Here is a topic-du-jour not related to the Amy-Jill Levine book, which we will continue to review and discuss in future posts. The subject of James came up in my life yesterday as I was writing a freelance assignment. I had to quote the words of Josephus about James the brother of Yeshua. His name was actually Jacob (Ya’akov). James is simply a misnomer from the Greek Iakobos, Jacob. Does anyone out there know if King James had anything to do with Iakobos becoming “James”?
Josephus was a Galilean who served as commander of the Jewish forces in the first Roman revolt (66-70 C.E.). Josephus was captured and became a bit of a traitor, helping the Romans translate in their negotiations with the Jews. He was taken care of by the emperor after the war and sought to redeem himself by writing favorably about the Jewish people for a Roman audience.
Numerous characters come up in Josephus. It is what makes reading him so hard. There are so many details and so many characters, it makes Lord of the Rings seem like a one-act play.
The account about James in Josephus serves mainly as an illustration of how cruel the high priest Ananus was and how he became unpopular with the people. His execution of James was one major reason the people ceased to support him:
Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he [Ananus] assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that which he had already done was not to be justified. (Ant. 20.9.1).
Did you catch that? The significance of this portrayal of James is great for understanding his character. The people, especially the devout, were not happy about James’ execution. They considered James, the Messianic Jew, a righteous man. Josephus makes a point to show that the Sanhedrin could only execute him while the Roman government was temporarily without a leader. Josephus also shows that the people sided with James against the Sanhedrin.
In a time when Jews were so divided over the issue of Yeshua, what made James so popular with the people? After all, he was the head of the congregation in Jerusalem according to Acts.
There are several clues in the New Testament and in early Christian writing that can help us understand his popularity. First, from the book of James it is easy to see that James was: (1) a champion of the poor (1:10-11; 2:2-6; 5:1-6), (2) a man concerned with keeping the Torah properly and in the spirit of love (1:22, 25; 2:8, 12), and (3) a man skilled in teaching Jewish wisdom (James 3). James was a man so righteous, filled with the teaching of Moses and the prophets, and so full of love and wisdom, even those who disbelieved in Yeshua could not accuse him of any wrong.
Eusebius, an early Christian historian, quotes an even earlier historian, Hegesippus, about James. According to Hegesippus, James was known as “camel-knees” because he prayed often and knelt in prayer. James prayed, furthermore, in the temple, with other Jews, and did not separate himself from his Jewish brothers.
I would like to suggest that James is a great paradigm for Messianic Judaism today. We need to be:
1. In the Jewish community (as James was praying at the temple) without compromising our faith in Yeshua.
2. So identified with righteousness, love, and concern for the poor (as James’ writing and reputation reflect) that we cannot be discredited.
Father, may our spirits be like the spirit of James, champion of the poor, lover of his people, and keeper of Torah.