Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Timing Of The Conversion Of Jesus' Brothers And Their Witness To The Resurrection

I've discussed the subject before, such as the significance of John 19:26-27, which implies that Jesus' brothers either weren't Christians yet or had only recently become Christians. Another issue that should be raised is what best explains the broader pattern of references to the brothers.

They're referred to in several places in the gospels, Acts, and Paul's letters, and we have two letters attributed to the brothers (James and Jude). They're mentioned in multiple places in the gospels as unbelievers. And there's an implication that they're believers in Acts 1:14. They're mentioned many times after Acts 1 (in the remainder of Acts, in Galatians, etc.). But they aren't mentioned in contexts in which close relatives often would be mentioned leading up to and just after the resurrection (e.g., Jesus' trial, the cross, the burial). Jesus' mother is referred to as present at the cross in John 19, but his brothers aren't mentioned there or in any other relevant context. Because of her gender and older age, we'd expect Mary to be less present in these contexts than Jesus' brothers would be, but she's more present instead. And it's striking how wide a diversity of individuals are mentioned in these contexts: Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, the women at the tomb, the men on the road to Emmaus, all of the Twelve, etc. So, the absence of any reference to the brothers of Jesus, especially in light of their later prominence in church history, is significant.

It's possible to reconcile all of this evidence with an earlier conversion of Jesus' brothers. But the issue isn't what's possible. The issue is which explanation is best. A later conversion of Jesus' brothers, one later than the events immediately following his death, makes better sense of the evidence. But the lateness also has to account for evidence like Acts 1:14 and 1 Corinthians 15:7. The best explanation seems to be that one or more resurrection appearances, like the one in 1 Corinthians 15:7, brought about their conversion. They might have converted on the basis of what others told them about the resurrection or on some other such basis, but that explanation has less explanatory power than something like 1 Corinthians 15:7.

Given the plural "brothers" in Acts 1:14 and 1 Corinthians 9:5, the high status of the individuals mentioned in 1 Corinthians 9:5, and the inclusion of a letter of Jude in the canon, a resurrection appearance to at least one brother of Jesus other than James, at least Jude, seems likely. Maybe Jesus appeared to more of his brothers than James and Jude, but it seems probable that he at least appeared to those two.

I suspect all of the appearances to Jesus' brothers happened later rather than earlier. The appearance to James is mentioned fourth among the five chronologically ordered pre-Pauline appearances in 1 Corinthians 15. Furthermore, it would make sense for the gospels to give more attention to the earlier appearances than the later ones, since the earlier ones most closely follow the preceding events and would tend to involve the most intense reactions to the resurrection, since the witnesses' knowledge of the event was so new. The absence of references to the brothers of Jesus in the gospels' resurrection accounts makes more sense if the appearances to Jesus' brothers happened later rather than earlier. I suspect they occurred during the latter half of the forty days referred to in Acts 1:3.

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