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James, brother of Jesus

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Statue of James in Belgium; probably not an accurate likeness and should not be used for purposes of identification.
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James (probably but not 100% certainly the same individual as James the Just and/or James the Less) was the brother of Jesus Christ. Probably. There isn't a whole lot of information about Jesus's family, but there is a tradition that Jesus had one or more brothers, of whom James was the most prominent because he was actively involved in the early church as Bishop of Jerusalem and is mentioned by St Paul of Tarsus and in the Acts of the Apostles.[1] (James is a rendering of the Hebrew and Aramaic name Jacob.[2])

Roman Catholics and some other Christians believe that the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, was a lifelong virgin, never having had sex at any time during her life, and therefore James couldn't have been the literal child of Mary or the brother of Jesus. Brother-denialists suggest that James was either a more distant relative (cousin or step-brother from Joseph's hypothetical earlier marriage), or that the early Christians used the word "brother" in a general sense to mean fellow man or fellow believer, or that the people called Jesus's brothers were actually the children of another Mary (which makes no sense — your brothers aren't people born to people who have the same name as your mother — but any port in a storm).[3] Of course, a far more simple explanation is that Mary had multiple children. Most Protestants seem happy to accept that Mary and Joseph had a sizable family, and regard the Roman Catholic church's machinations with bemusement.

James is credited with having composed a large part of the Apostolic Decree in Acts 15:1-29, in which the church rules against a requirement for circumcision, so Christians with foreskins should be grateful to him.[1] He has traditionally been considered the author of the Epistle of James in the New Testament, although this is not universally accepted, based on its style, content, and likely date of authorship. With a lack of detailed biographical accounts or other evidence, and confusion between the several people called James mentioned in Biblical sources, it's hard to say anything conclusively about James or the authorship of the texts assigned to him.[2]



The gospels mention Jesus as having a big family in several places. In Mark 6, when Jesus begins his ministry, the author quotes various unnamed people as reacting to Jesus's preaching, including someone or some people as saying "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us?" (Mark 6:3) Essentially the same text is found in Matthew, which draws heavily on Mark: "Is not this the carpenter's son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas?" (Matthew 13:55) Unnamed siblings are mentioned elsewhere in all the Gospels: Mark 3:31; Matthew 12:46; Luke 8:19; John 7:3.[2]

Among the named brothers, JosesWikipedia is an alternative (and more Greek) form of Joseph. JudeWikipedia (otherwise known as Judas, Judah, Juda, etc) is another possible brother of Jesus identified by some as the author of the Epistle of Jude; however Jude is also identified with one of Jesus's 12 disciples, Judas Thaddaeus, aka Jude the Apostle.Wikipedia Simon is likewise identified with other people including Simon Peter the Apostle (Simon Cephas in Hebrew, otherwise known as St Peter), one of the most prominent apostles and leaders of the early church.

It's curious in view of the large number of siblings of Jesus mentioned by Mark that none of them turned up for the crucifixion.[4] But it's not impossible that they would keep a low profile if Jesus was being put to death.

After Jesus's death, tradition says that James changed his mind about ignoring Jesus, and became a Christian leader in Jerusalem, initially alongside St Peter. Then when Peter left on his travels, James remained in control, where he focused on the Jews and upholding Jewish law, in contrast to St Paul's focus on evangelising gentiles.[1]

Acts 21:17-18 describes Paul of Tarsus returning to Jerusalem and meeting James. In Galatians, Paul mentions a trip to Jerusalem where "other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother". (Galatians 1:19) Later he praises James, saying "And when James, Cephas [i.e. St Peter], and John [the Apostle, son of Zebedee], who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship". (Galatians 2:9) 1 Corinthians 15:7 is one of several other vaguer references to someone who might be James.

Deuterocanon and unwanted gospels[edit]

The non-canonical Infancy Gospel of James, probably dating no earlier than 145 CE and not mentioned in other texts before the 3rd century CE, concludes:

And I James that wrote this history in Jerusalem, a commotion having arisen when Herod died, withdrew myself to the wilderness until the commotion in Jerusalem ceased, glorifying the Lord God, who had given me the gift and the wisdom to write this history.[5]

Hence it is attributed to James, brother of Jesus, in Jerusalem, even though it doesn't have anything to say about James or other siblings of Jesus. This attribution ignores the problem with the date of composition and many historical inaccuracies which suggest the author didn't go anywhere near 1st century Jerusalem.[6]

Extra-Biblical sources[edit]

James also apparently features in the Jewish historian Josephus. Section XX.ix.1 describes the cruel deeds of the high priest Ananus: "he 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." Ananus's enemies took action against him to get the decree repealed, but tradition has it that James died soon after anyway.[7] Whether this is a genuine account by Josephus or a later interpolation is a complex question discussed elsewhere.

Eusebius offers a clear account of James in his Church History, chapter II.23, although since it was written in the 310s or 320s it is a long time from contemporary sources. Eusebius relies on Pope Clement I (pope 88-99 CE) for most of his information:

2. Then James, whom the ancients surnamed the Just on account of the excellence of his virtue, is recorded to have been the first to be made bishop of the church of Jerusalem. This James was called the brother of the Lord because he was known as a son of Joseph, and Joseph was supposed to be the father of Christ, because the Virgin, being betrothed to him, was found with child by the Holy Ghost before they came together, Matthew 1:18 as the account of the holy Gospels shows.

3. But Clement in the sixth book of his Hypotyposes writes thus: For they say that Peter and James and John after the ascension of our Saviour, as if also preferred by our Lord, strove not after honor, but chose James the Just bishop of Jerusalem.

4. But the same writer, in the seventh book of the same work, relates also the following things concerning him: The Lord after his resurrection imparted knowledge to James the Just and to John and Peter, and they imparted it to the rest of the apostles, and the rest of the apostles to the seventy, of whom Barnabas was one. But there were two Jameses: one called the Just, who was thrown from the pinnacle of the temple and was beaten to death with a club by a fuller, and another who was beheaded. Paul also makes mention of the same James the Just, where he writes, Other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother.[8]

Other Jameses[edit]

There are a lot of James in the New Testament, which makes it all very confusing.[9]

  • James, son of Alphaeus, one of Jesus's 12 disciples (apostles). Sometimes identified with James, brother of Jesus — proponents of James as brother of Jesus suggest that Alphaeus was a Roman Catholic invention to camouflage James's parentage.[10]
  • James the Less (or James the Younger) — his mother is someone called Mary, but he is mentioned only once, in Mark's crucifixion narrative in Mark 15:40. He is possibly the same person as James, son of Alphaeus, and/or possibly James, brother of Jesus.
  • James, son of Zebedee (or James the Greater), another of Jesus's 12 disciples, traditionally martyred in 44 AD, and patron saint of Spain venerated at Santiago de Compostela; his brother John was also one of the 12 disciples. Probably not James, brother of Jesus.
  • James, brother of Jude from Jude 1:1 — the brother of the mysterious author of the Epistle of Jude: both Jude and James might be brothers of Jesus although the textual evidence isn't clear and there's no other evidence.

Fringe theories[edit]

James Tabor in The Jesus DynastyWikipedia claimed that Mary married someone called Clophas after her marriage to Joseph (there is a "Mary the wife of Clophas", or Cleophas, mentioned in John 19:25 and a Cleophas mentioned in the account of the journey to Emmaus in Luke 24:18.) They established a dynasty of religious leaders, for which there is absolutely no evidence.

Robert Eisenman's book James the Brother of JesusWikipedia claimed that Jesus was in the mainstream of messianic Judaism of the 1st century, and that after Jesus's death his brother James was one of the main leaders of the church, which split into factions including one devoted to James, the Ebionites (who revered Jesus), and Mandaeans (who viewed John the Baptist as the highest prophet). He also identifies James with the Teacher of RighteousnessWikipedia at Qumran mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Other theories place the Teacher of RighteousnessWikipedia earlier, in the 1st century BCE.

Ossuary of James[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Ossuary of James

In 2002 some people claimed they had found James's tomb. Spoiler: they hadn't.

See also[edit]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 See the Wikipedia article on James, brother of Jesus.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 James Brother of Jesus, Bruce Chilton, Oxford Biographies, 26 Jul 2017
  3. Jesus had brothers?, Catholic Answers, September 17, 2013
  4. Was James really the brother of Jesus?, Christianity Today, 21 April 2018
  5. Early Christian Writings, Roberts-Donaldson English Translation.
  6. See the Wikipedia article on Gospel of James.
  7. Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus, XX.ix.1, University of Chicago
  8. Church History (Book II), Eusebius, Translated by Arthur Cushman McGiffert. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.
  9. St James the Less, Camerlynck, A. (1910). In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved February 15, 2019
  10. The Missing Family of Jesus, Tobias Churton, Watkins Magazine, 22 Mar 2011