Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Beside the figure of James “the Greater,” son of Zebedee, whom we talked about last Wednesday, another James appears in the Gospels, who is called “the Less.” He also forms part of the list of the Twelve Apostles chosen personally by Jesus, and is always specified as “the son of Alphaeus” (see Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13).
He has often been identified with
another James, called “the Younger” (see Mark 15:40), son of a Mary (see
ibid.), who could be the Mary of Clopas who was
present, according to the Fourth Gospel, at the foot of the cross together with
the Mother of Jesus (see John 19:25). He too was from
Of this last James, the book of
Acts underlines the pre-eminent role he played in the
Afterward, the Judeo-Christians considered him their main point of reference. To him in fact is attributed the Letter that bears the name James and is included in the New Testament canon. He does not present himself in it as “a brother of the Lord,” but as “a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1).
There is a debate among scholars over the identification of these two personages of the same name, James the son of Alphaeus and James “the brother of the Lord.” The Gospel traditions have not preserved for us any story about either one during Jesus’ life on earth. The Acts of the Apostles, instead, show us that a “James” carried out a very important role within the early Church, as we already mentioned, after the resurrection of Jesus (see Acts 12:17; 15:13-21; 21:18).
The most prominent action he
accomplished was his intervention on the question of the difficult relationship
between Christians of Jewish origin and those of pagan origin. In this he
contributed, together with Peter, to surmounting, or better, to integrating the
original Jewish dimension of Christianity with the need not to impose on
converted pagans the obligation to be subjected to all the norms of the Law of
The book of Acts has preserved for us the compromise solution proposed precisely by James and accepted by all the apostles present, according to which the pagans who had believed in Jesus Christ should only be asked to abstain from the idolatrous custom of eating the flesh of animals offered in sacrifice to the gods, and from “sexual immorality,” a term that probably alluded to disallowed marital unions. In practice, it was a question of adhering to only a few prohibitions ― ones considered very important ― of the Mosaic legislation.
In this way, two significant and complementary results were obtained, both still valid: On the one hand, it recognized the unbreakable relationship that links Christianity to the Jewish religion as its perennially living and valid matrix; on the other, it allowed Christians of pagan origin to keep their own sociological identity, which they would have lost if they were obliged to observe the so-called ceremonial precepts of the Mosaic Law: From now on, these were no longer to be considered obligatory for converted pagans. In essence, it initiated a praxis of reciprocal esteem and respect that, despite subsequent regrettable misunderstandings, sought by its nature to safeguard all that was characteristic of each of the two sides.
The most ancient information on the death of this James is given to us by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. In his Jewish Antiquities (20, 201f), written in Rome toward the end of the first century, he tells us that James’ end was decided with an illegal initiative by the High Priest Ananus, son of the Annas mentioned in the Gospels, who took advantage of the interval between the deposition of one Roman procurator (Festus) and the arrival of his successor (Albinus) to decree his stoning in the year 62.
To the name of this James, besides
the apocryphal Proto-Gospel of James,
which exalts the holiness and virginity of Mary the Mother of Jesus, is particularly
linked the Letter that bears his name. In the canon of the New Testament it
occupies the first place among the so-called catholic letters, addressed, that
is, not to one particular church ― such as
Thus the Letter of St. James shows us a very concrete and practical Christianity. Faith must be carried out in life, above all in love of neighbor and particularly in commitment to the poor. It is against this background that the famous phrase must be read: “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). At times this statement of James has been contrasted with Paul’s affirmations, according to whom we are justified by God not in virtue of our works, but thanks to our faith (see Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:28).
The two phrases, however,
seemingly contradictory in their different perspectives, in reality, if well
interpreted, complement one another.
Finally, the Letter of James exhorts us to abandon ourselves into God’s hands in everything we do, always pronouncing the words: “If the Lord wills it” (James 4:15). He teaches us not to presume to plan our lives in an autonomous and selfish way, but to make room for the inscrutable will of God, who knows the true good for us. So, St. James is always a timely teacher of life for each one of us.