If you go to Israel, you’ll be shown all kinds of sites where Jesus allegedly walked.
The site where his mother is said to have seen the angel Gabriel.
The site where he is said to have been born.
The site where he’s said to have been baptized.
Two sites where he’s said to have fed the 5,000.
Two sites where he was arrested.
The site where he was tried.
A couple of sites where he was buried.
Many of these have churches to mark the “exact location.”
There’s a church on the site where he’s said to have ascended to heaven, complete with a footprint he is said to have left in the rock.
After a while, you start wondering what’s real. Because it’s not likely that people were following Jesus around, pounding signposts into the ground to mark the spot.
Is there any place we can know for sure Jesus stood?
We know that Jesus lived in Galilee and went to the synagogue every Shabbat. So if we could find an authentic first-century synagogue in Galilee, it would be a good bet Jesus was there.
What About the Synagogue at Capernaum?
Jesus had his headquarters in Capernaum, a village near the north end of the Sea of Galilee.
My wife and I worked on an archaeological dig in Jerusalem for a couple of weeks this summer. When that was done, we went up to Galilee for a few days. We stopped by Capernaum, one of our favorite spots in Galilee.
There’s a beautiful synagogue at Capernaum that most tourists visit. Here’s a picture I took:
It’s big and beautiful. Did Jesus stand here?
Unfortunately, this synagogue was probably built in the fourth century. So Jesus never set foot in this building. The synagogue was built on the site of an earlier synagogue, and Jesus certainly taught in that one. But not in the one shown in the photo.
The problem is that there just aren’t that many synagogues in Israel that date to the first century. Until recently, only six were known.
But in 2009, a new one was discovered in Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene. A Catholic organization wanted to build a retreat center there on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. As soon as they broke ground for the new building, they began making sensational finds, including a synagogue. They called in the authorities and launched an archaeological dig.
They found a coin dating to the year AD 29, which proved that this synagogue dates to the first century.
Did Jesus Visit the Synagogue at Magdala?
The obvious question to ask is whether Jesus ever visited this synagogue at Magdala.
And the answer seems very clear to me. Yes, he did.
Magdala is only about six miles from Capernaum. There was a road running south along the Sea of Galilee, connecting Capernaum to Magdala. You could walk between the two towns in a couple of hours.
It’s true that none of the four gospels ever mention Jesus visiting Magdala.
But that’s not surprising. The four gospels mention by name only a very few towns or villages that Jesus visited in Galilee. Nazareth. Cana. Capernaum. Chorazin. Nain. That’s most of them.
But there were more than 200 villages in Galilee, and the gospels say that Jesus walked all through Galilee.
It’s likely that he visited every single village and town in Galilee. To see how that was possible, see my blog post On The Road With Jesus.
And Magdala was one of the larger towns, probably ranking in the top five.
So yes, Jesus visited Magdala. His close friend, Mary Magdalene lived there. She was likely a wealthy woman, because the gospels say she helped support Jesus and his friends.
And the gospels are also clear that Jesus was a rabbi, a Torah teacher.
Without a doubt, he’d have been asked to speak in any synagogue he chose to visit on Shabbat.
The Strange Magdala Stone
But we can say more. The archaeologists found a strange stone in the synagogue at Magdala. Nothing like it has been found anywhere in Israel.
The stone is inscribed with beautiful artwork on all four sides and also on top.
The art shows a menorah and what appears to be symbols representing the Temple in Jerusalem.
These may well be the earliest images of the Temple that we have.
The stone may have been used to hold the Torah scroll during the reading on Shabbat.
If so, then Jesus would have stood in front of it when teaching in the synagogue.
Even if it wasn’t used to hold the Torah scroll, Jesus must have admired the art on it when he visited. It’s just too beautiful to ignore.
My wife and I worked on the Magdala dig for about a week back in 2015. We went back to visit this summer to see what progress they’ve made on the site.
Here is a picture I took of the synagogue at Magdala. Near the center, there’s a replica of the Magdala stone showing where it was found:
Here are some pictures I took of the on-site replica of the Magdala stone. In the first, you can see the menorah. The second appears to show a representation of the Temple in Jerusalem.
If You Get a Chance to Visit Magdala, Do It!
If you visit Israel on a tour, the odds are high that your guide will take you to Capernaum. This has been a traditional tourist stop for years. Many tours now also include Magdala, because it’s close to Capernaum and just as exciting.
I personally like Magdala more, because you can get closer to the archaeological finds. And because you can see a synagogue where you know with high confidence that Jesus actually visited.
Work is ongoing at Magdala, and I expect they’ll continue to uncover more of the past over the next few years.
You can read all about the archaeological park at Magdala here.
Can you name all the disciples of Jesus?
Everyone knows Jesus had 12 disciples.
But very people can name them all from memory.
Can you do it without looking them up? Try it and see.
Every time I try this exercise, something very mysterious happens.
I come up with more than 12 names.
If I scour every corner of my brain, I come up with 21 different names for the disciples of Jesus.
What’s going on here?
Work with me, and see if you agree.
21 Names of the Disciples of Jesus
The first four names of disciples are pretty easy—Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Most everyone who’s read the Bible knows these.
And just about everybody remembers Judas Iscariot. He’s a little hard to forget.
If you think for a few minutes, you’ll probably come up with names like Thomas, Matthew, Bartholomew, and Philip.
But maybe you’ll also remember Levi the son of Alphaeus.
And maybe Nathanael.
Maybe even Simon Barjona.
Aren’t those names of disciples too?
Yes, they are. That’s 12 names of disciples already.
But there’s more. A bunch more.
Here are some you might come up with if you really work hard: Simon the Zealot, Simon the Cananean, James the son of Alphaeus, Judas the son of James, Thaddaeus, and Lebbaeus. Recognize those names?
All of them are named in modern English translations of the Bible as disciples of Jesus. Members of the Twelve.
And wasn’t there a guy mentioned once as “Judas, not Iscariot?” That’s kind of a weird way to talk about somebody.
And wasn’t the name Didymus also thrown around a few times?
And isn’t somebody named Cephas?
Yes and yes and yes.
This is pretty strange. Count the names above. We’re up to 21 different names for various disciples of Jesus! Did we make a mistake?
Were There Really 21 Disciples of Jesus?
How did that happen? Some of these must be the same people under different names, right?
Biblical scholars have worked on this question for centuries, and they don’t have perfect agreement. But most everyone agrees that some of these gentlemen had more than one name.
Let’s see if we can untangle things.
You’ll find lists of the 12 disciples of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Mark and Luke, and also a list of 11 of them in the book of Acts.
The gospel of John doesn’t make a list of 12 disciples. This gospel only mentions 7 disciples by name, scattered through the story, and also 2 unnamed “sons of Zebedee.”
The lists of 12 generally divide up neatly into groups of 4.
Let’s look at those and see what we can learn.
The First 4 Disciples
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts all pick out 4 of the 12 disciples to mention first. They aren’t named in exactly the same order in each list, but these 4 always come before any of the others. Here they are:
- Simon, (whom Jesus nicknamed Peter).
- Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter.
- James, the son of Zebedee.
- John, the son of Zebedee and brother of James.
What We Know About Simon Peter
What’s the deal with Simon having two names?
“Simon” is the English spelling of the Aramaic name “Shimon.” This was the most common name for men in Judea during the first century, and it’s still a common name in Israel today.
“Cephas” is the English spelling of an Aramaic nickname, “Kepha”, which means “Rock.” Jesus gave Shimon this nickname when they met. But the New Testament was written in Greek, so usually “Cephas” was translated to Greek …
“Peter” is the English spelling of the Greek name “Petros” which was used to translate the Aramaic name “Cephas.”
“Barjona” is just the English spelling of the Aramaic “bar Yonah”, which means “son of Yonah.” Simon Peter’s father was named Yonah.
What We Know About Andrew
“Andrew” is the English spelling of a Greek name “Andreas.” We don’t know if he had an Aramaic name. In the Greek New Testament, he’s always called “Andreas.”
Simon and Andrew were fisherman and came from the fishing village of Bethsaida (according to the gospel of John), but they appear to have lived in Capernaum, another fishing village about 3 miles from Bethsaida. There’s no explanation for why they are said to have lived in two different villages. Possibly, they moved from Bethsaida to Capernaum at some point.
What We Know About James and John
James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, were also fisherman, and they came from Capernaum. Jesus nicknamed the two of them “the sons of thunder.” Both were part of the inner circle of Jesus, along with Simon Peter. Tradition says that John was the youngest of the 12 disciples of Jesus. He might have been as young as thirteen years old when he met Jesus!
Four Fishermen, not Twelve
These four primary disciples were all fishermen living in Capernaum. And Capernaum was the village Jesus chose as his headquarters. Could it be that Jesus chose Capernaum because that’s where his first disciples came from? It’s not clear.
People often assume that all 12 disciples were fishermen. We don’t actually know that. We only know for sure that Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen.
The Second Group of Four Disciples
All the lists of disciples name a second group of four men next.
We know a bit less about these four.
What We Know About Philip
Philip came from Bethsaida, and he’s usually mentioned with Andrew. So it’s plausible he was also a fisherman, but we can’t be sure. “Philip” is a Greek name and we never hear that he has an Aramaic name. He and Andrew are the only two disciples whose birth names are Greek, and both are said to come from Bethsaida, which was a village with both Jews and Greeks. There’s a story in the gospel of John of some Greeks who wanted to meet Jesus—they came to Philip first, who took them to Andrew, who took them to Jesus. So Philip may well have spoken both Aramaic and Greek.
What We Know About Bartholomew
“Bartholomew” is the English spelling of the Aramaic name “Bar Tolmai,” which just means “son of Tolmai.” The gospels usually name him in the same breath with Philip, so it seems likely they were friends. But Bartholomew is not named at all in the gospel of John. In John, there’s a disciple named Nathanael who is close friends with Philip. Many people over the centuries have suggested that Nathanael is the same person as Bartholomew. This is possible. Then his full name would be “Nathanael son of Tolmai.” We don’t know if that’s how it played, but it might be. Nathanael is said to come from Cana, a small village about 15 or 20 miles from the Sea of Galilee. So he may not have been a fisherman. We don’t have any clear idea what he did for a living.
What We Know About Thomas
“Thomas” is the English spelling of the Aramaic name “Toma” which means “twin.” Thomas was sometimes called “Didymus,” which is a Greek name which also means “twin.” Thomas has a reputation as a doubter. But there’s a story in the gospel of John in which Thomas is the bravest of the disciples, so let’s not judge him too harshly. We don’t know what Thomas did for a living. There’s a legend that he was a builder or a carpenter of some sort. If he lived in Capernaum or Bethsaida, then he might actually have been a boat-maker. But that’s just a guess.
What We Know About Matthew
Matthew is named as a tax-collector in three of the gospels. There’s a story in the gospel of Matthew about Jesus calling him out of his tax-booth to be a disciple. The same story in the gospels of Mark and Luke tell about Jesus calling a man named Levi the son of Alphaeus. Were Levi and Matthew the same man? Traditionally, most people have believed he was. Some modern Biblical scholars have disputed this. We can’t know for sure. It’s a guess. But we can be sure Matthew was not a fisherman. He was a tax-collector, and quite possibly literate, which was rare at the time. He may have been the only disciple who could read or write. Again, we don’t know.
The Last Group of Four Disciples
All the main lists of disciples name a final group of four, but there’s quite a bit of variation in the names. One traditional way to list them is this way:
- Simon the Zealot (also called Simon the Cananean)
- “James of Alphaeus”
- “Judas of James”, also called Thaddaeus or Lebbaeus surnamed Thaddaeus
- Judas Iscariot (or Judas son of Simon)
Why all the differences in the names? And who were these people?
What We Know About Simon the Zealot
“Cananean” is just an English spelling of a Greek spelling of an Aramaic word, “kanai,” which means “zealot.” So this Simon was zealous for Torah. It’s a reasonable guess that he was in fact a Pharisee. Most of the people in the first century who were called “zealots” were Pharisees.
What We Know About “James of Alphaeus”
“James of Alphaeus” is usually translated into English as “James the son of Alphaeus.” The Greek doesn’t explicitly have the word “son”, but English translators usually supply it. Some scholars believe James was the cousin or half-brother of Jesus, because Jesus had an uncle or possibly step-father with the Aramaic name Halfai, and Jesus also had a brother/half-brother/cousin named James. And “Halfai” could be transliterated into Greek as “Alphaeus” or “Klopas.” We don’t know enough about “James of Alphaeus” to say whether he was really related to Jesus. But it’s possible. For more about James the brother of Jesus, see my blog post James, the Brother of Jesus, Part I. Also, my post Where Was James at the Crucifixion?
What We Know About “Judas of James”
“Judas of James” is usually translated as “Judas the brother of James”. I can’t find any clear reason for this. Everywhere else, “of” would be translated as “son of”. Is this Judas really the son of some James? If so, which James? And it’s more complicated, because this man is called “Judas of James” in only the lists in Luke/Acts. Mark doesn’t mention “Judas of James,” but in the same spot in his list, there’s a man named Thaddaeus. In the same spot in Matthew’s list, there’s a man named “Lebbaeus surnamed Thaddaeus”. We don’t know for sure that these are all referring to the same person, but it seems plausible. One thing we know for sure about “Judas of James” is that he is definitely not Judas Iscariot. Because all the lists also mention Judas Iscariot as a separate person. And the gospel of John talks about a man named “Judas, not Iscariot.” It’s a very strong bet John is referring to our man “Judas of James.”
What We Know About Judas Iscariot
Judas Iscariot is the name of the famous traitor who betrayed Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all call him by this name. We don’t know for sure what “Iscariot” means, but a traditional guess is that it comes from the Hebrew words “Ish Keriot” which would mean “man of Keriot.” The gospel of John tells us he was the son of a man named Simon Iscariot. But we don’t know anything about this Simon.
Lots of Questions Remain
So we’ve found 21 different names used for the 12 disciples of Jesus.
We don’t know as much about any of them as we’d like.
Where did they come from?
What did they do for a living?
Were any of them relatives of Jesus?
What happened to them later in life?
We can answer a few of these questions for a few of these men. But it’s a mysterious group.
What we do know is that Jesus saw something in each of them that he liked. If you believe that Jesus was a good judge of character, you can reasonably guess that these men were each special in some way. Even if we don’t know exactly what made them special.
Over the 14 years that I’ve been slowly working out the story world for my novel series Crown of Thorns, I’ve had a lot of fun thinking of possible ways that each one might be special.
Below is a photo of a chapel at a Catholic retreat center at Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The boat at the front of the chapel is the altar, and when you’re sitting in the pews, the boat looks like it’s floating on the water. Around the aisles on both sides you’ll see images of all the 12 disciples of Jesus. These are based on traditional church icons that go back many centuries.
Ever wondered what you’d have seen if you’d been there the day Jesus got baptized? All four gospels have accounts of his baptism: in Mark 1:9-11; in Matthew 3:13-16; in Luke 3:21-22, and in John 1:29-34.
Baptizing Jesus is not as simple as it sounds. Here are four extra facts that makes things complicated:
- The earliest Christians were baptized naked
- Christian baptism comes from the Jewish practice of immersion
- Jews at the time of Jesus immersed naked
- Jesus was Jewish
If you put those facts together, you might ask:
Was Jesus Baptized Naked?
Whoa, whoa, whoa! That’s a very weird question, isn’t it?
Why would anyone in their right minds ask such a question?
Well, when you’re a novelist writing a scene about the baptism of Jesus, and you know the facts listed above, you pretty much have to ask the question. Because you have to figure out a way to write the scene so it’s historically accurate and not weird.
But it raises another question, because John the Baptist was immersing lots of people at that time. Not just Jesus. John was immersing hundreds of people.
Men and women together.
In the Jordan river.
So now we have to ask …
Did John Baptize All Those People Naked?
That just doesn’t seem plausible, does it? Because here’s one more fact that makes it really complicated:
In the time of Jesus, Jews were very particular about not being seen naked in public. That’s one of the big issues they had with their Greek neighbors. Greeks thought it was no big deal to hang out naked in the public baths, or to exercise naked. But Jews considered it shameful to be seen naked.
In the first century, we know that Jews typically immersed in private immersion pools called mikvehs. So it was no shame to immerse naked in a private mikveh, because nobody was around to see. Here’s a picture of a mikveh that I took when I visited Magdala a few years ago. You can see stone steps leading down into a pool.
But a private immersion doesn’t square with the fact we mentioned above, that both men and women came out to hear John the Baptist at the Jordan river. And they immersed there in the Jordan. Right out in public.
So how do we make sense of all this?
It comes down to one question.
How Exactly Did John Baptize People?
I found all this quite puzzling, and I wondered if maybe people wore at least something when they immersed—a loincloth or whatever. So I emailed a well-known Biblical scholar, Prof. Joan Taylor, who is Professor of Christian Origins and Second Temple Judaism at Kings College London. Dr. Taylor is the author of a recent scholarly book on how people dressed at the time of Jesus, and I figured she’d know, if anyone did.
She got back to me quickly with a reply. As it turns out, she’s also the author of a book on John the Baptist, so she’d already thought about the problem of how people got baptized. There’s a simple solution that seems very plausible.
Let’s remember that, in Jewish law, you were required to be naked at the moment when you immersed yourself fully underwater.
But that doesn’t mean you had to walk down into the water naked. Or walk up out of the water naked.
You could wade out into the Jordan river with your tunic still on. (In those days, everyone wore a long tunic made of wool. They didn’t wear socks and they probably didn’t wear a loincloth or any other underclothing.)
Once you got out neck deep into the water, you could pull the tunic up over your head. At which point you’d be naked. But not embarrassed, because the Jordan river is very murky water. If anyone was peeking at you, they wouldn’t see anything.
Then you could immerse yourself fully in the water. You could also immerse your tunic at the same time.
When you finished immersing, you’d still be naked, and still be neck-deep in the water. Now you could just pull your tunic back on over your head and down over your body. Then you could walk up out of the water, fully clothed again.
In Jewish law, you’d now be clean, and your tunic would be too.
And that’s how John the Baptists’s listeners could immerse naked in public and not be weird about it.
Yes, the whole process would be terribly inconvenient. No matter how you do it, immersion is inconvenient. Modern Christian baptisms by immersion are also inconvenient. Prof. Taylor told me by email that she had witnessed a Jewish immersion ceremony in modern Jerusalem that was done exactly this way in a public place in murky water.
Do We Know For Sure That’s How Jesus was Baptized?
No, we can’t be sure that’s how Jesus was baptized.
But it’s plausible. It makes sense of all the historical data we have. It seems to me to be the best explanation of all the facts. And it’s been done that way in modern times.
Certainty is hard to come by in historical research. Sometimes the data looks contradictory. You have to put it together the best you can.
You have to remember that you might be wrong.
You have to always be open to new evidence.
But for now, I’ll take this theory and run with it.
So that’s how I wrote it in my forthcoming novel in the scene where Jesus immerses with John at the Jordan river.
According to the gospels, Jesus routinely took the road to Jerusalem for the annual feasts. The main feasts were Passover (in early spring), Pentecost (in late spring), and Tabernacles (in early fall). But we know Jesus also spent at least one Hanukkah (early winter) in Jerusalem.
For most of his life, Jesus lived in Nazareth, a village in Galilee about 60 miles north of Jerusalem. And for the last few years, he made his headquarters in Capernaum, another 20 miles or so east of Nazareth. Today, you can drive from Jerusalem to Galilee in less than two hours.
But Jesus didn’t drive, he walked. Which means this wasn’t a two-hour trip for him, it was a walk of several days.
Jesus had two main routes he could take to get to Jerusalem. We don’t know what people called these routes in the first century, so we’ll make up reasonable names:
- The Samaritan Road
- The Jordan Way
These were very different routes, each with pluses and minuses.
Walking the Samaritan Road
Coming from Nazareth to Jerusalem, the shorter route was definitely the Samaritan Road, which ran more or less straight south. As the crow flies, the distance is 64 miles, but it had to be at least 70 miles by road.
A typical traveler can walk 15 to 20 miles in a day, which means that you could walk from Nazareth to Jerusalem in about 4 days. If you set a very aggressive pace, you might be able to make it in 3 days. If you were really taking it easy, you could do it in 5.
Most of the Samaritan Road goes through the hill country of Samaria and Judea at altitudes up to about 2000 feet. In a hot country like Israel, that would mean slightly cooler temperatures.
But it would also mean going through Samaria, which was enemy territory. We know that occasionally the Samaritans harassed Jews coming to the feasts. Sometimes they killed people.
That’s one reason many travelers chose a different route.
Walking the Jordan Way
Many travelers from Galilee did an end run on Samaria. They’d cut southeast from Galilee until they reached the Jordan River. Then they’d take the road straight south along the river until they reached Jericho. Finally, they turned west and hiked up into the Judean hill country to Jerusalem.
From Nazareth to Jerusalem by the Jordan Way was probably 85 to 90 miles. So a reasonable time to walk that distance would be 5 days. Again, you could set an aggressive pace, and you might make it in only 4 days. Or taking things slower than normal, you might take 6 days.
So the Jordan Way took about a day longer than the Samaritan Road. This route drops in elevation most of the way from Nazareth to Jericho. Nazareth is roughly 1200 feet above sea level, while Jericho is about 850 feet below sea level.) The lower the elevation, the higher the average temperatures. So this route was definitely hotter.
The final day’s hike from Jericho up to Jerusalem would have been tough. The change in altitude is almost 3000 feet over a course of about 16 miles. That’s more than a 3% grade.
This last day of the journey was the infamous Jericho Road—arid, rocky, lonely, and steep. Here’s a picture I took of this country on a recent trip to Israel:
The Jericho Road was notorious for bandits, so the smart traveler went in a largish group and took a weapon.
But the one advantage of the Jordan Way was that you didn’t have to go through Samaria.
Which Route Did Jesus Take?
Jesus appears to have used both roads. We have a story about him walking through Samaria. And we have a story about him going through Jericho.
We don’t know which way he took more often. If I had to guess, I’d say that he made the decision based mostly on temperature, and partly on time.
In early spring, nights could be cold, and the Jordan Way would be warmer and therefore more inviting.
In late spring and early fall, days could be hot, and the Samaritan Road would be cooler and more tempting.
But Jesus would also have weighed the cost of the extra day to go by the Jordan Way. Jesus wasn’t wealthy. He and his brothers worked as day-laborers. Every day on the road to Jerusalem was a day not earning money on the job.
Where Did Jesus Sleep?
Not everyone in Galilee could come to Jerusalem for three or four or five weeks at a stretch, so probably most Galileans stayed home for most feasts. But even so, there would have been several thousand people on the road to Jerusalem at the same time as Jesus.
There were no chains of motels that could handle that many people all at once.
Which means most everyone camped out along the way.
You wouldn’t need a tent for camping, which is good because a tent would be too much weight to lug along.
All you really needed was a good wool cloak. Everybody had one. A heavy wool cloak was a standard part of your wardrobe, precisely because you could both wear it and sleep in it.
A cloak would typically be big enough to wrap twice around your body, which made it a very effective sleeping bag.
You could carry your cloak in a leather bag slung on your shoulders. You could also carry food in the bag.
Other Necessities on the Road to Jerusalem
You wouldn’t need to carry extra clothes. You could just wear the same wool tunic for the whole trip to Jerusalem and back. Yes, it would get dirty after a few weeks, and it would smell, but everyone else would be dirty and smelly too, so it wouldn’t be a big deal.
But you did need to carry water. When you walk miles every day in the hot sun, water is essential. You could carry water in a waterskin on your shoulder. You could refill it along the way, mixing it with beer or wine to kill germs.
You also needed a long cloth belt to wrap around your waist. If you folded this correctly, it held your money safely. A few silver dinars would buy food and drink for the whole trip.
Finally, you might slip a short knife into your belt as a defense against bandits.
And that’s all you needed. Just enough gear to get you safely to Jerusalem and back. Light enough to carry.
Jesus and his family and friends made this trip many times over the years.
What do you think? Does the road to Jerusalem with Jesus sound like an adventure worth taking? In my forthcoming series of novels, Crown of Thorns, we’ll take that journey several times.
The gospel of Mark tells us that a few women stood by Jesus when he was crucified:
- Mary Magdalene
- Mary the mother of James the Less and Joses
Most biblical scholars think that the second Mary on this list, the mother of “James the Less and Joses” was the mother of Jesus. The gospel of Matthew gives a similar list or women, and so does the gospel of Luke.
But we know that Jesus had four brothers—James, Joses, Simon, and Judas. (See my earlier post, The Mysterious Brothers of Jesus.)
The oldest of these, James, eventually became the leader of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem and was murdered by the high priest about the year AD 62. (See my post, James the Brother of Jesus, Part 1.)
But that raises a question.
Why Wasn’t James With His Brother Jesus?
If James was so important in the early history of the Jesus movement, why wasn’t he there at the cross beside his mother? Why didn’t he stand up and fight for his brother?
That’s a hard question to answer, because none of our sources tells us. But we can guess. We have a couple of clues:
- James and his other brothers were on bad terms with Jesus.
- Jesus was executed for treason.
What do those two clues have to do with the fact that James didn’t show up for his own brother’s crucifixion? Let’s look at those two data points.
James Was on Bad Terms With Jesus
Probably about six months before the crucifixion, Jesus and his brothers had an argument in their hometown.
The brothers told him he should go up to the Feast of Tabernacles and make a name for himself, if he thought he was such a big deal. The story is found in the gospel of John.
Jesus told them he wasn’t going to the feast.
So the brothers went without him.
Then Jesus changed his mind and went to the feast after all.
The passage makes the interesting comment that even his brothers did not believe in him.
That’s pretty harsh. It tells us that there was a lot of friction in Jesus’s own family.
James was the oldest of the brothers of Jesus, and the obvious leader. Clearly, James had some major issue with Jesus. We don’t know exactly what this issue was. But they didn’t get along.
So that’s one fact that explains why James didn’t come to the crucifixion. But there’s another.
Jesus Was Executed for Treason
All four gospels report that Jesus was executed as “King of the Jews.” Governor Pilate ordered that those words were written on a sign above Jesus’s head on the cross.
“King of the Jews” was not meant as a compliment.
“King of the Jews” was the charge against Jesus.
And that amounted to treason, because the Jews already had a king over them, the emperor of Rome, Tiberius Caesar.
Jesus was executed on charges of making a treasonous claim to be the “King of the Jews.”
And that put all his brothers in extreme danger, because once he was dead, they would naturally have been considered next in line to be “King of the Jews.”
The man in the most danger was James, the oldest brother of Jesus.
Even if James had been on good terms with his brother, he didn’t dare come to the crucifixion.
He would have been crucified too.
That’s the second fact that explains why James wasn’t there.
How Does This Make Sense?
We now have three crucial facts about James that don’t seem to make sense when you put them together:
- James didn’t believe in his brother Jesus before his crucifixion.
- James was afraid to come to the execution of Jesus.
- James eventually came to believe in Jesus, became the leader of the Jesus movement, and was executed because of it.
If James didn’t believe in Jesus before the crucifixion, and was too chicken to show his face at the crucifixion, what changed? Why did he come to believe in him? Why did he take on the leadership of the Jesus movement? What gave him the courage to face execution?
We can’t know the answer for sure, but we can guess.
Jesus Appeared to His Brother James
In a famous passage in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Paul gives a list of people that Jesus appeared to after his resurrection. According to Paul, Jesus appeared to Peter, then the twelve disciples, then to five hundred people all at once, and then to James the brother of Jesus.
And how did Paul know that? Again, we can’t know the answer for certain, but we can make a very good guess.
Paul knew James personally. Paul met with James several times. The first time was probably within about five years of the crucifixion. Paul’s source of information seems most likely to be James himself.
We don’t know anything more about the appearance Jesus made to his brother James. We don’t know exactly when it happened, or where, or how long it lasted, or what Jesus said.
But it changed James for the rest of his life. James was reconciled to his brother Jesus. James believed in Jesus. James took up leadership in the Jesus movement.
And about thirty years later, James was executed by the high priest as a “law breaker”. It’s not clear what that means, but the real issue the high priest had with James is simple. James was a follower of Jesus, the “King of the Jews.”
It Makes Sense After All
We saw three facts above that didn’t seem to make sense. Before the crucifixion, James was at odds with his brother Jesus. And James was too afraid to come to his own brother’s crucifixion. But then James spent the rest of his life as a follower of Jesus, and he was executed for it.
But we see that they do make sense in the light of one other fact—that James said that Jesus had appeared to him alive after the crucifixion.
We know very little about that appearance. If I had to guess, I’d say it most likely happened back home in Galilee within a week or two after the crucifixion. But that’s just a guess, and it could be wrong.
What we can know is that after this mysterious appearance, James changed his behavior.
He was reconciled to his brother. He went back to Jerusalem for good. He took up leadership in the Jesus movement. He lived unafraid for the rest of his life. And he was widely respected within Jerusalem. My novel Premonition tells the story of the end of his life.
James failed his brother Jesus at the crucifixion.
He spent the rest of his life as a very different man.
James will play a major role in the series of novels I’m working on right now–Crown of Thorns–which tells the story of Jesus before his crucifixion.