In the New Testament there are three James mentioned. Two were amongst the Twelve – James the son of Zebedee, known as James the Great, and James the son of Alphaeus, known as James the Less, and James, the brother of Jesus (Matt. 13. 55). It is the last of these who came to be the recognised leader of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem until his death in A.D. 62. The High Priest of the time took advantage of in between Roman procurators to have James brought before the Sanhedrin on a charge of “breaking the Law”. He was found guilty and was stoned to death (Josephus, Ant. xx.9). The Western Church unlike the Eastern has always identified him as being James the Less. However in the Orthodox and Anglican traditions he is celebrated as the historical figure he is and is remembered on 23rd October each year. However it is extremely unlikely that the he is the author of the letter that bears his name in the New Testament. The tone of the letter is far more in keeping with the social conditions that evolved towards the end of the century when more wealthy people became Christian. These Christians were expected to take care of their poorer brothers and sisters in Christ as reflected in Luke’s gospel. Until his death James, after Paul and Peter, was the most influential leader in those early days of the Way”. Indeed his family dominated the Jerusalem Church until well into the second century. His leadership is astonishing if we believe what is recorded in the Johannine Gospel that he was a disbeliever of Jesus. Be that as it may, he soon became a pillar amongst those first followers of the Lord in Jerusalem. Perhaps like many of the disciples seeing the risen Lord changed his whole attitude (I Cor. 15. 7). After Peter had miraculously escaped from prison and had return to the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark, his first thought was to let James and his brethren know of his escape (Acts. 12.17). This in itself reflects his early prominence.
Shortly after that according to Acts Paul has his meeting with the risen Lord as he approached Damascus and was made an instrument of the Lord for the sake of the Gospel. He spoke of journeying to Jerusalem some three years afterwards where he aboded with Peter for fifteen days during which he met James, the brother of the Lord. It was probably during this sojourn that Paul learnt of what later on he referred to as the “traditions” (Gal. 1. 18 – 19).
Fourteen years afterwards, to what is often referred as the Council of Jerusalem, Paul with Barnabas and Titus returned to Jerusalem to debate with the Jerusalem Christian leaders whether Gentile Christians had to obey Jewish customs. Of “the pillars of the Church” in Jerusalem it is clear that James was the recognised leader, not Peter. It was he who “placed their stamp of approval on the mission to the Gentiles” and recognised that just as Peter had been called to be the apostle to the circumcised so Paul was to be the equivalent to the Gentiles ( Gal. 2. 1 – 9). However according to Acts the debate revolved more on whether Gentiles had to be circumcised and could be released from kosher. If Acts is correct it was a rather heated debate between Paul and the pillars of the Jerusalem Church. At the end it was James who made the ruling - Gentiles did not have to be circumcised but must keep the moral and food laws. A letter to this effect was circulated in “Antioch, Syria and Cilicia” (Acts. 15. 23). Yet Paul related in Galatians that men from James” caused embarrassment at Antioch over Jewish Christians, including Peter eating with Gentiles (2. 11-14). When Paul returned some years later with his collection for the church in Jerusalem he was met by James and the elders to whom Paul conveyed the glorious works of the Lord amongst the Gentiles. However James responded with the unhappiness of some of the local Christians against Paul’s denigration of the Mosaic Law. To assure these people James requested Paul to join four others who were fulfilling a Nazarite vow (Num.6.3-20). It did not work out as James had hoped but it seems in the aftermath of Paul’s arrest James and the Jewish Christians did not help Paul, nor does it seem that they accepted his collection. James too had enemies who took advantage of an interval between Roman governors to have him arrested and killed. Yet according to Josephus he, “the brother of Jesus, the so called Christ” was much respected by the Pharisees for his piety and strict observance of the Law. In the introduction to “Antioch and Rome” Fr. Raymond Brown outlined that in those first Christian communities of the first century A.D. there were four groups of Christians: 1. Jewish Christians who insisted on the full observance of the Mosiac Law. 2. Jewish and Gentile Christians who did not insist on circumcision but required the observance of some Jewish observances such as food laws. 3. Jewish and Gentile Christians who did not insist on the observance of kosher. 4. Jewish and Gentile Christians who made a clean break of everything that was Jewish as seen in the Hellenists. Did James, the brother of the Lord, fit into the first group rather than the second? His actions towards Paul on his return to Jerusalem seems to suggest this?