Who Was James?
James the Just, the brother of our Lord, figures in Acts 15 at what is called the “Jerusalem Council.” He emerges there as a leading figure, indeed, providing the counsel that led to the wording of the letter sent to the Gentile churches, wording that would bring healing and refreshment to them (15:31). Eusebius, writing in his Church History in the fourth century, tells us that James had risen to Bishop in the Jerusalem church and writes of his martyrdom upon the man’s public declaration of faith “that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, our Savior and Lord.” Eusebius goes on: “Unable to bear any longer his testimony, who, on account of his elevated virtue and piety, was deemed the most just of men, they seized the opportunity of licentiousness afforded by the prevailing anarchy and slew him…He was thrown from a wing of the temple and beaten to death with a club.” Eusebius further cites an early Christian witness, Hegesippus, who testifies that James was in such a habit for prayer for the forgiveness of the people “that his knees became as hard as a camel’s” (2:23). Such was the godliness of the first bishop of Jerusalem—James the Just, brother of the Lord.
When James came to saving faith, we do not know, for we are told in John 7:5 that “not even his brothers believed in him.” And as they would not even stand with their mother in her greatest agony at the foot of the cross we might wonder about some hostility. But whatever the case was before our Lord’s resurrection, matters were completely reversed shortly thereafter as James appears not only in both biblical and extra-biblical records as a believer, but as a leader approaching the same status as the original members of the apostolic band. And his status was not given him on account of his being half-brother of our Lord but his being a righteous, holy, and just man. And this epistle he wrote manifests those very concerns. What is James’ overriding subject throughout his letter to the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion” but righteous deeds that prove one’s faith, being a doer of the word, dealing justly by showing no partiality to rich or poor, taming the tongue, despising worldliness, exalting humility, and always manifesting patience in suffering. His is a practical letter but a practicality grounded in the grace of God as believers live and persevere in the “perfect law of liberty” (1:25). There’s no contradiction in James’ letter with Paul or anyone else in the entire New Testament; this is pure gospel—the gospel that frees one from sin and liberates him to purity and justice.