Scholars agree that Jesus had brothers (all younger we hope!). In the gospels of Matthew and Mark we find a list of Jesus’ brothers: James, Joseph, Simon and Jude (Matt. 13:55, Mark 6:3). None of these siblings, however, are cited as being followers of Jesus – before his crucifixion. The two James in the group of disciples were, of course, James son of Zebedee and James son of Alphaeus (Matt. 10:2-4).
In fact, Mark gives the impression that most of Jesus’ family thought he was crazy: “Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind,’ (Mark 3:20-21; see also John 7:3-5).
Other than this, we have no indication of Jesus’ brother James being a follower of Jesus during his ministry. This argument from silence is strong because all four gospels refer to those closest to Jesus by name, including his family. So, we can be fairly certain the James the brother of Jesus was not a follower of Jesus during his ministry.
This is interesting. Why? Because after Jesus’ crucifixion, James became a follower of Jesus! The brother who did not follow the crazed messiah-wanna-be who was put to death later became a servant of Jesus. Indeed, very interesting.
Not only did he follow his brother, he became a leader in the early Jesus movement as bishop of the Jerusalem church: Late in the Second Century, Clement of Alexandria wrote, “Peter, James and John, after the Saviors ascension, though preeminently honored by the Lord, did not contend for glory, but made James the Just Bishop of Jerusalem.” That Clement refers to the James the disciple distinguishes James the Just (Jesus’ brother).
Scholars also believe that James the brother of Jesus authored the The Letter of James. In the beginning of this letter James refers to himself as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Further evidence is found in Acts 15 when the apostles gather in Jerusalem with the “elders” and James speaks. This could not be James the disciple since he was put to death earlier (Acts 12:2). Most probable is that it is indeed James the brother of Jesus, the bishop of Jerusalem (see Acts 21:18)!
Paul also witnesses to Jesus’ brother as an early apostle: “I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie,” (Gal. 1:18-20). That James was residing in Jerusalem fits the historical evidence.
So what happened? Why did a non-follower of Jesus become a leader of the early church and refer to himself as a “servant of the Lord Jesus Christ” (as opposed to a scoffer of his crazy brother!)?
Allow me to pause for a moment to gather the reader’s attention: something happened. We cannot be honest historians without surmising that something had to motivate James to become a leader of the early Jesus movement.
Can we speculate further? I believe we can. Evidence provides further clues.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes that Jesus appeared to James after he had risen from the dead (1 Cor. 15:7). This could not have been the James of the disciples because Paul mentions that Jesus appeared to the disciples first, then to James.
Now, let’s ask some logical questions.
(1) Would a non-follower of Jesus experience an illusory vision (for a man he likely did not grieve or miss)?
(2) Would a non-follower of Jesus discern some kind of ‘disembodied spiritual presence’ of the man who was crucified?
(3) Would a non-follower of Jesus suddenly associate himself with the followers of a crucified, would-be messiah? (“would-be” because he was proven to be false by crucifixion)
(4) Would a non-follower of Jesus attempt to experience some kind of spiritualized connection with the crucified Jesus?
(5) Would a non-follower of Jesus refer to the crucified Jesus as “Lord” and “Christ”?
These questions suffice, I believe, to point out how absurd it is to think that a devout Jewish man, who did not follow Jesus, would suddenly become part of a movement whose primary claim was that Jesus of Nazareth has been raised from the dead (Lk 24:7; Jn 21:14; Acts 2:24; 4:1-2; 10:34-43; 13:30-41; Rom. 6:4-9; 1 Cor. 15).
The most logical and supportable explanation is that the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth appeared to his brother James in bodily form. Only this could counteract the fact of Jesus’ bodily death on the cross.
What would James have made of this? As the post below suggests, Judean Jews expected a resurrection of the dead in the new age. For James, then, Jesus' bodily resurrection likely confirmed both God's vindication of his Messiah (Acts 2:22-28) and the in-breaking of the new age.
Is there any evidence that James did, in fact, interpret the resurrection of Jesus in this way? Yes.
Following his Jewish worldview (and all of the surrounding evidence), James considered himself and others to be living in the new age because Jesus had been raised. In his letter James refers to followers of Jesus as "first fruits" (James 1:18; cf. 1 Cor. 15:23). James refers to his contemporary audience as "heirs of the kingdom," (2:5). He also exhorts his sisters and brothers to wait for the "coming of the Lord" (parousia, 5:7), the common expectation of Jesus' literal return. All of this evidence within James' letter suggest that he believed that Jesus was the One whom the Lord had anointed to be Israel's savior.
I began this post by noting that scholars agree that Jesus had brothers, James being one of them. Once this is accepted, however, one is forced to wrestle with a whole lot of strange happenings. Why did James the brother of Jesus decide to follow the man he previously thought to be a lunatic? Why the 180? Where does the evidence point?
Think James may have been an anomaly? Jesus' brother Jude also became a follower!