April 24, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Early Church: James led the Church in Jerusalem

John F. Fink(Third in a series of columns)

After Peter left Jerusalem in the year 44 (although he was back for a short time in 50), the Christian community there was left in the hands of James, sometimes called “James the Just” or “James the Tzaddik (the Righteous One).” As I wrote last week, he might have been the Apostle called in tradition James the Less to distinguish him from James, the son of Zebedee and the brother of John.

James was likely a relative of Jesus. His father was probably Alpheus and his mother the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Therefore, he was likely Jesus’ cousin. However, there is also the tradition that he was the oldest son of Joseph by an earlier marriage, hence Jesus’ legal, but not biological, half-brother. If this is true, he was not one of the Apostles.

Whatever his relationship with Jesus, he was known to live an austere and ascetic life. He also considered himself to be a Jew. He scrupulously followed the Jewish laws of ritual purity, and was allowed to wear the priestly robes and to pray in the Court of the Priests in the Temple.

James was the author of the Letter of James in the New Testament, considered a very Jewish writing. He also insisted that Gentile converts had to be circumcised and follow the Laws of Moses, until the Council of Jerusalem decided otherwise.

However, when that council determined that Gentiles didn’t have to follow the Laws of Moses, James still believed that the Jewish converts in Jerusalem had to do so. When Paul arrived in Jerusalem in the year 56, bringing with him a collection he had taken up during his travels, James warned Paul that he was being accused of telling Jews “not to circumcise their children or to observe their customary practices” (Acts 21:21).

According to the Jewish historian Josephus, James was stoned to death by the Jewish Sanhedrin under the high priest Ananus II in 62 A.D. However, the historian Hegesippus wrote that the scribes and Pharisees first threw him from the pinnacle of the Temple when he refused to deny his faith in Jesus. After it was discovered that he survived the fall, they stoned him.

James’ successor as leader of the Church in Jerusalem was selected by Jesus’ relatives. He was Simeon, another cousin of Jesus. He led the community to Pella in Transjordan when the Zealots revolted against Rome because Jesus had predicted the destruction of Jerusalem. That happened in 70 A.D.

Four years later, the Christians returned to Jerusalem and established a synagogue at the site of the Upper Room on Mount Zion, which they liked to call the Mother of All Churches. Between 74 and 135, when the Roman emperor Hadrian again destroyed the city, there were 14 more bishops, all of them with Jewish names.

Hadrian expelled all the Jews, including the Christian Jews. Then the Romans changed the name of the city to Aelia Capitolina. Until Constantine’s time in the fourth century, the Church there was insignificant. Fortunately, it was thriving in other parts of the world. †

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