October 23 is the feast day of James, the brother of Jesus. To learn about his life, we have to put together several clues from the New Testament.
Matthew 13:55 has residents of Nazareth, Jesus’ home town, exclaiming in wonder, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers? This is the carpenter’s son, surely? In not his mother the woman called Mary, and his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Jude?” (Jerusalem Bible translation)
John 7:2-5 says that “Not even his brothers, in fact, had faith in him.” Hebrew and Aramaic have no separate word for “cousin,” but use the same word to refer to both brothers and cousins, so this reference is not very precise, but it has traditionally been held that James did not believe in Jesus until after the Resurrection.
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 15:5-8, recounts post-Resurrection appearances to Peter (“Cephas” in Greek), to the twelve apostles, then to five hundred more, then to James.
In the Acts of the Apostles, 12:17, Peter, having miraculously escaped from jail, leaves a message for “James and the brothers.”
Later in the Acts of the Apostles, 15:13 ff., when a theological controversy arises in Jerusalem, James appears to be in charge and he formulates the official decision of the church council.
In his letter to the Galatians, 2:9, Paul describes a visit to Jerusalem where he met with James, Peter, and John, “these pillars [of the church].”
During Paul’s final visit to Jerusalem, he is described (Acts 21:18) as visiting “James, and all the elders were present.”
The contemporary Jewish historian Josephus describes James as “the brother of the so-called Christ” and says that he was much respected for his piety. James was reportedly killed by stoning in A.D. 62 or 63.
In 2002 it was reported that an ossuary (a stone box used for storing bones) had been found with the inscription in Aramaic, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” If genuine, this artifact could be a contemporary physical witness to the life and death of James.
After James’ death, the church in Jerusalem watched with concern as Jewish rebels risked more and more open conflict with occupying Roman troops. Finally, following warnings that Jesus had given, the Christian church left Jerusalem in time to avoid the total destruction of the city by Rome in 70 A.D.
James presided over a significant controversy in the early church about whether new Christians needed to first become Jews (final answer: no). This is reflected in the following prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, who set your brother James on the throne of Your church in Jerusalem: Grant that as he continually interceded for the sins of your people, and worked to reconcile in one body both Jew and Gentile; so your Church may give itself continually to prayer and to the reconciliation of all who are at variance and enmity, and may ever be an effectual witness for the salvation of all mankind. Grant this, O Son of Man, who are on the right hand of the Father, in the unity of the Spirit, now and ever. Amen!