Paul says he met “James, the Lord’s brother”; was this man Jesus’s actual brother?

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.

A traditional icon of James the Just
A traditional icon of James the Just

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister who served local churches as a pastor for nearly twenty years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s