Thursday, October 21, 2021

James the Brother of Jesus, Davidic King

The perennial debate about the "Brethren of the Lord," so found in the Gospels of Sts. Matthew and Mark, is a sticking point between orthodox Christians and those who deny the perpetual virginity of Mary. The usual Counter-Reformation apologetic against heretics was to argue that the word "brother" had a wide usage among the Hebrews and could easily be the equivalent of "cousin." All this is true enough, but it makes light of the earliest traditions of St. Joseph as a widower and a father by his earlier marriage. The Fathers had little problem with the idea that Christ had step-brothers and step-sisters, many of whom arrived at one of his gatherings to embarrass themselves when they demanded his attention (Matt. 12).

St. James is easily the most contentious of these figures, and Catholic theologians today tend to collapse "James the son of Alphaeus" (Matt. 10) and "James the Lord's brother" (Gal. 1) into one person, the same James recorded by Josephus and Eusebius as being the bishop of Jerusalem who reigned until his martyrdom just before the Roman sack of the Holy City. This James of Jerusalem, or James the Just, is easily distinguished from James the Greater, who was the brother of St. John the Apostle and the first apostolic martyr under Herod Agrippa (Acts 12). If we rather consider that there were three Jameses—of Zebedee, of Alphaeus, and of Joseph—then new possibilities open up, and we also must admit that there remains little history and tradition for the middle James, despite being among the Twelve.

My favorite Catholic podcast is that put out by St. Irenaeus Ministries, a small New York apostolate founded by a convert who was once a Protestant Bible scholar, and which is currently run by his accomplished protegé. Most of the talks put out by SIM are in-depth Scripture studies, steeped in Patristics and even in ancient Jewish scholarship. The ongoing series on the Acts of the Apostles goes into some depth about James and the Brethren of the Lord, sticking with the earliest traditions and making observations that were certainly new to my hearing:

  • First, that James the Just was called the "font of all episcopacy" and "bishop of bishops" in the early Church, and there is a special reason for that.
  • Second, that James was chosen to take the see of Jerusalem in part because of his close relation to Jesus.
To the point of James as the proto-bishop, we need to consider first that he was not an Apostle. The Twelve, as well as the Apostle St. Paul, were sent (apostello) to the whole world to preach, convert, and ordain. Yet James the Just remains in Jerusalem, in his homeland: there he is installed as bishop, there he reigns, and there he dies. The pattern of the Apostles is that they encompass the offices of both bishop and missionary, and they very intentionally spread to the farthest corners of the world in order to preach the Gospel. Most of them die in agony in barbarian lands. The fact that James stays in Jerusalem shows that he is not an Apostle, strictly speaking, but rather that he is the pattern of what we know as a bishop, one who possesses a realm over which he reigns and holds spiritual responsibility, and within which realm he resides and remains.

Along that line of thought, it is believed that James was given the bishopric of Jerusalem because he was the next in line for the Davidic throne. Jesus of course was the Son of David and the proper heir to David's throne, although his kingdom was not of this world. When Christ died and was soon ascended into Heaven, it seemed proper to the first generation of the Church to place one of Jesus's own kinsmen upon that Jerusalem throne. As Eusebius writes about the succession after James,

After the martyrdom of James and the conquest of Jerusalem which immediately followed, it is said that those of the apostles and disciples of the Lord that were still living came together from all directions with those that were related to the Lord according to the flesh (for the majority of them also were still alive) to take counsel as to who was worthy to succeed James. They all with one consent pronounced Symeon, the son of Clopas, of whom the Gospel also makes mention; to be worthy of the episcopal throne of that parish. He was a cousin, as they say, of the Saviour. For Hegesippus records that Clopas was a brother of Joseph.

Eusebius elsewhere lists the first three bishops of Jerusalem as James, Symeon, and Justus, all of whom could possibly be identified as sons of Joseph (Matt. 13:55, Acts 1:23), and therefore as the kinsmen or Brethren of Our Lord. The fifteenth bishop of Jerusalem in Eusebius's list, and the last of Jewish descent before the Romans forbade Jews in the city, is Judah Kyriakos, believed by many to have been a descendant of Jude the brother of James and author of the catholic epistle. Eusebius also writes that, "Of the family of the Lord there were still living the grandchildren of Jude, who is said to have been the Lord's brother according to the flesh," and that the Emperor Domitian had this family rounded up for questioning to see if they might be rebellious like others of the Davidic line; after hearing their talk of a spiritual kingdom, he "despis[ed] them as of no account." Thus did the line of David rule in Jerusalem, in a spiritual fulfillment of the promise of the Davidic throne while the Apostles still lived, preached, and received martyrdom.

Indeed, the Brethren seemed to hold a special place in the first century of the Church, not opposed to the Apostles but working in concert with them. In Acts 12, St. Peter asks his disciples to talk to "James and to the brothers"; in Acts 21, St. Luke says that "the brothers received us gladly" and then speaks of meeting James; in 1 Corinthians 15, St. Paul says that after the Resurrection Christ first "appeared to James, then to all the Apostles"; in Galatians 2, Paul described James, Peter, and John as special pillars of the Church, although this may have been James the Greater. (It is true that Paul calls James an apostle a chapter earlier ("I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother"), but this seems more like an honorific than a precise description of his role.) Christ's brothers appear to be separate from his disciples until after his Resurrection (cf. the references in Matt. 12 & 13, quite a while after the calling of the Twelve in Matt. 10).

James the Greater, the son of Zebedee and brother of John, is already of great account in Tradition. He preached in Spain and was the first of the Twelve to receive the crown of matyrdom. His feast is well-loved, he appears in many hagiographies and in imaginative literature of the Middle Ages, and he is even said to have inspired the reign of Charles the Great.

What of James the Less, the son of Alphaeus? His brother was the Apostle Matthew, or Levi, who seems to outshine James by the writing of the first Gospel, and it was not even this James who wrote the catholic epistle. The Eastern churches say that James the Less was finally martyred in the city of Ostrachina in Lower Egypt by crucifixion. Like so many of the Twelve, James the Less largely disappears after the Gospel accounts, and we only know of his works and death in summary.

James the Just, brother of Our Lord, pray for us!

Martyrdom of James the Just


  1. Ah, finally someone else who enjoys SIM podcasts! I admit I haven't followed them for a few years now, but I have been meaning to pick them up again. I discovered them shortly after returning to the Church over a decade ago and they have been extremely helpful.

  2. Was succession to the Davidic throne by primogeniture? If so, what evidence is there that Our Lord Jesus Christ was first in line to it?