The story of the martyrdom of James, the brother of Jesus, casts an interesting light on how the early church in Jerusalem understood its future. There are two accounts of his death which are difficult to reconcile, but it is in any case the narrative content that is of concern to us here rather than the historicity of the events described.
According to Josephus, first, an intemperate and insolent high priest called Ananus took the opportunity to assert his authority following the death of the procurator Festus (AD 62). He had James and a number of companions tried by the ‘sanhedrin of judges’, convicted of breaking the Law, and stoned to death (Jos. Ant. 20.9.1). This was widely regarded as judicial murder and provoked considerable discontent among the Jews.
The second account is much more colourful and more suggestive theologically. Eusebius records it in a lengthy quotation from Hegesippus (Eus. Eccl. Hist. 2.23). James is described as a man greatly respected by the Jewish people for his sanctity and righteousness, for which reason he was called James the Just.
Hegesippus writes that James alone was permitted to enter the sanctum of the temple and was often found there ‘kneeling and imploring forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like a camel’s from his continual kneeling in worship of God and in prayer for the people’. This situates him firmly in a narrative about a continuing state of ‘exile’, an impending climactic judgment, and a last-ditched hope of forgiveness. The narrative has its origins in Daniel, runs through the literature of second temple Judaism, and appears in the New Testament in the birth stories, in John’s call to repentance, in Jesus’ teaching about judgment and forgiveness, and in the preaching of the early church in Acts: for example, Peter tells the high priest that God raised Jesus and ‘exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins’ (Acts 5:31). So in the years before the siege of Jerusalem, James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, was praying fervently that his people would be forgiven and saved from destruction.
Hegesippus records that James was asked by representatives of the ‘seven sects among the people’ what ‘the door of Jesus’ meant. His response was that Jesus was the Saviour. This would appear to be an allusion to Jesus’ saying about the ‘narrow door’ that would lead to life (see Lk. 13:22-24 - Are those being saved few?). In Matthew it is a narrow gate and a difficult road leading to life, in contrast to a broad gate and an easy road leading to destruction (Matt. 7:13). The account of James’ martyrdom naturally locates the saying about ‘the door of Jesus’ within a narrative about the salvation of a ‘few’ Jews from the destruction of the war.
Although these sects supposedly did not believe in a resurrection or a judgment of the Jews according to what each person had done, some believed because of James’ teaching. Again, if we take the narrative context seriously, the argument about resurrection and judgment has to be linked to the conviction that Israel faced imminent disaster as a consequence of its rebellion against YHWH. The thought is entirely congruent with – and no doubt is derived from – Daniel’s description of an extreme time of trouble for the Jews, when ‘your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt’ (Dan. 12:1-2). In this setting the themes of resurrection and judgment are centered – as a matter of political-religious urgency – on the catastrophic events that were about to overtake the Jews.
James’ claim that Jesus was the door by which Israel might find forgiveness and deliverance from the coming judgment caused an uproar. The scribes and Pharisees made him stand on the temple parapet and demanded that he dissuade the people from straying after Jesus who was crucified. They asked him again what ‘the door of Jesus’ meant. James replied, ‘Why do you ask me about the Son of Man? He is sitting in heaven at the right hand of the Great Power, and he will come on the clouds of heaven.’ The narrative relevance of the statement is clear: Jesus is the one who suffered because of the apostasy of Israel and the antipathy of the pagan oppressor; he has been vindicated against the rulers of Israel by his resurrection; and the impending destruction must be interpreted as his coming on the clouds as judge.
As a result of this testimony many more came to believe, and the scribes and Pharisees quickly realized that the occasion was becoming a PR disaster for them. So they threw James down from the parapet and stoned him as he prayed, like Jesus and Stephen before him (eg. Lk. 23:34; Acts 7:60), ‘I implore you, O Lord, God and Father, forgive them: they do not know what they are doing.’ Significantly, at the moment of his martyrdom, Stephen also saw a vision of the ‘Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’. When the crowd realized that James was praying for them, one of the priests took up a club and struck James on the head, killing him.
Eusebius then comments that ‘after this Vespasian began to besiege them’, and that many Jews regarded the murder of this righteous man as the direct cause of the siege of Jerusalem (cf. Origen, Contra Celsum 1.47; 2.13). He notes that Josephus was of the same opinion, though the sentence he quotes is not found in any of the historian’s extant works: ‘These things happened to the Jews as retribution for James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus who was called Christ, for the Jews killed him despite his great righteousness.’
While there clearly remain doubts about the detailed historicity of Hegesippus’ account, it demonstrates nevertheless that the story that the New Testament tells about a ‘Son of man’ figure who will offer a narrow door of forgiveness and salvation, who will be rejected by the leaders in Jerusalem, who will suffer, be vindicated and come in judgment (cf. Matt. 16:21-28), must relate in the first place to the historical circumstances of Israel in the decades preceding the disastrous rebellion against Rome, which resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.