The disciples said to Jesus, “We know that you are going to leave us. Who will be our leader?”
Jesus said to them, “No matter where you are you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.”
– Gospel of Thomas 12
So who exactly is James the Just? Why does Jesus give him such authority in this pericope in the sayings of Thomas? According to the canonical gospels, the most important members of Jesus’ students are Peter, John, and James. These names are nearly equivalent to the “pillars” that Paul talks about in Galatians 2:9 (James, John, and Cephas, though I think the name “Peter” was invented by Mark for a reason). It might be nothing, but Paul lists James first in this list. Later in Galatians, Paul mentions how “men from James” led Cephas astray (2:11-12), implying that Cephas was not the leader of the disciples like later Christian tradition asserts. It seems as though James had the most clout out of the pillars.
But then, Paul mentions meeting Cephas and James the lord’s brother on his trip to Jerusalem.
Tertullian’s Against Marcion (c. 207 CE) doesn’t list this omission from Marcion’s version of Galatians so quite possibly Tertullian’s version of Galatians didn’t have a mention of Paul meetings a James who was the lord’s brother. I mean, Tertullian was observant enough to recognize that Marcion’s version of Galatians that mentions the pillars didn’t have the same order as his version (i.e. Cephas, James, John vs. James, John, Cephas) so he would have pointed out this discrepancy if it existed. So James being “the lord’s brother” might not even be original to Paul.
But, there was a group of Christian who revered a James who was a brother of Jesus even though in Mark the only James who was a leader had a brother named John, also one of the pillars.
So if James was the lord’s brother in Galatians, is this also the James that was the pillar? We have a pillar in Galatians who’s name is James who exercises some authority over Cephas, we have a James that’s part of Jesus’ favorites who witness his transfiguration and was a brother of the other pillar John, and then we have a James who was the “lord’s brother”.
Are they all the same James?
Origen claimed (c. 220 CE) that James was called “the lord’s brother” not because they were related, but because they were brothers in righteousness. In this view, all of the Jameses that Paul mentions are the James the Just of the Thomas quote who is the true leader of the pre-Pauline church. The James who is a brother of the pillar John is the aberration; and rightly so since he dies almost immediately in the 2nd century Catholicizing (i.e. universalizing) document “Acts of the Apostles”. Then again, “Acts” never mentions the brother of Jesus named James.
In Gal 2:10, the ‘poor’ are an identical reference to Rom 15:26, and 15:31. Of course, “the poor” were a sect of 2nd century Christians: the Ebionites. “Ebionite” is etymologically derived from the Hebrew אביונים (EBYWNYM or ebionim) which in Hebrew literally means “poor” or “poor ones”. Translating this literally into Greek would be οι πτωχοι. Paul uses this phrase in genitive form in Gal 2:10 (των πτωχων).
The Poor, or the Ebionites, regarded James the Just as their leader… and regarded Paul as a Greek who converted to Judaism and then apostatized. Of course, the Ebionites also rejected all of Pauline Christianity’s teachings – like the virgin birth, co-equality with Hashem, pre-existence, divinity, atoning death, and the physical resurrection of Jesus. They also rejected Paul’s abrogation of the laws of Moses.
Maybe Thomas was a (possibly Gnostic) Ebionite document; those who only followed the teachings of the “living Jesus” and James the Just. There does seem to be some scholarly support for this – i.e. the idea that James was an early leader of the church (or perhaps a Jewish sect that preceded what would become Christianity). According to Robert Eisenmann’s “James the Brother of Jesus”, James [the Just] was written out of the record of being a leader of this pre-Pauline church. And this is probably why there’s this current confusion over which James is which.