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An article that uncovers the early references to James, the brother of the Lord, and researches the actual familial relationship of the Lord Jesus Christ with James and the other brothers and sisters mentioned in the Holy Bible.
One is often confused about the term “brother of the Lord” in the New Testament, especially when we, as Orthodox Christians, believe that our Lord Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, who remained a Virgin throughout her life, hence the title “Ever-Virgin.” But then, what is all this talk about James, the brother of the Lord? Who is this James exactly? Who are the rest of the brothers and sisters of the Lord mentioned in the Gospels?
This essay will attempt to answer the questions above: first, by looking at the references to James and the other brothers of the Lord in the New Testament; secondly, by describing three theories that attempted to answer the questions in the past; and finally, explaining which one of the three theories may be more truthful to our Orthodox tradition.
The New Testament references
We find various references to the brothers of the Lord in the New Testament. Below are quotations from the New Testament in canonical order that refer directly or indirectly to the matter:
1) From the Gospel of Saint Matthew:
+ Theme: the virginity of Saint Mary – “When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit… When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus” (Mt. 1:18, 24, 25).
+ Theme: brothers and mother desiring to talk to the Lord – “While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mt. 12:46-50).
+ Theme: existence of brothers and sisters of the Lord – “He came to his hometown and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?’” (Mt. 13:54-56).
+ Theme: women at the crucifixion, one Mary mentioned as the mother of James and Joseph – “Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Mt. 27:56).
+ Theme: women at the burial, mention of the “other Mary” – “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb” (Mt. 27:61).
+ Theme: women bringing spices and witnessing the resurrection, mention of the “other Mary” – “After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb” (Mt. 28:1).
2) From the Gospel of Saint Mark:
+ Theme: the Lord’s family restrains the Lord from the people – “Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind’” (Mk. 3:19-21).
+ Theme: brothers and mother desiring to talk to the Lord – “Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’” (Mk. 3:31-35).
+ Theme: existence of brothers and sisters of the Lord – “On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him” (Mk. 6:3).
+ Theme: women at the crucifixion, one Mary mentioned as the mother of James and Joses – “There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome” (Mk. 15:40).
+ Theme: women witnessing the burial, one Mary mentioned as the mother of Joses – “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid” (Mk. 15:47).
+ Theme: women bringing spices and witnessing the resurrection – “When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him” (Mk. 16:1).
3) From the Gospel of Saint Luke:
+ Theme: brothers and mother desiring to talk to the Lord – “Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him because of the crowd. And he was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’ But he said to them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it’” (Lk. 8: 19-21).
+ Theme: women who told the apostles of the resurrection – “Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles” (Lk. 24:10).
4) From the Gospel of Saint John:
+ Theme: The Lord going to Capernaum with brothers and mother after the wedding at Cana – “After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers, and his disciples; and they remained there a few days” (Jn. 2:12).
+ Theme: The Lord goes secretly without his brothers to the festival of Booths, and brothers do not believe in the ministry of Christ – “Now the Jewish festival of Booths was near. So his brothers said to him, ‘Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.’ (For not even his brothers believed in him.) Jesus said to them, ‘My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil. Go to the festival yourselves. I am not going to this festival, for my time has not yet fully come.’ After saying this, he remained in Galilee. But after his brothers had gone to the festival, then he also went, not publicly but as it were in secret” (Jn. 7:2-10).
+ Theme: The Mary’s at the crucifixion – “Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (Jn. 19:25).
5) From the Acts of the Apostles:
+ Theme: Brothers of Christ mentioned separately from the Twelve – “When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alpheus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts. 1:13,14).
+ Theme: Leadership of Saint James, the brother of the Lord, in Jerusalem – a) Saint Peter wishing to report his miraculous escape from prison: “He motioned to them with his hand to be silent, and described for them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he added, ‘Tell this to James and to the believers’” (Acts. 12:17); b) In the Council of Jerusalem: “After they finished speaking, James replied, ‘My brothers, listen to me…’” (Acts 15:13); c) Saint Paul visiting Saint James: “When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us warmly. The next day Paul went with us to visit James; and all the elders were present” (Acts. 21:17, 18).
6) From Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:
+ Theme: Saint Paul mentions the post-resurrection apparition of Christ to Saint James individually – “Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles” (1 Cor. 15:7).
+ Theme: Saint Paul mentions brothers of the Lord – “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” (1 Cor. 9:5).
7) From Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians:
+ Theme: Saint Paul seeing Saint Peter and Saint James in Jerusalem – “Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother” (Gal. 1:18, 19).
+ Theme: Saint Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, and Saint James’ authority mentioned – “… and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (Gal. 2:9).
8) Catholic Epistles:
+ Theme: Saint James, the brother of the Lord, the author of the Catholic Epistle of James – “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1).
+ Theme: Saint Jude, brother of Saint James, the author of the Catholic Epistle of Jude – “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James” (Jude 1:1).
The three theories
Now that all the references to the brothers and sisters of the Lord have been mentioned, it is necessary to look at how they show the relationship of the Lord with these brothers and sisters. The three theories cover the three possible relationships:
1) The biological brothers theory: This theory is not just a modern theory as most people suppose. It has been held by a group of people in ancient times, such as the Antidicomarianites, Ebionites, and also by a man named Helvidius, all who were regarded as heretics by the Church Fathers – Saint Epiphanius of Salamis (310-403 A.D.) wrote against the first two heresies, and Saint Jerome (340-420 A.D.) wrote against Helvidius. The Church Father, Tertullian (~160-225 A.D.), also believed in this theory, but Saint Jerome mentioned that Tertullian was not a member of the Church, since he died a heretic, and so we cannot consider his authority in this case.[i] The theory is mistaken in that it does not account for the virginity of Saint Mary before and after the birth of Christ. For the groups who believed that Saint Mary was not a virgin before she gave birth to Christ, there are the witnesses of Saint Matthew’s Gospel (Mt. 1:18, 24, 25) and Saint Luke’s Gospel (Lk. 2:7) against that theory. As for those groups who believed that Saint Mary bore children after giving birth to Christ, they tried to cite the Gospel as proof. Helvidius, for instance, made five arguments to prove that the Virgin Mary bore children after she bore our Lord Jesus Christ, and these are as follows:
First, he cited the Gospel of Saint Matthew (Mt. 1:18, 25, as above), which according to him implies that subsequent to the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary had other children. This interpretation assumes that the word “until” means that after that point, when the Virgin gave birth to Christ, she no longer remained a Virgin, but had marital relationships with Joseph. Secondly, Helvidius believed that in Lk. 2:7, which refers to Jesus as Mary’s “firstborn son,” means that there had to be other children after the firstborn. Thirdly, Helvidius claimed that the term “brothers and sisters of the Lord” are to be taken literally. Fourthly, Helvidius cited the authority of a tradition from Tertullian and Victorinus of Pettau (Victorinus’ tradition is mentioned in Origen’s preface to the Homily on Luke, and in Saint Jerome’s preface to the Commentary on Saint Matthew’s Gospel). Finally, Helvidius argued that since the Virgin Mary was a Jew, it was not dishonorable for Mary to have real marital relationships with her spouse, Joseph, since all the patriarchs had been married men, as well as because the Jews believed that child-bearing was a participation in the divine creativity.
In response to Helvidius’ theory, Saint Jerome wrote a tract entitled “The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary.” In the tract, he argued that the word “until” in Scripture does not always imply a fixed time, when something else may happen. Saint Jerome cites many examples from Scripture, and to cite just a few, here is what he had to say: “Now we have to prove that just as in the one case he [Helvidius] has followed the usage of Scripture, so with regard to the word till he is utterly refuted by the authority of the same Scripture, which often denotes by its use a fixed time (he himself told us so), frequently time without limitation, as when God by the mouth of the prophet says to certain persons, ‘Even to old age I am he.’ Will He cease to be God when they have grown old? And the Saviour in the Gospel tells the Apostles, ‘Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.’ Will the Lord then after the end of the world has come forsake His disciples, and at the very time when seated on twelve thrones they are to judge the twelve tribes of Israel will they be bereft of the company of their Lord? Again Paul the Apostle writing to the Corinthians says, ‘Christ the first-fruits, afterward they that are Christ’s, at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father, when he shall have put down all rule, and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet.’ Granted that the passage relates to our Lord’s human nature, we do not deny that the words are spoken of Him who endured the cross and is commanded to sit afterwards on the right hand. What does he mean then by saying, ‘for he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet’? Is the Lord to reign only until His enemies begin to be under His feet, and once they are under His feet will He cease to reign? Of course His reign will then commence in its fullness when His enemies begin to be under His feet.”[ii]
As for the other arguments that Helvidius presented, St. Jerome objected that “Every only-begotten son is a first-born son, but not every first-born is an only begotten,”[iii] and on the basis of Scripture (Num. 18:15), the word “first-born” simply refers to anything that opens the womb of all flesh, and does not necessarily mean that there may be other children. Saint Jerome could also cite the authority of tradition from Church Fathers (except Tertullian), who have shown that Saint Mary remained a Virgin; he explained that even the Jews expected that when the Messiah will be born, the virginity of the mother will remain sealed, on the basis of the vision of Ezekiel: “Then he brought me back to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut. The Lord said to me: This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut” (Ez. 44:1, 2); and finally, Saint Jerome could prove that the words “brothers and sisters of the Lord” do not literally refer to biological brothers and sisters. However, he had his own independent theory on the relationship of these brothers and sisters with Jesus Christ…
2) The cousin theory: In his tract against Helvidius, Saint Jerome came up with a novel theory (as he confesses) that the brothers and sisters of the Lord Jesus Christ are really cousins. He makes this argument by assuming that both Saint Mary and Joseph were virgins before and after the birth of Christ, so neither of them had any children before or after they were married. But how could he show that the brothers of the Lord were cousins from the Scriptures? This is what he attempts to show in the remainder of the tract against Helvidius.
The first step that Saint Jerome attempted to take was to create a connection between James the son of Alpheus, who was one of the Twelve Apostles chosen by Christ, and James, the brother of the Lord. This is the main premise of Saint Jerome’s argument, without which the remainder of the premises cannot be proven correct. Saint Jerome justified the main premise by citing Gal. 1:19, which suggests that James, the brother of the Lord, was an Apostle, and on this basis he should have been in the circle of the Twelve Apostles chosen by Christ – that is, he must be the Apostle James, the son of Alpheus. (Note: both references to James the son of Alpheus and to James the brother of the Lord should not be confused with James, the brother of John, the son of Zebedee, who was also one of the Twelve).
Then, he states that the Gospels name both James and Joseph (or Joses) as brothers of the Lord (Mt. 13:54-56; Mk. 6:3). With this in mind, he points out that the Synoptic Gospels name a certain Mary at the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection, who is the mother of James (entitled “the younger” in Saint Mark’s Gospel) and Joseph (or Joses) (Mt. 27:56; Mk. 15:40, 47; Mk. 16:1; Lk. 24:10). From this, it is clear that another Mary (that is, not the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God) gave birth to James the younger and Joseph (or Joses). Hence, James the younger and Joseph (or Joses) are the children of a certain Mary (not the Virgin Mary), and were called the brothers of the Lord.
Now, this Mary, mother of James the younger and Joseph (or Joses), must be the wife of Alpheus, since James, who was among the Twelve Apostles, was the son of Alpheus. However, in the crucifixion scene according to Saint John’s Gospel (Jn. 19:25), we are told that there was a Mary who was the sister of Saint Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the wife of Clopas. According to Saint Jerome, Mary, the wife of Clopas is to be identified with the mother of James and wife of Alpheus. Thus, it is implied, Alpheus is Clopas. In fact, Saint Jerome even thought that Clopas (or Cleophas) was the Greek alternative for the Hebrew name, Alpheus.
In short, Saint Jerome showed that James the son of Alpheus is the very same James the brother of the Lord. His mother is Mary, whom Saint John identifies in the Gospel as the wife of Clopas, and who happens to be the sister of the Virgin Mary, the mother of the Lord. As a result, James the brother of the Lord is the son of Alpheus/Clopas and Mary, the sister of the Virgin. This led Saint Jerome to conclude that James was the cousin of the Lord, since he was neither born of Joseph or the Virgin Mary.
But why would this James, the cousin of the Lord, be referred to as the “brother of the Lord”? Saint Jerome answers that, firstly, in the Old Testament, or otherwise in normal Jewish custom, there is evidence that cousins, kinsmen, friends, and also people of the same nationality, were referred to as brothers, as in Gen. 13:8, 11, where Lot and Abraham are referred to as brothers, and in Gen. 29:15, where Jacob and Laban are referred to as brothers, or even in Gen. 20:12, when Abraham referred to his wife, Sarah, as his own sister. Secondly, Saint Jerome mentions that all the apostles were referred to as brothers, and so, in his commentary on Galatians, he says: “Suffice it now to say that James was called the Lord’s brother on account of his high character, his incomparable faith, and extraordinary wisdom: the other apostles also are called brothers (John 20:17; comp. Ps. 22:22), but he preeminently so, to whom the Lord at His departure had committed sons of His mother (i.e. the members of the Church of Jerusalem).”[iv]
The Church Fathers who have accepted Saint Jerome’s theory are Saint Augustine (354-430 A.D) and Saint John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.). Saint Chrysostom briefly mentions that James, the Lord’s brother, is the son of Clopas, and so he is not literally the brother of the Lord,[v] but Saint Augustine was very clearly following Saint Jerome – for example, he wrote, “The kinsmen of Mary, of whatever degree, are the brethren of the Lord…. Laban the Syrian was Jacob’s uncle by the mother’s side, for he was the brother of Rebecca, Isaac’s wife and Jacob’s mother. Read the Scripture, and thou wilt find that uncle and sister’s son are called brothers. When thou hast known this rule, thou wilt find that all the blood relations of Mary are the brethren of Christ.”[vi] He also wrote: “Understand the phrase, ‘His brethren,’ as you know it must be taken, for it is not a new thing you hear. The blood relations of the Virgin Mary used to be called the Lord’s brethren. For it was of the usage of Scripture to call blood relations and all other near kindred by the term brethren, which is foreign to our usage, and not within our manner of speech.”[vii] It was mainly through Saint Augustine that the Latin Churches have come to believe Saint Jerome’s theory.
3) The step-brothers theory: The step-brothers theory seems to be oldest and most widely acknowledged theory. This theory is in agreement with the cousin theory in that the Virgin Mary was a virgin both before and after giving birth to Christ, but is in disagreement with Saint Jerome’s theory in attributing virginity to Saint Joseph. The earliest written tradition that mentions Joseph’s children before his marriage to the Virgin Mary is the apocryphal book called the “Protoevangelium of James,” claimed to be authored by no other than James, the brother of the Lord, but probably written around the second century A.D. The story begins with Anna and Joachim bearing the Virgin Mary, who was then taken to serve in the temple. When Mary was twelve years of age, the priests of the temple wanted someone to care for her, and when they took the rods of the elders, they found that a dove came out of Joseph’s rod. It is here that Joseph objects, saying, “I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl. I am afraid lest I become a laughing-stock to the sons of Israel.”[viii] He was then convinced to take her to his house. The story then relates the evangelical story of the virgin birth. The point, however, is that Joseph was married before being entrusted to care for the Virgin Mary, and had children – and these children of Joseph would have been brothers and sisters to Christ in the same way as Joseph was the father of Christ – i.e. they were step-brothers and step-sisters.
Many among the Church Fathers stand in this tradition. The first to be mentioned is Master Origen (185-254 A.D.), who in fact refers to the Protoevangelium of James above among other sources to explain who the brothers of the Lord were. This is what he had to say: “And they spoke, wondering, (not knowing that He was the son of a virgin, or not believing it even if it was told to them, but supposing that He was the son of Joseph the carpenter), ‘is not this the carpenter’s son?’ And depreciating the whole of what appeared to be His nearest kindred, they said, ‘Is not His mother called Mary? And His brethren, James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us?’ They thought, then, that He was the son of Joseph and Mary. But some say, basing it on a tradition in the Gospel according to Peter, as it is entitled, or ‘The Book of James,’ that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honour of Mary in virginity to the end, so that that body of hers which was appointed to minister to the Word which said, ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee,’ might not know intercourse with a man after that the Holy Ghost came into her and the power from on high overshadowed her.”[ix]
Much more than Master Origen did the Church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea (260-339 A.D.), write on James, the brother of the Lord. It is found in his writings that James was a son of Joseph by a former wife, that he (as well as the other relatives of Christ) were unbelievers in the mission of Christ (as Saint John’s Gospel relates, cf. Jn. 7:2-10), that James was not one of the Twelve Apostles, that the resurrected Christ appeared to James and made him the first bishop, and that he was martyred when the Jews threw him off the pinnacle of the temple, stoned him, and finally beat him with an iron club on the head. Eusebius uses many references as support, such as the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and the Church Father Clement of Alexandria, and the following are quotes that refer to the life of James, the brother of the Lord, from his book on the Church History:
Theme: On the separate occasion when the resurrected Lord appeared to James: “Afterwards he says he appeared unto James, who was one of the so-called brethren of the Saviour.”[x]
Theme: James, son of Joseph, first bishop of Jerusalem chosen by the Lord: “Then James, whom the ancients surnamed the Just on account of the excellence of his virtue, is recorded to have been the first to be made bishop of the church of Jerusalem. This James was called the brother of the Lord because he was known as a son of Joseph, and Joseph was supposed to be the father of Christ, because the Virgin, being betrothed to him, ‘was found with child by the Holy Ghost before they came together,’ as the account of the holy Gospels shows. But Clement in the sixth book of his Hypotyposes writes thus: ‘For they say that Peter and James and John after the ascension of our Saviour, as if also preferred by our Lord, strove not after honor, but chose James the Just bishop of Jerusalem.’ But the same writer, in the seventh book of the same work, relates also the following things concerning him: ‘The Lord after his resurrection imparted knowledge to James the Just and to John and Peter, and they imparted it to the rest of the apostles, and the rest of the apostles to the seventy, of whom Barnabas was one. But there were two Jameses (sic): one called the Just, who was thrown from the pinnacle of the temple and was beaten to death with a club by a fuller, and another who was beheaded.’ Paul also makes mention of the same James the Just, where he writes, ‘Other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.’”[xi]
Theme: James’ martyrdom: “But after Paul, in consequence of his appeal to Caesar, had been sent to Rome by Festus, the Jews, being frustrated in their hope of entrapping him by the snares which they had laid for him, turned against James, the brother of the Lord, to whom the episcopal seat at Jerusalem had been entrusted by the apostles. The following daring measures were undertaken by them against him. Leading him into their midst they demanded of him that he should renounce faith in Christ in the presence of all the people. But, contrary to the opinion of all, with a clear voice, and with greater boldness than they had anticipated, he spoke out before the whole multitude and confessed that our Saviour and Lord Jesus is the Son of God. But they were unable to bear longer the testimony of the man who, on account of the excellence of ascetic virtue and of piety which he exhibited in his life, was esteemed by all as the most just of men, and consequently they slew him. Opportunity for this deed of violence was furnished by the prevailing anarchy, which was caused by the fact that Festus had died just at this time in Judea, and that the province was thus without a governor and head. The manner of James’ death has been already indicated by the above-quoted words of Clement, who records that he was thrown from the pinnacle of the temple, and was beaten to death with a club. But Hegesippus, who lived immediately after the apostles, gives the most accurate account in the fifth book of his Memoirs. He writes as follows: ‘James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles. He has been called the Just by all from the time of our Saviour to the present day; for there were many that bore the name of James. 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. He alone was permitted to enter into the holy place; for he wore not woollen 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, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people. Because of his exceeding great justice 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. Now some of the seven sects, which existed among the people and which have been mentioned by me in the Memoirs, asked him, ‘What is the gate of Jesus?’ and he replied that he was the Saviour. On account of these words some believed that Jesus is the Christ. But the sects mentioned above did not believe either in a resurrection or in one’s coming to give to every man according to his works. But as many as believed did so on account of James. Therefore when many even of the rulers believed, there was a commotion among the Jews and Scribes and Pharisees, who said that there was danger that the whole people would be looking for Jesus as the Christ. Coming therefore in a body to James they said, ‘We entreat thee, restrain the people; for they are gone astray in regard to Jesus, as if he were the Christ. We entreat thee to persuade all that have come to the feast of the Passover concerning Jesus; for we all have confidence in thee. For we bear thee witness, as do all the people, that thou art just, and dost not respect persons. Do thou therefore persuade the multitude not to be led astray concerning Jesus. For the whole people, and all of us also, have confidence in thee. Stand therefore upon the pinnacle of the temple, that from that high position thou mayest be clearly seen, and that thy words may be readily heard by all the people. For all the tribes, with the Gentiles also, are come together on account of the Passover.’ 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 ye ask me concerning Jesus, the Son of Man? He himself sitteth 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, ‘We have done badly in supplying such testimony to Jesus. But let us go up and throw him down, in order that they may be afraid to believe him.’ And they cried out, saying, ‘Oh! Oh! The just man is also in error.’ And they fulfilled the Scripture written in Isaiah, ‘Let us take away the just man, because he is troublesome to us: therefore they shall eat the fruit of their doings.’ So they went up and threw down the just man, and said to each other, ‘Let us stone James the Just.’ And they began to stone him, for he was not killed by the fall; but he turned and knelt down and said, ‘I entreat thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ And while they were thus stoning him one of the priests of the sons of Rechab, the son of the Rechabites, who are mentioned by Jeremiah the prophet, cried out, saying, ‘Cease, what do ye? The just one prayeth for you.’ And one of them, who was a fuller, took the club with which he beat out clothes and struck the just man on the head. And thus he suffered martyrdom. And they buried him on the spot, by the temple, and his monument still remains by the temple. He became a true witness, both to Jews and Greeks, that Jesus is the Christ. And immediately Vespasian besieged them.’ These things are related at length by Hegesippus, who is in agreement with Clement. James was so admirable a man and so celebrated among all for his justice, that the more sensible even of the Jews were of the opinion that this was the cause of the siege of Jerusalem, which happened to them immediately after his martyrdom for no other reason than their daring act against him. Josephus, at least, has not hesitated to testify this in his writings, where he says, ‘These things happened to the Jews to avenge James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus, that is called the Christ. For the Jews slew him, although he was a most just man….’ These things are recorded in regard to James, who is said to be the author of the first of the so-called catholic epistle. But it is to be observed that it is disputed; at least, not many of the ancients have mentioned it, as is the case likewise with the epistle that bears the name of Jude, which is also one of the seven so-called catholic epistles. Nevertheless we know that these also, with the rest, have been read publicly in very many churches.”[xii]
Theme: James, the first bishop of Jerusalem: “For the Jews after the ascension of our Saviour, in addition to their crime against him, had been devising as many plots as they could against his apostles. First Stephen was stoned to death by them, and after him James, the son of Zebedee and the brother of John, was beheaded, and finally James, the first that had obtained the Episcopal seat in Jerusalem after the ascension of our Saviour, died in the manner already described….”[xiii]
Theme: On the Episcopal chair of James: “The chair of James, who first received the episcopate of the church at Jerusalem from the Saviour himself and the apostles, and who, as the divine records show, was called a brother of Christ, has been preserved until now, the brethren who have followed him in succession there exhibiting clearly to all the reverence which both those of old times and those of our own day maintained and do maintain for holy men on account of their piety. So much as to this matter.”[xiv]
Another Church Father who mentioned that Joseph had other children before his marriage to the Virgin Mary, and that James was one of the brothers, is Saint Epiphanius of Salamis. In his Panarion, he says the following:
Theme: James the bishop, brother of the Lord, and son of Joseph: “James, having been ordained at once the first bishop, he who is called the brother of the Lord and apostle, Joseph’s son by nature and spoken of as having the place of the brother of the Lord due to having been reared with him. For James was Joseph’s son from Joseph’s [first] wife, not from Mary….”[xv]
Theme: James, the son of Joseph from a previous wife: “… called the Lord’s brother although he was Joseph’s child, born of his own wife with the rest of his brothers, with whom the Lord Jesus Christ, born of Mary the ever-virgin according to the flesh, was brought up and had as brothers, so that he was called their brother.”[xvi]
Theme: The children of Joseph: “The firstborn was James, surnamed ‘Oblias,’ meaning ‘wall,’ and also surnamed ‘Just,’ who was a Nazirite, which means a holy man. He was the first to receive the bishop’s chair, the first to whom the Lord entrusted his throne upon earth. He was called the brother of the Lord, with whom the apostle [Paul] too agrees when he says, ‘I saw no other apostle except James, the brother of the Lord,’ and so on. He was called the Lord’s brother because he was reared with him, it was a matter not of nature but of grace… He [Joseph] became the father of James, then, when he was about forty years old, more or less. After James the boy called Joses was born, after him Simeon, then Judas, and the two daughters called Mary and Salome, and then his wife died. After many years he took Mary when he was a widower, being over eighty years old.”[xvii]
Other Church Fathers who either explicitly or implicitly think that the brothers and sisters of the Lord are children of Joseph from a former wife (before his marriage to the Virgin Mary) include Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Cyril of Alexandria, Saint Hilary of Poitiers, Saint Ambrose, and perhaps Saint Basil the Great. Both Saint Augustine and Saint John Chrysostom held this theory before coming across Saint Jerome’s tract against Helvidius.
Discussion on the three theories
With the three theories presented, we now come to a discussion of which theory may be acceptable in the Coptic Orthodox Church. The biological brothers theory, which does not assert the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God, is certainly rejected by the Church, as explained when the theory was mentioned above. The second theory of Saint Jerome, which maintains that the brothers and sisters of the Lord were cousins of the Lord, is what is currently accepted in the Roman Catholic Church. However, there are problems with the theory. The first is that the assumption of the identity of Clopas and Alpheus is incorrect, since the former is an abbreviation of the Greek name “Cleopatros”, and the latter is written in the Gospels as a Greek name, not a Hebrew name (unlike what Saint Jerome thought). The second problem is that all early traditions mention that James, the brother of the Lord, was not the same as James, the son of Alpheus – the latter was one of the Twelve Apostles, but the former was not, and believed in the Lord only after the resurrection of the Lord, as we saw in the accounts of Eusebius (which he takes from other acknowledged sources as well). For instance, in the Apostolic Constitution, there is mention of three different James’: “On whose account also we, who are now assembled in one place – Peter and Andrew; James and John, sons of Zebedee; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew; James the son of Alpheus, and Lebbaeus who is surnamed Thaddaeus; and Simon the Canaanite, and Matthias, who instead of Judas was numbered with us; and James the brother of the Lord and bishop of Jerusalem, and Paul the teacher of the Gentiles, the chosen vessel, having all met together….”[xviii]
Nevertheless, an objection may be raised from the Gospels against the step-brother theory, and which may be supportive of Saint Jerome’s cousin theory. The objection takes two quotes from the Gospel of Saint Mark as its basis, where it is written in one place, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon (Mk. 6:3); and in the crucifixion scene it is written, “and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses (Mk. 15:40). In these two quotes, we find the identical names of James and Joses, and the latter quote mentions that they are the sons of a certain Mary, who may be same Mary identified as the wife of Clopas and sister of the Virgin Mary at the crucifixion scene according to Saint John (Jn. 19:25). This objection, if true, shows that James and Joses are children of a Mary who happens to be alive (not the reposed first wife of Joseph the Carpenter), and the fact that James and Joses are her children yet are called in the former quote “brothers of Jesus” shows that they were cousins, and not step-brothers. In response to this objection, one should in fact notice a significant difference in the title that James is given in both quotes – in the former quote, Christ is the brother of James, but in the second quote, Mary is the mother of James the younger, which is not the title given to James, the brother of the Lord (who is actually called the Just), in the former quote. The fact that the Gospel notes a difference in the titles of both James’ allows us to arrive at the conclusion that they do not refer to the same James. On the other hand, if it is correct to identify this Mary, the mother of James the younger and Joses (mentioned in the Gospel of Saint Mark) with Mary the wife of Clopas and sister of the Virgin Mary (mentioned in the Gospel of Saint John), then James the younger and Joses may have been the cousins of Jesus Christ in this sense, but they are not the same James and Joses, the step-brothers of the Lord. In other words, the title of “the younger” is used to make a distinction in identifying the cousin of the Lord from the step-brother of the Lord. It is not difficult to believe that the Lord had step-brothers and cousins with the same names, and even in the same order of names (e.g. James first, the Joses, and so on), since they were extremely popular names in those times, (just in the same way that the Virgin Mary’s sister was also named Mary!). Thus, we arrive at the conclusion that there are four James: James the son of Alpheus, James the son of Zebedee, James the Just and the (step) brother of the Lord, and James the younger and the cousin of the Lord.
It is then established that James the brother of the Lord is certainly not James the son of Alpheus, who was one of the Twelve, as Saint Jerome supposed. In fact, the Coptic Synexarium commemorates Saint James the son of Alpheus and the Apostle on Meshir 10, and he was stoned by the orders of Claudius, a Roman deputy of the Emperor; whereas Saint James the Just, the brother of the Lord, is commemorated on Epip 18, and he was stoned by the Jews and later died when hit on the head by an iron club, hence proving that the Coptic tradition does not assume the identity of Clopas and Alpheus, and thus does not agree with Saint Jerome in this case. Instead, the stories are identical to Eusebius’ account above. Note, however, that although there are two different accounts and dates in the Coptic Synexarium for the martyrdom of both saints, the entry on Epip 18 for Saint James the Just mentions the following statement in the first paragraph: “On this day, St. James the Apostle, Bishop of Jerusalem, who was the son of Alpheus, was martyred (Mt. 10:3). The Holy Bible mentioned his brothers, Joses, Simon, and Judas, the sons of Cleophas (Mt. 13:55). The Greek word ‘Cleophas’ means in the Syriac language ‘Alpheus.’ His mother, the sister of the Virgin, was also called Mary and was the wife of Cleophas (Jn. 19:25).”[xix] This statement conforms to Saint Jerome’s theory, but is inconsistent with the fact that there are two separate commemorations and martyrdom stories for both James the brother of the Lord, and James the son of Alpheus.
Other Orthodox Churches, such as the Greek Orthodox Church, also make a distinction between Saint James the son of Alpheus, who is commemorated on October 8, and Saint James, the brother of the Lord, who is commemorated on October 23. The following is from the Greek Orthodox Synexarium:
“Holy Apostle James, the Brother of God (Adelphotheos) was the son of Righteous Joseph the Betrothed of the Most Holy Theotokos (December 26). From his early years James was a Nazarene…. He was chosen as the first Bishop of Jerusalem. St. James presided over the Council of Jerusalem and his word was decisive (Acts 15). In his thirty years as bishop, St. James converted many of the Jews to Christianity…. St. James’ martyrdom occurred about 63 A.D…. The Church distinguishes between the holy Apostle James the Brother of God, and St. James the son of Zebedee (April 30) and St. James the son of Alpheus (October 9).”[xx]
In conclusion, from the various early written traditions, as well as from the early Church Fathers who wrote before Saint Jerome brought up his cousin theory, it is clear that the original teaching of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church was that James the Just, the brother of the Lord, as well as the other brothers and sisters mentioned in the Gospel, are children of Joseph from a former wife before he married the Virgin Mary.
[i] St. Jerome, “The Perpetual Virginity of Blessed Mary,” 19, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. VI, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), p. 343.
[ii] Ibid. 6, in p. 337.
[iii] Ibid. 12, in p. 339.
[iv] Lightfoot, J.B. (1865),“The Brethren of the Lord,” in http://philologos.org/__eb-jbl/brethren.htm
[v] St. Chrysostom, “Homilies on Galatians,” I, 19, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. XIII, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), p. 13.
[vi] St. Augustine, “Homilies on the Gospel of John,” X, 2, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. VII, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), p. 69.
[vii] Ibid. XXVIII, 3, in p. 179.
[viii] Protoevangelium of James, 9, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VIII, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), p. 363.
[ix] Origen, “Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew,” X, 17, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. X, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), p. 424.
[x] Eusebius, “The Church History,” Book I, XII:4, in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. I, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), p. 99.
[xi] Ibid. Book II, I:2-4, p. 104.
[xii] Ibid. Book II, XXIII:1-25, p. 125-128.
[xiii] Ibid. Book III, V:2, p. 138.
[xiv] Ibid. Book VII, XIX:1, p. 305.
[xv] Epiphanius, Panarion, 29.3.8-29.4.4.
[xvi] Ibid. 66.19.7-66.20.1.
[xvii] Ibid. 78.7.1-78.8.2.
[xviii] Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, VI, 14, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VII, (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), p. 456.
[xix] Coptic Orthodox Church Network, “Coptic Synexarium,” Epip 18 entry, http://www.copticchurch.net/topics/synexarion/index.html
[xx] Orthodox Church in America, “The Lives of Commemorated Saints,” October 23 entry, http://www.oca.org/FSlives.asp.