As the story goes, when Mary was visited by an angel who told her she would conceive and give birth to great man who she would call Jesus, though she had never known a man, she was thoughtful, questioning and even troubled, but said she was willing. (Luke 1:26-35)
When she visited her cousin, Elizabeth, at the angel’s direction, and what the angel said was corroborated, Mary was thankful and happy. (Luke 1:39-47) She believed what the angel told her and gave thanks to God, but that is a mother’s response. Right? Siblings and strangers are a different matter.
On the subject of claims about Jesus, skepticism has always existed. We even find it in the narratives of the four Gospels, themselves. The Bible is candid that way.
The Pharisees and Sadducees (the Jewish religious leaders of the day) largely did not believe the claims of Jesus. Most of the Romans certainly didn’t believe them. Even among the common people, we get the sense that some people wanted to believe Jesus, but their good will toward him changed over the span of his public life.
Jesus was not initially well-received in his hometown, Nazareth. When he read from the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue and announced that the words he read were fulfilled that day in their hearing, they were not impressed. (Luke 4:14-21) They said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” (Lk. 4:22), and they took offense at his assertions. (Mk. 6:3)
It wasn’t like Jesus tried to soften his approach. We might even say that Jesus provoked them. (Lk. 4:22-27) They changed from curiosity tinged with skepticism to anger as he presumed their rejection of him. (Lk 4:28) They became so angry, they drove him out of town and up to the brow of a hill where they threatened to throw him off a cliff. (Lk. 4:29)
During another encounter with a crowd in the wider area of Galilee, Jesus caused such a stir by the things he was saying that the people accused him of “being out of his mind”. The religious leaders accused him of blasphemy.
When his family heard what people were saying, they went to “seize him”. (Mk. 3:20-21) His mother and brothers would not even enter in the house where he was talking to the crowd. They stood outside calling to him, but Jesus refused to respond. (Mk. 3:31-35)
Jesus caused such a stir in Galilee that the Jewish leaders sought to kill him (Jn. 7:1) claiming that Jesus was “leading people astray” (Jn. 7:12). In the midst of the stir that Jesus was causing in Galilee (his home region), we learn that “not even his brothers believed in him”. (Jn. 7:5)
His brothers did not merely not believe in him. They taunted him to leave Galilee and go to Judea to make his claims and prove himself there. (Jn. 7:3) “No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” (Jn. 7:4)
They were provoking him, likely hoping he would stop the nonsense. His brothers certainly knew the angry reception Jesus was getting in Galilee would be nothing like the wrath he would experience in Judea where the High Priest and Sanhedrin were headquartered.
After the initial controversy Jesus stirred in his home town and region, we don’t hear much about the family of Jesus, as Jesus spread out to other areas. They are largely absent from the narrative after that. The highly skeptical religious leaders never softened up to what Jesus was saying, but crowds of more common people began to believe him.
The height of his popularity among the crowds was, perhaps, the day he entered Jerusalem on a donkey on what we have come to call Palm Sunday. We get the sense that the crowd believed this was the beginning of their long awaited dream of taking back control from the Roman occupation and the climactic overthrow of Roman rule. It was actually a long awaited beginning of a different sort.
The arrest of Jesus on charges of blasphemy, and his silence in the face of those charges led to a dramatic turn in the perception of the crowd. By the time he was arrested in the garden and hauled before the Sanhedrin (the religious council) and then before Pontius Pilate (the Roman governor), the tide of popular opinion had turned against Jesus.
He wasn’t who they thought he was.
The Sanhedrin had Jesus arrested, looking for evidence to put him to death. (Mk. 14:55) Jesus was silent until the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (Mk. 14:61) When Jesus said, “I am” (Mk. 14:62), they had the evidence they wanted. They accused him of blasphemy and condemned him to death. (Mk. 14:63-65)
The religious council turned him over to Pilate for sentencing. (Mk. 15;1) The charge of blasphemy meant nothing to the Roman governor who believed the Sanhedrin was acting out of self-interest and concern for their own religious influence. (Mk. 15:2-10) Yet, the crowd was stirred up against Jesus, and they demanded that he be crucified. (Mk. 15:11-15) The rest is history.
Up to this point, the little we know about the brothers of Jesus is that they didn’t believe in him. The last we hear of them, when his family came to call him out of the home where he was causing a stir, Jesus seemed to have turned his back on them. When Jesus was told his family was there calling to him to come out, Jesus said,
“[W]hoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother”. (Mk. 3:32-35)
This is the backdrop for some key observations about the family of Jesus, and particularly his brother, James, that speak to the authenticity of Jesus and of the Gospel narrative.
After the death and resurrection of Jesus, his mother and brothers were present with the disciples. (Acts 1:14) After such a public death, it isn’t extraordinary that they would be present. Nothing else is said of the brothers of Jesus after that until Acts 12:17.
Herod had recently presided over the killing of James, the brother of John (Acts 13:2), and Peter was imprisoned. (Acts 2:3-5) When Peter escaped from the prison, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John, to announce his freedom. Before he left he left these instructions, “Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this….”
There us a hint in this statement that James, the brother of Jesus, was then counted among the early church, and he might even have a prominent role in the early church. That hint is affirmed in Acts 15 when James reportedly stood up in front of all the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem to recognize the significance of God moving among the Gentiles through Paul and Barnabas. (Acts 15:12-13) He even spoke first, before Peter. (Acts 15:14)
We don’t see much mention of James in the rest of Acts, but the story unfolds in the few references to James in Paul’s letters. When Paul remembered all the people to whom Jesus appeared after his death, Paul listed them out:
“[H]e appeared to Cephas, [Peter] and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles….” (1 Corinthians 15:5-7)
That he was careful to list James by name suggests the significance of the appearance to James. We can only suspect that listing James is significant because James didn’t believe in his brother before his public death. That appeared specifically to his skeptical brother is noteworthy.
After Paul’s dramatic conversion, he didn’t consult with anyone; rather he went away to Arabia. Three years later, he made the trip to Jerusalem to meet with Peter, and the only other person he met with was James, the brother of Jesus. He saw “none of the other apostles – only James, the Lord’s brother”. (Galatians 1:16-19)
When Paul returned to Jerusalem 14 years later, he met again with “the esteemed leaders” there. (Galatians 2:2) These “esteemed leaders” who Paul called “pillars” in the early church were James, Cephas and John. (Galatians 2:9)
When Paul arrived in Jerusalem years later, “he went to see James, and all the elders were present”, and he reported “what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry”. (Acts 21:18-19) James obviously played a prominent role in the early church in Jerusalem, the center of the Christian world at the time.
From these few statements, we see that James was a preeminent leader in Jerusalem – maybe “the” preeminent leader of the Christians in Jerusalem. His prominence in the early church is likely why the Epistle of James made its way into the New Testament cannon.
Though the role of James in the Bible is quite understated, his change of heart – from an unbelieving sibling who was likely embarrassed or jealous of Jesus (or both) – to follower of Jesus, affirmer of his resurrection and leader of the church in Jerusalem is remarkable. That complete turnaround speaks volumes for the authenticity of the narrative of the gospels and Jesus.
What would cause James to go from embarrassed, jealous and angry sibling to follower of Jesus and a pillar of the Jerusalem church if something had not happened to cause him to believe? It shouldn’t be a mystery what that “something” could be. Paul made an explicit point of recognizing that Jesus appeared to James in his resurrected body.
Next to Paul – the once zealous persecutor of the early followers of Jesus – James was the most dramatic conversion in the Bible. We don’t know the details of it, like we do with Paul, but we know that he not only became a believer; he became a leader of the early church on a par with the closest disciples of Jesus.
Like Paul and Peter, one of the other pillars of that early church, James would also die a martyr in the year 62 AD. We know this not from the Bible, but from the Jewish historian, Josephus. He records that Ananus, the newly crowned High Priest at the time,
“assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned….” (Josephus, Antiquities 20.197-201)
Later church historians added details to the way James died at the hands of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, but we can’t really affirm those details. We simply know that he died at the hands of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans.
It is remarkable, however, that James, who was skeptical of his brother, became one his biggest supporters – the leader of Jesus, who was called the Christ, in the key Jewish city in all the world – after Jesus died. James was faithful to to his brother, of whom he was once counted as a skeptic, even to the point of death.
This makes little sense unless Jesus really did appear to James after his death in a resurrected body as Paul claimed. While the information we know of James is understated in the New Testament, it is of critical important testimony to the reliability and authentic of the gospel narrative and claims of Jesus: that he really did rise from the dead and really was who he claimed to be.
No one was in a better position to judge these things than his own brother, James. It is no small wonder that James was skeptical of his brother that he knew from childhood. It is a great wonder that James would become not only a believer, but a leader among the followers of Jesus after his death – unless, of course, Jesus really did rise from the dead and appear in person to him.
Several months after writing this, I came across the following short video on the subject of James, the brother of Jesus. The speaker, Brian Cunningham, makes similar observations about James and the import of his leadership in Jerusalem as I have. The import at the time, and now, was of a person who knew Jesus intimately, and was a skeptic before his death, who became an unflinching follower of Jesus after his death. Why? There is only one answer: because he saw Jesus risen from the dead.