John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: November 4

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John Kitto Evening Bible Devotions: November 4


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James, the Lord’s Brother

Gal_1:19

If the conclusions which we reached last evening be correct, it seems to follow that “James, the Lord’s brother,” was either the son of Joseph and Mary, or at least the son of Joseph.

But it must not be concealed that there are difficulties standing in the way of this conclusion. This James appears, at least by implication, to have been an apostle; and in the list of the twelve, the two apostles of that name are called respectively the sons of Zebedee and of Alpheus. To meet this it has been suggested that Alpheus was the brother of Joseph, and he having died childless, Joseph, as the law required, espoused the widow, and had by her a child, who was called the son of Alpheus. Thus, “James, the Lord’s brother,” and “James, the son of Alpheus,” would be the same. But this will not bear close examination. It is generally assumed that the mother of this latter James was alive during our Lord’s ministry, and that she appears in the Gospel history under the name of “Mary the mother of James.” Therefore, under the supposition stated, this Mary would have been Joseph’s wife at the time he espoused Mary, the mother of Jesus. But polygamy was not then practiced among the Jews, and it is not probable, even though it had been, that a person in Joseph’s circumstances would have had two wives at the same time. It is very clear, then, that if the two designations are not applicable to the same person, “James, the Lord’s brother,” was not one of the twelve. Those, of course, who say that “brother” means merely a near relation, find no difficulty here, considering that James, the son of Alpheus, is called the Lord’s brother, as being a near relation—his cousin—the son of his mother’s sister. But the notion that even thus degree of relationship, or any relationship, did subsist, rests on a very slender foundation; for it is far from certain that the only text cited in proof of it will bear this meaning. It is that in which the names are given of the women who stood around the cross on which our Lord was crucified—“His and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene,” Joh_19:25. Now, although we know from Mar_15:40, that the mother of James the Less (usually assumed to be James the son of Alpheus, was called Mary, nothing can be built upon the analogy of a name so common as the text just cited shows that of “Mary” to have been. Then it is questionable whether “his mother’s sister,” is to be taken in apposition with “Mary the wife of Cleophas,” and does not rather denote a different person. It seems, indeed, very unlikely that two sisters should bear the same name. Then, again, if this Mary were the sister of our Lord’s mother, it does not follow that James was her son, for James was the son of Alpheus, and “Mary the mother of James,” is never described as the wife of Alpheus, but as “the wife of Cleophas;” and it is not certain that the names Cleophas and Alpheus denote the same person. There are thus two uncertain assumptions in the theory which makes James the son of Alpheus even a relation of our Lord, and therefore, even in the remotest sense, his “brother.”

It claims also to be noticed that several of the early Christian writers distinguish James the son of Alpheus, from James the Lord’s brother; and there are lists of the apostles extant in which the names of Paul, and of James, the Lord’s brother, are added to those of the twelve.

But we are reminded of the passages in the Gospels which assure us that the brethren of Jesus did not believe in him—were not his followers or adherents. This is true; and it tells against the identity of James, the Lord’s brother, with James, the son of Alpheus, who was not only a believer but an apostle. But the “brethren” did not always continue in this state of unbelief. After the ascension of Jesus, we find them, with Mary, in the company of the apostles, awaiting the day of Pentecost. St. Luke, after enumerating the apostles (among whom, as usual, we find “James, the son of Alpheus”), goes on to say, they all continue with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren. This passage, besides showing that the brethren had become believers, expressly distinguishes them from the apostles, of whom the son of Alpheus is one—another reason against his identification with the Lord’s brother.

In the list of the “brethren” of Jesus, given by the Jews of Nazareth, there is one bearing the name of James. Here, then, is literally a James, the Lord’s brother, and he was not likely to have had another brother of the same name. What hinders us from regarding this one as that brother of our Lord with whom Saul became acquainted at Jerusalem? It will instantly be replied, he was not an apostle if other than the son of Alpheus. This is more than we can tell. He was not in that case one of the twelve, it is certain; but he may, nevertheless, have been an apostle. Saul was not one of the twelve, and yet he was an apostle. Barnabas was not one of the twelve, and yet he, with Saul, are called “apostles,” in the same book and by the same writer (Act_14:4; Act_14:14), whose use of the term in application to “James, the Lord’s brother,” is under our consideration. There is, therefore, no argument against his being an apostle from the fact that he was not one of the twelve; nor can there be any from our ignorance of the circumstances under which he was called to the apostolate. The only argument against it that remains to be urged is, the unlikelihood that so recent a convert should so soon be advanced to this high trust. But Saul and Barnabas were still later converts, if, as there is not the least reason to question, James was one of the Lord’s “brethren,” who remained with the apostles awaiting the day of Pentecost.

We should not, however, like to impair the force of the other conclusions, by insisting upon the one which cannot be so firmly established—that this James was an apostle in the fullest and most absolute sense of the word. Paul certainly, and Luke (by implication), call him an apostle; but it seems that certain men, standing next to the apostles in consideration and influence, were popularly called “apostles,” and were distinguished in ecclesiastical history as “apostolical men.” It is possibly in this sense that James is called an apostle, like Barnabas, who was not, as far as we know, officially an apostle.

The results to which all these considerations seem to lead, are—that the persons designated in the Gospels as the “brethren” of Jesus, were really his brothers or half brothers—most probably the latter; that James, who was one of the twelve, being the son of Alpheus, could not, for that and other reasons, be the same as James, the Lord’s brother; and that the James, thus designated, was probably an apostle, though not one of the twelve.

In pursuing this inquiry, we have regarded the number of those bearing the name of James in the New Testament as three, namely, James the son of Zebedee, James the son of Alpheus, and James the Lord’s brother. Some find four or even five, while others reduce them to two, by identifying the son of Alpheus with the Lord’s brother. We have shown that there are reasons against that conclusion. The question will perhaps never be divested of all difficulty. The fact that the names of the sons of Alpheus are so nearly correspondent with three of those earned as our Lord’s “brethren,” has seemed to plead for the identification of James the son of Alpheus with James the Lord’s brother. Thus the sons of Alpheus are stated to be James and Jude; and elsewhere James and Joses are mentioned as the sons of Mary the wife of Alpheus (if the same as Cleophas). So then it would seem the sons of this family were James, Jude, Joses; and these, with the addition of Simon, are exactly the names of those described as our Lord’s brethren. The name of Simon in one group, and not in the other, does, however, create a difference. And considering how exceeding common these names were, and that it was the custom of kindred to bestow similar names on their children, no particular stress can be laid upon this sort of coincidence; and we have, therefore, not taken it into account. Something of the same perplexity arises in reading Josephus, from the frequent recurrence of the same names. Thus we have twenty-one persons of the name of Simon; seventeen called Joseph or Joses; and ten named Judas or Jude—many of them contemporaries. It is not unusual among ourselves for the children of related families to have the same Christian names, and very often the same names run in families for several generations.

Prior to the careful investigation through which the reader has now been led, we rested in the opinion that “James, the son of Alpheus,” and “James, the Lord’s brother,” were the same person. That against this prepossession we have now reached a different conclusion, may be regarded as strengthening its claim to attention.

Apart from all these questions, however, it admits of no doubt that the James who alone appears at Jerusalem after the death of James, the brother of John, is the one whom Paul designates as “the Lord’s brother,” and whom elsewhere he indicates, with Peter and John, as “pillars of the church,” Gal_2:9. If, also, this person—the James whom he personally knew—is, as it is reasonably supposed, the one he always has in view, when he speaks of “James” simply, then we gather from 1Co_15:7, that the Lord appeared to him only eight days after his resurrection. We know not the circumstances; but it is reasonable to presume that this mark of distinction shown him, and what was known to the apostles as having transpired on that occasion, not only decided his own views, but contributed materially to the high consideration in which he was afterwards held. The only other scriptural fact concerning him is, that, at the council of the apostles held at Jerusalem, his decision on the questions considered is the only one recorded, and the conclusions of the council were framed in accordance with it. It is to be noted, also, that he gave his vote last—probably as being president of the council—a station which may have been assigned to him as specially entrusted with the charge of the church in Jerusalem, where the council was held (Act_15:12-13). His decision shows that, although himself a strict observer of the law, and disposed to exact the same observance from Jewish converts, he was not inclined to impose this yoke upon the converts from heathenism.

This is the amount of our authentic information concerning James. But much more is said of him by early Christian writers, who agree in recognizing the James who was bishop at Jerusalem as “James, the Lord’s brother.” Some of this information, embodying the early traditions of the church, is probable enough, some of it questionable, and some of it contradictory. The sum of it is this—for we cannot here enter into particulars, or discriminate their claims to consideration—James was from his childhood brought up as a Nazarite of the strictest sort. He observed this kind of life after he became a conspicuous person at Jerusalem; and this, with his strict observance of the law, and his high character, obtained for him great respect, even from the Jews, so that he acquired the surname of “the Just.” The rapid progress of the Gospel in the city, however, under his administration, at length aroused the attention of the chief persons among the ruling party, and induced the high priest, Ananias, to devise his death. He was, therefore, by this pontiff’s contrivance, suddenly cast down from one of the galleries of the temple. But he died not of the fall; and began, like another Stephen, to pray for his murderers, when Ananias directed that stones should be cast at him; and he was at length killed by a blow on the head from a fuller’s pole.

It is added that Ananias took advantage of the opportunity when there was no Roman governor in the land, Felix having been recalled, and his successor, Albinus, not having yet arrived. But we are told that this atrocious deed was greatly disapproved, and much lamented by the wisest of the Jews, whose complaints to the governor, when be arrived, procured the deposition of Ananias. We are also assured, on the authority of a doubtful passage, cited by Eusebius, from Josephus, that the Jews imputed to the death of this just man the calamities they soon after suffered from the hands of the Romans.

It is generally considered that this James—that is, the James who was bishop at Jerusalem—is the one who wrote the Epistle of James. Its contents have been shown, by Neander and others, to be conformable to the character and position ascribed to him; and commentators have not failed to remark the humbleness with which the writer abstains from denoting his claims as “the Lord’s brother,” and simply superscribes himself—“James, the servant of God, and of the Lord Jesus Christ.