Every Prophet has had a Legatee (wasi) in whom the Light of the Imamate has been firmly set and established with surety, and to whom the knowledge of prophecy has been temporarily entrusted through trusteeship.
Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, (The Paradise of Submission, 136)
The disciples said to Jesus, ‘We know you will leave us. Who is going to be our leader then?’ Jesus said to them, ‘No matter where you go, you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.’
Gospel of Thomas Saying 12
This article illustrates how the historical successor of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah of the Children of Israel, was his brother James the Just (Hebrew: Yaakov Tzadik). The evidence for this is drawn from historical sources, including the New Testament, Church Histories, and extra-biblical writings. These sources clearly show that James was the Bishop of the Jerusalem Church, which held authority over the early Jewish Christian communities, and also indicate that Jesus himself appointed James to succeed him. We also explain the theological importance of the succession of James the Just and his family within the Ismaili Muslim theological vision of the hiero-history of Prophethood and Imamat. In Ismaili terminology, James the Just was Jesus’ Legatee (wasi) and the Imam after him.
1. The Cycles of Prophethood and Imamat
According to the Ismaili conception of the spiritual history of humankind, there have been six Major Prophets – called Natiqs – since the beginning of the current 7,000 year Prophetic Cycle: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. They are the “six days” in which God created the heavens and the earth of the World of Religion. Adam was not the first human being, but his period marked the beginning of the Cycle of Veiling (dawr al-satr) in which spiritual truths (haqa’iq) and esoteric knowledge is veiled by exoteric symbols (zahir) and religious law (shari‘ah). Each Major Prophet brought a divinely-revealed guidance (tanzil) – such as the Torah, Gospel, Qur’an – and a religious law. Every Major Prophet was also succeeded by a Legatee (wasi) from his own family; this Legatee disclosed the spiritual interpretation (ta’wil) of the revealed message and the religious law to the elite of the community. The Legatee was succeeded by a line of Imams from his family and descendants, who interpreted the exoteric and esoteric teachings of the Prophet until the coming of the next major Prophet. The Seventh Natiq will be the Lord of the Resurrection (qa’im al-qiyamah), who will unveil the spiritual meaning of all prophetic revelations and laws at the end of Muhammad’s era and begin the Seventh Cycle, the Cycle of Resurrection.
Some of the names of the past Legatees can be determined using the Bible and the Qur’an: the Legatee of Adam was his son Seth; the Legatee of Noah was his son Shem; the Legatee of Moses was his brother Aaron; the Legatee of Muhammad was his cousin ‘Ali b. Abi Talib. In all cases, the Legatee comes from the family of the Major Prophet. Ismaili writings explain how, after Prophet Abraham, the offices of Prophethood and Imamat continued in the separate lineages of his two sons – Isaac and Ishmael. The Prophethood and the Trustee Imamat (al-imamah al-mustawda) were entrusted to Isaac and his descendants. The Trustee Imamat continued among members of the same family as transmitted through brothers, cousins, or progeny. The Trustee Imams after Isaac included: Jacob, Joseph, Jethro, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, the Israelite Judges and Aaronic High Priests, Samuel, David, Solomon, the righteous Davidic Kings and the Prophets of Israel and Judah (i.e. Ahija, Elijah, Elisha, Micah, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Joel, Habakuk, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Haggiah, Zechariah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Malachi). Meanwhile, the Permanent Imamat (al-imamah al-mustaqarr) continued with Ishmael and his progeny through an uninterrupted lineal descent down to Imam ‘Abd al-Muttalib, the grandfather of both Prophet Muhammad and Imam ‘Ali b. Abi Talib. During this time, the Trustee Imams stood at the forefront of the Abrahamic Religion in biblical Israel while the Permanent Imams remained concealed in Arabia and unknown to most except the highest ranks of the believers.
“It is said that after Abraham, the Kingship and Prophethood and the Religion and Imamate continued in two lineages: one was the exoteric lineage through the progeny of Isaac and the other was the esoteric lineage through the progeny of Ishmael. While the signs of Kingship and Prophethood continued to be passed down in the lineage of Isaac, the lights of Religion and Imamate continued in the lineage of our lord Ishmael. Jesus represented the last of those signs which had been passed down the lineage of Isaac and he also attained to the commencement of the divine illuminations which had graced the progeny of our lord Ishmael.”
– Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, The Paradise of Submission, tr. S. J. Badakhchani (London: Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2005), 137
“Isma‘il was the titular Imam (mustaqarr) while Isaac was only the trustee Imam (mustawda). After that, the real Imamate entered into a sort of ‘secrecy’ until the time when it reappeared, during the period of Muhammad, in the line of Imams descended from ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. In the interval, it was the ‘trustee’ Imams who occupied the ‘front of the stage’ during each prophetic period, although the texts also inform us of the names of the real Imams.”
– Henry Corbin, Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam (Swedenborg Foundation, 1995), 142
2. The Prophethood and Imamat of Jesus
Jesus was the fifth Major Prophet of the current Prophetic Cycle and symbolically corresponds to the fifth day of the “Great Week of Religion” in Ismaili terminology. The Trustee Imam before the birth of Jesus was ‘Imran, the “spiritual father” of Maryam. ‘Imran designated Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, to succeed to the Imamat and the spiritual care of Maryam was given to Zechariah. Zechariah knew that Jesus would be the next Major Prophet, so he appointed Maryam as his Hujjah (proof or deputy) to serve as Jesus’ “spiritual mother”, meaning it was Maryam’s role to spiritually train Jesus into the Summons of Truth. In the realm of the esoteric, the Imam and his Hujjah are the “spiritual parents” of every initiate.
The Qur’an (3:37) relates that Zechariah would go and see Maryam in her chambers only to find that she was already given food by her Lord. This means that Maryam was receiving divine support (ta’yid) from the Permanent Imam, Khuzaymah, who was in Arabia without the mediation of the Trustee Imam Zechariah. When it was time for Jesus to be initiated into the Religion of Truth, the Permanent Imam sent his divine support – what the Qur’an calls the Spirit (al-ruh) and the Angels – to Maryam and informed her that Jesus, the fifth Major Prophet, was to be spiritually trained by her without the assistance of the Trustee Imam. Her statement, “How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me” (Qur’an 19:20), means that Maryam was not authorized by the Trustee Imam to initiate Jesus into spiritual knowledge. Under normal conditions, Jesus’ “spiritual father” would be Imam Zechariah and his “spiritual mother” would be Maryam. However, in this case, only Maryam would be Jesus’ “spiritual mother” without the aid or consent of Imam Zechariah.
“By ordering her to receive the entry of Jesus in the da‘wat (to ‘give him birth’ in the da‘wat), he instructs her, by God’s command, to receive, without the knowledge, order, or consent of the Imam, not simply the entry of a young man as a new initiate, but the entry of one who will be the future prophet, the prophet of the ‘fifth day’ of spiritual Creation, that is, of the fifth period in the cycle of prophecy; and this Prophet will be ‘her son’ in the higher spiritual and esoteric signification of the word, ‘Jesus son of Maryam’… The mystery of the ‘virginal conception’ of Christ is here; it is not something that belongs to the physical nature of the human body; it is the ‘spiritual birth’ of the future prophet as proceeding, by the command of Heaven, uniquely from his mother, that is, from the purely esoteric, without intervention of the masculine principle that is the exoteric and the Law. This is not a question of allegory; the spiritual truth of the event, recaptured on the plane to which it relates, is the literal truth.”
– Henry Corbin, Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam (Swedenborg Foundation, 1995), 128
The meaning of the “Virgin Birth” – Jesus having been born “without a father” – is that Jesus’ spiritual “birth” took place under his spiritual mother Maryam without the involvement of his “spiritual father” Imam Zechariah. Instead, Maryam received spiritual nourishment or divine support (ta’yid) directly from the Permanent Imam Khuzaymah, who was concealed in Arabia.
Zechariah bequeathed the Trustee Imamat to his son John the Baptist, who was also a Prophet and the messianic forerunner of Jesus. John came from the priestly lineage of Aaron and fulfilled the prophecy of the “Messiah of Aaron” (the Priestly Messiah) or the return of Prophet Elijah expected by many Jews in the Second Temple Period. Jesus himself descended from the royal lineage of David and he was the expected “Messiah of Israel” (the Royal Messiah). Before his death, John surrendered the Trustee Imamat to Jesus, whom he recognized as the next Major Prophet at his baptism. In this way, Jesus was the heir to the Prophethood and Trustee Imamat promised to the progeny of Isaac.
“Given these deeply rooted hopes and expectations among these messianic Jews one can scarcely imagine the excitement and fervor that John the Baptizer and Jesus would have stirred as they prepared their next moves in the spring of A.D. 27. John as a priest from the tribe of Levi and Jesus as a descendant of David from the tribe of Judah must have stirred the hopes of thousands who had come to expect the arrival of the Two Messiahs as a sure sign of the end.”
– James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 148
As documented in our earlier article, both Qur’an and Historical Jesus scholarship agree that Jesus claimed to be and was perceived by his disciples to be a great Prophet of God and the Messiah of Israel and certainly not an “incarnation” of God or a “divine person” within the Godhead. Many New Testament historians refer to the historical Jesus as an “apocalyptic Prophet”.
“I suggest that Jesus was seen as, and saw himself as, a prophet; not a particular one necessarily, as though there were an individual set of shoes ready-made into which he was consciously stepping, but a prophet like the prophets of old, coming to Israel with a word from her covenant God, warning her of the imminent and fearful consequences of the direction she was travelling, urging and summoning her to a new and different way” (p. 162-63). . . This portrait of Jesus as a prophet seems the most secure point at which to ground our study of Jesus’ public career, and in particular of his characteristic praxis. Equally impressive are the strong hints, throughout the gospels, that Jesus as modelling his ministry not on one figure alone, but on a range of prophets from the Old Testament (p. 165).”
– N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress Press, 2006), Vol 1, 162-166
However, Jesus was also revered by the early generations of his followers as an “idealized human figure” – a theomorphic human being who represents God on earth, embodies God’s wisdom and spirit, bears some of God’s names, and carries out many divine functions. The idea that some Prophets represented and reflected God on earth is found in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish writings (see J. R. Daniel Kirk, A Man Attested by God). In the Synoptic Gospels and the pre-Pauline creeds, Jesus is revered as God’s Regent, representative, and self-expression. Thus, from an Ismaili perspective, Jesus was certainly a Prophet of God but he was also the Trustee Imam and was therefore the human manifestation (mazhar) of the Universal Intellect, which constitutes God’s Names and Attributes insofar as they are knowable to His creatures.
“There is no indication that Jesus thought or spoke of himself as having pre-existed with God prior to his birth or appearance on earth. Such self-assertions appear only in the latest form of the canonical Gospel tradition and presuppose substantial developments in christological thinking which cannot be traced back to Jesus himself… We cannot claim that Jesus believed himself to be the incarnate Son of God; but we can claim that the teaching to that effect as it came to expression in the later first-century Christian thought was, in the light of the whole Christ-event, an appropriate reflection on and elaboration of Jesus’ own sense of sonship and eschatological mission.”
– James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making: An Inquiry into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation, Second Edition (SCM Press, 1992), 254
The earliest group of Jesus followers were Jews consisting of his family members, his apostles, and other followers in Jerusalem. They are often referred to as “Jewish Christians” and differed from other Jews only by their acceptance of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah raised up by God after his death. Otherwise, these Jewish Christians were Torah observant (“zealous” for the Law per Acts 21:20), observed the Sabbath (Acts 1:12), prayed in the Jewish manner (Acts 3:1), continued to attend the Temple and submit sacrifices (Acts 2:46, 3:1), and did not see Jesus’ death on the Cross as a sacrificial atonement for original sin. They interpreted Jesus’ death as a “covenant sacrifice”, similar to the Passover sacrifice, which renewed God’s Covenant with the Children of Israel (as per James D.G. Dunn, “When did the Understanding of Jesus’ Death as an Atoning Sacrifice First Emerge?” in Israel’s God and Rebecca’s Children: Christology and Community in Early Christianity, ed. David B. Capes, April D. DeConick, Helen K. Bond and T. A. Miller, 169-181).
“In short, it is evident that the earliest community in no sense felt themselves to be a new religion, distinct from Judaism. There was no sense of a boundary line drawn between themselves and their fellow Jews. They saw themselves simply as a fulfilled Judaism, the beginning of eschatological Israel… Indeed we may put the point even more strongly: since Judaism has always been concerned more with orthopraxy than with orthodoxy (right practice rather than right belief) the earliest Christians were not simply Jews, but in fact continued to be quite ‘orthodox’ Jews. Notice then, that this is the group with whom Christianity proper all began. Only their belief in Jesus as Messiah and risen, and their belief that the last days were upon them mark them out as different from the majority of their fellow Jews. None of the other great Christian distinctives that come to expression in and through Paul are present… Altogether it is a form of Christianity which we today would scarcely recognize – Jewish Christianity indeed, or perhaps more precisely, a form of Jewish messianism, a messianic renewal movement within pre-70 Judaism. If we now shift our glance from the beginning of Christianity forward 150 years or so into the second century and beyond, it at once becomes evident that the situation has significantly altered: Jewish Christianity, far from being the only form of Christianity, is now beginning to be classified as unorthodox and heretical. There seem to have been several groups of Jewish Christians (four anyway) whose beliefs put them beyond the pale of the emerging great Church… The best known sect, whose name became a kind of stereotype in great Church polemic against Jewish Christian heresy, was the Ebionites.”
– James D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, Third Edition (SCM Press, 2006) 257-258
The later Ebionites were a Jewish-Christian sect, still existing in the second and third centuries. Information about them is only present in the writing of the proto-Catholic Church authorities like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Jerome, Epiphanius, and Eusebius. Their distinctive beliefs were as follows:
- Faithful adherence to the Law (Torah) of Moses including circumcision, Jewish dietary law, and adoration of the Temple in Jerusalem;
- Acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah of Israel and the “True Prophet” like Moses in a line of Prophets going back to Adam; that Jesus came to uphold and purify the Law, not to abolish it;
- Reverence of James the Just as the Bishop of the Jerusalem Church and all churches by the appointment of Jesus himself and having authority over all the Apostles including Peter;
- Rejection of Paul (Saul) of Tarsus as an enemy of the true Church, who corrupted the true message of Jesus;
- Recognition of Jesus as a virtuous human being and Prophet who was “adopted” as the Son of God at his baptism when the Holy Spirit descended upon him; Jesus was the physical child of Joseph and Mary.
The core beliefs of the Ebionite Jewish Christians, for the most part, directly match the beliefs and practices of Jesus’ original Jewish followers – including his family members and apostles – who formed the Jerusalem Church. It remains a great irony that the original and earliest form of “Christianity” would become classified as a heresy by the proto-Catholic Church:
“If these are indeed the three principal features of heretical Jewish Christianity, then a striking point immediately emerges: heretical Jewish Christianity would appear to be not so very different from the faith of the first Jewish believers… In short, apart from the different attitudes to the temple cult, the measure of agreement between the earliest Jerusalem believers and Ebionites is quite striking. The heretical Jewish Christianity of the second and third centuries apparently has no closer parallel than the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem. Indeed, on the basis of this evidence, the heretical Jewish Christianity of the later centuries could quite properly claim to be more truly the heir of earliest Christianity than any other expression of Christianity.”
– James D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, 262-263
3. The Historical James: Brother and Successor of the Historical Jesus
These early Jewish followers of Jesus constituted the “Jerusalem Church”, which was the “Mother Church” possessing religious authority over all other churches including Gentile believers. The undisputed leader of the Jerusalem Church as indicated by New Testament writings and later sources was James, the brother of Jesus, followed by the Apostles Peter and John. “When we first meet James, the brother of Jesus, in the earliest Christian literature, he is already among the leadership of the Jerusalem church (Gal. 1.19), and very soon thereafter he stands at the head of the community eclipsing even Peter in importance” (Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, 262).
Thus, James of Jerusalem was the Legatee (wasi) and Imam in direct succession to his brother Jesus of Nazareth. The leadership of James over the early Jewish Christian movement and the Jerusalem Church is indicated in Paul’s Letters, the Book of Acts, the Epistle of James, the Church History of Eusebius (d. 339) (available online) drawing on the writings of Clement (d. 215) and Hegesippus (d. 180) for his information on James.
James as the Leader of the Jerusalem Church:
“Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles – only James, the Lord’s brother.”
– Paul (Saul) of Tarsus, Epistle to the Galatians 1:18-20
“James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised.”
– Paul (Saul) of Tarsus, Epistle to the Galatians 2:19
James Issues the Judgment at the Jerusalem Council:
“When they finished, James spoke up. ‘Brothers,’ he said, ‘listen to me… It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.’”
– Acts of the Apostles 15:13-21
James Sends Emissaries to Correct the Antioch Church:
“When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.”
– Paul (Saul) of Tarsus, Epistle to the Galatians 2:11-14
Gospel of Thomas: Jesus Appoints James as His Successor
“The disciples said to Jesus, ‘We know you will leave us. Who is going to be our leader then? Jesus said to them, No matter where you go, you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.”
– Gospel of Thomas Saying 12
Eusebius, Hegesippus & Clement of Alexandria: James as Holy Man & Bishop of the Jerusalem Church
“Then James, whom the ancients surnamed the Just on account of the excellence of his virtue, is recorded to have been the first to be made Bishop of the Church of Jerusalem. This James was called the brother of the Lord because he was known as a son of Joseph, and Joseph was supposed to be the father of Christ, because the Virgin, being betrothed to him, ‘was found with child by the Holy Ghost before they came together,’ (Matthew 1:18) as the account of the holy Gospels shows. But Clement in the sixth book of his Hypotyposes writes thus: ‘For they say that Peter and James and John after the ascension of our Saviour, as if also preferred by our Lord, strove not after honor, but chose James the Just Bishop of Jerusalem.’ But the same writer, in the seventh book of the same work, relates also the following things concerning him: ‘The Lord after his resurrection imparted knowledge to James the Just and to John and Peter, and they imparted it to the rest of the apostles, and the rest of the apostles to the seventy, of whom Barnabas was one.’”
– Eusebius, Church History, Book 2, Chapter 1, Section 2-4
“James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles. He has been called the Just by all from the time of our Saviour to the present day for there were many that bore the name of James. He was holy from his mother’s womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh. No razor came upon his head; he did not anoint himself with oil, and he did not use the bath. He alone was permitted to enter into the holy place; for he wore not woolen but linen garments. And he was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was frequently found upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard like those of a camel, in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God, and asking forgiveness for the people. Because of his exceeding great justice he was called the Just, and Oblias, which signifies in Greek, ‘Bulwark of the people’ and ‘Justice,’ in accordance with what the prophets declare concerning him.”
– Eusebius, Church History, Book 2, Chapter 23, Section 4-7
“The Chair [or “Throne”] of James, who first received the Episcopate of the Church at Jerusalem from the Saviour himself and the apostles, and who, as the divine records show, was called a brother of Christ, has been preserved until now, the brethren who have followed him in succession there exhibiting clearly to all the reverence which both those of old times and those of our own day maintained and do maintain for holy men on account of their piety. So much as to this matter.”
– Eusebius, Church History, Book 7, Chapter 19, Section 1
Pseudo-Clementine Literature: James Appointed by Jesus as His Successor:
“The Church of the Lord which was constituted in Jerusalem multiplied most plentifully and grew, being governed with the most Righteous ordinances by James, who was ordained Bishop in it by the Lord.”
– Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions in Robert Eisenman, James The Brother of Jesus (Penguin Books, 1998), 202
“James, the lord and the Bishop of Bishops, who rules Jerusalem, the Holy Church of the Hebrews, and the churches everywhere excellently founded by the providence of God.”
– Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, in Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, 259
“Our Lord and Prophet, who has sent us, declared to us that the Evil One [that is, ‘the Devil’], having disputed with him for forty days, but failing to prevail against him, promised that he would send apostles from among his subjects to deceive them. Therefore, above all, remember to shun any apostle, teacher, or prophet who does not accurately compare his teaching with James…and this, even if he comes to you with recommendations.”
– Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, in Robert Eisenman, The New Testament Code (London: Watkins, 2006), 570
“Whatever may be the situation with regard to the bishops outside Jerusalem, there is sufficient testimony for a monarchical episcopate in Jerusalem, on the ‘throne’ of James, which was regarded by the early Jewish Christian Church as the continuation and the provisional equivalent of the throne of David, which was to be occupied by Jesus.”
– Johannes Weiss, Earliest Christianity, Vol. 2 (Harper, 1959), 721-22
Based on the above evidence – mostly from proto-Catholic sources – James succeeded his brother Jesus by direct appointment as the leader of the early Jesus movement comprised of his Jewish followers. Functionally, the office of “Bishop of Jerusalem” is the equivalent in early Christian discourse to the office of the Imamat in Ismaili theology. Historically, the Jerusalem Church exercised authority over all early Christians, and so the Bishop of the Jerusalem Church would have been the “Imam” of Jesus’ followers during his absence. At the metaphysical level, James’ status as the Righteous One (tzaddik) who upholds the world is equivalent to the status of the Imam. According to the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus told his disciples to go to “James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into existence.” This formulation alludes to the Shi‘i Ismaili and Sufi concept of the Light of Muhammad according to the famous hadith qudsi where God says to the Prophet: “Were it not for you [Muhammad], I would not have created the heaven and the earth.” It also speaks to the famous hadith of the Prophet: “If the world were devoid of the Imam for even a moment, it would convulse along with all of its inhabitants.” Thus, the description of James as the foundation of the heavens and the earth speaks to his status as the Imam of his time:
“That ‘James the Righteous One’ is someone for whose sake ‘Heaven and Earth came into existence’ means that not only are Heaven and Earth predicated on his existence but, as ‘the Zaddkik’, he precedes them or is pre-existent. The reader will recognize in this something equivalent to what goes by the name of ‘the Logos’ or ‘the Word’ in the Gospel of John above. There is also something very akin to it in what goes by the name in Shi‘ite Islam of ‘the Imam’ doctrine. All these terms have common aspects and are more or less equivalent.”
– Robert Eisenman, James The Brother of Jesus (Penguin Books, 1998), 136
There is also a tradition related by the Ebionites from the lost “Gospel of the Hebrews” where Jesus after his resurrection first appeared to his brother James. This Gospel describes how Jesus blessed bread and gave it first to James to eat:
“The Lord (Jesus) said, ‘Bring a table and bread!’ He took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to James the Just and said to him, ‘My brother, eat your bread, for the Son of Man is risen from among those that sleep.’”
Gospel of the Hebrews, quoted in John Painter, “Models of Leadership and Mission,” in Chilton and Evans (eds.), The Missions of James, Peter, and Paul (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 149
The story of Jesus presenting a “table” to his disciples is also mentioned in the Qur’an as a “Table from Heaven” (5:112). According to the Ismaili Da‘i Abu Hatim al-Razi, the meaning of the “table” that Jesus prepared for his apostles is the divine inspiration (ta’yid) that flows from the Universal Intellect and Universal Soul: “The table means the spiritual sustenance (maddah) from the spiritual stream which they [Jesus’ apostles] were waiting and longing for.” As al-Razi further explained, Jesus bringing the “table from heaven” to his disciples means that Jesus appointed his Legatee or Founder (asas) for the guidance of his followers: “The Messiah intended to install his Founder (asas) and promised that he would appoint the Founder among them so that they would gain the spiritual stream through him” (Translated by Shin Nomoto in his PhD Thesis, “Early Ismaili Thought on Prophecy according to the Kitab al-Islah by Abu Hatim al-Razi,” 1998, 213-214). Thus, the story of Jesus offering a table of bread to his brother James esoterically means that Jesus mediated divine inspiration (ta’yid) to James from the Universal Intellect and appointed James as his Legatee (wasi), in the very same manner that Prophet Muhammad appointed ‘Ali b. Abi Talib as his Legatee.
“This situation is perhaps best understood by looking at the analogous one in a more recent ‘Community’, considering itself heir to the promise of Abraham… The one, supported in what came to be known as Shi‘ite Islam, represents this as being a family Caliphate, that is a succession within the family of the Prophet – the word ‘Caliphate’ in Arabic actually meaning ‘succession’. This is, of course, analogous to the claims of those supporting James in early Christianity.”
– Robert Eisenman, James The Brother of Jesus, 164
4. James as Interpreter of Jesus: The Epistle of James
“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations… Whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it — not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it — they will be blessed in what they do.”
– Epistle of James 1:22-25
The epistle sent by James to the twelve tribes of the Children of Israel contains his interpretation of the teachings of his brother Jesus. In his capacity as Jesus’ Legatee (wasi) and Founder (asas) of the Imamat after him, James’ essential role was to guide the new community by clarifying the teachings of his brother Jesus. James D. Tabor has traced a great deal of James’ teachings back to the historical teachings of Jesus found in Q, the common source for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
“What is particularly notable about the letter of James is that the ethical content of its teaching is directly parallel to the teachings of Jesus that we know from the Q source. The Q source is the earliest collection of the teachings and sayings of Jesus, which scholars date to around the year 50 A.D. It has not survived as an intact document but both Matthew and Luke use it extensively…If one takes the letter of James, short as it is, there are no fewer than thirty direct references, echoes, and allusions to the teachings of Jesus found in the Q source!”
– James D. Tabor, Paul and Jesus: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012), 42
“The Muslim emphasis on Jesus as messianic prophet and teacher is quite parallel to what we find in the Q source, in the book of James, and in the Didache… Islam insists that neither Jesus nor Mohammad brought a new religion. Both sought to call people back to what might be called “Abrahamic faith.” This is precisely what we find emphasized in the book of James. Like Islam, the book of James, and the teaching of Jesus in Q, emphasize doing the will of God as a demonstration of one’s faith. Also, the dietary laws of Islam, as quoted in the Qur’an, echo the teachings of James in Acts 15 almost word for word: “Abstain from swineflesh, blood, things offered to idols, and carrion” (Qur’an 2:172).
– James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 315-316
5. The Authority of James and the Ministry of Peter
The Catholic Church traces the religious authority of the Papacy to the Apostle Simon Peter. Catholics held that Jesus appointed Simon Peter as the head of the Church according to the following statement in the Gospel of Matthew:
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter (Cephas), and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
– Gospel of Matthew, 16:15-19
Catholics interpret the “keys to the kingdom of heaven” as the delegation of religious authority by Jesus to Peter and the naming of Simon as “Cephas” (meaning rock) to indicate his role as the foundation of the Church on earth. The New Testament scholar Hyam Maccoby explains that this language of granting “keys” that open and close heaven was used in Isaiah to describe the appointment of a “chief minister” to the Davidic King. Therefore, when Jesus gave Simon Peter the “keys” to his kingdom, he was appointing Peter as his minister or vizier, not as his successor:
“By giving Peter the ‘keys of the kingdom’, Jesus was appointing him to be his chief minister. King Hezekiah’s chief minister was called Shebina; and when the Prophet Isaiah predicted that this official would be dismissed in favour of Eliakim, he did so in the following terms… ‘And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him as a nail in a sure place.’ (Isaiah 22:19-23). The similarities between this and Jesus’ charge to Peter are striking… so that Jesus by giving Peter these powers is appointing him not only chief minister at his royal court but also head of the Sanhedrin; this is the only difference between the appointment of Eliakim and that of Peter… Peter, then, is appointed chief minister of King Jesus. This explains fully the relationship between Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, in the movement, and why James suddenly rises to prominence at this point. When Jesus became King, his family become the royal family, at least for those who believed in Jesus’ claim to Messiahship. Thus, after Jesus’ death, his brother James, as his nearest relative, became his successor; not in the sense that he became King James, for Jesus was believed to be alive, having been resurrected by a miracle of God, and to be waiting in the wings for the correct moment to return to the stage as Messianic King. James was thus a Prince Regent, occupying the throne temporarily in the absence of Jesus… The position of Peter, then, after the death of Jesus, is thus easily understood. He could not become the leader of the Jesus movement, because he was not of the royal blood. But he could and did retain his position as chief adviser and minister of the royal court, the holder of the ‘keys of the kingdom’.”
– Hyam Maccoby, The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1998) 122-123
Therefore, the appointment of Simon to the “Petrine Office” revered by Catholics amounts to an office of minister or vizier, while the actual successor was James. This means Peter served as the chief minister of James after the death of Jesus and this is what one finds in the New Testament: James stays and rules from Jerusalem while Peter is the leading missionary over the various travelling missionaries. In Ismaili terminology, Jesus was both the Major Prophet (natiq) and the Trustee Imam from the lineage of David. Jesus appointed his brother James as his Legatee (wasi) to succeed to the Imamat symbolized by Davidic royal authority and appointed Peter as his Bab (Gate) or supreme Hujjah (Proof) – meaning that Peter led the preachers (da‘is). Thus, James was the Imam after Jesus while Peter functioned as the Bab or Hujjah of James.
6. The Authority of James and the Preaching of Paul
“Let us assume that a Messianic leader known as ‘Jesus’ did exist in the early part of the first century in Palestine. Furthermore, let us assume that he had brothers, one of whom was called James. Who would have known the character Jesus better? His closest living relatives, who according to tradition were his legitimate successors in Palestine, and those companions accompanying him in all his activities? Or someone who admits that he never saw Jesus in his lifetime, as Paul does, and that, on the contrary, he was an Enemy of and persecuted the early Christian community, and came to know him only through visionary experiences that allowed him to be in touch with a figure he designates as ‘Christ Jesus’ in Heaven? The answer of any reasonable observer to this question should be obvious: James and Jesus’ Palestinian companions.”
– Robert Eisenman, James The Brother of Jesus, xxix
The teachings of James directly conflict with those of Paul (Saul) of Tarsus, to whom most of the New Testament documents are attributed to. While James was the appointed successor of Jesus and acknowledged as such by Jesus’ Apostles, Paul presented his authority and teachings as wholly independent of James, the Apostles and the Jerusalem Church. Throughout his letters, Paul refers to “my gospel” as something different from “other gospels” preached by the Apostles of Jesus.
Paul claimed to receive revelation from the risen Christ and to have been chosen by God to spread the gospel to the Gentiles:
“Paul, Apostle, not from men, nor through [any] man, but rather through Jesus Christ and by God [the] Father, who raised him from [the] dead.”
– Paul (Saul) of Tarsus, Epistle to the Galatians 1:1
“I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ… But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.”
– Paul (Saul) of Tarsus, Epistle to the Galatians 1:11-17
Paul maintained that his teachings were wholly independent of Jesus’ Apostles in Jerusalem:
“Then after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders [James, Peter, John], I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain. Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. This matter arose because some false brethren had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you. As for those who were held in high esteem [James, Peter, John] – whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism – they added nothing to my message.
– Paul (Saul) of Tarsus, Epistle to the Galatians 2:1-6
Paul boasted of receiving revelations from Jesus and ascending to the third heaven:
“I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows — and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”
– Paul (Saul) of Tarsus, Epistle of 2 Corinthians 12:1-4
Paul boasted that he was equal to the Apostles of Jesus and worked harder than them:
“For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them — yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”
– Paul (Saul) of Tarsus, Epistle of 1 Corinthians 15:9-11
Paul claimed that the Apostles of Jesus taught a different gospel than his:
“For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. I do not think I am in the least inferior to those ‘super-apostles.’ I may indeed be untrained as a speaker, but I do have knowledge. We have made this perfectly clear to you in every way.”
– Paul (Saul) of Tarsus, Epistle of 2 Corinthians 11:4-6
“I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it. I ought to have been commended by you, for I am not in the least inferior to the ‘super-apostles,’ even though I am nothing. I persevered in demonstrating among you the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles.”
– Paul (Saul) of Tarsus, Epistle of 2 Corinthians 12:11
“[Paul speaks] of the pillars of the Jerusalem church [in Galatians ch. 2]. Paul is against them — see especially Gal. 2:11. Paul speaks against them with ill-concealed sarcasm in the repetitive words ‘reputed to be something,’ and ‘those of repute’ (Gal. 2:2,6,9). Several commentators on I Corinthians argue that the Kephas [i.e., Peter] party (1 Cor. 1:12 [Cephas]; 3:22) are the judaising party in Corinth – Paul disapproves of this faction. Similarly at 1 Cor. 9:5, Paul speaks disparagingly of Kephas [i.e., Peter] and the brothers of Jesus, i.e., the Jerusalem pillars….The rivalry between Paul and Peter is most strongly apparent in these chapters of Galatians and 1 Corinthians.”
J. K. Elliot, Essays in New Testament Textual Criticism (Bloomsbury, 1992), 132
James and the Church Elders accused Paul of attacking the Law of Moses:
“When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers and sisters received us warmly. The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you.”
– Acts of the Apostles 21:17-25
Paul’s teachings were rejected by James and the Apostles at Antioch:
“When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.”
– Paul (Saul) of Tarsus, Epistle to the Galatians 2:11
“Paul had in effect been disowned by the church which had first commissioned him as a missionary. Since Paul continued to believe passionately in the truth of the gospel which in effect had been rejected at Antioch, the relationship could not continue as before. It is not surprising, then, that in his continuing mission, as we shall see, Paul seems to have worked much more as an independent missionary… It would further follow that Paul saw the outcome as constituting an effective breach with the mother church in Jerusalem.”
– James D. G. Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem: Christianity in the Making (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2009), 491-493
7. Paul and James in Conflict: Faith, Works, and the Law
“Accordingly, James and his successors provide us our best historical link to Jesus and his original teachings. That we find no trace of Paul’s gospel, nor of Pauline theology, in the Q source, or in the letter of James, or in the Didache, should not surprise us. James and his successors represent an original version of Christianity, linked more directly to the historical Jesus, that has every claim of authenticity.”
– James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, 311
The Law (Torah) of Moses is the Curse of Slavery (Paul) vs. the Law of Moses is Freedom (James):
Paul: “For all who rely on the works of the Law (Torah) are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” – Epistle to the Galatians 3:10-13
Paul: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.” – Epistle to the Galatians 5:1-3
James: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect Law (Torah) that gives freedom, and continues in it — not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it — they will be blessed in what they do.” – Epistle of James 1:22-25
Justification through Faith Alone (Paul) vs. Justification through Faith & Works (James):
Paul: “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” – Epistle to the Galatians 2:15-16
James: “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.” – Epistle of James 2:8-11
Paul: “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe… For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” – Epistle to the Romans 3:20-28
James: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” – Epistle of James 2:14-19
Abraham was Justified by Faith Alone (Paul) vs. Abraham was Justified by Works (James):
Paul: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about — but not before God. What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” – Epistle to the Romans 4:1-3
James: “You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone…As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” – Epistle of James 2:20-24, 26
All Foods are Permissible to Eat (Paul) vs. Unclean Meat, Strangled Animals & Blood are Not Permissible to Eat (James):
Paul: “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.” If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience.” – Epistle of 1 Corinthians 10:25-27
Paul: “Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” – Epistle of 1 Corinthians 8:4-13
Paul: “I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.” – Epistle to the Romans 14:14
James: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” – Acts of the Apostles 15:17-21
James: “As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.” – Acts of the Apostles 21:21-23
“It is obvious then that what is reflected here is a controversy within Christianity – between that stream of Jewish Christianity which was represented by James at Jerusalem on the one hand, and the Gentile churches or Hellenistic Jewish Christians who had been decisively influenced by Paul’s teaching on the other.”
– James D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, 263
8. The Successors of James in Jerusalem: The Desposynoi as the Ahl al-Bayt of Jesus
“The observation that not only James, but also other members of the family of Jesus were prominent in the leadership of the churches of Palestine down to at least the early second century prompted a series of scholars from Harnack to Schoeps to speak of a Christian ‘caliphate’ or of a dynastic form of Christianity, in which the highest authority in the church passed down from Jesus through dynastic succession of members of his family, as much as the highest authority in early Islam passed down through descendants of the family of the prophet Muhammad.”
– Richard Bauckham, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus, 125
James the Just was revered as a holy and righteous man by many Jews in Jerusalem. The Pharisees urged James to publicly denounce his faith in Jesus as the Messiah of Israel. However, James refused and instead declared that Jesus was the Son of Man, sitting at the right hand of God in heaven. He was killed by a mob of Jewish leaders in 62 AD.
Eusebius, Hegesippus & Clement of Alexandria: James Dies as a Righteous Martyr
“The aforesaid Scribes and Pharisees therefore placed James upon the pinnacle of the temple, and cried out to him and said: ‘You just one, in whom we ought all to have confidence, for as much as the people are led astray after Jesus, the crucified one, declare to us, what is the gate of Jesus.’ And he answered with a loud voice, ‘Why do you ask me concerning Jesus, the Son of Man? He himself sits in heaven at the right hand of the great Power, and is about to come upon the clouds of heaven.’ And when many were fully convinced and gloried in the testimony of James, and said, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ these same Scribes and Pharisees said again to one another, ‘We have done badly in supplying such testimony to Jesus. But let us go up and throw him down, in order that they may be afraid to believe him.’ And they cried out, saying, ‘Oh! Oh! The just man is also in error.’ And they fulfilled the Scripture written in Isaiah, ‘Let us take away the just man, because he is troublesome to us: therefore they shall eat the fruit of their doings.’ So they went up and threw down the just man, and said to each other, ‘Let us stone James the Just.‘ And they began to stone him, for he was not killed by the fall; but he turned and knelt down and said, ‘I entreat you, Lord God our Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34). And while they were thus stoning him one of the priests of the sons of Rechab, the son of the Rechabites, who are mentioned by Jeremiah the prophet, cried out, saying, ‘Stop. What are you doing? The just one prays for you.’ And one of them, who was a fuller, took the club with which he beat out clothes and struck the just man on the head. And thus he suffered martyrdom. And they buried him on the spot, by the temple, and his monument still remains by the temple. He became a true witness, both to Jews and Greeks, that Jesus is the Christ. These things are related at length by Hegesippus, who is in agreement with Clement: James was so admirable a man and so celebrated among all for his justice, that the more sensible even of the Jews were of the opinion that this was the cause of the siege of Jerusalem, which happened to them immediately after his martyrdom for no other reason than their daring act against him. Josephus, at least, has not hesitated to testify this in his writings, where he says, ‘These things happened to the Jews to avenge James the Just, who was a brother of Jesus, that is called the Christ. For the Jews slew him, although he was a most just man.’”
– Eusebius, Church History, Book 2, Chapter 22, Section 12-20
James was succeeded as the Bishop of the Jerusalem Church and the leader of the Jewish Christians by his brother (or cousin) Symeon bar Clopas (Simon bar Cleophas). The basis for Simon’s succession was his familial relationship to James and Jesus. Eusebius calls him a cousin of Jesus but the Gospels (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3) suggest he was one of Jesus’ brothers. In Ismaili terms, this means that Simon bar Cleophas became the Trustee Imam after James.
Eusebius, Hegesippus & Clement of Alexandria: Symeon Succeeds James
“After the martyrdom of James and the conquest of Jerusalem which immediately followed, it is said that those of the apostles and disciples of the Lord that were still living came together from all directions with those that were related to the Lord according to the flesh (for the majority of them also were still alive) to take counsel as to who was worthy to succeed James. They all with one consent pronounced Symeon, the son of Clopas, of whom the Gospel also makes mention; to be worthy of the episcopal throne of that parish. He was a cousin, as they say, of the Saviour. For Hegesippus records that Clopas was a brother of Joseph.”
– Eusebius, Church History, Book 3, Chapter 11, Section 1-2
“The same author (Hegesippus) also describes the beginnings of the heresies which arose in his time, in the following words: ‘And after James the Just had suffered martyrdom, as the Lord had also on the same account, Symeon, the son of the Lord’s uncle, Clopas, was appointed the next bishop. All proposed him as second bishop because he was a cousin of the Lord. Therefore, they called the Church a virgin, for it was not yet corrupted by vain discourses.”
– Eusebius, Church History, Book 4, Chapter 22, Section 4
The city of Jerusalem fell to the Romans in 70 AD and the Temple was destroyed. It is reported that the Jerusalem leadership fled to Pella under Symeon’s leadership. Afterward, they returned to Jerusalem and the family of Jesus was persecuted due to their being descendants of David and relatives of Jesus. Symeon bar Clopas was accused of heresy, tortured, and finally killed in 107 AD. Symeon was succeeded as the head of the Jerusalem Jewish-Christian community by another member of Jesus family, named Justus or Judas.
Eusebius, Hegesippus & Clement of Alexandria: Symeon Dies as a Righteous Martyr
“It is reported that after the age of Nero and Domitian, under the emperor whose times we are now recording, a persecution was stirred up against us in certain cities in consequence of a popular uprising. In this persecution we have understood that Symeon, the son of Clopas, who, as we have shown, was the second bishop of the church of Jerusalem, suffered martyrdom. Hegesippus, whose words we have already quoted in various places, is a witness to this fact also. Speaking of certain heretics he adds that Symeon was accused by them at this time; and since it was clear that he was a Christian, he was tortured in various ways for many days, and astonished even the judge himself and his attendants in the highest degree, and finally he suffered a death similar to that of our Lord. But there is nothing like hearing the historian himself, who writes as follows: Certain of these heretics brought accusation against Symeon, the son of Clopas, on the ground that he was a descendant of David and a Christian; and thus he suffered martyrdom, at the age of one hundred and twenty years, while Trajan was emperor and Atticus governor.
– Eusebius, Church History, Book 3, Chapter 32, Section 1-3
Eusebius provided a list of the successors of James the Just to the office of Bishop of Jerusalem. He noted that all these Bishops were circumcised Jews, which means they adhered to the Torah of Moses. He also said that that these Bishops “received the knowledge of Christ in purity”, meaning that they preserved the true teaching of Jesus. From an Ismaili perspective, these Jerusalem Bishops were the Trustee Imams and the legitimate successor of Jesus.
Eusebius, Hegesippus & Clement of Alexandria: The Bishops of Jerusalem
“The chronology of the bishops of Jerusalem I have nowhere found preserved in writing; for tradition says that they were all short lived. But I have learned this much from writings, that until the siege of the Jews, which took place under Adrian, there were fifteen bishops in succession there, all of whom are said to have been of Hebrew descent, and to have received the knowledge of Christ in purity, so that they were approved by those who were able to judge of such matters, and were deemed worthy of the episcopate. For their whole church consisted then of believing Hebrews who continued from the days of the apostles until the siege which took place at this time; in which siege the Jews, having again rebelled against the Romans, were conquered after severe battles. But since the bishops of the circumcision ceased at this time, it is proper to give here a list of their names from the beginning. The first, then, was James, the so-called brother of the Lord; the second, Symeon; the third, Justus; the fourth, Zacchæus; the fifth, Tobias; the sixth, Benjamin; the seventh, John; the eighth, Matthias; the ninth, Philip; the tenth, Seneca; the eleventh, Justus; the twelfth, Levi; the thirteenth, Ephres; the fourteenth, Joseph; and finally, the fifteenth, Judas. These are the bishops of Jerusalem that lived between the age of the apostles and the time referred to, all of them belonging to the circumcision.”
– Eusebius, Church History, Book 4, Chapter 5, Section 1-4
While the above list of fifteen persons is presented by Eusebius as a line of successors to James, Richard Bauckham has argued that only James, Symeon, and Justas (Judas) were the Bishops of Jerusalem in succession while the other names refer to twelve deputies serving under them. “These can then by readily understood as a college of twelve elders who presided over the Jerusalem church along with James… there is evidence, especially in the Jewish Christian traditions incorporated in the Pseudo-Clementines, for the idea that a monarchical bishop should have twelve presbyters” (Bauckham, 73). According to Bauckham’s reading of Eusebius, Symeon was the Jerusalem Bishop for some forty years and his successor, Justus (d. 113), was the son of James or Jude, another of Jesus’ brothers.
Eusebius made special reference to the prominence of the descendants of Jude, brother of Jesus, as heirs of Jesus and descendants of David. They were persecuted by the Romans because of their status as Jesus’ family and were revered by early Christian churches: “They came, therefore, and took the lead of every church as witnesses and as relatives of the Lord. And profound peace being established in every church, they remained until the reign of the Emperor Trajan” (Eusebius, Church History, Book 3, Chapter 32, Section 5-6). Thus, the family and descendants of Jesus – known as the Desposynoi (“those belonging to the Sovereign”) – clearly parallel the status of the Prophet Muhammad’s Ahl al-Bayt:
“Both in Jerusalem and in Galilee, until the Bar Kokhba war, the family of Jesus – the Desposynoi – were the most influential and respected leaders of Jewish Christianity, at first along with members of the twelve, later more exclusively… We must now see the family of Jesus as Davidides, conscious, through family tradition, of the hopes of Davidic restoration which had been cherished in their line since Zerubbabel.”
– Richard Bauckham, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 374-376
In any case, all the successors of James came from the descendants of Jesus’ brothers, including James himself and Jude. From the extant evidence, it appears that the descendants of Jude, recognized as Desposynoi and Davidic descendants, exercised leadership roles in Palestinian Christianity well into the second century. In Ismaili terms, this means that the progeny of Jesus’ brothers, James and Jude, succeeded as Trustee Imams preserving the essence of Jesus’ revelation and teachings. The twelve deputies under the Jerusalem Bishop refer to the twelve Hujjas of the day who convey the Imam’s teachings.
9. The Heir of Jesus and James in Arabia: The “Episcopal Imamat” of Prophet Muhammad
The historical records are only able to trace the descendants of Jesus’ family to the early second century. However, it is known that the Ebionites and the Nazarenes – two Jewish Christian groups – continued to exist even in the fourth century and traced their faith and traditions back to James the Just. It is widely speculated by scholars that Jewish Christian groups exerted some influence in the origins of Islam. The Qur’an and the Aramaic Gospel Tradition (2013) by Emran al-Badawi has shown that the Qur’an reinterprets, incorporates, and integrates a significant number of themes from the Aramaic Gospels. His study found that “11 percent of the Qur’an is in dialogue with the entirety of the Aramaic Gospel Traditions” and “12 percent of the Gospels are in dialogue with the whole Qur’an.” He concludes that “the Qur’an is in close dialogue with the text and context of the Gospels through their transmission in the Syriac and Christian Palestinian dialects of Aramaic” (p. 212). Below are just a few examples from El-Badawi’s study where the Qur’an has reinterpreted or re-articulated a theme or idea from the New Testament (pp. 220-226):
• Qur’an 3:59 is re-articulating Romans 5:14, 21 on Jesus as the Second Adam
• Qur’an 14:37, 2:126 is re-articulating Luke 3:8 and Matthew 21:43 on Abraham’s Progeny
• Qur’an 5:75, 25:7 is re-articulating Matthew 11:16, 19, 20:3, Mark 5:56 and Luke 7:32-34
• Qur’an 5:18, 9:30 is re-articulating Matthew 5:9 on God’s Servants vs. God’s Sons
• Qur’an 2:210, 6:158, 18:99 is re-articulating Matthew 24:30-31, Mark 13:26-27 on God or Son of Man coming down on the clouds
• Qur’an 24:35-36, 30:57, 61:6-8, 9:32, 25:61, 33:41-46 is re-articulating Matthew 5:14-16, 12:34, Mark 4:21, Luke 6:45, 8:16, 11:33, 13:35, John 8:1, 9:5, 5:35-3 on the Light of God, Light of the World, Lamp, and Houses of God
• Qur’an 1:1-7 is re-articulating Mathew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4 on the al-Fatihah and Lord’s Prayer
According to various Ismaili sources, including the writings of Ja‘far b. Mansur al-Yaman (the Bab of the Imam al-Mu‘izz and second to the Imam in spiritual rank), the Trustee Imam from the successors of Jesus immediately before Prophet Muhammad was the Monk Bahira of Syria. This means that the Trustee Imamat of James was transmitted through the descendants of Jesus’ family until it reached Syrian Monk Bahira, known as Georges, the last Trustee Imam in the Cycle of Jesus and the remnant from Jesus’ family who carried on his true teachings.
Ismaili writings inform us the Permanent Imamat was handed down from Ishmael, in direct lineal descent, to Imam ‘Abd al-Muttalib (the Prophet’s grandfather) and Imam Abu Talib (the Prophet’s uncle and father of Imam ‘Ali). The Trustee Imamat was held by Bahira as the legitimate successor to the prophetic heritage of Jesus and James. There is a famous account in both Sunni and Shia sources where Abu Talib and Muhammad met the Monk Bahira while on a business trip to Syria, and Bahira recognizes Muhammad as the future Prophet. This meeting represented the climactic confluence of the Israelite Imamat held by Bahira with the Ishmaelite Imamat held by Imam Abu Talib.
Muhammad was trained in the Israelite prophetic legacy (wasiyya) of Jesus by Imam Bahira and also initiated into the Ishmaelite gnosis under Imam Abu Talib, before he himself became the new Major Prophet. In this way, Prophet Muhammad was the heir to both Abrahamic lineages of Prophethood and Imamat and recapitulated all of their members in his person:
“The Imam of the period into which Muhammad was born is identified as Bahira, a figure known in Islamic sources as a Christian monk who saw Muhammad while he was a youth on a trading mission with his uncle in Syria and recognized that he would become a Prophet… The Imam Bahira commanded the Prophet to undertake the mission on behalf of the Messiah (al-masih). When Muhammad successfully garnered seventy male missionaries and one female from the Tihama and Ethiopia, Bahira surrendered the command to him. Thus the legacy of prophecy that was his bequest from Isaac was transferred to him from a Christian monk, just as Muhammad had received the legacy of Imamate originating from Isma‘il through his uncle, Abu Talib… Now, according to the logic of Isma‘ili hiero-history, it is perfectly correct for Muhammad to have been reared in the mission of Jesus, for it is Jesus who was the previous speaker-prophet, and his law was still operative. Still, it is surprising that Ja‘far’s account goes to some length to emphasize that Muhammad began his career as a disciple of Jesus. In one ta’wil Ja‘far mentions that Muhammad studied with Bahira for twenty years, and that Bahira was referred to in the sources as the Angel Gabriel.”
– David Hollenberg, Beyond the Qur’ān (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2016), 97-98
Prophet Muhammad began his mission in Mecca as a “warner” and “conveyer of news” – as a Messenger of God without the rank of Imamat. Upon the death of Imam Abu Talib, Muhammad was appointed as the Trustee Imam and Monk Bahira surrendered the Imamat to him. Shortly after, Muhammad and his community emigrated to Medina, where Muhammad formally began functioning as the Trustee Imam, embodying both the Ishmaelite and Israelite religious legacies. It is important to observe that the actual roles performed by Muhammad in Medina (as reflected in the Qur’an) greatly resemble the office of the Bishop in the Christian Episcopate. This is entirely expected because Muhammad inherited the Imamat of James the brother of Jesus from Bahira and James’ leadership office was the source for all the Christian episcopates.
Prophet Muhammad’s Episcopal Functions in Medina:
“A key similarity between the Medinan Muhammad and Christian statements about the episcopate consists in a shared stress on obedience. Bishops are to be obeyed: similarly to Kor 4, 80, the letters of Ignatius (martyred in the early second century CE) go so far as to equate obedience to the bishop with obedience to God. In fact, the bishop is constructed as a locus of divine presence, thus recalling the “godward movement” of Muhammad that David Marshall has detected in the Medinan suras. For instance, Ignatius demands that “we should look upon the bishop even as we would upon the Lord Himself” (Letter to the Ephesians 6), and the Syriac Didascalia Apostolorum, an early church order that Holger Zellentin has recently brought to the attention of Qurʾanic scholars, calls for the bishop to be honoured like God, “because the bishop sits for you in the place of God Almighty.”
In sum, the Medinan Muhammad combines a range of tasks similar to that performed by late antique bishops, such as communal exhortation, serving as a moral exemplar, arbitration and adjudication, the redistribution of wealth for charitable purposes, and confronting pagans and Jews, both discursively and violently… In view of all these parallels, it would not be amiss to characterise the Qurʾanic Messenger as playing the role of an “overseer” (which is of course the literal meaning of the Greek word episkopos) of the spiritual and communal well-being of the Believers. Captivatingly, Kor 2, 143 and 22, 78 actually describe the Messenger as a “šahīd set up over” the Believers. While the term šahīd certainly has the literal meaning “witness,” the two verses in question may well invoke the idea of episcopal oversight over the Believers.”
– Nicolai Sinai, “Muhammad as Episcopal Figure,” Arabica 65 (2018): 1-30: 22-25
10. From Jamesian Jewish Christianity to Ismaili Islam: The Ismaili Imams as the Spiritual Extensions of Jesus Christ
The similarities between the teachings of James the Just and the Ebionite Jewish Christianity that traces its origins to James have been noted by several scholars, including Robert Eisenman and James Tabor. Similarly, there is strong correlation between the notion of James succeeding Jesus due to being his family member and being directly appointed by Jesus and the spiritual rights of Imam ‘Ali as the closest male relative of Prophet Muhammad and being designated by him.
It may be small surprise to know that the Ismaili theology of Imamat – or Imamology – closely parallels the core ideas of Ebionite Jewish Christianity, specifically the Ebionite theology of the “True Prophet” manifesting in a historical lineage of Prophets leading to Jesus: “For the True Prophet Himself also from the beginning of the world, through the course of time, hastens to rest. For He is present with us at all times; and if at any time it is necessary, He appears and corrects us, that He may bring to eternal life those who follow Him” (Pseudo-Clementines as quoted by Decipher). The Ismaili Imamat “extends” the manifestation of the True Prophet throughout history and turns out to be the completion and fulfillment of the Ebionite doctrine of the True Prophet in the present time:
“Ismailian Gnosis — and this is one of its chief points of interest — presents both an actual extension (in history) and a virtual extension (for purposes of meditation or psychological analysis) of a Christianity that had long returned to the paradise of the archetypes. Not only Gnostic Christianity but eminently the Christianity that is designated as Judaeo-Christianity or Ebionism — a Christianity fundamentally hostile and alien to Paulinism, recognizing the primacy and presence not of Peter but of James, bishop of Jerusalem. We must not forget that Epiphanius, writing at the end of the fourth century (375), describes it as still existing at that time in southern Syria, only a little more than two centuries before the birth of Islam. In general the historians and theologians who have dealt with the Christianity of the Ebionites have suggested and developed at greater or lesser length the idea that it was extended or amplified in Islam; what they had in mind was essentially the conception of the prophetic mission, the Islamic prophetology as such. Here I cannot enter into details, but it is my belief that, if there are common traits, it is not so much in the general prophetology of Islam as in the doctrine of the Imam — the Imamology peculiar to Islamic esoterism, to Shiism, and most particularly to Ismailian Shiism.”
– Henry Corbin, Cyclical Times and Ismaili Gnosis, (London: Kegan Paul, 1983), 65
Thus, the legacy of “Jamesian” Jewish Christianity historically and spiritually continues with the Ismaili Imamat. In the present day and age, Mawlana Shah Karim al-Husayni – the Imam of the time – is the locus of manifestation of what Ebionites call the “True Prophet”. Several hadiths from the Prophet Muhammad indicate a spiritual identity between Jesus and Imam ‘Ali:
“Something about you resembles Jesus the son of Mary and if I did not fear that certain groups of my Community would say about you what the Christians have said about Jesus I would reveal something about you that would have made the people pick up the dust of your footsteps in order to seek blessings from it.”
– Prophet Muhammad,
Al-Kulayni, Rawda min al-Kafi, in Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, “Muhammad the Paraclete and ‘Ali the Messiah: New Remarks on the Origins of Islam and of Shi‘ite Imamology,” Der Islam (2018) 95(1): 30-64: 52)
Finally, the words of Imam ‘Ali himself make it clear that he embodies the spiritual reality of Jesus Christ (‘Isa al-Masih) – which is manifest today in Imam ‘Ali’s lineal descendant, Mawlana Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV:
“O people! I am the Christ who disperses clouds, heals the blind, creates the birds, and cures the lepers, meaning ‘the second Christ’. I am he and he is I.” A man then asked him: “O Commander of the Faithful, is the Torah in Arabic or not?” He [‘Ali] said: “It is not in Arabic but its esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) is in Arabic. Verily, Christ is he who upholds the truth and he is the king of the world and the hereafter… Jesus son of Mary is I and I am he. He is the great Word of God (kalimat Allah). He is the witness and I am what is witnessed according to the mysteries.”
– Imam ‘Ali b. Abi Talib,
Ja‘far b. Mansur al-Yaman, Kitab al-Kashf, ed. Mustafa Ghalib (Beirut: Dar Andalus, 1984), 28