The Forgotten Brother of Jesus (Part 2)

by James Tabor

 If you missed Part 1,  please go back and read this series of posts in sequence.

Thus in ­Luke’s account in Acts, when James suddenly appears out of nowhere as leader of the Nazarene movement at the Jerusalem Council, we can see that Luke is well aware of ­James’s position. At this critical juncture he dared not leave James out of the story.

We must begin our search for James by looking at our New Testament sources—for it is from here that his memory was largely erased. We only have one substantial account of the history of the early Christian movement following the death of Jesus—the New Testament book we know as Acts of the Apostles. The same author who wrote the gospel of Luke wrote Acts as a second volume to his literary work. The book of Acts is largely responsible for the standard portrait of early Christianity in which Peter and Paul assume such a dominant role and James is largely left out. The presentation of Acts has become the story, even though ­Luke’s version is woefully one-­sided and historically questionable. Luke surely knew but was not willing to state that James took over the leadership of the movement after Jesus’ death. In his early chapters he never even mentions James by name and casts Peter as the undisputed leader of Jesus’ followers. But his major agenda in the book as a whole is to promote the centrality of the mission and message of the apostle Paul. Although Acts has twenty-­four chapters, once Paul is introduced in chapter nine the rest of ­Luke’s account is wholly about Paul—even Peter begins to drop out of the picture. Rather than “Acts of the Apostles” the book might better be named “The Mission and Career of Paul.”

This is not to say that Acts lacks historical value. We would be immensely diminished in our understanding of the early development of the Christian movement without it. And ironically, Luke has unwittingly left clues in the book of Acts that allow us to verify what we know from other sources—that James, not Peter, became the legitimate successor of Jesus and leader of the movement. We have to learn to read the book of Acts carefully, aware at all times of the scarcely veiled “spin” that Luke put on the story.

Luke more than any of the other gospels marginalizes the family of Jesus. Remember, Luke is the gospel that deliberately avoided even mentioning the brothers of Jesus, much less naming them, even though his source Mark plainly listed them as James, Joses, Judas, and Simon (Mark 6:3). Once when a woman in the crowd that followed Jesus cried out “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that you sucked,” Luke alone had Jesus reply, “No, rather blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:27–28). Even at the cross, when Mark plainly said that “Mary the mother of James and Joses” as well as Jesus’ sister Salome were present, Luke changed this to read “the women [unnamed] who had followed him from Galilee” (Luke 23:49). At the burial scene he did the same. Rather than name “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James” as present at the tomb as his source Mark did, he changed the account to read “the women [again unnamed] who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb” (Luke 23:55). In most cases Luke followed Mark rather closely as a source, much more so than Matthew, who constantly added his own editorial revisions. But Luke departed from Mark when it came to the mother and brothers of Jesus. I think he did this to avoid raising questions about ­Peter’s leadership of the Twelve or the superiority of ­Paul’s mission to the Gentiles. Such bold editing could not be accidental; there is something very important going on here. It is part of ­Luke’s overall agenda to recast the history of the early movement so that Paul comes out ahead of possible rivals including James. But what was their rivalry about?

Luke was a Gentile. In fact he was the only non-­Jewish writer in the entire New Testament. He emphasizes the Gentile version of Christianity that Paul espoused. He cannot deny that Jesus was a Jew, or that all of Jesus’ original followers were Jewish, or that the early Christian movement as a whole was an apocalyptic movement within Judaism. But he wrote at a time, two decades after the Jewish-­Roman revolt, when those Jewish origins of the movement were becoming marginalized and deemphasized and the imminent apocalyptic hope had faded.

Luke was also pro-­Roman. Paul, his hero, was a Roman citizen and he wants his Gentile Roman readers to know and value that about him, and thus look with favor on the growing Gentile Christian movement. In his account of the trial of Jesus, Luke goes beyond Mark, his primary source, to emphasize that Pontius Pilate was a reasonable and just ruler who went to extraordinary lengths to get Jesus released. He removes the reference to Pilate having Jesus scourged and even omits the horrible mocking and abuse that Jesus suffered at the hands of ­Pilate’s Roman Praetorium guard (Luke 23:25). According to Luke, again following the theology of Paul, Jesus could not possibly have died “forsaken by God” since his death was part of ­God’s plan to bring forgiveness of sins to the world (Luke 24:47). Luke removed the agonizing final cry of Jesus and instead had Jesus pray directly for the Roman soldiers carrying out his crucifixion, “Father forgive them they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Luke was not writing history; he was writing theology. With that in mind we have to take what he tells us with extreme caution and keep in mind at all times his pro-­Paul and pro-­Roman agenda.

The Jesus Dynasty in Jerusalem

The primary reason that an understanding of the Jesus dynasty was lost to later Christian memory was that the book of Acts deliberately suppressed its existence. For Luke there was no possibility that the followers of Jesus retreated to Galilee in sorrow and despair after Jesus’ death. He puts all the “sightings” of Jesus in Jerusalem. He does not even mention Galilee and what might have happened there. These “sightings,” according to Luke, happened on Sunday, the very day the empty tomb was discovered, so that any doubts the apostles must have had in response to the brutal and horrible death of their leader were immediately dispelled. The new Pauline “Gospel” they were to preach to the Gentile world was put before them by Jesus himself. Luke explicitly said that Jesus told the Eleven “not to leave Jerusalem” (Acts 1:4). For Luke, Galilee represents the native, indigenous, Jewish origins of Jesus and his family. But something did happen in Galilee after the empty-­tomb experience and it surely must have involved Jesus’ mother, his brothers, and the entire entourage that had followed Jesus to Jerusalem from Galilee. As I described earlier, according to Matthew and John it was in Galilee that the followers found a renewal of their faith and the determination to carry on the movement. Luke would have none of that.

Luke presents quite a different story. According to Acts, about forty days after Jesus’ death the Eleven Apostles gathered together in Jerusalem in the Upper Room where they had had their last meal with Jesus to choose a successor to Judas. Luke carefully listed those leaders who were present:

Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew

Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew

James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas brother of James

He then carefully added a fateful qualifying sentence that has served to marginalize the Jesus family for two thousand years:

“All these [the Eleven] 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)

By separating here the Eleven from “Mary the mother of Jesus as well as his brothers” Luke has effectively managed to recast things so that James and Jesus’ other brothers played no leadership role at this crucial juncture of the movement. They are mentioned in passing, as if to say, “Oh yes, by the way, they were present but really not significant.”

But of course Luke felt obligated to include them as present. He did not dare to completely write them out of the account, knowing as he did the absolutely crucial role that they played. It is more than ironic that in listing the Eleven he mentions by name James, and Simon, and even notes that Judas is the brother of James. As we shall see, the book of Acts was written around a basic undeniable fact—James had assumed leadership of the movement, and Simon his brother took over after ­James’s death in 62 CE. Luke wrote Acts around 90 CE or even later, at least thirty years after James was dead. Luke was surely aware that Simon, also of the royal bloodline, had succeeded James and was head of the church in Jerusalem even as Luke was writing. Luke purposely ended his account in the book of Acts with ­Paul’s imprisonment in Rome around the year 60 CE. For him that is the end of the story—Paul in Rome preaching his gospel to the Gentile world. By choosing that cutoff date he had no obligation to record either the death of James or the succession of Jesus’ brother Simon. ­Luke’s story in Acts became the story of early Christianity for subsequent generations. What he chose not to tell was forgotten.

It is ironic that our earliest evidence regarding the leadership role that James and the brothers of Jesus played after Jesus’ death comes to us directly from Paul. Jesus was crucified in the year 30 CE. ­Paul’s letters date to the 50s CE. For this twenty-­year gap we have no surviving records. These are the silent years in the history of earliest Christianity. What we can know we have to read backward from the records that survive. Fortunately, in ­Paul’s letter to the Galatians, written around 50 CE, he reached back at least fourteen years in recounting his own autobiography. This gives us an original first-­person source, the most valuable tool any historian can work with, reaching back into the decade of the 30s CE.

In the letter to the Galatians Paul related that three years after joining the movement he made his first trip to Jerusalem, where he saw Peter, whom he calls by his Aramaic nickname Cephas. Paul stayed with him fifteen days. He then wrote, “But I did not see any other apostle except James the ­Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:19). Not only did he call James an apostle but he clearly identified him as Jesus’ brother. The Nazarenes understandably distrusted Paul since he had so recently been at the forefront of those persecuting them, allied with the very leaders who had had Jesus killed. Paul saw Peter but he knew that it was essential that he meet with James, who was in charge. That Paul mentioned this in passing is all the more significant. He does not need to explain to anyone why he would have met with James.

Paul next related that fourteen years after his conversion, very close to 50 CE, he made a return trip to Jerusalem to receive authorization for his mission to the Gentiles from those he designated as the three “pillars” of the movement—namely James, Peter, and John the fisherman (Galatians 2:9).

That James is even named is significant, but that he is named first by Paul, before Peter and John, is absolutely critical for our understanding. The order of the names indicates an established order of authority.

The Council of Twelve, with James at the head, governs the Nazarenes, but among the Twelve, an inner group of three exercise the primary leadership—James, Peter, and John. James the brother of Jesus, sharing the royal lineage of King David, occupies the central position, but one on the right and another on the left flank him as “pillars.” Jesus, who had previously occupied the royal position, had been asked by the Twelve who among them would receive the privilege to “sit one on your right and one on your left” when the Kingdom arrived (Mark 10:37). Jesus had died without ever designating any of them for these two positions. Now, with James as the center, Peter and John had filled these roles as part of the messianic governing body that Jesus had inaugurated. We know this pattern from the Qumran community in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Community Rule had stipulated: “In the Council of the Community there shall be twelve men and three priests, perfectly versed in all that is revealed of the Torah” (1QS 8).

Even though Luke had related nothing in Acts about James being one of the apostles, much less succeeding Jesus as leader of the group, when he reports this meeting of Paul with the Jerusalem apostles in 50 CE in his account in Acts 15 he also felt obligated to relate that James was in full charge of the proceedings. In the early chapters of Acts, Luke had mentioned Peter and John repeatedly, as a pair, indicating that they were in positions of leadership over the Nazarene movement. He had put these two first in his listing of the Twelve—indicating that they had been chosen for the “right and left” positions (Acts 1:13). This was a change from his earlier listing of the Twelve in his gospel, where he had a different order for the first four: Peter, Andrew, James, and John (Luke 6:14). That he has shifted the order in Acts, putting Peter and John in first and second place, fits with what we know from Paul about the “pillars” of the church, namely James, Peter, and John. Prior to this Jerusalem Council meeting in 50 CE the only time that Luke identifies Jesus’ brother James by name is when Peter is released from prison and he tells a group of Jesus’ followers gathered in a private home to “Go tell James and the brothers” that he had been set free (Acts 12:17). Here we have a hint that Peter is inclined to report things to James and the brothers of Jesus, but nothing more is said and no elaboration is given. This report seems to come out of the blue.

Thus in ­Luke’s account in Acts, when James suddenly appears out of nowhere as leader of the Nazarene movement at the Jerusalem Council, we can see that Luke is well aware of ­James’s position. At this critical juncture he dared not leave James out of the story. Coupled with ­Paul’s passing references in Galatians regarding James as the leading “pillar” of the movement we can begin to piece together our evidence. More than a few readers of Acts have puzzled over this anomaly. Who is this mysterious “James” who emerges in chapter 15 without explanation, and never even identified as Jesus’ brother,  but with such power and authority?

The Jerusalem Council was convened to address a critical and controversial issue that had threatened to split the Messianic Movement. Upon what basis should Gentiles be accepted into the group? Both John the Baptizer and Jesus had proclaimed the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. According to the Prophets, ­God’s judgment was to fall  not only upon Israel but also upon all humankind. Accordingly, Jews as well as non-­Jews were called upon to repent of their sins and turn to God in order to be saved from the “wrath to come.” Yahweh was the Creator, the only “true and living God,” and worship of any other deities was termed idolatry.

But what was to be required of those non-­Jews who did respond to this proclamation—the “good news” of the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God? There was a conservative wing of the Nazarene movement that maintained that these Gentiles should begin to live fully as Jews—which would include circumcision for males, and the observance of all the laws of the Torah. Paul stoutly resisted this position, and he had the support of Peter, who, next to James, was the most influential of the Nazarene leaders. After much discussion and dispute Luke reported that it was James, the brother of Jesus, who arose and rendered his decision:

Therefore I have made the judgment that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them that they abstain from the pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from what is strangled, and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every Sabbath in the synagogues. (Acts 15:19–21)

Here Luke feels compelled to give James his rightful place with full authority—even though he offers no explanation for how this might have come to be. The pivotal decision that James decreed was in keeping with the general practice of Jewish groups throughout the Roman world. If non-­Jews were attracted to the synagogue they were welcomed as “God-­fearers,” or “righteous Gentiles,” and were not expected to become circumcised and keep the entire Torah as required of Jews. They were, however, expected to follow the ethics of the Torah that were applicable to all human beings. Idolatry and various forms of sexual immorality, widely condoned in Roman society, were strictly condemned. The eating of meat that still contained the blood of the slaughtered animal had been universally forbidden to all human beings from the time of Noah (Genesis 9:4). Beyond these more specific areas of conduct that divided Jew from non-­Jew, one was expected to live a life of justice and righteousness.

The decision James rendered here was in general harmony with a common Jewish approach toward Gentiles that we know from other sources. But it is not so much the decision itself as the unambiguous authority James wielded over the Nazarene movement that makes this account in Acts so significant. Taking this as our starting point the cumulative evidence outside the New Testament that James took up the mantle of Jesus and occupied his “seat” or “throne” is quite remarkable. Some of this evidence is buried in ancient texts that we have had for centuries and some has emerged just in the past few decades.

To be continued. For a complete treatment of this subject, with full notes and sources, see my book, The Jesus Dynasty.