Biblical Studies James, the Brother of Jesus
Bruce Chilton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0242


Within the New Testament, a figure named “James,” an English rendering that represents “Jacob” from Hebrew and Aramaic Israelite traditions mediated through Greek, is named at the head of four “brothers” of Jesus (Mark 6:3 with Matthew 13:55–56). The passages concerned refer to unnamed sisters, as well. The brothers appear without names on other occasions (Mark 3:31; Matthew 13:46; Luke 8:19; John 7:3). The apostle Paul refers to meeting only two people when he went to back to Jerusalem after his own conversion: Peter and “James, the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19). The same James appears in the book of Acts (chapter 15) as the sole figure with influence enough over other believers to decide whether non-Jewish male converts in Antioch needed to be circumcised in accordance with the Torah. Considerable controversy centers on whether James in fact exerted such authority; an alternative perspective sees Acts as delivering a romantic personification of James. On the construction of Acts 15:13–21, however, James determines that non-Jewish converts do not need to keep the covenant of circumcision as set out in Genesis 17:1–14. Under the influence of what is known as the 19th-century “Tübingen School” (see Haenchen 1971, pp. 15–24, cited under Commentaries) it is sometimes assumed that James required circumcision of all such converts, but that requirement is attributed to Christian Pharisees in Acts (15:5), not to James. Nonetheless, James does proceed to command non-Jewish Christians to observe certain requirements of purity in regard to idolatry, sexual practice, the slaughter of animals, and the consumption of blood (so Acts 15:20). That seems why emissaries from James make their appearance as villains in Paul’s description of a major controversy at Antioch. They insisted on the separate meal-fellowship of Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Jesus, while Paul with more than equal insistence (but apparently little or no success) argued for the unity of Jewish and non-Jewish fellowship within the church (Galatians 1:18–2:21). The ancient sources pertinent to the study of James include Josephus, the Gospel according to the Hebrews (as cited by Jerome in de Viri Inlustribus), Hegesippus (as cited in Eusebius), pseudo-Clementine literature, and the Protoevangelium of James, as well as the New Testament. Since the middle of the 20th century, two substantial literary discoveries have also needed to be factored into study: the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Library at Nag Hammadi (commonly described as Gnostic). In addition, archaeological discovery and analysis has factored seriously into the evaluation of James. James’s prominence is reflected in the fact that the Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities 20.9.1 §§ 197–203) portrays his death in the year 62 CE sympathetically. In addition to addressing longstanding questions, some recent interpreters have also seen in James a pivotal figure in putting Jewish-Christian understanding on a historical footing.

General Overviews

The range of sources that need to be collated in order to deal with the question of James, the lack of a single, agreed historical narrative of his life, and the theological controversies that any consideration of James raises, have all tended to deflect attention from him as an early Christian leader comparable to Peter and Paul. Yet the historical sources, especially when read with a critical eye and assessed in association with one another, have long suggested James’s importance within his brother’s movement. But no source (not even the canonical Letter of James) has been shown to have come directly from James, or even from one of James’s immediate followers, so that not only the main outlines of his positions, but also the essential question whether he existed as depicted, continues to be debated. These and associated concerns are addressed in the bibliographical categories that follow.

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