James the Just was the oldest brother of Jesus and one of the leaders of the early Christian community in Jerusalem. He was also known as James the Righteous. Both words, "just" and "righteous", refer to his honesty, piety and strict ascetic practices. Because of his importance in the early church, a letter attributed to him was included in the New Testament as the Epistle of James. But his leadership role put him in jeopardy during periods of persecution, and he was eventually put to death in Jerusalem in 62 AD.
The gospels first mention James in Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3, where he is listed along with three other brothers of Jesus and some un-named sisters. According to John 7:5, James and the other brothers initially didn't approve of Jesus' ministry. But they did become followers later, and were members of the early community of believers who lived in Jerusalem after Jesus departed.
James and the other early believers in Jerusalem still regarded themselves as Jews. They worshiped regularly in the main Jewish Temple, and they continued to adhere to the old Jewish religious laws. Outsiders regarded them as a new Jewish sect and called them Nazarenes, a name of uncertain origin.
After Paul began to convert non-Jews to the faith, a dispute arose over whether these new converts had to follow the old Jewish religious laws, and in particular whether the males needed to be circumcised. At some point, possibly in 48 AD, Paul traveled to Jerusalem to try to resolve the issue. According to Acts 15:19, it was James who made the final decision. This was a compromise that allowed new male converts to remain uncircumcised, but required them to adhere to certain other traditional Jewish laws. The fact that James made the final decision indicates that at this time he was the highest authority in the existing Christian community.
Further evidence for the importance of his role is found in the Gospel of Thomas. According to Saying 12 of this gospel, the disciples said to Jesus:
"We are aware that you will depart from us. Who will be our leader?"
Jesus answered: "No matter where you come from, it is to James the Just that you shall go, for whose sake heaven and earth have come to exist."
This passage indicates that Jesus designated James to take over the leadership of the community after he departed. Although the Gospel of Thomas isn't part of the New Testament, many scholars believe that it contains some authentic sayings of Jesus.
But the overall leadership gradually shifted from James to Paul. This happened because the number of converts in other cities grew rapidly, and soon far outnumbered the members of the original group in Jerusalem. Paul founded many of the new churches and remained in contact with their members, whereas James stayed in Jerusalem and had little communication with converts in other areas. Naturally these new converts tended to look to Paul, not James, for leadership. Even so, James was still regarded as an important leader at the time of his death in 62 AD.
Some biblical scholars suspect that later Christians intentionally downplayed the role of James in the early Christian movement. Wanting to emphasize their independence from Judaism, and aware that he adhered to the old Jewish religious practices, they may have tried to minimize his importance.
The most complete description of James the Just is found in Saint Jerome's De Viris Illustribus, which quotes from the fifth book of Hegesippus' lost Commentaries:
After the apostles, James the brother of the Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem. Many indeed are called James. This one was holy from his mother's womb. He drank neither wine nor strong drink, ate no flesh, never shaved or anointed himself with ointment or bathed. He alone had the privilege of entering the Holy of Holies, since indeed he did not use woolen vestments but linen and went alone into the temple and prayed in behalf of the people, insomuch that his knees were reputed to have acquired the hardness of camels' knees.
Although some parts of this passage may not be accurate, it does confirm the idea that James was called the Just because of his piety and ascetic lifestyle.
James died in 62 AD, apparently as a result of conflicts with the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. According to the historian Josephus, a Jewish council condemned him "on the charge of breaking the law," then had him executed by stoning. Josephus says that this action was very unpopular with many of the citizens of Jerusalem, and that many of them viewed it as a political murder.
Another account of James' death was reported by Eusebius. It says that the Pharisees, upset by his teachings, threw him from the summit of the Temple, stoned him, then broke his skull with a fuller's club.
According to church tradition, James was the author of the New Testament Epistle of James. But because this letter is written in fluent Greek, some scholars doubt that a native Aramaic speaker like James could have written it. However, other scholars contend that someone else could have helped James write it, or that it could be a translation of what he said. Supporting this opinion is the fact that the letter seems to reveal an authoritative leader based in Palestine, and many of the views expressed in it appear to differ from those of Paul. If this letter does come directly from James, it could be one of the earliest known Christian writings, and possibly the only one written by someone who knew Jesus personally.
Another ancient writing associated with James is the Secret Gospel of James, which is also called the Apocryphon of James ("apocryphon" is Greek for "secret book"). This work is called a secret gospel because it claims to contain secret revelations which Jesus made to James after the resurrection. Most scholars believe that it is a mostly fictional work written by an unknown person who used James' name to try to give it legitimacy. Because ancient church officials doubted its authenticity, it was excluded from the New Testament.
Some Christians think that James was actually a step-brother of Jesus, or possibly only a cousin, because they believe that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life and therefore couldn't have given birth to any children except Jesus. But Matthew, Mark, Paul, Josephus, and Hegesippus all appear to say that James was a full brother, and most modern scholars have reached the same conclusion.
In 2002 Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne University in Paris reported that an ancient ossuary bearing the inscription Ya aqov bar Yosef akhui Yeshua ("James son of Joseph brother of Jesus") had been discovered in Israel. An ossuary is a stone box which Jews of the New Testament period used as a storage vessel for the bones of dead relatives. Although James, Joseph, and Jesus were all common names of the period, some people believed that the inscription on this ossuary indicated that it had held the bones of James the Just. But the Israeli Antiquities Authority soon concluded that the inscription is a modern forgery. Several people were arrested, and some forgery equipment and partially completed forgeries were recovered.
Note: For more discussion of this subject , go to this page about James the Just.