James’ Relationship to Jesus
Although James is severally referred to as the “brother of Jesus”, “the Lord’s brother”, “brother of God” and so on, the exact relationship between the two may never be known. Assessing the actual relationship between the two has been made even more complicated because of the Christian conviction in the continued virginity of Mary. This belief, though not explicit, has been insinuated in the canonical New Testament. It was because of this conviction it was believed that
Mary could not have had any children after Jesus.
There have been several conjectures as to the probable relationship between Jesus and James (1)
Was He a Full Brother of Jesus?
According to the Mosaic Law Jewish couples were advised to be fruitful. Joseph and Mary being devout Jews would have been expected to follow Jewish tradition. Based on this hypothesis some scholars contend that the four brothers mentioned in Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3 are the full brothers of Jesus. This line of reasoning also insinuates that Jesus was in fact the biological son of Joseph and not the result of a miraculous conception. (2)
Matthew, Mark, Paul, Josephus, and Hegesippus are all of the opinion that James was a full brother of Jesus. Many modern scholars are also of the same opinion. (3)
In the Second Apocalypse Jesus refers to James as “my brother” (50.16-17). This Gnostic understanding was further reinforced in James’ account “my mother said to me, “Do not be frightened, my son, because he said “my brother to you [singular]. For you [plural] were nourished with this same milk. Because of this he calls me ‘My mother’. For he is not a stranger to us. He is your […]” (50.15-22). (4)
Painter’s interpretation of this reading was that James was not the actual brother of Jesus nor was the mother of James also the mother of Jesus.
Jesus calls Mary his mother and James his brother merely because they were nourished with the same milk.
Painter drew three conclusions on the basis of Mary’s explanation to James:
“1) The mother of James also fed Jesus with her own milk, leaving no room for the theory that James was the child of Joseph by a first marriage while Jesus was the child of Mary. That the one who fed both Jesus and James was actually the mother of James is not in question here.
2) There is no room for the view that James was a cousin of Jesus.
3) The apparent mother was not actually his mother. There is no suggestion that some other woman was his mother. Rather, what the saying does is put in question that Jesus had any earthly mother at all.” Just James: The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition, John Painter
This reasoning was reinforced by what Jesus tells James “I have called you my brother although you are not my brother materially.” First Apocalypse (V.24.14 – 15). (5)
However, when Mary referred to “this same milk” she was probably referring to herself. If she had meant the milk of another woman she would have probably just said “the same milk”. This therefore does not rule out the possibility that the age difference between James and Jesus was not much and that she had nursed them both.
He Was Not a Full Brother
Another theory by the proponents of the virginal birth of Jesus believe that Joseph and Mary lived as a sexually active couple after the birth of Jesus and therefore the siblings purported to be the siblings of Jesus were his co-uterine siblings. This they believed was confirmed by Matthew in 1:25. (6).
According to James Tabor Jesus was the result of a premarital relationship between Mary and (the Roman soldier) Panthera. After Joseph adopted Jesus he died issueless. Mary later married Joseph’s brother Clopas according to the Levirate law and fathered James and the other siblings. (7)
Christians of the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox traditions, as well as some Anglicans and followers of Lutheranism, reject the idea that Jesus had blood siblings, as their churches hold the doctrine of the Virgin Mary’s Perpetual Virginity. However in accordance with Hebrew and Aramaic traditions it was customary to refer to blood relatives as brothers and sisters. This was the reason why the supposed brothers of Jesus were referred to by some as “the brothers of Jesus” and not as the “sons of the Mother of Jesus.” (8)
The official Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox doctrine is that Mary was a perpetual virgin; this view is also held by many of the early Protestants, including Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, as well as John Wesley, the 18th century Methodist leader. Indeed, the majority of early Christians seemed to have left this doctrine completely unquestioned. The Roman Catholic Church, following Jerome the Roman Christian priest, confessor, theologian and historian, concluded that the adelphoi were Jesus’ cousins, but the Eastern Orthodox, following Eusebius and Epiphanius, argued that they were Joseph’s children by his (unrecorded) first wife. (9)
Did Jesus Have Step Brothers and Sisters?
Those who advocate the continued virginity of Mary contended that James and the others could not have been full brothers and sisters and they were the products of Joseph’s earlier marriage. This contention was based on the apocryphal Gospel of James from the second century. This reasoning had the support of the Eastern Orthodox Church and some among the Roman Catholics. However according to the writings of Jerome and Augustine Joseph was not married prior to his marriage to Mary and that the brothers and sisters of Jesus were in fact his cousins.
After the passing away of the apostles, when Epiphanius spoke of James, he referred to him as the first bishop of Jerusalem; he also spoke of his relationship to Joseph and Mary. He elaborates that James although called the “Lord’s brother” was a son of Joseph together with brothers and sisters, by a previous marriage. This view was popular in the East (66.19.7 – 66.20.1). It was because of this relationship that Jesus referred to them as his brothers and sisters. (10)
Was James the Cousin of Jesus?
Jerome argued in his De Viris Illustribus, that James was not a full-brother of Jesus but only a cousin. He contended that James was the son of Mary of Cleophas who was the sister of Mary the mother of Jesus. Besides this, as both Aramaic and Hebrew did not have a word for cousin, cousins were traditionally referred to as siblings. Even in Greek, which was often the language of early Christian literature, the words adelphos and adelphe were not limited to refer to full brothers and sisters. As regards the Catholic Church, it preferred to believe that James and the others were the cousins of Jesus rather than his half-brothers and sisters. Some scholars proposed that James and the others were neither cousins nor step-brothers and sisters but related in some other way.
Is James the eldest or youngest?
The other controversy in the relationship between Jesus and James is whether he was the oldest or the youngest of the purported siblings. Since James was always listed first among the “brothers” in Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3 it was generally understood that James was the eldest. But not everyone agrees. The majority Catholic opinion is that Joseph was many years older than Mary and was a widower with six children – two girls and four boys. Four of those children were already married by the time Joseph took Mary to his house. Only James was a little boy and “Mary took care of James and raised him with Jesus.” (11). This theory seemed the most plausible considering the closeness between Jesus and James.
There is more evidence to suggest that James was the youngest of the four brothers. In the Nag Hammadi Library James is quoted as saying “Once when I [James] was sitting deliberating, he opened the door. That one whom you hated and persecuted came in to me. He said to me, “Hail my brother; my brother, hail.” And from the explanation of Mary, who was present there, we can reasonably conclude that if Mary had nursed both James and Jesus and if indeed James was the step brother of Jesus, he was surely the youngest of the four. (12)
Again in support of this claim is this passage from Luke “Then the priests answered, and said to my blessed mother: Go with Joseph, and be with him till the time of your marriage. Righteous Joseph therefore received my mother, and led her away to his own house. And Mary found James the Less in his father’s house, broken-hearted and sad on account of the loss of his mother, and she brought him up. Hence Mary was called the mother of James” Luke 24:10. (13)
In the Protevangelium of James – a document so called because of its content and the purported author is James himself – identifies James as Joseph’s son by an earlier marriage. This view took a back seat having been rejected by Jerome.
However early artistic depiction of the flight of Joseph and Mary into Egypt in the murals in the crypt of the Benedictine Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem and the refractory of a Jericho monastery, show Mary riding on an ass carrying baby Jesus in her arms and James leading the animal and Joseph walking just behind. (14)
Another piece of artistic evidence that may support the argument that James was the youngest of his step brothers is a painting in an ancient Greek Orthodox monastery set in the wilderness of the Judean desert where the surroundings were as they would have been during the time of Jesus. It is a painting of the holy family. However the peculiarity of this painting is that it shows four figures – all with a golden hallow. Three of these figures are immediately evident – Jesus on the shoulder of Joseph and Mary riding a little behind them. The uniqueness of this painting is the presence of a fourth figure carrying his possessions on a stick. This figure is that of James who was evidently only a few years older than Jesus. (15) (See fig. 1)
(Fig 1) A family affair: the painting shows Jesus on the shoulder of Joseph, followed by Mary and, behind her, what is now claimed to be Jesus’ brother, James
By the time Mary went to Joseph’s house two of his sons and two of his daughters by his marriage to Salome were married and stayed separately and Judas was old enough to go along with his father to Sepphoris to assist him in his carpentry work. Therefore the fourth figure in the painting can be none other than James.
Please also read my other blogs:
James The Just – What Was He To Jesus? at 99
When Did James The Brother Of Jesus Become A Disciple? at
Death Of James The Brother Of Jesus at
Consequence Of The Death Of The Brother Of Jesus at
A Better Understanding Of What We Believe at
(1) James the Just. (2012). Retrieved 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_the_Just
(2) James the Just. (2012). Retrieved 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_the_Just
(3) James the Just. (n.d.). Retrieved 2011, from http://www.gospel-mysteries.net/james-the-just.html
(4) Painter, John. (2004). Just James, The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition. Columbia. University of South Carolina Press, pg 175.
(5) Painter, John. (2004). Just James, The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition. Columbia. University of South Carolina Press, pg 175.
(6) Ward, Dan Sewell. (2010). The Mother of All Family Trees. Retrieved 2011, from http://www.halexandria.org/dward933.htm
(7) James the Just. (2012). Retrieved 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_the_Just
(8) Desposyni. (2012). Retrieved 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desposyni
(9) Desposyni. (2012). Retrieved 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desposyni
(10) Painter, John. (2004). Just James, The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition. Columbia. University of South Carolina Press, pg 209
(11) Christian Forums. (2002). Retrieved 2011, from http://www.christianforums.com/t4174785-6/
http://www.christianforums.com/threads/mary.4174785/page-3 retrieved 02-09-2015
(12) Nag Hammadi Library hilites. (n.d.). Retrieved (2011), http://sites.google.com/site/jesusgnosisorg/nag-hammadi-library-hilites
(13) History of Joseph the Carpenter. (2012). Retrieved 2012, from http://www.facebook.com/pages/History-of-Joseph-the-Carpenter/244801258866310?sk=wiki
(14) Just James, The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition. Columbia. University of South Press, pg 199)
(15) Leafe, David. (2006). Did Jesus have a secret family? Retrieved 2011, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-424435/Did-Jesus-secret-family.html
Picture Credits: Portrait of the Holy Family plus James
(Fig 1) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-424435/Did-Jesus-secret-family.html
And http://www.northernway.org/weblog/?p=3 retrieved Oct 2015