St James's Episcopal Church, Aberdeen


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Our patron saint is called ‘St James the Less’ to distinguish him from ‘St James the Great’, the son of Zebedee, brother of John, a fisherman and Apostle (Mt. 4:21; Mk 1-19, etc). Our James was the son of Alphaeus (Mt 10:10:3; Mk. 3:17, etc.). He was also an Apostle and is commemorated in our tradition along with St Philip, on May 1st (James the Great is remembered on July 25th ; his martyrdom is briefly mentioned in Acts 12:2 – he was put to death ‘with the sword’).  James the Less is sometimes also identified with ‘James the brother of our Lord’ (Gal.1:19; cf. Mt. 13:55, etc). That James became a leader of the Church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:13, etc) and was also martyred; the Jewish historian Josephus says he was stoned to death. It is, however, unlikely that these are the same person, as John’s Gospel says Jesus’ brothers didn’t believe in him during his ministry (Jn 7:5), so he could hardly have been an Apostle; also our James was the son of Alphaeus, whereas ‘James’ of Jerusalem, as Jesus’ ‘brother’ was (presumably) the son of Joseph (either by Mary or by a hypothetical earlier marriage of Joseph’s; some conjecture this James was Jesus cousin, rather than (half/step)-brother). In the Church of England James of Jerusalem and James son of Alphaeus are now treated as two separate people, in accordance with most scholarly views; but in the Scottish Episcopal Church they are still treated as the same man.

Some scholars think that the New Testament Letter of James was written by James son of Alphaeus or James, Jesus brother; but most think this was probably a different James. The actual title ‘James the Less’ occurs only once in the New Testament (Mk   15:40), where Mary, one of the women who ‘looked on from afar’ at the crucifixion, is said to his mother. ‘Less’ here could mean ‘young’ or ‘small in height’, rather than ‘less important’.  In some ways it might be thought disappointing to have our church dedicated to the ‘lesser’ James about whom so little is known; but it is clear that, along with others, he was chosen for a special task by Jesus and remained close with him throughout his ministry; he was sent out in mission by him, and remained faithful after Jesus’ death and resurrection (cf. Acts 1:12). And although his identification with ‘James’ the Less’ of Mark 15:40 is uncertain, I like the idea of our church being dedicated to this perhaps humble ‘little’ person, rather than the better known ‘James the Great’, the ‘son of thunder’.

Ruth B Edwards

September 2013