In issue 94 of Messiah Magazine I discussed the yahrzeit (anniversary of the death) of Simon Peter as it is recorded in rabbinic literature. Since then I have become interested in trying to discover yahrzeit dates for the rest of the apostles. Unfortunately, this is almost impossible to do for most apostles because there are simply no records.
One exception is Ya’akov HaTzaddik (James the Just), the brother of Yeshua. Although his death is not recorded in the Apostolic Scriptures we do have an early account of it in Josephus’ writings. Josephus lived from about 37-100 CE and wrote his Antiquities of the Jews in about 93 CE. Here’s his account of the event of which he was most likely an eye witness:
And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator; but the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. Now the report goes, that this oldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests; but this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority].
Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or some of his companions]; and, when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for what he had already done was not to be justified. (Josephus, Antiquities 20.197-201)
Josephus tells us that James’ martyrdom takes place in Jerusalem in between two Roman procurators: Festus had just died, and Albanius had not yet arrived in Jerusalem after his selection by Ceasar. This allows us to firmly place the date of James’ death in the year 62 CE.
To find out more precisely the date of his death, let’s turn to the church historian Eusebius (260-339 CE). In his Ecclesiastical History, he dedicates a whole chapter to James’ death and martyrdom. Here is the version he said was passed down from Hegesippus (110-180 CE), a Jew by birth and one of the earliest church historians:
James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles. He has been called the Just (Zaddik) by all from the time of our Savior to the present day... As there were many even of the rulers believed, there was a commotion among the Jews and Scribes and Pharisees, who said that there was danger that the whole people would be looking for Yeshua as the Messiah. Coming therefore in a body to James they said, “We entreat thee, restrain the people; for they are gone astray in regard to Yeshua, as if he were the Messiah. We entreat thee to persuade all that have come to the feast of the Passover concerning Yeshua; for we all have confidence in thee. For we bear thee witness, as do all the people, that thou art just, and dost not respect per sons. Do thou therefore persuade the multitude not to be led astray concerning Yeshua. For the whole people, and all of us also, have confidence in thee. Stand therefore upon the pinnacle of the temple, that from that high position thou mayest be clearly seen, and that thy words may be readily heard by all the people. For all the tribes, with the Gentiles also, are come together on account of the Passover.”
The aforesaid Scribes and Pharisees therefore placed James upon the pinnacle of the temple, and cried out to him and said: “Thou just one, in whom we ought all to have: confidence, forasmuch 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 ye ask me concerning Jesus, the Son of Man? He himself sitteth 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 thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” 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, “Cease, what do ye? The just one prayeth 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. (History of the Church 2.23.4,10-18)
We gain a few more details here such as the fact that James was thrown off the pinnacle of the Temple, stoned, and then finally killed with a fuller’s club. Yet the most important detail we receive is that James’ death took place right before Passover. Although neither Jewish nor church literature preserves an actual date for James’ death, it seems from Josephus’ and Eusebius’ information we may conclude that James was martyred in 62 CE during the week before Passover.
This has inspired me to take some time during the week before the Pesach to pay tribute to James by studying his epistle and reading about him in Eusebius. As we prepare to remove the physical and spiritual leaven from our lives, we would be well served to focus on his words to us:
Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. (James 2:17)
May his words sink in deeply as we allow the Father, through his Torah and his Spirit, to transform our lives. What better person from whom to learn about faith than one who sacrificed his life for the Torah and for his faith in Messiah Yeshua.