Jacob P. Massine
It‘s easy to skip past Jude on your way to Revelation. Who was Jude anyways?
Jude’s letter opens with the greeting, “Jude (called Judas in his day), a servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James” (Jude 1). This sounds specific, but it isn’t. The very description that is intended to identify him, “the brother of James,” requires that we know which James he’s talking about.
The description “brother of James” is also problematic. The Greek word for ‘brother’ (ἀδελφός, adelphos), like the English slang word ‘bro,’ is ambiguous. Using The ESV English-Greek Reverse Interlinear New Testament, we can make the switch to Greek and look up the word adelphos in A Greek-English Lexicon of The New Testament (BDAG). BDAG tells us that adelphos can be a term of friendship (Phil 3:13), specify membership in an ethnic group (Rom 9:3), and metaphorically reference a “fellow believer” (1 Cor 11:1). Nonetheless, since Jude only mentions one “brother” in his opening, unlike Paul in his letters, James is likely his biological brother.
Bible dictionaries usually distinguish between four people named James (Ἰάκωβος, Iakobos) in the New Testament. Our work would be much easier if Jude had called him “James Anderson.” But with no last names in this period of time, navigating the field of candidates is tricky and requires making some assumptions.
James, the son of Zebedee is the most frequently referenced James in the New Testament. He is usually mentioned with his brother John (e.g., Matt 4:21). He and his brother were two of the twelve apostles (Mark 3:17). James and John, along with Peter, were eyewitnesses to the transfiguration (Mark 9:2). But if this was Jude’s biological brother, then why didn’t Jude introduce himself as “Jude, brother of James and John,” since both those men were apostles?
Jude would likely mention a relationship with an apostle because it lent authority to his letter. After all, he wasn’t an apostle. If he was, he would have said so, like Paul and Peter do. In light of this, it makes little sense for Jude to reference James and not John. This candidate seems unlikely.
James, the son of Alphaeus is mentioned only four times in the entire New Testament—always in the lists of Jesus’ disciples (e.g., Matt 10:3). James, the son of Alphaeus, would carry less weight than another candidate due to the infrequency of his appearances in the New Testament.
James, the father of Judas can likely be ruled out. Jude specifies the relationship as brother, not father.
James, the brother of Jesus is the last possibility. The New Testament informs us that Jesus had four biological brothers (Mark 6:3; Matt 13:55)—Joseph and Mary had children after Jesus’ birth. Two of those brothers were named James and Jude (Judas). This raises the possibility that the writer of the letter of Jude was the brother of Jesus.
If Jude was trying to gain credibility with his readers, a family relationship to James, “the Lord’s brother” (Gal 1:19) was a good strategy. This James—though not among the original twelve disciples—was later called an apostle (Gal 1:19). He became a leader of the Jerusalem church (Gal 2:19; Acts 15).
But why not begin his letter by saying he is “Jude, the brother of Jesus”? Maybe Jude chose not to make such a statement out of humility. An appeal to a brother relationship with Jesus may have come across bad. Especially considering that when Jesus’ brothers and mother came looking for him, he said, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?… whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother” (Matt 12:48–50 ESV). Appealing to James was less audacious, and still tied Jude to the Christ.
We cannot be certain of the precise identity of the Jude who wrote the short, often-overlooked letter, but a direct link with Jesus is a strong possibility.