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James? Jacob! Brother of Yeshua, first Leader of the Church



James, Brother of Yeshua

Fourth-century Church Fathers Jerome and Augustine debated whether Jewish believers should continue to honor Torah. Jerome, speaking of the Nazarenes, the small sect of Jewish believers in his day, wrote: “But insofar as they want to be both Jews and Christians, they are neither Jews nor Christians.” [1] I think that James, the brother of Yeshua, would disagree.


This paper will show that James continued to live as a Torah-observant Jew until his martyrdom. I believe his testimony was an example to future Jewish believers that continuing to live a Torah-honoring life is the NT expectation. To prove this, we’ll turn to the New Testament and early historical works.


Jacob

James is actually Jacob. This is important to note because James is not Hebraic and confirms the fallacy that the gospel isn’t for Jews. Jacob, conversely, is the father of the tribes of Israel. In most other languages, his name is accurately translated as their equivalent of Jacob. How did this happen? In Latin, the names are very close: Iacomus and Iacobus. It was likely a simple linguistic corruption. [2]


James was Yeshua’s half-brother. To the world around them, they were full brothers. Catholics teach they were cousins, and the Eastern Church believes that Joseph had children from a previous marriage. [3] Protestants believe the Gospels present them as a family unit. This is the view that we’ll assume. James is called Yeshua’s brother more than once (Matt. 13:55, Gal. 1:19). The townspeople seem convinced that James and Jesus are of the same household (Matt. 13:55-56). Matthew says Miriam [4] and Joseph didn’t have relations until after Jesus was born. [5] Until is a clear indication that they were intimate later.

Family Fracture

One can only imagine what it was like to grow up as Jesus’s siblings. It seems his family was embarrassed that their carpenter-brother suddenly gathered disciples as a rabbi and was preaching and doing miracles. They were a simple Galilean working-class family. [6] In the Ancient Near East (ANE, the culture of the first-century Mediterranean region), one knew their place in society. “The status that Jesus is claiming by means of his actions and words, and the role he has begun to play as teacher, prophet, and miracle worker is dissonant with the status ascribed him by birth” (deSilva, 181). No wonder his family was trying to reign him in (Mk. 3:32). In an honor/shame culture, it was the family’s duty to deal with an embarrassing family member. [7]


Understandably, Yeshua’s siblings didn’t believe their brother was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah (Jn. 7:5). They mock him by suggesting he should go to Jerusalem for Tabernacles—since he’s a big shot: “For no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret” (Jn. 7:4) they chide.


Crucifixion was the most shameful death in the ANE, “fixing the criminal’s honor at the lowest end of the [honor] spectrum” (deSilva, 47). His siblings had likely abandoned him by this time, though his mother, Miriam, was present. In their minds, Jesus had shamed the family, put them in danger by standing against Rome, became an enemy of the religious authorities, and abandoned the family business. There was a rift in the house of Joseph.


Family Salvation

Despite this family fracture, we find James and his brothers in the upper room with the disciples (Acts 1:14). They have returned from the Mount of Olives (v. 12), leaving us to assume they were at Yeshua’s ascension. Paul clues us in when he gives his list of those who witnessed the risen Messiah. Included is James—almost certainly Yeshua’s brother. [8] James became one of the most ardent followers of his brother, and scholars agree it was seeing Jesus alive after his crucifixion that convinced him. [9]


Religious Jewish Family

Like most Jewish Galilean families, they don’t appear to be connected to any sect but are clearly religious. Over ninety percent of Palestinian Jews were Am-ha-Aretz (‘the people of the land). [10] There are other clues that confirm that they took Judaism seriously:

  • Jesus is circumcised. (Lk. 2:21)

  • Miriam and Joseph go to the temple for purification “according to the Torah of Moses.” (Lk. 2:22-24)

  • They do everything “required by the law of the Lord.” (Lk. 2:39)

  • They honor the feasts. (Luke 2:41)

  • The members of the household are named after famous Jews: Joseph, Joshua, [11] Miriam, Jacob (James), and Yehuda (Judea). Shimon was a common Jewish name at the time.

  • Jesus goes to synagogue on Sabbath. (Mark 6:2)

  • Jesus could read Hebrew (Aramaic was the spoken language); he was raised to study Torah.

  • Both Joseph and Miriam’s prophetic encounters revealed that they are devout Jews. (Matt. 1:20, Luke 1:26-28)

  • James was reported to be a Nazarite from birth. [12]


James follows Torah and believes other Jewish believers should as well. [13] He points positively to all the “Jews who have believed and are zealous for the Torah” (Acts 21:20) and expresses deep concern that these dismyrias (tens of thousands) of Jewish believers had heard a false report, that Paul had forsaken Torah (Acts 21:21-22).


Bishop of Jerusalem

How did James go from skeptic to bishop of Jerusalem? First, let’s understand from scholar Ben Witherington the mindset of this movement—The Way (Acts 9:2, 19:23, and more).


James and the disciples of Jesus did not see themselves as Christians. They saw themselves as Jews who followed the Jewish Messiah. It needs to be kept squarely in view that these people did not view themselves as founding a new religion… James views the gospel message as a case of Old Testament promises to Jews being fulfilled, and of Gentiles joining a Jewish messianic movement centered on Jesus, not of Jews joining some new religion. [14]

Witherington claims that James got a raw deal. The Petrine form of Christianity won out over James and created Catholicism. The Reformation emphasized a Pauline doctrine. [15] “Unfortunately, the Jerusalem church faded in importance with the violent Roman suppression of the Jewish revolt in the latter half of the first century and beyond.” [16] The Nazarenes (The James branch of The Way) rejected Pharisaical authority after the Temple’s demise and were isolated from the only remaining stream of Judaism. [17] However, James is making a comeback in modern Messianic Judaism, where Jewish people are embracing Yeshua without sacrificing their Jewishness.


Now onto the question of James’s leadership. The apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, which may have been written as early as 60 CE, [18] claims the disciples asked Yeshua who would lead them when he left. Jesus said to them, “Wherever you are, you are to go to James the righteous, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.’” The historian Hegesippus, a second-century Jewish believer (110-180 CE), confirms that the moniker, James the Just, existed from the time of Yeshua. [19] And Eusebius (d. 339), quoting Clement (d. 215), confirms that Peter, James, and John were instructed by Jesus to choose James as their leader. [20]


James is clearly the leader of the Jerusalem community, which for a season was the mother congregation. 1) Galatians 2:12 refers to men sent “from James.” 2) James is leading the Jerusalem council. Peter and Paul are summited to him (Acts 15). 3) When Paul returns to Jerusalem, he meets with “James and all the elders” (Acts 21:18).


Paul mentions James first in his list of the three pillars, along with Peter and John (Gal. 2:9), [21] and calls him “the Lord’s brother” (1:19), to avoid any confusion with James, the brother of John. Paul tells the Galatians that James—an observant Jew and senior to Paul in authority—endorsed their ministry (2:9), knowing everyone held James in high esteem. Even before Galatians, Peter recognizes James as the leader in Jerusalem. After James, John’s brother, is martyred (Acts 12:2), Peter is released from prison by an angel (v. 7). Before leaving, Peter instructs the believers to “Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this.” (v. 17).


We can see how revered James is through Jude—he introduces himself as “a brother of James” (v. 1). There’s an assumption that Jude’s readers would know of James. And lastly, Paul tells us (Gal. 1:18) that he visits Jerusalem three years after his Damascus road encounter [22] and meets with Yeshua’s brother James. This is around 36 CE. [23] Six years after Yeshua’s resurrection, James is already a primary leader in Jerusalem with Peter, according to Acts. Clement says it was from the beginning of the Church (see above).


James, the Book

Let’s turn to the book of James. He is writing to Jewish believers in other lands (1:1). Unlike Paul, he is not addressing problems in one locale but issues a collection of wise sayings for godly living. [24] His book mimics OT wisdom books with its sayings and warnings (i.e., 1:2-4, 5, 23-24, 2:2-4). James’s concern for the marginalized (1:9, 27, 2:2ff) and his rebukes of the rich (1:10-11, 2;1, 5:1) are reminiscent of the Hebrew prophets, [25] who railed against injustice.


In 2:2, James uses synagōgē for a New Testament (NT) meeting. Every other time (56), this refers to a Jewish religious assembly. The word for a NT assembly was ekklesia (112 times). Dr. David Stern believes James is referring to Jewish synagogues operated by Jewish believers: “Suppose a man comes into your synagogue.” [26]


Post-Acts James

There are two main sources that give us some insight into the life, and death, of James: Josephus, a contemporary to James, and Hegesippus (see above). Hegesippus’s writings were proliferated by the fourth-century church historian Eusebius, who claims, Hegesippus, offers the most precise version of James’s death. [27]


Hegesippus’s James is a devout Jew—a Nazarite “holy from his mother’s womb.” [28] James “was esteemed by all as the most just of men.” [29] “All” refers to the Jews of Jerusalem. [30] “[James] alone was permitted to enter into the holy place [of the temple],” where he “was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people.” In fact, his knees were hard like a camel because he was constantly in prayer. [31]


Am-ha-Aretz (see above) may have loved him, but the religious leaders didn’t. Josephus and Hegesippus have similar accounts of James’s death. Josephus presents a Sadducee high priest named Ananus as the antagonist. [32] Festus had died, and a new governor would take time to arrive. Ananus took advantage of the anarchy to arrest James and his companions. He accused them before the Sanhedrin and had them stoned to death. [33] Festus died in 62 CE; thus, James’s martyrdom occurred shortly thereafter.


Hegesippus’s account is more dramatic. Some Jewish leaders, that do not believe in a resurrection (Sadducees), question James regarding Jesus. James testified boldly that Jesus is the Savior, and many Jews believed. This deeply concerned the Jewish leaders who felt “there was danger that the whole people would be looking for Jesus as the Christ.” [34] They invited James to bring Passover greetings to all those in Jerusalem. They wanted him to persuade the people to forsake faith in Yeshua. They placed him on the pinnacle of the Temple and asked him about Jesus. This was the same pinnacle where Satan took Yeshua (Matt. 4:5) at the southwest corner of the Temple Mount. In 1968, Archaeologist Benjamin Mazar found a stone in the area beneath the southwest corner with the inscription, “The place of the trumpeting.” It was here that the priest would sound the shofar when the Sabbath began. [35]


James responded, “Why do you ask me concerning Jesus, the Son of Man? He himself sits in heaven at the right hand of the great Power and is about to come upon the clouds of heaven.” He’s quoting his brother’s words to Caiaphas (Mark 14:62). The religious Jews became furious and threw him down. He survives the fall and prays for his enemy, asking God to forgive their ignorance. [36] Finally, he was struck with a club and died. [37]


Hegesippus claims the Roman General Vespasian besieged Jerusalem immediately afterward. This calls the date into question, as Vespasian doesn’t come to Palestine until 67 CE. Hegesippus’s narrative may be hagiographic (a type of ancient biography that puts the subject in an overly flattering light.). [38]


We also learn from Hegesippus that James’s replacement was his cousin Symeon. [39] Eusebius gives us a list of the first 15 bishops of Jerusalem, all of them Jewish until after the Bar Kochba Revolt (132 CE) and the Jews were expelled from Jerusalem.


Conclusion

History tells us, both from the New Testament and other supporting works, that the primary apostolic leader in the early church was a life-long Torah-observant Jew. James, the brother of Jesus, was the bishop of Jerusalem and wrote to Jewish believers abroad (James 1:1b) about how to devoutly live out NT faith. He was martyred by religious Jewish leaders who were jealous of his influence. His dying words were words of faith.


The Church that grew outside of Israel became brutally anti-Jewish. Virtually every church father, from Justin to Origin, from Chrysostom to Augustine, held deep animosity towards the Jews. [40] A Jewish believer who would continue to obey Torah was considered a heretic. [41] While Acts 15 was celebrated for freeing the Gentiles from ritual Torah, it was forgotten that the apostles lived as Jews. In the Middle Ages, a Jewish convert would have to read a public confession renouncing Judaism. [42]


James serves as an example to Jewish believers that the calling in Israel is irrevocable (Rom. 11:29).


 

[1] St. Jerome, “From Jerome to Augustine (A.D. 404)” Chapter 4, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1102075.htm.


[2] Ron Cantor, Identity Theft (Destiny Image: Shippensburg, 2013), 100.


[3] Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington, The Brother of Jesus (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 93.


[4] Miriam, Yeshua’s mother, was Hellenized to Mary, but Moses’s sister is still Miriam in English translations.


[5] Shanks and Witherington, 93.


[6] Shanks and Witherington, 103.


[7] Shanks and Witherington, 100.


[8] Verlyn D. Verbrugge, “1 Corinthians,” in Romans–Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 393.


[9] Most commentaries agree.


[10] Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2009) 50.


[11] The Greek form of Joshua and Jesus are both Iesous.


[12] Eusebius, Church History (Book II), 23:5, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250102.htm.


[13] Shanks and Witherington, 124.


[14] Shanks and Witherington, 108.


[15] Shanks and Witherington, 105.


[16] Shanks and Witherington, 92.


[17] Ray Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1992), Summary and Conclusions, Kindle.


[18] Richard Valantasis, The Gospel of Thomas (London; New York: Routledge, 1997), 13.


[19] Eusebius, 23:4.


[20] Eusebius, 1:3, 23:4.


[21] Shanks and Witherington, 111.


[22] Timothy George, Galatians (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 126.


[23] E. P. Sanders, “St. Paul the Apostle,” Britannica, July 3, 2023, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Paul-the-Apostle.


[24] “James,” The Bible Project, December 6, 2016, video, 1:16, https://bibleproject.com/explore/video/james.


[25] cf. Amos 2:6–7; 4:1; 5:11–12; 8:4, 6 for social justice and cf. 4:1; 6:1, 4; 7:8–9 regarding the rich.


[26] David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary (Clarksville: Jewish NT Publications, 1992) chap. 2, Kindle.


[27] Eusebius, 23:3.


[28] Eusebius, 23:5.


[29] Eusebius, 23:2.


[30] Eusebius, 23:6.


[31] Eusebius, 23:6.


[32] Flavius Josephus, The Works of Flavius Josephus, Translated by. William Whiston, 1895, 20.197.


[33] Josephus, 20.197.


[34] Eusebius, 23:10.


[35] Aaron Demsky, “When the Priests Trumpeted the Onset of the Sabbath,” Biblical Archaeology Review 12:6, (November/December 1986), https://www.baslibrary.org/biblical-archaeology-review/12/6/3.


[36] Eusebius, 23:16.


[37] Eusebius, 23:18.


[38] Shanks and Witherington, 147.


[39] Eusebius, Church History (Book IV), 22:4, https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250104.htm


[40] Ron Cantor, “Reconciling the Antisemitism of the Church Fathers with Their Devotion to Messiah,” Kesher Journal, issue 42, (April 2023), https://www.kesherjournal.com/article/reconciling-the-antisemitism-of-the-church-fathers-with-their-devotion-to-messiah.


[41] Kinzer, 203.


[42] Michael Brown, Our Hands are Stained with Blood (Shippensburg: Destiny Image, 2019). 139-140.






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