According to the gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus had four brothers, James, Joses, Simon, and Judas. James was apparently the oldest of these brothers. We don’t know a lot about James, or any of the brothers. The New Testament only mentions them a few times, mostly in passing.
It has been debated whether they were brothers, half-brothers, or cousins. (See my earlier post, The Mysterious Brothers of Jesus.)
But these brothers, whoever they were, must have been important. They grew up with Jesus. If they were older than him, they took care of him. If he was older than them, he took care of them. In a very small village like Nazareth, with few children the same age as Jesus, his brothers and sisters would have been among his closest friends.
The oldest of these brothers was apparently James. He was also the most important. James ultimately became a leader in the Jesus Movement in Jerusalem. For decades, he was the undisputed leader. Not Peter. Not John. Not Paul. James, the brother of Jesus.
What the New Testament Says About James
The earliest historical documents that mention James are almost all found in the New Testament. So it’s useful to gather together what we know from the New Testament. As it turns out, there’s a fair bit. Not as much as we’d like, but more than you might guess.
In this post, I’ll make a list of every place James is mentioned (or possibly mentioned) in the New Testament. In future blog posts, I’ll look at these in more detail, so consider this just an overview. Here they are, organized roughly in order:
During the Life of Jesus
- The Gospel of John tells the story of Jesus turning water into wine in a village called Cana. Immediately after this, Jesus and his mother and his brothers went with Jesus to Capernaum and stayed there a few days. We don’t know what they did there, or why they didn’t stay. We can guess that they stayed with their new friends, Peter and Andrew and James and John, who lived in Capernaum. If this happened in the late fall of the year, then winter was coming on and that may have played a role in their decision. But there’s a lot we don’t know about this short stay.
- The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and the book of Acts all list the twelve disciples. One of the Twelve is named “James the son of Alphaeus.” Some historians have speculated that this James the son of Alphaeus is the oldest “brother” of Jesus and is actually either a cousin or else a half-brother by a different father. But others think this is an entirely different man than James the brother of Jesus. There is no way to know for sure.
- At some point after he became famous, Jesus visited his hometown and was invited to teach in the synagogue on Shabbat. The Gospels of Mark and Matthew explicitly name the four brothers of Jesus at this point in the story—James, Joses, Judas, and Simon. These two gospels are the only New Testament sources that state clearly the names of all the brothers of Jesus. And there are at least two sisters mentioned here, but their names aren’t given.
- At some other point in his career, Jesus was teaching in a packed house. The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke tell how the mother and brothers of Jesus came, asking to see him, and he seems to have refused to go out to meet them! It appears that his family may have come because of rumors that Jesus had gone crazy. (The evidence is a little fuzzy here.) This story is our first hint that Jesus was not on good terms with his family.
- The Gospel of John tells an incident that happened about six months before Jesus was crucified. His brothers challenged Jesus to go up to Jerusalem and make a name for himself at the coming feast (Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot). Jesus refused to go, but then afterward went secretly. This story makes a special point to say that none of his brothers believed in Jesus yet. So here is more evidence of a rift between him and his family.
Before and After the Crucifixion
- The Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke tell about a small group of women who witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus. One of these women is named as “Mary the mother of James and Joses.” This would appear to be Mary, the mother of Jesus, although these gospels don’t actually say that. Note that “Joses” is a short form of “Joseph,” and we know that one of Jesus’s brothers went by this nickname. So it seems very plausible that this Mary is the mother of Jesus. Notice that none of the brothers are named as being at the crucifixion. It’s a strong bet that they weren’t there. But we don’t know the exact reason. Certainly, it would have been dangerous for them. Possibly, they were still not on good terms with him.
- The Gospels of Matthew and John report that on Easter Sunday, Jesus appeared to one or more women and gave them personal messages to “my brothers.” This might mean “brothers” in the sense of “spiritual brothers,” but it might also mean his actual blood brothers. We can’t be sure. My own suspicion is that he meant his blood brothers, James, Joses, Simon, and Judas.
- The apostle Paul reports in his letter to the Corinthians that one of the early appearances of Jesus after Easter Sunday was to his oldest brother, James. It’s a fair guess that this might be the reason James began to believe in Jesus. But we can’t know for sure. We do know that the crucifixion is generally dated by historians to the years 30 or 33, so now we can start mapping the career of James the brother of Jesus on a very rough chronology.
The Early Jesus Movement
- In his letter to the Galatians, Paul reports that about three years after he began following Jesus, he went to Jerusalem and spent fifteen days with the apostle Peter and with James. This is probably about five years after the Crucifixion, so we’re talking about the mid to late 30s. It’s clear that by now, James was one of the leaders of the Jesus Movement, but he was not yet the main leader. From the book of Acts, we know that Peter and John appear to have been major figures around this time, and they may well have shared leadership with James.
- At some point in the early 40s, Peter was arrested by King Herod Agrippa in Jerusalem. Agrippa intended to execute Peter, and his terrified friends held a late night prayer meeting. The book of Acts tells the tale of how Peter miraculously escaped from prison. He left town, but not before sending a messenger to James to let him know of his escape. With Peter gone, it looks like James now took on more responsibility as a leader of the Jesus Movement in Jerusalem.
The Gentile Controversy
- In his letter to the Galatians, Paul tells a story set sometime in the late 40s or very early 50s. Paul was then living in the great city of Antioch in Syria. A thriving community of Jesus followers lived there, with many Jews and many Gentiles. Then a controversy broke out. Paul had a major fight with Peter, along with certain “men from James”—apparently sent from Jerusalem to see what was going on. Things got rather nasty, and Paul told Peter he was a hypocrite for changing his behavior to the Gentiles after the men from James arrived. It’s not clear what James thought at this point, but he is now a man with enough authority to send men hundreds of miles from home.
- Paul also tells in his letter to the Galatians about the aftermath of this confrontation. He went to Jerusalem and made his case for the full equality of Gentiles within the Jesus Movement. James was there, along with the apostles Peter and John—together, they were the three “pillars” of the community. And Paul says that all of them accepted his claims. By this time, Peter had been gone from Jerusalem for about ten years. It’s not clear whether John still lived in Jerusalem (he is said to have eventually moved to Ephesus, on the western coast of Turkey). The New Testament doesn’t give any hard data on the travels of John. But this was a rare meeting—James, Peter, John, and Paul, all in one place.
- The book of Acts tells a very similar story about a council held in Jerusalem about this same time. In this telling of the tale, Paul makes his case, but then he runs into opposition from a group of Pharisees who were members of the Jesus Movement. (This may sound astonishing, that some early followers of Jesus were at the same time Pharisees, but the text is unambiguous. And we also know that Paul still considered himself a Pharisee, so maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising.) In any event, Peter then pitches in to support Paul. Up to this point, the community is divided. The fate of the Jesus Movement hangs in the balance. Will Gentiles continue to be second-class followers of Jesus, or will they gain full equality? At this crucial moment, James gives his verdict, which becomes official policy for all time. Gentiles are accepted as they are, without need to be circumcised. This episode in the book of Acts makes it crystal clear that James is now the first among equals. He alone has the authority to make the final decision.
The Final Years of James, the Brother of Jesus
- Several years later, in the mid-50s, Paul writes a letter to the Corinthians, who are chafing at his leadership in his absence. As part of his argument, Paul asks rhetorically whether he doesn’t have the right to financial support from the Jesus Movement, including the support of a wife, just like the brothers of Jesus and the apostle Peter. It’s not clear here which brothers of Jesus were getting financial support (along with their wives). Did this include James? Did James ever travel? Did James have a wife? We don’t know. But if not James, then some of his younger brothers, and they certainly had his blessing.
- The book of Acts tells the story of Paul’s final visit to Jerusalem, about the year 57. Paul met with James and the other leaders of the Jesus Movement. But there was a problem. Rumors were swirling in Jerusalem about Paul (possibly stoked by those Pharisees who opposed him a few years earlier—we don’t know for sure). Somebody suggested that Paul should visit the Temple to pay for some sacrifices as a PR gesture. It may have been James himself who suggested it. Certainly, James agreed to it. And this turned out badly. When Paul went to the Temple, a riot broke out, and he was nearly killed. Roman soldiers rescued Paul. (The story of this is told in my novel Transgression.) After a couple of years in prison, Paul was sent on to Rome, where he eventually was beheaded by Nero.
- The final episode in the life of James is not told by any source in the New Testament. The Jewish historian Josephus tells the story of how a certain high Priest, Annas the son of Annas, arrested James about the year 62. The Roman governor had recently died, and there was no replacement in Judea, so Annas ran a kangaroo court and executed James, along with a number of others. (The story of this is told in my novel Premonition.) Afterwards, certain upright citizens complained to the new governor when he finally arrived, and Annas was tossed out of office. Who were these upright citizens? We don’t know for sure, but they were possibly Pharisees, because Josephus was himself a Pharisee and always speaks of them in glowing terms. If it was Pharisees who complained about the unfair execution of James, that tells us something about how well James got along with them. In any event, he seems to have been a popular, much-loved man in the city of Jerusalem.
Two Books of the New Testament
- There is a book of James in the New Testament. The author of this letter identifies himself only as “James,” without further explanation. Was this written by James, the brother of Jesus? This book was written in Greek. We know that James the brother of Jesus spoke Aramaic as his native language. Ultimately, the church of later centuries came to believe that the book was written by James, the brother of Jesus. But the New Testament itself doesn’t actually say so.
- There is also a book of Jude in the New Testament. The author identifies himself as “brother of James.” Was this Jude the same man as the brother of Jesus named “Judas” mentioned in Mark and Matthew? Again, this brother would have spoken Aramaic, and this letter is written in Greek. And again, the church of later centuries attributed this book to Judas, the brother of Jesus. But again, the New Testament doesn’t say so.
That is essentially all the information we have from the first-century sources on James, the brother of Jesus. (Unless I’ve forgotten something.) It’s not a lot. But it gives us a fuzzy picture of James, enough to know that he was a man who led his people through turbulent times.
We know that he made a decision that has had a lasting impact for twenty centuries—the decision to give full equality to Gentiles.
And we know that he met his end at the hands of the son of the high priest Annas who had killed Jesus. We might guess that there was some sort of vendetta of the family of Annas against the family of Jesus. We can’t know for sure, but it seems plausible.
Some pious legends about James were written in the second century and later. The later the legend, the harder it gets to figure out what’s fantasy and what’s reality. The basic data on James the brother of Jesus comes from the New Testament and the one passage in Josephus.