James by Matt Jackson-McCabe

Underlying the English James is the Greek Iakobos, which itself approximates the Hebrew Ya’aqov, or “Jacob.” It became conventional in English Bible translations to render this name differently in different contexts in order to differentiate the “Christian” James from the “Jewish” Jacob, much as with Jesus and Joshua.

Jacob was a common Jewish name in the first century. So it is not surprising that various Jameses appear in the New Testament, including two apostles—one identified as brother of John and son of Zebedee, and the other as son of Alphaeus (Matt 10:2-4)—and the father of a third (Jude, in Luke 6:16). Historically, the most important James of the New Testament is the one identified as the brother of Jesus, sometimes called James the Just.

Was James the Just an actual brother of Jesus?

It is assumed as a matter of course in the New Testament that Jesus had brothers and sisters (Mark 3:31, John 7:1-10, Acts 1:14, 1Cor 9:5), one of whom was named James (Matt 13:55, Mark 6:3).

As this James rose to prominence, it became conventional to distinguish him from others with reference to his still more famous brother. It is clear from the letters of Paul that this began already during James’s lifetime (Gal 1:19). Long after his death, James continued to be identified in this way by writers such as Hegesippus, Eusebius, Jerome, Pseudo-Clement, and even the first-century Jewish historian Josephus (assuming the reference in Jewish Antiquities 20.197-203 is not an interpolation, as has sometimes been suggested). After his death, reportedly at the hands of an interim Judean authority around 62 C.E., this James was also frequently identified by the epithet “the Just” and, more enigmatically, “Oblias” (Hegesippus in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.23.7).

It is only when church doctrine became concerned with the sexuality of Mary as a theological problem in its own right that some began to insist that Jesus could not have had siblings. Different theories were generated to explain references to them in scripture and tradition. Some speculated that they were children of Joseph from a previous marriage, making James only a stepbrother of Jesus. According to a still later theory, brother in this case meant cousin—an explanation that had the added bonus of allowing for the virginity of Joseph as well.

Such theories, of course, are not impossible. But that does not mean they are in any way historically likely. The most natural reading of the evidence is that James was called brother of Jesus in the same sense that John was called brother of the apostle James, and Andrew called brother of Simon Peter (Mark 1:16, Mark 1:19).

What was James’s role in the early Jesus movement?

James the brother of Jesus was widely remembered as the chief authority of the earliest apostolic community in Jerusalem. Eusebius, writing in the fourth century, says the apostles made him “bishop” of Jerusalem, citing an earlier work by Clement of Alexandria (Ecclesiastical History 2.1.2-3; 2.23.1). This view of James as head of the church is also reflected in such otherwise diverse works as the Gospel of Thomas (saying 12), Hegesippus, the Acts of the Apostles (especially Acts 15:1-35—and see Acts 21:17-26) and the Pseudo-Clementine writings.

However formally it was defined, James’s role as a—if not the—leading authority of the Jesus movement in the years after his brother’s death is confirmed by Paul. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul identifies James as “the Lord’s brother” (Gal 1:19), who joined Peter and John as the “acknowledged pillars” of the group (Gal 2:2, Gal 2:6, Gal 2:9). James’s special standing even among these three is suggested not only by the fact that Paul lists his name first but also especially by an incident that Paul goes on to report: Peter, who had been sharing meals with Gentile members of the movement in Antioch, suddenly brought this practice to a halt after a visit from some men “from James.” Much to Paul’s chagrin, all the other Jewish group members—including Paul’s own partner Barnabas—responded the same way (Gal 2:11-14).

No doubt James’s special authority was due in large measure to his status as Jesus’ brother. In fact, Jesus’ family members, known as desposynoi (“those belonging to the master”), continued to carry special prestige and authority in the Jesus movement well into the second century, including James’s reported successor, Symeon, who was a cousin of Jesus (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.11, 32; 4.22.4). James’s particular authority, however, was also bolstered by a claim that he had received a special revelation of Jesus after the latter’s death (1Cor 15:7; see also the Gospel of Hebrews).

Matt Jackson-McCabe, "James", n.p. [cited 1 Oct 2022]. Online:


Matt Jackson-McCabe

Matt Jackson-McCabe
Associate Professor, Cleveland State University

Matt Jackson-McCabe is associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Comparative Religion at Cleveland State University in Ohio. He is the author of Logos and Law in the Letter of James (Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), and editor of Jewish Christianity Reconsidered (Fortress Press, 2007).

James the brother of Jesus, also called James the Just, was a leading authority of the apostolic community centered in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death.

Did you know…?

  • It is assumed throughout the New Testament that Jesus had brothers and sisters.
  • James the brother of Jesus is one of few New Testament figures to receive mention by a non-Christian writer in the first century (Josephus).
  • This James was widely remembered in antiquity as the leading authority of the earliest apostolic community centered in Jerusalem.
  • Relatives of Jesus continued to carry special prestige in at least some segments of the Jesus movement into the second century C.E.
  • A variety of ancient texts claim to be written by this James, including letters, reports of his special revelation from Jesus, and an account of Jesus’ birth.
  • The authenticity of the New Testament Letter of James was disputed in antiquity, and many historians continue to doubt it today.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Matt 10:2-4

2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John;3Philip and B ... View more

Luke 6:16

16and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

Common Era; a notation used in place of A.D. ("Anno Domini") for years in the current calendar era, about the last 2,000 years.

Related to the church.

A segment of a text that has been added into the original by a later hand.

A Christian priest and theologian from around 400 C.E.; his translation of the Bible into Latin, called the Vulgate, became the definitive Bible translation for over a thousand years.

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy, or what later became the larger province of Judah under imperial control. According to the Bible, the area originally received its name as the tribal territory allotted to Judah, the fourth son of Jacob.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

(Mark 3:31

The True Kindred of Jesus
31Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.

John 7:1-10

The Unbelief of Jesus' Brothers
1After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He did not wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity t ... View more

Acts 1:14

14All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

1Cor 9:5

5Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?

Matt 13:55

55Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?

Mark 6:3

3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at ... View more

Gal 1:19

19but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord's brother.

Mark 1:16

Jesus Calls the First Disciples
16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fisherm ... View more

Mark 1:19

19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.

A converted Christian theologian born in the second century C.E. whose beliefs were influential but sometimes considered heretical.

a person who is not Jewish

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

Acts 15:1-35

The Council at Jerusalem
1Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of M ... View more

Acts 21:17-26

Paul Visits James at Jerusalem
17When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us warmly.18The next day Paul went with us to visit James; and all the elde ... View more

Gal 1:19

19but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord's brother.

Gal 2:2

2I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim amon ... View more

Gal 2:6

6And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those leaders contribu ... View more

Gal 2:9

9and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand ... View more

Gal 2:11-14

Paul Rebukes Peter at Antioch
11But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned;12for until certain people came from ... View more

1Cor 15:7

7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

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