were the people whose figurehead (James) the writer invokes.
Paul alludes to this conflict with James’ followers in Galatians:
For before certain men came from James, he [Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.
In other words, James’ (indirect) influence on Cephas corrupted Cephas’ faith.
Who were these “men from James”?
One early Gnostic group, called the Naassenes, were described by Hippolytus as having received tenets from Mary, who got them from James. James as a Naassene centerpiece makes the Naasenes candidates for the James followers Paul describes; however, given the staunch Gnosticism that was so rampant in their sect, I think the Naassenes must have come later than an earlier James sect.
Galatians 2:10 makes allusion to the specific Jewish Christians who were “men from James”, when he says “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor..”
The passage “the poor” is a clue, because there was a Christian sect who were called “The poor”. The poor were the Ebionites. The Ebionites used (and probably authored) a James-centric version of The Gospel of Matthew. My impression, based on Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, is that they were the original opponents (or at least in contradiction) to another heretic, named Cerinthus, who was likewise in opposition to John (at least according to Irenaeus). Among other things, the Ebionites were said to reject Paul entirely because of his rejection of the law.
There is a passage that survived in the Gospel of Matthew, which I think makes reference to Paul’s swearing not to lie. In Matthew 5:34, the author writes:
But I tell you not to swear at all:either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the Earth, for it is His footstool;
Though I think the Ebionites were the primary candidates for being the “men from James,” I suspect there was other subtext which gave rise to the confrontational nature of Galatians, and what appear (to me) to be passive aggressive shots Paul takes; Galatians 2:6 is indeed passive-aggressive, given Paul’s later reference to those “esteemed pillars”, John, James, and Cephas.
Note below the puzzling dichotomy Paul draws, where he, in the first breath says he doesn’t care about public support of community leaders, and then, sentences later, notes the esteem James, Peter, and John had in Galatians 2:
As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message…James, Cephas, and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me
Paul, in Galatians 2:4, gives an account which seems to make reference to law-abiding Jews infiltrating his community; given all the references to James, it could not be more clear that Paul was again referring to “men from James” when he wrote:
“This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves [to the law]. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.”
People adherent to (slaves of) Mosaic law were infiltrating the ranks of the writer’s Christian sect. Again, the Ebionites are obvious candidates who match this profile; likewise, James must be at fault, given the anti-James undertone Galatians creates.
There is a timeline problem, with regards to my speculation about the Ebionites. The Ebionites likely did not exist in the mid-1st century – there is scant evidence for it, anyway. In order for my Ebionite claim to be true, either the Ebionites were earlier than presumed, or Galatians was written later (in full disclosure, another solution is that Paul was not referring to the Ebionites at all).
Consider a gripe Paul makes about people who were using an alternative Gospel to the one Paul used (note: modern scholarship puts the earliest Gospel (Mark) as early as 70CE). If one subscribes to the conventional Marcan timeline, they are left to wonder where Paul’s gospel went, and why it disappeared. Galatians is not the only Pauline epistle to reference his Gospel:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!
In other words, an “angel from heaven” was preaching a different Gospel which puts its readers under God’s curse! What is God’s curse? One does not need to be a theologian to know that Paul would have considered Mosaic law (Jewish law) to be God’s curse (and Adam’s curse).
Note Paul’s mention of how quickly Christians were deserting his preferred Gospel. The implication is that the Christian political tides had shifted, and the shift was not in Paul’s favor. His passive aggressive inclination again manifested when he referred to another apostle (the angel from heaven) preaching a different gospel.
Who was the angel from heaven to whom Paul refers? My speculation is that the “angel from heaven” to whom Paul passive-aggressively refers is the same person the Ebionites and the Syrians had come to revere: James!
As I see it, there two candidates for which Gospel Paul was referring. The most obvious one to which I’ve already alluded was Matthew, notably a passage found in Matthew 5:19:
So then, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do likewise will be called least in the kingdom of heaven
But I think there is a second candidate, as well. Consider the following passage from the Syrians Gospel of Thomas
His disciples said to Jesus: “We know you will leave us. Who will be our leader then?” Jesus responded, “Where ever you are, turn to Jacob (=James) the Just for whose sake the sky and the earth came into being.
This Syrian community said that Jesus’ followers, after Jesus dies, should follow James!
Syria is directly across the border from Tarsus, Paul’s supposed hometown. For the Jamesian influence to have spread as far North as Syria would have been a major political concern for those who revered Paul. That is why the letter to the Galatians puts so much focus on Jerusalem, Damascus, and Antioch, despite the fact that Galatia is nowhere near those cities.
Given these clues, suppose we momentarily detach ourselves from the dates scholars give for Galatians’ authorship (50s), and we assume that Matthew or Thomas was the alternative gospel to which Paul refers.
If both of these Gospels existed at the time Galatians was written, the timeline for Galatians might be as late as the 120s 130s.
Is the answer clearer, given this timeframe? Given the dichotomy present within the extant canon (specifically the Matthew/James vs Mark/Paul dissonance), it is obvious what Gospels to which the Galatians writer was referring.
The Gospel of Mark is the closest Gospel to Paul’s theology, incidentally it also looks remarkably Docetic (the notion that Christ came in spirit form, not as flesh), given its references to the Dove-Spirit descending on Jesus, as well as Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus’ cross. It also makes a (not too) subtle reference to Paul in Mark 9:38-40:
John said to Him, “Teacher, we saw someone else driving out demons in Your name,and we tried to stop him, because he does not accompany us.” But Jesus replied, “Do not stop him. No one who performs a miracle in My name can turn around and speak evil of Me. For whoever is not against us is for us
The Gospel of Matthew was specifically written as an anti-Pauline response to Mark, and it was probably written within 10 or 15 years after Mark was written. Consider the blatant polemical response in Matthew 7:22 and 12:30. The rejection of the law, according to Matthew’s author, is lawlessness, and as he earlier notes in Matthew 5:19, “Whoever shall break one of these. least commandments, and teach others to do so, shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven”
Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’
He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad.
If we assume a later authorship date for Galatians, what implications can we make? Here are the most obvious implications, as far as I can tell:
1. Galatians was written after the Gospels were written
2. Galatians was aware of an increasingly anti-Paul view present in Matthew (or the Gospel of the Hebrews)
3. Paul either did not live in the 50s, or he did not write Galatians
4. The reference to Paul seeing the Lord’s brother is not true
Who did write Galatians, then?
To answer this, we must ask who fits the profile? Who had a running conflict with the Ebionites? Who held that the Jewish law was God’s curse? Who was motivated to keep Paul as the only worthy apostle?
The person in history who best matches this profile is the same person Tertullian recognized for discovering Paul’s epistle to the Galatians: Marcion of Sinope!
Marcion was Docetic, had a scaled-down, Docetic Luke-like gospel (hint: Mark), and rejected the Jewish law, referring to it as a curse.
Marcion, in the sense of the Epistle to the Galatians, was Paul.
What explanatory power does Marcion’s authorship of Galatians give?
The encroaching Jewish theology, which had re-worked his Mark gospel to elevate acts to the same level as faith and re-integrated Mosaic law – something Paul and Marcion would have rejected entirely, was the alternative Gospel to which the Galatians writer referred. Here is the Jamesian sentiment in a nutshell, as depicted in James’ epistle:
Faith Without Works Is A Dead thing – What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?
To Marcion, faith does save, because the law is the curse under which Yaldabaoth (the God of the Old Testament) has placed humans – the creator of this material realm was Yaldabaoth, but he was not responsible for the creation of heaven. Therefore, works under the law means adherence to the Yaldabaoth, and not to the high God!
The reason why this story can so easily be overlaid on top of Marcion’s story is because, in my opinion, this text was written by Marcion on behalf of Paul to respond to an increasingly anti-Docetic view that was occurring in major sects in Roman Asia, specifically in the Johannine (John-centric) community. One prominent Johannine, Polycarp, supposedly wrote an epistle which referred to Docetics as “sons of the devil.” This phrase was later used by Irenaeus to describe an interaction between Polycarp and Marcion, which leads me to suspect Irenaeus might be the actual author of Polycarp’s surviving epistle.
Consider the famous Marcion story, where he donated a hefty sum (200,000 sesterces, perhaps as much as a couple million dollars in current currency) to the Roman church, money that was supposedly returned to him after he was ex-communicated. Why would Marcion have donated that money?
One possibility is that he donated the money because he was losing influence among prominent church members, particularly Polycarp and Ignatius (the Johannines and the Syrians, respectively). He was desperate, and he wanted to resume control he had earlier in his career, before increasing Jamesian influence undid it. The apostolic request that Paul “remember the poor” might very well be a reference to the 200,000 sesterces Marcion donated.
Galatians captures a moment in time where Marcion’s influence was dwindling. This political upheaval also led to the formation of another schismatic group to the west and south of Galatia, the Montanists.
It was soon after, perhaps a decade or so, that the pre-orthodoxy took up a God model which left room for Yahweh. This is evidenced by the Syrian/Palestinian Justin Martyr, a former Greek-philosopher-turned-Christian-apologist, who wrote against Marcion in the 140s or 150s.
To the Jamesians, Paul and his contemporary doppelganger Marcion were teachers of heretics, who tried to buy influence, particularly in light of Marcion’s donation. There was an increasing polemic against this heretical theology, and stories were concocted to vilify those apostates from the law.
Consider the story of the famous magician in Acts 8 (which incidentally follows a story of the pre-Paul Saul arresting Christians and destroying their churches):
When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria…
When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”
Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”
Similar to Galatians, where John and Peter disagreed with Paul over money and his inclusion among the apostles, Acts describes a situation where John and Peter disagreed with Simon over money and his inclusion among the apostles. According to Irenaeus, Simon Magus was the father of all heresies; according to Tertullian, Paul was the apostle to the heretics. It seems quite evident to me that the two men were one-in-the-same.
If Marcion did indeed write the epistle to the Galatians, that would imply his words were accepted by the Orthodoxy, despite the fact that he was not; the most obvious reason for why such a dynamic would exist can probably be found within the Orthodox canon. The fact that Matthew, Mark, John, and the Pauline epistles were all included in Irenaeus’ original canon proposition in the early 180s is because the inclusion of those Gospels meant keeping more Christians under the umbrella of the emerging Orthodoxy.
Marcion’s theology could not be completely scrapped. Given his share of followers, which probably represented a good percentage of total Christians, something had to be done to collect Marcion’s intellectual property and user base.
The Marcion integration solution included a synthesis and sanitization of Paul, including redactions and interpolations within the existing Pauline letters, along with the creation of the Pastoral letters, which Marcion did not use in his original canon. This Marcion purge also included a concocted history, as described in the Acts of the Apostles, which incidentally makes reference to this evil Simon Magus, who, like Marcion and Paul, tried to buy a seat at the apostle’s table.