Over the past couple decades, a great deal of academic ink has been spilled over the mysterious personage of St. James the Just, who Scripture calls the “brother of the Lord.” As one might suppose, the principal thrust of this liberal-modernist scholarship is to deny the age-old Catholic / Eastern Orthodox tradition of Mary’s perpetual virginity and to make the case that Jesus came from a quite normal, multi-child household, in which His mother gave birth to at least four other sons –the so-called “brothers” of Matt 13:55 and Mark 6:3, James supposedly being the eldest after Jesus. This view, popular among Protestant Fundamentalists as well as liberal-modernist scholars, seeks to imply that Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are either deluded, naive, or somehow “anti-sex” in upholding their Apostolic traditions about Mary. It also does its best to exploit the idea that the Catholic Church has purposely “covered up the truth” about Jesus and His mother, thus implying that all of Christianity is suspect, or perhaps nothing more than a pleasant fabrication. Indeed, so zealous is the liberal obsession with James the Just that numerous otherwise “credible” scholars have recently embarrassed themselves by rashly testifying to the authenticity of the so-called “James ossuary” (an ancient bone box inscribed with the words “James, son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus”), which was soon proven to be an obvious forgery. However, what few people realize is that the rest of the liberal-academic arguments about James are equally shaky, ignoring or distorting both Scripture and other primary historical sources in order to achieve their anti-Catholic ends.
Before we engage the liberal shortcomings, we would do well to address a difference of opinion in the tradition of the Church itself. There are two explanations given by the ancient Church in order to account for the so-called “brothers” of Jesus —that is, the Epiphanian view of the Greek fathers (in which the “brothers” are said to be the sons of Joseph from a marriage previous to that with Mary) vs. the Hieronymian view of St. Jerome and the Latin fathers (in which the term “brother” refers to any male relative –a common expression among ancient Jews). This difference, as one might expect, is very much exploited by the liberal-modernists, who argue that it illustrates a ‘confusion’ on the part of the early Church about the true identity of James, thus implying that the Church distorted real history to support its Marian doctrines. Indeed, given that the Epiphanian view precedes that of Jerome, making James a clear son of St. Joseph, the liberal-modernists argue that Jerome’s explanation (in which “brother” is merely a Jewish expression for any blood relative) is unfounded and contradictory to ‘older’ Christian tradition. Yet, there are two essential problems with this position. Firstly, the Epiphanian view (in which James is the son of Joseph by a previous marriage) is contradicted by Scripture itself, which depicts the mother of James and his brother Joseph / Jose (per Matt 13:55 and Mark 6:3) still alive and present at the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus (see: Matt 27:56, 27:61, 28:1, and Mark 15:40, 15:47, and 16:1). Given that this mother of James and Joseph / Jose is clearly a different woman than Jesus’ mother Mary, the only way that St. Joseph could be the father of James is if he were polygamous; and there is, of course, no tradition about that. Secondly, one must keep in mind that the Greek fathers, due to their very passionate opposition to Judaizing influences in the East, held a very strong disdain for Jewish culture and had very little direct contact with it. St. Jerome, on the other hand, was proficient in Hebrew and Aramaic, had very close relationships with Jews, and employed several Jewish rabbis to help with his translation of the Old Testament into Latin. Thus, while his explanation for James and the other so-called “brothers” is indeed later than that of Epiphanius and the Greek fathers, it is also far less ignorant of Jewish culture and of the extensive Jewish sensibilities found all throughout New Testament literature. Therefore, one can reasonably conclude that Jerome’s explanation for the identity of James and the other “brothers” is not only more likely, but the only possible solution. The older, Epiphanian view of the Greek fathers is thereby exposed as merely a quick-and-easy pastoral solution intended for Gentile Christians who were ignorant of Jewish cultural terminology. In other words, it was the most efficient way to protect the authentic Apostolic tradition that Mary was a life-long virgin. If the “brothers” could not be her children, it was natural to assume that they must be the offspring of St. Joseph and some other woman –that is, a previous wife. And, again, this solution was offered for Gentiles who had no idea that Jews used the term “brother” in a non-literal sense.
So, in discrediting (or, perhaps we should say: properly classifying) the Epiphanian view, we come to the first major problem with the liberal-modernist depiction of James –namely, the fact that James (according to Matt 27:56, etc.) had a different mother than that of Jesus (a woman who John 19:25 refers to as the “sister” / tribal relative of Jesus’ mother Mary; and a woman who is married to, not St. Joseph, but someone named Clopas). Yet, the problems for the liberal-modernists by no means end there.
The second principal reason why James could not be the son of Joseph is because ancient sources (sources cited by the liberal modernist to support James’ important leadership in the early Church) clearly depict him as a Levite –that is, a member of the Jewish priestly caste. For example, in the early 2nd Century, St. Hegessipus writes:
“He alone was permitted to enter into the Holy Place; for he wore not woolen but linen garments. And he was in the habit of entering alone into the Temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people …” (Hegessipus “Memoirs” in Eusebius, H.E., Book II, Chapter 23).
Only Levites (that is, Jewish priests) were permitted to enter the Holy Place of the Temple. It was unlawful for regular Jews to do so. If James were the son of Joseph, he could not be a Levite, but would have been a regular Jew / Judahite of the house of David, which was St. Joseph’s lineage (Luke 1:27). And so, this alone proves that James could not have been Joseph’s son. Rather, as we know from Luke 1:5 & 1:36, it was Mary who possessed Levitical relatives; and this is supported by John 19:25, which depicts James’ mother as the “sister” (that is, tribal relative) of Mary.
Indeed, one must seriously ask how the liberal-modernists, so “familiar,” as they claim to be, with the primary sources, could possibly have “overlooked” James’ Levitical heritage. However, their myopia is not limited to that alone. As noted earlier, key to the liberal-modernist arguments about James is his role as an important leader in the early Church, the head of the Christian community in Jerusalem once the Apostles set out to evangelize other lands. As the modernist argument goes, James presided over the Jerusalem church because he was the sibling of Jesus –a custom, so they claim, which was very typical among Semitic religious societies (such as when Mohammad’s closest relatives succeeded to the leadership of Islam). However, in making this argument, the modernists don’t seem to notice what it clearly implies – namely, that it would make James part of a royal dynasty, and so Jesus’ Messianic heir! In other words, if James were the son of St. Joseph (through whom Jesus legally inherited His Messianic claim as Son of David –the King of Israel), then he too would be of royal blood and his leadership in the Church would imply more than just mere succession, but rather inheritance!
Yet, this idea is clearly discredited once we look at Scripture and the other primary sources. For example, all throughout the witness of Hegesippus and Clement of Alexandria, there is not the slightest mention of any Davidic or royal connections to James. Rather, again and again, James is merely referred to as “the Just One” (“the Righteous Man”); and nowhere is his distinction from Jesus’ Messianic credentials more clearly illustrated than in Hegesippus’ account of James’ martyrdom, where we are told:
“The aforesaid Scribes and Pharisees therefore placed James upon the pinnacle of the temple, and cried out to him and said: ‘Thou, Just One, in whom we ought all to have confidence, forasmuch as the people are led astray after Jesus, the Crucified One, declare to us, what is the Gate of Jesus?’ And he answered with a loud voice, ‘Why do you ask me concerning Jesus, the Son of Man? He Himself sits in Heaven at the Right Hand of the great Power, and is about to come upon the clouds of Heaven.’ And when many were fully convinced and gloried in the testimony of James, and said, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ these same Scribes and Pharisees said again to one another, …’Oh! oh! the Righteous Man is also in error.’ (Hegessipus “Memoirs” in Eusebius, H.E., Book II, Chapter 23).
Notice how the people of Jerusalem hail Jesus as the “Son of David,” whereas there is not the slightest hint that James too is of royal, Davidic blood. Rather, he is merely “the Just One” –a particularly righteous Jew, and not a participant in a Messianic dynasty –something that would have to be the case if James were indeed Jesus’ sibling.
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Also, when we look at Scripture itself, the implausible nature of James’ leadership being based on a sibling relationship with Jesus, the Messiah, becomes even more pronounced. For, in Acts 12:1-17, we are told about how King Herod Agrippa came to the throne of Judea and began to persecute the leaders of the Church. The Apostle James bar-Zebedee is killed (Acts 12:2), and Peter is arrested and marked for death, only to be miraculously freed by an angel (Acts 12:5-12). From this point on, the Apostles no longer operate out of Jerusalem, but leave James the Just in charge of the church there (Acts 12:17). However, and it is profoundly unbelievable that the liberal-modernists fail to notice this, if King Herod Agrippa is targeting the leaders of the Church (and doing so because their worship of a risen Messiah threatened his own royal legitimacy), then the last person one would leave in control of the Jerusalem church would be the literal brother of Jesus Christ! And why? Because this would make James a very real and tangible rival to Herod’s royal throne –the blood heir and successor to King Jesus. Indeed, if anyone would have to flee Judea because of the rise of King Herod Agrippa, it would not be the Apostles, but another Davidic heir – the very thing that James would be if he were the son of Joseph and literal sibling of Jesus Christ. The last, and probably most striking reason why James could not possibly be the child of Joseph and Mary is, strangely enough, James’ own reputation for extreme holiness. Of this, Hegessipus also writes:
“He has been called the Just by all from the time of our Savior to the present day ….He was holy from his mother’s womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh. No razor came upon his head; he did not anoint himself with oil, and he did not use the bath….Because of his exceeding great righteousness he was called the Just, and Oblias, which signifies in Greek, ‘Bulwark of the People’ and ‘Justice,’ in accordance with what the prophets declare concerning him” (Hegessipus “Memoirs” in Eusebius, H.E., Book II, Chapter 23).
Now, here, it is most significant to point out that the New Testament never refers to James as the “son of Joseph.” Rather, whether alone or in the company of the others, he is always called the “brother of the Lord” (Gal 1:19, 1 Corinth 9:5, etc.). However, since he was reputed to be so incredibly holy, if he truly were the son of Joseph and Mary, it is highly unlikely, if not wholly impossibly, that Scripture would neglect to point out that he and Jesus had different fathers —that James, unlike Jesus, was merely the son of Joseph and not of Divine parentage. For, if James was reputed for such extraordinary holiness, and if he came from the same womb that bore the Son of God, would it not be natural for early believers to suspect that James too was sired by the Almighty? Yet, the fact that the New Testament offers no apologetic against this natural suspicion illustrates quite clearly that there was no need to do so. And there was no need to do so because James did not come from the same womb as Jesus. If he did, then the New Testament would have to make clear that he was the natural son of Joseph. The mere fact that this issue is never raised speaks volumes about James’ true relationship to the Lord.
And so, so much for the “profound findings” of liberal academia. As with other issues, these folks are more concerned about selling books than with honestly analyzing historical evidence.
By Mark Bonocore
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Note: While content aims to align with Catholic teachings, any inconsistencies or errors are unintended. For precise understanding, always refer to authoritative sources like the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Always double-check any quotes for word-for-word accuracy with the Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church.