Q: Television shows and books refer to St. James as the brother of Jesus. In the Apostles’ Creed we say, “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,….” If St. James is Jesus’ brother, would James not also be God’s son? Were Mary and Joseph the parents of James?
A: “James, the brother of the Lord” has puzzled people for centuries. The New Testament refers to three men named James.
James, brother of John the Apostle, himself an apostle and a son of Zebedee (Matthew 4:21, etc.), is called James the Greater. He was martyred by King Herod Agrippa I about 41 A.D. (Acts 12:2) and is venerated in Santiago de Compostela (Spain).
James, son of Alphaeus, also an apostle (Matthew 10:3, etc.), is known as James the Lesser. He was clubbed to death and is often confused with “James, the brother of the Lord.”
This third James is the brother of Joseph/Joses, Simon and Judas of Nazareth (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3). Jesus appeared to this James after the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:7). With Peter, he led the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:13-21), is mentioned by St. Paul (Galatians 2:12) and was stoned to death in 62 A.D. on the high priest’s orders.
This James is the presumed author of the New Testament’s Letter of James. He may have been Jesus’ cousin; other members of his family headed the Church in Jerusalem until that city was destroyed in 70 A.D.
For us, the term “brother” means a male relative sharing identical parents with the person who calls him “brother.” The term, however, in some societies can include other male relatives, even cousins.
Jesus uses “brother” in an even wider sense in Mark 3:35 (“For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother”), Matthew 25:40, Luke 22:32 and John 20:17.
The Catholic Church maintains that Mary had only one child, Jesus, who was not biologically the son of Joseph (Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:34-35).
Already in the second century, the Protoevangelium of James described these “brothers of Jesus” as children of Joseph by a previous marriage. St. Jerome (d. 420) considered them cousins of Jesus.
Matthew 13:56 and Mark 6:3 refer to Jesus’ sisters but give no names.
There is no scriptural evidence that Joseph was a single parent before marrying Mary. Raymond Brown’s An Introduction to the New Testament (Doubleday) has more on this subject.