The Conversion of the Skeptic James

By L. Alfred James

The Conversion of the Skeptic JamesWe are currently in a series of blog posts that provide an intellectual pathway for moving someone (or yourself) all the way from hardcore atheism to biblical Christianity. Last week we saw how the conversion of Saul of Tarsus is a powerful proof that flatly contradicts the skeptic’s claim that Jesus’ followers were engaging in wishful thinking (when they came to believe in his resurrection).

Of course, some skeptics are still not satisfied with this. They object by saying, “Maybe Saul of Tarsus just went crazy. Maybe he had some kind of mental breakdown and that is why he thought Jesus appeared to him. Thus, maybe his conversion to Christianity is not such powerful evidence for the resurrection.”

In response to this objection, it should be noted that the skeptic is getting increasingly desperate. He has to formulate an ad hoc theory about how the tomb became empty (some unknown person took the body out), and an ad hoc theory about how the disciples came to believe Jesus was raised (wishful thinking and/or hallucinations), and an ad hoc theory about how Saul of Tarsus was converted (he had mental problems). Any case that is built on three separate ad hoc theories is quite implausible. Worse, none of these theories explain how the disciples came to embrace something so un-Jewish as the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead (see my previous post called “The Disciples’ Belief in the Resurrection.”)

Nonetheless, there is another piece of evidence that makes these ad hoc theories even harder to believe.

James Was Skeptical Toward Jesus

James was Jesus’ half-brother. And (like Saul of Tarsus) James did not believe that Jesus was the messiah. Look at what John tells us about Jesus’ brothers:

Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. 4 No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” 5 For even his own brothers did not believe in him.
(John 7:3-5)

The Conversion of the Skeptic JamesWe are notified here and elsewhere (Mark 3:21) that Jesus’ brothers did not believe he was the messiah. This is not necessarily surprising. Just think about it: What would it take for you to believe that your own brother was a supernaturally empowered leader sent from God? Probably a heck of a lot. And James’ skepticism toward Jesus would have been further confirmed by the crucifixion. As far as James was concerned, Jesus’ execution on the cross simply proved that he was a messianic pretender.

Notice that we have two independent sources about Jesus’ brothers (John and Mark) rejecting his messianic claims. That is strong evidence by historical standards. But that is not all. It is embarrassing evidence. It is really hard to believe that the early church would have fabricated these details about Jesus’ brothers not believing in him. These details would (especially in the first century) diminish the credibility of Jesus and the church. These details were an embarrassment to Christianity. Thus, James’ lack of belief is almost certainly a historical fact.

James, the True Believer

Fast forward to a few years later. We find that something has changed. James is now a strong believer in Jesus. In fact, Paul tells us that he was even a leader in the church, ranked with the apostles:

Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other apostles — only James, the Lord’s brother. (Galatians 1:18-19)

James obviously experienced some kind of radical transformation in his attitude toward Jesus. What caused this transformation? 1 Corinthians 15:7 tells us. Jesus appeared to James after his resurrection. That is, James had his own private visitation from Jesus. I’ll bet that was a very interesting conversation!

Whatever transpired between James and his resurrected brother, it had a profound effect on him. This is confirmed by the fact that several historical documents outside of the Bible mention James, not just as a leader of the church, but as willingly dying for Jesus. Historical writings by Josephus, Hegesippus, and Clement of Alexandria all tell us that James was killed by being thrown down from the pinnacle of the temple, and then stoned and clubbed until he died.1

For these reasons, even an agnostic like Gerd Ludemann (an expert in New Testament scholarship) says it is historically “certain” that James had an experience in which Jesus appeared to him.2

But if this is a historical certainty it makes the skeptic’s case downright ridiculous. Are we supposed to believe that James suddenly developed psychological problems too, along with Saul of Tarsus? That would be a massively improbable coincidence. And it makes the skeptic’s case even more ad hoc than it already was.

All told, it takes more faith to believe in the skeptic’s theories (theories that try to explain away the evidence) than to simply believe what the Bible tells us: Jesus rose from the dead.

1. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James,_brother_of_Jesus#Death
2. Gerd Ludemann, The Resurrection of Jesus, trans. John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), p. 109.

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