Just imagine this. The religious Jews were in expectation of the prophesied coming of the Messiah. The scepter had passed from Juda and the seventy weeks of Daniel were at an end, when “the Saint of saints” was to appear. Imagine discovering, as a middle-aged man, that your cousin, Jesus, son of your uncle Joseph, was He. That was the experience of James and his brothers, when Jesus of Nazareth began to teach and work public miracles, calling them to leave all things and “follow” Him.
Adelphotheos: “Brother of God”
This was a title by which the Apostle is honored in the eastern Church. It never caught on in the West. It may be for the same reason that “Grandmother of God” never caught on for St. Anne, or “Grandfather of God” for St. Joachim.
Mary’s title of Theotokos (God-Bearer) was unique, a theological victory, defeating the heresy of Patriarch Nestorius who maintained that Mary should only be called, “the Mother of Christ.” To justify this aberration Nestorius affirmed that there was a human person in Christ, co-existing with the Person of the Son of God. The Fathers of the Council of Ephesus condemned the heresiarch’s doctrine in 431, proclaiming Our Lady was indeed The Theotokos, the Mother of God.
True, it was by divine inspiration that St. Paul referred to St. James in Galatians as “the brother of the Lord,” but in the Gospels so are Simon, Jude, and Joseph, called “his brethren.” James, being the eldest of this family of Apostles, one might say that he received the title in the East by way of primogeniture. In respect to his elder brother, St. Jude identifies himself in his epistle not as the “brother of the Lord,” but humbly as “the brother of James.” St. James refers to himself in his epistle simply as “the servant of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
It was common among the Hebrews to refer to one’s blood relatives, even four times removed, as brethren. Moreover, neither Hebrew nor Aramaic have a specific word for cousin; relatives who are not brothers or sisters are called simply kinsmen or kinswomen, or, for one’s first cousin, “the son or daughter of my uncle or aunt.” Elizabeth, who was cousin to Our Lady, is referred to in scripture as Mary’s “kinswoman” with the inspired Greek word sungene. Greek does have a specific word for “cousin” and it is used once in the New Testament. Mark is referred to by St. Paul in Colossians as the anepsios, “cousin” of Barnabas. In the Old Testament Abraham’s nephew Lot is called his adelphos, “brother,” in the Greek Septuagint. Even today Semites in the Mid-East refer to cousins as brothers. So, the New Testament writers, whose native tongue was Aramaic, chose the Greek word adelphos because it conveyed their own native way of speaking either in regard to those born of the same parents or those near of kin. Mary of Cleophas, for example, is designated in St. John’s Gospel by the word adelpha, “sister,” of Our Lady, although she was her sister-in-law. According to Hegesippus, a Jewish convert of the second century, Cleophas, (or Alpheus), her husband, was the brother of St. Joseph. This is the Cleophas to whom the Risen Christ appeared on the road to Emmaus.
How, then, was this Apostle related as kin to the Savior? I will answer this question first, then I will explore what we know about him from holy scripture and tradition. Finally, I would encourage you to read, slowly, his great epistle of charity, written around the year 60, about two years before his martyrdom.
How Was St. James Related to Jesus?
Three times in the Gospel listing of the twelve Apostles, and once in Acts, our James is called “James of Alpheus.” And, unless we are going to place a fourth “Mary” beneath the cross and treat the “Mary of Cleophas” in St. John’s Passion account as distinct from “Mary the mother of James” of the Passion account of the three synoptic Gospels, then Mary of Cleophas must be the same as “Mary the mother of James.” Alpheus (or Alpai in Hebrew), therefore, and Cleophas are the same person, Cleophas being his Greek name. The apostle Levi, better known by his Greek name Matthew, is identified also as “of Alpheus,” but this is surely another Alpheus, for it is highly unlikely that such a zealot for the Law as James was would have a brother collecting taxes for Ceasar from Jews. Too, James’ brother Simon is called “the Zealot” in one of the lists of the twelve Apostles.1
Bartholomew is another Apostle whom we know better by his Greek name than his Hebrew name, which is Nathanael. Jude, on the other hand, is better known by his Hebrew name than his Greek name, which is Thaddeus.
Cleophas, the brother of St. Joseph, had four sons from his wife, Mary, and one daughter, Salome. This would make James the Less, Simon, Jude, Joseph (not an apostle), and Salome, cousins to Our Lord. Since Salome was the mother of James the Greater and John, these two Apostles also were “brethren” of Our Lord.
In all four listings of the twelve Apostles, James of Alpheus is named in the next to last couplet, either with Simon the Zealot, or Jude, both of whom were his brothers, although there is no certain tradition that this Simon (also called the Cananean) is the same as the Simon who is named with the Lord’s “brethren.” Great Apostles that they were, neither of Our Lord’s first cousins were given the intimate witness of three major events that their two nephews, James the Greater and John (the sons of Zebedee), and Peter were alone given. These events were Our Lord’s Transfiguration, His Agony in the Garden, and His raising of the daughter of Jairus to life. (Need I also mention that Our Lord gave Peter a new name, Cephas (Petros, in Greek), which is “rock,” his Hebrew name being Simon.)
This is one reason why I have labeled the elder James as a “paragon of humility.” The most distinguished among the twelve, he and his brothers Simon and Jude are hidden in the Gospels. First cousins of Our Lord, none of them contended to be seated at His right and left in His kingdom, as did their sister Salome’s sons, James the Greater and John.
In St. Mark’s Gospel James is called “the Less,” micron, which more literally means “the Little,” to distinguish him from his nephew, James, whom tradition calls “the Greater” — probably on account of his larger size. I like to think that the elder James, perhaps the oldest of all the twelve, gave himself the title, micron, out of humility. Then, again, perhaps “the Little” is a moniker given in jest as he may have been a very tall man — like Little John in Robin Hood’s band. Did Our Lord Himself not give the other James and his brother John the nickname, “sons of thunder”? (Mark 3)
There is no Gospel account given of his actual calling, or any personal encounter with Christ, as there is with his two fishermen nephews, and as there is with Simon Peter and Andrew, and Philip and Bartholomew (Nathanael, to whom Philip said “Come and See”) and Matthew and Thomas. No words of James the Less are recorded in the four Gospels. We have to wait for the Acts of the Apostles to hear him speak.
What Does Tradition Tell Us of St. James the Less?
Does tradition tell us anything about him? His name, Jacob, in Hebrew, means “holder of the heel” or “supplanter.” The first Jacob that we encounter in the Bible, the grandson of Abraham and the father of the twelve tribes, supplanted his twin brother Esau, who was born first, when, through his mother’s intrigue, younger Jacob received the blessing due to the first-born from his father Isaac. Later, God changed his name to Israel “strong with God,” after his all-night wrestling match with an angel. Jacob became a very common name among the Jews.
We know that our Apostle’s family lived somewhere in northern Palestine, probably Galilee, because tradition has it that only Judas was from Judaea (Kerioth), which we know also from scripture. If the Apostle Simon is his brother, and he is called “the Cananean,” then James’ family may have hailed from Cana of Galilee, where Jesus turned water into wine, which is not far from Nazareth, nor the fishing village of Bethsaida on the Sea of Galilee where Peter and Andrew and Philip were from. James the Greater and his brother John were also fishermen and they were more likely from the town of Capharnaum, a little south of Bethsaida, where we read in the first chapter of Mark that Peter and Andrew also had a house, for it was in this house that Jesus cured Peter’s sick mother-in-law.
In a couple of apocryphal gospels, Zebedee, the father of James and John, is presented as a very successful fisherman who supplied fish for the priests in Jerusalem. If true, this would explain why John states twice in his Gospel account of the passion that he was “known to the high priest.”
But, there is a tradition that James the Less was himself of the levitical priesthood. This, in addition to the fact that his sister was married to Zebedee, would explain why, after the Ascension of Christ, as bishop of Jerusalem, the temple priests allowed James to pray in the holy place, the inner sanctuary of the temple, wherein only the priests could enter to perform their ministerial rituals. We have this also on the authority of the Jewish historian Hegesippus; and it is noted in Eusebius’ Church History, the chronicler of Constantine. They both say that this privilege was his on account of his esteemed holiness, which esteem was his among even the unconverted Jews; in fact even they called him “James the Just.”
St. Jerome asserts in his Commentary on Galatians that the Jews esteemed James so much that the people would strive to touch the hem of his garment to receive a blessing or cure. But this privilege of entering the holy place would, nevertheless, have been a violation of the Law. James was of Juda, and was not a Levite. But he had a higher order, that of Melchisedeck, hence he would not have had any scruple of accepting the privilege given him by the Aaronic priests. St. Epiphanius, an early fourth century Church father, relates that our Apostle even wore a gold plate around his forehead, which was in imitation of the mitre worn by the high priest.
I am getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you more about this great Apostle’s earlier history. Tradition has it that James never married; that he was a virgin; that he was a Nazarite from birth, like Sampson, the prophet Samuel, Elias, and John the Baptist. A Nazarite, “one separated,” is one consecrated to God by a vow to an ascetical state of life. It could be a lifelong vow, or temporary. St. Jerome and Eusebius accept the testimony of Hegesippus that he was consecrated from birth. Therefore, he never shaved his head, never drank wine; that he also abstained from all flesh meat, even fish, except at the Pasch, was not a requirement of the vow. They also affirm that he never used a bath, never wore sandals, never had but one single linen garment for clothing. He prayed in the kneeling position and often prostrate, in and out of the temple, and so often that his knees and forehead were as tough as a camel’s hoof.
Before Our Lord ascended into heaven He appointed James to pastor the Church in Jerusalem, while the other Apostles were commanded to go out to preach to all nations. And, after the Ascension, his reputation as a holy man grew in Jerusalem, for he prayed daily in the temple, which was still a holy place, because even though the Old Law was dead (as of Good Friday and the angel’s tearing of the one-foot-thick, temple Veil), it was not yet deadly. By so doing, he hoped through example to convert the whole city. In fact, by some apocryphal accounts, he discoursed often with the scribes concerning Christ; and by one account even with Caiphas himself. The high-priest, however, could not find the humility and courage to repent and, when rebuked for listening to the Just James, he caved in to pressure and sent him away. This interesting relation is found in the Medieval Lives of the Saints, from a source book called The Golden Legend, compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, in 1275.
In the Apocrypha there is an “Infancy Gospel,” which bears James’ name, but it is definitely not authentic. It begins with the conception of Mary and ends with the Nativity of Christ. Almost all of it is edifying, and part accepted as tradition (the names Joachim and Ann, for example, and Mary’s presentation at the temple at the age of three) but there are problems with other scenarios, such as St. Joseph having a confrontation with his espoused after perceiving her pregnancy. This dialogue was invented in someone’s overactive imagination.
St. James in the New Testament
The figure of James stands out more prominently in the Acts of the Apostles and a couple of St. Paul’s epistles. It is St. Paul who tells us in his first epistle to the Corinthians that Jesus appeared privately to James after His resurrection. Then, in Galatians chapter one, Paul speaks of his own conversion, and how he went, after three years in Arabia, to Jerusalem to see Peter, and that he tarried there fourteen days, during which time he also met James, whom he calls “the brother of the Lord.” This account ought to give a major problem to Protestants. For it clearly demonstrates that even one who received his apostleship (“one sent”) directly by Christ needed still to have his missio confirmed and authorized by the visible Church hierarchy. This would be the year 39, since Paul’s conversion occurred in 36.
In Galatians chapter two, Paul speaks of his return to Jerusalem by command of a revelation, after fourteen years of preaching to the Gentiles. He was to speak to them “who seemed to be something” (the same in the Vulgate) of his ministry. Who were these? Paul calls them “pillars”; they were Peter, James, and John. The year was 50. James the Greater had been killed by Herod eight years before; so this James is “the Lesser.” These three Apostles gave to Paul and Barnabas “the right hand of fellowship” and the apostleship to the Gentiles, confirming, again, what Christ had Himself commissioned Paul to do. This was not an “ordination,” for we read in the Acts of the Apostles that Paul, while still Saul, had been ordained with Barnabas seven years before at Antioch. Since St. John was summoned to be in Jerusalem at this time, whereas he was the shepherd of the Church in Asia Minor at Ephesus, we know that Our Lady was also there.
While St. Paul was back he revisited Antioch, where Peter had established his first Chair. St. Peter was there also at that time and Paul noted that Peter did eat with the Gentiles. He then witnessed that when Christian Jews came to Antioch “who were of James,” (that is from Jerusalem) that Peter removed himself from the Gentile table in order not to give offense. But he offended the Gentiles in so doing. The incident, which Paul relates in Galatians, as you know, led to his withstanding Peter “to his face.” It must be noted that James himself was not the one who took offense, but his disciples, who were still scrupulous about the Law and unclean meats. And, because they were temple-going Jewish Christians from the holy city, their bishop obviously did not deem it prudent to wean them from the law too precipitously.
Controversy and The First Council
On account of this controversy the Apostles and “the ancients” all gathered this same year in Jerusalem, to settle the question as to whether the Gentiles were to be bound to circumcision and the whole Law of Moses. Peter opened the synod and gave his testimony concerning the vision he had received on the rooftop in Joppe when God commanded him to go and preach to the Gentile family and friends of Cornelius, assuring him also that the dietary law of Moses concerning unclean meats was no longer of obligation (Acts 10). Peter added that since the Gentiles had received the Holy Ghost no less than the Jewish believers, that they were not to be burdened with strictly disciplinary laws, including circumcision, which laws the Jews themselves found impossible to keep perfectly. Paul and Barnabas also addressed the council, giving testimony of the wonders of grace God had given through their ministry to the Gentiles. James concluded the session with the summary judgment KRINO Greek for (I “arbitrate” or “judge” or “reason”) by re-enforcing what the chief Apostle said and adding a few prescriptions for the Gentiles that were easily agreed to: Keep themselves from idols, from fornication, from meats of strangled creatures and from blood meat.
It was James who gave the formula that would confirm the divine authority of future synods: “It hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us.” Nevertheless, the issue that was not engaged at that time was whether or not a Jew was still bound to the law after baptism. As to circumcision, even St. Paul, rather than cause a scandal to the Jewish Christians (and only for that reason), had his disciple Timothy circumcised because although Timothy’s father was a Greek, everyone knew that his mother was a Jew. Having a Jewish mother makes one legally a Jew even to this day. It was only after the destruction of the temple in the year 70, that observance of Jewish ritual became mortally sinful for Jewish Christians.
Finally, upon his third trip to Jerusalem, 57-59, Paul once more confers with James. James “and the ancients” in Jerusalem express concern that Paul is himself not living the law of Moses and that he has been accused of telling Jewish converts that they are free of the law. They impose that he join four of their company who had taken a vow and have his hair shorn with them, then join them in purifying themselves in the temple, since by doing this it would demonstrate to all that he does still respect the law of Moses.
Paul agrees, but, while in the temple, he is accosted by Jewish zealots, who hate the gospel, and nearly beaten to death until he is rescued by Roman soldiers, later informing the astonished tribune that he is a Roman citizen. He is detained in chains by the Roman legion until the governor should come and ascertain if he had committed any crime. Finally, after a hearing before the governor Festus, which ended without judgment, the prisoner appealed to Caesar. Forty of these zealots vow not to eat until they kill Paul, and their plot being discovered, he had to be whisked out of the city under armed escort. 200 soldiers, forty cavalry, and 200 spearmen were needed to escort him safely by night to Caesarea by the sea.
The Martyrdom of St. James
When one victim escapes their hands, the zealots decide to vent their anger on James. Our Apostle is summoned before the Sanhedrin and the high-priest Ananus, who was the son of that Annas, father-in-law of Caiphas, before whom Our Lord was first tried. Josephus, the Jewish historian, relates the event. At his trial he was accused of violating the Law of Moses and sentenced to be stoned to death. Hegesippus adds that he was taken first to the pinnacle of the temple and commanded to renounce Christ publicly before all the people and undeceive those whom he had deceived. It was Passover time and the city was filled with pilgrims. Having now an exalted pulpit and a huge audience, James pronounces that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. He is seated at the right hand of the Father and is to come again on the clouds to judge the world. The rulers were enraged and, taking him, they threw him from the pinnacle some sixty feet down. His body broken but still living, he struggled to his knees and began to pray as His Master: Father forgive them . . .
Then, picking up stones the mob began to pound him, despite protests from another faction of shocked worshippers. Finally, a cloth fuller in a frenzy took his club and smashed the Apostle’s skull open. The year was of Christ, 62, the tenth of April. His disciples took his body and buried him temporarily near the temple. When the Romans destroyed the city with its million inhabitants in the year 70, it was the unbelieving Jews who did affirm that their destruction was punishment for killing James the Just. However, as we read in the Gospel of Luke, Our Lord had given the real reason on Palm Sunday in His prophecy concerning the city’s destruction and the last days.
Thou Hast Not Known the Time of thy Visitation
“And when he drew near, seeing the city, he wept over it, saying: If thou also hadst known, and that in this thy day, the things that are to thy peace; but now they are hidden from thy eyes. For the days shall come upon thee, and thy enemies shall cast a trench about thee, and compass thee round, and straiten thee on every side, And beat thee flat to the ground, and thy children who are in thee: and they shall not leave in thee a stone upon a stone: because thou hast not known the time of thy visitation” (Luke 19:44).
This self-accusation concerning the city’s guilt in James’ murder is related also by the Jewish historian Josephus, who was contemporary to the events, and whose testimony is cited by St. Jerome, Origen, and Eusebius. Later, this reference and others pertaining to Christ, were expunged from the original history of that scholar.
Called a “Catholic” epistle (as are St. Peter’s two letters, that of St. Jude, and the first letter of St. John) because it was not written to any particular church, this inspired exhortation of our Apostle was written to the Jewish converts who were “scattered abroad.” Most scholars hold that it was sent out about three years before our the author’s martyrdom, which was in 62. A strong argument in support of this date is that clearly St. James intends in his letter to clear up some confusion in the Jewish community, which had been engendered by St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which almost certainly was written between 57-58. St. Peter himself, under divine inspiration, wrote that in Paul’s epistles there were “certain things hard to be understood.” One of these things was St. Paul’s emphasis on justification by faith and not by works, a theme that runs through the end of the third chapter of his epistle. Because of its seemingly contradictory insistence upon the necessity of works, and not only faith, for salvation, Luther called the epistle of James “an epistle of straw” and “unworthy of the apostolic spirit.” In Luther’s mind, the two epistles were contradictory, conveniently ignoring the fact that St. Paul himself stresses the emptiness of faith without charity in many places, especially First Corinthians. “. . . and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing” (13:2).
Let us pose the two seemingly contradictory verses side by side and see how they complement, rather than contradict.
For we account a man to be justified by faith, without the works of the law. (Romans 3:28)
Do you see that by works a man is justified; and not by faith only? (James 2:24)
Luther, in his obstinacy to maintain his right to “sin boldly,” boldly inserted the German word for “alone” after faith in his vernacular translation of Paul’s Roman text. With the adverb, it would make better sense to a German, was his excuse.
What were the works of the Law St. Paul was referring to in his epistle? Certainly not the works of the law of Christ’s Gospel, which St. Paul himself was in the process of performing as he wrote to the Romans. For, in fact, he was then taking up collections for the poor suffering Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, and about to deliver these alms in person. No, the works of the law, which he was referring to, were the legal prescriptions of the Mosaic Law, which no Jew could perfectly fulfill. Meats, purifications of hands and vessels, washings after contact with gentiles, circumcision, Sabbath prohibitions, ritual sacrifices to be offered in the temple, on and on. These do not justify the believer in Christ. But all works of charity, justice, living pure lives, done with faith and love of God do justify. But not without faith. Therefore, the bulk of this great epistle of charity, written by this staunch defender of the Law, James the Just, was written to correct any misunderstanding of the Jews concerning Paul’s very fresh epistle to Rome and to exhort the Hebrew Christians scattered abroad to persevere in virtue, patience, and prayer.
It would seem from this epistle that St. James thought that iniquity had abounded to such an extent that the Lord was about to return. As we read this collection of exhortations keep in mind what Christ told His apostles concerning the end times. Keep in mind also that the persecutions by the pagan Romans were also slowly intensifying, and about to break out across the empire in only four more years under Nero’s edict.
“Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall put you to death: and you shall be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then shall many be scandalized: and shall betray one another: and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall seduce many. And because iniquity hath abounded, the charity of many shall grow cold. But he that shall persevere to the end, he shall be saved” (Matt. 24:9).
Saint James the Less, Pray for us.
- The Jewish party known as “the zealots” were in active opposition to the Roman occupation of Palestine. These men were also actively opposed to the liberal priestly caste, the Sadducees, who were the freethinking “cafeteria Jews” of Our Lord’s time. The wimpy Sadducees went so far as to offer incense in the temple to Augustus Caesar, whom the Roman Senate had declared a god upon his death in 14 AD. They even renamed two of the Hebrew months, one after Augustus, and another after his great uncle Julius. ↩