Throughout the ninth century the Danes were a constant threat to the people of Britain. The raiders dominated the north and east of the country by the middle of the century, and made periodic incursions into the south and west. When Alfred was born at Wantage in 849, there was a real risk of a total Danish conquest of the English kingdoms.
When Alfred inherited the throne of Wessex in 871 he was only 22. From then until the battle of Edington in 878, Alfred was almost completely occupied with the defence of his kingdom. His defeat of the Danes at Edington brought more settled conditions, which, apart from some further unsuccessful Danish incursions in the 890s, were to last for some years. Following the depredations of the war years, Alfred set about rebuilding his kingdom. That many of the Danes who had settled in England were converted to Christianity was an unexpected bonus. Alfred persuaded Guthrum, who he defeated at Edington, to accept baptism.
Alfred was determined to reconstruct the learning and scholarship that had been lost, and to that end brought in the best foreign scholars he could find from neighbouring kingdoms and the continent. Alfred, having been well-educated himself, took a leading part in this intellectual revival, looking not only to his clergy but his leading laymen as well. The king’s scheme included the translation of various classic works into the vernacular, a task that he assisted with himself. At the end of his last work he wrote:
“He is a very foolish man, who will not increase his understanding while he is still in this world, and long to reach that endless life where all shall be made clear.”
Alfred was also a very devout king. He attended Mass daily and observed the canonical hours. He devoted half his income and half his time to the service of religion. The money for the church was given to the poor, to religious foundations and the re-establishment of monasteries, to the court school, and to various churches. Alfred clearly saw the church as the servant of the people. A legal code Alfred produced was to be interpreted in a Christian spirit of compassion, and the code itself recognised the place of the church in society.
Alfred died in 899 and was buried in the Old Minster, Winchester. Because of his courage and his Christian virtues, he has been called “the Great”, the only English monarch to be given that title.
In the New Testament, James is regularly identified as Jesus’ “brother”, and his parents may be presumed to be Mary and Joseph. Since he is listed first among the brothers of Jesus, he was presumably the eldest (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3). James of Jerusalem is not to be confused with James the Great, brother of John and son of Zebedee, nor with James the Less, son of Alphaeus.
At some stage during Jesus’ ministry, his brothers did not believe in him (John 7:5), but James was one of those who saw the risen Christ (1 Corinthians 15:7). This appearance could have been the occasion of his conversion, but more probably he, like his mother, had joined Jesus at some point before the crucifixion.
Paul found James to be one of the reputed pillars of the church in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:9). These pillars, including Peter, James and John, reserved to themselves the mission to the Jews, while Paul and Barnabas were to go to the Gentiles. It would seem to be after Peter’s departure from the city that James gathered around himself a college of presbyters (elders), whose spokesman he was at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13-21). James’ leadership of the Jerusalem church was now established. At the council, James adopted a mediating position between those who wished complete observance of the ceremonial requirements of the Mosaic Law, and those Gentile Christians who sought exemption from them. James appears to have offered the compromise position that made table fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians easier.
Some time after that in Galatia Paul was challenged by a group of strict Judaizers, who claimed the backing of James (Galatians 2:12). Whether this accurately portrays James’s opinion is not clear, but James did advise Paul to join in a Temple ceremony when he was in Jerusalem (Acts 21:17-26). James seems, then, to have wanted to uphold traditional Jewish piety; though how that related to his Christian faith is uncertain. He was in any case sufficiently liberal in his views to be put to death for them, which contrasts with a view of James, found especially in Jewish Christian circles, that he was a staunch upholder of the Mosaic tradition and piety.
In 62 CE, during the interregnum between two governors, who would other-wise have tried the case, the high priest brought charges against James and others of violating the Mosaic Law and had them stoned to death. Josephus reports that most fair-minded citizens were offended at this action. The letter of James in the New Testament is traditionally ascribed to the Lord’s brother, but the text gives no clear support to this. The apocryphal Infancy Gospel of James, also attributed to James, comes from the second century and has no historical value.
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