Q. Paul writes in Galatians that he met “James, the Lord’s brother.” Do you think this man was Jesus’s actual brother, or was he a former disciple or relative, who may have been considered “as close as a brother”?
Protestants and Catholics answer this question differently. (The man in question is sometimes called “James the Just” to distinguish him from two of Jesus’s disciples, James the son of Zebedee—”James the Greater” or “Elder”—and James the son of Alphaeus—”James the Lesser” or “Younger.”)
Protestants consider James the Just to have been an actual brother of Jesus based on the description of what happened in Nazareth when Jesus taught in the synagogue there. The people responded, ““Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” Since the offended crowds begin by naming Jesus’ (presumed) father and his mother, Protestants feel it is natural to understand the references to his “brothers” and “sisters” also as biological.
Catholics, however, believe as an essential matter of their faith that Mary was a virgin her entire life. This means that she could have had no other children besides Jesus (and of course that he came from a virgin conception). So over the centuries, beginning as early as the 300s, various theologians and biblical scholars have offered other interpretations of this passage. Some have suggested, for example, that the word adelphos, usually translated “brother,” could also mean “cousin.” The gospel of John reports that at the cross of Jesus, “his mother’s sister” stood next to his mother Mary. Some have suggested that it’s the children of this sister who are listed in the passage about Nazareth. Others have suggested that they may be the children of Joseph by an earlier marriage.
Whatever the explanation, biblical scholars do agree that the man Paul says he met in Jerusalem is the same man described in this account of Jesus teaching in Nazareth. He became the leader of the followers of Jesus in that city and he wrote the biblical book of James. In that book, he describes himself simply as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” He considered this servanthood the most important thing about his own identity, not any “family connection” he might have had with Jesus, just as the apostle John recognized that the most important thing about himself was that he was a “disciple whom Jesus loved.”
So let us make Jesus’ love for us and our service to him our takeaway from this question, come to an informed conclusion in our own minds about the question itself, and be respectful of the beliefs of others.
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