The paper below is edited from one submitted in 2004 in a class taught at Fuller Theological Seminary in Menlo Park, California  by Dr. Art Patzia – one of the toughest — and best — teachers I had. It deals with James, author of the New Testament Book of James and brother to Jesus the Christ.  Okay, half-brother.

The Holy Bible speaks of a number of James, one of which is stated to be the brother of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Who is this person?

We acknowledge, as Christians that Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary, is the only Son of God.  For this discussion, however, we will explore the possibility of Mary giving birth to other children and, if so, what about the child named James?

Many people believe that Mary was a virgin throughout her life, even after marriage.  If such is the case, how could Jesus, whom we know was born to Mary, have brothers and sisters?

The Roman Catholic Church believes in the perpetual virginity of Mary and has taught officially that the family members mentioned in the Bible were Jesus’ cousins.  The Eastern Orthodox Church calls them half-brothers and -sisters, claiming that Joseph, the husband of Mary, was a widower who had children from a prior marriage.  The Protestant faith holds to the belief that Jesus had brothers and sisters.[1]

In going to the original source material, we read in Matthew 1:24-25 that Joseph, betrothed to Mary, “had no union with her until she gave birth to a son.” (Emphasis mine)

Jewish culture also tells us it is unlikely that Jesus was an only child.  Jewish husband and wives were told to take a page from God’s directions to Noah’s family to  “be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.” (Genesis 9:7)  As devout Jews, it is unlikely they would have disobeyed this command.

As we learn more about Jesus in the Bible, evidence continues to grow that he had brothers and sisters.

In Matthew 13:55-56, Jesus preaches to the hometown crowd.  Yet, they are confused by this rabbi, and don’t know what to make of him.  “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” they ask.  “Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?”

Other Biblical and cultural clues are provided by way people were identified by name.  As there were no last names used in the first century, there were four strategies for naming a person:  The use of the phrase “son of..” followed by the first name of the father; nicknames, like Peter being called “The Rock” (Cephas); descriptive names (“the little one”); or geographical designations (“…of Nazareth”).  Fortunately, there are enough of these sorts of clues in the Bible to discern who the players are.[2]

Whenever James and the others are referred to in the Bible, it is always done so as the true brothers of Jesus, all born of Mary.  In the Gospels, the siblings are always called his brothers and sisters.[3]

A further clue comes from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, wherein he writes:

“(When Christ) was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

Paul uses the Greek words for then and afterward repeatedly, listing himself “last of all.”  By separating James from the Twelve Disciples and the Apostles, we recognize him as James, the brother of Jesus.[4]

Linguistically, the Greek word for cousin, as the relationship is suggested in the Roman Catholic Church, is anepsios (ΕΞΆΔΕΛΦΟΣ), which is clearly different from the Greek word for brother (ΑΔΕΛΦΌΣ).[5]  The term “cousin” was never used for that purpose of identification in the Bible.[6]

The fact is, there is no biblical reason to believe James was anything other than Jesus’ brother, born of Mary.[7]

Before we learn more about James, the brother of Jesus, there must be a confession:  James’ name was not James, it was Jacob.  Except that it wasn’t Jacob either!  In the original Hebrew, his name was Ya’akov, the English form of which is Jacob.  This derivation is true not only for the brother of Jesus, but for every James in the New Testament.   How we got to James in the English translations comes from a path beginning with the Greek Jacobus, which became Jacomus in the Latin translation.  The earliest English translators often depended on the forms of the names in Latin or, in this case, the European language of Spanish, which translated the name to Jaime.  Translators have then taken the English version of the King James Bible, created in 1611, which changed the Spanish Jaime to its English counterpart, James.  It has been James in English translations ever since.[8]

By all Biblical accounts, James was the next oldest male in the family, following his father, Joseph, and older brother, Jesus.  The responsibility for the welfare of the family would have fallen to him, assuming that Joseph, who is not mentioned again after Jesus was twelve-years old, and Jesus, who spent his last years as an itinerant preacher, were not contributing to the household.[9]

Though the love a brother for a brother transgresses time and cultures, the Bible tells us in John 7 that Jesus’ brothers, led by James, wanted him to take his message to a more public venue, saying “No one can win fame by preaching here.  Galilee is such an out-of-the-way corner.  All the important religious leaders live in Judea.”  James then pointed to Jesus and said “You must proclaim your message there.”[10]  This message was not as much to exhort Jesus to spread his gospel as to prove to them that he is who he claimed to be for “even his own brothers did not believe in him.”  (John 7:5)

Prior to the Resurrection, we have biblical reason to believe James was skeptical of his older brother.  However, in the Book of Acts we him find identified as a prominent leader in the church at Jerusalem. (Acts 12:17, 15:13, 21:17)

The importance of James as a leader in the new church cannot be underestimated.  Though history may have relegated him to a “second-string” status, James was so important at the time of the new church that the Jewish historian Josephus mentions his death.  Josephus is considered the “most important source for history of the Jews in the Roman period”[11] and none of the twelve disciples or the apostles or later church leaders is mentioned by Josephus in this way.  It would seem that Josephus considered James second only to Jesus as the most important person associated with the Jesus movement.[12]  Certainly, if the members of the first-century church could be asked to name their most important leaders, they would likely mention Peter, John, Paul, and probably, at the top of the list, James.[13]

James’ importance to the early church can be found in Pauline letters (1 Corinthians 15:6-8, Galatians 2:9); the Book of Acts, (12:17, 15:13, 21:18); a New Testament letter attributed to him; and the letter of Jude identifying its authorship through his relationship to James (Jude 1:1).

His leadership authority in the church was due to merit, as much as nepotism and the ultimate basis of his leadership rested upon his faith in the risen Christ.  As one of the few to whom Christ appeared, James finally understood his brother’s glory.[14]

James, like most of the other Christian-Jews, was committed to Jewish law, culture and traditions while still embracing the teachings his older brother.  He was a “Torah-true Jew who was committed to Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.”[15]

The Book of Acts shows James’ qualities of leadership–his ability to bring opposing viewpoints together, his appreciation of those who disagree with him, and his understanding of the needs of the Gentile world.[16]

Originally considered a sect of Judaism, James was one of the few who wanted to include non-Jews in the new church, along with Jews who would remain observant of the Mosaic Law.[17]  James believed in the heart of the Jewish law, which demanded abstaining from idolatry and immorality.[18]  He declared, after listening to Paul and Barnabas state their case,

“…that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” (Acts 15:18-20).

His request was remarkably similar to the Apostle Paul’s, differing only in James’ belief that Jewish Christian needed to continue to observe the Mosaic law[19]  and it was on James’ advice that the “Council at Jerusalem” prepared a resolution allowing separate paths for Jewish and gentile Christians.[20]

More evidence of James’ leadership in the new church is found in his certifying the correctness, along with Peter, of Paul’s radical missionary decision to convert communities of Gentiles without demanding circumcision.[21]

When Peter escaped from prison he immediately reported the fact to James.  Three years after Paul’s conversion on the Damascus road, he visited James in Jerusalem. Years later James sent emissaries to investigate the situation in Antioch and he presided over two Church councils.[22]  He was president of the Jerusalem Church until his death in 62.[23]

James’ relationship with the other leaders of the church—Peter and Paul specifically—is not known for certain, but it is believed that there was no lingering animosity amongst them.  In Paul’s epistles and in Acts, the men appear as equals.[24]  The men were known to be in contact with each other throughout their time in the church[25] and Peter is recognized as serving as the intermediary between the theology of James and Paul, though all three of them are believed to be somewhat “to the right” of Hellenist Christianity.[26]  Of course, there were times when Peter, Paul, and James differed among themselves; but those differences did not cause a break of koinonia, so far as anyone can prove.[27]

The New Testament’s Book of James’—one of the shortest books in the Bible–is a practical, “how to” guide to being a Christian.  It is telling in the opening that he identifies himself not as the brother of Jesus, but as a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The brother who had once opposed Jesus had become His faithful and humble servant, showing others the path laid out by his older brother.[28]

James’ death is not recorded in the New Testament, most likely due to the history of the New Testament ending in 60 and James dieing in 62.[29]  It is the aforementioned Josephus whose history acknowledges the death of James–the only post-Resurrection leader of the church to be so remembered–as such:

“Ananus…took the high priesthood (and) was very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews….  (Ananus) assembled the Sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.”[30]

James was most likely accused of either being a blasphemer or a teacher corrupting the faithful, due to the nature of the punishment inflicted upon him.[31]

Normally, the death of James would have ended his earthly existence.  However, an ossuary–a limestone box containing the bones of the dead, was discovered just outside Jerusalem in 2002.  This, of itself, is no great discovery.  What sets it apart is the inscription found etched on this first-century container.  It reads “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”  This is an exciting find as it has been authenticated by recognized experts in the field as true to the time of Christ and represents to the believer as the first visual, tangible, scientific evidence of Jesus’ existence.[32]

 There can be no doubt as to the existence of James and others as the children of Mary, mother of Jesus.  His contributions to the beginning church are often overlooked but cannot be underestimated.  James was a leader in the very beginning and, through his words and actions, still remains a leader in the Christian church today.

 Brown, Raymond E. Brown, S.S.  The Churches the Apostles Left Behind.  (New York/Ramsey: Paulist Press 1984)
 Butler, Trent C., General Editor.  Holman illustrated Bible Dictionary.  (Nashville, Tennessee:  Holman Bible Publishers 2003)
Cedar, Paul A. .  The Communicator’s Commentary:  James, 1, 2 Peter, Jude.  (Waco, Texas:  Word Books, Publisher: 1984)
Chadwick, Henry.  The Early Church (New York:  Penguin Books: 1993 Revised).
Great People of the Bible and How They Lived (Pleasantville, New York; Montreal London; Sydney: the Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.  1974)
Josephus, Flavius.  The Life and Works of Flavius Josephus.  (Philadelphia:  The John C. Winston Company, (no publishing date available – pre-1931)
Parmele, Alice. They Beheld His Glory: Stories of the Men and Women Who Knew Jesus.  (New York, Evanston, and London:  Harper & Rows, Publishers, 1967)
Shanks, Hershel & Ben Witherington III.  The Brother of Jesus:  The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco 2003)

FOOTNOTES (Internet Language Translator)
[1] Hershel Shanks & Ben Witherington III.  The Brother of Jesus:  The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco 2003) 94
 [2] Ibid. 97-8
[3] Ibid 94
[4] Ibid. 106-7
[5] (Internet Language Translator)
[6] The Brother of Jesus  94-5
[7] Ibid. 94
[8] Ibid. 97
[9] Ibid. 103
[10] Alice Parmele. They Beheld His Glory: Stories of the Men and Women Who Knew Jesus.  (New York, Evanston, and London:  Harper & Rows, Publishers,  1967) 151-2
[11] Trent C. Butler, General Editor.  Holman illustrated Bible Dictionary.  (Nashville, Tennessee:  Holman Bible Publishers 2003) 949
[12] The Brother of Jesus  195
[13] Ibid.  93
[14] They Beheld His Glory.  157
[15] The Brother of Jesus.  139
[16] They Beheld His Glory.  157
[17] The Brother of Jesus.  139
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Great People of the Bible and How They Lived (Pleasantville, New York; Montreal London; Sydney: the Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.  1974) 410
[21] Raymond E. Brown, S.S.  The Churches the Apostles Left Behind.  (New York/Ramsey: Paulist Press  1984) 64
[22] They Beheld His Glory 156-7
[23] Henry Chadwick.  The Early Church (New York:  Penguin Books: 1993 Revised). 18
[24] Ibid.
[25] The Churches the Apostles Left Behind. 146
[26] Ibid. 129
[27] Ibid. 148
[28] Paul A. Cedar.  The Communicator’s Commentary:  James, 1,2 Peter, Jude.  (Waco, Texas:  Word Books, Publisher: 1984) 13
[29]The Brother of Jesus.  173
[30] Flavius Josephus.  The Life and Works of Flavius Josephus.  (Philadelphia:  The John C. Winston Company, (no date available – pre-1931)  598
[31] The Brother of Jesus.  173
[32] Ibid. Inside Book Cover

James, Brother of Jesus