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NOTE: Nineteen articles will begin with these same two introductory paragraphs but will then speak specifically about the Bible book in question.
It has often been said [by whom?] that it was an accepted practice in antiquity for a writer to attribute his work to a well-known figure from the past or a teacher who has greatly influenced him. The practice would have been condemned as dishonest by all authorities in antiquity. The book Forged: Writing in the Name of God – Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are by Agnostic New Testament Bible scholar Dr. Bart D. Ehrman contends that this is incorrect. Falsely attributed writings are often referred to as “pseudepigraphs,” but Ehrman maintains that the more honest term is “forgery.” The book suggests that 11 or more books out of the 27 books of the Christian New Testament canon were written as forgeries. This article and others will debunk this claim. In his book, Ehrman points out numerous inconsistencies which he finds within the New Testament which appear to support many of his claims, such as the fact that in Acts 4:13, the statement is made that both Peter and John were illiterate, yet in later years entire books of the Bible were then alleged to have been written by them. This last argument is quickly debunked on two grounds: (1) it was not years later that they wrote their books, it was over thirty years later, and in the case of John, it was over sixty years later; (2) the Greek means unlettered (YLT) that is, not educated in the rabbinic schools; not meaning illiterate. Nevertheless, below are three articles that destroy this argument of Ehrman.
In addition to the eleven books of the New Testament Ehrman identifies as forgeries, he discusses eight originally anonymous New Testament texts that had names of apostles ascribed to them later and are falsely attributed. These are not forgeries since the texts are anonymous but have had false authors ascribed to them by others.
Dr. Norman L. Geisler writes,
Who Wrote It?
James, the brother of Jesus, an elder and pillar in the Jerusalem church, is the author of this letter.
Several persons are called James in the New Testament:
- James the son of Zebedee (Mark 1:19), brother of John the apostle (4:21), who was martyred about AD 44 (Acts 12:2), before the book of James was written.
- James the son of Alphaeus (Mark 3:18), who was not prominent enough to write an encyclical letter.
- James the Less (Mark 15:40), who was well-known enough to write an encyclical letter.
- James the father of Judas (Thaddaeus), an apostle (Luke 6:16; see Matt. 10:3; John 14:22), but he was not prominent enough to write this General Epistle.
- James, the (half-) brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3; Gal. 1:19) and brother of Jude (Jude 1). (a) James was an unbeliever before Jesus’s resurrection (John 7:5). (b) Christ appeared to him after his resurrection, and James was converted (1 Cor. 15:7). (c) Later he received a visit from Paul (Gal. 1:18−19). (d) He was called “the Lord’s brother” (v. 19). (e) He was a “pillar” in the Jerusalem church (2:9). (f) He presided at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15:13−19. (g) He agreed with Paul on justification (Acts 15) but urged him to respect the Jewish law (21:17−21). (h) Peter referred to him with deference (12:17). Hence, he is the only James in the New Testament who was prominent enough to write a General Epistle.
There is strong internal evidence that James the brother of Jesus is the author of the book of James. (1) He was commonly referred to in the New Testament as simply “James” (Gal. 2:9, 12; Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18). (2) He was the only one by that name with the authority to write the letter. (3) His style was very much like that of Jesus (for example, his figures of speech). (4) His content was like that of his brother Jesus (see below). (5) The letter has strong similarities to James’s speech in Acts 15. For example, the greeting in James 1:1 is similar to that in Acts 15:23 and is used nowhere else by a New Testament author; the word meaning “to visit” (1:27) appears in Acts 15:14; the word for “turning” sinners to God (5:20) appears in James’s address in Acts 15:19; and a similar use of the “name” of the Lord is in James 2:7 and Acts 15:17.
There is good external support in the early church that James the brother of Jesus was the author of this book. The early church accepted it as coming from James. This included Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and the Shepherd of Hermas. Also the early Syrian Bible (The Peshitta) contained James, and later Fathers accepted it, including Origen, Eusebius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius, Jerome, and Augustine.
When Was It Written?
The book of James was written either in AD 47 to 48 or in AD 60 to 62.
The Early View
The early view (that James was written before Acts 15, between AD 47 and 48) argues that:
- It is highly Jewish in nature (with references to the Old Testament, law, and synagogue [assembly]—2:2)
- It reflects Christ’s oral teachings before the Gospels were written.
- The form of church government was not highly developed (5:14) as it was later.
- James shows no awareness of the Acts 15 council (AD 49), which would have been relevant to his theme had it already occurred.
- The book is totally silent on the non-Jewish church, which came later.
- The author seems to be unaware of Paul’s writings, and this implies a date before Paul wrote (see 2 Peter 3:15–16).
- The economic conditions of the poor reflect an early date (5:1–6).
- The stress on the freshness of Christ’s coming (5:7–9) supports an early date.
The Late View
The late view (that James was written after Acts 15, between AD 60 and 62) argues that:
- It was not written until after the Jewish dispersion (1:1; see Acts 18:2), which occurred after AD 50.
- It was after Paul’s teaching on justification (see 1:25; 2:21–22) with which James agreed (Acts 15) and as a possible correction to misinterpretation of it (AD 57+).
- The ethical and exhortational emphasis fits a later date.
- The other General Epistles were written later.
- There is no mention of Christ’s resurrection, which was an early emphasis (in Acts 2–13).
- It was before AD 62 when James was martyred (see Josephus, Antiquities, 9.1).
- Hence, it was written about AD 60 to 62.
To Whom Was It Written?
The letter is addressed to “the twelve tribes scattered abroad” (1:1). There are three views as to the identity of these twelve tribes:
- Unbelieving Jews. Response: The recipients are believers (2:1). If it had been written to unbelievers, it would not have been accepted into the Christian canon, which it was.
- All Christians. Response: “Tribe” and “Israel” are never used spiritually in the New Testament (see Matt. 19:28; Rom. 9:3−4), and in the Old Testament the terms are always used of the literal children of Abraham.
- Jews of the western dispersion (Peter wrote to those of the eastern dispersion—1 Peter 1:1). This view fits with the literal meaning of the term tribes, with Peter’s primary mission to Jewish believers (Gal. 2:7), and with the content of the book of James.
Where Were the Readers Located?
The recipients of the letter were in Palestine and perhaps the surrounding areas.
Why Was It Written?
Several reasons for writing James can be derived from the text. (1) He desired to comfort persecuted believers (1:5); (2) he wished to commend “pure religion” (v. 27); (3) he wanted to convict the mere “professors” of the faith who were not “doers” of the faith (2:14−26).
A DEEPER DIVE INTO AUTHORSHIP
Douglas J. Moo writes,
- The Case for James the Brother of the Lord
The writer of the letter identifies himself simply as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). The English name comes from the Latin Jacomus via old French Gemmes. The Greek name it translates, Iakōbos, occurs forty-two times in the NT and refers to at least four different men. Three of them are mentioned in one verse, Acts 1:13: “When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James.” James the father of Judas is mentioned only here and in Luke 6:16 in the NT. His name occurs only because there is a need to distinguish this particular Judas from the better-known Judas Iscariot. James the son of Alphaeus is rather obscure, mentioned only in lists of apostles such as this one (cf. also Mark 3:18; Matt. 10:3; Luke 6:15) and perhaps in Mark 15:40 (“James the younger”) and Matt. 27:56. He was probably not well known enough to have written an authoritative letter to Christians under his own name alone. But James the son of Zebedee is one of the most prominent apostles in the gospel narratives. Along with Peter and John, he belonged to the “inner circle” of the Twelve and was therefore privileged to witness, for instance, the resurrection of Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5:37 and par.) and the transfiguration (Mark 9:2 and par.; see also Mark 10:35, 41; 13:3). But this James was put to death by Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:2), perhaps in about a.d. 44. And we probably should not date the letter of James quite this early. This leaves us with the other prominent James in the NT: James the brother of the Lord. He is mentioned in the Gospels (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3), but he became a follower of Jesus only after the resurrection (cf. 1 Cor. 15:7 and John 7:5). He attained a position of leadership in the early church (Acts 12:17), where we find him dialoging with Paul about the nature and sphere of the gospel ministry (Acts 15:13; 21:18; Gal. 1:19; 2:9, 12). None of the other Jameses mentioned in the NT lived long enough or was prominent enough to write the letter we have before us without identifying himself any further than he does. Of course, it is always possible that a James not mentioned in the NT was the author of the letter. But we would have expected that so important a person would have left traces of himself in early Christian tradition. It is not surprising, then, that, with a few late exceptions, Christians have traditionally identified the author of the letter with James the brother of the Lord.
The case for authorship to this point is inferential: a well-known James must have written the letter, and the brother of the Lord is the only James we know of who fits the profile. Proof is, in the nature of the case, unavailable. But several circumstances about the letter at least corroborate this conclusion.
First, the letter has a few suggestive similarities to the wording of the speech given by James of Jerusalem, the brother of the Lord, at the Apostolic Council (Acts 15:13–21) and to the letter subsequently sent out by him to Gentiles in northern Syria and southern Asia Minor (Acts 15:23–29). The epistolary “greeting” (Gk. chairein) occurs in Jas. 1:1 and Acts 15:23, but in only one other place in the NT; the use of “name” (onoma) as the subject of the passive form of the verb “call” (kaleō) is peculiar, yet is found in both Jas. 2:7 and Acts 15:17; the appeal “listen, my brothers” occurs in both Jas. 2:5 and Acts 15:13; and several other, less striking, similarities are also found. None of the similarities proves common authorship, but they are suggestive.20
Second, the circumstances reflected in the letter fit the date and situation in which James of Jerusalem would be writing. We sketch some of these circumstances in the section that follows. Briefly, the readers seem to have been Jewish Christians who have left their homes in Palestine and are facing economic distress, including persecution at the hands of wealthy landowners. James, the NT makes clear, ministered mainly to Jewish Christians. The middle first century in the Middle East was marred by famine and general economic distress as well as by a tendency for wealthy people to buy up land and force farmers to work their land on their own terms (cf. Jas. 5:1–6). As leader of the Jerusalem church, James would have been in a perfect position to address a letter to Jewish Christians who had been forced to flee from Jerusalem and its confines because of persecution. In fact, the situation Luke describes in Acts 11:19 fits very neatly with the scenario we are proposing: “Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews.” We can well imagine these early Jewish Christians leaving their homes, trying to establish new lives in new and often hostile environments, and, because of the sense of dislocation, losing some of their spiritual moorings. James, as their “pastor,” would naturally want to encourage and admonish them.
Another aspect of the letter of James also fits well into the kind of early Jewish-Christian environment associated with James the brother of the Lord: its primitive Christian theology. James is far more theological than many scholars have given the letter credit for. But the theology rarely goes beyond accepted OT and Jewish perspectives, combined with some very basic, distinctly Christian conceptions: Jesus as Lord (1:1; 2:1) and coming judge (5:7, 9); the tension between the “already” of salvation accomplished (1:18) and “not yet” culminated (1:21; 2:14; 5:20); “elders” functioning as spiritual leaders in the local church (5:14). This is just the kind of theology we might associate with James as we know him from the NT.
- The Challenge to the Traditional View
For seventeen centuries Christians, with only a few exceptions, accepted the view that the letter of James was written by the Lord’s brother of that name known from the pages of the NT. But in the last two centuries a growing number of scholars have challenged this tradition. Before we investigate this challenge, it is worth asking why we should bother to debate the point. It is certainly not worth spending a lot of time to validate or overthrow the tradition as such. The point might be of interest to church historians but would have little import for those of us interested in reading and understanding the letter. But more than tradition is involved. The letter makes a claim about authorship: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to.…” Identifying the James who wrote the letter may enable us to set the letter more accurately into its historical and canonical context. And by doing so, our interpretation of the letter and its contribution to the teaching of Scripture generally will be enhanced. An obvious case in point with respect to James is the teaching of chap. 2 on justification. But the matter of authorship is important for another reason. Precisely because the letter makes a claim about the author, the truthfulness of the letter as a whole is ultimately at stake. Of course, the letter makes no claim about which James wrote the letter; and so no question about the truthfulness of the letter is raised if we decide, with Calvin, for instance, that James the son of Alphaeus wrote the letter. But if, as many contemporary scholars maintain, the person who wrote the letter was not a person named James but someone writing in the name of the famous brother of the Lord, then new questions arise. Is the author trying to deceive us about the origin of the letter and thereby claim apostolic authority for a letter that does not deserve it? Or is the author simply utilizing a well-known ancient literary device whereby a famous person’s teaching could be “reapplied” to a new situation? Our answer to these questions inevitably will effect the authority that we attribute to this letter. And so the issue needs careful investigation.
Three general theories of authorship need to be considered, although the first two can be quickly disposed of. In what is now to be regarded as nothing more than a curiosity in the history of scholarship, a few scholars suggested that the letter, in its essence, is not a Christian book at all. They argued that an original Jewish document had been “Christianized” with a couple of superficial references to Jesus (1:1; 2:1). The decisive blow to this extreme view is the degree to which the letter is permeated with references to the teaching of Jesus. A few others have suggested that the letter might have been written by another man named James: either the member of the Twelve by that name, James the son of Alphaeus (Calvin), or an unknown James (Erasmus, Luther).23 But these views have none of the strengths and all of the weaknesses of the more usual identification with James the brother of the Lord.
By far the most usual alternative to the traditional view of authorship holds that the writer of the letter was an unknown Christian. The name “James” in 1:1 may then have been added at a later date, in which case the letter in its original form would have been anonymous. Or it may have been added by the author himself to lend greater authority to the book and, perhaps, because the teaching of the letter had some relationship to James the brother of the Lord. In this case, the letter would be pseudepigraphical. This latter theory now dominates modern scholarship on James. Why is this so? Mainly because scholars are convinced that the letter contains features incompatible with authorship by James the brother of the Lord. Four such features are most often cited. We will examine each in turn.
- If the letter had really been written by a brother of the Lord Jesus, the author would surely have mentioned that special relationship at some point in the letter. We might also have expected him to allude to the resurrection appearance that was perhaps instrumental in his conversion (cf. 1 Cor. 15:7).
This is obviously an argument from silence and boils down to the question: How important was James’s physical relationship to Jesus for his status in the early church? That his relationship to Jesus was known and could serve, if nothing more, as a mark of identification is clear from Gal. 1:19. But we have little reason to think that James’s physical relationship to Jesus was important for the position he held in the early community. In Acts, where James figures prominently as a leader of the Jerusalem church, his relationship to Jesus is never mentioned. Physical ties to Jesus became important only after the time of James’s death. If anything, therefore, the author’s failure to mention the relationship is an argument against the pseudepigraphical view. Moreover, James’s physical relationship to Jesus never spilled over into a spiritual relationship. From what we can tell from the Gospels, James and the other brothers of Jesus remained estranged from him throughout the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry (see Matt. 12:46; John 7:5). When Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, he contrasted them with his “true family”—those who do the will of God (Mark 3:31–34 and par.). So the fact that James was Jesus’ brother did not bring him spiritual insight; nor was it the basis for his position and authority in the early church. His failure to mention the relationship is not, therefore, surprising. Nor is it surprising that James, if he wrote the letter, makes no reference to the resurrection appearance. Paul, whose vision of the resurrected Christ led to his conversion and constituted his call to apostolic service, mentions the appearance in only two of his thirteen letters. Tasker has pointed out the capriciousness of this sort of argument: James must be pseudepigraphical because the author does not mention his encounter with the resurrected Christ; 2 Peter must be pseudepigraphical because the author brings up his encounter with the transfigured Christ. Indeed, the occasional nature of our NT letters renders any argument from what is included or not included in the letter quite tenuous. So many factors—the author’s circumstances, his relationship to his readers, the purpose of the letter, the issues in the community—affect the content of the letter that it is precarious in the extreme to draw wide-ranging conclusions from the failure to mention a particular topic.
- A second feature of the letter that leads many scholars to doubt that James of Jerusalem could have written it is the nature of its Greek and its cultural background. The Greek of the letter is idiomatic and even contains some literary flourishes (e.g., an incomplete hexameter in 1:17). The author frequently alludes to Jewish writings typical of the Hellenistic diaspora (Sirach, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Philo). Moreover, the author employs some words and phrases derived from Greek philosophy and religion (e.g., “the cycle of nature” [lit. trans.] in 3:6). Such Greek, critics argue, could not have been written by the son of a Galilean carpenter who, as far as we know, never left Palestine.
But this objection can be easily met.
First, we must not exaggerate the quality of James’s Greek. While more polished and closer to the “higher koinē” than most NT Greek, the Greek of James is far from literary Greek. Absent are the elaborate sentences found, for instance, in Hebrews. As Ropes concludes, “there is nothing to suggest acquaintance with the higher styles of Gk. literature.”
Second, the alleged technical philosophical and religious terminology in the letter proves, on closer examination, to involve words and phrases that seem to have found a place in the mainstream of the language. They are the kinds of words that an ordinary educated person, familiar with the Hellenistic world, would have known. One does not need a college degree in philosophy, for instance, in our day to use words and phrases like “existentialist” or “language game.” And Martin Hengel’s classic study documented the degree to which Palestine had been penetrated by Hellenistic language and ideas. James must have had some education to have been elevated to the position in the church that he held. To claim that he could not have known and used these kinds of words is to assume far more about James’s background than any of our sources reveals.
Essentially the same point can be made with respect to the general level of Greek in the letter. Hengel’s work, which we mentioned in the last paragraph, was part of a larger reassessment of the alleged division between “Judaism” and “Hellenism” that dominated much early and mid-twentieth-century scholarship. Current scholarship recognizes that any such antithesis must at least be nuanced. Judaism was rather thoroughly penetrated by Hellenistic language and ideas; and there was undoubtedly a spectrum of acquaintance with Hellenism among Jews both in Palestine and in the Diaspora. Particularly relevant to the current issue is research that shows that many Palestinians, especially in Galilee and even from poor families, would have grown up with fluency in Greek. So the question is: Could James have been exposed to the kind of influences that would have enabled him to write the semiliterary Greek we find in the letter? Without knowing the details of James’s education, the extent of his travels, the books that he read, or the people he conversed with, this question is impossible to answer. We could guess that a person recognized as the leader of the Jerusalem church (containing, at least at some point, both “Hebraists” and “Hellenists” [Acts 6:1]) would have been capable of learning Greek quite well. J. N. Sevenster, who uses James as a test case for his investigation of the use of Greek in Palestine, concludes that James of Jerusalem could have written this letter. This does not, of course, prove that James did write it. But it does mean that the Greek of the letter constitutes no obstacle to the ascription of the letter to James.
- The letter’s approach to torah is a third reason that scholars cite for concluding that James of Jerusalem could not have written it. Assumed in the letter is what might be called a rather “liberal” understanding of torah. Phrases like “the law of liberty” (1:25; lit. trans.) and “the royal law” (2:8) suggest the kind of perspective that arose among Jews who were seeking to accommodate the torah to the general Hellenistic world. Such an approach downplayed the ritual elements of the law in favor of its ethical demands. The failure of the letter ever to mention issues of the ritual law and its concentration exclusively on ethical issues confirms that the author qualifies the law in the way that he does in order to match this “liberal” perspective. Yet such an approach to torah stands in stark contrast to the picture of James that we get from the NT and from early Christian tradition. It is “certain men … from James” who come to Antioch insisting that Jewish Christians observe kosher food laws and stop eating with Gentiles (Gal. 2:11–13). And it is James who requests that Paul demonstrate his loyalty to Judaism by undertaking to pay for and participate in purification rites in the Jerusalem temple (Acts 21:20–25). And in Christian tradition, James is famous for his loyalty to Judaism, being pictured as an example of “torah-piety.”
However, while several scholars think this point is virtually conclusive, it in fact rests on a serious overinterpretation of James, a questionable inference from the NT, and an uncritical acceptance of early Christian tradition. We begin with the Christian tradition.
James became a respected and beloved figure in the early church, especially among Jewish Christians. He was considered the first “bishop” of the Jerusalem church and was called the “righteous” or the “just” because of his faithfulness to the law and his devotion to prayer. Hegesippus, an early second-century Christian, describes James’s death in his Memoirs (which have survived only in fragments quoted by other authors, mainly Eusebius). He claims that James was stoned to death by the scribes and Pharisees for refusing to renounce his commitment to Jesus (Eusebius, History of the Church 2.23). The Jewish historian Josephus confirms the essentials of this story, and he also enables us to date the incident to a.d. 62 (Antiquities 20.200–201). Hegesippus provides other information about James, most of it tending to portray him as a zealot for the law and as a Christian who generally championed a strong continuity with Judaism. Other early traditions take a similar tack in their portrayal of James, and these sources have given rise to the traditional view of James as a radical Jewish Christian. However, scholars today recognize that most of these sources are quite tendentious, seeking to “capture” James for their own radically Jewish-Christian agenda.33 Therefore, while all our sources agree that James was a devout Jewish Christian, anxious to maintain good relationships with Judaism, the picture of James as “an advocate of hidebound Jewish-Christian piety”35 is a legend with no basis in fact.
The evidence from the NT is less clear-cut. James was certainly aligned with the Jewish-Christian wing of the early Christian community. And along with many Jewish Christians, he may well have assumed that Jews who recognized in Jesus of Nazareth their Messiah would continue to obey all the commandments of torah. In fact, the “incident” at Antioch may suggest that, at least at that date (around a.d. 46–47?), James was concerned to enforce torah-observance on Jewish Christians. But the whole episode that Paul describes in Galatians 2 is riddled with historical and theological issues. Among them is the question of the relationship between the “Judaizers” who came from Jerusalem and James himself. Did James himself send these people with his blessing? Or were they simply claiming to represent James without his authority? Most interpreters think it is the former; and, if so, the text makes clear that James thought that Jewish Christians should continue to observe torah, even in the context of a mixed Christian community. He may have been especially concerned that news of Gentiles and Jews eating together would make the evangelism of Jews in Jerusalem all the more difficult.37 James’s request to Paul in Acts 21 reflects a similar concern. Situated in Jerusalem as he was, and with a growing radical Jewish movement (the Zealots) to contend with, James was anxious to show that Jews who recognized Jesus as their Messiah were not traitors to the Jewish tradition or to the Jewish people. Torah-observance and worship of Jesus the Messiah could exist together. To this extent, the NT confirms what seems to be the authentic element in the traditions about James: he was personally loyal to torah and sought in every way possible to maintain ties between the emerging early Christian movement and the Judaism in which he had been nurtured and in which he ministered.
But the key question is this: Could a person with this kind of torah-loyalty have written the letter we have before us? We think the clear answer to this question is yes. The letter, with its concern with the ethical dimensions of torah, stands squarely in a widespread tradition among Hellenistic-oriented Jews and reflected, in some ways, in the teaching of Jesus. But the critical point is this: neither the tradition nor Jesus emphasized the ethical aspects of torah so as to dismiss the ritual elements of torah. Jesus criticized the scribes and Pharisees for concentrating so much on tithing that they had neglected “justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23). And so he calls them to practice these key ethical demands of torah. But he makes clear also that, in practicing these, they were not to “neglect” the other elements of the law. James also, following the lead of Jesus, focuses on the importance of obeying the royal law of love (2:8). And the fact that he illustrates the importance of every commandment of the law with reference to the prohibitions of adultery and murder (2:11) shows that he was concentrating at this point almost exclusively on the ethical aspect of the law. But nothing in James implies that he insisted on obedience to these ethical commands at the expense of observance of the ritual law. He is simply silent about the ritual law—presumably because it was not an issue in the communities he was addressing. So, in the end, we are faced with an argument from silence: the James who was so concerned about torah-observance in Galatians 2 and Acts 21 could not have written a letter in which this point was absent. But the argument is fallacious in that it ignores the occasional nature of the letter. James introduces only topics that were matters of concern for the people to whom he was writing. If they were, as we think, Jewish Christians who had fled Jerusalem but who had not yet mixed with Gentiles in worship, then observance of torah may not even have come up as an issue. What had come up was a failure to live out the basic ethical emphasis of torah: and James, much like Jesus in his day, focuses naturally on this matter.
- The fourth reason for denying that James of Jerusalem could have written this letter involves the famous problem of the relationship between James and Paul, especially with respect to their teaching on justification. The letter insists that works are required for justification: “a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone” (2:24). Paul, on the other hand, teaches that a person is justified by faith and not by “works of the law” (e.g., Rom. 3:28). The relationship of these two teachings is one of the biggest theological issues in the letter and, indeed, one of the most significant theological tensions within the NT. We will address the matter later in the Introduction (in the section on Theology) and in the commentary proper.
For now, however, we should note that, while the two seem to be in direct contradiction when statements of each are taken on their own, a careful study of the vocabulary of each and of the respective contexts in which they are speaking mitigates the tension significantly. In fact, most scholars now recognize that, like ships passing in the night, James’s teaching does not really come to grips with what Paul was saying. Either each is unaware of what the other is saying, or one of them is responding to a misunderstood form of the other’s theology. Most scholars think the latter is the case and that James is reacting to a misunderstood Paulinism. They reach that conclusion because the slogan “justification by faith,” to which James is responding, was so uniquely associated with Paul in the early church. For this reason, then, they argue that the letter could not have been written by James of Jerusalem, because this James had ample opportunity to learn the authentic Pauline view of justification. The two were key participants in the Jerusalem Council, where issues very much relating to Paul’s teaching on justification were debated (Acts 15) and met later when Paul came to Jerusalem for a final time (Acts 21:18–25). And, in any case, the letter of James must have been written no earlier than the end of the first century, when Paul’s theology was no longer understood in its proper context. W. G. Kümmel gives succinct expression to this argument: “The debate in 2:14ff. with a misunderstood secondary stage of Pauline theology not only presupposes a considerable chronological distance from Paul—whereas James died in the year 62—but also betrays a complete ignorance of the polemical intent of Pauline theology, which lapse can scarcely be attributed to James, who as late as 55/56 met with Paul in Jerusalem (Acts 21:18ff.).”
Adequate evaluation of this argument can come only after careful consideration of Jas. 2:14–26 as it relates to Paul’s teaching on justification. For now, however, we can point out that the situation we have described in the last paragraph is capable of a very different explanation. If, indeed, James 2 fails to come to grips with the real point of Paul’s teaching and the letter is written after a.d. 48 or so, when James and Paul met at the Jerusalem Council, then indeed it is difficult to attribute the letter to James of Jerusalem. But suppose the letter was written before a.d. 48. James would not yet have had direct contact with Paul. All he would know about Paul’s “justification by faith alone” would come to him indirectly—and perhaps perverted by those who had heard Paul and misunderstood what he was saying. Paul probably began preaching almost immediately after his conversion (in a.d. 33?). How soon Paul came to understand and proclaim his distinctive justification message is impossible to know. But what might be the earliest Pauline letter, Galatians (perhaps a.d. 47–48), already presents a fully developed doctrine of justification. Christians living in the area possibly addressed by James (Syria) would have had ample opportunity to hear Paul as he preached in Tarsus and, later, Antioch. On this scenario, James betrays a “complete ignorance of the polemical intent of Pauline theology” because James did not yet have direct knowledge of Paul’s teaching. Indeed, it is more likely that a “complete ignorance” of the thrust of Paul’s teaching existed before his letters were written or widely circulated than long afterward. Many interpreters, for a number of reasons, reject almost out of hand an early date for the letter. But we hope to show below that a date as early as the scenario we have just sketched requires—the middle 40s—has much to be said for it.
- Final Assessment
None of the four major objections to attributing the letter to James of Jerusalem is conclusive. But, to go on the offensive for a moment, a serious objection to the currently popular view of pseudepigraphical authorship needs to be mentioned. Proponents of the pseudepigraphical hypothesis often portray it in terms of a “transparent literary device.” The person writing in the name of James would not have been seeking to deceive anyone. He would simply have utilized a popular literary convention of the time, according to which one could claim continuity with a particular religious figure by writing in that person’s name. Viewed in this light, the claim that James is pseudepigraphical would pose no challenge to the full truthfulness of the letter. The connection of the letter with James established in 1:1 is not intended to be, and would not have been understood to be, a claim about who wrote the letter. It is rather a claim about the theological tradition in which the letter stands. However, there is a decisive objection to this line of reasoning: we possess little evidence that pseudepigraphical epistles in the ancient world were accepted as authentic and truthful. In fact, one of the latest researchers on this matter claims, “No one ever seems to have accepted a document as religiously and philosophically prescriptive which was known to be forged. I do not know of a single example.” The very fact that James was accepted as a canonical book, then, presumes that the early Christians who made this decision were sure that James wrote it. Those who did not think that James wrote it barred it from the canon for this reason. This means that we have to choose between (1) viewing James as a forgery, intended perhaps to claim an authority that the author did not really have—and therefore omit it from the canon; and (2) viewing James as an authentic letter from James. The “have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too” theory of canonical pseudepigraphon does not seem to be an alternative.
A few scholars, sensitive to this problem yet convinced by one or more of the objections to James’s authorship examined above, have proposed compromise solutions, according to which James of Jerusalem, while not the final composer of the letter, had some connection with it. Those who have a problem thinking that James of Jerusalem could have written the Greek we find in the letter propose that he may have used an amanuensis. We have solid evidence from extrabiblical literature and from the NT itself (cf. Rom. 16:22) that such amanuenses were regularly used. And James may well have done the same. Nevertheless, the hypothesis seems to be both unnecessary (since we think James could have written the Greek) and problematic. So much of the exact wording of the letter is bound inextricably to its content that it is difficult to separate the author from the final composer of the letter. Another compromise view on authorship holds that the letter is a free translation of a discourse or series of homilies originally given by James in Aramaic.45 Peter Davids has provided the clearest and best-worked-out defense of this kind of approach. Impressed with certain anomalies in the letter—good Greek alongside Semitisms, a curious unevenness in vocabulary, some disjointedness in flow—he suggests that a redactor has edited and expanded a series of Jewish-Christian homilies, given originally in Aramaic and Greek. James of Jerusalem may have been responsible for the first stage or even for both stages. We have no way of proving or disproving this kind of proposal. But we question whether it is necessary. The Greek betrays no more inconsistencies than would be typical of a person writing in Greek whose native language was Aramaic; indeed, Dibelius claims that the Greek of the letter is “relatively homogenous.”47 The “disjointedness” of the letter is a product of its genre and purpose; and would not an editor, as much as an author, seek to smooth out any rough spots? James may certainly have used some of his own sermons in writing the letter; but evidence for an earlier literary stage is not compelling.
When all the data are considered, the simplest solution is to accept the verdict of early Christians: the letter was written by James of Jerusalem, “the Lord’s brother.” Nothing in the letter is inconsistent with this conclusion, and several, albeit minor and indecisive, points favor it.
A point of great controversy concerning James “the brother of the Lord” is his exact physical relationship to Jesus. As asceticism became a more dominant impulse in the church over the centuries, the view that Mary remained perpetually a virgin became ever more influential. The NT references to James as “the brother” of Jesus accordingly became controversial. Jerome argued that “brother” (Gk. adelphos) in these texts means “cousin.” This view, usually called the “Hieronymian” (after a church father by that name), became very popular in Roman Catholic circles. A major difficulty for this interpretation, however, is the entire absence of evidence from the NT that the Greek word adelphos could mean “cousin.” The use of this word requires that James and Jesus share at least one blood parent. The “Epiphanian” view holds that James was an older brother of Jesus, born to Joseph and a wife before Mary. Finally, advocates of the “Helvidian” view insist that James was born to Joseph and Mary after Jesus. The close association between Mary and the brothers of Jesus implied in the NT (e.g., Mark 3:32; 6:3) might favor the Helvidian interpretation. Richard Bauckham, on the other hand, the latest scholar to investigate this matter, declines to decide between the Epiphanian and Helvidian views, inclining slightly perhaps to the Epiphanian.50