Although mentioned several times in the New Testament, Jesus’s brother James remains a shadowy figure. He is named in the Gospel of Mark as one of Jesus’s four brothers along with Joses (“little Joseph”), Judas (Judah), and Simon (Mark 6:3). None of the four gospels report much, if any, participation by the brothers in the earthly mission of Jesus although the Gospel of John seems to presuppose a supportive, if uncomprehending, role for them (John 2:12, 7:3-10).
Despite such ambiguous beginnings, the brothers (and their mother, Mary) are cited in the Acts of the Apostles as being among the very first Christ-believing Jews to form a community in Jerusalem (Acts 1:14). Later, James inexplicably appears as spokesman for the group, seemingly filling that position after Peter had departed “to another place” (Acts 12:17). James then speaks for the Jerusalem community when Paul and other missionaries from Antioch come to discuss the admittance of non-Jews to the growing number of Christ-followers (Acts 15; the details of this “Apostolic Conference” are also given by Paul in his Letter to the Galatians 2:2-10; note also the reappearance of Peter). Paul encounters James once more, according to Acts, when Paul visits Jerusalem for the last time and is questioned by James regarding allegations that he has been telling Jews to abandon Torah observance (Acts 21:18-21).
Paul himself is a source of valuable information about James. It is through Paul that we know that James had a vision of the risen Christ (1 Cor. 15:7). Though we have no details of the encounter in the New Testament, a second-century, apocryphal gospel known as the Gospel of the Hebrews, gives a narrative account of the episode. Paul also relates how he first met James (and Peter) in Jerusalem during a two-week stay several years after he had received his own vision of the risen Jesus (Gal. 1:19). Paul considered James to be one of the three “pillars” of the Jerusalem community along with Peter and John (Gal. 2:9).
Though the Letter of James in the New Testament is traditionally ascribed to James, the brother of Jesus, his authorship is doubtful. That being said, we come to the end of the information on James available to us from the New Testament. For more information, we must consult other historical works.
An account of the history of the early Christ-faith was prepared by a second-century, Jewish Christ-believer known as Hegesippus. His five-volume “Memoirs” apparently contained all sorts of information about the early church and its preaching. I say “apparently” because the work is mostly lost to us. A few passages from it were quoted by the fourth-century Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea, in a text we do have. Fortunately, the Hegesippus passages preserved in Eusebius’s Church History are mostly about James.
According to Hegesippus, James was accorded the epithet “the Just,” meaning “the Righteous,” by his contemporaries. This was probably meant to acknowledge his rigorous obedience to Torah. James is described as if he were an ascetic, a means of attaining piety very popular in the second century. He is said, for example, to have avoided “wine or liquor and ate no meat” (Eusebius, Church History 2.23). Vegetarianism in first-century Judea was not especially noteworthy. Eating meat in the ancient world was largely connected with the offering of an animal sacrifice to the deity. Otherwise, meat was considered too expensive and animals too valuable in other ways to slaughter them for a routine meal. Further, James did not cut his hair, “did not anoint himself with oil, and took no baths” (idem). Epiphanius, the fourth-century heresy hunter, added that James wore no woolen tunic (himation) but only a linen undergarment and did not wear shoes (Panarion 78.13.3, 14.1-2). Some have suggested that these characteristics imply that James was under a Jewish Nazirite vow (Numbers 2) which forbade drinking wine or strong drink and cutting the hair (this, at least, was an early Christian opinion; cf. Epiphanius, Panarion 29.4.2; 78.13.5). Either that, or Hegesippus chose to characterize James in terms of a pious Nazirite Jew without any actual knowledge about his personal habits.
Hegesippus claimed that James could enter the Holy of Holies (“the sanctum”) in the Jerusalem temple. This seems highly unlikely as this was the location of the shekinah, or presence of God, a place in which only the high priest could enter and only once a year. By the time Hegesippus wrote, the temple had been destroyed for at least 50 years; he may have had no practical knowledge about how it functioned. By the fourth century, some Christians simply assumed that James was a Jewish priest (Epiphanius, Panarion 29.4.2-4; he and Eusebius thought James had worn the high-priestly diadem; cf. Panarion 78.14.1; Church History 3.31). In any event, Hegesippus credits James with frequently praying for the people, so much so that he earned the respect of many Jews, Christ-believers or not (Epiphanius wrote that once, during a drought, James prayed for rain and it came; cf. Panarion 78.14.1).
The death of James is amazingly well-represented in the ancient literature. There are more accounts of his death than there are canonical accounts of the death of his more famous brother, Jesus! We have six sources that document, to some extent at least, the circumstances surrounding the martyrdom of “the Just One.” The only non-Christian source is the first-century Jewish historian Josephus who briefly narrates the circumstances surrounding James’s death in his Antiquities of the Jews. Christian sources include Hegesippus; Clement of Alexandria; a text known to the ancients as the Ascents of James, now included as part of the pseudo-Clementine Recognitions; and two Gnostic texts, The First and Second Apocalypse of James. They each differ with the others in some way; most agree in the basic details. Putting the sources together may (or may not) give us an historically reliable, connected narrative of the death of James.
The political circumstances and date of the death of James are provided by Josephus (Antiquities 2.200). He dates the event to both the time of the high priesthood of Annas (the son of the Annas involved with the arrest and handing over of Jesus to Pilate), and to the period between the death of the Roman procurator of Judea, Festus, and the arrival of his replacement, Albinus (62 CE). Hegesippus further narrows the time period to the Passover of that year. At that time, Annas convened a Sanhedrin and brought James “and certain others” to trial. The only accusation Josephus gives in support of the trial is that they “transgressed the law (Torah).”
More detailed reasons for trying James (and perhaps other Christ-believing Jews along with him) are provided by the Christian sources: he is preaching Jesus as the Messiah and convincing a significant number of Jews as a result. The lone dissenting voice among the sources at this point comes from the Recognitions (1.70) which describes the impetus for James’s death not as a trial, but as the result of mob violence breaking out in the temple organized by someone euphemistically called “the enemy,” or “a certain hostile person.” In this very anti-Pauline portion of the Recognitions, that enemy turns out to be none other than Paul of Tarsus!
It is unclear, due to the fragmentary nature of the First Apocalypse of James, whether James became the victim of mob activity after the Sanhedrin had released him (cf. Codex Tchacos, James 29-30). In any event, all of the sources (except the Recognitions) that describe the method of execution for James agree that it was by stoning. Hegesippus and the Second Apocalypse of James add that the stoning was preceded by the authorities first placing James on the pinnacle (southeast corner) of the temple and then pushing him off. They also agree that he survived the fall of some 450 feet. Somewhat similarly, Recognitions, depicting James’s plight as the result of a hostile mob, has Paul pushing James down a high flight of steps and leaving him for dead.
Hegesippus and the Second Apocalypse do not wholly agree as to what happened next. Both Hegesippus and the fragmentary portion of the First Apocalypse of James quote James as praying in the words of Jesus (Luke 23:34), “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” The Second Apocalypse has the crowd seizing James, “abusing” him, and dragging him around on the ground. For his part, Hegesippus merely says that James was stoned. The Second Apocalypse provides a detailed description of the stoning: first the participants stretched James’s body out on the ground and rolled a huge stone upon his abdomen. On top of this they tramped up and down but James refused to die.
The author of the Second Apocalypse of James writes as if he is familiar with Jewish rules of execution by stoning which can be found today in the Mishnah Sanhedrin 6.4. According to the tractate, the first step in the stoning procedure was to push the subject off a precipice at least as high as two men, one standing atop the other. If the subject survived the fall, a large stone was then placed on his heart. If that didn’t do the trick, the crowd pelted the accused with stones until he died. This is what ultimately happened to James.
Hegesippus and the Second Apocalypse agree that James was now pelted with stones. According to the latter source, James was first made to dig, and then stand in, a pit whereupon he was buried up to his navel before being pelted with stones. Josephus omits any details surrounding the stoning procedure, only agreeing that James was killed in this way. Hegesippus, however, denies that the stoning killed James. So resilient did the Just One prove to be, that it took a laundryman beating James over the head with a club before he finally succumbed. Second/third-century Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria, Egypt, also knew this version of the story of James’s death (cf. Eusebius, Church History 2.1) as did Epiphanius, who doubtless learned it from an earlier source (Panarion 66.20.1).
For its part, the Recognitions does not specifically say that James died of his fall down the steps. The oldest portion of this section of the narrative (the Ascents of James) ends at 1.71. In the next sections, James is depicted as having survived though rendered lame from the fall. We cannot be certain whether this later portion of the text represents a change from the original intent of the Ascents in which James may have actually died from his fall.
What was the immediate aftermath of James’s martyrdom according to our sources? Josephus, in agreement with the First Apocalypse of James, tells of Jews who did not approve of the execution of such a righteous man. Members of this group appealed to King Agrippa II, the grandson of Herod the Great and Roman-appointed ruler of a large territory northeast of Galilee as well as overseer of the Jerusalem temple with the right to appoint high priests. Initially, Agrippa did nothing. However, the offended Jews also sent representatives to meet the newly-appointed Roman procurator, Albinus, who was by now on his way from Egypt to Judea. Angry at hearing the news, Albinus wrote to Annas threatening “vengeance” for convening a Sanhedrin and/or condemning anyone to death without Roman authorization. Spurred into action, Agrippa then deposed Annas and appointed a new high priest before Albinus’s arrival.
Hegesippus wrote that James (aged 96 according to Epiphanius! Panarion 78.13.2) was buried at the spot where he fell and that “his gravestone still stands by the temple.” Archaeologists have yet to find such a stone but for centuries many Christians misidentified the second- or first-century BCE tomb of the Bene Hezir, located in the Kidron Valley, as the tomb of James. Hegesippus also reported that, following James’s death, Symeon, a son of Joseph’s brother Clopas, took charge of the Jerusalem church. In a curious passage allegedly by Josephus, not now included in our manuscripts but known to the Christian theologian Origen in the third century, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman armies in 70 CE occurred as divine “retribution for James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus who was called Christ, for the Jews killed him despite his great righteousness” (cf. Eusebius, Church History 2.23; Origen, Against Celsus 1.47).
Recently, James’s death became a topic of discussion when the limestone ossuary (bone-box) of “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” appeared under shadowy circumstances in Jerusalem. Despite its mysterious origins and the years of controversy surrounding its allegedly forged nature, most scholars today accept the ossuary as genuine, a real artifact of the highly respected, ardent believer, the righteous Jew who provided leadership by example to his Christ-following brothers and sisters during the difficult days of the origin of their new sect. For that, it appears, he paid the highest price.