The Letter of James

The Letter of James April 29, 2014

The modified quote in my previous post was inspired by the discussion of the opening section of the letter of James in my Sunday school class this past Sunday.

The letter fascinates me. It has a couple of mentions of the Lord Jesus Christ, but none of the traditional theological elements one will expect if one is steeped in the letters of Paul. No mention of Jesus’ crucifixion, much less an interpretation thereof as an atoning sacrifice. No mention of an afterlife at all, much less of the resurrection of Jesus.

Martin Luther was happy to relegate James to the fringe of the New Testament. And in one sense, it belongs there when compared to the preponderance of other views contained therein.

But if this is an authentic letter by James the brother of Jesus, then it may take us far closer to the earliest form of Jewish Christianity than anything else in the New Testament. And so what seems particularly odd to us may once have been the mainstream, and what now seems mainstream to us was presumably once a fringe phenomenon.

Do you think that James wrote this letter? It seems to lack any of the concerns or the tone one expects in pseudepigraphal works. And, while in theory it could be a non-Christian Jewish work with a couple of Christian additions, the fact that its teaching is so closely related to that of Jesus as found in the Q material in the Gospels makes that less likely.

What do you make of the letter of James?

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  • dantejohns

    I think it extremely unlikely that James wrote James. It lacks any sort of concrete feel to it that one might expect from the James of Galatians. Dunn’s proposal that it could be a collection of repurposed Jamesian wisdom is fascinating, something like I suppose has happened with the Gospel of John.

  • However early James might have been written (relatively speaking), how likely is it that the son of a Jewish woodworker in the 1st century wrote a letter in fluent Greek?

    • That is a really good question. There are obviously scenarios on which James could have had someone write on his behalf, and so it could still originate with him in a less direct sense, even if his Greek was not up to it. But it is much too common for the assumption to be made that Jesus was from a poor family. It is possible, but far from certain. The construction work in Sepphoris immediately before the period in question could have made Jesus’ father relatively wealthy even if he were not before, as well as giving appreciation for the usefulness of Greek and the importance that his children learn it. We obviously do not know any of this, but none of it is historically unlikely.

      Here’s a blog post I spotted today which is on the subject of the literacy of Jesus’ disciples, and so of some relevance:

      Also worth noting is Paul’s reference to Jesus being rich but having become poor. If one thinks that Paul held to an incarnational Christology then that could refer to something celestial. But if not, then a more mundane meaning becomes likely.

      • Thanks for this perspective – I’ll check out the link!

      • I took a look at the link. Malcolm makes a few very speculative suggestions about how Jesus and his disciples might have been more literate, but he doesn’t actually deal with Ehrman’s sources for the extremely low literacy rates in the first century (and how the literacy that existed was related to specific types of education and jobs).

        Chris Keith has a related post, but argues differently:

        • Indeed, there are certainly counterarguments that can be made. But what I appreciated about Malcolm’s post, since it does not get mentioned often, is his suggestion that we need to look not just at what was typical overall, but what was typical for people whose movements had the kind of impact that early Christianity did, and who spent a significant amount of time with someone they considered (among other things) a teacher.

          • It seems to me, though, that the impact of Christianity on the Greek world can largely be attributed to the work of Paul, who no one disputes was an early Christian, fluent in Greek, with a concerted interest in spreading Christianity to gentile communities.

          • On the Gentile world, certainly that was a key factor. But it does seem that there was a vibrant phenomenon of Jewish Christianity for at least several centuries, and which produced literature such as the Pseudo-Clementines. And that tradition looked back to James as a key figure, particularly important precisely because he stood against Paul. And so for James to have been an educated individual, even if not to quite the same degree as Paul, doesn’t seem unlikely.

            My point is really only that James being educated does not seem inherently unlikely. It isn’t clear to me that we have a way to prove what was the case one way or the other.

          • The writer of the epistle refers to himself as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”. Is there anything, beyond tradition, that would suggest this is the brother of Jesus?

          • The treatment of faith and works does seem to be something that Paul was interacting with in Romans. Here is what James D. G. Dunn (Romans, p.197) highlights in terms of the parallels between Paul’s argument in Romans 3:27-4:22 with that which James uses in 2:18-24:

            Issue posed in terms of faith and works
            Romans 3:27-28 James 2:18

            Significance of claiming ‘God is one’
            Romans 3:29-30 James 2:19

            Appeal to Abraham as test case
            Romans 4:1-2 James 2:20-22

            Citation of proof-text – Gen.15:6
            Romans 4:3 James 2:20-22

            Interpretation of Gen.15:6
            Romans 4:4-21 James 2:23

            Romans 4:22 James 2:24

          • I remember reading about these parallels before. Is the implication that Paul and the writer of James are using similar source materials or writing from the same tradition, or that the writer of James was influenced by Paul?

          • Both of those are possible. There are certainly aspects of both letters which make it seem less likely to many interpreters that either is directly responding to the other. But it would fit the evidence if James were a response to what the author had heard that Paul was saying, and Paul in turn responded to what James had written or was reported to be teaching. If neither reads like a direct response to the other, complete independence from one another also seems unlikely in view of the parallels.

          • Very interesting!

          • Andrew Dowling

            “But it would fit the evidence if James were a response to what the
            author had heard that Paul was saying, and Paul in turn responded to
            what James had written or was reported to be teaching.”

            This strikes me as the most likely scenario.

    • James Walker

      my father was the son of a (relatively) ignorant laborer, but he’s one of the most eloquent speakers I’ve had the privilege to hear. I really don’t get the whole “Jesus and the Apostles were illiterates” yarn.

      • Noone is saying that the apostles weren’t eloquent, or even intelligent. The point is that the epistles are written fluently in another language. There were no public schools or language courses in the first century. Since we know that there is a huge number of falsely attributed Christian writings from this period, the most likely scenario is that epistles such as 1st and 2nd Peter (and James) were written by later, Greek-speaking and writing Christians.

        • Well, it was “another language” that was widely used in this part of the world in this period. There have been scholars who have seen Jesus as influenced by Cynic philosophy, and while I am not persuaded, it is not geographically or historically impossible by any means.

          What also needs to be added is that there are different degrees of literacy, and eloquence need not be connected with the ability to write in a language, especially in antiquity. That makes things rather complex and hard to pin down unless we know a great deal about a specific individual, their upbringing, their education, and their compositions.

          • Yes, for the historian, it’s about weighing possibilities and discerning the most likely scenarios, isn’t it.

  • C. Bauserman

    It wouldn’t really matter to me if James did write it. It would be fascinating if he did, but it loses none of its theological impetus if he didn’t. The problem lies in attempting to view James through Paul (which, I think, was Luther’s problem). You have to view James through the lens of the Gospels, just like you have to view Paul through the lens of the Gospels. Interpreted in this way, James is, in a way, simply another viewpoint that emerges from the Gospels, just like Paul was. He’s definitely way more Jewish, focusing on the interaction of faith and works that Paul seemingly (note: seemingly, not outright) lacks.

    • Except that all of the gospels are dated by scholars after the Pauline epistles.

      • R Vogel

        Just use a rear view mirror, lol. But beware, objects in mirror are closer than they appear 😉

  • Andrew Dowling

    I’ve long thought that the actual text of James likely came from a sermon he gave prior to his death that was transposed by a Greek-writing follower/disciple. The content is clearly Jewish-Christian and not from the Pauline wing of the Church (which dominated the church after the Fall of Jerusalem); and I can’t imagine given the concerns of the epistle that it was written very late.

    Arguments that the author had to have known the Pauline epistles or the Gospels I find very unconvincing; the Jesus-esque moral statements (of all the NT epistles, its theology most closely resembles that of Jesus himself) and reactions against justification by faith could have easily been known through oral transmission; and the way the Jesus statements are made is unique; it’s not copied from the Gospels like later Patristic Fathers did in their letters. Also, given how the orthodox Church worked to diminish James’s place/influence in history (just see the Book of Acts) as it stamped out Jewish-Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, I don’t think its late acceptance in the West points to a later dating either . . in fact if it had been a 2nd century work completely lacking any historical connection to James I doubt it would have survived nor been accepted into the canon given its conflicts with Pauline theology (whereas late psuedonanmyous epistles like the Petrine epistles would be accepted as it presents a very pro-orthodox theological view and advocates adherence to authority).

    Although don’t ask me about Jude . . .I still don’t understand how that ever got into the Bible 🙂

    • MattB

      I thought Jude was one of Jesus’ brothers?

  • James’ writings need more appreciation … whether it’s the brother of Jesus, Dunn, or McGrath lol.

  • AAG

    Are you familiar with David Nienhuis work “Not by Paul Alone”? I was on the fence about the authenticity of James before I read Nienhuis case that James was a very late (mid to late 2nd cent) pseudepigraphal response to the Pauline canon. Regardless of James’ authenticity, the whole question of the interaction between James and the Pauline epistles is an intriguing one.

    • I’ve heard of it but have not read it, I’m afraid.

      • AAG

        His argument was that James was “canon-conscious pseudepigrapha,” namely that it was written deliberately with the intention of making it into the canon. Nienhuis argues that the authors of James and other Catholic epistles (although he focuses mostly on James) were trying to correct hyper-Paulinism in the Church by invoking the authority of Jerusalem apostles. I think it’s an interesting response to major claims make by supporters of authenticity, namely that James is too unpauline to be late or that the supposed “forger” lacked motive.

        • Andrew Dowling

          It’s an extremely odd claim to say James was meant for the canon when during the date of the alleged writing (mid 2nd century) there was no such thing as a “canon” . . only accepted and non-accepted books (and some wiggle room there), and it took James over a century more for Western churches to accept it, and many did with reserves. If it’s point is to attack Marcionism . .why not any real attacks on its foundation? An epistle of mostly wisdom sayings, which Marcionites would’ve found no objection to (they revered Paul as the True Apostle but they wern’t proto Lutherans advancing sola fide), doesn’t really serve that purpose. There’s no reference to apostolic authority; no mention of Jesus being the promised Messiah-in fact little mention of Jesus at all. And why not have James say off the top he’s the brother of Jesus if the author is invoking that authority? The letter is too esoteric to be a clear forgery designed to combat Marcionism.

          Now the Pastoral Epistles, Acts . . those have much stronger cases to be anti-Marcionite texts. Acts especially seems to me the route the established church would go . . invoke the continuity of the apostles with Jesus, give Paul a slightly subservient role but still portray him and the Apostles basically on the same page, and mention James but leave him in the background because Jewish-Christianity was still a nagging heretical threat (heck, even many Christians in the 4th century were popping in and out of synagogues, resulting in John Chrysostom’s infamous anti-Jewish diatribes).

          Interesting idea, but I think that theory is a stretch to put it mildly.

          • AAG

            I should clarify that when I said “hyper-Paulinism”, I was not necessarily referring to Marcionism per se. Not all hyper-Paulinism is Marcionism. I was thinking more generally along the lines of the antinomian tendencies of some of some Pauline enthusiasts, whom likely were those the author of James was referring to when he wrote “faith without works is dead.”

            As for there being no set canon in the late 2nd century, I think that’s precisely the point. People (e.g. Irenaeus) were starting to thinking about the idea of a canon, perhaps in response to Marcion, but it was still an open topic. James was written to finalize the epistolary canon to ensure it did not become too Paul-centric.

            You’d have to read the book yourself — my blog comments cannot do justice to Nienhuis’ argument. I think the strongest part of his book was his discussion of the external attestation for James, which is essentially non-existent until Origen.

  • Gary

    After watching the YouTube “critical thinking” under “you raise me up”, I can’t help but relate to “1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are of the Dispersion, greeting.”…so, if I was Jesus’s brother, head of the church in Jerusalem, I would say so. Considering Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts are by consensus post 70AD, I see no reason to assume James is pre 70 AD, and actually by James the brother of Jesus. Makes no sense. From what I read, “experts” want to say James, because he doesn’t say he is the brother of Jesus, we should believe he is the brother of Jesus. I say, ridiculous. Of course, I am not an expert. But come on, sometimes common sense rules!

  • arcseconds

    This is kind of off topic, but if you have 15 minutes James could you have a quick look at and tell me what you think?

    The story of the Caananite woman is a bit of a puzzle, as normally Jesus doesn’t ignore people who ask for help and then refuse them help and then get browbet into it. And even if there was a situation like this, one might ask why the gospel writer would include it. This explaination, if true, seems to explain everything, I don’t know anything much about the niceities of 1st century Jewish cultural interaction, so I have little basis on which to assess these claims.

    Although the combination of claims made, even if the background information is more or less correct, does strike me as somewhat unlikely, as it makes for a rather complicated situation, and one where Jesus apparently is giving everyone a lesson in feminism, which is convenient from a 21st century western perspecitve. On the other hand, Jesus does on the face of it lose an argument to a foreign woman here, so maybe the feminism isn’t totally out of place.

    I’m more mildly interested than desperate for an answer, so a ‘sorry mate, far too busy and this is a boring topic anyway’ as a response is fine by me 🙂

    • It is a topic that is far from boring! And I am grateful that you mentioned it, since that blog looks like it is one worth following. The general points about culture and context seem to be sound, but it is always hard to know how to relate the general to the specific when dealing with a story from another time and place. Nevertheless, while we need to be wary of attempts to make Jesus a 21st century feminist, there is good reason to think that he could have been a first century one. And given the evidence for his inclusive vision of the kingdom of God, it makes sense that some experience of interacting with foreigners and having his assumptions about them challenged would have occurred, and perhaps because of their importance in shaping his views, remembered.