James the Just

Scripture Readings: Mark 6:1-6, Acts 15:12-21, Galatians 2:1-14

Many Christians do not know that Jesus had a brother named James. In fact, the New Testament reports that Jesus had four brothers. In Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55 they are identified as James, Joses (Joseph in the gospel of Matthew), Judas and Simon. In the same passages there is also a reference to the "sisters" of Jesus, so it seems he had at least two sisters and maybe more, but these are not named. In these passages there is no indication that the brothers and sisters of Jesus are stepbrothers and stepsisters. The most straightforward reading of these passages is that they are all the children of Mary and Joseph.

The brothers of Jesus play only a minor role in the New Testament gospels. The gospel of Mark relates that the family of Jesus tried to restrain him, as people were saying, "He has gone out of his mind." (Mk. 3:21) However, this report is not confirmed in the other New Testament gospels. The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke do record that once, when the brothers of Jesus and his mother tried to call him out of a crowd, Jesus said: "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." (Mk. 3:35, see also Mt. 12:50 and Lk. 8:21) Some read this as inferring that the family of Jesus opposed his ministry, but the passage may be understood as simply giving those who are faithful the same favored position as family members.

None of these passages are in the gospel of John, but in this gospel the narrator says in a parenthetical comment in John 7:5 that: "not even his brothers believed in him." In the fourth gospel, however, the brothers of Jesus are traveling with him, as though part of his ministry. Moreover, Acts 1:14 states that the brothers of Jesus and his mother were with the disciples in Jerusalem after the resurrection, "constantly devoting themselves to prayer.

We do not know if the brothers of Jesus supported his ministry, but at least two of them were leaders in the early church. Paul writing in the first generation of the church acknowledges the preeminence of James. In Galatians 1:18 Paul says that three years after his conversion: "I went to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother." In Galatians 2:9 Paul refers to James, Cephas and John as the "acknowledged pillars" of the church. Second century Christian writings refer to James as the first bishop of the Jerusalem Church and his successor as a brother of Jesus and James.

Clearly, James the Just (as he was known in early Christian writings) speaks for the apostles in Acts 15, which describes a council held in Jerusalem to resolve the dispute between the mission to the Gentiles and "the circumcision party." At issue is whether Gentile converts must keep the Law of Moses. In Acts 11:1-18 Peter explains to members of "the circumcision party" that in a vision to him God set aside the dietary restrictions of Jewish law, and in Acts 15 Peter again defends the mission to the Gentiles. After Barnabas and Paul describe the "wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles," James gives his decision: Gentile converts are to keep two dietary restrictions and to abstain from fornication (temple prostitution).

It is striking that Paul does not mention this council in his writings, which may mean that he did not attend or know of it. Instead, in Galatians 2-3 we find Paul in conflict with both Peter and James over rules in a church with Jews and Gentiles. Paul says in Gal. 2:7-9 that the Jerusalem Church approved his mission to the Gentiles and sent Peter to "the circumcised." In Gal. 2:10 Paul argues that the "acknowledged pillars" of the church only required of the Gentile mission that money be collected for poor Christians in Jerusalem, which Paul says he was happy to do.

So, when James orders Jews in the Antioch church not to eat with Gentiles, Paul is outraged. In Gal. 2:11-14 he writes: "But when Cephas [the Aramaic name for Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile, and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’

Clearly, the Jerusalem Church under the leadership of James was keeping the law of Moses, and this means that during his ministry Jesus did not explicitly set Jewish law aside. Acts 15, which was written more than twenty years after the letters of Paul, presents a harmonizing view of this early conflict in the church. After the Jewish revolt in 66 and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70, leadership of the church shifted from Jewish Christians in Jerusalem to Gentile Christians in Roman cities. Acts plays down the conflict in the early church between the mission to the Gentiles and the apostles in Jerusalem and portrays as the work of the Holy Spirit the growth of the Gentile church. This view was incorporated into the account of the ministry of Jesus in the gospel of Luke, which is written by the same author.

Acts 21:17-20 reports that when Paul last went to Jerusalem he visited James and "all the elders," who told Paul "how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews, and they are all zealous for the law [of Moses]." Acts 21:25 reaffirms the decision of James in Acts 15. Seven days later, Acts 21:27-28 reports, Jews from Asia challenged Paul in the temple, accusing him of "teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place." (Whether this was so we cannot know, but in Romans 10:4 Paul does argue: "Christ is the end of the law [of Moses] so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.") Acts says that Paul was arrested to protect him from the wrath of the crowd, but was not tried by Jewish authorities in Jerusalem because he exercised his right, as a Roman citizen, to have his case heard by the Emperor in Rome.

In the fourth century, when the canon of the Bible was closed, the church was firmly in the hands of Gentile Christians and the letters of Paul were given prominence in the New Testament. The leadership of James the Just in the first generation of the church is only reflected in the New Testament in a single, short letter attributed to him. 

The inclusion of this letter, however, was disputed. The letter attributed to James was not part of the New Testament authorized by the Council of Nicea in 325. But church leaders from Alexandria and Constantinople persuaded Jerome to include the letter in his Vulgate translation of the Greek New Testament into Latin, and this helped persuade Augustine to argue for its apostolic authenticity. The letter of James was finally included in the New Testament canon at the Synod of Hippo in 393 and at the Councils in Carthage in 397 and 419, and also at the Council of Rome in 382.

These same Councils excluded early Christian writings claiming apostolic authorship, and in some of these James the Just is prominent. In the gospel of Thomas, when disciples ask Jesus who will lead them after he is gone, Jesus answers: "You are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being." In the New Testament, however, Matthew 16:18-19 identifies Peter as "the rock" on which the church will be built, and Acts confirms that Peter supported the mission to the Gentiles. So Peter, not James the Just, is the leading apostle in the New Testament.

November 3, 2002

 Bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016