St James—Thundering Witness to Truth

Bible scholars piece together details of evidence to build up a full picture of the New Testament authorship and dates. Their work is like that of a detective—picking up a hint here and a scrap of evidence there.

There is an interesting detail about St James which helps date the New Testament accurately. It appears in the work of Justin Martyr. Justin was one of the early Christian writers called the Apostolic Fathers. He lived from 100-160 AD only one hundred years after the death of Jesus. A convert to the church, he wrote various works defending the Christian faith. One of the details he recorded is this:

“It is said that he [Jesus] changed the name of one of the apostles to Peter; and it is written in his memoirs that he changed the names of others, two brothers, the sons of Zebedee, to Boanerges, which means ‘sons of thunder’….”

What are Peter’s “memoirs”? We know it isn’t the Gospel of Peter–which is a later apocryphal gospel that was written long after Justin Martyr died. The early tradition of the church was that John Mark was the companion, translator and scribe for Peter, and that Mark’s gospel is based on the memories of Peter himself.

Therefore, in the absence of any other writings that might be Peter’s memoirs, we can safely conclude that the “memoirs” to which Justin Martyr refers are Marks’ gospel. What seals the deal is that Mark is the only one of the Evangelists who records that Jesus nicknamed James and John “Boanerges–Sons of Thunder”.

Why does it matter? Because modernist scholars and those who would undermine the historical reliability of the New Testament like to suppose that the gospel were written long after the time of Jesus and the apostles. Go here to read more about their ideas. They suppose that the stories of Jesus were exaggerated and elaborated with later “mythical” elements borrowed from pagan culture. If, however, Justin Martyr knew of Peter’s “memoirs” which recorded a detail only found in Mark then we can be confident that Mark was the companion and secretary of Peter and if that’s true, then his gospel records eyewitness accounts. The detective work of dating the New Testament is important because we believe the stories of Jesus are historical, and if they were not recorded early by eye witnesses then their reliability and credibility decreases.

Furthermore we know that Mark was in Rome with Peter because in his first epistle Peter sends greetings from “Babylon” (which was early Christian code for Rome) and includes greetings from Mark. Another details from Mark’s gospel points to Rome. In the passion narrative Mark records the detail that Simon of Cyrene was “the father of Rufus and Alexander.” (Mk.15.21) Why would he record such a detail unless his readers knew who Rufus and Alexander were? The early traditions say Rufus and Alexander became missionaries and when he is writing to the church at Rome Paul greets a certain Rufus and his mother in Romans 16:13.

What happened to Rufus’ brother Alexander? In 1941 an archeologist discovered first century tombs of Cyrenian Jews in the Kidron Valley near Jerusalem. One of the ossuraries had the Greek inscription: Alexander, son of Simon. The son of “Simon” buried in a first century Cyrenian cemetery? Just a co incidence?  Maybe by the time Paul wrote to the Romans, Alexander had died and only Rufus and his mother were still living and had fled to Rome.

Paul’s letter to the Romans was written about 56 AD so all this circumstantial evidence points to the conclusion that Mark’s gospel was not a late invention, but was written before 55 AD–just over twenty years after the crucifixion of Jesus by John Mark, a companion of Peter the Apostle and friend of St James.

To read more about who wrote the gospel of Mark go here, and for more on the early date of Mark’s gospel go here.

Browse his books, read his blog and contact Fr Dwight Longenecker’s by visiting his website


Fr. Dwight Longenecker


Fr Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is The Romance of Religion—Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. He blogs at Standing on My Head. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Harrison Thomas LaTour

    Acts 12:2
    And he killed James the brother of John with the sword.

  • Harrison Thomas LaTour

    Mary, mother of John Mark is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles 12:12, which says that, after his escape from prison, Peter went to her house:

    Mary of Clopas (or of Cleopas) (Ancient Greek: Μαρία ἡ τοῦ Κλωπᾶ, Maria he tou Klopa), the wife of Clopas, was one of various Marys named in the New Testament.

    Standing near the cross were Jesus’ mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary (the wife of Clopas), and Mary Magdalene.

    ◄ Matthew 4:18 ►
    As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.

    ◄ Matthew 16:18 ►
    And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

  • Veritas81

    The only problem I have this is the identification of the osuary as Alexander bar Simon’s. A similar was found that contained the name Yeshua bar Joseph, and it was widely held as being the bone’s of Jesus, and let’s not forget the James bar Joseph that was found as well. Both of THOSE osuaries were dismissed rather early on the grounds that the names were too common and there could be plenty of Yeshuas and Jameses and Josephs in first century Palestine, and there was no way to know for sure that these were the men mentioned in Scripture. Why so quick to accept one osuary when it can be dismissed on similar grounds?

  • noelfitz

    Thanks for this great article.

    I get confused with various people called James, John and Mary in the NT. I cannot
    sort out James the Greater, the Lesser, Son of Alphaeus, Son of Zebedee, Brother of the Lord, Bishop of Jerusalem, the Just

    At Mass the priest asked us how many remembered Zebedee ( It was interesting but failed to clarify the Bible.

    I have to apologise for being picky, but I consider Justin Martyr an Apologist, not an Apostolic Father.

    However most of this article seems to be about John Mark and Mark’s gospel, and not really about James.

    Eusebius gives several accounts of the death of James the Just (in the 60s) , including one by Josephus. This James seems to be the ‘Brother of the Lord’, bishop of Jerusalem
    and the successor of Jesus (???)

    But the James here is James the Greater, the first apostle to be martyred (by Herod Agrippa I in 41 AD) and patron of Spain.

    What do we know of this James? Not a lot.

  • pnyikos

    Another interesting question is whether John, son of Zebedee and the “beloved disciple” are the same person. There are exegetes who think they were two different people.

    Why do you not classify Justin Martyr as an Apostolic Father?

  • noelfitz


    many thanks for your post. I was delighted to get a reply. since often I feel my comments are ignored, either by no one reading them or by a general lack of interest in my opinions.

    The names of those considered Apostolic Fathers are somewhat arbitrary, but nowadays there is a general consensus excluding Justin Martyr, who is considered one of the Apologists as primarily he gives a explanation and justification for his faith.

    The leading scholars interested in the Apostolic Fathers are Bart Ehrman and Michael Holmes and both of these exclude Justin Martyr among the Apostolic Fathers.