May 1 – Philip and James

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Philip and James, apostles

The Apostle Philip was one of the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus (Matt 10:1–4; Mark 3:13–19; Luke 6:12–16). He should not be mistaken for the other two biblical figures also called Philip: Philip the Deacon, also known as Philip the Evangelist, a deacon appointed by the apostles to serve in the early church (Acts 8:5–40; 21:8–9); and Philip the Tetrarch, also known as Herod Philip II, a son of Herod the Great, whose wife remarried his half-brother, Herod Antipas (Mark 6:17–19).

The Apostle Philip came from the north east region of Galilee, from a town called Bethsaida, the same town where the other two apostles, Andrew and Peter, lived. He was called by Jesus in the early days of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee (John 1: 43–44).

The name Philip was common in the Greco-Roman world, a compound noun consisting of two Greek words, φίλος (philos) and ἵππος (hippos). The name literally meant a friendly horse. Unlike most of the apostles whose family names were Hellenistic proper nouns derived from Semitic roots, Philip was a Greek name. This may indicate a Greek background which might explain why, when some Greeks wanted to meet Jesus, they sought out Philip to be their intermediary (John 12:20–21).

Philip is portrayed in the Gospel of John as a friendly agent, a go-between person. He introduced Nathanael to Jesus (John 1:44–48) and acted as an intermediary between the Greeks and Jesus. Furthermore, in the story of feeding the five thousand, Philip was asked by Jesus where to buy bread for the crowd (John 6:5–7). This could allude to Philip being the person who was in charge of providing food for Jesus and the disciples. In a way it conjures up a picture of Philip, resembling a horse, always on the move to acquire and transport food for the Lord.

Contrary to his fellow townsman, Peter, Philip is rarely mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels or in the rest of the New Testament. Outside the four gospels he is mentioned only once in Acts, in the story of Christ’s ascension (Acts 1:12–14), where he and other followers of Christ were in Jerusalem, devoting themselves to prayer. Subsequent accounts of the apostle’s later life and ministry are absent in the New Testament.

Based on disputed extra biblical sources, Philip might have gone to Phrygia in Asia Minor (the southern region in modern Turkey) to proclaim the gospel, a region that was also twice visited by Paul (Acts 16:6; 18:23). It is believed that Philip died in Hierapolis, an ancient Roman spa city in Phrygia (neighboring the famous Pamukkale in modern Turkey). Regardless of those traditional accounts being authentic or not, from the gospels we get a picture of an apostle who reminds us of the importance and the beauty of being a friendly agent for the Lord, an intermediary for other people, and a faithful servant of Christ.

(‘the brother of Jesus’, ‘the Just’, ‘Adelphotheos’
— brother of God, and first ‘Bishop of Jerusalem’)
(Greek: Iakobos, a variant of the Hebrew name Ya’akov, Jacob = supplanter, heel)
There are 42 mentions of the name James (Iakobos) in the New Testament — referring to as many as 7 different people — and a further 27 uses of Jacob (Iakob), referring to the Hebrew patriarch. It is sometimes difficult, therefore, to sort out which James is meant: one of the two disciples with that name; the ‘brother of the Lord’ and leader of the church in Jerusalem; or the author of the ‘letter’ of James — apart from other minor characters carrying the same name.

There are many suggestions about how the identities of the Jameses might overlap or be clarified, but the most commonly accepted position is that James the Just, ‘the brother of the Lord’ (Acts; Gal 1:19; 2:2,9), is the one who became the leader of the Jerusalem church and the most likely source of the Epistle of James. The other main James — the Apostle, brother of John and son of Zebedee — was the first and only member of the Twelve martyred in the New Testament record (Acts 12:1–2, around 44CE), but James the Just himself suffered the same fate later on in 62CE.

Indeed, the Jewish historian Josephus tells us more about the death of James the Just than he does about the death of Jesus, and attributes the dismissal of the High Priest Ananus the Younger to his blatant opportunism in having James clubbed and stoned while the Romans were absent (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 20, chapter 19).

We can see from the references in Acts (12:17; 15:13ff; 21:18) that in his own time, James had an authority and reputation in Jerusalem that exceeded that of Peter and Paul. James was the one who settled divisive issues in Jerusalem, and to whom Peter and Paul returned to maintain their good standing with the earliest Jesus-followers. The reputation of James (also known in the tradition as ‘camel knees’ due to the time he spent on his knees praying in the Temple), extends well beyond the Biblical canon. The Gospel of Thomas (logion 12) reads:

The disciples said to Jesus. “We know that you will depart from us. Who will be our leader?” Jesus said to them, “Wherever you have come, you will go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.”

Again, this provides further evidence from outside the Bible of the considerable reputation of James of Jerusalem.

The ‘Letter’ of James itself shows signs of some very early material and may well be a re-working of the sermons of the first Bishop of Jerusalem. It is a treatise on putting into practice the teachings of Jesus — on God’s bias to the poor, and on faith as action, not just belief (“Faith without works is dead!” James 2:26, a statement in some tension with Paul’s writings).

Traditionally, James the Just has been the patron saint of the dying, of milliners, hatmakers, fullers and pharmacists. Given the distinctive emphases of the James traditions in Acts and the Epistle of James, we might suggest that he also be seen today as the patron saint of the poor, of community development (and ‘practical christianity’), of Jewish-Christian dialogue, of knee and hip replacements, and of any teachers who struggle with their sharp tongues (James 3:1–12)!

By Dr Keith Dyer