Topic Scripture: James 1:1
Who was James?
The book of James names its author in its first sentence: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). But which James? The NT uses the name forty-two times, of which thirty-eight identifications are certain:
- Nineteen refer to James the brother of John and son of Zebedee
- Four refer to James son of Alphaeus
- Three refer to a son of Mary
- Two refer to a half-brother of Jesus
- Eight refer to an unspecified James, a pillar of the Jerusalem Church
- Two refer to “Judas son of James.”
James the son of Zebedee is the most prominent James in the gospels.
He was among Jesus’ first disciples (Mark 1:29).
His mother was probably Salome (Matthew 27:56: among those at the cross were “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons”; Mark 15:40: “among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome”).
John 19:25 lists these women at the cross: “his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” Unless John omitted his own mother from his listing of the women at the cross, it is likely that she is one of these four and thus the sister of Jesus’ mother Mary. As a result, her sons James and John were Jesus’ cousins.
James was so important to the first Christian movement that Herod chose him for execution (Acts 12:2).
His early death (AD 44) makes it very unlikely that he is the author of our letter.
James son of Alphaeus, while a disciple of our Lord (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15), is not otherwise known to the apostolic record.
He is likely mentioned in Mark 15:40, “Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses”; and Luke 24:10: “Mary the mother of James, and the others with them” who told the apostles about Jesus’ resurrection.
His mother is likely the wife of Clopas (John 19:25), so that Clopas is usually identified as Alphaeus.
He may be the brother of Jude, the author of the letter bearing his name; or that Jude may be a half-brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55).
Most scholars believe the author of our letter to have been a person of greater stature in the early church than James son of Alphaeus, and question whether this man could be known to a wide audience by the simple identification “James.” However, the Catholic tradition does not accept the thesis that Mary had children after Jesus, and thus denies that our letter could be written by his half-brother. Catholic theologians thus consider him to be the author of our epistle (see #6 below).
The James whose son is Judas (not Iscariot; Luke 6:16; Acts 1:13) is even less known to Scripture, and thus even less likely to be the author of our epistle.
We are left with James, the half-brother of Jesus. Here’s what we know about him from the Gospels:
He is named with Joseph, Simon, and Judas as Jesus’ brothers (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3); he was likely the oldest of the brothers, as he is listed first.
He and his brothers did not believe in Jesus at first: “even his own brothers did not believe in him” (John 7:5).
Note the Roman Catholic doctrine that Mary maintained her virginity so that James could not be her child. Two theories are proposed to support this assertion:
The Epiphanian theory (after Epiphanius, ca. AD 370): James and his brothers were the sons of Joseph from a previous marriage. But nothing in the text indicates such a previous family; and the flight to Egypt (Matthew 2) would surely have mentioned this other family if it existed.
The Hieronymian theory (proposed in AD 383 by Jerome, whose Greek name is Hieronymius): Jesus’ “brothers” were his cousins. Paul describes “James the Lord’s brother” as one of the “apostles” (Galatians 1:19); Jerome insists these are only the Twelve. He thus identifies him as James son of Alphaeus (Matthew 10:3) and asserts that Alphaeus was married to Salome, the sister of Mary, making James the cousin of Jesus. But “brother” does not mean “cousin” in family relationships; and the “apostles” were more than the Twelve (cf. Romans 16:7, where Andronicus and Junia are “outstanding among the apostles”). Nonetheless, this is the official position of the Catholic Church today.
Nothing in the biblical text suggests that James was anything other than Mary’s son and Jesus’ half-brother. This fact will become important in the applications which conclude this week’s study.
After the resurrection, Jesus made a special visit to his half-brother. He visited Peter and the Twelve (1 Corinthians 15:5), more than 500 of the “brothers” (v. 6), and “then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles” (v. 7). The second-century Gospel according to the Hebrews adds that Jesus shared the Lord’s Supper with James at this time (Martin, James xliv).
This distinction between James, the “Twelve,” and the “apostles” makes clear that this person is not James the brother of John or the son of Alphaeus (see also Galatians 1:19, where Paul says he met with “none of the other apostles–only James, the Lord’s brother”).
And it demonstrates that this James was important enough to warrant a specific visit from the risen Christ, and special mention by Paul.
Most interpreters believe that this event led James to faith in his half-brother as the Messiah.
Eventually, the other brothers came to the same faith commitment. By the time Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, Jesus’ brothers are among the believers: “Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?” (1 Corinthians 9:5).
Following this life-changing encounter, James became one of the most significant leaders of the Jerusalem church:
From the death of James the brother of John, the book of Acts refers to “James” as if there is only one person known widely by this name.
After his miraculous release from prison, Peter told the believers to “tell James and the brothers about this” (Acts 12:17), placing him in prominence over the other leaders of the church.
James spoke for the Jerusalem council in their decision to accept the conversion of Gentiles to faith in Christ (Acts 15:13-21).
When Paul visited the Jerusalem church three years after his conversion, he met with Peter for 15 days but “none of the other apostles–only James, the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19).
Paul listed “James, Peter and John” as the “pillars” of the early church (Galatians 2:9).
He described a delegation coming from Jerusalem to the Gentile church at Antioch as “from James” (Galatians 2:12).
When Paul brought the Collection to Jerusalem at the conclusion of his third missionary journey, Luke records that “Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present” (Acts 21:18). This is the last mention of James in the New Testament.
Clement of Alexandria (born approx. AD 160), in the sixth book of his Hypotyposes, states that “Peter and James and John, after the Saviour’s ascension, though pre-eminently honoured by the Lord, did not contend for glory, but made James the Just, bishop of Jerusalem” (Ante-Nicene Fathers 2:579).
Jerome (AD 492) adds that “he ruled the church of Jerusalem 30 years, that is until the seventh year of Nero” (Lives of Illustrious Men ch. 2; Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 3:362). Nero ruled Rome from AD 54-68, so that James died in AD 62.
From the third century, the large majority of interpreters have identified the Letter of James with James the Just, half-brother of Jesus.
Origen (AD 185-253), Eusebius (c. 265-340) and Jerome (c. 340-420) all favored this position.
The vocabulary of James’s speech (Acts 15:13-21) and the letter it inspired (vs. 22-29) is similar to that of the epistle:
The salutation “greetings” (chairein) is found in the NT only in Ac 15:23, James 1:1, and Acts 23:26
James 2:7, “the noble name of him to whom you belong,” is paralleled in the NT only at Acts 15:17, “who bear my name”
“Name” in James 2:7; 5:10, 14; and Acts 15:14, 26 is not used elsewhere in the NT in the same sense
James’ allusions to the OT (Acts 15:14, 16-18, 21) are consistent with the epistle
“Brothers” is common to the epistle (James 1:2, 9, 16, 19; 2:5, 15; 3:1; 4:11; 5:7, 9, 10, 12, 19) is found also in Acts 15:13, 23
Note James 2:5, “Listen, my dear brothers” and Acts 15:13, “Brothers, listen to me” (Oesterley, Expositor’s Greek Testament 4:392).
James’ authority (Acts 15:13; 21:18) coheres with the authoritative nature of the epistle (with its 46 imperatives).
Jerome (AD 492) states of him, “after our Lord’s passion at once ordained by the apostles bishop of Jerusalem, wrote a single epistle, which is reckoned among the seven Catholic Epistles” (Jerome 361).
What happened to him?
We have no record of James after Paul’s visit to Jerusalem (Acts 21:18). But he is mentioned prominently in the post-biblical literature. His character was known and admired:
Hegesippus, writing a commentary near the time of the apostles, calls him “the brother of the Lord” and identifies him further: “as there were many of this name, was surnamed the Just by all, from the days of our Lord until now” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2:23).
He then describes his character: “This apostle was consecrated from his mother’s womb. He drank neither wine nor fermented liquors, and abstained from animal food. A razor never came upon his head, he never anointed with oil, and never used a bath. He alone was allowed to enter the sanctuary. He never wore woolen, but linen garments. He was in the habit of entering the temple alone, and was often found upon his bended knees, and interceding for the forgiveness of the people; so that his knees became as hard as a camel’s, in consequence of his habitual supplication and kneeling before God. And indeed, on account of his exceeding great piety, he was called the Just” (ibid).
He may have been a mentor to Stephen, the first martyr.
Ignatius (A.D. 30-107), in his letter to the Trallians, asks, “what are the deacons but imitators of the angelic powers, fulfilling a pure and blameless ministry unto him, as the holy Stephen did to the blessed James, Timothy and Linus to Paul, Anencletus and Clement to Peter?” (ch. 7).
We know James the Just to have been an important figure in the Jerusalem church, though James the brother of John was still alive at Stephen’s death (cf. Acts 12:2). So we cannot be sure of the identity of “the blessed James,” though it is likely that he was James the Just.
His martyrdom (AD 62) was the subject of extended interest as well:
Josephus describes his death: the high priest Ananus “was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who were very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity . . . so he assembled the Sanhedrim of the judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned” (Antiquities 20:9:1).
The circumstances which led to his death are noted by Hegesippus: as a Passover neared, the Jewish leaders positioned James on a wing of the temple and asked him to persuade the crowds “not to be led astray by Jesus.” His response: “‘Why do you ask me respecting Jesus the Son of Man? He is now sitting in the heavens, on the right hand of great Power, and is about to come on the clouds of heaven.’ And as many were confirmed, and gloried in this testimony of James, and said, Hosanna to the son of David, these same priests and Pharisees said to one another, ‘We have done badly in affording such testimony to Jesus, but let us go up and cast him down, that they may dread to believe in him'” (Eusebius, ibid).
Hegesippus then describes his martyrdom: “they began to stone him, as he did not die immediately when cast down; but turning round, he knelt down saying, ‘I entreat thee, O Lord God and Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ . . . And one of them, a fuller, beat out the brains of Justus with the club that he used to beat out clothes. Thus he suffered martyrdom, and they buried him on the spot where his tombstone is still remaining, by the temple. He became a faithful witness, both to the Jews and Greeks, that Jesus is the Christ” (ibid).
Jerome adds that he “was buried near the temple from which he had been cast down. His tombstone with its inscription was well known until the siege of Titus and the end of Hadrian’s reign” (Jerome 362). Titus destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70; Hadrian was emperor of Rome from AD 117-138.
His integrity was recognized even by those who arranged his martyrdom:
The injustice of James’ death was noted even by the Jewish leaders: “as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach if the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified.” Eventually his behavior cost him the high priesthood after only three months (Josephus, ibid).
Eusebius adds that many of the Jewish leaders believed the Roman destruction of Jerusalem “happened to them for no other reason than the crime against him” (Eusebius, ibid).
What does his life teach us today?
James calls himself “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1a). “Servant” translates doulos, the Greek word for “slave.”
His self-description as the “slave” of God also places him in an Old Testament line of spiritual leaders and prophets:
Moses was the doulos of God (1 Kings 8:53; Daniel 9:11; Malachi 4:4)
Joshua and Caleb wore this title (Joshua 24:29; Numbers 14:24)
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were the “slaves” of God (Deuteronomy 9:27), as was Job (1:8)
The prophets were known as the doulos of God (Isaiah 20:3; Amos 3:7; Zechariah 1:6; Jeremiah 7:25; Barclay, James 35-6).
And his self-characterization as the “slave of the Lord Jesus Christ” suggests these facts:
James was unconditionally surrendered to Jesus Christ as his Lord. A slave was owned by his master. He had no rights of his own. There was no segment of his life which was not completely yielded to the one who owned him. To be the “slave” of Jesus is to be his entirely. In addition, his description of Jesus as “Lord” shows his surrender to his Emperor and King.
He was absolutely obedient to his word and will. A slave is allowed no will of his own. He must do what his master says to do, without question or qualification. James would obey his Master’s leading, wherever it took him–even to a martyr’s death.
He was humbly loyal to his Master. James nowhere identifies himself as Jesus’ half-brother, a fact which causes some commentators to question whether or not he wrote this epistle. Why would he not use such authority for his ministry? Because those who read his letter already knew his life and faith. They knew his family relation to Jesus. He would not take pains to remind them of his human connection with the Christ, only his spiritual devotion to him. No person has ever refused so lofty an honor as this.
Such humble submission is God’s will for us all:
“What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
“The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves” (Luke 22:26).
“By the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you” (Romans 12:3).
James knew who he was: the slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ, completely committed to their will and Kingdom alone. This identity motivated his life, forged his character, and made his martyrdom an easy choice. He would live and die for the One who died and lived for him.
Why is humble submission so crucial to a life-transforming faith?
The word of God requires such surrender: “be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18); “take my yoke upon you” (Matthew 11:29). We cannot live in God’s word and will unless we surrender to Jesus as our Lord.
Living a surrendered life is the most reasonable way we can respond to the divinity and authority of Jesus Christ. He possesses “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18), meaning that we possess none. And his resurrection demonstrates his divinity. As a result, we can serve no person who deserves our submission as much as the Lord. If he allows us to serve another master, he permits idolatry. The first of the Ten Commandments and the Two is therefore the same: to love God so much that we have no other gods before him (Exodus 20:3; Matthew 22:37). We were created to worship our Creator; our lives can find fulfillment in no other purpose. Such a decision is warranted rationally.
Submitting to Christ as Master is warranted experientially as well. Christians across 20 centuries of faith can agree with William Booth, the Salvation Army founder who asserted, “The greatness of a man’s power is the measure of his surrender.” Believers in every generation have learned that the road to joy is paved with humble submission to Christ as Lord.
Our hearts long to serve something or someone. As Pascal observed, there is a God-shaped emptiness inside us all. The earliest art known to man was painted as an act of worship. Every society known to history has worshipped God or the gods. We were made to serve Christ, and our hearts are restless until they rest in him (Augustine).
God will not share his glory: “Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness” (Psalm 29:2). He intends to bring all nations to glorify his Son (Philippians 2:9-11). And so he can use our lives only to the degree that we advance his Kingdom and honor his Son.
Surrendering our lives to his will is in our best interest. He can lead only those who are willing to be led. His will is “good, pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2), but we must surrender to it before we can experience it. He wants to meet all our needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19), but he can give only what we will receive.
Such commitment unites spirit and flesh, Sunday and Monday, the “secular” and the “sacred.” Since the time of Orpheus, six centuries before Christ, the Western world has divided the soul from the body. When we make Jesus our Master and ourselves his slave, we experience the fullness of his abundant joy (John 10:10) in every dimension of life.
Our surrendered obedience to the Lord is our best witness to a relativistic, pluralistic post-modern world. In a culture which believes absolutes do not exist (itself an absolute assertion), our faith must be relevant before it can be considered to be right. We show others that Jesus should be their Lord only when he is our Lord. We must possess what we mean to share, and our lives must demonstrate the truth of our words.
How do we live the surrendered life today?
Believe personally, making Christ your King.
Commit daily, beginning each morning.
Make a moral inventory, asking the Holy Spirit to show you anyplace in your life which is not submitted to the will of God. Confess these sins in genuine contrition, claiming his forgiving grace (1 John 1:9).
Develop the habit of beginning each morning in submission to the will of God. Learn to pray first about every decision of the day. Go to God as your Master, remembering always that you are his slave. This hymn can be your prayer:
O Jesus, Lord and Savior, I give myself to Thee, For thou in thine atonement didst give Thyself for me. I own no other Master; my heart shall be Thy throne; My life I live henceforth to give, O Christ, to Thee alone.