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Who was James?

Word@Work's series in the letter of James sparked a number of reader's questions about James.

When we mention “James”, in our Word@Work series on the letter of James, we are referring to the author of the letter. Based on Biblical evidence it is extremely likely that the James who wrote the letter was the half-brother of the Lord Jesus.

There are four men called James that we read about in the New Testament. The Apostle James (son of Zebedee and brother of John) had been killed before this letter was written. The other two were relatively unknown and probably lacked the influence to write a letter to the church. So that leaves James the brother of Jesus as the most likely author of the letter.

As to James’ story he was one of Jesus’ brothers and sisters: "Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?" Matthew 13:55 (NIV)
It is interesting to note that James heads the list which could show he was the eldest brother.

As with the rest of Jesus’ brothers - James did not believe in Him at first (see John 7:5) – but James met the Lord Jesus after the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:7).

In Galatians 2:9 James is identified as one of the pillars of the church in Jerusalem and this could not be the apostle James because he had already been beheaded (Acts 12:2). In Acts 15:13 James is seen to be an honoured spokesman for the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:13). James was still in Jerusalem when Paul visited for the last time (Acts 21:18) so presumably he continued as one of the leaders of that church.

James moved from doubt to faith and to a prominent position in the early church. His letter is written with Jewish Christians in mind but contains lots of wisdom to encourage all Christians in their walk with the Lord.

Was James the biological brother of the Lord Jesus Christ?

The Bible states clearly that Mary was virgin at the time of the conception of Jesus, but it nowhere states that she remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus. Indeed Matthew 1:25 strongly implies that Joseph and Mary had normal conjugal relations after Jesus was born: But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus." (NIV)

As to whether Jesus had biological brothers, it is significant that Jesus’ brothers are mentioned in eight different Bible passages:

  • Matthew 12:46, Luke 8:19, and Mark 3:31 say that Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see Him.
  • The Bible tells us that Jesus had four brothers: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas (Matthew 13:55).
  • The Bible also tells us that Jesus had sisters, but they are not named or numbered (Matthew 13:56).
  • In John 7:1-10, His brothers go on to the festival while Jesus stays behind.
  • In Acts 1:14, His brothers and mother are described as praying with the disciples.
  • Later, in Galatians 1:19, it mentions that James was Jesus’ brother.

The most natural reading of these passages is that Jesus had siblings who were the children of Joseph and Mary. Indeed in each instance, the specific Greek word for “brother” is used. While the word can refer to other relatives, its normal and literal meaning is a biological brother. There was a Greek word for cousin, and it was not used. If they were Jesus’ cousins, it would be odd that they are so often described as being with Mary, Jesus’ mother. There is nothing in the Bible to suggest that they were anything other than His literal, blood-related half-brothers.

Whilst we understand that the teaching of some churches differs on this point, the Bible does not support the view that these “brothers” were merely believers – see for example John 7:5 where it says For even his own brothers did not believe in him. The word here for brothers cannot mean brother in the sense of “someone who believes in Jesus” because the verse says “even his own brothers did not believe in him”. It must be speaking of His blood-related half-brothers. In fact in John 7:3 the author distinguishes Jesus' half-brothers from His disciples, showing they are not included as disciples.

As to the letter of James: it was included as one of the 27 New Testament books first listed by Athanasius. It was confirmed as part of the New Testament by the series of councils in the fourth century that agreed the canon of Scripture. The Letter of James is agreed by almost all denominations of Christianity to be a canonical epistle of the New Testament.