How James Speaks to the Authenticity of His Brother, Jesus

As the story goes, when Mary was visited by an angel who told her she would conceive and give birth to great man who she would call Jesus, though she had never known a man, she was thoughtful, questioning and even troubled, but said she was willing. (Luke 1:26-35)

When she visited her cousin, Elizabeth, at the angel’s direction, and what the angel said was corroborated, Mary was thankful and happy. (Luke 1:39-47) She believed what the angel told her and gave thanks to God, but that is a mother’s response. Right? Siblings and strangers are a different matter.

On the subject of claims about Jesus, skepticism has always existed. We even find it in the narratives of the four Gospels, themselves. The Bible is candid that way.

The Pharisees and Sadducees (the Jewish religious leaders of the day) largely did not believe the claims of Jesus. Most of the Romans certainly didn’t believe them. Even among the common people, we get the sense that some people wanted to believe Jesus, but their good will toward him changed over the span of his public life.

Jesus was not initially well-received in his hometown, Nazareth. When he read from the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue and announced that the words he read were fulfilled that day in their hearing, they didn’t take kindly to him. (Luke 4:14-21) They said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” (Lk. 4:22), and they took offense at his assertions. (Mk. 6:3)

It wasn’t like Jesus tried to soften his approach. We might even say that Jesus provoked their skepticism. (Lk. 4:22-27) They changed from curiosity tinged with skepticism to anger as he presumed their rejection of him. (Lk 4:28) They became so angry, they drove him out of town and up to the brow of a hill where they threatened to throw him off a cliff. (Lk. 4:29)

During another encounter with a crowd in the wider area of Galilee, Jesus caused such a stir by the things he was saying that the people accused him of “being out of his mind”. The religious leaders even accused him of blasphemy.

When his family heard what people were saying, they went to “seize him”. (Mk. 3:20-21) His mother and brothers would not even enter in the house where he was talking to the crowd. They stood outside calling to him, but Jesus refused to respond. (Mk. 3:31-35)

Jesus caused such a stir in Galilee that the Jewish leaders sought to kill him (Jn. 7:1) claiming that Jesus was “leading people astray” (Jn. 7:12). In the midst of the stir that Jesus was causing in Galilee (his home region), we learn definitively that “not even his brothers believed in him”. (Jn. 7:5)

His brothers did not merely not believe in him. The challenged him to leave Galilee and go to Judea to make his claims and prove himself there. (Jn. 7:3) It wasn’t that they believed him; they were provoking him, likely hoping he would stop the nonsense: “No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” (Jn. 7:4)

His brothers certainly knew the angry reception Jesus was getting in Galilee would be nothing like the wrath he would experience in Judea where the High Priest and Sanhedrin were headquartered.

After the initial controversial stir that Jesus made in the area in which he grew up, we don’t hear much about the family of Jesus, as Jesus spread out to other areas. They are largely absent from the narrative after that. The highly skeptical religious leaders never softened up to what Jesus was saying, but crowds of more common people did begin to believe him.

The height of his popularity among the crowds was, perhaps, the day he entered Jerusalem on a donkey on what we have come to call Palm Sunday. We get the sense that the crowd believed this was the beginning of their long awaited dream of taking back control from the Roman occupation and the climactic overthrow of Roman rule. It was actually a long awaited beginning of a different sort.

The arrest of Jesus on charges of blasphemy, and his silence in the face of those charges led to a dramatic turn in the perception of the crowd. By the time he was arrested in the garden and hauled before the Sanhedrin (the religious council) and then before Pontius Pilate (the Roman governor), the tide of popular opinion had turned against Jesus.

He wasn’t who they thought he was.

The Sanhedrin had Jesus arrested, looking for evidence to put him to death. (Mk. 14:55) Jesus was silent until the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (Mk. 14:61) When Jesus said, “I am” (Mk. 14:62), they had the evidence they wanted. They accused him of blasphemy and condemned him to death. (Mk. 14:63-65)

The religious council turned him over to Pilate for sentencing. (Mk. 15;1) The charge of blasphemy meant nothing to the Roman governor who believed the Sanhedrin was acting out of self-interest and concern for their own religious influence. (Mk. 15:2-10) Yet, the crowd was stirred up against Jesus, and they demanded that he be crucified. (Mk. 15:11-15) The rest is history.

Up to this point, the little we know about the brothers of Jesus is that they didn’t believe in him. The last we hear of them, when his family came to call him out of the home where he was causing a stir, Jesus seemed to have turned his back on them. When Jesus was told his family was there calling to him to come out, Jesus said,

“[W]hoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother”. (Mk. 3:32-35)

This is the backdrop for some key observations about the family of Jesus, and particularly his brother, James, that speak to the authenticity Jesus and of the Gospel narrative.

Continue reading “How James Speaks to the Authenticity of His Brother, Jesus”

Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Erhman – Part 6 – Postscript


I have taken some time in previous blog articles to summarize my comments about an interview of Bart Ehrman by Sam Harris. Ehrman talks about his early induction into a fundamentalist Christian world and losing his faith. He talks about the issues with biblical interpretation that led him away from belief.  I provide some comment on issues that possibly factor into his loss of faith, and the most recent articles address a modern view of miracles that avoids wrestling with evidence of the resurrection, and an observation that I share with others: that atheists and fundamentalists interpret the Bible similarly (two sides to the same coin).

One way to summarize Bart Ehrman’s story is the rejection of a rigid, wooden Christianity that imposes (or tries to impose) a “literal” meaning to everything in the Bible.  For Erhman, this is an all or nothing proposition.  Either the Bible is all literally true, or it is all literally false.

This is a false dichotomy.  It fails to appreciate nuance, different genres in the Bible, the significance of symbolical, metaphorical and allegorical meanings, context, and many other things.  It is the position of someone insisting that the Bible be read in a certain way and read through a particular lens, rather than allowing the Bible to speak for itself.

When we approach the Bible, or any literature, with our own assumptions and presuppositions, we have already begun to dictate where we will end up. Ehrman originally approached the Bible with the assumption that it was all literally true (whatever “literally” meant to him and the people who influenced him). Ehrman now approaches the Bible with the assumption that it is all literally false, and that colors the way he reads it.

Harris’s reliance on Hume’s standard for determining the proof of a miracle comes back to mind.  If we set the bar “exceedingly” high, as Hume says we should, we rig the analysis, from the start, to discount every miraculous claim.  That the standard we have set is impossible to meet is the ultimate point. They don’t believe in miracles so they don’t take evidence of miracles seriously, whatever the evidence is.

This way of approaching a subject doesn’t seem very scientific or scholarly to me.  Yet, Harris is a scientist.  Erhman is a scholar.  While skepticism is a useful tool, it needs to be employed with a dose of humility, and the same skepticism should be applied to the “hermeneutics of skepticism” employed by the skeptic.

When the interview starts, Harris talks about people failing to use skeptical scientific tools.  Harris is, generally, referring to the scientific method. The scientific method is primarily a skeptical approach, demanding proof.  There is nothing inherently wrong with that approach.  The danger, however, is that we sneak all kinds of presuppositions into our scientific approach which, by their very nature, will dictate outcomes.  This really is not what the scientific method, in its purest form, is meant to be.

Continue reading “Sam Harris Podcast with Bart Erhman – Part 6 – Postscript”

Faith Requires a Personal Encounter

We have a hard time believing on the basis of someone else’s experience.

Depositphotos Image ID: 22520023 Copyright: Iurii

This is a prologue to a previously published piece, Room for Doubters & Skeptics. In that original piece, I explored the fact that Jesus invited, embraced and nurtured doubters and skeptics, even in his inner circle of followers. We see this in the accounts of Nathanael (also known as Bartholomew) and Thomas (who we call “Doubting Thomas).

We meet Nathanael early on when Philip introduces him to Jesus. Nathanael was skeptical. Thomas we get to know in more detail in the middle of his time with Jesus and at the end. Even at the end of his time with Jesus, Thomas still doubted.

The stories of these two men leave us with a few important takeaways. First, honest doubt was no issue for Jesus, and should be no issue for us. This was the point of the initial piece that to which I linked above. In this piece we will see the importance of asking the critical questions and being genuinely interested in the answers. There are answers, but, more importantly, the answers lie in more than bare facts and reason; genuine faith requires a personal encounter.

Whether God exists is the most important question we can ask. Whether God exists, or not, is (or should be) the foundation for everything we do and everything we think about the world. On this point, we are either hot or cold. Lukewarm is the same as being cold because it means we haven’t’ cared or been thoughtful enough to be interested in the question.

There is no such thing as a follower of God who doesn’t seek him. There is a difference between intellectual ascent and faith (commitment) to God. Someone famously said that even Satan believes in God. Nathanael and Thomas provide us an example of the importance of persistence in getting answers to the questions that arise from our doubt and skepticism.

Continue reading “Faith Requires a Personal Encounter”

Room for Doubters & Skeptics

Depositphotos Image ID: 47465065 Copyright: AsierRomeroCarballo

Jesus formed an inner circle of people who were called apostles, and that group included doubters. Yes, Jesus invited doubters and included them in His inner circle. Two of those people were Thomas and Bartholomew (also known as Nathanael).

There is nothing wrong with doubt. Honest doubt is always better than false faith. We should never trade our integrity for something that isn’t genuine. It’s better to have no hope than a false hope.

I recently wrote about a statement made about Stephen Hawking: “A great scientist, even like Stephen Hawking, if he had to admit a creator, it would be unavoidable, he would have to seek him because he is a great scientist.” I don’t know if that statement is really true. I’m not sure if Stephen Hawking would really seek God if he thought God existed, but a person should seek God if God exists. There could be no greater or more important finding than that!

Ultimate truth for finite beings like us, however, is always accompanied by doubt. We don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know everything, and we never will. Yet, we seek for something solid, something we can trust and something in which we can put our faith. We all do that, even atheists, even if all we trust is science (and the human intellectual capacity to understand it).

For these reasons, the stories of Nathanael and Thomas are so significant.

Continue reading “Room for Doubters & Skeptics”

The Bible: All or Nothing?

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As Christians, we need to be honest about the weaknesses of our claims so that we can deal with them effectively. We sometimes allow ourselves to be painted into corners that we should be able to avoid if we are honest about those weaknesses. I am reminded of the biblical idea that God is strong in our weakness.

So, what am I talking about? I am talking about the “fundamentalist” positions that we allow skeptics to pin on us. I say that these positions have been pinned on us because fundamentalism is a product of a word war, in my assessment, and one which we have lost to the definition of the word that comes largely from those who seek to discredit us.

Liberal progressive types are masters at word wars and reinventing words. They know how important words and meanings of words are in manipulating culture. While a fundamentalist was once someone who subscribed to the fundamentals of faith, a fundamentalist is now a dogmatic, backwards, literalist who denies obvious evidence against a strained and rigid view of the Bible – according the naysayers.

To be fair, however, some Christians prove the point. Some Christians have swallowed the hook, believing that we fight an all or nothing battle. That the battle lines have been drawn on the “literal” interpretation of the Bible, rather than something else (like Christ and him crucified) is extremely unfortunate.

Interestingly, the “new atheists” and modern skeptics exhibit the same fundamentalism that they have tried to pin on all Christians who take the Bible seriously, and that has decidedly turned the battleground in our favor. If we would only seize the opportunity and get ourselves out of the corners into which we have retreated. Continue reading “The Bible: All or Nothing?”