PERSONA NON GRATA:
JAMES THE BROTHER OF JESUS
Jesus . . . came to his hometown . . . On the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”
(The Gospel According to Mark 6:1–3)
Jesus had siblings. This simple, seemingly innocuous statement actually raises a host of profound questions, the answers to which have startling implications. Perhaps it is because these questions are so sensitive to some Christians--indeed, divisive--that the subject of Jesus’ brothers and sisters has largely been ignored both by biblical scholars and by the Christian church. Yet the evidence of Jesus’ siblings is so widespread that there can be no doubt of their existence. The amount of information that exists on Jesus’ brothers, particularly James, is quite surprising. As we see above, Mark even provides the names of Jesus’ four brothers; nonetheless, in my experience both as a pastor of a Lutheran church and an instructor of world religions in a public university, people are almost always incredulous when told that Jesus had brothers and sisters. This is not something they have usually been taught in church or Sunday School.
The recent discovery, in 2002, of an ancient Middle Eastern ossuary (a burial box) made international headlines because of the startling inscription on the box, which identified this particular ossuary as once containing the bones of, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” This find was shocking both to the academic community and the general public for two reasons. First, if genuine (and this is still a hotly debated question), the artifact would be the first archaeological evidence--literally written in stone--of the existence of Jesus, but even more intriguing to the public was the fact that this burial box was purported to be that of James, whom the New Testament refers to in several places as the “brother” of Jesus. The many newspaper and magazine articles which appeared after the announcement of this discovery all gave short shrift to the ossuary itself and devoted the majority of space to the controversy over whether Jesus could have had a brother. That is what most fascinated the public.
FROM JACOB TO JAMES
We shall not go here into the particulars of the discovery and testing of the ossuary, which has been amply documented elsewhere;1 instead, our focus will be on the person whose bones are claimed to have once been entombed in that box: the brother of Jesus, most commonly known in church tradition as “James the Just” (because of his exceeding righteousness) or “James of Jerusalem” (his base of operations) or, much more rarely, “James the Brother of Jesus.”
James’ name is derived from one of the great patriarchs of Jewish history--Jacob. “James” is the English translation of the Greek Iakob, which is itself a translation of the Hebrew Ya’akov. In the English translation of the Greek New Testament, Iakob is always translated as “Jacob” when referring to Old Testament figures, and as “James” when referring to Christian figures. This is interesting because, as we shall see, James represents a bridge between Judaism and Christianity. The Greek “Jacob” became the English “James” by way of Latin, in which Jacobus and Jacomus are variations of the same name. The Latin also explains why in European history the dynasty of King James is referred to as “Jacobite” or “Jacobean.”
Iakob was an exceedingly common name in first-century Israel, as evidenced by the fact that eight different people in the New Testament bear the name. The scholarly consensus is that half of the occurrences of the name in the New Testament refer to James the son of Zebedee (the brother of John, also referred to as James the Elder), one of two apostles who bear the name. A third of the occurrences of the name refer to Jesus’ brother, who is, unfortunately, often confused with the James known as James the Less, but James the Less is correctly James the son of Alphaeus, the second of the two apostles who bear the name. That the brother of Jesus has sometimes been called James “the Less” is just one example of the many slights and indignations he has been forced to bear.
It is surprising that such widespread ignorance of Jesus’ siblings exists, for, besides the New Testament itself, there exist quite a number of non-canonical writings from the earliest days of the church which provide absolutely reliable evidence that Jesus not only had siblings, but that some (if not all) of his brothers played significant roles in the leadership of the early church. In fact, James was considered by many early Christians to be the first “bishop” of the church, the successor to Jesus following the crucifixion, making James in essence the first “pope,” not Peter as Catholic tradition has maintained. The church father Clement of Alexandria in his work Hypostases (Outlines), written at the beginning of the third century, makes the following rather startling statement: “After the ascension of the savior, Peter, James [the Son of Zebedee], and John did not claim pre-eminence because the savior had specifically honored them, but chose James the Just as Bishop of Jerusalem.”2 While Clement’s use of the title “bishop” is certainly an anachronism, it is a term that, as we shall see, does accord well with James’ role in the church as it is described in both the book of Acts, Luke’s history of the early church from the ascension of Jesus to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, and in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where Paul describes two meetings he had with James and the other apostles in Jerusalem.