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Fate of James the Just |
The dramatic and final defiance of James the Just

Fate of James the Just is drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 234, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Stand above the people and disown Christ, he’s told. He stands all right, and his witness for Jesus resounds through the ages

Fate of James the Just - The dramatic and final defiance of James the Just

Fate of James the Just - The dramatic and final defiance of James the Just
The entrance to the Armenian Orthodox Cathedral of St. James in Jerusalem. The church is dedicated to the memory of James, the brother or stepbrother of Jesus, who was martyred in the city in A.D. 62. The dying James forgave his tormentors in words almost identical to those used by Christ. “Lord God our Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”

Two years before the Great Fire at Rome and Nero’s act of terror against Rome’s still tiny Christian community, there occurred at Jerusalem, nominal capital of Christianity, a dramatic public death that would foreshadow the ancient city’s future catastrophe.

James, brother or stepbrother of Jesus, a man revered as a model of Jewish piety and commitment to God by most Jews, whether followers of Jesus or not, was sentenced to death by an illegally constituted trial. Now an old man, he died, as had Jesus, forgiving the people who had condemned him. He was known as “the Just One.”

When the failed attempt to imprison Peter drove the apostles from Jerusalem, they had named James the Just overseer, or bishop, of the Jerusalem church, which was then the founding and central authority of the new faith. James stayed behind, a center of fierce controversy, because he believed and preached Jesus as messiah. At least one attempt may have been made on his life.

But few doubted his devotion to God. Some called him “the Man With the Callused Knees” because, as a priest, he spent whole days in the Temple, praying for the city and for its people. “He was holy from his mother’s womb,” reports the Christian historian Hegesippus, who wrote late in the first century, and whose work has survived in the writings of Eusebius. “He drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh. No razor came upon his head; he did not anoint himself with oil, and he did not use the bath.”

While some Jews accepted Jesus as a prophet, some merely as a gifted teacher, and the Temple rulers denounced him as “the Great Blasphemer,” James persuaded so many to become fully committed to Jesus that he alarmed the Temple authorities. “When many, even the rulers, believed,” says Hegesippus, “there was a commotion among the Jews and scribes and Pharisees, who said there was a danger the whole people would be looking for Jesus as the Messiah.” (When Hegesippus uses the term “the Jews,” he refers to the leadership, since everyone involved in the case, James included, was Jewish.)

The Jewish historian Josephus implies another explanation for the move to rid the Temple of the old man. James championed the cause of the poorer priests against the prosperous members of the high priestly household who ran the Temple and formed the core of the Sadducean party.

James’s opponents, however, faced a legal difficulty. Though Judea at this time was formally under the rule of a Jewish king, Agrippa II, great grandson of Herod the Great, executions required the ratification of the Roman governor, whose authority superseded the king’s. And the governor, as usual, was inclined to oppose anything the Temple rulers favored.

But in a.d. 62, the Roman governor Festus died in office. A successor, Albinus, was en route to Jerusalem when King Agrippa was persuaded to name a new high priest, one Ananus, whom Josephus describes as “a bold man in his temper and very insolent.” Josephus notes also that Ananus was an active Sadducee, the party “who were very rigid in judging offenders, far more so than Jews.”

Acting in the break between the two governors’ rule, Ananus called into session the Sanhedrin of the Judges, the high court of Judaism, something he had no authority to do without the governor’s approval. The Sanhedrin summoned James to appear before it. Hegesippus takes up the story from there. They told the old man they knew he had great influence over the people, and they themselves recognized him as a just man. However, too many were “going astray” as regards this Jesus, and they could not let that continue.

Now Passover is coming, they said, and thousands of people would be assembled in Jerusalem. They therefore directed him to stand far above the crowd at the “pinnacle” of the Temple, to publicly repudiate Jesus, and to urge the people not to be led astray by him.

Though this is not in the text, historians surmise that the council had reached a further conclusion. If James refused to do this, he stood condemned under a section of the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy that provides the death sentence by stoning for anyone convicted of “leading the people astray.” A modification of this penalty allowed the victim to be first cast down from a great height, then be stoned if still alive.

So James knew exactly what was coming. But he also knew that they had provided him, in his last years, with a superb opportunity to bear witness to the whole assembled people on the occasion of their most sacred feast. Thus, he agreed and was taken to the pinnacle above the crowd. “Now tell them,” ordered his accusers, “what is the Gate of Jesus”–meaning where Jesus was leading them. James’s response rang out to the hushed crowd below:

“Why are you asking me concerning Jesus, the Son of Man? He sits in the Heaven at the right hand of the Great Power, and is about to come upon the clouds of Heaven.”

The crowd became frenzied, yelling “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna to the Son of David!” It was the same cry Jerusalem had heard thirty-some years before, when Jesus had entered the city on the back of a donkey, symbolizing that he came in peace.

Realizing they had bungled the job, Hegesippus recounts, Ananus’s servants hurled James from the parapet. The populace must be shown, they reasoned, that this kind of defiant conduct does not pay. People rushed to the spot where he had crashed to the floor below. They found him still alive, and echoing the prayer of Jesus: “I entreat thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” In response, one of his condemners took a club which was used for beating the water out of washed clothes, and bashed him to death. One version says they placed a stone on him, and bore down on it, crushing him.

Thus perished James the Just, kinsman of Christ, who emulated him in life and death. “The fruit of righteousness is sown in the peace of them that make peace,” says the epistle that bears his name (James 3:18). Or, as J. B. Phillips would translate it: “The peacemakers go on quietly sowing for a harvest of righteousness.”

The troublemakers, however, were about to produce a very different kind of harvest. For the moderates in the Temple, what Ananus had done was intolerable. They sent a protest to the new governor, Albinus, by now at Alexandria, who dispatched a warning to Ananus that he had acted outside the law. Hearing this, King Agrippa promptly fired the new high priest after only three months in office. Ananus became one of the first to

perish in the coming catastrophe

–a catastrophe that the events surrounding James’s bold testimony

and death had made inevitable.

This is the end of the Fate of James the Just category article drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 234, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn. To continue reading more about Fate of James the Just from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at