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Hegessipus (c.110-1180) recorded this about James:

After the apostles, James the brother of the Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Churchat Jerusalem. Many indeed are called James. This one was holy from his mother’s womb. He drank neither wine nor strong drink, ate no flesh, never shaved or anointed himself with ointment or bathed. He alone had the privilege of entering the Holy of Holies, since indeed he did not use woollen vestments but linen and went alone into the temple and prayed in behalf of the people, insomuch that his knees were reputed to have acquired the hardness of camels’ knees.

The chronicler Josephus (c.37-100) records that the Jewish authorities had James put to death when he refused to deny Christ, and that his death caused great unrest in Jerusalem; scholars think this took place about 62 A.D. From this description he seems to have been, like John the Baptist, a Nazirite – a man set aside from the rest by the asceticism and purity of his life style and conduct.

All of this confirms what a study of the text of James’ Epistle and of Acts and Paul’s writings suggests, which is that James was the leader of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem at a time when it was stil firmly embedded in its Jewish context. That, of course, meant conflict. The Jewish authorities who had had Him crucified hardly welcomed the news of the resurrection and its effect on His disciples. We see in Acts the condemnation of Stephen, as well as the improsionment of Peter and the attempts to arrest Paul. We see that after Stephen’s death some Christians felt the need to fleee to Antioch; we see that James was not one of them.

Acts 6:1-7 tells us that even before Stephen’s death there were strains between the Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews concerning the ditribution of food, and it may well have been linked to the problems we see later in Acts and in Galatians about Jews and non-Jews sharing food fellowship. Paul’s account makes it clear that it was ‘men from James’ (ἀπὸ Ἰακώβου) who came to Antioch and stopped Peter from sharing table fellowship with non-Jews. James and the church in Jerusalem seem to have expected non-Jewish converts to come under the stipulations of the Mosaic Law.

The Council of Jerusalem, over which James presided, sorted matters out in a way which the successors to the Apostles would have been wise to have copied. That the Council was held there, and that James presided allows us to cath a glimpse of the position of Jerusalem as mother church. It was not simply that Jesus had died and was raised from the dead there. It was the center of Israel, and according to the Old Testament, the “place where God chose his name to dwell.” Beyond Judea, Jerusalem held a position of honor among Jews. The Church itself was still largely Jewish and the churches founded in Europe by Paul, “apostle to the Gentiles,” sent contributions back to Jerusalem, even when they could scarcely afford them.

It was only later, after the catastrophic war with Rome which ended in A.D. 70 with the destruction of the Temple and much of the city, that Jerusalem could no longer function as the center of Christendom. But before Peter and Paul met their deaths in the sixties, Jerusalem was still the center, and James was the person at its center.

There are signs that the role of head of the Church in Jerusalem was hereditary in the family of Jesus, Hegesippus notes:

After James the Just had suffered martyrdom for the same reason as the Lord, Symeon, his cousin, the son of Clopas, was appointed bishop, whom they all proposed because he was another cousin of the Lord.

With the destruction of the Temple, and the Roman repraisals, and then the later revolts, the church is Jerusalem went into a decline from which it has never recovered – but James the Just stands as an example of what might have happened had all men been of his sort.