07/26/2012 11:42 am ET Updated Sep 25, 2012

Yes, James the Brother of Jesus!

Before our recent screening of "A Polite Bribe" at Philadelphia's Landmark Theater, amid the storm of Sandusky scandal, I was confronted again by the real differences between Protestant and Catholic perspectives.

Though "A Polite Bribe" is the story of how Paul founded Christianity and the "bribe" that bought him time as a missionary, it seems many of the film's Catholic interviewers were stuck on some basic facts about the story itself.

I explained that Paul was NOT one of the 12 apostles, some call him number 13 -- another story -- but needed to rewind to an earlier time when most of my own knowledge was not "solo scriptura" but filtered through the Sunday liturgy and mass.

A conversion in my teenage years, while in a Catholic University, and hunger for the Scripture, were greeted immediately by the character Paul who distinctly contends with a "James the brother of Jesus," also NOT one the original 12.

Paul, in his Galatians autobiography, identifies James as a man who replaced Peter as the head of the early Church. Additional apocryphal and secular sources assume James as heir to the church and rightfully so as his brother.

In his book on James, Jeffrey Butz opens by writing, "It is my belief that understanding the role of James in the early church will make for no less than a revolution in our understanding of Jesus..."

He is not alone. Other recent works, by authors such as John Painter, Robert Eisenman, Bruce Chilton, Jacob Neusner and others, have for the first time -- excuse the metaphor -- raised James from the dead.

Back in the studio, I recalled how Catholics "square the circle" of James as leader of the church and his coup over Peter in the immediate years following Jesus' death, when Peter, according to tradition, was supposedly the first Pope.

And I have spent my fair share of years "holed" up inside this doctrine and more times than not learned that tradition will dictate the meaning of Scripture, rather than use of textual argument, and free use of reason.

I also proudly wear my red-faced memories and elbow-gouged impressions in response to my free enquiry, perhaps my own "mild stigmata," in search for truth.

No doubt modern interpretation does require expert contextualization, given the 2,000 years, but in this particular case Paul's use of plain language to distinguish James as a blood relative is simply undeniable.

Yet, curiously, this was not accepted as fact even for some of the early church fathers. Back then James was a step brother of Jesus from Joseph's earlier marriage, a view held by the Greek Orthodox church from early on.

The official Catholic doctrine is that the "brothers" are actually cousins, born to Mary's sister Mary and her husband Clopas. St. Jerome even advocated for the perpetual virginity of Joseph!

The word "brother" is interchangeable with cousin, yet one can argue that the word for "virgin" also means "young woman," so touché for the non-virgin "birthers" proving the point that words alone cannot an interpretation make.

Paul makes the distinction in Galatians on his first trip to Jerusalem when he writes, "But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother" (1:19). By Catholic interpretation, are the other apostles NOT Paul's brothers?

Knowing the rich Catholic history for favoring purity miracles, I wondered whether this was all about sex. After all, the doctrine of "Mary's perpetual Virginity," official dogma at the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451 as stated in the Catholic Encyclopedia that "the Blessed Mother of Jesus Christ was a virgin before, during, and after the conception and birth of her Divine Son."

Again a story line that flies in the face of basic Scripture reading like the Gospel of Mathew where "Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her 'until' she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus" (Matthew 1:24-25).

Not only was Jesus' brother James an essential character to the New Testament, but as we have learned from recent scholars like Bart Ehrmann in his "Lost Christianities," before Orthodoxy, these apocryphal writings carried equal weight.

The Gospel of Thomas states explicitly: "The disciples said to Jesus: We know that you will depart from us; who is it who will be great over us? Jesus said to them: Wherever you have come, you will go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being."

One need not peruse the Catholic exegetes on these passages, for the late scholar Raymond Brown concedes the Orthodox positions like "virgin conception stems from its being presented in the Bible AND in church pronouncements."

This Catholic position makes one wonder when authority can be challenged by a glut of facts, or armies of scholars who have spent hundreds of post Enlightenment years in Scripture before Vatican II embraced modern method.

This is not only a case of exegesis -- extracting the facts from the texts -- but eisegesis, "looking into" how and why the church, makes divine pronouncements in spite of the contrary facts that may emerge.

"A Polite Bribe" is one attempt through narrative to show that alternative "human" explanations are very plausible. As one Philly radio personality offered, it is a "religious film also for agnostics and atheists."

In other words, this is a story of early Christianity that does not require the theological imposition of the church to be understood, but a direct appeal to the common sense of the audience.

And while no one would equate the Sandusky sex scandal with contestable Bible interpretation, it's worth mentioning that both challenges are rooted in the question of how critical reason finds access to institutional power.

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