When the time came for a decision to be made about what to do with Gentile Christians, to whom did the early church turn? Not to Peter, and not to Paul. Perhaps surprisingly, to James.
Who is this James, and why was he worthy of such respect? Interestingly enough, he started out as one to whom much had been given but who did not use it. I mean that this James was the brother of Jesus Christ Himself, and yet earlier in his life he did not believe that His brother was the Messiah.
But something somehow changed. We don’t know how, but something extraordinary happened: the unbelieving one believed. It’s likely that once James believed, whenever he did, that his very close relationship with Jesus was his qualification for becoming the leader of the church in Jerusalem, the most important church in the first century.
Suddenly, I feel like a historical detective, trying, a la C. August Dupin, Hercule Poirot, Peter Wimsey, the Hardy Boys, and Adrian Monk, to sleuth out who this mysterious person was.
Here’s what we know about James from the New Testament. When Peter miraculously escaped from prison and fled Jerusalem due to Herod Agrippa’s persecution (I just saw this a few minutes ago when Peter and Paul was on TV!), Peter told the disciples to tell James (Acts 12:17). When the Christians of Antioch wanted to know whether Gentile Christians had to be circumcised to be saved, they sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem, where we find that James played a decisive role in the decision-making process (Acts 15:13ff). He gives his opinion, adds his own suggestions, and his word is what was sent to the Gentile Christians. Later, when Paul set his face like flint to go up to Jerusalem to deliver the money he raised for the faithful there, Paul goes to see James especially (Acts 21:18ff).
Paul describes James as being one of the persons the risen Christ showed himself to (1 Corinthians 15:3–8), and he lists James as one of the three pillars of the church, right up there with Peter and John (Galatians 2:9).
This much we know, and it certainly proves the high position of James in the early church. But it doesn’t explain the why. Why James? It could be because he was the brother of Jesus, but is that enough? It wouldn’t have been enough had he not believed in Him.
There is also a lot of interesting speculation about James, a lot of tradition, and a number of relatively early references to him. Maybe they’ll help explain the mystery of James. He has traditionally been considered the first of the Seventy. St. Jerome, and therefore the Roman Catholic Church, believed that James the brother of Jesus (or perhaps “cousin”) was the same as James, the son of Alphaeus.
James was called “the Just” because of his ascetic practices, which involved taking Nazarite vows, and his dedication to prayer earned him the nickname “Camel Knees” (not very flattering sounding, but still a name I would gladly be saddled with). Tradition, supported to some degree by Acts, holds that James led the Jerusalem group as its first bishop. He was certainly its president or leader, or first among equal of the elders.
Here’s what Jerome, quoting a work by Hegesippus, wrote, “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 had 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.”
Several early Christian works outside the Bible agree about the holiness of James and that he was a priest and likened to a Christian high priest.
If any of this tradition is accurate, and surely some of it is, then perhaps the reason James is accorded such a high place in the early church is because of his personal holiness, more than just his personal association with Jesus Christ.
Or perhaps it’s both: his personal encounter with Jesus Christ and his life that was transformed by this experience with Jesus Christ. Nowhere do these two things come together better than in the life of James.
It is this James who wrote the book of James, a book that is filled with striking similarities to the teaching of Jesus Christ, especially the Sermon on the Mount:
James 1:2 – joy in the midst of trials (Matt. 5:10-12)
James 1:4 – exhortation to perfection (Matt. 5:48)
James 1:5 – asking for good gifts (Matt. 7:7ff)
James 1:9-10 – spiritual poverty (Matt. 5:3)
James 1:20 – no anger (Matt. 5:22)
James 1:21 – meekness (Matt. 5:5)
James 1:22 – hearers and doers of the Word (Matt. 7:24ff)
James 2:10 – whole Law must be kept (Matt. 5:19)
James 2:13 – blessings of the merciful (Matt. 5:7)
James 3:12 – a tree is known by its fruit (Matt. 7:16)
James 3:18 – blessings of the peacemakers (Matt. 5:9)
James 4:4 – friendship with the world is enmity with God (Matt 6:24)
James 4:10 – blessings of the humble (Matt. 5:5)
James 4:11-12 – no judging others (Matt. 7:1-5)
James 5:2ff – the danger of riches, which moth and rust destroy (Matt. 6:19)
James 5:10 – the prophets as examples (Matt. 5:12)
James 5:12 – danger of taking oaths (Matt. 5:33-37)
It appears as if James was intimately familiar with the teachings of Jesus, not only having learned them and taught them but also having lived them out in his own life.
And now I think I know why James occupied such a high position in the early church: it was his proximity to Jesus Christ, not so much his blood connection but his water connection, having been baptized into His life so much that he emulated it with his own.
For this, James was stoned, according to two different accounts. But for this, he is also in heaven, reunited with his brother and His Lord.
What is your proximity, or closeness to Jesus? That is the question for you today.
Prayer: O Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life; Grant us perfectly to know thy Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life; that, following the steps of thy holy Apostle, Saint James, we may steadfastly walk in the way that leadeth to eternal life; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Point for Meditation:
- In what ways is the life of St. James calling you to be more like His Lord and yours?
- Is there some aspect of James’ teaching, mentioned above, to which James’ brother is asking you to pay attention?
Resolution: I resolve to find one way to follow St. James today, in his life or teaching.
© 2016 Fr. Charles Erlandson