By Darnise C. Martin, PhD
I have always been interested in the early Christian era. In fact, it was my interest in early Christianity that first led me to want to go to graduate school. At that time I was obsessed with understanding how it is that Jesus from Nazareth went from being a man, to the understanding that he was the son of God, or even more astounding that he was in fact God incarnate. Over the years my studies in religion have expanded beyond that particular question and beyond the early Christian era, but now I find myself, many years later, with a new fascination with this era in the person of James, the brother of Jesus.
For some the phrase James, the brother of Jesus will be in and of itself surprising or even alarming. People often say, “What? Jesus had a brother? And my first response is to say, “Do you read the New Testament?” But then I realize that not everyone does in fact read it, and many who do, read their tradition into the text as opposed to reading the text on its own terms. Nevertheless, for clarity’s sake we know that Jesus indeed had not just one brother James, but three other brothers as well and at least two sisters. (Mark 6:1-6) While the sisters remain unnamed, the fact that the plural term sisters is used means that there is more than one.
This is just the starting point for my fascination about James. What is really astounding to me is that James’s role as leader of the movement following the death of Jesus has been nearly eradicated from the teachings of traditional Christianity, with only traces of it remaining in the books of Acts and Galatians, and a few extra biblical historical documents. You can see more of my discussion of these points in a couple of videos I made here.
My fascination with James is stirred up because his recognition throughout the ages would have meant a very different Christianity than the one we know now. James was known as James the Just, and known to be a righteous and devout practicing Jew. The community that James led was clearly a Jewish Christian community that considered it important to maintain most of the Jewish law and tradition, while recognizing Jesus as Messiah.
This in and of itself gives us one idea as to why James has been marginalized in Christian history, for it would indeed be a very different Christian story. Not only would it have retained more of its original Judaism, but it would necessarily also recast Mary’s virginity as an important part of the Jesus story.
I am fascinated with such questions because I am interested in faith that can navigate the waters of metaphor and allegory as tools for teaching and living. I am thinking about a Christianity that celebrates its diverse history, and sees itself as a continuation of God’s ongoing conversation with humanity. Can Christians today handle that?