James the Lord’s “Brother” (i.e., Cousin)

James the Lord’s “Brother” (i.e., Cousin) December 7, 2016

+ Who Wrote the Book of James?


Icon: Saint James the Just [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]




According to The New Bible Dictionary (Protestant), the most plausible (though not certain) theory is that the author was James, the “brother” (i.e., cousin, from biblical and historical evidences) of Jesus, and that the data is quite consistent with his being also the bishop of Jerusalem. It is stated that this was the view of the early Church. A variety of internal evidences for this are presented.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Protestant) concurs (see its section on the authorship of James online: scroll down to section II). Here is a large portion of it:

The address of the epistle states that the writer is “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1). The tradition of the church has identified this James with the brother of our Lord. Clement of Alexandria says that Peter and James and John, who were the three apostles most honored of the Lord, chose James, the Lord’s brother, to be the bishop of Jerusalem after the Lord’s ascension (Euscb., HE, II, 1). This tradition agrees well with all the notices of James in the New Testament books. After the death of James the brother of John, Peter was thrown into prison, and having been miraculously released, he asked that the news be sent to James and to the brethren (Acts 12:17). This James is evidently in authority in the church at this time. In the apostolical conference held at Jerusalem, after Peter and Paul and Barnabas had spoken, this same James sums up the whole discussion, and his decision is adopted by the assembly and formulated in a letter which has some very striking parallels in its phraseology to this epistle (Acts 15:6-29). When Paul came to Jerusalem for the last time he reported his work to James and all the elders present with him (Acts 21:18). In the Epistle to the Galatians Paul says that at the time of one of his visits to Jerusalem he saw none of the apostles save Peter and James the Lord’s brother (Galatians 1:18,19). At another visit he received the right hand of fellowship from James and Cephas and John (Galatians 2:9). At a later time certain who came from James to Antioch led Peter into backsliding from his former position of tolerance of the Gentiles as equals in the Christian church (Galatians 2:12).

All of these references would lead us to suppose that James stood in a position of supreme authority in the mother-church at Jerusalem, the oldest church of Christendom. He presides in the assemblies of the church. He speaks the final and authoritative word. Peter and Paul defer to him. Paul mentions his name before that of Peter and John. When he was exalted to this leadership we do not know, but all indications seem to point to the fact that at a very early period James was the recognized executive authority in the church at Jerusalem, which was the church of Pentecost and the church of the apostles. All Jews looked to Jerusalem as the chief seat of their worship and the central authority of their religion. All Christian Jews would look to Jerusalem as the primitive source of their organization and faith, and the head of the church at Jerusalem would be recognized by them as their chief authority. The authoritative tone of this epistle comports well with this position of primacy ascribed to James. . . .

All the characteristics of the epistle seem explicable on the supposition of authorship by James the brother of the Lord. We accept the church tradition without hesitation.

A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (edited by Dom Bernard Orchard, London: Thomas Nelson, 1953) agrees:

Catholic tradition solidly favours authenticity, and many non-Catholic authors concur with this tradition. The majority of the fathers of the Western Church identify the writer with James the Apostle, the son of Alphaeus . . .

It notes that the Eastern Church, following Eusebius, distinguished “between the son of Alphaeus and the Lord’s brother, who was Bishop of Jerusalem.” It gives biblical indications for the western view, including Galatians 1:19; 2:9; Acts 1:13; 12:2,17; 15:13; 21:18.

New Testament Introduction, by Donald Guthrie (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 3rd volume, 1970), another Protestant reference (1054 pages), refers to “the strong tradition, which appears to have early roots, and the many indications from internal data which support the tradition that James, the Lord’s brother, was the author” (p. 747). It had just provided seven densely-argued pages for this position. But then he provides some eleven pages for alternative views of scholars. At length he concludes:

It would seem preferable to incline to the traditional view on the principle that the tradition has a right to stand until proved wrong. Although some of the arguments for alternative views are strong, yet none of those views has any better claim to credibility than the tradition. In these circumstances the authorship of James, the Lord’s brother, must still be considered more probable than any rival.

(p. 758)

In a thread at the CHNI forum, it was noted that the same opinion was espoused in Scott Hahn’s Ignatius Catholic Study Bible and also the Navarre Bible.

* * * * *

Here is more information on James not being Jesus’ blood brother, but rather, a cousin:

By comparing Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40, and John 19:25, we find that James and Joseph — mentioned in Matthew 13:55 with Simon and Jude as Jesus’ “brothers” — are also called sons of Mary, wife of Clopas. This other Mary (Matthew 27:61, 28:1) is called Our Lady’s adelphe in John 19:25 (it isn’t likely that there were two women named “Mary” in one family — thus even this usage apparently means “cousin” or more distant relative).

Matthew 13:55-56 and Mark 6:3 mention Simon, Jude and “sisters” along with James and Joseph, calling all adelphoi. Since we know for sure at least James and Joseph are not Jesus’ blood brothers, the most likely interpretation of Matthew 13:55 is that all these “brothers” are cousins, according to the linguistic conventions discussed above. At the very least, the term “brother” is not determinative in and of itself.

* * *

[reply to a Baptist who was arguing that Jesus had blood brothers]

Then what do you make of John 19:25, where the apostle John calls Mary, wife of Clopas, the virgin Mary’s “sister” (adelphe)? Is it your belief that Mary had a blood sister named Mary? Or is this a cousin or more distant relative?

James and Joseph are called Jesus’ “brothers” in Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55. Yet Matthew 27:56 (cf. Mk 15:40) describes a different Mary as their mother (described as “the other Mary” in 27:61 and 28:1, and “Mary the wife of Clopas” in Jn 19:25). Now, assuming that Mary, the Mother of God didn’t have a sister (sibling) named Mary, this Mary, wife of Clopas and “sister” of the Blessed Virgin Mary is at least a cousin, if not further removed.

Cousin is plausible; let’s assume for the sake of argument that she is a first cousin. That would make her sons James and Joseph, the Blessed Virgin Mary’s second cousins, and Jesus’ third cousins. Yet they are called Jesus’ “brothers” in two places. This is virtual proof (if not ironclad proof) of adelphos meaning “cousin”. And it is based on the use of not only John, but Mark (thought to have received much of his information from Peter) and Matthew as well.

St. Paul rounds out the list by calling James “the Lord’s brother” in Galatians 1:19. But this James (thought to be the author of the book of James, and the first bishop of Jerusalem) is not a sibling, but rather, His first or third cousin or even further removed, depending on how much stock is put into early historical sources. Therefore, by the deduction of cross-referencing of Holy Scripture, Paul, John, Mark, and Matthew have all used adelphos in the sense of “cousin.” I think that’s a bit more biblical evidence than a “bald claim” and no “point at all.”

The Protestant New Bible Dictionary (1962) confirms all this (if indeed that is necessary with all that biblical data available). In its article, “Mary,” the fourth entry is about Mary, wife of Clopas:

Mary the mother of James; ‘the other Mary’; Mary of Clopas. It is very probable that these three names all refer to the same person. Mary the mother of James and Joses . . . (Mt. 27:55 f.) . . . Mark refers to her (15:40) as ‘Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses . . .

. . . Hegesippus tells us (see Eus., EH iii 11) that Clopas (AV Cleophas) was the brother of Joseph, the husband of the Virgin Mary. (p. 793)

If the latter is true, then Mary, wife of Clopas would have been the Blessed Virgin Mary’s sister-in-law; married to her husband’s brother. That would have made her Jesus’ aunt, and thus her sons would be His first cousins, rather than third, as supposed above in the hypothetical scenario. Note the looseness of adelphos again: it is applied in Jn 19:25 to this “sister” of Mary, who is actually a sister-in-law and not blood-related at all (according to Hegesippus and Eusebius), or else a cousin (blood-related, but more distantly than a sibling).

We find more fascinating information in Eusebius, in the same passage cited above:

After the martyrdom of James and the capture of Jerusalem which instantly followed, there is a firm tradition that those of the apostles and disciples of the Lord who were still alive assembled from all parts together with those who, humanly speaking, were kinsmen of the Lord – for most of them were still living. Then they all discussed together whom they should choose as a fit person to succeed James, and voted unanimously that Symeon, son of the Clopas mentioned in the gospel narrative [note: Jn 19:25; perhaps Lk 24:18], was a fit person to occupy the throne of the Jerusalem see. He was, so it is said, a cousin of the Saviour, for Hegesippus tells us that Clopas was Joseph’s brother. (The History of the Church, translated by G.A. Williamson, Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1965, 123-124; emphasis added)

It turns out, then, that early tradition, from the second-century historian Hegesippus (which we have no reason to doubt in its non-theological reporting of relationships) tells us that “Symeon” is also a son of Clopas. That’s very interesting because we have “Simon” (another form of Symeon) listed as a “brother” of Jesus, alongside James and Joseph, in Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3. Thus, he is another first cousin, according to this scenario, not a blood brother. That would identify three of these named “brothers” (there are only four named, total) as cousins, based on clear biblical evidence (James and Joseph) and a combination of sound early historical tradition and the Bible (Simon or Symeon). Eusebius cites Hegesippus again:

When James the Righteous had suffered martyrdom like the Lord and for the same reason, Symeon the son of his uncle Clopas was appointed bishop. He being a cousin of the Lord, it was the universal demand that he should be the second.

(p. 181 [IV, 22]; emphasis added; cf. III, 32, p. 143: “. . . Mary, wife of the Clopas whose son he was” and “the son of the Lord’s uncle, the aforesaid Simon son of Clopas . . .”)

* * *

With regard to another issue involving St. James, here is how two Catholic apologetic books reply to the data regarding James and Peter at the Council of Jerusalem (which has been used as an argument against Peter as the first pope):

St. Peter, not St. James, presided at the Council of Jerusalem. The question at issue was whether the Gentiles were bound to obey the Mosaic law. Paul, Barnabas, James and the rest were present as teachers and judges, . . . but Peter was their head, and the supreme arbiter of the controversy . . .

St. Peter spoke first and decided the matter unhesitatingly [Acts 15:7-11], declaring that the Gentile converts were not bound by the Mosaic law. He claimed to exercise authority in the name of his special election by God to receive the Gentiles (Acts 15:7), and he severely rebuked those who held the opposite view (Acts 15:10). After he had spoken `all the multitude held their peace’ (Acts 15:12) [immediately before Peter spoke, there had been “much disputing” – v.7]. Those who spoke after him merely confirmed his decision . . . James gave no special decision on the question . . . Moreover the decree is attributed to the Council of Apostles and Presbyters . . . (Acts 16:4), and not to James personally. (Bertrand L. Conway, The Question Box, New York: Paulist Press, 1929, 152)

St. James, as local Bishop of Jerusalem, would naturally have a prominent position at the meeting, since it took place in Jerusalem. But there can be no doubt about his deference to the ecumenical position of St. Peter as chief of the Apostles [e.g., he starts by saying ‘Simeon {Peter} hath declared . . .’]. (Leslie Rumble and Charles Carty, Radio Replies, 3 volumes, St. Paul: Radio Replies Press, 1940, Vol. 2, 91)

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