Sean McDowell | January 21, 2016

Did James, the Brother of Jesus, Die as a Martyr?

In my recent book The Fate of the Apostles, I examine the claim that the apostles died as martyrs for their faith. One apostle who often gets overlooked is James, the brother of Jesus. While James wasn’t one of the Twelve, there is good reason to believe he was not a believer of Jesus during his public ministry (Mark 3:20-35; John 7:5), he saw the risen Jesus (1 Cor 15:7), and became the key leader in the Jerusalem church (Gal 2:9; Acts 21:17-26).


James 5:6 has sometimes been understood as a reference to martyrdom: “You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.” According to John Painter, the reference to the “righteous one” is an autobiographical account by the author. Since Painter assumes the epistle of James is pseudonymous and appears after his death, he believes this passage should be understood in relation to his martyrdom.[1] If the letter is pseudonymous, then this may be a possibility.

But this raises a host of other difficulties. While the “righteous” person could be an individual such as Christ, Stephen, or James, it is likelier a general reference to a certain class of people. In 5:16b, James says, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” This is meant as a generic truth about the power of prayer. James then uses Elijah as a specific example of a righteous one whom God answered his fervent prayers (5:17-18). While James and Jesus would fall under the general category of “righteous” ones, the reference in 5:6 is unlikely to be to either of them since there is no tradition that their deaths came at the hands of the rich. Thus, it is necessary to look outside the canonical books for evidence for the martyrdom of James.


Jewish historian Josephus provides the earliest account of the death of James in Antiquities of the Jews 20.197-203 (c. 93/94). In the wider context, Josephus offers a discussion about the difficulties Rome was having with its residents, which led to the invasion and destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The specific passage regarding James allows the dating of his execution to AD 62, since Josephus places his death between two Roman procurators, Festus and Albinus. Upon the death of Festus, Nero appointed Albinus as the next procurator, but during the brief transition period, Ananus, who was appointed high priest by Herod Agrippa II, seized the opportunity provided by the vacancy in the procuratorial government, to have James, the brother of Jesus, and others with him, stoned to death.

While many scholars have disputed the statement by Josephus about Jesus in Antiquities 18, the reference to the death of James in Antiquities 20.197-203 is largely undisputed.

Eusebius also records an account similar to Josephus’s account,[2] both which provide historical support for the existence of James, indicate that he was well known and influential among Christians and Jews in Jerusalem, and establish his death at the hands of religious leaders. And Josephus, who had become a Pharisee six years earlier and was likely serving as a priest at this time in Jerusalem, was in a good position to know the details surrounding these reported events.

Scholars in the early twentieth century disputed the passage by Josephus more than they do now. Today, most scholars accept the authenticity of this extended passage. The reasons are twofold. First, we have no reason to suspect what would have motivated a possible forgery. Why would a Christian forging this passage invent the death of James without, so to speak, finishing the job? The passage lacks commitment, lacks Christianity—such as a clear and compelling confessional statement? Second, James is introduced as “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.” This is precisely the type of designation that would be expected for a Jew. If a Christian interpolated the passage it would likely say “the brother of Jesus, who was the Christ.”

Two other Christian accounts also confirm the martyrdom of James, even if they differ over the details. Hegesippus provides a detailed account in Book 5 of his Memoirs (Hypomnemata), which have been preserved in Eusebius.[3] And Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 150-215) also provides an account of the fate of James in the seventh book of his Hypotyposes, as recorded by Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 2.1.4b-5).


An account of the execution of James is also found in a couple (somewhat) early Gnostic sources. The First Apocalypse of James is an early third century Gnostic text based upon a series of personal revelations James receives from Jesus. While there were formerly debates about the damaged ending of the martyrdom account, the First Apocalypse of James is now considered an example of martyrdom literature.[4] In fact, the entirety of the text aims to prepare James, as well as the reader, for martyrdom.

The Second Apocalypse of James also preserves an additional (possibly) early Gnostic tradition of the martyrdom of James.


There is little reason to doubt that James was killed. But why? Professor Darrell Bock provides the most reasonable explanation:

What Law was it James broke, given his reputation within Christian circles as a Jewish Christian leader who was careful about keeping the Law? It would seem likely that the Law had to relate to his Christological allegiances and a charge of blasphemy. This would fit the fact that he was stoned, which was the penalty for such a crime, and parallels how Stephen was handled as well.”[5]

The evidence for the martyrdom of James is early and consistent, and it comes from a variety of different sources that includes Jews, Christians, and Gnostics. All things considered, there is good reason to believe James died as a martyr in AD 62 while leading the early church in Jerusalem.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog at

[1] John Painter, Just James: The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition (Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 1997), 259.

[2] Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History 2.23.21-24.

[3] Hegesippus (c. AD 170) provides a detailed account in book 5 of His Memoirs, which is recorded in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.23.8-18. Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 150-215) also provides an account of the fate of James in the seventh book of his Hypotyposes, as recorded by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.1.4b-5.

[4] Candida R. Moss, Ancient Christian Martyrdom (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 159.

[5] Darrell L. Bock, Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism: The Charge against Jesus in Mark 14:53-65 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 196 n. 30.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell, TikTok, Instagram, and his blog: