Traditionally James is thought to have been an “unbeliever” before the resurrection. Like Paul, he encountered Jesus after the resurrection and “converted” to Christianity. This description is troublesome for several reasons. First, the unbelief of James concerned his understanding of who Jesus was during his ministry. He was an “unbeliever,” but the disciples were not clear on who Jesus was nor did they fully understand his messianic mission. They too left Jesus in the end, betraying him in the Garden.
Second, James seems to have had a traditional Jewish worldview and theology. He does not suddenly become a Jewish thinker after his encounter with the risen Jesus. Like Paul, James would have understood his brother’s activity through the lens of Second Temple Judaism and like the Pharisees questioned some of Jesus’ activities and teachings.
However, it is possible to read the data in the gospels differently and argue that James was in fact a follower of Jesus prior to the resurrection. There are only a few texts which refer to the family of Jesus in the Gospels. In Mark 3:21 indicates that the family thought Jesus was “out of his mind,” but 3:31-35 says that they came “seeking him,” presumably to take him home.
In John 7:1-5, however, there is a clear statement that his brothers did not believe in him. But when one looks at this text, it is in the context of Jesus’ signs. The brothers are urging him to do his publically rather than in secret. They do not deny that he is a miracle worker, but they complain about the way in which Jesus is doing those miracles. This may hint at a belief that Jesus was a special teacher, man of God, or miracle worker, but not a full understanding of Jesus as the messiah.
Perhaps a way to get at this problem is to as if Mary was an “unbeliever.” To my knowledge no one would suggest that Mary “did not believe in Jesus,” yet in Mark 3:31-35 Mary is also seeking Jesus. In John 2, Mary seems interested in Jesus doing a miracle in a more public way. There are no scholars who would argue that Mary was a non-believer in Jesus, even though the evidence is the same as that of James. No one would think of Mary having a “conversion experience” after the resurrection. She was in the upper room after the ascension, waiting with the disciples and the brothers of Jesus (Acts 1:14). In general, one could describe Mary and James similarly prior to the resurrection.
Is it possible that James, like Paul, had a traditional Jewish worldview prior to the resurrection? To a certain extent, this discussion recalls the debate over the conversion of Paul. How far did James move away from Judaism when he encountered Jesus? Perhaps even more than Paul, we can speak of James shifting within Judaism to a belief that Jesus fulfilled the role of the Messiah in his death and resurrection.