Posted by: Fr Chris | October 23, 2010

The Brother of God

Today, October 23, is the feast of Saint James, who the Eastern Churches accord the title ‘Brother of the Lord’ or ‘Brother of God’ while maintaining the perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. How do you reconcile these?

First off, “brother” in Syriac languages means simply a male relative. One finds this in old Slavic languages also, still in use today, as one friend of mine in Ukraine introduced his brother to me, although I knew he had only one brother. Indeed, this was a cousin in English terms.

But why continue to keep the name ‘brother of God’ for James? It says a lot more about him than his family relationship to Jesus. For one, he was nicknamed “the Just One” , and the Jewish Christian tradition from the ancient Church was that his knees were callous and rugged from the great amount of time he spent kneeling. Kneeling prayer in the East is penitential prayer, and though James enjoyed a close intimate relationship with Jesus (he is the James from the little group of Peter, James and John who are with Jesus at the Transfiguration and in the Garden of the Agony), he knew he had to become holy.  Relationship wasn’t the key to salvation: prayer was.

He was also nicknamed James “the Less”, not because he was less of a saint but because he was shorter than the other James, who has the title “the Great” — quite unfair to both of them I think, to keep those Old English names as their titles, but I guess no one wants to call a saint James the Short. James the Great, by the way, is the brother of St John the Beloved. Notice that despite their family closeness, the older James is not part of the little trio of closest friends of Jesus, but his younger brother John is indeed one of Jesus’ closest disciples. Family was everything in first-century Judaism, but familial ties did not make either of these James a beloved figure: it was their individual holiness.

He was also the bishop of Jerusalem, the first one.  Josephus writes that James was deeply loved by the populace of Jerusalem, but in the year 62 there was a lapse in Roman rule. The high priest, Ananus ben Ananus, was himself also a popular figure, but he used this short break in Roman governors to arrange for James’ death by stoning; one tradition has it that James was taken to the roof of the Temple and thrown down when he refused to abjure his belief in Christ’s resurrection and divinity.  It is a long-standing Jerusalem tradition that the failure of the Zealot Revolt and the destruction of the holy city in the year 70 was due to God’s anger at the killing of James the Just.

It is thought today that James was part of the Christian faction which was known as the Jewish Christians, who kept the Mosaic law for themselves, and tried to impose it on converts. The Jewish Christian tradition splintered, but the orthodox community which held to authentic Christian teachings remained based at Nazareth, among Jesus’ relatives, and in Jerusalem.

Today, James is the patron of a new community of Jewish and Hebrew-speaking Catholics, the Work of St James, in modern Israel. These Catholics are Jewish converts, Catholic relatives of Jews who emigrated to Israel, and Hebrew speakers of Arab or foreign origin. It is a fascinating community, with a multi-lingual  website: . Click on your language and be prepared to enjoy a wealth of information and intriguing personal stories.  These spiritual descendants of James, the Brother of God, merit our interest, our prayers, and our attention – they are,  for me, the best leaders for Jewish-Catholic dialogue today.


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