|At the Council of Jerusalem and through the New
Testament Letter that bears his name, the Apostle James shows that faith
and works are key
At the General Audience on
Wednesday, 28 June, in St. Peter's Square, continuing his Catecheses on
the Church's apostolic ministry, the Holy Father commented on St. James,
"the son of Alphaeus" but often identified as "James the Lesser" and
"James, the brother of the Lord". The following is a translation of the
Pope's Catechesis, given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Beside the figure of James the Greater, son of Zebedee, of whom we
spoke last Wednesday, another James appears in the Gospels, known as "the
Lesser". He is also included in the list of the Twelve Apostles personally
chosen by Jesus and is always specified as "the son of Alphaeus" (Mt 10:3;
Mk 3:18; Lk 5; Acts 1:13). He has often been identified with another
James, called "the Younger" (cf. Mk 15:40), the son of a Mary (cf.
ibid.), possibly "Mary the wife of Clopas", who stood, according to
the Fourth Gospel, at the foot of the Cross with the Mother of Jesus (cf.
He also came from Nazareth and was probably related to Jesus (cf. Mt
13:55; Mk 6:3); according to Semitic custom he is called "brother" (Mk
6:3; Gal 1:19).
The book of the Acts of the Apostles emphasizes the prominent role that
this latter James played in the Church of Jerusalem. At the Apostolic
Council celebrated there after the death of James the Greater he declared,
together with the others, that pagans could be received into the Church
without first submitting to circumcision (cf. Acts 15:13). St. Paul, who
attributes a specific appearance of the Risen One to James (cf. 1
Cor 17:7), even named James before Cephas-Peter on the occasion of his
visit to Jerusalem, describing him as a "pillar" of that Church on a par
with Peter (cf. Gal 2:9).
Subsequently, Judeo-Christians considered him their main reference
point. The Letter that bears the name of James is also attributed to him
and is included in the New Testament canon. In it, he is not presented as
a "brother of the Lord" but as a "servant of God and of the Lord Jesus
Christ (Jas 1:1).
Among experts, the question of the identity of these two figures with
the same name, James son of Alphaeus and James "the brother of the Lord",
is disputed. With reference to the period of Jesus' earthly life, the
Gospel traditions have not kept for us any account of either one of them.
The Acts of the Apostles, on the other hand, reveal that a "James"
played a very important role in the early Church, as we have already
mentioned, after the Resurrection of Jesus (cf. Acts 12:17; 15:13-21;
His most important act was his intervention in the matter of the
difficult relations between the Christians of Jewish origin and those of
pagan origin: in this matter, together with Peter, he contributed to
overcoming, or rather, to integrating the original Jewish dimension of
Christianity with the need not to impose upon converted pagans the
obligation to submit to all the norms of the Law of Moses. The Book of
Acts has preserved for us the solution of compromise proposed precisely by
James and accepted by all the Apostles present, according to which pagans
who believed in Jesus Christ were to be asked only to abstain from the
idolatrous practice of eating the meat of animals offered in sacrifice to
the gods, and from "impropriety", a term which probably alluded to
irregular matrimonial unions. In practice, it was a question of adhering
to only a few prohibitions of Mosaic Law held to be very important.
Thus, two important and complementary results were obtained, both of
which are still valid today: on the one hand, the inseparable relationship
that binds Christianity to the Jewish religion, as to a perennially alive
and effective matrix, was recognized; and on the other, Christians of
pagan origin were permitted to keep their own sociological identity which
they would have lost had they been forced to observe the so-called
"ceremonial precepts" of Moses.
Henceforth, these precepts were no longer to be considered binding for
converted pagans. In essence, this gave rise to a practice of reciprocal
esteem and respect which, despite subsequent regrettable
misunderstandings, aimed by its nature to safeguard what was
characteristic of each one of the two parties.
Illegally stoned to death
The oldest information on the death of this James is given to us by the
Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. In his Jewish Antiquities (29, 201ff.),
written in Rome towards the end of the first century, he says that the
death of James was decided with an illegal initiative by the high Priest
Ananus, a son of the Anaias attested to in the Gospels; in the year 62, he
profited from the gap between the deposition of one Roman Procurator
(Festus) and the arrival of his successor (Albinus), to hand him over for
As well as the apocryphal Proto-Gospel of James, which exalts the
holiness and virginity of Mary, Mother of Jesus, the Letter that bears his
name is particularly associated with the name of this James. In the canon
of the New Testament, it occupies the first place among the so-called
"Catholic Letters", that is, those that were not addressed to any single
particular Church — such as Rome,
Ephesus, etc. — but to many Churches.
It is quite an important writing which heavily insists on the purely
verbal or abstract declaration, but to express it in practice in good
works. Among other things, he invites us to be constant in trials,
joyfully accepted, and to pray with trust to obtain from God the gift of
wisdom, thanks to which we succeed in understanding that the true values
of life are not to be found in transient riches but rather in the ability
to share our possessions with the poor and the needy (cf. Jas 1:27).
Thus, St. James' Letter shows us a very concrete and practical
Christianity. Faith must be fulfilled in life, above all, in love of
neighbour and especially in dedication to the poor. It is against this
background that the famous sentence must be read: "As the body apart from
the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead" (Jas 2:26).
At times, this declaration by St. James has been considered as opposed
to the affirmations of Paul, who claims that we are justified by God not
by virtue of our actions but through our faith (cf. Gal 2:16; Rom 3:28).
However, if the two apparently contradictory sentences with their
different perspectives are correctly interpreted, they actually complete
St. Paul is opposed to the pride of man who thinks he does not need the
love of God that precedes us; he is opposed to the pride of
self-justification without grace, simply given and undeserved.
St. James, instead, talks about works as the normal fruit of faith:
"Every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit",
the Lord says (Mt 7:17). And St. James repeats it and says it to us.
Lastly, the Letter of James urges us to abandon ourselves in the hands
of God in all that we do: "If the Lord wills" (Jas. 4:15). Thus, he
teaches us not to presume to plan our lives autonomously and with self
interest, but to make room for the inscrutable will of God, who knows what
is truly good for us.
In this way, St. James remains an ever up-to-date teacher of life for
each one of us.