The Trouble with the Jameses
A blog series on early church leadership and who’s who
by Silvia Purdie
My day off yesterday was kind of bizarre. I spent most of it doing Bible study, trying to work out who the 12 Apostles were and what happened to them. The central issue that emerged was who the heck James was ... which James is which? Turns out, people have been arguing about this for 18 centuries. Turns out, it was a central issue in the Reformation, tied up with passionate views about sex and whether Mary had any. Turns out, what I thought I knew about who lead the early church was wrong.
I promise you a post every day this week to tease out the issues:
- the complexities of five languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin and English) which confuse the names and identities of key Biblical people.
- how in the New Testament several different people share the same name and often the same person has several different names!
- our understanding of leadership in the early church
- the role of biological family in the church, and the tensions between family and fellowship (all wrapped up in that favourite of biblical words, ‘adelphoi’)
- the importance of mothers and wives in the formation of the early church
- the interaction of personality and calling in ministry and mission
… all facets of the endlessly fascinating drama that unfolded after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
And the evangelisation of all the known world.
Got you interested? Tune in tomorrow for the first installment!
The Trouble with the Jameses
What's your name?
Let’s start with the name itself: James. The crazy thing is, it’s not a Biblical name at all. It was made up by the Roman church when it translated the Bible into Latin.
The name in Hebrew is Yakob. In the Greek text it is Iakobus. When this is translated in the Old Testament we get the English name Jacob. Seems quite straightforward. So how and why did it become James instead?
Wikipedia describes the process like this:
“The development Iacobus > Iacomus is likely a result of nasalization of the o and assimilation to the following b (i.e., intermediate *Iacombus) followed by simplification of the cluster mb through loss of the b.”
Anyway, point is, when Jerome translated the Bible into Latin in the 380s he wrote the name Jacob as Jacomus instead of Jacobus. I can only assume that he deliberately chose to not use the Hebrew name. We know that by the late 4th century the Church had completely cut itself off from Judaism. Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire, and had become increasingly anti-Jewish. My guess is, the church preferred its Christian founders to not sound Jewish. Understandable, but a key foundation for anti-semitism.
When the French pronounced Jacomus they dropped the ‘c’, which migrated into English as ‘James’, before decaying further into ‘Jim’ etc.. Can’t you say a ‘k’ sound in French? I don’t know, blame the French.
The funny thing about names in the Bible is, I guess, once a name is well known the translators are stuck with it. Too late now to start calling James Jacob, no one would know who you were talking about. Too bad.
On with our story about which James is which … tomorrow!
The Trouble with the Jameses
Which is which? Who is who?
So, you ready? This is going to get complicated!
There are several men called James in our New Testaments. Two of them were key leaders, and there are other Jameses mentioned, who might be these two famous ones or who might be someone else again.
#1: James the son of Zebedee
You remember the story, how Jesus was walking along Lake Gallilee and met two pairs of brothers: Peter & Andrew, and James & John. James (the older, though before I looked into this I assumed they were twins) and John were sons of Zebedee and their mother was Salome. More about the parents another day. The family owned a large successful fishing business, employing staff and trading widely. J & J presumably had big personalities, known as ‘Sons of thunder’, and were ambitious for leadership positions.
There’s heaps in the Gospels about the Zebedee brothers and their role close to Jesus. After Jesus’ death & resurrection they were active with all the Apostles in Jerusalem leading the church, until King Herod had James executed in 44AD.
#2: James the Just, leader of the Jerusalem church
After James Zebedee is killed, from then on, Acts refers to another James as the leader of the church. History tells us that all the other apostles left Jerusalem and went on mission far and wide. James stayed on in Jerusalem, until he was martyred in the mid 60s. He’s known in church tradition as James the Just.
It’s disputed but I believe that he did write the letter of James. To me the letter rings with leadership authority and a deep pastoral heart that fits with ‘James the Just’. More about the letter another day.
So who was this James? What was he doing before he became leader?
Unfortunately scripture says only one thing about him: Galatians 1:19 describes him as “the Lord’s brother”. On the basis of this the Protestant church has assumed that he was:
#3: James from Nazareth, the next eldest son of Mary and Joseph after Jesus.
There are lots of references to the brothers of Jesus, mostly about conflict. When he goes back to Nazareth to preach (Matthew 13:55) the brothers are named: James, Joseph, Simon and Judas. I always assumed that this James stayed in Nazareth looking after Mary and the rest of the family until they came to Jerusalem for the events of Easter and stayed on, receiving the Holy Spirit and being part of the early church from then on. But it’s always bothered me. How could James from Nazareth step into the central leadership role when he had not journeyed with Jesus during his ministry? In fact the gospels record Jesus’ brothers actively trying to squash his ministry.
Catholics never bought the whole idea about Jesus having full-siblings (Mary being a perpetual virgin and all that), pointing out that the James & Joseph mentioned in Matthew 13 were actually Jesus’ cousins:
#4: James son of Clopas/Alphaeus
One of the Marys at the cross was Mary wife of Clopas, mother of James the younger & Joseph (Mark 15:40 & John 19:25). One of the 12 Apostles was James son of Alphaeus, also called James the younger (i.e. younger than James Zebedee). Question is about this James’s Dad - are Clopas and Alphaeus the same guy? I’m saying, yes, these are different translations into Greek from the same Aramaic name (Greeks hardened the ‘H’ into ‘K’). Apparently, he (Alphaeus/Clopas) was the brother of Joseph from Bethlehem! Which makes this James the cousin of Jesus. Or, Clopas could be the same person as Cleopas who lived in Emmaus. Confusing ha.
The thing is, there is no word for ‘cousin’ in Aramaic. Plus, the New Testament writers loved the word ‘brother’ so they used it for all sorts of relationships, including full-siblings, cousins and also dear friends and fellow believers.
So, I figure, James son of Alphaeus the Apostle later became James the Just, leader of the church and writer of the epistle of James. Makes sense to me.
Anyway, enough for this post. You’re probably at the ‘so what?!’ stage … keep reading tomorrow!
The Trouble with the James
I am asking you to choose between 2 positions:
a) Jesus had a biological brother called James who initially thought his brother was nuts doing the whole healer/prophet thing but who eventually came round, was transformed by the Holy Spirit and joined the church, becoming James the Just & leading the church
b) Jesus never had a biological brother called James at all, and the James mentioned as his brother was actually his cousin, James son of Alphaeus, one of the 12 disciples who became leader in Jerusalem after the older and more dominant James son of Zebedee was executed.
Either is possible. What does it matter? What’s at stake?
To me the central issue is discipleship. James-the-brother-from-Nazareth was never a disciple of Jesus. He couldn’t handle his big brother causing such a fuss. Sure, the Holy Spirit can turn anyone around – Paul is the obvious example! – but we know from our own experience that we learn in the footsteps of Jesus. And sure he could have learned from the apostles, but would they have appointed him as their leader simply because he was biological kin of Jesus? I doubt it.
I just makes more sense to me that one of the 12 disciples, called Apostles, would lead the early church. They were the ones who walked with Jesus every step of the way, heard all that he said, saw what he did. And sure they didn’t always ‘get it’, but they all experienced the love of Jesus directly and personally.
I really like the idea of Jesus including his own younger cousin in the group of 12 disciples. Part of the ‘so what’ is the intimacy of relationship that was so central to the way Jesus operated, and to the formation of this thing called Church. Each person who knew Jesus knew themselves as utterly loved and special to him – not in an abstract way, but close, gutsy, funny, huggable. Jesus was adorable! So Jesus chatting to his young cousin on the road, young James absorbing teaching wrapped up in affection. This matters to me.
It matters who was there; we need to honour the eye-witnesses to Jesus. If James the Just (and first Bishop of the church) only heard about Jesus’ teachings and miracles second hand, then that weakens our grip on the reality and reliability of the New Testament. And this was very much the teaching on the Bible that I grew up with, that was dominant in the 20th century – scholars claimed that things were written very late, by nameless faceless people or committees, filtered through their own agendas. I personally have found it so compelling and significant for my own faith and ministry to recover the actual people who actually knew Jesus personally, who wrote it down for us. I’m passionate about this.
So, it makes sense to me that James the apostle who heard what Jesus said and saw what Jesus did, this same James would naturally live this out in church leadership.
The book of James is a strong match for the ‘Q’ source (the teachings of Jesus that both Matthew and Luke added into Mark in shaping their own gospels). It contains about 30 points of similarity. Scholars assume from this that James had read Q and quoted from it. But doesn’t it make even more sense that James wrote Q? James the apostle was there. Why wouldn’t he record it?
The Trouble with the Jameses
The Mums and Dads
A key piece of understanding the puzzle about the James is to figure out what’s going on with their parents, which might tell us whom is related to whom. Also, what the Gospels tell us about their parents gives us fascinating glimpses into the dynamics of family life and the importance of both friendship and blood-ties in the early church, as well as dynamics of personality … plus also highlighting some key gender issues.
Let’s start with the Zebedees. Mr Zebedee and his wife Salome, wealthy business people, with two sons. Probably from Bethsaida, where the Jordan river flows into Lake Gallille, a lush and beautiful place to live. They traded widely in the Roman world; their fish was eated in Rome itself, and they were personally known to the catering managers in the palaces of Jerusalem. What on earth did they think of both their sons dropping nets and rushing off to join a travelling preacher?!? Hardly in the family business plan! We can understand Salome wanting her sons to have important positions in the Kingdom (Matthew 20:20). I wonder what right she felt she had to ask a “favour” of Jesus; sounds to me like she felt Jesus owed her in some way – intriguing don’t you think?
But a deep and abiding transformation happened to that family which left a powerful lasting legacy for the world (esp. through the writings and leadership of their son John). That conversation between Salome and Jesus happened on the final journey. She went with them as they walked to Jerusalem. And in Jerusalem the worst happened, and Salome found herself with the Marys walking to a tomb in the early morning to annoint the dead body of Jesus (Mark 16:1). Only, he wasn’t there was he? How did that experience change her?
As for Zebedee, he isn’t mentioned again. But, I’m a practical person; I want to know where the money’s coming from. How did the apostles and their families get by financially after Easter, when they all moved to live in Jerusalem? My guess is, Zebedee was key for enabling the birth of the early church, by staying home and running the boats. Just a guess, but we do know, don’t we, that someone has to pay the bills!
OK, so how about the other Jameses? If James was Jesus’ full biological brother then we already know quite a bit about his parents. So I’m going to run with the scenario of James being Jesus’ cousin, see where that gets us with his parents.
Intriguingly, the story centres at the cross and the empty tomb with those same women, for Mary the mother of the younger James (wife of Clopas/Alphaeus, also called “the other Mary”) was also there (Mark 15:40, Luke 24:10, Matthew 27:56). Three mothers, Mary, Mary and Salome (together with their friend Mary of Magdala), bound forever at the heart of Easter. Together they watched Jesus die and then proclaimed his resurrection. To me that is so moving, and so significant, that faith and love holds people across generations, men and women. This sings loudly to me of the power of friendship.
For two of the Marys to be sisters-in-law adds a fascinating richness to this bond, because if so then Mary-mother-of-James may well have been there at the birth of Jesus as well as his death. We know that Joseph and Mary stayed on in Bethlehem, presumably living with family, presumably Joseph’s brother. Jesus might even have been born in their home, crowded out with other visiting family, so squashed down the back with the animals.
I love that, don’t you?
I’d better round off this section with a final note about Alphaeus father of James. If he was Joseph's brother then he too would have come from Bethlehem. Joseph is described as "righteous", so we can assume that this would also have applied to his brother; i.e. brought up strictly in Jewish law and dedicated practice. But not in a legalistic self-righteous way (as evidenced by Joseph's compassion on Mary) ... immersed in the heart of Judaism. Living close to Jerusalem, often participating in Temple life as dedicated lay people (not priests - it was Mary's family who were from the priestly line). His name, Alphaeus, means 'changing' in the Hebrew (and I'm of the opinion that John mis-translated it into Clopas in Greek). Perhaps the most significant thing about this male line is that they were all descendants of King David. My guess is, they took that pretty seriously.
The Trouble with the Jameses
The Epistle of James: What we learn about the man from the letter
Assuming the James-the-Just, the first Bishop, leader of the Jerusalem church wrote the Epistle of James, what does the letter tell us about this man, his character, values and leadership style?
It was written after Paul’s letter to Rome, and is in part a response to that epistle. James quotes from Romans and offers an alternative perspective on the whole question of grace, faith and ‘justification’. So, if Romans was written about 55AD, James was written after that, but before James died in the mid 60s.
The Epistle is full of half-quotes and references from the Gospels and other early Paul letters. It is clear that James-the-Just knew a great deal about what Jesus taught (even though the letter does not talk about Jesus directly). As I suggested early, if James was the same person as the apostle James (son of Alphaeus) then he would have heard it from Jesus first hand, and could well have written down some of Jesus’ words in what scholars call ‘Q’, the shared source of Jesus’ teachings used by both Matthew and Luke). That James also refers to Paul’s letters tells us that in the early church (i.e. in the 50s) letters were being copied and distributed widely. And it tells us that James read and respected Paul, even if he didn’t always agree with him.
The depth of Old Testament references is the letter tells us, what we already knew, that James was immersed in the scriptures and worship of Judaism.
The Epistle of James rings with the voice of a calm caring leader. It has an ‘episcopal’ feel about it. It encourages people to get along in functional teams, in peace and humility. Quite a lot of James confronts in-fighting (“you fight and war” 4:2): ‘don’t criticize’, ‘control your tongue’. James joins Paul in calling for Christians to stop critizing and judging each other (compare James 4 with Romans 14); obviously there was plenty of ‘bitchin’ going on!
The conflict between Romans and James comes down to two words: ‘faith’ and ‘works’. While Romans says “it does not depend on human will or effort, but on God who shows mercy” (9:16), James responds, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). Paul says “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord … you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). And James replies, “What good is it if someone says he has faith but does not have works?”. But are Paul and James really contradicting each other? When it comes to what faith looks like in practice they are saying the same thing: love one another, care for the poor, live a moral life. In fact, Ephesians 2:8-10 says exactly the same thing as James. We are not saved ‘by works’ but ‘for works’, writes Paul. This matters for us and the church today because FIRST we are accepted by God, we don’t earn love, and THEN we live that out by loving and honouring God and others. (Perhaps Paul wrote Ephesians, in 62, partly in response to James’s letter?)
James is deeply concerned with issues of economic injustice. He’s writing out of personal experience of a community struggling to meet the needs of the poor; this fits well with what we know from both Acts and Paul’s letters about the early church being very concerned with poverty among the church in Jerusalem, and sending financial assistance. However James’s community also includes those who are rich, and describes the challenge of being an alternative community where people’s financial status does not define relationships and roles and honour in the church. Do not show favouritism! (James 2:9) I very much hear Jesus himself coming through here, for rich or poor mattered not at all to Jesus, he saw through to the heart. Don’t be impressed or put off by what people show on the outside. To actually live this you have to be humble yourself, fully letting go of pretensions to climb the social ladder or to win respect from important people. James says this clearly in 4:10, “Humble yourself before the Lord and he will lift you up.”
Humility, patience, peaceable, prayerful, wise – these are the qualities that resound through the epistle of James.
The Trouble with the Jameses
For my last blog in this series, the question: what do we learn from James about a biblical model of leadership? Here are 9 features:
1. Leadership is based on discipleship. As we learn so we teach. The epistle of James does not talk about Jesus, but it rings with the voice of Jesus. This makes every sense to me if its author is James the son of Alphaeus, the cousin of Jesus, who was one of the 12 inner circle of disciples. Our leadership flows out of our knowledge of Jesus, who he was, what he said and what he did. Our relationships with others are underpinned by our relationship with Jesus.
2. Christian leadership does not give a #$% for the values of our society. “Keep yourself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). Not hiding, withdrawing into a sanctified box, still involved, connecting with the world, but lifting up really different things to what our society praises. Mostly this is around economic inequality. James’s vision sears through the façade of weath: riches will evaporate, fade, wither and die (1:10-11). Glamour and fame are not real.
3. Injustice, however, is real. Oppression, especially of the poor by the rich, is a problem to God and to the church. Leadership confronts situations where people are getting ripped off and abused while those in power benefit (5:1-6). James sounds like an Old Testament prophet – and so should we!
4. Leadership is about forming an alternative community. In this Jesus space people are accepted for who they are, and then challenged to grow up by learning how to love. Rich or poor makes no difference in this space.
5. Stop the complaining! Leadership denies people the right to bitch about each other. His particular ‘bug bear’ is when people “praise our Lord and Father, and with the same tongue curse others” (3:9). Bitching about other Christians is for James a serious violation of theology. It’s not about being nice, unoffensive or ‘PC’; it is about the sin of pride, which assumes that I’m right and you’re wrong, that I’m made in God’s image you’re not. James hates it when people set themselves up as Judge and Jury of other people. Stop it! (4:12, 5:9). Anger gets you nowhere (1:20). So what’s the alternative? “Deeds done in the humility that flows from wisdom” (3:13) What does this look like? “pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (3:17).
(Note: this applies at home as well as at church!! Leadership is about integrity, so how we talk about and to the people closest to us matters as much as the public stuff.)
6. Help people in practical ways. This is what James’s letter is most famous for. “I will show you my faith by what I do” (3:7), and top priority for ‘doing’ is caring for the poor. It’s important to me that James explicitly includes women with men in this (2:15). James is a ruthless attack on empty words or good advice. Saying to someone in need “All the best, take care, look after yourself” is completely useless! Get on with the job, be there for people, don’t just waffle on about it!
7. Prayer works. Leaders pray for people: “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (5:16). James gives us a wonderful and workable model for prayer ministry. Trouble, sickness and brokenness are dealt with by praying for each other, in person, in relationship. ‘Elders’ are a key part of this, but it is a shared task for everyone; “pray for each other so that you may be healed” (5:16).
8. Those who lead in the church are held to higher standards than other believers. We might not like this, but that’s the way it is; “those who teach will be judged more strictly” (3:1).
9. Shut up. James values silence over chatter, listening over talking (1:19). Our tongues are like the rudder of a boat or a match that starts a bush fire. Leaders have self control over what we choose to say, and wisdom to know when to not say anything.
So, to finish off, 3 challenges to you and me from James:
1) What pisses you off? Don’t make your anger anyone else’s problem. Deal with it. Yourself. Quietly. Ask God for wisdom.
2) When do you feel critical of other people? Stop yourself from putting this into words. First humble yourself. You’re made in the image of God and so are they. Seek mercy. Find practical ways to serve. Then you might earn the right to challenge unhelpful behaviour.
3) Be pissed off with injustice! Be critical when people get ripped off or taken advantage of. Don’t put up with social systems that damage people.
An ending …
I have thoroughly enjoyed my journey with James. I hope you’ve found something that’s intrigued you, or perhaps prompted you to do more reading. I’m still puzzling over the whole “brother of Jesus” thing, especially having today read 1 Corinthians 9:5, which clearly describes brothers (plural) of Jesus who together with their wives were out and about as travelling apostles preaching the gospel. How fascinating. (Isn’t if funny how you read something in scripture and it’s like you’ve never read it before!? Something in the verse jumps out at you in a different way like it’s new and most curious – that’s the Holy Spirit for you!) Oh how I’d love to know more about those wives that Paul mentions so tantalisingly in that one verse. And if wives then presumably children also. Who were Jesus’ neices and nephews? What role did they play in the early church? The children of the apostles, those who knew Jesus when they were little, what stories did they tell of him? How did their faith help build the faith of countless others?
So many stories left un-written.