EXPLORING OUR CATHOLIC PAST



Whatever Happened... to the Apostles?
5. ST. JAMES THE LESS 1

This is the fifth of a series of fourteen articles by Paul STENHOUSE, MSC discussing Catholic tradition concerning the twelve Apostles, their background, mission and manner of death. The thirteenth will be devoted to Judas Iscariot and the final article will treat of St Paul, the 'Apostle to the Gentiles'.

More than seventeen years ago an ossuary or 'bone box' surfaced in Jerusalem dating from the first century AD and bearing the inscription: Ya'kov son of Joseph, brother of Yeshua - 'James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus'. Controversy erupted immediately over the genuineness of the inscription, and the dating of the limestone burial box.

Mystery still surrounds the box, its provenance, the identity of its owner, and the identity of the 'James,' 'Joseph,' and 'Jesus' mentioned in the inscription. None of the names was uncommon at that time, and there the matter rests.

'James the son of Alphaeus and a cousin of the Lord ruled the Church at Jerusalem, wrote an epistle and led a life of penance. He converted many to the true Faith and was martyred in the year 62.' - Roman Breviary, Introduction to the Feast of Sts Philip and James, Apostles. May 3.

There are references to at least eight persons named James in the New Testament. The five that principally interest us here are as follows:

  1. James, son of Zebadee, brother of John. 2
  2. James the son of Alphaeus. 3
  3. James the 'brother' of the Lord. 4
  4. James the brother of Joseph, whose mother was Mary. 5
  5. James the brother of Jude. 6
  6. James the first Bishop of Jerusalem. 7

We discussed the life and death of James, son of Zebadee in an earlier issue [Annals 5/2004]. This month we are concerned with the Apostle James. Following Catholic tradition, we suggest that all six of the Jameses mentioned above are one and the same person: and The Roman Breviary, in identifying James the son of Alphaeus [Matthew 10,3] with James the so-called 'brother' of the Lord [Matthew 13,55] who became the first bishop of Jerusalem, is following the judgement of Papias, bishop of Hierapolis [60-130 AD] who was a contemporary of the Apostles, and the opinion of St Jerome 8 [345-420] and St Augustine, 9 [354-430 AD] and the universal belief of the Catholic Church in the West.

We are told by Sts Matthew and Mark that James's father's name was Alphaeus. St John gives him the Greek form of Alphaeus, viz.: Clophas. James's mother was Mary, the sister of the mother of Jesus as St John tells us: 'Near the cross where Jesus hung stood his mother, with her sister Mary the wife of Clophas...'. 10

Alphaeus [Clophas] and Mary had four sons - James known as 'the little,' Joshua,11 Jude and Simon: the 'brethren' of the Lord' - and three or more daughters.

Joseph the foster-father of Jesus would have died sometime between 8AD and 26AD, and we have no reason to think that Alphaeus was alive during our Lord's public ministry.

What could have been more natural than that the two widowed sisters shared the family home in Nazareth, especially as the Virgin Mary had but one son, Jesus, and he was often away 'about his father's business'?

We first hear of James in the spring of 28 AD when he and his younger brother Judas Thaddaeus are invited by Jesus to join his special band of Apostles.12

William Smith13 speculates that

'it is probable that these cousins, or as they were usually called 'brothers and sisters' of the Lord, were older than he was. Once, in the autumn of the same year, when a crowd gathered round Jesus to hear him preach, no one had a chance to eat, and 'when his family heard of this they set out to take charge of him, for people were saying that he was out of his mind'.14

This smacks of older relatives trying to look after the interests of one younger than themselves.

James the Less does not appear again until after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Sometime in the 40 day period that intervened between the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus, the Lord appeared to James. We learn this not from the gospels but from St Paul: 'Then he appeared to James and afterwards to all the Apostles'.15

In the year 37 AD Saul was converted from a fanatical oppressor of Christians, to an Apostle of the Faith. As he himself tells us, three years after this he went to Jerusalem, and was introduced by Barnabas to Peter and James.'16

In 44 AD when Peter escapes from prison, he instructs the household of Mary, mother of John Mark: 'Report this to James and to the members of the Church'. 17

In 49 AD James presides over the first Council of Jerusalem. While it is Peter, as Chief of the Apostles, who speaks first and introduces the topic, it is James, the first bishop of Jerusalem, who 'sums up' the conclusions they arrived at.18

On his fourth visit to Jerusalem, St Paul, in the year 50 or 51 AD, describes James, along with Cephas [Peter] and John, as one of the 'pillars of our society'.19

That James was appointed as bishop of Jerusalem is mentioned by Epiphanius, 20 [315-403 AD] who, along with St John Chrysostom21 [347-407 AD] and Photius,22 [810-895 AD] says that he was appointed by our Lord. Eusebius of Caesarea23 [260-340 AD] says that he was appointed by the Apostles.

Flavius Josephus [37-100 AD] the Jewish historian who was in Jerusalem during the siege [70 AD] describes the death of James as follows:

'Caesar, upon hearing of the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea as procurator but the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. Now the report goes, that this elder Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons, who had all performed the, office of a high priest to God, and he had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests; but this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who were very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority.] Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of the 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: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa,] desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified: nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful; for Ananus to assemble a Sanhedrim without his consent – whereupon Albinus complied with what they had said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the High priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, High Priest.24

A Christian writer of the second century AD named Hegesippus [Joseph] who was like Josephus of Jewish origin, describes the life and death of James the Just in greater detail, but substantially agrees with Josephus.25

A constant tradition in the Church, based on Matthew 9,9 and Mark 2,14 identifies St Matthew the Evangelist and Apostle as the Publican Levi son of Alphaeus, called by Jesus from his counting house after the healing of the paralytic in Capharnaum.

Theodoretus of Cyrrhus [393-460 AD] and St John Chrysostom [347-407 AD] are followed by a unanimous tradition in the Eastern Catholic Church that considers Matthew the son of Alphaeus and James the son of Alphaeus, to be brothers. Matthew therefore would have been one of the Lord's cousins.

Because of the continuing controversy along polemical grounds by evangelical Protestants who refuse a priori to accept the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, it may be helpful to add what Hegesippus, the 2nd century Christian writer of Jewish origin has to say about the successor of James as Bishop of Jerusalem. Writing in 160 AD he notes, according to Eusebius, That

'After the martyrdom of James and the capture of Jerusalem that immediately followed, the report is that those of the apostles and the disciples of our Lord who were yet surviving, came together from all parts with those who were related to our Lord according to the flesh. For the greater part of them were still alive. These consulted together to determine whom it was proper to pronounce worthy of being the successor of James. They unanimously declared Simeon the son of Cleophas of whom mention is made in the sacred text, as worthy of the episcopal seat there. They said that he was the cousin26 of our Saviour, for Hegesippus asserts that Cleophas was the brother-in-law of Joseph.27

To return to the mysterious ossuary or bone-box that has become the centre of a controversy about the 'brother' of Jesus: if the box and its inscription are genuine, the James in question [allegedly 'son of Joseph'] cannot be James the son of Alphaeus, who was the cousin of Jesus on his mother's side.

If the 'Joseph' and 'Jesus' are the family of Mary of Nazareth, then this James is a completely unknown step-brother of Jesus born to an [hypothetical] deceased wife of Joseph before his marriage to Mary.

The ossuary will offer no solace to those 'Christians' who seek to deny the perpetual virginity of the mother of Jesus.28


  1. Also known as 'Justus,' or 'the Just one'.
  2. Mark, 1,19.
  3. Matthew 10,3.
  4. Matthew 13,55.
  5. Matthew 27,56.
  6. Jude 1; Luke 6,16.
  7. Acts 12,17; 15,13; 21,18.
  8. In Matthaeum, 12,49.
  9. Contra Faustum, 22,35.
  10. John 19,25.
  11. Sometimes referred to as 'Joseph'.
  12. Mark 3,18, Luke 6,15,16.
  13. A formidable Protestant scholar and classicist, in his A Dictionary of the Bible, London, 1860, p.923.
  14. Mark, 3,20.
  15. I Corinthians, 15,7,
  16. Galatians 1,18,19, Acts 9,27.
  17. Acts 12,17.
  18. Acts 15,13.
  19. Galatians 2,9.
  20. Haereses 78.
  21. Homily 11, In 1 Corinthians7.
  22. Epistle 157.
  23. History, 2,23.
  24. The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, c.9.
  25. See Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book II, c.23.
  26. The word _______ means a cousin on the mother's side. Mary, mother of Jesus, and Mary mother of James and Simeon, were sisters.
  27. op. cit. Book II, c.23.
  28. See, e.g. Michael Killian, in The Daily Telegraph, Sydney, October 23, 2002: This Box of Bones Holds Christ Clue' ... 'According to the Bible, James was one four brothers of Jesus.'

From "Annals Australasia" October 2004




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