Saint James of Jerusalem, also known as James the Just and the brother of our Lord, rose to prominence in the early Church soon after Jesus’s death and resurrection, eventually becoming the leader of the Church in Jerusalem. Although he did not believe Jesus to be the Messiah during Jesus’ incarnate life, James was one to whom the Lord appeared after his resurrection (1 Cor. 15:7), presumably inspiring James’s faith in Christ from then on.
The early Church chronicler Hegesippus paints a picture of James, portraying him as a Torah-abiding Jew, a holy, prayerful man, whose personal charisma must have been great since many came to belief through him. Perhaps because of that charm, Jewish religious authorities in Jerusalem prevailed upon James to use his persuasive powers to turn the people away from Jesus in his preaching at the temple. When James instead testified to Jesus as the Messiah, they hurled him from the roof then beat him to death.
While his martyrdom is certainly dramatic, what is most interesting to me about James is the controversy surrounding his relationship to Jesus. Scholarship abounds about whether or not and to what degree James was Jesus’s brother.
Those invested in the perpetual virginity of Mary insist that James and the other siblings of Jesus identified in the gospels (see Matt. 13:55, Mark 6:3 or Jn. 7:2-5) must have been Jesus’s first cousins adopted into his nuclear family after the death of their parents. Or perhaps they were older half-siblings from a previous marriage of Joseph (untold in the gospel narratives).
I find these scholarly contortions to preserve Mary’s virginity unconvincing and unhelpful. First, while it is certainly possible that ancient Aramaic referred generally to all close kindred as brothers and sisters, my own understanding as a Palestinian is that the Semitic cultures and languages are keenly aware of the specific relationships between family members. In Arabic, for example, my uncle’s wife is never referred to as my “aunt” but always as “my uncle’s wife.” James and three others are specifically referred to as Jesus’s brothers—and not, say, as his aunt’s sons—across different scriptural contexts and by multiple sources and speakers, so it seems misplaced to try to make them anything other than what they are called by the texts.
But, more importantly, it suits my own sensibilities of faith to trust the gospel and epistle narrators when they call James the brother of Jesus. After all, we know Mary not just as the Virgin but also as the Mother of God, the Theotokos, the God-bearer. And calling her the God-bearer reminds us that we, too, can carry Christ within us, making space for him to dwell in ourselves and bearing him out to the world around us.
So, why shouldn’t we also allow the scriptures to inform our understanding of James as the full brother of Jesus? And, if so, then he must be the Lord’s little brother, born after Jesus’s consequential nativity. In that case, just as we look to Mary, the God-bearer, as an example for us to follow, we can also look to James, the little brother of our Lord. Through our baptisms, we are all made part of Jesus’s family and so I, like James, can claim kinship with the Christ. I, too, am a little sibling of our Lord.
And these understandings of ourselves as God-bearer like Mary, or, like James, as the Lord’s little sibling, serve to enhance the practice of our faith. It can be hard to know what it means to be a follower of Christ. And it can feel like an overwhelming task to try to pattern our lives after the sinless Jesus.
But figures like Mary and James allow me to glance just slightly aside from the Messiah for more realistic models for my imperfect faith. I might struggle to understand what it means to be a Christian but I know exactly what it means to be someone’s little sibling: how you’re bound to another who has shared so much of your own life experience; how you can find strength in knowing that the challenges you face have already been overcome by the older one who has gone ahead; how, no matter how long it’s been since you’ve been in touch, you can always pick up again where you left off with a big sibling who loves you unconditionally.
Just look at James: he wrote Jesus off as his bananas older brother through much of their lives. But in that month after his resurrection, Jesus made sure to show up for his kid brother. And that’s good news to me. It means no matter how far off track I get, the risen Lord, my big brother, is probably going to keep making himself known to me, too. Thank God.
[Image Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons]