by Addison Hodges Hart
It can be said, without much qualification at all, that James of Jerusalem, the “brother of the Lord,” was the most influential and respected leader of the early church before the year 62. So accustomed are we to regard Paul and/or Peter in that role that we might consider that bold statement surprising at first. But, however habituated we might be to the historical relegation of James to a secondary or tertiary position among the notable figures of the apostolic age, in his own day, and among those who continued to revere his memory in their increasingly marginalized churches during the two or three centuries that followed, he was deemed to have been the central governing figure in the church.
My commentary on the New Testament Letter of James has recently been published: The Letter of James: A Pastoral Commentary (Wipf and Stock: Cascade Books, 2018). For reasons noted in the book, I believe that the letter was, in fact, an encyclical composed or dictated by James, following the arrest of Paul, sometime between 58 and 62, and addressed either to all the churches, of which James’s church in Jerusalem was the “mother” church, or, more specifically, to the churches founded by Paul or Paul’s fellow missionaries. It was written, I believe, to counter a distortion of both Paul’s message and person.
During the course of preparing to write the commentary, I was repeatedly struck by the fact that James and his message had become sidelined quite early in the history of the church. This was especially perplexing, given – as I discovered – the high estimation of his importance which is evident, often in fragments, in early Christian writings. In the Introduction to my commentary I discuss at length why this sidelining may have occurred. Let me succinctly state a few of the reasons here, which I describe in greater detail in the commentary.
First, James had died in 62, and when he died the guiding center for all the churches was still the community in Jerusalem, in which he had been the undisputed authority. Even Peter and Paul accord him a primary place, a fact we see, for instance, reflected in the account of the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 (although, in his Letter to the Galatians, Paul seeks to play down the importance of James’s role). After Jerusalem fell to the Romans in 71, the churches’ center shifted to Rome (and also, in conjunction with Rome, the two important imperial cities of Antioch and Alexandria), and there it was the figures of Peter and Paul (both martyred by then) who emerged as the prominent apostles in the memory of the early Christians. We can see this “gravitational” shift more or less demonstrated in the book of Acts, which begins in Jerusalem, ends in Rome, and which “stars” (if you will) Peter and Paul.
Second, the older authority of the family of Jesus consequently receded into the background. And, as time went on, predominantly Aramaic-speaking Jewish churches, outside the sphere of Greek-speaking Roman-centered Christianity, came to be considered doctrinally heterodox – and these were the churches that most highly revered the memory of James and, unfortunately, often reviled the memory of Paul as well. These factors were not likely to guarantee a continuing high regard for James in the Greco-Roman ecclesial orbit, except to a limited extent.
Third, as for the addition of the Letter of James in the New Testament, it was – as the historian and propagandist for Constantinian Roman Christianity Eusebius noted – a “disputed” epistle. Its authenticity was disputed, wrote Eusebius, because only a “few early writers refer to it” (Ecclesiastical History III, 26). One might well find that equivocation disingenuous, given that The Shepherd of Hermas – an early Christian text that very nearly made it into the canon – cites James more than any other canonical letter. More likely it was disputed in an age – the early fourth century in this case – when hammering out doctrinal orthodoxy was of paramount concern. The Letter of James only mentions the name of Jesus twice (1:1, 2:1), never mentions his death and resurrection, and certainly gives the strong impression that orthopraxy (right moral conduct) is of infinitely greater value than affirming mere doctrinal orthodoxy; indeed it makes orthopraxy the proof of orthodoxy and the latter’s living substance. That James’s epistle made it into the New Testament at all suggests that there was one indisputable aspect about it that could not be easily gainsaid – it had long been accepted as the work of James, and the reputation of James of Jerusalem could not be casually dismissed. After all, Paul himself had, perhaps grudgingly, acknowledged him as a “pillar” of the church (Gal. 2:9) and a key witness of the resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor. 15:7).
What’s more, of all the epistles to have made it into the New Testament, it is James that sounds the most like the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels. This cannot be stressed enough (and it’s one of the reasons that I believe it deserves renewed attention in our own time, when our churches are faced with some of the very issues James in his letter addresses so strenuously). Much of his epistle, without directly quoting Jesus’ words, parallels – effortlessly, it seems – the Sermon on the Mount. It’s as if James had so deeply imbibed the message of Jesus that he could write with the authority of a disciple and brother. The message is in his marrow, it’s his rule of life, and he means that it must be the rule of life for all disciples. The Letter of James, to be sure, is the gospel of Jesus, that is to say, it is what Jesus himself had proclaimed about the way of discipleship. It sounds like Jesus like no other New Testament letter does. No one, then or now, could deny such a sign of its authenticity.
What we can glean about the historical James from the fragments of sources that we possess, both canonical and extracanonical, suggest a truly fascinating portrait – one that will perhaps be unfamiliar to many of us. Drawing from my commentary, then, let me give a very brief overview here of his life and character as we can piece it together, as if we were fashioning a portrait of him in a mosaic.
Regarding James’s relationship to Jesus, he is called “the brother of the Lord.” In fact, the Gospels are quite clear that Jesus had both sisters and brothers. Mark 6:3 lists his brothers as James, Joses, Judas, and Simon, and later tradition even names his two sisters (called Assia and Lydia in the fourth/fifth-century History of Joseph the Carpenter and, alternatively and perhaps more plausibly, Mary and Salome by the fourth-century apologist Epiphanius). The Gospel writers had no apparent difficulty with the idea that they were simply his siblings – a view held by Helvidius in the late fourth century, moving the pugnacious church father, Jerome, to respond with his claim that Jesus’ siblings were, in fact, his cousins. In this, Jerome was almost certainly wrong. The issue revolved around the virginity of Mary, which Jerome felt was being slighted by Helvidius’s claim. That controversy aside, there was a more plausible and more ancient version of the relationship of James and the other siblings to Jesus, going back to the second century at the latest, which explained that the brothers and sisters were children of Joseph from a previous marriage. We see this view, for example, in the otherwise fantastic apocryphal Protevangelion of James, and it remains the view of the Eastern churches to this day. In my commentary, I leave the question moot, but refer without qualification to James – as the New Testament does – as Jesus’ brother. The most important thing to bear in mind, regardless of one’s point of view about James’s parentage, is that he grew up with Jesus, probably worked alongside him, and knew him as only a brother could.
Eusebius, citing the Jewish-Christian Hegesippus, intriguingly informs us that James was known as “the Righteous” or “the Just,” and that he was renowned as having been “holy from his birth.” For close readers of the Gospels, this may appear to conflict with the fact that, during his ministry, Jesus’ brothers were not his followers (see, for example, Mk. 3:21 and John 7:3-5). However, to infer from that detail that they were not pious would be presumptuous. Clearly, Hegesippus thought that James’s consecrated way of life was a mark of his character from his birth, and, for all we know, the same might have been truly said of all Jesus’ siblings. There is, to back up that notion somewhat, a curious detail to be found among the fragments that exist of a now non-extant Jewish-Christian Aramaic Gospel, The Gospel of the Nazarenes, which tells us that “the mother of the Lord and his brethren” – among them James, presumably – urged Jesus to go with them to be baptized by John the Baptist for “the remission of sins.” If this surprising claim is a historical memory, it can be seen to accord with Hegesippus’s claim that James had a lifelong dedication to the things of God. It even suggests that James and the rest of the family had been followers of John the Baptist. Is it possible, then, that James’s and the other brothers’ initial distancing of themselves from Jesus’ ministry was due to their piety and devotion to John? Was there, perhaps, some “brotherly” censoriousness in their negative reaction to Jesus, a feeling that maybe he was getting above himself? Were they possibly wrong, but for the “right” reasons?
Be that as it may, James was venerated in the early church as an ascetic, not all that different in that regard than the Baptist himself. “[H]e drank no wine or intoxicating liquor and ate no animal food,” Hegesippus reports (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History II, 23). “No razor came near his head (cf. Num. 6:1-21); he did not smear himself with oil, and took no baths… [He] was often found on his knees beseeching forgiveness for the people, so that his knees grew hard like a camel’s…” He was, in other words, serious-minded, abstemious to a fault, and a man of continual prayer.
The book of Acts makes it plain that James and the family of Jesus were well within the fold at the formation of the church (Acts 1:14). Paul, as mentioned above, lists James as one of the important witnesses of the resurrected Jesus (1 Cor. 15:7), regards him as one of the “pillars” of the church (Gal. 2:9), and leads us to believe that James was – despite his noted asceticism – a married man (1 Cor. 9:5). By chapter 12 of Acts, James is seen to hold the principal role in the church (Acts 12:17). His is the adjudicating voice at the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:13-21). In Acts 21:18-26, he becomes Paul’s wise counsel before the latter’s arrest. The Jewish historian Josephus gives us a simple version of James’s martyrdom by stoning in the year 62 (Antiquities XX, 9, 1), and Hegesippus – via Eusebius – gives us a more elaborate, less plausible, account of the same event (Ecclesiastical History II, 23).
Here, to conclude, I will quote directly from my commentary:
As the gulf between the imperial church and the later Jewish Christian “sects” widened, the memory of the authority of James became an anchor for the latter. No such high estimation of him seems to have lingered among the former. The third- or fourth-century Jewish-Christian Homilies of Clement contain two spurious letters addressed to James, one purporting to be from Peter and the other from Clement, bishop of Rome. In them we can see how exalted a figure he had become for the non(anti)-Pauline churches of Jewish lineage. Respectively, they address James as “the lord and bishop of the holy Church, under the Father of all, through Jesus Christ,” and “the lord, and the bishop of bishops, who rules Jerusalem, the holy church of the Hebrews, and the churches everywhere…” James has assumed in the imagination of the writer of this pseudepigraphical work, in other words, the position of a “pope,” a final authority and governor of all churches.
Perhaps even more remarkably we find in as early a work as The Gospel of Thomas this striking logion [logion 12]:
The followers said to Jesus, “We know that you are going to leave us. Who will be our leader?” Jesus said to them, “No matter where you are, you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.”
In Jewish literature, the phrase “for whom heaven and earth came into being” is hyperbole, an expression of high praise. On the lips of Jesus, however, it is in this instance highest praise, because here Jesus is personally deputing James as his vicar. Given that this Gospel, and thus this logion, may well be a first- or second- century text, what we have here is an early testimony to the central position James was understood to occupy in the church.
To summarize, then, what we have before us is a sketchy portrait of James, but a suggestive one. He was a devout man throughout his life, so much so that he was known as “the Righteous” or “the Just”. He may have been a follower of – or at least inspired by – John the Baptist. Like the Baptist, he gained a reputation for self-discipline, adopting, it seems, traits of the Nazarite vow on a protracted basis (see Num. 6:1-21). During at least much of his brother’s ministry, he and the other brothers were not followers of Jesus. But, at some point, either not long before Jesus’ death or – more likely – after his experience of the risen Lord, James was numbered among the most important witnesses of the resurrection. After the departure of Peter from Jerusalem, James assumed the primacy of the mother church, and became renowned for his wisdom, holiness, and common sense. Even Peter and Paul deferred to him, and it was to James that Paul came for guidance just before his arrest. Finally, in 62, James was put to death, probably by stoning.
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Fr Addison Hart is a retired pastor and college chaplain presently living in Norway. He is the author of The Letter of James: A Pastoral Commentary, The Woman, the Hour, and the Garden, Strangers and Pilgrims Once More, and The Ox-Herder and the Good Shepherd.