James, The Leader of the Jerusalem ChurchWe 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.
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.
Both apologetic explanations are wrong, as we shall see below.
Back to the top
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: 
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:
Further on, Paul recounted his dispute at Antioch with Peter:
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. 
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:
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:
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. 
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." 
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
Let us begin by looking at Eusebius' citations for James' ascension to the leadership of the Jerusalem Church:
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. 
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:
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. 
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:
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". 
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.
When we look at other passages, however, we see clear cut evidence of redactional activity.
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. 
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
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. 
What is of interest to us is logion 12 of the gospel:
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".
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. 
The passage we are interested in was cited by Jerome in his book On Famous Men (392), chapter 2:
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. 
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. 
Thus we find evidence of James supremacy in the introduction of the Epistle of Clement to James: 
In the Recognitions we find the supremacy of James to the twelve alluded to many times. One example:
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
Thus we can conclude, with some certainty, that based on our study of primary sources, that:
Back to the top
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:
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. 
Back to the top
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.
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.
Another passage that is important in our evaluation is taken from Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians:
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. 
Now let us look at the passage in John.
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. 
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: 
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
Back to the top