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To take over the Nazarene leadership was a risky proposition. Both previous leaders, John the Baptist and Jesus, had been executed. They now needed a new charismatic commander. James, Jesus’ brother, was just the man.
Jesus had been a potential legitimate king and messiah because he was of the royal bloodline of David. James too was of this bloodline, and of the same flesh and blood as Jesus through at least one parent in common, their mother. It’s possible James was the “disciple Jesus loved,” (John 13:23 and 19:23–25 NJB) not named because Gentile editors wanted to minimize his importance.
Paul, writing in the 50’s CE, stated that he went to Jerusalem to
“meet Peter and James, the brother of the Lord” (Gal. 1:19, NJB.) This hinted at the important status of James. Later in Galatians, Paul wrote,
“So James, Peter, and John, these leaders, these pillars…” (Gal. 2:9, NJB.) That James was in charge is convincingly confirmed by the following quote from Paul:
“When Cephas came to Antioch, however, I opposed him to his face, since he was manifestly in the wrong. His custom had been to eat with the pagans, but after certain friends of James arrived he stopped doing this and kept away from them altogether for fear of the group that insisted on circumcision” (Gal. 2:11–12, NJB.) Peter (Cephas) was careful to be seen doing what James wanted.
The Book of Acts also portrays James as the leader of the disciples.
Eusebius of Caesarea (260-340 CE,) the most important early Christian historian of all, wrote that:
“James, whom men of old had surnamed ‘Just’ for his excellence of virtue, is recorded to have been the first elected to the throne of the Oversight of the church in Jerusalem” (Church History 2.1.2.)
Saint Jerome, a prolific commentator and translator of early Christian material, quoted from Hegesippus’ (a first century writer) account of James from the fifth book of his lost “Commentaries:”
“After the apostles, James the brother of the Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem. Many indeed are called James. This one was holy from his mother’s womb. He drank neither wine nor strong drink, ate no flesh, never shaved or anointed himself with ointment or bathed. He alone had the privilege of entering the Holy of Holies, since indeed he did not use woolen vestments but linen and went alone into the temple and prayed in behalf of the people, insomuch that his knees were reputed to have acquired the hardness of camels’ knees.” (De Viris Illustribi.)
The “Holy of Holies” was a term referring to the inner sanctuary of the temple in Jerusalem. Since it was unlawful for anyone but the high priest of the temple to enter it, and then only once a year, this suggests James was considered a de facto high priest. The official high priest at the time had been chosen by Rome, and the Nazarenes considered him illegitimate.
James had obviously managed to achieve a high status among his own people. He was described in terms that emphasized his association with the temple and Judaism. His vegetarianism, unshaven state and wearing of linen were all Essenian traits.
Josephus also described James as a pious Jew who was well respected, and observed all the obligations of Judaism.
He was clearly a leading Jewish figure in Jerusalem until his death in 62 CE, yet he’s barely mentioned in the bible or in the annals of church history. The Gospel writers and church historians have deliberately diminished his importance for obvious reasons; he was too Jewish, and his beliefs were diametrically opposed to Paul’s proto-Christian theology. His existence as Jesus’ successor also discredits the untrue Catholic idea that the leadership of the movement was transferred to Peter.
Let’s consider the community led by James in the two decades after Jesus’ death. The traditional story about this group is in the book of Acts, in which they’re portrayed as Christians, but I think this was a deliberate misrepresentation. The loss of two leaders in close succession, John the Baptist and then Jesus, must have devastated them. Matthew and John have the disciples going back to Galilee, yet Acts and Luke have the risen Jesus telling them not to leave Jerusalem. What’s clear is that over the next few decades, they settled in Jerusalem.
There’s no doubt that for them, Jerusalem was a dangerous place. Jesus had been crucified there. The Sadducees and a garrison of Roman troops were an ever-present threat. I think they settled in Jerusalem because they were still dreaming about the kingdom of God, centered in the capital of the Jewish world. The author of Acts explains that this kingdom was still a general expectation when, in the first chapter, the resurrected Jesus appears:
“Now having met together, they asked him, ‘Lord, has the time come? Are you going to restore the kingdom of Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know times or dates that the Father has decided by his own authority, but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth’” (Acts 1:9–12, NJB.) The author was writing seventy- plus years after Jesus’ death. At this late time the second coming of Jesus hadn’t happened, so he was advising his readers they’d better not hold their breath waiting.
The Nazarenes called themselves “saints” or “followers of the way” or “the faithful” or “disciples” or “the poor” or the “children of light.” They saw themselves as preparing “the way” for the return of Yahweh as described in Isaiah:
“The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isa. 40:3, KJV.) They saw themselves as God’s chosen people, and were true believers in the power and glory of Israel. They had a broad base of support among Jews throughout Judea and much of the Roman Empire. All other Essenes and zealots throughout Judea would have regarded them favorably, as would many Pharisees and common Jews. The Roman world considered any member of the Nazarenes “a pest” who “stirs up trouble among Jews the world over,” (see Acts 24:5) with good reason, as they were xenophobic and militant.
They were fundamentally opposed to Paul’s doctrine, (the basis of Christianity) didn’t accept him as an apostle, and quite rightly considered him an annoying heretic allied to the Gentile world. So Jesus’ family and friends were, therefore, strongly opposed to what became Christianity.
Some early church fathers claimed they wrote an early Hebrew version of Matthew’s Gospel, from which Jesus’ genealogy is derived, but one without the pro-Gentile changes. That would definitely have made an interesting read, but not surprisingly, no copy has survived. It would bear only a passing resemblance to what has become today’s Gospel of Matthew.
Some Nazarenes were sent out as missionaries to other cities. The author Douglas Lockhart believes that by the time James died in 62 CE, the Nazarenes had boosted their numbers to about eight thousand by recruiting Jews. Peter went to Antioch (as described in Galatians 2.) These missionaries may have even got as far as Rome.
Many historians, particularly those favorably biased towards the “traditional” story put forward in Acts, don’t accept that James and Jesus’ original disciples weren’t Christians. The writers of the Catholic Encyclopedia, for example, have made a deliberate choice not to discuss the Nazarenes, despite the fact they are mentioned in the bible and by some church fathers. I think the encyclopedia’s authors would have some difficult explaining to do if Catholics around the world started learning about James and the Nazarenes.
Jesus, his family and disciples were Jewish, not Christians, which means today’s Christianity is based on a lie.