Seek Out James the Righteous

The New Testament only hints at the outsized role James, the brother of the Master, played in the early community of believers.

Artwork from the Torah Club Jesus, My Rabbi study, lesson "Doubting Thomas". (Image and art © First Fruits of Zion)

After the resurrected Yeshua appeared to Peter, the Eleven, and the five hundred, “then He appeared to James” (1 Corinthians 15:7). The Gospel of the Hebrews transmits a tradition about how it happened.

Prior to Yeshua’s crucifixion and death, James had not accepted his brother’s messianic claims. “Not even His brothers were believing in Him” (John 7:5). Like everyone else, James and his brothers were in Jerusalem for the Passover. The news of Yeshua’s arrest and crucifixion shocked James. Had his brother not predicted that this would happen? Had He not told His disciples, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things which are written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished … they will kill Him; and the third day He will rise again” (Luke 18:31-33)?

The death of Yeshua apparently broke through James’ resistance and changed his views about his brother. James immediately took a vow to fast until he saw Yeshua raised from the dead. Vows to abstain from a certain thing until a specific end was achieved were not uncommon (e.g., Acts 23:14). The risky vow indicates ardent faith. If Yeshua’s prophecies about rising from the dead did not come to pass, James would need to either have the vow revoked or die from starvation. The force of the vow may have allowed James to exempt himself from the halachic prohibition against fasting on festivals and Sabbaths.

According to one version of the Jerome passage, it seems that James attended the Last Supper with the other disciples and took the vow in the upper room:

James had sworn that he would not eat bread from the hour in which he drank the cup of the Master until he had seen him rising again from those who sleep.

This version implies that James was present at the Last Seder and drank of the shared cup with the Twelve. The reading, however, has some problems. None of the Gospels indicate that James was present at that meal. Moreover, why would James undertake such a fast prior to the death of the Master? A second version of the passage clears up the confusion. In the Greek version, the same passage appears as follows:

James had sworn that he would not taste bread from the hour in which the Master drank the cup until he had seen him risen from the dead.

“The hour in which the Master drank the cup” does not refer to the Last Supper; it means the hour of Yeshua’s death. The Gospels use that terminology to indicate the Master’s crucifixion and death (Matthew 20:22, 26:39; Mark 10:39, 14:36; Luke 22:42; John 18:11). Therefore, the passage in Jerome should be understood to mean that James undertook the fast only after he heard about the crucifixion.

On the day after the Sabbath, the disciples brought James news about the empty tomb and the alleged appearances. James refused to break his fast. He had sworn not to taste food until he himself saw Yeshua. After all, the two brothers had some matters to resolve. James surely regretted his former unbelief and had come to regard his brother Yeshua as the true Messiah of Israel. He longed to have one more chance to see Him and set things right. He was not content to place his faith in the hearsay of others; he insisted on a personal encounter with the living Yeshua.

James found himself fasting his way through the days of Passover, praying and crying out to God for a second chance with his brother. Ordinarily, when a person loses a family member or loved one, he remembers the relationship with some regrets. He wishes he could retract harsh words or unkind actions. He thinks of the many opportunities he missed for fellowship, and he wishes for a second chance with his loved one. We do not get that chance. James did. With Yeshua, death is not the end.

Several days of continual fasting left James weak and feverish. At some time and in some place during those days, the Master revealed Himself to His brother:

“But the Master … went to James and revealed himself to him. James had sworn that he would not taste bread from the hour in which the Master drank the cup until he had seen him risen from the dead.” And again, a little further on it says, “‘Bring me a table and bread,’ said the Master.” And immediately, it adds, “He took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave to James the Righteous and said to him, ‘My brother, eat your bread, for the Son of Man has risen from the dead.’” (Jerome, Lives of Illustrious Men)

Yeshua commanded the servants to bring a table and matzah. He reclined with James at the table. He made the blessing over the bread, broke it, and shared it with His brother. From that moment on, James was not only a believer, but he became the head over the assembly of Messiah for the next three decades. From then on, the people called him James the Righteous.

The apocryphal Gospel of Thomas reports a post-resurrection conversation between Yeshua and His disciples regarding James:

The disciples said to Yeshua, “We know you will leave us. Who will be our leader?” Yeshua said to them, “Wherever you are, seek out James the Righteous.”

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