Saint James the Less

A Saint's Tale
Brother John Raymond
May 2, 1999

Among the apostles James the Less or Younger has this title after his name to distinguish him from the other James, called the Greater. Now the million-dollar question - Which one of them wrote the Epistle of St. James in the New Testament? If you don't know the answer don't feel bad - I didn't until doing this article - it was James the Less.

James the Less is commonly held to be the same individual as "James, the son of Alpheus" (Mt 10,3; Acts 1,13) and "James, the brother of the Lord (Mt 13,55; Gal 1,19). He may also be identical with James, son of Mary and brother of Joseph (Mk 15,40). As it is a teaching of the Faith that Mary was "Ever-Virgin" then we know that here the word "brother" is used in the wide sense common in Sacred Scripture. When applied to relations, it is not restricted to blood-brother or half-brother, but is also used of a nephew or cousin. So James was the Lord's brother in the wider sense of its meaning in Scripture. His mother Mary was a close relative of the Blessed Virgin.

This Apostle held a distinguished position in the early Christian community of Jerusalem. St. Paul tells us he was a witness of the Resurrection of Christ. He is also called a "pillar" of the Church, whom St. Paul consulted about the Gospel. According to tradition, he was the first Bishop of Jerusalem and was at the Council of Jerusalem about the year 50. (cf. Acts 15,13 and 21,18) The historians, Eusebius and Hegesippus, tell us that the Jews martyred St. James for the Faith in the Spring of the year 62. He died from either being beaten or stoned to death. He was greatly esteemed by some of the Jews for his piety, so much so that they had called him "James the Just." His name is mentioned in the Roman Canon of the Mass and he is patron of the dying.

James addressed his Epistle to Christians, converts from Judaism who were exposed to many kinds of trials. From this same Epistle we learn that among the faults of these early Christians James lists searching too eagerly for material riches, catering to the rich and snubbing the poor in the community, neglecting the corporal works of mercy, failing to control their tongue and quarrelling among themselves. James wrote to them in order to correct these faults and to encourage them to be patient, constant in faith, cheerful, charitable, sincere and to seek the peace and wisdom that descends from above.

It is the teaching of the Council of Trent that James 5, 14 refers to the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. The Epistle also points out that faith without works is dead and of no avail for salvation. (Jas 2:14-26) Perhaps because of this statement, Martin Luther in the 16th century questioned the authenticity of this Epistle. The Epistle of St. James belongs to what are called the deuterocanonical books of the New Testament, those not universally acknowledged by the Church for a long time. During the 3rd century some of the Fathers of the Church hesitated for various reasons to accept some books as part of the New Testament. By the end of the 4th century the difficulties of these books were cleared up and they were accepted as Sacred Scripture. Thus the "Bible alone" as the only authority makes no sense given the fact that the Church had to determine what books the Bible consisted of and that not until the end of the 4th century!

Today some people erroneously see St. James contradicting St. Paul's teaching on justification by faith. (cf Rom 3,20; Gal 2,16) The explanation for this is found in the different approach of each writer to the subject. St. James is explaining the nature of faith that justifies, namely, that it cannot remain purely theoretical, but must show itself in good works. St. Paul is arguing against Judaizers, who want to make salvation dependent on the observance of the Mosaic Law. The point he is trying to make is that Christians are not bound by the precepts of the Mosaic Law. The works of the old law are worthless for salvation whereas faith in Christ is absolutely necessary for it. Elsewhere St. Paul points out the same thing as St. James regarding faith and works. (cf Gal 5,6; Rom 2,6; Eph 2,10) Romans 12-14 and Ephesians 4-6 are full of exhortations by St. Paul to practice Christian virtues.

On May 3rd the Church celebrates the feast of Saints Philip and James. I believe it would be worthwhile to read and reflect on the Epistle of St. James on that day asking St. James to allow the words he wrote to penetrate more deeply into our daily lives.