Thursday, January 16, 2020

Heroes of the Faith: James the Just

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. - James 1:2-3

The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man, just as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops. - James 5:16b-18

James the Just

James the Just is one of at least three men by the same name in the apostolic generation (the others are James the son of Zebedee, who was an early martyr, and James the son of Alphaeus—both among Jesus’ 12 disciples). Of the three, James the Just is the most prominent in church history. The New Testament refers to him as a brother of Jesus. Although he didn’t believe in Jesus at first, tradition holds that he converted to the faith after having the resurrected Christ appear to him personally. James became the first bishop of the church in Jerusalem after Peter began his missionary journeys, and he presided over the first major church council (Acts 15). He was the author of the letter of James, and had a reputation among both Christians and Jews as a man of great holiness and prayer.

The Life of James

James the Just

- The dispute over James’ relationship to Jesus has less to do with the New Testament references to him than to various denominations’ views of Mary. If a denomination holds to the doctrine of the “perpetual virginity” of Mary, they consider James an older half-brother or a cousin of Jesus; if a denomination does not hold this doctrine, then James is often assumed to be a younger brother, born of Mary. The Bible isn’t specific enough on this point to decide the issue (James is referred to as Jesus’ adelphos, usually translated “brother,” but broad enough to include cousins). 

- Jesus’ brothers are clearly not convinced by his Messianic claims during his ministry. In Mark 6:2-4, Jesus is rejected by his hometown neighbors, who refer to their personal knowledge of his siblings (including James). Jesus replies by saying, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” In John 7:1-4, Jesus’ brothers urge him to leave Galilee to promote his public career in Judea, and then v.5 adds: “For even his own brothers did not believe in him.” In Matthew 12:46-50, Jesus is told that his mother and brothers are nearby, waiting to speak to him. He responds in a way that seems almost dismissive: “‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers.’”

- According to tradition, James is convinced of Jesus’ messiahship and divinity when Jesus appears to him personally after his resurrection from the dead. This isn’t one of the resurrection-appearance stories preserved in the Gospels, but Paul mentions it in one of his letters: “Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also…” (1 Cor. 15:7-8a). In the book of Acts, it’s clear that James is now a part of the Christian community, and he quickly emerges as a leader (1:14; 12:17; 15:13-21; 21:17-18). Paul, in the letter of Galatians (probably the first book of the NT to be written) refers to James as one of three “pillar apostles” in the early church at Jerusalem (2:9); and he quickly becomes the sole leader of that church, so much so that he presides as the definitive voice at the first great church council.

- James emerges from the New Testament as the leading voice of “Jewish Christianity,” the early Christians who wanted to continue giving the Old Testament Law a place of honor within Christian practice. Though some tensions emerge between Paul and James on this point (see Gal. 2:12; 3:1-10; James 2:14-26), the New Testament is clear that a “middle ground” is reached between the Jewish Christians of James and the Gentile Christians of Paul (see Acts 15).

- James continued to serve as the bishop of Jerusalem until his death in AD 62. He was highly regarded in both the Jewish and Christian communities, continuing to hold to most of the Law-keeping practices of the Pharisees while also preaching Jesus as the Messiah. He lived a life of extreme holiness, so much so that some early records indicate that the priests even allowed him to enter the holiest parts of the Temple to offer prayers. He was known to be such a great man of prayer that his knees were remembered as being “like the knees of a camel” because of the time he spent kneeling.

- During a vacancy in the office of Roman procurator, the high priest in Jerusalem convened the Sanhedrin to condemn James for his support of Jesus as the Messiah. But because of their respect for James, they gave him one last chance: they took him to the roof of the Temple so that he could preach to the crowds below about the supremacy of the Law and disavow Christ. Instead, James proclaimed to the crowd that Jesus was indeed the Son of God and Messiah, and the Pharisees pushed him off the edge of the roof. The fall didn’t kill him, though, so they stoned him to death, even while he prayed for their salvation.


Matthew was one of Jesus’ 12 original disciples (also called "Levi" in some sources), called out of a life as a tax collector. According to early traditions, he preached the Gospel in Judea before departing for other nearby countries. He is traditionally believed to be the author of the Gospel of Matthew, which most modern scholars think was probably produced in a Jewish-Christian church community in Syria. Like James, Matthew’s ministry seems to have been among Jewish believers who still loved the Old Testament Law and wanted to practice it as a way of honoring their faith in Christ. Like most of the disciples, he is said to have died as a martyr.

James, son of Alphaeus

James the Less
Also called “James the Less,” he was one of Jesus’ 12 original disciples, but one about whom very little is known (by contrast, "James the Great" refers to James son of Zebedee, the first of the disciples to be martyred). He appears to be the brother of Matthew/Levi, since Mark 2:14 also calls the latter a son of Alphaeus. Almost nothing is said directly about James in the New Testament, which has led to some confusion as to the identities of the various Jameses. As best as we can tell, James the son of Alphaeus, like the other disciples, received a commission for missionary work after Pentecost. He is said to have traveled south to preach the Gospel in the Nile delta area of Egypt, ministering to the many Jews and pagans who lived there. He was martyred by being crucified, just as Peter, Andrew, and Philip also were.