James the Just 

James the Just

James the Just is a first century Jew who had a more famous brother, or rather, technically, half-brother: Jesus of Nazareth. Some of the traditions concerning James are recorded by historians who are reliable, or who patently aspire after reliability, yet are independent of the New Testament, which mentions James and incorporates a letter written by him, but gives little biographical information beyond that. We do know that Jesus' brothers were not counted among His followers before His death: "For neither did his brethren believe in him." (John 7:5). James' perspective evidently changed after encountering His risen brother:

"For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: and that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: after that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles." (1 Corinthians 15:3-7).

The church historian Eusebius incorporates in his work a sizeable extract from Hegesippus, a second century Jewish Christian:

  • “But Hegesippus, who lived immediately after the apostles, gives the most accurate account in the fifth book of his Memoirs. He writes as follows:
  • “James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles. He has been called the Just by all from the time of our Savior to the present day; for there were many that bore the name of James. He was holy from his mother’s womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh. No razor came upon his head; he did not anoint himself with oil, and he did not use the bath. He alone was permitted to enter into the holy place; for he wore not woolen but linen garments. And he was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people. Because of his exceeding great justice he was called the Just, and Oblias, which signifies in Greek, Bulwark of the people’ and ‘Justice,’ in accordance with what the prophets declare concerning him. Now some of the seven sects, which existed among the people and which have been mentioned by me in the Memoirs, asked him, ‘What is the gate of Jesus? and he replied that he was the Savior. On account of these words some believed that Jesus is the Christ. But the sects mentioned above did not believe either in a resurrection or in one’s coming to give to every man according to his works. But as many as believed did so on account of James. Therefore when many even of the rulers believed, there was a commotion among the Jews and Scribes and Pharisees, who said that there was danger that the whole people would be looking for Jesus as the Christ. Coming therefore in a body to James they said, ‘We entreat thee, restrain the people; for they are gone astray in regard to Jesus, as if he were the Christ. We entreat thee to persuade all that have come to the feast of the Passover concerning Jesus; for we all have confidence in thee. For we bear thee witness, as do all the people, that thou art just, and dost not respect persons. Do thou therefore persuade the multitude not to be led astray concerning Jesus. For the whole people, and all of us also, have confidence in thee. Stand therefore upon the pinnacle of the temple, that from that high position thou mayest be clearly seen, and that thy words may be readily heard by all the people. For all the tribes, with the Gentiles also, are come together on account of the Passover.’ The aforesaid Scribes and Pharisees therefore placed James upon the pinnacle of the temple, and cried out to him and said: Thou just one, in whom we ought all to have confidence, forasmuch as the people are led, astray after Jesus, the crucified one, declare to us, what is the gate of Jesus.’ And he answered with a loud voice,’ Why do ye ask me concerning Jesus, the Son of Man? He himself sitteth in heaven at the right hand of the great Power, and is about to come upon the clouds of heaven.’ And when many were fully convinced and gloried in the testimony of James, and said, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ these same Scribes and Pharisees said again to one another,’ We have done badly in supplying such testimony to Jesus. But let us go up and throw him down, in order that they may be afraid to believe him.’ And they cried out, saying, ‘Oh! oh! the just man is also in error.’ And they fulfilled the Scripture written in Isaiah, ‘ Let us take away the just man, because he is troublesome to us: therefore they shall eat the fruit of their doings.’ So they went up and threw down the just man, and said to each other, ‘Let us stone James the Just.’ And they began to stone him, for he was not killed by the fall; but he turned and knelt down and said, ‘I entreat thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And while they were thus stoning him one of the priests of the sons of Rechab, the son of the Rechabites, who are mentioned by Jeremiah the prophet, cried out, saying, ‘Cease, what do ye? The just one prayeth for you. And one of them, who was a fuller, took the club with which he beat out clothes and struck the just man on the head. And thus he suffered martyrdom. And they buried him on the spot, by the temple, and his monument still remains by the temple. He became a true witness, both to Jews and Greeks, that Jesus is the Christ. And immediately Vespasian besieged them.”
  • (Eusebius, Church History, Book 2, Chapter 23, pp. 207-209).

Jesus Christ Pantocrator

While there might seem some uncertainty or variability in the various accounts of his death, in fact a fall from a height was included in the prescribed method for stoning: "The stoning-place was two heights of a man. One of the witnesses pushed him on his thighs (that he should fall with the back to the surface), but if he fell face down, he had to be turned over. If he died from the effects of the first fall, nothing more was to be done. If not, the second witness took a stone and thrust it against his heart. If he died, nothing more was to be done; but if not, all who were standing by had to throw stones on him." (The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, Volume XV, Tract Sanhedrin, Chapter VI, Kindle location 61807). Another possibility: "With his own height he was thrown down from the height of three men." (The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, Volume XV, Tract Sanhedrin, Chapter VI, Kindle location 61817). Falling from a height is not something different from stoning, but part of the procedure.


Younger Brother

An apocryphal work, The Protevangelion of James, portrays James and his brothers as older children of Joseph by a prior marriage. This seems dubious, because Jesus' right to rule in the line of David came through Joseph, who was His legal though not biological father. If James were Joseph's first-born, this birthright would properly belong to James, not Jesus; yet there is no suggestion in the sources that James regarded Jesus as a usurper. Nor is the later improvisation, that they were 'cousins,' any improvement, because it leaves inexplicable why James is always called the Lord's 'brother,' not His 'cousin.'


Didn't Exist

The theory that Jesus never existed has taken the internet by storm, proving that you'll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of internet atheists. If Jesus never existed, then James, a historical person whose major claim to fame is his more famous brother, enters in a curious limbo: he is a real person, recorded in credible histories, with a fictitious brother:


  • “But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are 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 [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], 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; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrim without his consent.”
  • (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, Chapter 9, p. 1257).

Paul's Letters

Those who take the time and trouble to read what liberals have to say about the Bible are aware that they divide Paul's letters into the genuine and spurious. Those which they reject are disqualified because they refer to practices, which would come to be associated with gnosticism, which however is not likely to have existed in its full-blown form at that early date:

"The next thing to check is whether 1 Timothy was based on a forgery. And the answer to that is a resounding yes. In 1807, a German scholar named Friedrich Schleiermacher published a letter observing that 1 Timothy used arguments that clashed with other letters written by Paul. Moreover, 1 Timothy attacks false teachings, but they are not the types of teachings prevalent when Paul was writing — instead, they are more akin to the beliefs of the Gnostics, a sect that did not exist until long after Paul's death." (Kurt Eichenwald, The Bible: So Misunderstood It's a Sin, December 23, 2014, Newsweek magazine).

And they really did think like that. Colossians, for example, they say cannot have been written by Paul for this reason:

"Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh." (Colossians 2:20-23).

James and Paul were contemporaries, and James, a life-long celibate according to Epiphanius, did indeed neglect the body. And it is known that missionaries came out from James: "For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision." (Galatians 2:12). Given that Paul knew James, it is after all not that likely he had never heard of such practices, although of course James cannot be accused of the later horrific heresy, which denies even monotheism.

  • “JAMES, who is called the brother of the Lord, surnamed the Just, the son of Joseph by another wife, as some think, but, as appears to me, the son of Mary sister of the mother of our Lord of whom John makes mention in his book, 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 and even this is claimed by some to have been published by some one else under his name, and gradually, as time went on, to have gained authority. Hegesippus who lived near the apostolic age, in the fifth book of his Commentaries, writing of James. says “After the apostles, James the brother of the Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem. Many indeed are called James. This one was holy from his mother’s womb. He drank neither wine nor strong drink, ate no flesh, never shaved or anointed himself with ointment or bathed. He alone halt the privilege of entering the Holy of Holies, since indeed he did not use woolen vestments but linen and went alone into the temple and prayed in behalf of the people, insomuch that his knees were reputed to have acquired the hardness of camels’ knees.”
  • (Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men, Chapter 2, James the Brother of the Lord).

If some of James's emissaries chanced to praise his life-style, there's nothing strange or unexpected in that. Admittedly the reader can watch as James's biography is deformed to conform with agendas such as that Mary was ever-virgin; however, some of this material is early. In addition, though the Talmud incorporates many anachronisms, there is no reason to disbelieve its report that angel-mythology was already well-developed in the first century A.D.:

"The rabbis taught: Hillel the Elder had eighty disciples. . . The greatest of all the disciples was Jonathan b. Uziel, the least of all was R. Johanan b. Zakai. It was said of the latter, that he did not leave out the Bible, the Mishna, the Gemara, Halakhoth, and Agadoth (legends), the observations of the Bible, observations of the Scribes, lenient ones and vigorous ones, the analogies of expression, equinoxes, geometries, the language of the angels and the language of the evil spirits and the language of the trees, the fables, the great things, the heavenly chariots and small things, the discussions of Abayi and Rabha, to confirm what is written [Prov. viii. 21]: 'That I may cause those that love me to inherit a lasting possession and their treasures will I fill.'" (The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, Volume VII, Section Moed, Tract Succah, Chapter II, Kindle location 29085)

Obviously there is exaggeration here; the Mishna was not even written at the time, much less the Gemara. But there's no reason to think some of these things did not already exist in the first century. Many are of little merit, as Paul realized. Why these witnesses claim that James was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, i.e. to act as high priest, is difficult to fathom. Epiphanius however testifies to the same circumstance: "Only this James was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies once a year since he was a nazirite and a member of the priesthood. . .James also wore the priestly diadem." (Epiphanius, Panarion, Section VII, Chapter 78, p. 611 Brill). Similar things were said of John: ". . .and, moreover, [there is] John also, he who leaned back on the Lord’s breast, who was a priest, wearing the high-priestly frontlet, both witness and teacher. He has fallen asleep at Ephesus." (Polycrates, quoted in Eusebius, quoted in Bauckham, Richard (2013-09-25). Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (p. 439). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Kindle Edition.) These references do not seem to be intended as metaphors. The high priestly head band is important to this group, who see themselves as a nation of priests, "Then I looked, and behold, a Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His Father’s name written on their foreheads." (Revelation Chapter 14:1). Did they maintain some parallel or shadow temple leadership of their own? It seems unlikely the real temple leadership, responsible after all for the murder of James, would have allowed their use of the facilities. Once the Jewish War was underway, the orderly succession to the high priesthood ended, and the various contending groups sparred over possession of the temple; however James did not live to see the Jewish War, and it cannot be imagined any of the belligerents would have appointed a Christian bishop to the office. Perhaps the Jewish Christians had their own 'temple' ceremonies.

Reading Paul's letter to Galatians and James's general letter, the reader views a ping-pong match in progress between James and Paul. Paul curses: "As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed." (Galatians 1:9). James prissily notes, you shouldn't do that: "Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be." (James 3:10). Paul swears: "Now concerning the things which I write to you, indeed, before God, I do not lie." (Galatians 1:20). James dislikes swearing: "But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath." (James 5:12). Paul quotes Genesis 15:6: “Therefore He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does He do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?— just as Abraham 'believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.'” (Galatians 3:5-6). James quotes Genesis 15:6: “And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.' And he was called the friend of God.” (James 2:23). Paul quotes Leviticus 19:18: “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Galatians 5:14). James quotes Leviticus 19:18: “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself,' you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” (James 2:8-9).

While James's letter is far from being a point-by-point refutation of Galatians, it is difficult to avoid the inference that James had this earlier letter in mind when he wrote, given these correspondences which would be surprising if random. His tone is brotherly and pastoral; he perceives himself occupying a supervisory position over Paul and seeks, not to cast him out of the church, but to rein him in, successfully it would seem, because Paul never curses his opponents again. This quarrel did not lead to confusion or contradiction, but rather to needed and welcome clarification.

The church included both letters in the canon of scripture. What the early church realized is that there's no real conflict here. Not that they looked for thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, but rather that these salvos, which do seem to be trained at the other, miss by a mile. Neither Paul nor anyone else believes that salvation comes by verbal assent to a formula, and Paul is as shocked at the prospect of antinomianism as is anyone. Presumably James' missionaries could not help boasting about their patron's ascetic feats, which Paul thought pointless; but he can scarcely be accused of gnosticism, even though some gnostics looked to him for protection. James is mentioned in the proto-gnostic Gospel of Thomas:


  • "The disciples said to Jesus, 'We know that you are going to leave us. Who will be our leader?'
  • "Jesus said to them, 'No matter where you are, you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.'"
  • (Gospel of Thomas, 12).

Righteous Man

The notion that the world came into existence for the sake of the righteous man, who is thus a pillar of the world, is found in the Talmud:

R. Eleazar further said: Even for the sake of a single righteous man would this world have been created for it is said: And God saw the light that it was [for one who is] good, and ‘good’ means but the righteous, as it is said: Say ye of the righteous that he is the good one. . .
"R. Hiyya b. Abba also said in the name of R. Johanan: The Holy One, blessed be He, saw that the righteous are but few, therefore He planted them throughout all generations, as it is said: For the pillars of the earth are the Lord's, and He hath set the world upon them.
"R. Hiyya b. Abba said also in the name of R. Johanan: Even for the sake of a single righteous man does the world endure, as it is said: But the righteous is the foundation of the world. R. Hiyya himself infers this from here: He will keep the feet of His holy ones.’ ‘Holy ones’ means many? — R. Nahman b. Isaac said: It is written: His holy’ one. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Yoma 38b.)

Another explanation of this term is found in Tractate Sanhedrin, "But he who explains the passage to mean Hiskia and his society, where is to be found that by the word foundation the upright are meant? [1 Sam. ii. 8]: 'For the Lord's are the pillars of the earth, n which he hath set the world.' 'Pillars' are the upright, 'on which he has set'— the foundation." (The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, Volume XVI, Tract Sandhedrin, Chapter XI, Kindle location 662489).

The assumption that good men secure the continued existence of the community is found also in Philo:

"For my own part, when I see a good man living in a house or city, I hold that house or city happy and believe that their enjoyment of their present blessings will endure, and that their hopes for those as yet lacking will be realized. For God for the sake of the worthy dispenses to the unworthy also His boundless and illimitable wealth. I know indeed that they cannot escape old age, but I pray that their years may be prolonged to the utmost. For I believe that, as long as they may live, it will be well with the community. So when I see or hear that any of them are dead, my heart is sad and heavy. Not for them. They have reached in the due course of nature the end we all must reach. They have lived in happiness and died in honor. It is for the survivors that I mourn. Deprived of the strong protecting arm, which brought them safety, they are abandoned to the woes which are their proper portion, and which they soon will feel, unless indeed nature should raise up some new protectors to replace the old, as in the tree which sheds its now ripened fruit, her agency makes other fruits grow up to give sustenance and pleasure to those who can pluck them. As then in a city good men are the surest warrant of permanence. . ." (Philo Judaeus, The Sacrifices of Abel and Cain, Chapter XXXVII, Loeb edition pp. 183-185).

This reasoning follows the logic of Abraham's dialogue with God concerning Sodom. Several of the sources use this 'pillar' language of James. It even turns up in the New Testament: "And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision." (Galatians 2:9).

James's epithet of 'Standing One' is somewhat obscure, though perhaps there is a reference to the 'standing men,' prayer warriors whose ascetic discipline was intended for the protection of various districts and populations:

"The rabbis taught: The men of the watch would pray that the sacrifices of their brethren should be favorably accepted; and the standing men would congregate in the synagogues and fast four fast-days; viz., from Monday until Thursday, inclusive. On the first fast-day they would fast for those who plied the seas; on the second, for those who traverse the desert; the third, that the children might be saved from the disease of croup; and the last day, for pregnant women and for those suckling their babes — that the former might be happily delivered and the latter retain their strength." (The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, Volume VIII, Tract Ta'anith, Chapter IV, Kindle location 32991).

The claims made for these intercessors are rather grandiose:

"'On the fast of the standing men.' Whence do we deduce this?. . .Said R. Ami: If not the standing men, the heaven and earth would not abide; as is written [Jerem. xxxiii. 25]: 'If my covenant be not with day and night, I would not appoint the ordinances of heaven and earth.'" (The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, Volume VIII, Tract Megilla, Chapter IV, Kindle location 35060).

Perhaps James's fasts and prayers were perceived as protecting the Jewish Christian community, or Israel as a whole. Oddly enough, Simon the Samaritan claimed the same epithet: "And to Moses it is said, 'But do thou stand there with Me.' And the followers of Simon wish to be assimilated in manners to the standing form which they adore." (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book II, Chapter XI). Clement explains the epithet, "For congenial to the man of falsehood is shifting, and change, and turning away, as to the Gnostic are calmness, and rest, and peace." (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, Book II, Chapter XI).

Some contemporary scholars, like Robert Eisenman, insist on collapsing all the 'James's' of the New Testament down into one. The logic of so doing is not apparent, any more than collapsing all the 'James's' who live in your town down to one. Assigning a distinguishing descriptor, like 'Less,' is standard operating procedure:

"If it happen that in one city two persons bear one and the same name, they cannot give promissory notes to each other. . .How, then, shall they do, if they wish that their documents shall be of value? Write their names threefold — e.g., Joseph b. Simeon b. Jacob; and if they are alike in this also, they must make a sign to their names (e.g., if one is shorter than the other, he must say, 'the Little;' and if they are both of equal size, if one is a priest he shall write 'Cohen')." (The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, (parenthetical notes mainly from Rashi), Volume XIV, Tractate Baba Bathra, Chapter X, Kindle location 58531).

To judge by the evidence of the ossuaries, the name was common enough to quench any demand for conspiracy theories.


It Works

Christians often act as if the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount were an embarrassment, something that needs to be explained away rather than followed. In majority Christian countries, the world rolls on in its accustomed way, with endless wars and oppression. Many Christian commentators argue that the imperatives of the Sermon on the Mount are simply impractical, and will not work in a world under the sway of Satan; Christians must act as if they were citizens of Satan's polity if they don't want to see their lunch money stolen. It took a pagan, Mohandas Gandhi, to realize that non-violence was a very practical way to resolve the world's problems. Violence, to be sure, solves problems also, but at a very high cost, by leaving some of the parties to the dispute dead. James, though a Johnny-Come-Lately to the Christian movement, would seem to have exemplified these principles in his life. James, in his letter, does not simply repeat Rabbinic or Old Testament wisdom:

"He had been too shaped by the wisdom of his own brother when it came to issues of truth-telling, impartiality, peace-making, nonretaliation, perfection, and generosity both human and divine, to do so. In fact, I would suggest that James's mediatory role and practice in the church was profoundly shaped by his convictions in these matters, convictions he derived from the teaching of Jesus." (Ben Witherington III, What Have They Done with Jesus?, p. 204).

And look at the results he achieved. He was on good terms with the orthodox: a letter by him is incorporated into the New Testament. He was on good terms with the hard-line Judaizers, even though he endorsed Paul's opening to the Gentiles in the church council of Acts 15. He was even on good terms with the early gnostics, a seeming impossibility, because he is mentioned favorably in the Gospel of Thomas. Evidently he respected people even when he did not share their views, and did not use his office to trample on their rights.

In identifying 'insiders' and 'outsiders,' Judaism has more often used the criterion of 'orthopraxy' rather than 'orthodoxy,' right practice rather than right belief. Had James' Torah-compliant Christianity become the norm, instead of the more radial ideas of Stephen or Paul, might Christianity have remained as a tolerated Jewish sect? Realizing that James himself ended his journey as a victim of judicial murder, that seems unlikely. In this case, compromise does not purchase safety.

According to the Talmud, Jesus was put to death for enticing Israel to apostasy, presumably by encouraging the worship of. . .Himself. Amongst the punishments Paul endured, after he switched from persecutor to persecuted, was stoning, which is the recommended punishment for enticement to idolatry:

"If Paul's reference in this same passage to being stoned (2 Cor. 11:25) likewise harks back to punishment at the hands of fellow Jews, then on that occasion his religious crime was seen as particularly severe, perhaps in terms of the charge of idolatry/apostasy based on Deuteronomy 13:1-11; 17:2-7." (Larry W. Hurtado. How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (Kindle Locations 827-828).)

We are urged from the pulpit to live life so that, if the persecutors try to imprison you for your Christian faith, they will not be obliged to drop the charges for lack of evidence. The apostle Paul told the Corinthians, "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified." (1 Corinthians 2:2). Martin Luther's problem with James is that he does not pursue the same agenda. Instead of talking all the time about His brother the Messiah, he rarely mentions Him. But however we account for that weakness or reserve, he was a Christian, who ended his life as a martyr for the faith.