was James’ resurrection experience invented for credentials?

Still reading The Empty Tomb

The post originally entitled ‘was James always a good guy? (part 1)’ has been deleted – its contents are distributed among the next couple posts, with material that reflects a corrected understanding of the relevant arguments.

After Price’s argument that 1 Corinthians 15ff contradicts Galatians 1:11-12, his next major argument that the Corinthians tradition is an interpolation is a complicated one involving the claim that verse 7 – James’ encounter with the risen Christ – must be a late fictitious tradition, later than Paul’s writings. Because Price sees the 3-11 tradition as itself a composite tradition of two earlier traditions, one backing James, one backing Peter, Price thus sees the whole of 3-11 as a late post-Pauline work (oh and he thinks the 500 witnesses are an even later add-on!) In my opinion the more convoluted his theory becomes the more speculative it sounds, but let’s see why he thinks verse 7 must be a late fiction.

His case seems to rest on arguments that throw doubt on the historicity of James having a resurrection experience that prompted his conversion. He thinks if he can cast doubt on this then his own alternative theory for James’ conversion (discussed below) becomes plausible, and in turn, the resurrection encounter attributed to James is best understood as an invention created to bolster James’ credentials as a leader among some late pro-James movement.

The logic of his argument, from what he makes explicit, isn’t valid as it stands. After all, even if there is good reason to doubt that a resurrection encounter prompted James’ conversion, that isn’t itself good reason to doubt that James had a resurrection encounter at all, which is only what verse 7 claims anyway. It is (logically) possible that James converted prior to a resurrection encounter.

Presumably then, Price thinks that there are only two possible reasons for James’ conversion, the traditional answer, or his own theory, which excludes the possibility of a resurrection encounter. What is his own theory?

“If James was not “turned around” by an appearance of the Risen Jesus, how else can we account for his assumption of an early leadership role in the church? The answer is not far to seek. He was the eldest brother of King Messiah. Once honored for this accident of birth, he did not see fit to decline it. One might well remain aloof to a movement in which one’s brother was the leader yet soon warm to it once the leadership role was offered to oneself (page 83).”

There you have it – James was lured in by the prospect of leadership. I agree that probably there had to be a strong motivation for James to convert. But before we look at Price’s reasons to doubt the traditional explanation, we should think about whether this alternative is viable.

Implicit in his suggestion is the view that being a leader in the early Christian movement would have been a cushy vocation that James would have motivation to pursue. But this is utterly false. The movement was intrinsically linked to a man who died a shameful criminal’s death – leadership in the movement wouldn’t have earned admiration, but scorn. James would have endured great social pressure to deny Jesus, and be at risk of physical violence. He also would have been knowingly blaspheming Yahweh by preaching a false messiah. These are the same obstacles that make “the disciples lied” a poor explanation for Christianity’s survival post-Jesus’ crucifixion. Price’s explanation is most unrealistic.

But what about his reasons to doubt the traditional answer? He doesn’t give much by way of argument. He observes that nowhere in the NT is it explicitly stated that James converted through a resurrection appearance. This is true, but by Price’s own logic, James’ conversion required some cause (especially since the crucifixion would have cemented any doubt James had about Jesus’ ministry.) The resurrection experience mentioned in verse 7 is a powerful explanation for his conversion (and bear in mind we are not arguing here that James’ experience really was of the risen Jesus, only that he thought it was – for the sake of argument, one could assume the hallucination hypothesis here.)

Price wonders why the NT never describes James’ resurrection appearance as a conversion story like Paul’s. But where should we expect to find such detail? We know about Paul’s experience in detail through his own letters and from Acts, the author of which travelled with Paul and had access to his story. By contrast we have one letter from James (none if one wants to questions its authorship), and no pastoral need expressed in the letter that would warrant talking about his conversion. Price also can’t complain about the lack of detail in verse 7 compared to Paul’s resurrection encounter without begging the question against Pauline authorship. For if Paul authored that segment it is quite likely he expanded upon the raw tradition material with his own personal thoughts about the experience.

Why don’t the Gospels’ resurrection narratives include James’ conversion? The burden is on Price to argue why they should have, which he doesn’t do, but we can make some general comments like the authors perhaps not having access to the conversion traditions (even while still knowing the basic fact that James had converted, as implied by Acts 1:14), or their focussing on the disciple’s experiences, in regard to which James’ may have been a tangent. While I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt the historicity of the event from this observation, I will note it down for further enquiry.

So far then, we have no strong reasons to doubt the historicity of the traditionally understood cause of James’ conversion, and strong reasons to doubt the plausibility of Price’s own theory. Now we must see how this links to why Price thinks the resurrection appearance in verse 7 is the fabrication of a late pro-James faction used to boost his credentials.

Price muses, “the sheer fact of James’ blood relation to Jesus is by itself so powerful, so sufficient a credential that when we find another, a resurrection appearance, placed alongside it in the tradition, we must immediately expect a secondary layer of tradition (page 83).” Must we? Why? Price doesn’t give us any reason except what is essentially his gut feeling toward the matter. Moreover it isn’t like, if Jesus actually had been raised from the dead, his family would be the last people he’d want to appear to. Family would be a natural choice. There’s nothing odd about this.

Price goes on to show an example from the history of Islam where after the death of the movement’s great leader, a blood relation is turned to, and as time passes, legend venerates them further and further. But this example is useless; as already discussed, Price’s explanation for James’ conversion fails. It is unlikely he would have converted unless he had come to honestly believe that Jesus had been vindicated from his shameful death. So even if one accepts that later traditions became excessively gracious toward James (as they seem to have done), one still must account for James’ conversion, and a resurrection experience is still the best candidate seeing as Price’s own explanation is implausible. So one cannot merely suggest that a resurrection appearance was granted to James as the result of a growing legendary tradition that favoured him, as Price wants to do.

As an aside, it is interesting that N.T. Wright notes that in actual fact there is something curiously anomalous about how James was regarded in the early church:

“Again, even a small amount of disciplined historical imagination will paint the scene. Jesus of Nazareth had been a great leader. Most considered him a prophet, many the Messiah. But the Romans caught him and killed him, the way they did with so many would-be prophets and Messiahs. Just as John the Baptist’s movement faded into comparative obscurity with John’s imprisonment and death, with the speculation about John’s role within various eschatological scenarios being transferred to his slightly younger cousin, so one can easily imagine Jesus’ movement fading into comparative obscurity after his execution, with the spotlight now turning on his somewhat younger brother. The younger brother turns out to be a great leader: devout, a fine teacher, well respected by other devout Jews. What more could one want? But nobody ever dreamed of saying that James was the Messiah. He was simply known as the brother of ‘Jesus the Messiah’. At this point the argument runs in parallel with the famous Sherlock Holmes story that hinges on the dog doing something remarkable in the night – or rather on the fact that the dog did not do anything in the night, though it had every reason to do so, thus revealing the fact that the dog must have recognised the intruder. If we suppose that Jesus of Nazareth had simply been executed as a messianic pretender, and that his younger brother had become a strong and powerful leader among his former followers over the next thirty years, someone would have been bound, given the climate of the times, to suggest that James himself was the Messiah. But nobody ever did (The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg.561-2).”

It seems that Price’s theory doesn’t seem to have a leg a stand on. But it gets worse for him. As he is quite aware, there is no manuscript evidence that suggests that the 1 Corinthians 15 tradition is an interpolation. This alone is a blow, but it becomes more and more of a problem for him the later he has to posit the interpolation, seeing as the later the interpolation, the more chance we’d have of possessing an unaltered manuscript tradition. Price tries to ease the strain by suggesting that there is already evidence of pro-James polemic in the NT tradition. It’s to these arguments we’ll turn next time.

More to come…


1 thought on “was James’ resurrection experience invented for credentials?

  1. It seems to me that N. T Wright’s “disciplined historical imagination” falls at the first fence. He tries to paint John the Baptizer’s movement as fading into “comparative obscurity” but fails to mention that messianism attached John did not get subsumed by his cousin’s cult but survived, eventually preserved in Mandaeanism. So his simplistic Sherlock Holmes thesis doesn’t hold; people carried on believing in Jesus’ forerunner and likewise James appears to have gained a peculiar status in the first century. Even if we don’t accept Eisenmann’s hypotheses that aligns James with the Teacher of Righteousness in Essenism, there is other puzzling data which might suggest that James also had those who hoped in him.

    Why was he given the position of high sectarian leadership and a pompous lofty title – the Just or Righteous?

    Why were legends of his death seemingly as fantastic as that of his brother? (Thrown from the top of the Temple. Survived. Prayed for mercy for his kilers. Is stoned, only to be finally killed by a blow to the head by a fuller’s staff.)

    Why was the seige of Jerusalem seen by some as divine retribution to the Jews’ murder of James if he wasn’t regarded as especially sanctified?

    Why does Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas say that heaven and earth were brought into existence for the sake of James the Just?!

    Whereas, on the other more orthodox hand, we have the canonical gospels pointedly not mentioning James – apart from the oblique references to Jesus’ family trying to “take charge of him” because they think he’s mad (Mk 3:21) etc. The synoptics especially make plain that the Rock/Kephas was appointed the leader of the messianic group. Then we have the Acts of the Apostles barely mentioning James – he is only brought on the scene, without introduction, once James the brother of John is dispatched. By comparison we rely on Paul to tell us the most about James, especially via his contentions with the pro-Judaic “pillars” of James, John and Kephas.

    These may not be enough of a barking dog for an Evangelical like Wright, but they’re a smoking gun for anyone without a priori dogmatic commitments. (Pun intended.)

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