On this day the church honors a saint with a familiar name, but one who is often confused with other similarly-named apostles. Today is the feast day of St. James of Jerusalem, Brother of Our Lord.
St. James is noted in the books of Matthew and Mark as one of the brothers of Jesus. In the book of Galatians, St. Paul wrote that he met St. James on his first visit to the city.
In the same way that St. Peter led the church in Rome, St. James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem and, with such a distinct role, you’d think we’d hear more about him in the scriptures…but we just don’t.
At question is his actual kinship with Jesus. In trying to highlight how singularly significant Jesus is in history, many Christian writers have struggled to let any siblings be a part of the story. But it’s worth noting that it would have been quite unusual for Mary and Joseph to have only had one child. In the ancient world that was not common family-planning. At the heart of this speculation, though, is not even really Jesus, but rather Mary. In an effort to keep her singularly virginal, all sorts of stories cropped up about a first marriage for Joseph in which he sired other children, making St. James the step-sibling of Jesus.
This is all fancy family footwork without any substance.
To add to the confusion, some historians of the early church suggest that this James is the same “James the Less” who was one of Jesus’ disciples with a different parentage altogether. The thought is that St. James was the son of Mary of Clopas, the younger sister of Mary, Mother of Our Lord. While it is true that the same word for “brother” can also mean “cousin” in the ancient world, this, too, seems far fetched and an attempt to solve a problem that is not really there.
Jesus had siblings. It’s OK. We can all get over it.
St. James of Jerusalem really first comes on the scene post-resurrection when he is met by the risen Jesus. The early church considered him an important piece in the first stories of the church, perhaps as a replacement for St. James, Son of Zebedee (who was martyred early on).
In the same way that St. Paul felt a special calling to the Gentile-Christians, St. James of Jerusalem spent his ministry with the Jewish-Christians. It is believed he was martyred sometime in the early 60’s, right around the composition of the first Gospels. Some early church historians even claim it was the priest Annas who ordered his stoning, though this is more lore than anything.
Today is an especially appropriate day to lift up prayers for the church in Jerusalem.
St. James of Jerusalem is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, of two important things:
First, when we attempt to make Jesus so “special” we actually rob him of the most relatable parts of his being. The idea that he had siblings is kind of neat to me because, as someone who knows what it’s like to juggle family relationships, he knows a bit of my experience…our human experience. I mean, isn’t a central thought of the church that we are all the siblings of Jesus? Why must it be correct theologically, but not biologically?
Religious folks struggle with biology…
Secondly, the church has always struggled with niche ministry, worried that it would rub too much against the norm. St. Paul felt a calling to the Gentiles, and St. James of Jerusalem to the Jewish-Christians. Today some pastors feel a call to ministry on the streets, or to marginalized communities, or even to Wall Street Brokers. Some pastors don’t feel a call to the pulpit, but rather to the pavement. Some leaders don’t even feel a call to the priesthood, but are feeling a push to live as prophets.
From the early church, specialized ministry was already happening, and yet we still struggle so much with those who want to “do something different” with their call or want to start communities that don’t look a lot like conventional “church” communities.
-most historical bits, with the exception of some of the commentary around controversies, aided by Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations
-Icon by Tobias Haller, BSG