In Matthew 13 and Mark 6, James is listed first among the brothers of Jesus: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. The Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 1 that he met James, “the Lord’s brother”, at Jerusalem on his first visit to the city after becoming a follower of Jesus Christ. From the second century, there has been some uncertainty about the exact relationship between Jesus and his brothers. In the second century, Epiphanius suggested that the “brothers” were sons of Joseph by a former marriage (Joseph being a widower at his marriage to Mary), which remains the view of the Eastern Church. Helvidius, a fourth century writer who opposed belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary, the mother of Jesus, claiming the support of Tertullian wrote that Jesus was Mary’s first child and that the brothers (and sisters) noted in the Gospels were children of Mary and Joseph, born after Jesus. In response to Helvidius, Saint Jerome stated that the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus were either older children of Joseph’s former marriage, and thus step-siblings of the Lord (following Epiphanius), or that they were actually the children of the Virgin Mary’s sister, and thus Jesus’ cousins (the word in the Gospels translated “brothers” can also be used of cousins). Jerome’s view prevailed in the West until most later Protestants and Anglicans adopted Helvidius’ view.
Whatever his relationship to Jesus – younger brother, older step-brother, or cousin – James became a follower of Jesus after the Resurrection, when Jesus appeared specially to him. From early on, James was recognized as a leader in the church at Jerusalem. Although not one of the Twelve, he was regarded as an apostle (see Galatians 1). Saint Paul recognized James, along with the apostles Peter and John, as pillars of the church at Jerusalem. During the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), which resolved the deeply divisive issue of whether Gentile converts should be circumcized before baptism, James defended the position argued by Paul and Barnabas against requiring circumcision and summarized the council’s decision: “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God”, thus establishing the Church’s policy toward Gentile converts from that time forward.
The fourth century historian Eusebius, quoting from an earlier church history by Hegesippus, writes that James was surnamed “the Just” (the Righteous) on account of his great piety and ascetical life. He went frequently into the Temple alone to pray and was so often found kneeling, interceding for the forgiveness of the people, that his knees became as callused as a camel’s. Following Hegesippus, Eusebius further writes that James was so persuasive in leading the people to faith in Jesus that the scribes and Pharisees entreated him to “restrain the people, who are led astray after Jesus, as if he were the Messiah”. Refusing, James was then thrown from the pinnacle of the Temple, where he had been placed to denounce Jesus to the people, and once he was upon the pavement was cudgeled to death. Josephus writes about the year 94 that James “with certain others” was stoned to death in the year 62 at the instigation of the high priest Annas.
prepared from The New Book of Festivals and Commemorations,
Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980), and Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History
Grant, O God, that, following the example of your servant James the Just, brother of our Lord, your Church may give itself continually to prayer and to the reconciliation of all who are at variance and enmity; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul fas they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
“‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’
Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas.
Beatus vir qui non abiit
Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, *
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!
Their delight is in the law of the LORD, *
and they meditate on his law day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; *
everything they do shall prosper.
It is not so with the wicked; *
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes, *
nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.
For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, *
but the way of the wicked is doomed.
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you — unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
Coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.
Saint James of Jerusalem is commemorated by the Eastern Churches and by several Anglican Churches on October 23. Because this is a major feast, it is transferred to the nearest following weekday when the date falls on a Sunday; hence the commemoration today (October 24).
The icon of Saint James of Jerusalem was written by Tobias Stanislas Haller, BSG, and is reproduced here with his generous permission.