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Bible Dictionaries

Bridgeway Bible Dictionary

James the Brother of Jesus

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Since the brothers and sisters of Jesus are usually mentioned in association with Mary the mother of Jesus, it is natural to assume that she was their mother (Matthew 12:46; Matthew 13:55-56; John 2:12). If that is the case, it means that after the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary began to have normal sexual relations (Matthew 1:25). The mention of James’ name first in the list of Jesus’ brothers and sisters indicates that he was next oldest in the family after Jesus.

From unbelief to church leadership

During Jesus’ earthly life his brothers did not believe that he was the Messiah. They were religiously conservative, and they regarded Jesus’ unorthodox teaching and lifestyle as an indication that he was suffering from some sort of religious madness (Mark 3:20-21; Mark 3:31; John 7:3-5). But by the time of Jesus’ ascension they had become believers (Acts 1:14). This suggests that whatever happened at Jesus’ special appearance to James after the resurrection, it helped turn James, and the other brothers, from unbelief to faith (1 Corinthians 15:7).

James soon became a prominent person in the Jerusalem church. When Paul went to Jerusalem for the first time after his conversion, the two leaders he met were James and Peter (Acts 9:26-27; Galatians 1:18-19).

Some years later, when Paul, Barnabas and Titus visited Jerusalem to deliver a gift from the Antioch church, the leaders they met were James, Peter and John (Acts 11:30; Galatians 2:1; Galatians 2:9). On that occasion James and his fellow leaders expressed their support for Paul’s mission to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7-9). James again appears as a prominent leader of the Jerusalem church in the story of Peter’s escape from prison (Acts 12:17).

After Paul’s first missionary journey, a group of Jews from the Jerusalem church came to Antioch teaching that Gentile converts had to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses (Acts 15:1; Acts 15:5). They claimed that James had sent them (Galatians 2:12), but when church leaders later discussed the matter at a special meeting in Jerusalem, James denied this (Acts 15:24).

James, in fact, took the leading part on behalf of the Jerusalem church in confirming that Gentiles were saved by faith alone. In this he confirmed the truth of the message Paul preached. He asserted, moreover, that Gentile converts were not to be forced to obey Moses’ law. But it would be helpful, he suggested, if Gentile Christians respected their Jewish brothers by not engaging in practices that Jews considered repulsive (Acts 15:13; Acts 15:19-21).

The people of Jerusalem in general had a great respect for James, and he became popularly known as James the Just. The character of his life and teaching can be seen in the New Testament letter that bears his name (James 1:1; see JAMES, LETTER OF).

Opposition from fellow Jews

In spite of James’ efforts, many in the Jerusalem church still refused to accept Gentile Christians as equals unless the Gentiles kept the law of Moses. When, many years later, Paul came to Jerusalem with an offering from the Gentile churches, he first met with James and the other elders (Acts 21:17-18). He soon learnt from them that many in Jerusalem were hostile to him because of his refusal to force the law of Moses upon his converts. They therefore suggested that Paul demonstrate his respect for the Jewish law by joining in a temple ceremony. Although their suggestion was intended to help Paul, it resulted in his imprisonment (Acts 21:20-24).

The anti-Christian feeling in Jerusalem, far from diminishing, increased. History records that a few years later, in the early AD 60s, James himself was murdered by the Jews.


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Bibliography Information
Fleming, Don. Entry for 'James the Brother of Jesus'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/bbd/j/james-the-brother-of-jesus.html. 2004.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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