Leader of the Jerusalem community

Daily Reading for October 23 • St. James of Jerusalem, Brother of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and Martyr, c. 62

As leader of the Jewish Christian communities and in particular the Jerusalem community, James was predominantly concerned with the self-definition and identity of Jesus’ followers. Like his brother Jesus, James saw his Jewish heritage. He did this by working for the restoration of the people of Israel following the direction set by Jesus’ ministry. James did not envision the followers of Jesus belonging to a new religion; they were the true heirs of God’s promises made to Israel. In Jesus’ life and ministry these promises had begun to be realized. This messianic movement belonged fully within the world of Israel’s faith and heritage. James sought to remain true to this vision.

As leader of the Jewish Christian communities in Jerusalem and the Diaspora, James approached every issue from the framework of his Jewish heritage. The decision of the Council of Jerusalem and the Apostolic Decree illustrate this approach very well. Circumcision was not required of the Gentile men who followed Jesus, and no ritual or cultic laws were required of Gentile believers beyond the stipulations that belonged to all Gentiles, namely the Noachide commandments and Leviticus 17-18. These stipulations were important for James, as they were a way of demonstrating identity: for the followers of Jesus these were the laws that gave them an identity in distinction to the society around them. These stipulations enabled them to define the boundaries. . . .

James’ ethnic and religious background as a Jewish Christian defined his whole perspective. James saw his role as remaining faithful to the directions set by Jesus in striving for the restoration of God’s twelve-tribe kingdom. Fidelity to Torah was the center for retaining access to God and for defining boundaries in interface with others. The struggle with Peter, Barnabas, and Paul related to James’ concern with preserving the centuries-old Jewish social map of the world. In relation to Paul’s outreach to the Gentile world, James’ attitude was more one of tolerance than active support. In effect James’ approach was to confine himself to the world of Jewish Christians. If Gentiles wished to associate with the Christian movement, James had no objection. He viewed their relationship with Jewish Christians as analogous to the relationship that existed between Jews and resident aliens within the world of Palestine.

From James of Jerusalem: Heir to Jesus of Nazareth by Patrick J. Hartin (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2004).

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