Who is James, “Brother of the Lord”?

The name James was pretty popular at the time of Christ, and two of Jesus’ Disciples have this name:

  1. James, son of Zebedee, and brother of John (Matthew 10:2), and
  2. James, son of Alphaeus (Matthew 10:3)

We call #1 “James the Greater” and #2 “James the Lesser.” Since the various New Testament writers signal which James they mean in different ways, it’s sometimes hard to tell if the mean the Greater, the Lesser, or another James completely.

For example, Paul refers to James, the “brother” of Jesus (Galatians 1:19), but the term “brother” was often used to refer to cousins and other male relatives, since Hebrew and Aramaic lacked words for “uncle,” “nephew,” cousin,” etc. Although Paul’s writing in Greek, he’s pretty obviously used to speaking Aramaic – note his . In the prior verse (Gal. 1:18), he refers to Peter as Cephas, which is how someone translating the Aramaic word would do it (it’s a transliteration of Peter’s Aramaic name, Kefa [Rock], with an “s” added to make it a masculine name in Greek), rather than the more natural Greek Petros (the masculinized version of the Greek word for rock, petra).

Some Protestants try and use this to score points against the notion of Mary’s perpetual Virginity, but it’s a non-starter. For one thing, it’s worth considering that the early Church Fathers – those who knew the language – avidly believed in this doctrine. If the original text is such a slam-dunk, it’d be strange to imagine those most comfortable with Greek missed such a glaring point. Rather, there’s an interesting theory raised in the Catholic Encyclopedia that James, the brother of the Lord is none other than James the Greater:

Some authors, comparing John 19:25 with Matthew 27:56 and Mark 15:40, identify, and probably rightly so, Mary the Mother of James the Less and of Joseph in Mark and Matthew with “Mary of Cleophas” in John. As the name of Mary Magdalen occurs in the three lists, they identify further Salome in Mark with “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” in Matthew; finally they identify Salome with “his mother’s sister” in John. They suppose, for this last identification, that four women are designated by John 19:25; the Syriac “Peshito” gives the reading: “His mother and his mother’s sister, and Mary of Cleophas and Mary Magdalen.” If this last supposition is right, Salome was a sister of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and James the Greater and John were first cousins of the Lord; this may explain the discipleship of the two brothers, Salome’s request and their own claim to the first position in His kingdom, and His commendation of the Blessed Virgin to her own nephew. But it is doubtful whether the Greek admits of this construction without the addition or the omission of kai (and). Thus the relationship of St. James to Jesus remains doubtful.

The Catholic Encyclopedia‘s skepticism turns on the strange wording of John 19:25, “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His Mother, and His Mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.” Is this listing four people, or three? There are only two “ands,” which would suggest that “His Mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas” is all one person. Except, of course, that it can’t literally mean sister here, or Mary’s parents named both of their daughters Mary. Nevertheless, it may be a female relative, or perhaps even a sister-in-law.

Matthew’s List
Matthew 27:56 says that “many women” were there, “watching from a distance.” Among them, he notes, were:

  1. Mary Magdalene,
  2. Mary the mother of James and Joses, and
  3. the mother of Zebedee’s sons.

Mark’s List
Mark 15:40 also mentions that there were “many women,” and lists:

  1. Mary Magdalene,
  2. Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and
  3. Salome

From this, we can conclude that Salome is the mother of Zebedee’s sons. Matthew and Mark are listing the same people, but describing Salome differently. Likely, the reason that these three women are mentioned of the many who were there is because these are the same three who discover the Resurrection (Mark 16:1). The Virgin Mary is at the foot of the Cross, and they’re listing the women who (as Mark notes) “were watching from a distance,” which is why Her name is omitted.

John’s List
If John 19:25 is listing three people, it’s:

  1. Mary, the Mother of God
  2. Mary, “sister” of the Virgin Mary and wife of Cleophas, and
  3. Mary Magdalene

But if it’s listing four people, it’s:

  1. Mary, the Mother of God
  2. Mary’s sister (probably Salome)
  3. Mary, wife of Cleophas, and
  4. Mary Magdalene

In either case, we know that Cleophas is probably the Greek name of Alphaeus, the father of James the younger and Joses. James’ father is Alphaeus (Matthew 10:2), and his mother is one of the three Marys (Mark 15:40). Since she’s not Mary Magdalene or the Virgin Mary, this leaves Mary, the wife of Cleophas. Which means Mary, wife of Cleophas is also Mary, wife of Alphaeus, so Cleophas and Alphaeus had better be the same guy.

The Combined List
Regardless of whether John listed 3 or 4 women, we know that the following four women were at the Passion of Christ:

  1. Mary, the Mother of God
  2. Mary Magdalene
  3. Mary, wife of Alphaeus/Cleophas, and mother of James the Lesser and Joses, and
  4. Salome, wife of Zebedee, and mother of James the Greater and John

One of these last two is apparently Mary’s “sister,” depending on the status of that missing “and.” Which one it is makes all the difference.

Here’s why that’s so interesting. If Mary’s sister (or sister-in-law) is Mary of Cleophas, then her son James the Lesser is Jesus’ cousin. In that case, Galatians 1:19 refers to James the Lesser, cousin of Our Lord. If, on the other hand, Mary’s sister is Salome, then her son James the Greater is Jesus’ cousin. In that case, Galatians 1:19 refers to James the Greater, cousin of Our Lord. And all of this turns on whether John meant to include an “and” to denote that there were four women.

The stronger argument, in my opinion, is that John is referring to 4 women, even if he doesn’t include the relevant “and,” and that Jesus’ cousins are James and John. I think that the reasons cited in the Encyclopedia are all great: James and John act like they should get preferential treatment, their mom takes Jesus aside to try and pull some strings, and Jesus ultimately entrusts His Mother to John. If John is His cousin, he may well have been the nearest living male relative (since Jesus didn’t have any brothers). This last point is even more important, in that if James the Lesser, a Disciple and future Apostle, is Jesus’ biological cousin, His decision to leave Mary to the care of a different Apostle is strange. So I think it’s safe to conclude that “James, the brother of the Lord,” is in fact, the cousin of the Lord, and the son of Zebedee.

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