In the Gospel according to Matthew and in the Epistle to the Galatians, the James whom we commemorate today is called the Lord’s brother. Other writers, following Mark’s tradition, believe him to have been a cousin of Jesus. Certain apocryphal writings speak of him as a son of Joseph’s first wife. Whatever his relationship to Jesus—brother, half-brother, or cousin—James was converted after the resurrection. Eventually, he became Bishop of Jerusalem.
In the first letter to the Corinthians (15:7), Paul says that James was favored with a special appearance of the Lord before the ascension. Later, James dealt cordially with Paul at Jerusalem, when the latter came there to meet Peter and the other apostles. During the Council of Jerusalem, when there was disagreement about whether Gentile converts should be circumcised, James summed up the momentous decision with these words: “My judgment is that we should impose no irksome restrictions on those Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19).
Eusebius, quoting from an earlier church history by Hegesippus, declares that James was surnamed “the Just.” He was holy, abstemious, did not cut his hair nor oil his body, and was continually on his knees in prayer, interceding for his people. “As many as came to believe did so through James,” says Hegesippus.
James’ success in converting many to Christ greatly perturbed some factions in Jerusalem. According to Hegesippus, they begged him to “restrain the people, for they have gone astray to Jesus, thinking him to be the Messiah . . . we bear you witness that you are just. . . . Persuade the people that they do not go astray . . . we put our trust in you.” They then set James on the pinnacle of the temple, bidding him to preach to the multitude and turn them from Jesus. James, however, testified for the Lord. Thereupon, they hurled him from the roof to the pavement, and cudgeled him to death.