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A Commentary on St. James: His Letter & His Legacy

Saint James the brother of Jesus Christ

Embarrassing Family Members

In the Gospel of Matthew we read:

While [Jesus] was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man that told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother’ (Matthew 12:46-50).

A common misconception about Jesus’s life is cleared up in this passage. It may surprise you to learn, but Jesus had many siblings. A surprising number of people are completely unaware of this fact, and I believe that this ignorance stems from the teachings of some early Church fathers, like Saint Jerome, who tried to reinterpret “brothers” to refer to Jesus’s cousins.[1] This interpretation, and others like it, are completely misguided and likely stem from the deeply held belief in Mary’s virginity. Nevertheless, just because Jesus is said to be born of a virgin, nowhere in the Bible does it say that his mother was a perpetual virgin. The Gospels repeatedly mention Jesus’s “brothers,” and there should be no doubt about what these words of scripture actually mean. Moreover, belief in Jesus’s virgin birth is in no way threatened by this truth.

What is more, we read in all three Synoptic Gospels how a prophet is never accepted by the people closest to him, those in his own country or home:

And when Jesus had finished there, and coming to his own country he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not his sisters with us? Where did this man get all this?’ And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house.’ And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief (Matthew 13:53-57).

The tense dichotomy between Jesus the man and Jesus the Son of God is on full display in this passage. At one moment, the people are marveling at Jesus’s teaching, and the next they are offended that one so familiar to them, one so lowly, could presume to speak with such authority. It is like the old adage goes, ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’ Or at least, in this case, familiarity breeds skepticism and suspicion.

The interplay between the two above passages is important to understand. We are indirectly given an answer in the second passage, why his brothers and mother were outside interrupting his preaching to the people in the first passage. It is because, as Jesus tells us, “a prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house.”

By turning to the Gospel of Mark we get the full breadth of the story: “Then Jesus went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they said, ‘He is beside himself’” (Mark 3:19-21).

As we can see from this passage, those closest to Jesus were embarrassed by him, and they not only tried to stop him, but they also made excuses for his behavior because they believed it reflected poorly on them. What's important to note here is it is right after his mother and siblings arrive, trying to stop him from fulfilling his mission, that Jesus denounces his earthly family, and claims a heavenly family in their stead. In fact, scripture tells us that he stops teaching at home altogether because of their lack of faith.

It is clear from the above passages that Jesus had siblings, and what is more, they did not honor or accept him as divine. (One could even say that they denied him — but I will return to this point later).

James, the Lord’s Brother

Interestingly enough, after Jesus’ crucifixion, it was his brother James who became the de facto leader of this new church left in his wake. This makes logical sense. After all, Jesus was “the King of the Jews,” (i.e. the Christ) and like other kingdoms, the crown is passed on to the next of kin. The apostles appointed James the Bishop of Jerusalem. James was called “the Just” because he was deemed by all to be a man of righteousness. In fact, second century church Christian chronicler Hegesippus left behind an account of James that Eusebius refers to as the “most accurate account of him.” In which, Hegesippus paints a picture of a man who is about as holy and orthodox as they come:

The church passed to James, the brother of the Lord, along with the apostles. He was called ‘the Just’ by everyone from the Lord’s time to ours, since there were other Jameses, but this one was consecrated from his mother’s womb. He drank no wine or liquor and ate no meat. No razor came near his head, he did not anoint himself with oil, and took no baths. He alone was permitted to enter the sanctum, for he wore not wool but linen. He used to enter the temple alone and was often found kneeling in worship of God and in prayer for the people. Because of his superior righteousness he was called the Just and Oblias — meaning, in Greek, ‘Bulwark of the People’ and ‘Righteousness’ — as the prophets declare regarding him.[2]

It is clear from Hegesippus’s account that James became the official leader of the church after the death of his brother. This appointment is only partly because he shared the same womb as Christ, in which he was “consecrated.' The real reason seems to be because of his unquestioned holiness. (Or perhaps it is because they shared the same womb that he grew into one of unquestioned holiness — it’s the story of the chicken and the egg really) Nonetheless, it is clear, to many, James was the ideal leader for this new church, because he represented the new covenant with God as ushered in by his brother Jesus, yet he was also a devout Jew and held fast to the Old covenant as well. For many in the early church, holding fast to the Jewish tradition was of the utmost importance. This is what James represented: a break from the old way, but not really.

The Book of Acts is the first history of the early church, and it mostly revolves around the actions of two individuals, Peter and Paul. Nevertheless, it is the Lord’s brother James who is literally and figuratively right at the center of it all. In Acts 15 we read how Peter and Paul both spoke before the apostles and the elders about how and why to accept Gentiles into the new church. The assembly remained silent after Peter spoke, and then Paul spoke, and we read:

After they finished speaking, James replied, ‘Brethren listen to me… therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who would turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood. For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues. (Acts 15:13,19-21)

As we can see, James is willing to accept the Gentiles into the fold as long as they are willing to accept at least some of the Jewish tradition. After James finishes speaking we read, “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas” (Acts 15:32). So, as we see, Peter and Paul both addressed the assembly of apostles and elders with their reasons for how to convert the Gentiles, but it was not until James spoke on the issue, that it was settled. In other words, James was the one with the proverbial last word on the matter. This scene shows the authority of James in the eyes of the apostles and elders. Matter of fact, his authority was so well understood that Paul both appeals to it for credibility while preaching among the Gentiles, while also blaming it indirectly for the hypocritical actions of Peter against the Gentiles. Let us look at two passages from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians to see what I mean:

Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter], and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you before God, I do not lie!) (Galatians 1:18-20).

One must remember here, Paul is not an actual “apostle” in the true sense of the word — meaning, he did not personally know Jesus. So it is important for Paul to associate himself with the people who did actually know the Lord. In this passage, Paul is connecting himself directly with Peter the Apostle, and James the Lord’s brother. He even swears on God that this happened, knowing how crucial it is for his credibility that this point be believed. (What is more, for a man who was willing to be tortured, imprisoned, and killed for his belief in this same God that he is swearing by, I think it is safe to say that Paul is telling the truth about his meeting with James and Peter in Jerusalem.) Paul tells us that during that meeting, the Apostles confirmed his teachings to the Gentiles, and accepted him into the apostolic brotherhood, writing, “And when they perceived the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas [Peter] and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship” (Galatians 2:9). However, despite this seeming camaraderie and shared mission, when Peter came to visit Paul in Antioch, he seems to have brought the authority of James, which is to say his subservience to James’s authority, along with him. For Paul writes,

But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about 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 Gentile to live like Jews? We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by the works of the law, shall no one be justified (Galatians 2:11-16).

In short, Peter came to visit Paul and the Gentiles in Antioch, and the meeting was going fine, until more men had been sent by James from Jerusalem. At which time, Peter withdrew from the Gentiles in order to fit in with his Jewish brethren. Paul saw this action as antithetical to the teachings of Jesus, and he lashed out at Peter for it. Or rather, he lashed out at James, through Peter, for it. Paul draws a clear line in the sand — it is by faith alone that one is justified, not by works of the law, which is to say, by adhering to all the Old Jewish traditions.

This conflict between Paul and James will all be better understood once we take a much closer look at the Letter of James.

The Letter of James

As you can probably tell by that long intro describing the character of James, the Lord’s brother, I do in fact believe that the Letter of James was written by this same James despite what most modern scholars believe. What may surprise you, is that this position is not such a radical view. For you see, there is a common misconception among scholars, where they misinterpret the reluctant acceptance of the Letter of James into our Biblical canon by early church fathers, such as Origen or Eusebius, as a challenge to the letter’s authorship [3]. Their reluctance, however, actually stems from a rejection of some of its teaching, not from the credibility of the authorship. That is to say, the reasoning of the early church fathers had less to do with authenticity of the letter than it had to do with its theology. Biblical scholar John A.T. Robinson argues, “In fact the argument for pseudonymity is weaker [in the letter of James] than with any other of the New Testament epistles.”[4] It is the intro of the Letter of James that Robinson uses as evidence of his point. The letter begins:

“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greeting” (James 1:1).

Robinsons persuasively argues that if one were using James as a pseudonym to give the letter Apostolic authority, why not add the description “the brother of the Lord” that was well understood and widely used by others, or at the very least say, “James, the Bishop of Jerusalem”[5]. That does not happen, however, which suggests two things. One, that James and his theology were so well known, that all he had to do was say his name in connection with Jesus Christ, and everyone knew who was writing to them. And two, James, using only his name without any authoritative title, seems to suggest his genuine authorship, because it would appear that if one were writing simply using James as a pseudonym for apostolic authority, they missed a huge opportunity to boost that authority at this point by adding some kind of description or title along with the name to emphasize the point.

If that were not enough, the language and theology of the letter also seems to clearly align with what we know about James. For instance, in his letter, in his opening remarks he says, “Count it all joy, my brethren” and in Acts we read that when he began his speech to the apostles and elders he said, “Brethren, listen to me.” The two greetings share a clear similarity of language. One could argue that Luke could have just been copying the language in the Letter to capture James’s voice. Perhaps that is true. Nevertheless, that would still suggest that Luke believed that the Letter of James to be authentic, or else why use the same language. Either way, Luke's goal was to capture James' voice and thus make his own writing more credible as a result, whether that is by copying the letter or simply recording how he actually spoke -- the point is the same, the voice of James' is distinct and recognizable. Furthermore, beyond these small linguistic tendencies, it is the theology represented in the letter that is of the utmost importance to our present discussion.

When Paul was lashing out at Peter for acting as if being a Jew made him somehow better in the eyes of the Lord than a Gentile, what he was really doing was standing up against the teachings of James.

By establishing that James did in fact write this letter, and that Paul was responding to James in Galatians via Peter, we can attach an historical date to the writing. Robinson’s exhaustive research led him to place the Letter of James around 47 or 48 AD, making it the first letter of the New Testament to be written.[6] What is more, this date makes a lot of sense in the light of the Griesbach Solution to the Synoptic Problem, which I argue in favor of in my research on the matter. Without going too much into the Synoptic Problem at this time, I would just like to make the following point. The vast majority of scholars today subscribe to Markan priority of the Gospels, which means that they believe the Gospel of Mark was written first and it was then used as a source by both Matthew and Luke. The Griesbach Hypothesis, on the other hand, contends that Matthew was written first. For many reasons (which I extensively elaborate on in my essay on the Synoptic Problem), I subscribe to Matthean Priority. One of the main reasons I believe that Matthew’s Gospel was the first gospel written, is because it most closely coincides with the teaching in the Letter of James, which we just argued was the first letter written. As Robinson writes, “There is no doubt that it is Jesus’ teaching, particularly as found in the Sermon on the Mount and the Matthean tradition, that lies behind everything that James says."[7] In other words, in light of the Synoptic problem and the chronological order of the Gospels, it makes logical sense that the first letter of the New Testament would coincide theologically with the first Gospel written, a theology which Robinson describes as a “Pre-Matthean Palestinian tradition.”[8]

Before I get into the linguistic and theological similarities between the Letter of James and the Gospel of Matthew, I want to first address a major difference between the two. Where the Gospel of Matthew presents a complete narrative of Jesus’s life, the Letter of James, on the other hand, only mentions Jesus’s name twice; and at neither time does James discuss Jesus’s life, death, or resurrection in any way. As E.M. Sidebottom contends, the Letter of James gives “the impression of an almost precrucifixion discipleship.”[9] That is to say, the letter gives one the sense that it was written very early on in the formation of the church. What James is presenting in his letter is essentially Old Jewish teaching with a thin veil of a new Christian morality applied to them. In fact, some hardly see a change from the old way at all. As Robinson puts it, ‘There is indeed nothing that conflicts with or goes beyond mainstream Judaism.”[10] This is where the Letter of James and the Gospel of Matthew converge; however, it is also where the teaching of James and Paul diverge. Let us first look at the convergence of Matthew and James.