By Frank Morison
With one single exception, which I shall deal with later, there is nothing in the whole of this strange story that impresses me so profoundly as the part played by the individual known to the ancient church as James, the Lord's brother, or, alternatively, as James the Just.
For our knowledge of this man we are not entirely dependent on sources favorable to the Christian faith. Like Pilate and certain outstanding personalities of the early Christian era, he is mentioned by Josephus, a writer notoriously contemptuous of the whole movement. Moreover, some independent details are given by Hegesippus, the father of church history, in some fragments preserved by Eusebius.
It will be convenient if we trace his record backwards, beginning with the famous paragraph in which Josephus describes his death. The passage from Josephus is as follows:
Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he (Ananus, the high priest) assembled the Sanhedrin of judges and brought before them the brother of Jesus who was called Christ; whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.
The year in which this occurred was AD. 62, when events were driving hard towards that fatal insurrection that was to bring Titus and his armies to the walls of Jerusalem. The passage, brief as it is, tells us clearly two things. First, that James was widely known as the "brother of Jesus." Second, that he suffered martyrdom for his adhesion to the Cause. Thus the two most significant facts about him are guaranteed by no less an authority than Josephus himself.
The first date that attracts our attention as we glance backwards over the span of this man's life is approximately five years earlier, AD. 57. Paul was visiting Jerusalem for what proved to be the last time. He had sailed with Luke and possibly certain others from Troas to Caesarea, where he picked up Mnason of Cyprus and journeyed thence to the great city. Luke tells the story in Acts 21 with some fullness, for he was an eyewitness, and this is one of the 'we' sections. Then in the midst of the description comes this passage:
And when we were come to Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. And the day following Paul went in with us unto James; and all the elders were present. And when he had saluted them, he rehearsed one by one the things which God had wrought among the Gentiles by his ministry (Acts 21:17-19).
The phrase "he went in unto James, and the elders were present" confirms what we know from other sources, viz., that at this particular time James was the dominant figure of the Christian movement in Jerusalem. He had risen to become head of the resident mother church. His authority was far-reaching and paramount. It was to him, as representing Christianity at the very cradle of its inception, that Paul went to report on his mission.
The impression thus obtained is confirmed and enriched by new details when we go back another seven years to A.D. 50. Here we get a far clearer picture of James than we do anywhere else. It was the occasion of the famous Council of Jerusalem, called to consider and decide upon the most momentous question of policy the young movement had then been called upon to face. The campaign to the Gentiles, so energetically pursued by Paul and others, with Syrian Antioch as its headquarters, was making headway tremendous headway in some directions but the peculiarly Jewish rites imposed by the Mosaic Law, and especially the rite of circumcision, was a grievous stumbling block to many foreign converts.
It was to remove this stumbling block that a deputation consisting of Paul and Barnabas was sent from the Antiochian community to Jerusalem. They were received with every mark of affection and esteem, and after Peter had spoken in marked favor of the visitors' point of view, we find James giving what is clearly the casting and presidential vote.
Brethren, hearken unto me: Symeon hath rehearsed how first God did visit the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. And to this agree the words of the prophets. Wherefore my judgment is, that we trouble not them which from among the Gentiles turn to God; but that we write unto them, that they abstain from the pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from what is strangled, and from blood. For Moses from generations of old hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath. Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men out of their company, and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:1322).
It is necessary to go back another six years to AD. 44 to read the next outstanding reference to James. It arose out of the second imprisonment of Peter. The young community was passing through dark and perilous days. Peter, as the chief spokesman of the party, was always in some personal danger, and for the second time he was apprehended and thrown into prison. By supernatural intervention, he escaped in the middle of the night. Apparently realizing that it would be perilous, both for himself and for his friends, to join them openly, he made his way unobtrusively to the house of John Mark.
How, when Peter knocked, the inmates were too terrified to respond until the girl Rhoda recognized Peter's voice, is familiar to all readers of the Acts, but the significant sentence for our present purpose is in the message Peter left before disappearing again into the night.
Tell these things unto James, and to the brethren (Acts 12:17).
Clearly James, in the absence of Peter himself, was the predominant figure and the leader-designate of the party.
There is still one earlier and famous reference to James by name, this time in a quite independent document, the letter written by Paul from Antioch. The event to which it refers occurred in A.D. 36.
Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and tarried with him fifteen days. But other of the apostles saw none, save James the Lord's brother (Gal. 1:18,19).
Thus as early as AD. 36 this man James was a prominent figure in the early community, sharing with Peter (and as Galatians 2:9 shows, with John) the leadership of the party.
How did it come about that this man, whose coldness and even hostility toward Christ during the living ministry is written plainly in the earliest record-whose whole training and sympathies led him to incline towards the official and priestly view is found in the inner circle and councils of the Christians? I ask that question not with any intent to score an empty point, but because the fact itself is so conspicuously challenging and amazing. One would have expected to find James anywhere but in the deluded circle of the Nazarenes.
It is understandable enough that Luke and the writers of the later Gospels, having the manifest fidelity of James before their eyes, should have softened down the many current stories of the earlier hostility of the brethren of Jesus. No well-disposed and friendly person willingly rakes up old scores when the wounds themselves are healing. But the primitive Gospel of Mark leaves us in no doubt that this hostility existed, and there are certain notable sayings among the recorded utterances of Christ that must have been occasioned by it.
The witness of Mark concerning this matter is definite and circumstantial. It would seem that at the time when Jesus emerged from obscurity into the fierce light of His public ministry Joseph was already dead. We hear nothing of him whatever. It is the mother of Jesus and "his brethren" who periodically come into the picture. If there were a scintilla of evidence that any real bond of sympathy existed between these brothers and the revolutionary genius of Christ if there were even an indication of that spirit of hero-worship with which younger members of a family sometimes regard the outstanding gifts and achievements of a brilliant elder brother we could understand in some measure what happened in later years.
But of this there is not a trace. Such evidence as exists is wholly and uncompromisingly against it. There are two passages in the third chapter of Mark that have to be read together if we are to get their meaning, for they are both part of one episode:
And he cometh into a house. And the multitude cometh together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread. And when his friends heard it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself (vv. 20,21). And there come his mother and his brethren; and, standing without, they sent unto him, calling him. And a multitude was sifting about him; and they say unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee. And he answereth them, and saith, Who is my mother and my brethren? (vv. 31-33).
It seems obvious from a careful reading of this chapter that the "friends" of Jesus referred to in the earlier quotation were His relatives, and that the whole object of their coming to the door of the house and calling was to get Him away. The explanation given is that in their view He was "beside Himself" or, as we should put it today, that His mind was unhinged.
That this was the meaning of Mark is, I think, clear, and the studied and even scornful disregard of their appeal by Christ endorses it.
And looking round on them which sat round about him, he saith, Behold, my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of Cod, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother (vv. 34,35).
This, however, is not the only occasion when a marked coldness and antipathy between Jesus and His family comes out. Three chapters later Mark records what is surely a historic recollection of an uneffaceable incident in the personal life of Jesus. Sooner or later, in the course of His preaching tours in Galilee, He was bound to come to Nazareth. When He came and preached in the village synagogue, He was openly discredited.
And when the sabbath was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, Whence bath this man these things? and, What is the wisdom that is given unto this man, and what means such mighty works wrought by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and loses, and Judas, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended in him (Mark 6:2,3).
The reply Jesus then made has resounded since throughout the world:
And Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house (v. 4).
The words I have rendered in italics are peculiar. They occur only in Mark. Why did Matthew soften this passage by omitting these particular words altogether? Why did Luke go still further and omit the reference even to His own house? Luke especially usually has a reason for his literary emendations. Is not the most likely reason that the revered and deeply respected James was still alive or that his memory was too fresh to warrant a needless stab at his early unbelief?
How does all this strike you? What is it about the death of Jesus that brought such curiously dissimilar people into the narrow pathway that led to persecution, humiliation, and often a tortured death? Why did so many normal yet diverse people, shortly after the great Tragedy, swing over and become utterly convinced that Jesus had risen from the grave?
It is easy to invent reasons why a man here or a woman there might have come under the spell of this extraordinary delusion. But the present case is different. In all this strange business of the cumulative conversion of so many diverse and contrasted minds, there is a sense of something lurking in the background some silent but unanswerable fact that brooked neither challenge nor mental doubt.
I have brought forward the case of this man James, not because he is central or even necessary to the argument, but, in a sense, because he is not. The miracle of the conversion of the disciples would still remain a miracle, though no hint had survived concerning the attitude of James. He was out ''de the original circle of the apostles and their friends. He could have had few, if any, illusions concerning his own brother. He stood just sufficiently far apart to be an impartial witness, and yet so near to Christ that, had the priests been able to command his allegiance, his influence alone might have changed the face of history. But they could not, and they slew him in the end.
It is said that the Christians inscribed on his monument the words "He hath been a true witness both to Jews and Greeks that Jesus is Christ." Having regard to who he was, we might almost say his testimony is unique. It would have been unique had his experience not been eclipsed utterly by that other and even greater hostile witness, who came from Tarsus, and whose name was Saul.