The Rejection of Pascal's Wager
Get the Book!

James, The Leader of the Jerusalem Church

We have seen that, despite attempts to suppress the fact, the primary sources show that James was the full brother of Jesus. Now it is time to examine the evidence showing that he was the leader of the Jerusalem church from the very beginning.

Although it was James who was the leader of the church after the death of Jesus, his position was minimised and, to some extent, suppressed by the emerging catholic church. That this happened can be attributed to two reasons. James' prominence was minimised because of the developing myth of Mary's perpetual virginity and was eventually suppressed because the followers of James (and by extension Jesus) were eventually condemned by the church as an heretical sect.

Traditional Explanations to Minimize James' Role

Here we will look at a couple of traditional attempts to explain away the primacy of James. All these attempts center on finding apologetic explanations for James' appearances in Acts; namely how he came to be the head of the church, and the extent of the influence of the church under James.

The Catholic explanation is very simple, based as it is, on the idea that Peter was the first pope. In this scenario, Peter was supposedly depicted by Acts as the early leader of the Jerusalem Church. After his miraculous escape from prison, Peter apppointed James as his successor for the local Jerusalem Church. This is supposedly narrated in Acts 12:17. After Peter's move to Rome, the influence of the Jerusalem Church started to diminish. The center of Christendom, following Peter, shifted first to Antioch and finally to Rome.

Another explanation, favored by Protestant theologians, was that James, after being appointed the Jerusalem Church (after the departure of Peter-as above)exercised, at best, some spiritual and moral authority over other churches. In other words, James was merely the first amongst equals.[1]

Both apologetic explanations are wrong, as we shall see below.

Back to the top

Evidence of James' Primacy in the Early Church: The New Testament

James, the brother of Jesus, first appeared directly in the narrative of Acts in the so-called "Jerusalem conference". The meeting, described both in Acts chapter 15 and in Galatians 2:1-10, was called to resolve the issue of circumcision. The early church was struggling with the issue of whether new gentile converts to "The Way" (as Christianity was called) needed to be circumcised. While the account of the meeting in Jerusalem in Acts is laced with much legendary material [something we will look at in detail later], our aim here is simply to see if we can read through Luke's account to see what the traditional material he had available to him tells us about James' position in the Jerusalem church. We will use Paul's account in Galatians to bolster our analysis.

The manner in which the meeting was conducted, showed that James was unambiguously the leader of the church in Jerusalem. The evidence are as follows: [2]

  • Order of speakers
    In that meeting, Peter was the first to speak (Acts 15:7-11), followed by Barnabas and Paul (Acts 15:12-12). It was James who spoke last (Acts 13:21).

  • James' Judgement
    The manner in which the decision was made was not one of consensus, but one in which James made a ruling:

    Acts 15:19-20
    [James speaking] "Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood."

    Note the Greek word used by James here is krino, a legalistic term meaning "I decide", "I rule", "I judge" and not "I advise" or "I recommend".

  • James Decision as Final
    James decision was taken up verbatim by all present in the meeting. The letters to be sent to Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia simply repeated what James had ruled with no qualifications, additions or deletions.

Whatever else we can say about the historicity of Acts' account of the conference, we can confirm that the tradition available to Luke clearly placed James as the undisputed leader of the Jerusalem church.

Paul's account of the same confirms James pre-eminence. For in describing the "pillars" of Jerusalem, he placed James' name first, ahead of Peter and John:

Galatians 2:9
and when James and Cephas [a] and John, who were acknowledged pillars...

Further on, Paul recounted his dispute at Antioch with Peter:

Galatians 2:11-13
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.

If we look through Paul's angry tone we find many interesting facts. First is that Peter obeyed James' command to keep away from the gentiles. It was not only Peter, but also Barnabas, Paul's missionary partner, and all the Jews who followed James instructions completely.

This puts paid to the claims of the Petrine apologists on a few counts. [3]

  • Firstly Peter was clearly subordinated to James.
  • James' command to stay away from the Gentiles was followed by all the Jewish Christians in Antioch. This shows that James influence extends beyond Jerusalem.
  • And this influence, which impacted their behaviour, and on whom they are allowed to mix with, certainly extends beyond merely "spiritual" leadership and is clearly "political".
  • Even after the departure of Peter, James and the Jerusalem Church continued to hold the position as the leader of the church.
Thus the evidence from Paul's epistle strengthens what we have found from the account in Acts. James was the leader of the Jerusalem Church, Peter was subordinated to him, the center of power did not shift with the departure of Peter and the influence of the Jerusalem church extneds beyond the city in a very real sense.

Traditionalist theologians have tried to save Peter's primacy by pointing to two New Testament passages which, according to them, showed that, at least before the Jerusalem conference, Peter was the leader of the Christian church and it was he who appointed James as the leader when he left Jerusalem.

The first passage comes at the end of the narration telling of Peter's escape from Herod's (this is Herod Agrippa I) prison. (Acts 12: 12- 17) Peter went to the house of Mary, John Mark's mother. Many were gathered in that house praying. When they opened the gate:

Acts 12:17
He motioned for 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 brothers." And he left and went to another place.

According to the apologists this is the passage which tells of the appointment of James by Peter.

A second passage cited to show Peter's initial supremacy is found in Paul's letter to the Galatians:

Galatians 1:18-19
Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but did not see any other apostle except James the Lord's brother.

This event is placed by Paul before the Jerusalem conference. Since Paul is said to visit with Peter, according to these same apologists, it follows that Peter was the leader then.

This, in a nutshell, is the best the Petrine apologists have to offer! Let us examine the argument in detail.

Let us look at the account in Acts 12:17 again. Surely to be able to read this as Peter appointing James to the leadership of the Jerusalem church requires that the statement "Tell this to James and to the brothers." be read as a code. This, although possible, is far from convincing. Furthermore if this appointment was necessitated by Peter having to leave Jerusalem, why was not Peter the recognized leader during the Jerusalem conference given in Acts chapter 15. As we have seen above, James remained in a clear leadership role even with the presence of Peter in the conference. As Professor John Painter mentioned, a more likely interpretation of the passage was that Peter was merely reporting his activities to his leader, James. [4]

The account in Galatians 1:18-19 is ambiguous and can be read to support both views (whether Peter or James was the leader). The latter interpretation seems to me more straighforward. Firstly, the fact that Paul looked for Peter was probably due to the fact that Peter, like himself, was a missionary, and that Peter took time to "fill him in" on some of the master's teachings. It is very unlikely, given Paul's lack of prominence in the early days, that the leader of the group would take time off to instruct him personally. However the fact that James was mentioned, to exclusion of the other apostles, could indicate that James was simply too important for Paul not to pay a "courtesy call." [5]

We can therefore conclude that the tradition underlying the New Testament shows that, by the time of the Jerusalem conference, James was the undisputed leader or the Jerusalem church; and by virtue of its location, of the whole nascent church founded by Jesus' followers. The evidence is also suggestive, although not conclusive, that James was the leader even before Peter left Jerusalem.

We now turn to extra biblical evidence to see if this final uncertainty can be resolved.

Back to the top

Evidence of James' Primacy in the Early Church: Patristic Citations

Eusebius (c260-c340), bishop of Caesarea, was also known as the Father of Church History. His book History of the Church is one of the major sources of the history of early Christianity. Eusebius had access to many early documents no longer extant today. Thus his magnum opus is a valuable resource for historians interested in early Christianity.

Let us begin by looking at Eusebius' citations for James' ascension to the leadership of the Jerusalem Church:

History of the Church 2:1:2
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...

History of the Church 3:5:2
...James, the first that had obtained the episcopal seat in Jerusalem after the ascension of our Saviour...

History of the Church 2:23:4
[Quoting Hegesippus (c110-180)] "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."

History of the Church 2:23:1
...James, the brother of the Lord, to whom the episcopal seat at Jerusalem had been entrusted by the apostles...

History of the Church 7:19
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...

History of the Church 2:1:3-4
(2:1:3) But Clement [c160-215] 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."
(2:1:4) 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: 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."[15]

The main conclusion we can draw from all this citations is that James became the first leader of the Jerusalem church after the ascension [b] of Jesus. There is no room for Peter to be the leader before this. Thus early Christian tradition, at least as collected by Eusebius, was unanimous in placing James as the leader of the Jerusalem church right from the ascension of Jesus.

Another interesting point to note is that early tradition attributed to James, the brother of Jesus, a title not found in the New Testament, the Just.

However the careful reader will also notice a slight tension between the accounts given by Eusebius. Note that it is by no means settled whether James succeeded to the leadership, or what amounts to the same thing, was appointed by Jesus himself, (as noted by 2:1:2, 3:5:2, 2:23:4 and 7:19) or whether he was appointed by the apostles (as in 2:23:1, 2:1:3-4 and 7:19). The reader will note that the ambiguity extends to 7:19 seeming to imply James was appointed by both Jesus and the apostles.

Gerd Ludemann, in his book Opposition to Paul in Jewish Christianity (1989), have convincingly demonstrated that the passages where "the apostles" were mentioned were probably due to the redactional activity of Eusebius. While disagreeing with Ludemann on the details of Eusebius' redactional activity, John Painter, in his book Just James: The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition (1997) agrees that the connection of the apostles to the appointment of James were inventions of either Eusebius or the Christian tradition and are not historical. [6]

Let us look at the arguments against the historicity of the apostolic election of James to the leadership of the Jerusalem church. We must first note that Eusebius was not a dispassionate collector of mere historical facts. Like all chroniclers, he had an agenda, as he himself spelled out early in his book:

History of the Church 1:1:5
Having gathered therefore from the matters mentioned here and there by them whatever we consider important for the present work, and having plucked like flowers from a meadow the appropriate passages from ancient writers, we shall endeavor to embody the whole in an historical narrative, content if we preserve the memory of the successions of the apostles of our Saviour; if not indeed of all, yet of the most renowned of them in those churches which are the most noted, and which even to the present time are held in honor.

I have italicised the important point above. One of Eusebius' main concern was with establishing the apostolic succession of the church. This gives us a hint as to his redactional tendancies, which is another way of saying, it may provide us with evidence, when there are no explicit statement in his work, whether Eusebius was quoting direct from tradition or whether added his own spin to it. [7]

To see how Eusebius' spin works, we need to look at a preliminary example. Eusebius narrated the appointment of James' successor, Symeon, in two separate places in his book:

History of the Church 4:22:4-5
The same author [i.e. Hegesippus] also describes the beginnings of the heresies which arose in his time, in the following words: "And after James the Just had suffered martyrdom, as the Lord had also on the same account, Symeon, the son of the Lord's uncle, Clopas, was appointed the next bishop. All proposed him as second bishop because he was a cousin of the Lord. Therefore, they called the Church a virgin, for it was not yet corrupted by vain discourses."

History of the Church 3:11:1-2
After the martyrdom of James and the conquest of Jerusalem which immediately followed, it is said that those of the apostles and disciples of the Lord that were still living came together from all directions with those that were related to the Lord according to the flesh (for the majority of them also were still alive) to take counsel as to who was worthy to succeed James. They all with one consent pronounced Symeon, the son of Clopas, of whom the Gospel also makes mention; to be worthy of the episcopal throne of that parish. He was a cousin, as they say, of the Saviour.

Note again the tension between the two accounts of Symeon's succession. In the first (4:22:4-5) it is quite clearly stated that Symeon was chosen because he was a relative of Jesus. The second account seems to imply that the apostles and disciples had to discuss his worthiness before appointing him. His relation to Jesus (his cousin) is related only in passing in the last line.

We have good reason to believe the first is more historically accurate. For in it, Eusebius was quoting Hegesippus directly. The second is almost a free paraphrase; thus is an account where we would expect Eusebius' redactional activity. The major difference caused by Eusebius redaction is clear: he had added in the account about the apostles having a major role in choosing the successor of James. In the first account, even if the apostles were present, they had no more to do than give a "rubber stamp" to Symeon's succession since the reason was his relationship to James and not his "worthiness". [8]

Turning back to the references with respect to James. Let us first look at the accounts given in 2.1.2 and 3.5.2. In 2.1.2, Eusebius explicitly makes reference to tradition as his source ("is recorded to have been the first") 3.5.2 has almost identical vocabulary to 2.1.2 and is very likely dependent on it. Furthermore both passages refer to James ascension immediately after the ascension of Jesus. This is made explicit in 3.5.2, while in 2.1.2, the introduction to book 2 chapter 1 tells us that what follows are accounts following Jesus' ascension. Thus we can take it that these two passages exhibit no evidence of any redaction by Eusebius.[9]

When we look at other passages, however, we see clear cut evidence of redactional activity.

  • 2:23:1-2, with the allusions to Paul's arrest, James death during the interregnum of Roman governors (after the death of Festus) is a summary of accounts given in Acts (25:11f, 27:1), Josephus (Antiquities 20:201f) , Hegesippus (History of the church 2.23.8-18) and Clement of Alexandria (History of the Church 2.1.5).

  • 7:19, with reference to the "throne" of the church of Jerusalem is an obvious anachronism, as the reference was not known until the fourth century CE.[10]

  • 2:23:4, although presented as a direct quote from Hegesippus, has obvious redactional features. Firstly we note the content is anachronistic. The term government of the church is an obvious anachronism. For during the first century one can only be appointed to a local church or congregation. While it is true James held de facto control over the diaspora churches, the control was never formalised. Secondly, as Gerd Ludemann noted, "The sentence is syntactically rough. The verb stands at the beginning in the singular and leads one to expect only one subject"[11]. In other words, the phrase "in conjunction with the apostles" does not really fit into the sentence grammatically.
One can see that whenever Eusebius adds his own words, he invariably gets in "the apostles" into his narrative somehow.

That leaves us with the quotation from Clement of Alexandria in 2:1:3-4. It is here that John Painter disagrees with Gerd Ludemann, stating that there was a tradition available to Eusebius that mentioned the apostles in conjunction with James' election. However a closer look at the quotation of Clement above shows that the two accounts given (in 2:1:3 and in 2:1:4) contradict one another somewhat. The latter said that Jesus imparted knowledge to James the Just, John and Peter. Again the order of names is important; James being first. Thus James leadership is implied, with the appointment coming from Jesus himself. In the former, the appointment of James is made by the apostles after the ascension. Thus it is possible that Clement, who lived more than a hundred years after the actual event he was describing, had access to two separate traditions regarding James' appointment. Taking into account the traditions cited by Eusebius without redaction, we can conclude that the balance of evidence favor 2:1:4 as a more authentic and more likely historical tradition. [12]

In conclusion, the evidence of citations of Eusebius and his use of traditional sources, support what we have seen from the New Testament; namely that James was the undisputed leader of the Jerusalem church immediately after the ascension of Jesus and that he was very likely appointed to this position, not by the apostles, but by Jesus himself.

Back to the top

Evidence of James' Primacy in the Early Church: Apocryphal and "Heretical" Works

References to apocryphal, and especially "heretical", works provide important clues to historical questions regarding early Christianity. This is because history is written by the winner and all traditions that did not fit its founding myths are normally suppressed. The works that fell outside the developing catholic church thus have a good chance of preserving some authentic early tradition that would have been suppressed by the church. [c]

Our first evidence comes from The Gospel of Thomas. The only complete copy of the gospel is dated around fourth century CE. It is in Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language, and was among various gnostic writings found in Nag Hammadi in 1945. Three fragments of the gospels in Greek, known as Papyrus Oxyrynchus 1, 654 and 655, are also extant and have been dated to no later than 200 CE. Thus the original gospel must have been around by the mid second century. Some scholars date it to around 70-90 CE, or almost contemporaneous with the canonical gospels. [13]

What is of interest to us is logion 12 of the gospel:

Thomas 12
The disciples said to Jesus, "We know that you are going to leave us. Who will be our leader?" Jesus said to them, "No matter where you are, you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being."

Here the appointment of James is given by Jesus himself while he was alive. There is no election, no discussion among the apostles about who should be the leader. Jesus' appointment was simply accepted. Note too the importance being attributed to James, first by calling him "righteous" (or just) and by the hyperbole "for whose sake heaven and earth came into being".[14]

Our next gospel comes from a Jewish-Christian work known as The Gospel of the Hebrews. No fragment of this gospel survive today but we have quotations from the writings of church fathers such as Origen (c185-254), Clement of Alexandria (c160-215) and Jerome (c342-420). As this gospel was cited by second century fathers, it must have been written before 200 CE. However its seeming knowledge of the canonical gospels means that it was probably written after 100 CE. An early second century date of composition is the most likely. [15]

The passage we are interested in was cited by Jerome in his book On Famous Men (392), chapter 2:

Gospel of the Hebrews
[After the resurrection...] The Lord after he had given the linen cloth to the priest's slave, went to James and appeared to him. Now James had sworn not to eat bread from the time he drank from the Lord's cup until he would see him raised from among those who sleep.
[Shortly after this the Lord said], "Bring a table and some bread." He took bread and blessed it, broke it, and gave it to James the Just and said to him, "My brother, eat your bread, for the Son of Adam has been raised from among those who sleep."

This passage again shows the primacy of James. For Jesus was shown to appear first to James and to call him "my brother." The canonical gospels nowhere records an appearance of Jesus to James but it is mentioned in Paul's epistle to the Corinthians (I Corinthians 15:7) Thus we have here another tradition that was most likely suppressed by the developing catholic church. This passage is also important in that it shows James as a participant in the last supper. Implying that he was one of the disciples of Jesus. [16]

Similar passages about James supremacy is to be found in the Pseudo-Clementines. This is a collection of works that was circulated under the name of Clement of Rome (fl c. 96 CE). Works generally grouped under these include the Clementine Homilies, the Clementine Recognitions and two epistles (Peter to James, including James' response and Clement to James) The Pseudo-Clementines are generally dated to the fourth century CE. But it is generally agreed that they used sources dating from earlier centuries. [17]

Thus we find evidence of James supremacy in the introduction of the Epistle of Clement to James: [18]

Epistle of Clement to James: Preface
Clement to James, the lord, and the bishop of bishops, who rules Jerusalem, the holy church of the Hebrews, and the churches everywhere excellently rounded by the providence of God, with the elders and deacons, and the rest of the brethren, peace be always

In the Recognitions we find the supremacy of James to the twelve alluded to many times. One example:

Recognitions 1:44:1
But when we twelve apostles, on the day of the passover, had come together with an immense multitude, and entered into the church of the brethren, each one of us, at the request of James, stated briefly, in the hearing of the people, What we had done in every place

Thus in apocryphal and heretical works we find the same tradition emphasised as well. James was the leader of the Jerusalem church and he ascended the chair just after Jesus' ascension.

Back to the top

Evidence of James' Primacy in the Early Church: Conclusions

It is important to keep in mind the sheer breadth of traditions we have analysed. We have the proto-orthodox group(s) (the New Testament writings), the citations of the early Church fathers, the Jewish Christians (Gospel of the Hebrews, Pseudo-Clementines) and the Gnostics (Gospel of Thomas) all attesting to a narrow set of facts about James. Similar to what happens in biological evolution, religious factions tend to diverge from each other once they lose "touch" from one another. This would be even more acute if one, or some, were different enough from the rest to label them heretical. With no or little exchange of theological ideas, apart from polemical writings where they merely shout past each other, it is unlikely that they would hit upon the exact tradition about James unless this was a tradition already present before they diverged.

Thus we can conclude, with some certainty, that based on our study of primary sources, that:

  • James was the undisputed leader of the Jerusalem Church.
  • He became the leader immediately, or very shortly, after the ascension of Jesus.
  • Peter was subordinated to James.
Apart from these certainties we can also venture, as a very probable hypothesis, that James was appointed to his position by Jesus while he was still alive.

Back to the top

The Positions of James and Peter in the Early Church

The first question normally raised is why was James selected as the leader? This is normally compounded with the assertion that Peter was obviously the leader of the twelve apostles in the gospel tradition; thus the sudden change of leadership is hard to explain.

The answer as to why James was selected is already hinted at above and in the posting on James' familial relationship to Jesus. Note that James is referred to as "the Lord's brother" by Paul in Galatians 1:19 as if this designation plays a role in his prominence. Furthermore, the statement by Hegesippus of the election of the successor of James, Symeon, provides strong support for this:

History of the Church 4:22:4-5
The same author [i.e. Hegesippus] also describes the beginnings of the heresies which arose in his time, in the following words: "And after James the Just had suffered martyrdom, as the Lord had also on the same account, Symeon, the son of the Lord's uncle, Clopas, was appointed the next bishop. All proposed him as second bishop because he was a cousin of the Lord. "Therefore, they called the Church a virgin, for it was not yet corrupted by vain discourses.

Note that Symeon was chosen because he was a relative (cousin) of Jesus.

Thus James was very probably chosen because he too was a relative (the brother) of Jesus. This should not be surprising in a culture in which the principle of hereditary rulers were so deeply embedded. The pre-eminence of the Davidic line (which the family of Jesus was supposed to be descended from) in early Christian theology makes this all the more probable.

This suggestion also explains why Peter could never be made leader of the Jerusalem church. Firstly he was not a relative. Secondly his role as leader of the twelve apostles, to use the analogy of monarchies, would be akin to that of a chief minister. When the king (Jesus) dies, the chief minister does not take over (unless he is planning a coup d'etat) but it is the heir to the throne, normally the closest kin, that takes that position. Peter's role, probably appointed by Jesus, was that of a missionary leader. Indeed his activities as depicted in Acts 1-12 was consistent with this position. Acts 12:17 now makes sense, Peter, the missionary leader, was merely reporting his activities to his leader, James. [19]

Back to the top

The Family of Jesus During His Ministry

A second question normally raised is with respect to the relationship of Jesus during his lifetime to his own family. In this case the passages in Mark (3:20-21 & 3:31-35-copied by Matthew 12:46-50) and John 7:1-10 are normally raised as objections to the claim of James' early supremacy. We will look at each of this in turn.

Mark 3:21,31-34
When his family heard about this [i.e. that Jesus was preaching to a crowd] they went to take charge of him, for they said, "He is out of his mind."...Then Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside they sent someone to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, "Your mother and your brothers are outside looking for you." "Who are my mother and my brothers?" he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, "Here are my mother and brothers! Who does God's will is my brother and sister and mother."

This incident, placed by Mark at the beginning of Jesus' ministry shows his family's unbelief towards him. Given the criterion of embarassment (the tradition would not have kept an embarrassing tradition about Jesus if it was not historical)- and it is embarassing, for Mark had the Jesus' family thinking he was mad- this episode is very probably historical. Indeed I had argued elsewhere that the historicity of this episode proves that the miracles of the virgin birth never happened for how else would one explain Mary's sudden turnaround here.

That this presents a problem for the primacy of James, however, is false. For it is indeed very likely that his family members, who knew of his humble origins, would be skeptical of him at first. Nowhere in Mark is the subsequent history of his family recorded. Thus we are not told in Mark whether his family eventually changed their minds and became believers. [d]

We have evidence that the family of Jesus, indeed, subsequently became believers from other documents in the New Testament. In Acts 1:14 we are told that Jesus' mother and brothers were together with the apostles in Jerusalem immediately after the ascension.

Acts 1:12-14
Then they returned to Jerusalem...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 Alphaues, 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.

Luke thus leaves no time for Mary and Jesus' brothers to be converted after the ascension. Thus the implication here is that the family were already believers before the death of Jesus.[20]

Another passage that is important in our evaluation is taken from Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians:

I Corinthians 15:3-8
For I handed to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

Thus Paul knew from the earliest tradition that James had a "resurrection experience" or a "Jesus sighting". Note that Paul in no way makes the appearance to James any different to that Peter, the twelve or the other disciples. The wording on I Corinthians 15:8-9 above, which described the appearance to Paul, strongly suggests that he intended to present his own experience as something unique and exceptional. This can only mean that to Paul, and Paul alone, the appearance also doubled as a conversion experience. Now if the appearance to James was like those to Peter and the rest, it follows that Paul knew that James was already a believer before the appearance of Jesus to him. [21]

Now let us look at the passage in John.

John 7:1-5
After this Jesus went about in Galilee...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.

The passage immediately raises some questions. Nowhere in the passage or earlier is it shown that Jesus' brothers doubted his capability to do miracles. Indeed it seems implied in the passage that his brothers believed that Jesus could perform miracles ("works"). Furthermore asking Jesus to perform his works public seems hard to square away with the idea that the brothers did not believe in him.

The passage is easier to understand if we take belief in the context above to mean that the brothers did not believe in the Johanine concept of Jesus' relation to the father. Even the Catholic theologian, Raymond E. Brown doubts the historicity of this passage and suggests that a more probable explanation is that it reflects conflicts between the Johanine community and the Jewish Christian Church at the end of the first century. [22]

Indeed the passage above and the one below, show that the tradition available to John point to the fact that the family of Jesus was active during the ministry of Jesus: [23]

John 2:12
After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother, his brothers and his disciples; and they remained there a few days.

Thus while there may have been some skepticism on behalf of Jesus' family at the beginning of his ministry, all indications are they became believers during the time he was alive and travelled with him throughout.

Back to the top


a.Cephas is the semitic form of Peter
b.I am, of course, using the word "ascension" here to mean simply "the end of the resurrection sightings". Jesus' resurrection, as we have seen, is pure fiction.
c.Of course, like the orthodox catholic church, myths, legends and innovations are continously being added to the body of work of heretical churches. Thus it is important to use the sources critically.
d.It is very likely that the community that produced Mark's gospel (probably Rome some time after 70 CE) preserved this tradition because of some hostility towards the leadership of the Jerusalem church which, as we have seen, consisted of relatives of Jesus.


1.Bernheim, James, Brother of Jesus: p191-192
2.Bernheim, op cit: p193-194
Chilton & Neusner (ed), The Brother of Jesus: p31-32
3.Bernheim, op cit: p199-202
Chilton & Neusner (ed): op cit: p32
Eisenman, James, the Brother of Jesus: p157-160
Painter, Just James: p178
4.Chilton & Neusner (ed)op cit: p31
Painter, op cit: p44
5.Bernheim, op cit: p197-198
Chilton & Neusner (ed): op cit: p36
6.Painter, op cit: p114-115
7.Ludemann, Opposition to Paul in Jewish Christianity: p159
Wilken, The Myth of Christian Beginnings: p58-65
8.Ludemann, op cit: p159-161
9.ibid: p161-162
10.ibid: p162
11.ibid: p162-163
12.ibid: p163
Painter, op cit: p114-116
13.Miller (ed), The Complete Gospels: p301-302
Chilton & Neusner op cit: 32-33
14.Eisenman, op cit: p201
Chilton & Neusner op cit: p33
Painter op cit:p162-163
15.Miller (ed) op cit: p427-429
16.Painter op cit:p184-186
17.Ferguson (ed), Encyclopedia of Early Christianity: p964
18.Painter op cit: p190
19.Bernheim op cit: 216-218
Chilton & Neusner op cit: p35-36
Maccoby, The Mythmaker, Paul and the Invention of Christianity: p122-123
20.Chilton & Neusner, op cit: p28-29
21.Bernheim op cit: p97
Chilton & Neusner, op cit: p29
22.Bernheim op cit: p85
23.Painter op cit: p17

Back to the top

[Home] [The Central Thesis] [Christianity] [The Bible] [Jesus] [Paul] [God] [History] [Pascal's Wager] [Bibliography] [Links]
© Paul N. Tobin 2003

For comments and queries, e-mail Paul Tobin
Hosted by