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Underlying the English James is the Greek Iakobos, which itself approximates the Hebrew Ya’aqov, or “Jacob.” It became conventional in English Bible translations to render this name differently in different contexts in order to differentiate the “Christian” James from the “Jewish” Jacob, much as with Jesus and Joshua.

Jacob was a common Jewish name in the first century. So it is not surprising that various Jameses appear in the New Testament, including two apostles—one identified as brother of John and son of Zebedee, and the other as son of Alphaeus (Matt 10:2-4)—and the father of a third (Jude, in Luke 6:16). Historically, the most important James of the New Testament is the one identified as the brother of Jesus, sometimes called James the Just.

Was James the Just an actual brother of Jesus?

It is assumed as a matter of course in the New Testament that Jesus had brothers and sisters (Mark 3:31, John 7:1-10, Acts 1:14, 1Cor 9:5), one of whom was named James (Matt 13:55, Mark 6:3).

As this James rose to prominence, it became conventional to distinguish him from others with reference to his still more famous brother. It is clear from the letters of Paul that this began already during James’s lifetime (Gal 1:19). Long after his death, James continued to be identified in this way by writers such as Hegesippus, Eusebius, Jerome, Pseudo-Clement, and even the first-century Jewish historian Josephus (assuming the reference in Jewish Antiquities 20.197-203 is not an interpolation, as has sometimes been suggested). After his death, reportedly at the hands of an interim Judean authority around 62 C.E., this James was also frequently identified by the epithet “the Just” and, more enigmatically, “Oblias” (Hegesippus in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.23.7).

It is only when church doctrine became concerned with the sexuality of Mary as a theological problem in its own right that some began to insist that Jesus could not have had siblings. Different theories were generated to explain references to them in scripture and tradition. Some speculated that they were children of Joseph from a previous marriage, making James only a stepbrother of Jesus. According to a still later theory, brother in this case meant cousin—an explanation that had the added bonus of allowing for the virginity of Joseph as well.

Such theories, of course, are not impossible. But that does not mean they are in any way historically likely. The most natural reading of the evidence is that James was called brother of Jesus in the same sense that John was called brother of the apostle James, and Andrew called brother of Simon Peter (Mark 1:16, Mark 1:19).

What was James’s role in the early Jesus movement?

James the brother of Jesus was widely remembered as the chief authority of the earliest apostolic community in Jerusalem. Eusebius, writing in the fourth century, says the apostles made him “bishop” of Jerusalem, citing an earlier work by Clement of Alexandria (Ecclesiastical History 2.1.2-3; 2.23.1). This view of James as head of the church is also reflected in such otherwise diverse works as the Gospel of Thomas (saying 12), Hegesippus, the Acts of the Apostles (especially Acts 15:1-35—and see Acts 21:17-26) and the Pseudo-Clementine writings.

However formally it was defined, James’s role as a—if not the—leading authority of the Jesus movement in the years after his brother’s death is confirmed by Paul. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul identifies James as “the Lord’s brother” (Gal 1:19), who joined Peter and John as the “acknowledged pillars” of the group (Gal 2:2, Gal 2:6, Gal 2:9). James’s special standing even among these three is suggested not only by the fact that Paul lists his name first but also especially by an incident that Paul goes on to report: Peter, who had been sharing meals with Gentile members of the movement in Antioch, suddenly brought this practice to a halt after a visit from some men “from James.” Much to Paul’s chagrin, all the other Jewish group members—including Paul’s own partner Barnabas—responded the same way (Gal 2:11-14).

No doubt James’s special authority was due in large measure to his status as Jesus’ brother. In fact, Jesus’ family members, known as desposynoi (“those belonging to the master”), continued to carry special prestige and authority in the Jesus movement well into the second century, including James’s reported successor, Symeon, who was a cousin of Jesus (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.11, 32; 4.22.4). James’s particular authority, however, was also bolstered by a claim that he had received a special revelation of Jesus after the latter’s death (1Cor 15:7; see also the Gospel of Hebrews).

  • Matt Jackson-McCabe

    Matt Jackson-McCabe is associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Comparative Religion at Cleveland State University in Ohio. He is the author of Logos and Law in the Letter of James (Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), and editor of Jewish Christianity Reconsidered (Fortress Press, 2007).