Who’s in charge today?
Dr. Jim Denison
Who was James?
The book of James names its author in its first sentence: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). But which James? The NT uses the name 42 times, of which 38 identifications are certain:
19 refer to James the brother of John and son of Zebedee
4 refer to James son of Alphaeus
3 refer to a son of Mary
2 refer to a half-brother of Jesus
8 refer to an unspecified James, a pillar of the Jerusalem Church
2 refer to “Judas son of James.”
James the son of Zebedee is the most prominent James in the Gospels.
He was among Jesus’ first disciples (Mark 1:29).
His mother was probably Salome (Matthew 27:56: among those at the cross were “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons”; Mark 15:40: “among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome”).
John 19:25 lists these women at the cross: “his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” Unless John omitted his own mother from his listing of the women at the cross, it is likely that she is one of these four and thus the sister of Jesus’ mother Mary. As a result, her sons James and John were Jesus’ cousins.
James was so important to the first Christian movement that Herod chose him for execution (Acts 12:2).
His early death (AD 44) makes it very unlikely that he is the author of our letter.
James son of Alphaeus, while a disciple of our Lord (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15), is not otherwise known to the apostolic record.
He is likely mentioned in Mark 15:40, “Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses”; and Luke 24:10: “Mary the mother of James, and the others with them” who told the apostles about Jesus’ resurrection.
His mother is likely the wife of Clopas (John 19:25), so that Clopas is usually identified as Alphaeus.
He may be the brother of Jude, the author of the letter bearing his name; or that Jude may be a half-brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55).
Most scholars believe the author of our letter to have been a person of greater stature in the early church than James son of Alphaeus, and question whether this man could be known to a wide audience by the simple identification “James.” However, the Catholic tradition does not accept the thesis that Mary had children after Jesus, and thus denies that our letter could be written by his half-brother. Catholic theologians thus consider him to be the author of our epistle (see #6 below).
The James whose son is Judas (not Iscariot; Luke 6:16; Acts 1:13) is even less known to Scripture, and thus even less likely to be the author of our epistle.
We are left with James, the half-brother of Jesus. Here’s what we know about him from the Gospels:
He is named with Joseph, Simon, and Judas as Jesus’ brothers (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3); he was likely the oldest of the brothers, as he is listed first.
He and his brothers did not believe in Jesus at first: “even his own brothers did not believe in him” (John 7:5).
Note the Roman Catholic doctrine that Mary maintained her virginity, so that James could not be her child. Two theories are proposed to support this assertion:
The Epiphanian theory (after Epiphanius, ca. AD 370): James and his brothers were the sons of Joseph from a previous marriage. But nothing in the text indicates such a previous family; and the flight to Egypt (Matthew 2) would surely have mentioned this other family if it existed.
The Hieronymian theory (proposed in AD 383 by Jerome, whose Greek name is Hieronymius): Jesus’ “brothers” were his cousins. Paul describes “James the Lord’s brother” as one of the “apostles” (Galatians 1:19); Jerome insists these are only the Twelve. He thus identifies him as James son of Alphaeus (Matthew 10:3) and asserts that Alphaeus was married to Salome, the sister of Mary, making James the cousin of Jesus. But “brother” does not mean “cousin” in family relationships; and the “apostles” were more than the Twelve (cf. Romans 16:7, where Andronicus and Junia are “outstanding among the apostles”). Nonetheless, this is the official position of the Catholic Church today.
Nothing in the biblical text suggests that James was anything other than Mary’s son and Jesus’ half-brother. This fact will become important in the applications which conclude this week’s study.
After the resurrection, Jesus made a special visit to his half-brother. He visited Peter and the Twelve (1 Corinthians 15:5), more than 500 of the “brothers” (v. 6), and “then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles” (v. 7). The second-century Gospel according to the Hebrews adds that Jesus shared the Lord’s Supper with James at this time (Martin, James xliv).
This distinction between James, the “Twelve,” and the “apostles” makes clear that this person is not James the brother of John or the son of Alphaeus (see also Galatians 1:19, where Paul says he met with “none of the other apostles–only James, the Lord’s brother”).
And it demonstrates that this James was important enough to warrant a specific visit from the risen Christ, and special mention by Paul.
Most interpreters believe that this event led James to faith in his half-brother as the Messiah.
Eventually, the other brothers came to the same faith commitment. By the time Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, Jesus’ brothers are among the believers: “Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?” (1 Corinthians 9:5).
Following this life-changing encounter, James became one of the most significant leaders of the Jerusalem church:
From the death of James the brother of John, the book of Acts refers to “James” as if there is only one person known widely by this name.