According to the gospels and first-century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, James was the brother of Jesus Christ. He was also converted to the early Christian movement after witnessing the risen Jesus (1 Cor. 15:7).
The conversion is striking in light of the fact that James was a convinced skeptic who rejected the claims of Jesus. This is independently attested in the gospels of Mark and John. Consider the following verses attesting to this entrenched disbelief:
“When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:21)
“Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” (Mark 6:4)
“For even his own brothers did not believe in him” (John 7:5)
Scholar Gerd Ludemann agrees with these traditions, saying that “James had no religious link with his brother during Jesus’ lifetime” (1). James later becomes a leader in the early Church (Gal. 1:18-2:10), which we learn caused his martyrdom.
James’ conversion rests on good historical grounds and we need not doubt it. It passes the criterion of embarrassment which argues that the early Church would not invent an embarrassing detail that would make them look foolish if it did not actually happen. That the early Christian writers include such details suggests they are trying to report events as they happened. Theologian Chris Price explains the relationship this criterion has to James’ conversion,
“Remarkably, James didn’t believe in his brother during Jesus’ earthly ministry, an embarrassing detail the Gospel writers wouldn’t have made up. In fact, John 7:5 just states, “For even his own brothers didn’t believe in him.” But we also know as a matter of history that James becomes a leader in the early church (Galatians 1, Acts 15), worshiping his brother as messiah and Lord to the point of eventually dying for that belief” (2).
That James doubted Jesus’ claims is an embarrassing flaw, especially in light of the fact that he becomes a pillar/leader in the early Church. This is an unlikely detail later Christian writers would invent. Historian Gary Habermas writes that “For it to be remembered over many decades, James’ unbelief was probably rather staunch” (3).
James’ conversion on the basis that he believed Jesus appeared to him also finds early attestation. Paul names James as one among many to have experienced a resurrection appearance of Jesus. This is found in Paul’s early creed (1 Cor. 15: 3-7) that dates to within three to five years of Jesus’ crucifixion. This is an incredibly early piece of data which means that to the best of our knowledge, we cannot explain away James’ resurrection appearance as a legendary embellishment fabricated at a later stage. Ludemann is clear on this point: “Because of 1 Cor. 15:7 it is certain that James ‘saw’ his brother” (4).
James’ conversion experience must have been dramatic because he went from a skeptic to a disciple and then to a Church leader. According to Acts 1:14, the brothers of Jesus are among the believers.
James was certainly sincere in his new-found faith in his brother Jesus. He was willing to suffer and die for his faith. In fact, James does die a martyr as recorded by first-century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. According to Josephus, James “the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ… was delivered to be stoned” (5). This attestation is, according to scholar Louis Feldman, “universally acknowledged” (6). There is a further attestation of James’ death by Hegesippus, a Church historian who writing around 165 to 175 CE, who also confirms that James was stoned (7).
It is because of these several reasons that we can be confident of the conversion and martyrdom of James, the brother of Jesus. It is attested in multiple sources, is in early sources, and passes the criterion of embarrassment.
- Ludemann, Gerd. 1995. What Really Happened to Jesus: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 102.
- Price, Christ. 2015. Making Sense of Resurrection Data. Available.
- Habermas, Gary. 2003. The Risen Jesus and Future Hope. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 22.
- Ludemann, Gerd. 1994. Ibid. p. 109.
- Antiquities, 20.9.1.
- Quoted by Jonathan Bernis. A Rabbi Looks at Jesus of Nazareth. Chosen Books. p. 129.
- Hegesippus, fragments from His Five Books of Commentaries on the Acts of the Church, 1.