In 2002, a stone ossuary, a casket used to contain the bones of the dead, was discovered in Israel bearing the inscription: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”. Public reaction broke down into roughly three categories: there were those who celebrated the find, because it’s always nice when archaeology corroborates something in the Bible; there were those who questioned it, suspecting that the inscription was a hoax; then there was the vast majority of Christendom whose reaction was: “Jesus had a brother???”
James, like Mary, is another of those names which occur frequently in the New Testament, to the reader’s confusion. The best-known one is James the son of Zebedee and the brother of John. The bar-Zebedee brothers, along with Simon Peter, seem to have been Jesus’ closest friends among his twelve disciples. Jesus had another disciple named James, who is called the son of Alpheus, or sometimes James the Lesser, either because he isn’t as prominent in the Gospels, or possibly because he was shorter.
But who was the brother of Jesus?
The first mention of Jesus’ siblings comes in the third chapter of Mark:
When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said “He is out of his mind.” … The Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:21, 31-35 NIV)
His first mention comes in the book of Matthew where Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth and preaches in the local synagogue. The people who here him are amazed. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us?” (Matthew 13:55-56)
Catholics have long found this passage problematic. The Catholic Church has traditionally maintained that Mary was sinless and that she remained a virgin her entire life. Saying that Jesus had brothers and sisters strongly suggests that she and Joseph … well … Did It.
Some scholars have gotten around this by saying that the word “brother” used here in the text may also be translated as “relative”, meaning that James was a cousin of Jesus or maybe even a wacky uncle. Although “wacky” is not an adjective that really suits James.
Another popular explanation, and this one actually seems plausible to me, is that Joseph was a widower when he wed Mary, and that James and the other siblings were children of his previous marriage. This makes a certain degree of sense. The Gospels don’t mention Joseph after Jesus’ childhood, and so it seems reasonable to guess that he was much older than Mary and had died before Jesus started his ministry. And the brief mention in Mark chapter 3 of the family trying to bring Jesus home to me carries the strong vibe of the Responsible Older Brother trying to get the Rebellious Kid to settle down. I might be reading into it, though.
Despite at first thinking his brother was crazy, James did come around. Later on in his ministry, Jesus’ brothers came to him again, this time to give him advice on public relations: “You ought to leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples may see the miracles you do.” (John 7:3)
Jesus ignored their advice and didn’t go down to Jerusalem until he was good and ready.
After Jesus’ Resurrection, James seems to have become more closely associated with his Disciples, becoming a prominent leader of the Early Church, called by later tradition “James the Just”. When Peter was imprisoned by Herod in Acts chapter 12 and then miraculously freed, Peter told his friends to “Tell James and the brothers about this.” (Acts 12:17)
James came up with the compromise that settled the circumcision crisis at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts chapter 15, and he is mentioned in some of Paul’s letters as an important figure in the Jerusalem Christian community. I always assumed that this was James the brother of John, but James bar-Zebedee was already dead by this point, executed by Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:1-3). Paul identifies the James he knew as James the brother of Jesus in Galatians 1:19.
So how did James wind up a respected figure in the Church? He wasn’t one of the Twelve; he wasn’t even one of the larger group of followers who gathered around Jesus. He didn’t even approve of Jesus and his ministry at first. Well, obviously he eventually came around to support his weird little brother the rabbi. If, as has been suggested, James was an older brother, perhaps the Twelve deferred to him as an elder. Or it might have simply been a matter of family connections; as Jesus’ oldest living male relative, he took over the family business, so to speak. At least taking on an administrative role.
James and Paul had an interesting relationship. I get the feeling it was a combination of cautious respect and mutual antagonism. After Paul’s conversion to Christianity, he went to Jerusalem to meet with Peter and James, who confirmed his bona fides and gave him further instruction in the teachings of Jesus. In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul cites James’ approval as one of his credentials as an apostle.
Yet there was friction between the two as well. A split was growing between the predominantly Jewish church in Jerusalem – the Home Office, so to speak – and the newer communities starting up outside Judea, like Paul’s home base in the Syrian town of Antioch, which were becoming more predominantly Gentile. A disagreement arouse over how the Church should treat these Gentile converts, which led to the Council of Jerusalem described in Acts chapter 15. In this case, James brokered a compromise between the two factions, but elsewhere we get a strong impression that he wasn’t exactly on Paul’s side.
In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul tells of an incident where Peter was visiting the church in Antioch. Peter had no problem hanging out with the gentile members of the community until “certain men came from James.” (Galatians 2:12). Then, for political reasons, Peter decided it was expedient to keep kosher. Paul called him out on this hypocrisy.
Granted, this is Paul’s version of what happened. Some scholars have noted a discrepancy between the story Paul tells in Galatians and the Acts account of the Council of Jerusalem where Peter was strongly on Paul’s side. I’m not sure if this is an inconsistency in the Bible as much as an inconsistency in Peter. I suppose a lot depends on when the two incidents took place in relation to each other.
A greater conflict lies between the epistles of Paul, Galatians especially, and the Epistle of James, traditionally attributed to James the Just. Martin Luther strongly considered leaving that book out when he was compiling his German translation of the New Testament, and grumbled that it was “an epistle of straw”. The Book of James seems to run counter to the doctrine of Salvation by Grace which Luther derived from Paul and which forms the core of Lutheran understanding of the Gospel.
Luther was far from the first reader to notice this tension between the two Apostles. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith” Paul says, “not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) Yet James counters: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? … In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith, I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” (James 2:14, 17-18)
I think what was happening here is that James was speaking from the long tradition in Judaism – which continues to this day – that good deeds, moral actions, are an essential component to the godly life. It has been suggested that James’ letter was written in reaction to early reports of what that nut Paul in Antioch was teaching, or to people who were misunderstanding Paul.
Luther eventually figured out how to reconcile the two, at least to his own satisfaction. Paul is not saying that Good Works are unimportant; only that they are not the means by which people draw near to God. In fact, in the verse immediately following the famous Ephesians 2 passage, Paul adds: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works…” (Ephesians 2:10)
In other words, we shouldn’t be doing Good Works to try to get into Heaven; we should do Good Works because they’re the right thing to do. Which is what the Atheists have been telling us all along. I’ll have to think about that a bit.
When Paul made his last trip to Jerusalem, he met again with James to report on his travels. Apparently rumors had come back to Jerusalem that Paul was teaching Jews to turn away from the Laws of Moses, which wasn’t exactly true, but close enough that it was re-opening the schism that the previous council had averted. James and the elders of the Church recommend that Paul perform a public act of ritual purification to show that he still respected the Law. It didn’t work; and in the resulting riot, Paul wound up arrested.
Scriptures does not say what happened to James the Just after that. According to the First Century Jewish historian Josephus, the High Priest took advantage of a vacancy in the Roman governorship of Judea in AD 62 to condemn James and have him stoned. Some of the Early Church Fathers stated that James died during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in AD 69.
But where was James buried? Maybe in that ossuary with the controversial inscription. The collector who revealed the James Ossuary to the world was accused of being part of a forgery ring. Although the box itself was genuine, dating back to the First Century, the Israeli Antiquities Authority, which investigated the discovery, decided that the words “brother of Jesus” had been added to the inscription at a later date. Other experts who have examined the ossuary have disagreed. And so the argument goes on.
James probably wouldn’t have thought it important.