Acts 15:1-21 The tolerance of James the Less

It is strangely dangerous to write about the James who speaks at the Jerusalem council, because he could be one of two people, and the person you think he is reveals what you believe about Jesus, and especially about Mary. We know that he’s not James the Son of Zebedee, because that James, often known as the Greater, was killed by King Herod at the beginning of chapter 12. So that leaves the possibility that he is James the son of Alphaeus or James the Brother of Jesus, and there are some who think that he’s both. Let’s take each of these in turn, since I get confused trying to disentangle it all, and I’m sure that you do, too.

James the son of Alphaeus is named in Luke’s list of the apostles in chapter six of his Gospel, not to mention in similar lists in Matthew and Mark. That’s about all we know of him, although Jacobus Voragine tells us that Alphaus means wise, so maybe he’s called “son of Alphaeus” for the same reason that Barnabas is called “son of encouragement” and that James (the one whom Herod killed) and his brother John are called “sons of thunder.” As for his being James the brother of Jesus, there’s plenty of scriptural evidence that Jesus had brothers, but as early as the fourth century there were Christians who claimed that these brothers were really cousins, because they wanted to assert the perpetual virginity of Mary. James is named as one of Jesus’ brothers in Mark 6 and Matthew 13, and we can assume that he was among the brothers who came with Mary to see Jesus in Luke 8. So now we have a real dispute, one that causes a lot of anger. Was Mary a perpetual virgin or wasn’t she? If you say that James was really Jesus’ brother, you’re saying that she wasn’t. If you’re saying that James was a cousin and that Alphaeus was his dad, you’re saying she was. If you try to combine the two by saying that he was Joseph and Mary’s son (born after Jesus, of course) but also a “son of wisdom” you’re in the Mary had other kids camp. If you say that these two people, James the son of Alphaeus and James the Brother of Jesus were different people, you’re left not knowing which of them speaks up at the Jerusalem council.

Whew. The James of Acts, who responds to the pharisee followers of Jesus with a shrug, saying, in effect, that there are important characteristics that a follower of Jesus should try to cultivate, but circumcision is not one of them, creates long-standing and ongoing controversy by his very existence and the fact that we don’t know, really, who he is. Everyone seems intent on reading their own agendas into his person, and not listening to what he says. If we could, we might simply say that the perpetual virginity of Mary is more or less besides the point. What’s important is that we love well and treat each other with grace. We shouldn’t make idols of ourselves or of compulsions. We shouldn’t force other people to adopt our cultural norms. This is indeed wise.

Regardless of what we think of James, there’s plenty of agreement and historical evidence that he was the leader of the Jewish Christians. This group started out as the most prominent (everyone who followed Christ in his life and began to follow him soon after the resurrection was Jewish), but by the time that the second century rolled to an end they had become a tiny minority, and eventually disappeared. James himself died horribly, being thrown from a tower and clubbed to death by a mob in 62 ce. Yet for us, as we work to build a Beloved Community in our own day, he stands as a paragon of wisdom. He was among the powerful majority, yet opened his arms to a powerless minority, even if that meant allowing large changes to the community that he helped to lead. And to do that, he had to avoid getting too caught up in the kinds of controversies that later arose around his own identity.

Karl Stevens
Karl Stevens is an Episcopal priest, a spiritual director, and a writer and artist. As a priest he has served as a college chaplain, a parish priest, a diocesan missioner, and a director of children and youth formation. As a spiritual director he has worked privately with directees and led groups of other directors in organizing retreats and special events. As an artist, he co-curated the EASE Gallery, created a series of paintings on the Stations of the Cross that have been used by area churches, and displays work and writings on kpbstevens.com. In addition to all of this, he is the co-host of the Lost in the Wilderness podcast, along with Rabbi Daniel Bogard. He is married with one child and lives in Grandview Heights.