Defending the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus: The Postmortem Conversion and Subsequent Martyrdom of James (Part 5 of 8)

5.0 The Postmortem Conversion and Subsequent Martyrdom of James

It is seldom questioned by critical scholars that James, Jesus’ brother, was an unbeliever and a skeptic during his brother’s public ministry (Mk 3.21-35; Jn 7.5). Then, just a few years later, James is the pastor of the Jerusalem church, where Paul finds him when he went for his two visits (Gal 1.18-19; 2.1-10; cf. Acts 15.13-21). What’s more, we learn from Josephus—a first century Jewish historian—that James was martyred for his belief that Jesus was in fact the Messiah. Josephus wrote the following in his Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, chapter 9:

Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.

Nevertheless, if the texts concerning James’ skepticism and martyrdom are in fact historical, then it follows that the conversion of James is therefore relevant as a historical datum pertinent to our inquiry.

5.1 James’s Unbelief

The first fact we must establish is that James, the brother of Jesus, was a skeptical unbeliever prior to Jesus’ crucifixion. We can support the historicity of this claim by way of the following criteria.

5.1.1 Multiple, Independent Attestation

That Jesus’s brother did not believe that his elder sibling was the Messiah or even anybody special during his lifetime is attested by both Mark (vv. 3.21, 31-35; 6.3) and John (vv. 7.1-10). In addition, Matthew may also imply that Jesus’ brothers were not sympathetic to his mission. In Matthew 13.55-57 (cf. Mark 6.3-4), Jesus’ mother, his brothers, and sisters are mentioned by those in his hometown who were offended at him.

5.1.2 The Criterion of Embarrassment

The satisfaction of this criterion is very powerful, since it is highly unlikely that early church authors would make such potentially “deeply offensive” comments regarding both an esteemed leader as well as Jesus’ own brother, unless they thought they were reporting facts .

5.2 The Conversion and Martyrdom of James

Once the historicity of James’ unbelief has been established, the next step will be to show that his conversion and martyrdom are also historical.

5.2.1 Leadership in the Church Multiply and Independently Attested

Not long after Jesus’s death we learn that James is a leader of the Jerusalem church. This information comes to us from the writings of Paul (Gal. 1.18-19; 2.1-10) and Luke (Acts 15.13-21). Thus, that James was converted after Jesus’ death is strongly supported by the criterion of multiple, independent attestation. 

5.2.2 Enemy Attestation

Considering that Josephus’ writings satisfy the criterion of enemy attestation due to their originating from an unsympathetic source, the fact that they reference the martyrdom of James entails that the event can plausibly be taken as historical.


We have multiple, independent attestation of James’ unbelief during Jesus’ lifetime; the criterion of embarrassment provides additional support for this purported fact. Furthermore, that James converted and became a leader in the Jerusalem church is also supported by the criterion of multiple, independent attestation; and the criterion of enemy attestation is satisfied by the source informing us of his martyrdom. Thus, the obvious question arises: What could possibly cause such an antipodal change in James’ attitude towards his brother?

I can think of no better explanation than the one supplied by the pre-Pauline statement in 1 Corinthians 15.7—the risen Jesus appeared to James. Ask yourself: What would it take to convince you that your brother was the Lord, to the point that you would be willing to go to your death for the truth of that belief? Fuller tells us that even if the New Testament had not referenced the resurrection appearance to James, “we should have to invent”  one in order to account for his conversion and his elevated position in the Jerusalem church. That is to say, a veridical postmortem appearance would seem to be a necessary and sufficient condition for so radical a change in James’ attitude towards his brother’s claims to divinity.



References Cited

Posted in Historiography, Resurrection.

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