James the Just of Jerusalem

Forgotten Saint, Forgotten City

by James M. Kushiner

It is a fluke of history when great men who shape their times are lost in historical obscurity. These ironies occur throughout history, and the history of the Church is no exception. But that such a fate should befall a first rank figure of the apostolic church seems unlikely. He was a man who headed the great mother church of Jerusalem, who was an acknowledged saint whose sanctity and life of prayer and intercession were proverbial, who was regarded with warrant by many in the early church as the font of all episcopacy, who presided over the first Church council, who authored Scripture, and who was as celebrated a martyr as any martyr of his time. Who was this man? Not Peter, not Paul, not John, but James called the Just, of Jerusalem. It is ironical that such a man should be all but forgotten by so many today. And in some of the churches he is so little known that his identity has been confused with that of another James.

The confusion is evident even in the calendar of the Christian year. On October 23, James the Just is commemorated in the Episcopal Church in America and in the Eastern Orthodox churches. The Roman Church has unfortunately confused James the Just with one of the Twelve, James the son of Alphaeus (Acts 1:13), and commemorates him under that name on May 3. But the Eastern churches and this lone Anglican representative do not make this mistake. Consequently, they have assigned a date to James the Just separate from that of the Apostle James, son of Alphaeus. (To keep things straight from the outset, in case you are thinking of another James, there is a third James in the New Testament, one of the Twelve, son of Zebedee, brother of St. John. His death is recorded in Acts 12:2. We are not concerned with this James here; and no one is particularly confused about his identity.)

Was James One of the Twelve?

But just who is this James of Jerusalem, or as he is called in Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, “James, the Lord’s brother”? Is he outside the circle of the original Twelve Apostles? Most modern scholarly opinion, as well as the majority of ancient traditions, support keeping distinct James the Just, Brother of Our Lord, from James the son of Alphaeus. The biblical evidence seems clear. First James (the Just) either by name or in association with the rest of the Lord’s brothers, is mentioned in distinction from the Apostles (Acts 1:13-14; 1 Cor. 9:5 and 15:7). Second, in the Gospels James is listed as a brother of Jesus (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3); but when the lists of the Apostles in the same Gospels are given, James is listed as son of Alphaeus, not one of the Lord’s brothers. Besides, the brothers of Jesus appear in the Gospels to be initially reticent to support Jesus’ ministry. Beyond this, the distinction between the two Jameses is confirmed in light of the evidence from the early Church.

James in the New Testament

The New Testament provides us with glimpses of James and, taken together, these help us gain a sense of James’ importance. A number of things stand out. After Jesus’ resurrection, he appeared to James in a separate revelation (1 Cor. 15:7). James had become the leading figure of the Jerusalem church by the time of James Zebedee’s death (ca. A.D. 44). When Peter had escaped from prison during Passover with the help of an angel and was about to flee Jerusalem, he left word to report his escape “to James and the brethren.” Several years later, at the Council of Jerusalem, James took a strong hand in deciding the matter of requirements for Gentile converts to Christianity: “It is my judgment, therefore…,” and he went on to formulate a policy that became the policy for the whole Church (Acts 15:13ff). James clearly presided over this Council. When Paul visited Jerusalem years later, he “went to…James, and all the elders were present” (Acts 21:18). Speaking of an earlier visit to Jerusalem, Paul stated he received the “right hand of fellowship” from “James, Peter and John” (a listing of names in which James is given precedence). James is the only name regularly connected with the Jerusalem church in this period.

James in the Early Church

The testimony of the early Church confirms James the Just’s position and importance. Hegesippus, a second century Palestinian Christian, who traveled widely and carefully investigated the history of the preceding century, says:

Control of the church passed [from Christ] to the apostles, together with James, whom everyone from the Lord’s time till our own has called the Righteous.

James is appropriately considered the first bishop of Jerusalem, the mother church. Clement of Alexandria (d. 210) states:

After the ascension of the savior, Peter and James [the brother of the apostle John] and John did not struggle for glory, because they had previously been given honor by the Savior, but chose James the Just as bishop of Jerusalem.

It is noteworthy that Eusebius in his Canon [Jerome-Eusebius] reckons all episcopal succession as ultimately going back to James the Just. In the problematic Pseudo-Clementine literature (second century?), James is called a “bishop of bishops.”

Clearly, James’ reputation was unsurpassed in the early Church, and there are three factors that are helpful for us to consider in understanding his prominence. First, there is the respect accorded the “brethren of the Lord”; second, the position of Jerusalem itself as the mother church and center of unity; and third, James’ own reputation for sanctity.

The “Brethren of the Lord”

The “brethren of the Lord” came to be known in the early church, according to Eusebius, fourth century historian, as the desposynoi, “the Master’s [kinsfolk].” That such a category existed is evident in Paul’s time: they are mentioned in Acts 1:14, but even more significantly in 1 Cor. 9:5, where they are accorded roughly equivalent prominence with the apostles. Moreover, Hegesippus writes:

After James the Just had suffered martyrdom for the same reason as the Lord, Symeon, his cousin, the son of Clopas, was appointed bishop, whom they all proposed because he was another cousin of the Lord.

Certain of these family members enjoyed leadership and are spoken of as exercising leadership over the churches of Palestine on into the second century. But James’ influence extended beyond Palestine in his lifetime, which brings us to our second point.

Jerusalem, Mother Church

The position of Jerusalem as mother church has been lost to us, but it was a potent reality in the primitive Church, in which the city functioned as a center for all the churches. It was not simply that Jesus had died and was raised from the dead there. It was the center of Israel, and according to the Old Testament, the “place where God chose his name to dwell.” The early community expected Jesus to return quickly, and that return, according to the ancient prophecies, would occur in Jerusalem. For Jerusalem was to be (and is yet to be) the seat of the messianic kingdom. Jesus’ disciples thought in terms of an earthly kingdom and were eager to see it established (Acts 1:6). Beyond Palestine, Jerusalem held a position of honor among Jews, being the center of world Jewry. The Church itself was still largely Jewish and hence this position of honor, besides being theologically important, was only natural. Indeed, the churches founded in Europe by Paul, “apostle to the Gentiles,” sent contributions back to Jerusalem, even when they could scarcely afford them. It was only later, after the catastrophic war with Rome which ended in A.D. 70 with the destruction of the Temple and much of the city, that Jerusalem could no longer function as the center of Christendom. But before Peter and Paul met their deaths in the sixties, Jerusalem was still the center, and James was the person at its center.

James, Saint and Martyr

The third factor contributing to James’ prominence centers upon the person of the man himself. By all accounts, he was an outstanding example of godliness. He was known as “the Just and Oblias” (“rampart of the people and righteousness”), according to Hegesippus. He was believed to have been a consecrated Nazirite ascetic, a familiar figure in the Temple, whose knees had grown “hard like a camel’s” through his constant intercession for the forgiveness of the people. He seems to have been regarded with an almost superstitious reverence by friend and foe alike. In A.D. 62, certain authorities in Jerusalem, perhaps frustrated in their attempts to get at Paul earlier, maneuvered James into a public confrontation about acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. Perhaps hoping the old ascetic would back away from a frank Christian confession and thereby neutralize some of James’ strong Christian influence on the people, the plotters were frustrated by his bold confession, which had an effect on a number of the people gathered there. They tried to make the best of the situation and cried out, “Oh, oh, even the just one has erred.” At this point some men threw the old man down from a parapet of the Temple, and, seeing that the fall had not killed him, a crowd stoned him. (One account also mentions that a fuller beat him with his club. James is often depicted in Christian art with a club at his feet.) The respect accorded James is evident in Eusebius’ own statement:

Thus it seems that James was indeed a remarkable man and famous among all for righteousness, so that the wise even of the Jews thought that this was the cause of the siege of Jerusalem immediately after his martyrdom, and that it happened for no other reason than the crime which they had committed against him.

Josephus, the Jewish historian, also records the death of James in his Antiquities. He states that the high priest, Ananus, who instigated the plot against James, was stripped of his office by King Agrippa for his crime against James.

The Epistle of James, attributed to James the Just, reveals an authoritative teacher, ardently concerned with a rigorous morality and righteousness. Of all the apostolic writings, it is the one most reminiscent of Jesus’ own teaching on the poor and the rich. Its tone has been compared to that of the Sermon on the Mount. James continued to be revered in the Church for years after his death. In the fourth century church at Jerusalem, Eusebius tells us, a piece of furniture was on display as the “throne” of James the Just—that is, his episcopal chair. Whether the chair was authentic or not, it indicates a certain respect and pride.

The Meaning of James Today

What has James to offer the Church today? He first serves as a reminder that Jerusalem was the true mother church of all Christendom, and that the Church Universal’s destiny ultimately lies there. It is not without reason that in the Apocalypse, the writer sees at the end “the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down from heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2). When it comes to the various claims of Rome, the East, and elsewhere, regarding apostolic succession, respective dignities, and jurisdictions, the Jerusalem Church and James’ presidency over the first Church council may point the way to a new ecumenical era. Ecclesiastical triumphalism is out of place in light of the testimony of the early church. We do a great disservice to the Church in limiting our sight to the Latin West or the Greek East or any other milieu. No one branch of the Church can claim to contain the whole. As a monk of the Eastern Church has written:

Antioch and Alexandria, Rome and Constantinople are great and venerable names in the history of the Christian Church; but it is from Jerusalem that we are first of all descended.

As the so-called Liturgy of St. James (still used in the Eastern churches on his feast day), says, “We make offering for Zion, the mother of all churches.”

Finally, we may picture the saintly figure of James, kneeling in the Temple, praying on behalf of the people, believer and unbeliever alike. As the collect of the Book of Common Prayer reads for October 23:

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….

Until the Church is ready to kneel in prayer with James, on behalf of her own witness and unity, we will continue to live in the fog that obscures not only this eminent saint from our sight, but also important realities of our own past which could point the way to future restoration and wholeness for a divided Christendom.

James M. Kushiner is the Executive Editor of Touchstone.

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