James, The Brother of Jesus
Here we will see that the evidence from the primary sources, the New Testament and writings of the early church fathers point to the fact that James was the son of Joseph and Mary and the full biological brother of Jesus.
James is a very common name in the New Testament. The name appeared more than forty times in it and could designate as many as seven different people: 
- The evidence from the New Testament and citations of some early church fathers, that James is the brother of Jesus, is compelling.
- Due to the rising tide of asceticism in the emerging catholic church [a], the initial myth of the virgin birth evolved and expanded into the myth of Mary's perpetual virginity. Thus the position of James, as the full brother of Jesus, became unacceptable theologically. Both the eastern (which ultimately became the Orthodox Church) and the western churches (which became the Roman Catholic Church) proposed various explanations to get out of this difficulty. We will see that both attempts are not convincing:
It is possible that some of these designations may be referring to the same persons. We will leave that for consideration later. For the moment, it is important to note that the two most important Jameses in the list are the first , the son of Zebedee, and the last, the brother of Jesus. These two were definitely presented in the New Testament as two separate persons. The reason for this is as follows:
- At least three persons connected to the twelve apostles were named James
- James son of Zebedee (Mark 3:17; Matthew 10:2), one of the twelve
- James son of Alphaeus (Mark 3:18, Matthew 10:3), one of the twelve
- James father of Judas (not Judas Iscariot), one of the twelve (Luke 6:16; Acts:1:13
- James the Less, mentioned only with connection with him being the son of one Mary, which may or may not be Mary, mother of Jesus. (Mark 15:40, 16:1)
- The author who calls himself this name in the epistle of James (James 1:1)
- The name of the brother of the author of the epistle of Jude (Jude 1:1)
- James, the brother of the Jesus (Mark 6:3; Matthew 13:55; Acts 12:17, 15:13, 21:18; Galatians 1:19, 2:9, 12; I Corinthians 15:7)
Acts 12 described the death of one James:
Acts 12:1-2 |
About the time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. He had James the brother of John, killed with the sword.
The only James we know who was a "brother of John" was James, son of Zebedee. Thus we can conclude that the first James in our list was dead before the Jerusalem council given in chapter 15.
When Luke narrated the story of the Jerusalem council, it was "James" who made the final ruling on the situation with Gentile believers. (Acts 15:13-21) Although it was not made explicit in Acts who this James was, Paul's epistle to the Galatians provide the clarification. This is how James was introduced in Galatians:
Galatians 1:18 |
Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James, the Lord's brother.
Later on, when Paul was narrating the story of the Jerusalem council, he mentioned James again, without any further qualification:
Galatians 2:9 |
and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me...
It is obvious that Paul meant this to be the same James he met in Jerusalem earlier. [b] Thus, we can conclude that the James narrated in Acts after the murder of James, son of Zebedee, was James, the brother of Jesus.
Note also that Paul did not qualify what he meant by the word brother. Indeed the most natural reading is that he was referring to James as the full biological brother of Jesus. He never used the word to refer to Peter (or Cephas as Paul liked to call him) or to the apostles. We have seen this in Galatians 1:18. Another example can be found in I Corinthians:
I Corinthians 9:5 |
Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?
Incidentally the last passage refers to brothers in plural, meaning that Jesus had more than one brother. Indeed, this information is corroborated by the tradition in the gospels:
Mark 3:31-32 (also Matthew 12:46-50; Luke 8:19-21)|
Then his [Jesus'] mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him. "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you."
Further on, their names are also given. This episode took place in Jesus' hometown where people who knew him and his family were hearing him preach for the first time. Astonished, they asked:
Mark 6: 3 (also Matthew 13:55-56)|
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?
We see similar references in the gospel of John:
John 2:12 |
After this he [Jesus] went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers and his disciples...
So his [Jesus'] brothers said to him, "Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing, for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world" (For not even his brothers believed in him)."
We see the family of Jesus mentioned also in Acts as being present with the apostles just after the ascension:
Acts 1:14 |
All these were constantly devoted to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
Even in the narrative of the virgin birth, Luke refered to Jesus as Mary's firstborn, clearly implying he had siblings later.
Luke 2:6-7 |
While they [i.e. Joseph and Mary] were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.
The evidence of some early church fathers corroborates this strongly.
Thus we can conclude that a straightforward, natural, interpretation of the evidence of the New Testament and very early Christian tradition is that James was the brother of Jesus and he was Jesus' brother in the full biological sense. [c]
- Eusebius (c260-340) in his book The History of the Church (2:23:3-18) quoted a second century Christian, Hegesippus (c110-180), on the martyrdom on James. In it Hegesippus plainly called James "the Lord's brother".
- Tertullian (c160-c225) in his work Against Marcion (4:19), argued for a literal interpretation of Matthew 12:46-50; that the mother and brothers waiting for Jesus were actually his mother and his brothers. 
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The eastern church came up with the idea that the brothers and sisters mentioned in the gospels were children of Joseph from a prior marriage. This explanation became known as the Epiphanian View, after the fourth century father, Epiphanius (c315-403), bishop of Salamis.
This view is mainly based on the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James. This mid second century work of Christian piety testified to the growing fascination with Mary's virginity.  Joseph was portrayed as an old widower with children when the chief priest entrusted the twelve year old Mary to his care. For this is what Joseph said upon being told of this:
And the high priest said, "Joseph, you are the person chosen to take the virgin of the Lord, to keep for him." But Joseph refused, saying "I am an old man, and have children, but she is young, and I fear lest I should appear ridiculous in Israel."
That Mary was a virgin post partum, that is after the birth of the baby Jesus, was poignantly shown by the following episode. Salome, who was skeptical of Mary's continued virginity, was told to "try it herself". She did and found her offending hand withered as a result!:
And the midwife said to her, "Salome, Salome, I will tell you a most surprising thing which I saw. A virgin has given birth, which is a thing contrary to nature." To which Salome replied, "As the Lord my God lives, unless I receive particular proof of this matter, I will not believe that a virgin has given birth." Then Salome went in and the midwife said, "Mary, show yourself, for a great controversy is risen concerning you." And Salome received satisfaction. But her hand was withered and she groaned bitterly.
The Protoevangelium also claimed James as its author and established him as the elder brother of Jesus. In the appendix to the work we read this:
I, James, wrote this history in Jerusalem; and when the disturbance was I retired into the desert place, until the death of Herod.
Origen (c185-254), whose piety extended to him castrating himself after reflecting on Matthew 19:12, was an early supporter of the Epiphanian view. Citing both the Protoevangelium (which Origen referred to as "The Book of James") and a now lost portion of The Gospel of Peter, Origen mentioned this in his Commentory on Matthew:
On Matthew: 10:17|
But some say, basing it on a tradition in the Gospel according to Peter, as it is entitled, or The Book of James, that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honour of Mary in virginity to the end ... And I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the first-fruit among men of the purity which consists in chastity, and Mary among women; for it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the first-fruit of virginity.
Another prominent supporter of the Epiphanian view was, of course, Epiphanius (c315-403) himself. In his Panarion, a "medicine chest" for use against heresies, Ephiphanius mentioned that Joseph's first wife died after bearing him six children, with James being the eldest. He also added that Joseph was eighty years old when he was bethrothed to Mary; by then, presumably, he was too old to have sex. (Panarion 78:7:1-78:8:2)
It seems hardly necessary to refute such a charming fantasy! However for completeness' sake we need to look at why almost everyone looks at this view with skepticism.
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- The earliest evidence for this come from the mid second century Protoevangelium. The Protoevangelium was authored by someone who obviously had no knowledge of Palestinian geography and Jewish customs. It's narratives are a conflation of the canonical works of Matthew and Luke. It bears, according to John Painter, "deep marks of legendary development". Thus the work is a derivative work of piety written by someone who was not an eyewitness nor someone who had any access to reliable tradition.
- As Origen's statement above makes clear, the purpose for accepting this view is purely apologetic in nature. It harmonises with the then prevailing view with respect to chastity. This ad hoc nature of the explanation invites extreme skepticism.
- In the gospel of Luke 2:6-7, the idea of Jesus being Mary's firstborn loses much of its force if he was also not Joseph's first born. For inheriting the kingdom of David must surely go to the eldest in the family. Thus if Jesus had elder brothers through Joseph's previous marriage, Luke's phrase loses much of its force. The fact that Luke phrased it the way he did can only mean that he knew of no such tradition, of Jesus having an older brother, at the time of his writing (c 100 CE).
Not satisfied with just the perpetual virginity of Mary, the western church went a step further and suggested that Joseph was a virgin as well. Therefore it was no longer permissible for Joseph to had had sexual intercourse with a hypothetical earlier wife! Thus the "brothers and sisters" were claimed to be "cousins" of Jesus. This suggestion is normally called the Hieronymian View, after Jerome (c342-420), whose full name was Eusebius Hieronymous.
Jerome did not like the Epiphanian view because it was based, in his opinion, on spurious works such as The Protoevangelium of James. He sought to derive the idea of Mary's perpetual virginity from canonical sources alone. Jerome's argument, put forward in his Against Helvidius, written in 383 CE, is a four step process.
This, in a nutshell, is the Hieronymian view. The construction is, it must be admitted, intricate and ingenius and it is, in principle, possible. But reminding the reader about the difference between possibility and probability, the argument rests on many highly improbable suppositions:
- First, he cited Paul in Galatians:
Galatians 1:18 |
Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fiteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord's brother.
Jerome takes the statement above to mean that James was one of the twelve apostles.
- Second, in the list of the twelve apostles given in Mark 3:13-19 (and Matthew 10:1-4), there were two Jameses, one being the son of Zebedee and the other being the son of Alphaeus. Since we know that John the son of Zebedee could not be James the brother of the Lord (see above), this means that James the son of Alphaeus was the one known as James, the brother of the Lord! Obviously since Alphaeus is not Joseph, this leaves the term "brother" still unexplained, so there are a couple more steps to go.
- Third, in the scene of Jesus' crucifixion both Mark and John gave a list of women who were present there:
Mark 15:40 |
There were also women looking from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the Less (Greek: mikrou) and of Joses, and Salome.
Meanwhile standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife Clopas and Mary Magdalene.
Although modern translations add "the wife" to Clopas, the original Greek is missing that term and the phrase could easily be read, ambiguously, as "Mary of Clopas". Jerome understood John 19:25 to mean that Mary of Clopas was the sister of Jesus' mother, also called Mary.
Now Mary of Clopas given in John's gospel is to be identified with Mary, the mother of James the Less and Joses given in Mark's. As for the identity of James the Less, Jerome claimed that it makes no sense to call someone lesser unless there is another greater. The only other "greater" James was the son of Zebedee. Now, Jerome added, comparisons of "greater" and "lesser" are done between two people only, not three. Thus this James the Less, Jerome argued, must be the second James among the apostles. Thus Mary of Clopas was the mother of James, brother of the Lord.
Therefore these James the Less and Joses, are to be identified with the names given in Mark 6:3:
Mark 6: 3 (also Matthew 13:55-56)|
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?
Thus the four names and the two girls were not the children of Jesus' mother, Mary, but her sister, also called Mary!
- Finally Jerome explained the use of the term "brother". Citing examples from the Bible, Jerome noted that the term could be taken to mean brother by nature, by kinship, by race or by love. Thus brother could mean any of these things, and in this particular reconstruction, it obviously means that James and the rest were cousins of Jesus, being the children of Mary's sister, Mary.
It can be seen that the Hieronymian view relies heavily on a series of improbable conjectures, all of which must be true for the theory to work. Take away one link and the whole chain breaks. To get the probability of the view being true, the probability for each difficulty being somehow true is multiplied to the next. If we allow each of the seven difficulty above (which in itself does not exhaust all the difficulties with the theory) a 50% chance of being true (a very generous assumption), the chances of the Heironymian view being correct is less than 1% or less than 1 in 100. Now that's a long shot!
- Equating Paul's use of the term apostle to be synonymous with the twelve is highly speculative. For Paul's use of the former term seems to cover a wider group of followers. He called himself an apostle (I Corinthians 9:1-3). In I Corinthians 15:5-7 he seems to differentiate between the twelve and all the apostles. The former having a more restricted use than the latter.
I Corinthians 15:5-7 |
...he [Jesus] appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time...then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles...
- The identity of James the Less with James the son of Alphaeus is a crucial link in Jerome's argument, yet it is based purely on conjecture. It is hard to explain why Mark, who counted James, son of Alphaeus, should fail to make the identification in relating the son of Mary at the crucifixion to the apostle.
- The Greek tou mikrou more probably means "the small" rather than "the less". If this indeed is the case, the use of the term in a comparative sense is nonexistent. Furthermore nowhere in the gospels is James the son of Zebedee referred to as "the greater".
- Another necessary supposition is the identity of "Mary of Clopas" and "Mary the mother of James the Less and Joses". Yet, again, this is pure conjecture. Jerome himself did not argue too strongly for this, being content, he wrote, only to assert that Mary the Mother of James and Joses was not Mary, the mother of Jesus. However without that crucial identification, Jerome's whole argument falters! For the identity of Mary of Clopas as the sister of Mary, mother of Jesus, provides the whole foundation of James being the cousin of Jesus.
- The vague term "Mary of Clopas" presents another problem, it could mean Mary wife of Clopas or Mary mother of Clopas. (Indeed, as I mentioned above, most modern translations describe Mary as the wife of Clopas.) The former would be a problem for Jerome's linkage. Although later Catholic theologians had tried to argue that even if Mary is the wife of Clopas, the name could be another form of Alphaeus as both could be derived from the Aramaic form Chalphai. It is by no means certain, of course, that Clopas and Alphaeus come from the same Aramaic name. Thus it is another conjecture made to cover up the earlier one. Note how suppositions are piled upon suppositions!
- The suggestion that Mary, mother of Jesus, had a sister also called Mary is, on the surface absurd. Yet, this is another crucial supposition for Jerome's argument. Some Catholic theologians have tried to argue that Mary, mother of Clopas is actually the sister of Joseph and thus is just the sister in law of Mary, mother of Jesus. Here again, another supposition is added, that "sister" can mean "sister-in-law".
- While it is highly unlikely that siblings would have identical names ("this is Darrell and my other brother Darrell") it is certainly likely that many people during the time of Jesus shared the same names. Relatively few Jewish names were used during that period. The names Jacob (=James), Judah (=Jude), Simeon, Joseph (=Joses?) are names of patriachs and thus would be expected to be popular during that time. The fact that some unrelated people have similar names does not provide enough reason to base a theory of identity on.
- Furthermore it is by no means clear that John meant "Mary the mother of Clopas" to be an expansion of "the sister of Jesus' mother". The Greek text could easily be read as referring two separate persons: one being Mary of Clopas and the other being the sister of Mary, mother of Jesus.
It is no surprise that some Catholic theologians such as J.P Meier, Joseph Fitzmeyer and (the late) Raymond E. Brown have distanced themselves from this interpretation.
Having established the fact that James was the biological brother of Jesus, we will go on to survey the evidence showing it was James, and not Peter, who was the first leader of the Jerusalem Christians after the death of Jesus. We will also go on to show that James was, like his brother, a devout adherent of the Mosaic law. And because of the devotion of James, Peter and the other original apostles of Jesus, to the Mosaic law, they vehemently repudiated Paul and his teachings. Despite the initial attempt at reconciliation at the meeting in Jerusalem, the incident at Antioch between Paul and James' emissary, Peter, convinced James that Paul's mission was heretical and needed to be opposed. When Paul tried to bribe his way back with a monetary offering, it was rejected by James and the rest of the Jerusalem church.
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|a.||By catholic I do not mean the Roman Catholic church. The term catholic means universal and was the term used by the early church fathers to refer to the movement that eventually became mainstream, orthodox Christianity. |
|b.||In four references to the name in his epistles, Paul did not differentiate the Jameses. Strong indication that one and the same person, James, the brother of Jesus, were meant in all cases. (I Corinthians 15:7, Galatians 1:19, 2:9, 2:12) |
|c.||We have already shown elsewhere that the virgin birth is a myth. Many of the arguments above were originally given by a Roman Christian called Helvidius (fl c.380). Helvidius was concerned about the rising tide of ascetism and the glorification of virginity over marriage that was taking hold of Rome. He wrote a short work that, while accepting the virginal conception of Jesus, denied that Mary was perpetually a virgin. The position that James was a brother of Jesus (whether half [if one accepts the dogma of the virgin birth] or full brothers) is normally known in scholarly circles as the Helvidian view.|
Jerome (c342-420) wrote a polemical work against the Helvidius' views in 383 called Against Helvidius. Jerome's position was embraced by the Catholic church and held as dogma for more than 1,600 years. We will look at Jerome's argument later. In a bizzare twist of fate, it is the Helvidian view that is now taking hold of Catholic theologians. For instance, the Catholic theologian J.P. Meier, concluded in the first volume of his work on Jesus, A Marginal Jew, Vol I (p331) that "from a purely philological and historical point of view, the most probable opinion is that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were his siblings."
|d.||The text of the Protoevangelium and well as the chapter and verses are taken from The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden, Meridian Books, New York 1974. (I have slightly updated the archaic English.) Other editions of this may have different chapter and verse references.|
|1.||Bernheim, James, Brother of Jesus: p21|
Chilton & Neusner (ed), The Brother of Jesus: p10-11
|2.||Chilton & Neusner op cit: p11-12|
|3.||Kelly, Jerome: p104-107|
|4.||Bernheim, op cit: p14|
Painter, Just James: p119, p214-215
|5.||Ferguson, Encyclopedia of Early Christianity: p955|
|6.||Bernheim, op cit: p19-20|
Chilton & Neusner op cit: p13-16
Painter, op cit: p198-201
|7.||Bernheim, op cit: p20-29|
Chilton & Neusner op cit: p16-20
Painter, op cit: p213-220
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