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Early Church History

St. James of Jerusalem

Saint James the Just

One of my Facebook friends, James Knutsen, popped the question:

WHY on his feast day is there no reading appointed at either Office or Eucharist from the canonical NT text traditionally understood to be authored by him (which claim at least some modern critical scholars, e.g. Luke Timothy Johnson consider plausible)??? Seems rather unfair to me not to give the guy a hearing on his day.

And since I’m getting ready to celebrate and preach this evening at St. Paul’s Episcopal in Seattle, (you can check out the sermon on the main website after tonight), here are some thoughts in response.

James: the historical evidence

We don’t have any real physical evidence for James. In 2002, a report of an ossuary (bone box) with reference to “James, the brother of Jesus” was published, but it seems that the general consensus is that, while the box was first century, the inscription was a later forgery. This shouldn’t surprise us. I doubt I could find any credible physical evidence of my paternal grandfather who died in 1956.

What we do have is a fair amount of literary and cultural evidence. There are mentions of a James as the brother of Jesus in Matthew and Mark. He plays a prominent part in Acts, and Paul mentions him in in Galatians and I Corinthians. And then there is that epistle that Jamie mentions, and starts “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Josephus mentions James in the Jewish Antiquities (20.9) and suggests that his martyrdom is one of the causes of the sack of Jerusalem in AD 70. There’s a number of early pseudepigraphal references to James, but probably the most credible early biographical information is found in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, where Eusebius quotes at length from a no-longer-extant second century (ca. 160-170?) set of memoirs compiled by Hegesippus, “about whom very little is known.” (EH 2.23).

It’s worth noting, in response to Jamie’s question, that Eusibius doesn’t think that James of Jerusalem (who might well have referred to himself as “James, the brother of Jesus” in the salutation of the epistle) was the James of the New Testament book.

James: the liturgical celebration

The liturgical celebration James’s martyrdom seems to have gained early traction in the church around Jerusalem. Both Clement of Alexandria and Origin point to it in passing, and by the fourth century, one of the anaphora traditions is given his name (“The liturgy of St. James of Jerusalem” is the major Palestinian and Egyptian form of the Great Thanksgiving). October 23 is pretty much the standard date for the celebration of James’s feast. This continues to now, at least in churches in the Byzantine tradition.

However, the celebration of James of Jerusalem in the west is at best hopelessly muddled and at worst, simply ignored. You’ll find Philip and James (but it’s not really clear which James!) on May 1, but that’s only because it’s part of the consecration festival of the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Rome (and since James the Just wasn’t one of the apostles, we should probably make sure that he doesn’t get celebrated).


If you look at almost all of the episcopal succession lists in Eastern Christianity, you’ll find that they start with James of Jerusalem. Some guy by the name of Peter gets mentioned as someone James consecrates. If you look at the lists in Western Christianity, you find St. Peter, protepiskopos, at the top of the list (consecrated, of course, by some guy named Yeshua bar Yosef, but the consecrator isn’t usually named), and James isn’t even mentioned. If you happen to think that there’s politics at play, I couldn’t possibly comment.

James: playing with the Anglicans

According to Prayer Book Studies XVI, (in 1963)  the Anglican Church in India (probably due to Syriac connections) and South Africa (probably due to Indian connections) incorporated James of Jerusalem in their calendars prior to the US Episcopal proposal. They would have been the first Anglican calendars; James was not in the 1928 or any prior BCPs. In fact, he didn’t even make it into the first calendar proposals for what became the 1979 BCP, Prayer Book Studies IX (of 1957).

PBS XVI used Acts 15 (the same lesson as in Lesser Feasts and Fasts and continued in Holy Women, Holy Men) and Mark 3:31–35 (“who are my brothers”).

So why nothing from the Epistle of James? I’d guess that since we adopted the feast from the Eastern Church, we accepted the Eastern tradition (from at least St. Eusebius of Cesarea, the Historian) that James of Jerusalem didn’t write the epistle, so there’s no need to read from it.

Me? I’m preaching on Luther’s Epistle of Straw. But for only five minutes, so I can’t say much. Stay tuned!

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