The Death of James the Brother of Jesus

At the death of the Roman governor Festus, Lucceius Albinus (6264 C.E.) succeeded as governor of Judea. By this time, the two factions of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (both the Greek-speaking Hellenized Christian Jews and the conservative Hebrew Christian Jews) together with the chief priests and Jewish leaders, King Agrippa II and his sister/queen Berenice, and the Roman governors were all embrangled in a multifarious social web of competing political and religious interests. In the interregnum between the death of Festus and the arrival of Albinus, events came to a head: James (whether one of the apostles or whether he was not an apostle but was a brother of Jesus is a matter of dispute in patristic texts) was stoned to death by the Jewish leaders who feared the unrest in Jerusalem caused by the agitated expectation of the imminent kingdom of God on earth.

This James had led the Hebrew-Christian community in Jerusalem from 42-62 C.E. and was among those who had tried to tone down Paul's new universalism. His own Hebrew-Christian church, which included the conservative followers and apostles of Jesus, resented Paul's mission to the gentiles. As a result, James could no longer mediate among his own conservative Hebrew Christians, the Hellenized Christians led by Peter and Paul, and the Sanhedrin Jewish priests and leaders. Paul had been removed from Jerusalem by the Romans and remained under house arrest in Caesarea, but the Sanhedrin priests did not forget that they had been foiled in their attempt to have him executed.

As they watched the Christian movement spread beyond the borders of Palestine and as they observed the uproar in the city as Jesus worshippers gathered for the Passover celebration, the Jewish priests and leaders must have felt their power waning. In desperation, they asked James to intervene and address the crowd from the Temple parapet, to explain that Jesus was not the Son of God. Instead, James delivered an uncompromising eulogy on the "Son of Man," which incited rather than calmed the crowd. The Jewish leaders were outraged. They reacted with violence. Although they did not have the right to inflict capital punishment, which was the exclusive prerogative of the Roman governor, they called James to account for his sermon and then, at the order of the high priest Ananas and in defiance of Roman law, they killed James and several of his fellow Christians (see Primary Document 2.7).

After the death of James, the relations between the Jews and the Romans and between the Jews and the rival groups among the Christian Jews continued to deteriorate. The less rigid interpretation of Jesus' teaching that Paul and the Hellenized Christians were teaching gained credence and, in time, prevailed. For them, the fulfillment of the law was no longer the way to eternal life; instead, salvation was assured only in the eschatology revealed by Jesus, who was the new Messiah. Jesus had replaced Moses as the arbitrator of salvation, and his followers could claim that they had received their authority to make this claim as the gift of the spirit during baptism. The Hebrew-Christian church in Jerusalem faded precisely as Paul's mission to the gentiles and Hellenized Jews spread to Rome. Indeed, according to Paul, Jesus had made all things new (2 Cor 5.17).

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