Brother of Jesus: Who Was Saint James?

Saint James, brother of Jesus, was an early leader in the Christian Church, and is listed as one of the twelve apostles in Biblical scripture.

Jun 23, 2024By Ryan Watson, MA History, BA History

saint james brother of jesus


Jesus Christ had twelve disciples, each of whom accompanied the Biblical savior during His time on earth. Many of them continued His Christian work after the ascension.  The twelve men were Peter, James (Jesus’ brother), John, Andrew, Philip, Judas Iscariot (who betrayed Jesus, and was replaced by Matthias), Matthew, Thomas, James, the son of Alpheus, Bartholomew, Judas Thaddeus; and Simon the Zealot. Of them all, Saint James, also known as James, brother of Jesus, James, son of Alpheus, James the Lesser, James the Minor, and James the Just, was one of the most prominent and significant.


James, Son of Alphaeus, James the Greater, and James, the Brother of Jesus

St James the Minor, Peter Paul Rubens, 1613. Source: Wikipedia


Various Gospels are often ambiguous, at times, as to which James is being referenced. Two to three James’s are spoken of in the Gospels – James, brother of John (aka James the Greater); James, brother of Jesus, and James, son of Alphaeus.  The Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary holds that James the son of Alpheus and James, brother of Jesus are the same person, as James could not be Jesus’ physical full brother.  In Protestant readings, the two are separate.  If the two are separate, then very little is known regarding James, son of Alpheus.


James, Brother of Jesus

Statue of St. James the Less in the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran by Angelo de Rossi. Source: Wikipedia


James, the brother of Jesus, was a follower and Disciple of Jesus Christ during His earthly ministry and one of the first leaders of the early Christian Church.  He remained in Jerusalem as leader of the church following the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, and was likely martyred at the temple in Jerusalem.


James’ Position in the Early Church

St. James the Minor, by Georges de la Tour, 1615-20. Source: Wikipedia

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In Acts 15, a Council in Jerusalem was held regarding circumcision over which James presided.  The Acts 15 Council is considered probably the first Christian council, where many Apostles congregated to discuss the matter brought by Paul and Barnabas. In Galatians 1, the Apostle Paul records a meeting with James in the process of Paul confirming his conversion to the other Apostles.  James may have been the first elected leader within the early church.  Through the writings of Eusebius in the 200s, we have the records of Clement of Alexandria from the second century that James was elected leader of the Jerusalem Church.


St James Was Martyred

Saint James the Less (Menologion of Basil II). Source: The Byzantine Life


The death of James the Just around 62 CE is recorded by Eusebius, Clement of Alexandria, and Josephus.  Eusebius copied the chronicles of an earlier Christian, Hegesippus, who wrote that James was martyred by being thrown from the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, and beaten with a club when the fall did not kill him.


Non-canonical Writings Attributed to Saint James

The Protoevangelium of James, James Orr. Source: Rakuten Kobo


The Gospel of James, also known as The Protoevangelium of James, is a book of unknown source that was being circulated within the second century church.  Both Origen and Clement of Alexandria reference the book in their writings, so it was at least written around that time.  The Gospel of James contains the first mention of the idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  The book was condemned by Pope Innocent I in 405, and it has generally not been accepted throughout church history as canonical due to its late writing and inconstant content.


The First and Second Apocalypse of James and the Apocryphon of James are other 2nd century books whose author claimed to be James.  Each of these books were from a collection of gnostic (secret knowledge) texts found in Egypt in 1945.  In addition to an authorship too late to be James, they are also part of gnostic texts written in an attempt to legitimize the early movement within Christianity.


James, the Son of Alphaeus

Two Martyr Saints in an Initial S (Alphaeus and Zacchaeus), 14th century. Source: Victoria and Albert Museum


James the son of Alphaeus, while mentioned in the listings of the apostles, has very few details known regarding his life.  Outside of being listed among the apostles, and described in the Gospel of Mark as “the lesser” or “the smaller,” he is barely mentioned in the Bible. Several early Christian writings attempt to identify him with James the Just, but most try to maintain the perpetual virginity of Mary in a complex manner.  It is speculated that he died as a martyr by crucifixion in Ostrakine, Egypt. 

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By Ryan WatsonMA History, BA HistoryRyan Watson is a husband, father, underwriter, writer, and reseller. He graduated with a Bachelor's and Master's in History from Louisiana Tech University in the early 2000s. He focuses on Biblical, post-Biblical, and medieval history with occasional dabblings in other arenas.