James the Less

in the Bible

The Story of James the Less in the Bible; As Catholics, we are all familiar with the story of St. James the Greater, but what about his lesser-known “brother” St. James the Less? Few know that this Saint was actually one of Jesus’ closest disciples.

His feast day commemorated in the Catholic Church calendar is set for the 3rd of May, his life is also very interesting and definitely worth exploring. So read on to learn more about St. James the Less and his amazing journey to sainthood!

Alphaeus of Cleophas was the father of St. James the Less, the author of the first Catholic Epistle. Because his mother Mary was either a sister or a close relative of the Blessed Virgin, he was occasionally referred to as the Lord’s brother in Jewish tradition.

In the early Christian community of Jerusalem, the Apostle occupied a prominent position. He was a witness to Christ’s Resurrection, according to St. Paul, and a “pillar” of the Church, whom St. Paul consulted regarding the Gospel.

He was the first Bishop of Jerusalem, according to legend, and was present at the Council of Jerusalem in the year 50 AD.

According to the authors Eusebius and Hegesippus, St. James was killed for his faith by the Jews in the spring of the year 62 AD, even though they regarded him highly and gave him the surname “James the Just.”

He has always been credited as the author of the Epistle that bears his name, according to tradition.

Internal evidence based on the Epistle’s language, style, and teaching indicates the author is a Jew knowledgeable about the Old Testament and a Christian well-versed in the Gospel’s doctrines.

External evidence from the early Church’s Fathers and Councils backed up its genuineness.

St James the less 1592 print by Maerten de Vos, S.I 878, Prints Department, Royal Library of Belgium.
St James the less 1592 print by Maerten de Vos, S.I 878, Prints Department, Royal Library of Belgium.

The Life of St. James the Less

The New Testament’s canonical works, as well as other written materials from the early church, shed light on James’ life and function in the early church.

The Synoptics mention him by name but say nothing else about him, but the Gospel of John and the first chapters of Acts of the Apostles say nothing about him at all.

Later chapters of Acts of the Apostles contain evidence that James was a prominent figure in Jerusalem’s Christian community.

When Peter miraculously escapes from prison and needs to evacuate Jerusalem, he informs James (12:17).

When the Christians of Antioch are debating whether Gentile Christians need to be circumcised to be saved, they send Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to consult with the Jerusalem church, James plays a key part in the council’s decision.

After Peter and Paul have presented their case, James delivers what he terms his “judgment”—the original sense is similar to “my ruling,” and everyone accepts it.

In other words, James is represented as the leader of the Jerusalem group.

And when Paul arrives in Jerusalem to present the money he raised for the faithful, it is James who urges that Paul ritually cleanse himself at Herod’s Temple to demonstrate his faith and dispel reports that he is teaching Torah rebellion (a charge of antinomianism).

Paul also mentions James as one of the people to whom the risen Christ appeared (1 Corinthians 15:3–8); later in 1 Corinthians, Paul mentions James in a way that suggests he was married, and finally, in Galatians, Paul names James, Cephas (better known as Peter), and John as the three “pillars” of the Church, who will minister to the “circumcised” (in general Jews and Jewish Proselytes) in Jerusalem, while Paul and his (in general Gentiles).

These terms (circumcised/uncircumcised) are commonly interpreted to mean Jews and Greeks, but this is an oversimplification because in the 1st century Iudaea Province, there were also some Jews who were no longer circumcised, as well as some Greeks (called Proselytes or Judaizers) and others such as Egyptians, Ethiopians, and Arabs who had converted to Judaism and were thus circumcised.

Story of St. James the Less
St. James the Less
Circa 1500, restored 20th century
Seville Cathedral, Altarpiece of St. Hermenegildo

What a name! why James the ‘Just’ is better

There’s James, the son of Alphaeus; James, the Lord’s brother; James, the son of Mary, Jesus’ brother; James, the brother of Jude; James the Lesser; and James, the bishop of Jerusalem.

Is it difficult to keep track of them all? Not at all. They’re all the same person, James the Just, the saint.

Because of his tremendous holiness, James, whose feast day is May 3, is known as “the Just.”

He wrote the Letter of James, which taught Jewish converts all over the world how to live a holy life, emphasizing the significance of good actions as a means of expressing faith.

James was asked to be a disciple by Jesus sometime after James, son of Zebedee, which led to him becoming known as “the Lesser.”

He, together with John and Peter, were regarded as pillars of the early Church, and St. Paul met with him to discuss how the Church’s mission should be carried out. He was one of the first to see Christ’s ascension.

After the Crucifixion, James allegedly declared that he would fast until Christ returned, according to mythology. He was visited by the resurrected Jesus, who cooked dinner for him.

James the Less in the Bible
James the Less in the Bible

While some Church leaders claimed that Gentile converts to Christianity did not need to obey Jewish regulations, James chose to keep not only customary Jewish traditions but also the tougher Nazarite vow.

He never drank wine or ate meat, never trimmed his hair or anointed himself with oil, and never wore anything other than a single linen robe.

Because of all the time he spent on his knees in prayer, his knees were characterized as being as hard as camel hooves by writers.

In the year 62 A.D., James the Less was martyred.

Although most people respected him, certain scribes and Pharisees were envious of his power over the people.

He is generally seen clutching a book and a club in art. His patron saints are pharmacists, fullers, and hatmakers, all of whom deal with clubs.

For refusing to renounce his faith in Christ, he was thrown from the Temple walls, then stoned and clubbed to death after he fell, still praying for those who were killing him.

Apostle St. James "The Less" Icon
Apostle St. James "The Less" Icon


Some apocryphal gospels attest to the Ebionites’ (Jewish followers of Jesus) veneration for James.

The apparition of the risen Jesus to James is described in fragment 21 of the Gospel of Hebrews.

According to saying 12 of the Gospel of Thomas (one of the books collected in the Nag Hammadi library), the disciples asked Jesus, “We’re aware that you’ll be leaving us.

Who will be our commander-in-chief?” “No matter where you come [from], you shall go to James the Just, for whose reason heaven and earth have come to exist,” Jesus told him.

Many details are mentioned in the pseudepigraphical First Apocalypse of James associated with James’s name, some of which may reflect early traditions: he is said to have authority over the twelve Apostles and the early church; this work also adds, somewhat perplexingly, that James left Jerusalem and fled to Pella before the Roman siege of that city in 70 C.E. (Ben Witherington speculates that this refers to James’ bones being removed by early Christians fleeing Jerusalem.)

James the Just is said to be the author of the Epistle of James.

While some modern Biblical historians, including Raymond E. Brown, concede that the Greek of this epistle is too proficient for someone whose native language is Aramaic, they contend that it expresses a number of his views, as revised by a scribe or a follower of James the Just.

Other academics, such as Luke Timothy Johnson and James Adamson, think that the historical James could have written the Epistle personally because of his fluency in Greek.

Jerusalem Christians as a Jewish sect

Modern early Christian historians tend to place James in the Jewish Christian tradition; whereas Paul emphasized faith over the compliance of the Mosaic Law, which he considered a hardship, James is supposed to have advocated the polar opposite, which is referred to as “Judaizing.”

The Recognitions and Homilies of Clement (also known as the Clementine literature), versions of a novel that has been dated to as early as the 2nd century, where James appears as a saintly figure who is assaulted by an unnamed enemy some modern critics believe to be Paul, are one corpus commonly cited as proof of this.

Robert Eisenman developed the theory that Paul and the Gentile Christians who followed him marginalized James and the observant Christian Jews, a theory that has been widely criticized for his recreation of the hostile skirmishes between Jewish and Pauline Christianity, relating his reconstruction to “proto-Christian” elements of the Essenes as represented in the Dead Sea scrolls.

Eisenman is as severe on the Christians in Jerusalem, whom he characterizes as a patriotic, priestly, and xenophobic sect of ultra-legal pietists, which some of the criticism deconstructs as Pauline apologetics.

Eisenman’s thesis is similar to that of Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1880), who proposed a split between Paul and the Jewish Church led by Peter-James, followed by a “process of smoothing down their differences and finding the mean between their opposing principles,” including the respective emphasis on faith and works.

His Martyrdom

The apostles gathered in Jerusalem on Easter Day the next year, with St. James insisting that they tell the people what God had done for them previously.

And after St. James had preached with the other apostles in the temple for seven days, Caiaphas and others would have been baptized, a man entered the temple unexpectedly and cried out, “O ye sirs, what will ye do?”

Why do you allow these enchanters to fool you like this? Be wary and vigilant, lest they fool you.

The crowds were so captivated by him that they would have stoned the apostles.

Then this fellow went up to the lectern when St. James was preaching, threw him down backward, and he halted from then on.

And this was done in the seventh year after our Lord’s ascension, and he remained bishop there for thirty years.

When the Jews realized they wouldn’t be able to kill St. Paul because he had petitioned the emperor to send him to Rome, they switched their persecution against St. James, saying to him,

“The people are fooled, for they thought your Jesus was Messias.”

the Jews

Then, because you are so widely believed, we beseech thee to gather the people and to stand high above them, and to show them that it is not him because thou art so just that we will all believe in thee.

On Easter Day, St. James ascended to the front of the temple, where all the people had gathered.

The Jews then addressed him in a loud voice, saying,

“Right honest and true man, we know that thou shalt not lie, show us of Jesus who was crucified on the cross that which thou knowest, for the whole world is deluded.”

Then he replied in a loud voice,

“Wherefore demand ye of the virgin’s son?”

I say to you that he is now in heaven, sitting on God the Father’s right hand and that he will come to judge the living and the dead.

When the Christian men heard him, they were overjoyed, but the Pharisees and the masters of the law repented of what they had forced him to say and bear witness to before the people, and they conspired to cast him down, to make the people afraid of him, and they cried out,

“O the just man has erred at this time.”

They tossed him to the ground, and the people began to stone him. But he got down on his knees and begged God to forgive them, saying,

“Fair Lord God, pardon them, for they have no idea what they are doing.

Then one of the priest’s sons, Jacob, shouted out,

“Sirs, leave this just man alone.”

But there was a man in that party who took a fuller’s staff and hit him on the head, causing his brain to spill all over the place, and thus he concluded his life by martyrdom and was buried near the temple.

And the people would have killed these criminals if they hadn’t fled after killing him. This occurred during Nero’s reign, in the year of our Lord fifty-seven.

Saint James the Less1610-1612. Oil on panel, 107 x 82.5 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Saint James the Less
1610-1612. Oil on panel, 107 x 82.5 cm. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Summary Story of James the Less in the Bible

In this Story of St. James the Less we learned that James was given the appellation “the Less” to distinguish him from another Apostle named James, whose feast day we commemorate on May 3.

He was likely younger than the other St. James, who was known as “the Greater.” Alphaeus had a son named James the Less. On the day Jesus was killed, his mother stood alongside Mary at the Cross.

James the Less became a significant component of the Church’s expansion in Jerusalem after Jesus’ Ascension.

According to tradition, he presided over the Council of Jerusalem, an important conference of the early Church, in the year 50 AD. St. Paul, St. Peter, and other Church leaders debated whether Gentiles or non-Jewish people might become followers of Jesus at this conference.

James listened intently to the debate and assisted the group in deciding that the Church was open to all and that anybody might be saved by living as a follower of Jesus.

James, like Philip, was crucified for preaching the Gospel. On May 3, we commemorate Philip and James the Less as saints.

Their faith-filled lives encourage us to pay attention to the Lord’s call in our lives and react with love and faith.

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