Sweet Brother of God
by Robert M. Price
Odd Man Out
The hoopla occasioned more than a year ago by the supposed discovery of the ossuary of James, the brother of Jesus, has focused new popular attention on this shadowy New Testament character. He is a thorn in the side of both believers and nonbelievers. Roman Catholics, committed to believing in the "perpetual virginity" of Mary, have trouble with James's status as "the brother of the Lord," since Mary can have had no other children under that condition. But partisans of the Christ Myth theory find James something of an inconvenience, too, since his fraternal connection would certainly seem to imply a flesh-and-blood historical Jesus rather than the misty Jesus of legend and dogma only later turned into pseudohistorical figure. What do we know, or, at least, what can we surmise, about James the Just?
Mark 6:3 contains a list of the "brothers" (adelfoi) of Jesus: James, Joses, Judas, and Simon. Galatians 1:19 mentions a "James, the Lord's brother," and 2:9 seems to include this James along with John and Cephas as "pillars" of the church. The metaphor indicates their fundamental role in church leadership, recalling the cosmic pillars upon which the earth itself was believed to rest (cf. Gospel of Thomas 12: "go to James the Righteous, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being") as well as suggesting their mediatorial role between heaven and Earth. Acts 15:13 21 and 21:17 25 depict James, apparently the same one, as the patriarch of the Jerusalem church. Galatians 2:11 12 associate James with the circumcision party, a group of Jewish Christian elders who insisted that Gentile converts to Judaism must receive circumcision and embrace Jewish customs. James's representatives are said to have intimidated Cephas (apparently Peter) and Barnabas in Antioch and to have promoted a clash with Paul over the issue of Jew-Gentile Christian table fellowship, an issue seemingly reflected in the Gospel scenes of Jesus dining with unwashed sinners and toll collectors (Mark 2:15 17; Luke 19:1 10; cf. Galatians 2:15). These stories may well have originated in an attempt to vindicate the Pauline position by retrojecting it onto Jesus and the outcasts of his day.
Pillar and Pontifex
Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 20:9:1), Hegesippus (in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2:23), and “The (second) Apocalypse of James (61 63) all report the martyrdom of James at the instigation of Ananas, the high priest in 62 C.E., who had apparently first asked James, whom he seemed not to know was a Christian, to quash the burgeoning Jewish enthusiasm for Jesus in a public speech. When, however, James confessed his own faith in Jesus ("Why do you ask me concerning the Son of Man? For he sits in the heavens, at the right hand of the great Power, and he is about to come with the clouds of heaven"), he was shoved from the top of a flight of stairs to the floor, where someone bludgeoned him to death with a laundry club. With his last breath, he prayed, "I entreat you, O God and Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!" The story, if based on fact, implies that James was a faithful Torah zealot and that this fact was better known of him than his Christian identity, implying in turn that whatever sort of Torah-Christianity James and his followers espoused did not yet make Jesus its figurehead or its defining mark. Insofar as James would have viewed himself a faithful steward of Jesus, he must have understood Jesus as a faithful Torah observer as well. Otherwise, he may have been more of a colleague with Jesus in a "Nazorean" (or Nazarene) movement that was already rather pluralistic, with Jesus representing a more relaxed position, James a more formal one.
James's manifest position as the leader of the Jerusalem Christians implies a structure analogous to that of Shi'ite Islam and later movements arising from it. James would appear to have been understood as the caliph, or vicar, of Jesus, as the absentee messiah or messiah-elect, and thus his mouthpiece on Earth, as the Sunni caliphs (Abu-Bekr, Umar, Uthman) were heads of state and caretakers of the Muslim community after the death of the prophet Muhammad. Ali and his descendants were deemed Imams, inspired teachers and interpreters of scripture. When the last of them disappeared without a successor, he was believed to have been hidden away by God and to communicate henceforth through intermediaries called
Babs, "gates" or "doors." Hegesippus says James was asked, "What is the door of Jesus?" perhaps implying that James held this very position as the living link with Jesus. Thus it is entirely possible that many of the sayings attributed to Jesus, but which scholars ascribe to early Christian prophets instead, originated with James the Just. That James was but the first in a chain of such Babs or caliphs is hinted at by the note in Hegesippus that states that he himself was succeeded by another "brother" of Jesus, namely Simon, or Simeon bar Cleophas.
Epiphanius (Panarion 78:14:1) also remarks as to how James wore the high-priestly diadem. As Robert Eisenman, Arthur Palumbo, and others have suggested, James may have functioned as a rival sectarian high priest, operating on a different ritual calendar, and he may have been seized by the authorities while entering the Inner Sanctum upon the Day of Atonement on behalf of his sect, the so-called Jewish Christians of Jerusalem, the circumcision party. Eisenman, like Jacob L. Teicher, has suggested that James's community was identical with the Dead Sea Scrolls sect. We are told that James wore only priestly linen, like the Essenes, and that he was given the epithet
Oblias (“the bulwark”). It was apparently believed that, as long as he lived to intercede, Israel’s safety was guaranteed. Origen read some version of Josephus that blamed the Roman destruction of Jerusalem on the execution of James (Against Celsus 1:47; 2:13;
Commentary on Matthew 13:55). As Eisenman says, this priestly act by James, as well as his subsequent fate, may reflect the intention and fate of Jesus' own cleansing of the temple thirty years earlier. Jesus, too, may have been protesting what he perceived as corrupt or ritually defective worship conducted by the priestly establishment.
Was James literally, physically the brother of Jesus of Nazareth? This point has always been controversial for various reasons. Mark 6:3 seems to assume simply that Jesus had blood brothers and sisters who were his physical kin in the same way as his parents, Mary and "the carpenter" (according to some manuscripts, as also in Matthew 13:55). But second-century ascetic piety, which deemed sexual intercourse to be sinful even between husband and wife, came to believe that Mary and Joseph can never have had intercourse hence cannot have had children of their own. This implied that, while Jesus was miraculously conceived with no human father, the other children mentioned in Mark 6:3 must have been either his cousins or his half-siblings. In the latter case, they were the children of the elderly widower Joseph by his previous marriage. In the former case, they were the children of Mary's sister Mary(!) and her husband Clopas or Cleophas. This latter understanding seems already to have gained a foothold in the New Testament in Mark 15:40 and 16:1 and John 19:25. "James of
Alphaeus" (Mark 3:18) represents this tradition, since Alphaeus and
Cleophas appear to be but variant versions of the same name, both meaning "substitute." James, the son of Mary and Cleophas is James of Alphaeus is James the Just, brother of the Lord. Likewise, James bar-Zebedee, along with John, is traditionally held to be the cousin of Jesus. All such cousin ascriptions are attempts to distance Jesus from fleshly siblings and safeguard the perpetual virginity of Mary. (Similarly, the martyrdom of James, as Hans-Joachim Schoeps and Robert Eisenman have proposed, has been reworked in Acts 7 as the stoning of Stephen, a name that means "crown," and is thus an ideal or symbolic name for one who has gained the martyr's crown.)
On the other hand, it seems just as likely that "brother(s) of the Lord" referred originally to a group or class of missionary itinerants, as in Matthew 25:40 and 3 John 1:3, 5 8, and that the epithet thus no more implied physical relation to Jesus than Paul and Apollos, as "colleagues of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 3:9), would have had offices next to the Almighty's. It is not unlikely that "brother(s) of the Lord" came later to be historicized, misunderstood in literal fashion in order to satisfy the same biographical curiosity that eventually filled the apocryphal Infancy Gospels with details of the childhood and home life of Jesus (though, as we have seen, all this would soon clash with the perpetual virginity doctrine). In the same way, Jesus may have first been called "the Nazorean," meaning "member of the Nazorean sect” (cf. Acts 24:5), but that identifier was later interpreted as a reference to his having lived in Nazareth. (He may first have been called a carpenter by way of a proverbial metaphor for a skilled scripture exegete, later to be counted as a literal woodworker.) “The (first) Apocalypse of James” explicitly repudiates any physical connotation of "brother" ("For not without reason have I called you my brother, although you are not my brother materially"). We see the same tendency to historicize in the case of Thomas, called Jesus' "twin" in “The Gospel of Thomas,” because he, the ideal disciple, has attained spiritual equality/identity with Jesus (in saying 13). Elsewhere he seems to be portrayed as the literal, physical double of his Master. So "the brother of the Lord" need not denote blood kinship. After all, the Taiping messiah Hong Xiuquan in nineteenth-century China called himself the Younger Brother of Jesus, but no one thought he was claiming to be eighteen hundred years old.
1 Corinthians 15:7 mentions a resurrection appearance to James, already understood as the leader of the apostles. Mark 3:20-21, 31-35 and John 7:5 portray the brothers of Jesus as skeptics toward his mission, by no means his disciples. Many commentators infer that it was an appearance of the risen Jesus that converted James; but this harmonization fails to recognize, with Harnack, the role of the Petrine faction, which rejected the authority claims of their rivals, the so-called heirs of Jesus. The Petrinists would have denied that James and the others had supported Jesus during his earthly life, casting James as a Johnny-come-lately who tried to ride Jesus' coattails. The Petrine credo was "he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve." The James faction, on the other hand, told the story we read in the Gospel according to the Hebrews, that James was a disciple present at the Last Supper and swore to keep his fast till Jesus returned from the grave, which he did and told his brother to eat again. "Here, my brother, eat your bread; for the Son of Man is risen from among those who sleep" (Jerome, De viris illustribus II). Both versions are factional propaganda, and it is impossible to recover the facts of the matter. Indeed, the historical James confronts us with much the same enigma as the historical Jesus.
Robert Price is professor of Biblical Criticism at the
Center for Inquiry Institute and the author of
Deconstructing Jesus (Prometheus Books, 2000).