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Did James Write James?

In two previous posts I gave an overview of the letter of James, one of the real gems hidden away in the New Testament (it takes 15 minutes to read it, max.  Try it!  Great little book.)   Now I want to devote several posts to address the question I was originally asked about it.  Was it really written by James, the brother of Jesus, as traditionally claimed?

I deal with that question at some length in my book Forgery and Counterforgery.  I think the discussion is accessible to the non-expert.  Here is how I begin (some of this has been edited to make it slightly more user-friendly).  It ends up being an important issue: do we have a writing from Jesus’ own brother?  Now *that* would be interesting!  But, alas, I think not.


The letter of James begins simply enough: “James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the dispersion, greetings” (1:1).    A number of persons are named James in the New Testament, including the father of Joseph (Jesus’ “father,” Matt. 1:16), the son of Zebedee (Matt. 4:21 etc.), the son of Alphaeus (Matt. 10:3 etc.), the father of Jude (Luke 6:16), and, most famously, the brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3 etc.).   There is a compelling two-pronged argument that the author of this short letter intends his readers to understand that he is the best known James, Jesus’ brother, the head of the church in Jerusalem.   On one hand, the author does not….

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Could Most People Write in Antiquity?
Is the Book of James Attacking the Teachings of Paul?



  1. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  July 21, 2019

    Hi Bart, how did such letters get to whoever they were intended for? I mean, when it seems the letter was not just sent to one recipient, but to many. Was one letter passed on from place to place over time, or were copies made? Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  July 22, 2019

      They usually were not meant for just one small group of people, but were put in circulation anonymously (as if just seen by someone?), leading to copies, and more copies, and more copies. All it would take is for someone to say, “Hey, I just made a copy of a letter that the church in Ephesus loaned me…” and then the copy would be copied and so on. Make sense?

      • Avatar
        Bewilderbeast  July 23, 2019

        I think so. I know in the few bodies I have served on it was always nice to have ‘something’ to show people – especially where it re-inforced your point of view! “Look! So-and-So agrees with me! He wrote this . . “

  2. Avatar
    AstaKask  July 21, 2019

    What does “accepting the Kingdom of Heaven like a child” mean?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 22, 2019

      I think it means trusting it joyfully without asking too many skeptical questions! Like receiving a present as a young kid.

  3. Avatar
    fishician  July 21, 2019

    I understand why people would attach a famous name to their writings, but do we have many early Christian writings that claim to be written by obscure or unknown authors? “I’m Joe Shmoe and this is my story of Jesus (or Paul, etc.)”

    • Bart
      Bart  July 22, 2019

      I think the problem is that some of the names may seem obscure to us *today* but weren’t at all obscure back then. Mark and Luke were well known early Christian figures, e.g., I would imagine. In 2000 years Jeffrey Epstein will be thought of as … who??? No one will be thinking of him at all.

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 21, 2019

    It’s interesting that even ancient scholars like Eusebius and Jerome considered James to be forged.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 22, 2019

      Yup, it’s not just the view of some crazy liberals….

  5. Avatar
    Matt2239  July 21, 2019

    If James is James and 2 Peter is Peter, then, Jesus Christ, Jesus probably spoke, read, and wrote Greek. Occam’s Razor would force us to that conclusion in order to explain why the early church spread so fast throughout the Greek-speaking world. Jesus and his disciples are the most unlikely of all historical figures. We know the teachings of a carpenter-turned-rabbi who walked the earth 2,000 years ago, and who was given the death of social roadkill.

    • Avatar
      Bewilderbeast  July 23, 2019

      Nah. Some things spread. Look at pacman and the macarena and facebook. I would have bet good money they wouldn’t last a week. So some guys got rich and I’m still working for a salary.

  6. Avatar
    Nichrob  July 21, 2019

    Your reference to the book “Just James” by John Painter prompted me to purchase it. I’m reading it today and am enjoying it very much. As always, thanks for your posts and dissemination of information regarding other scholars work. I (we) appreciate you.

  7. Avatar
    brenmcg  July 21, 2019

    Paul said in galatians that the only thing he was told to do in his meeting with james was to look after the poor.
    This fits in well with ch2 of James where taking care of the poor and warning the rich are explicitly highlighted to a greater extent than the rest of the NT

  8. Avatar
    gwayersdds  July 21, 2019

    I have maybe an off the wall question. The names of people in the Bible have been anglicized. Why is that and what would the names be in Greek and Aramaic? Are the names too difficult to pronounce? What is the name James in Greek and Aramaic? We sometimes use Cephas for Peter, why not other names? I think that I have seen Jesus called Yeshua in Aramaic. Is that correct? If so why not call him by his “correct” name? Could it be that Yeshua the Messiah just doesn’t have that catchy ring that Jesus Christ has? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 22, 2019

      That’s true of all ancient names in all ancient languages, when they get translated into English, just as it’s true of all words from ancient languages. They are always converted into words in the language into which they are being translated. The name of James in Greek is Ιακοβος and the name of Jesus is Ιησους. But you can’t very well print that in an English Bible, so you transliterate the letters and put them into recognizeable English form. Cephas is different because in the Greek New Testament it is citing his name in its Aramaic form, so English Bible translators transliterate the unusual word directly from the Greek so that it sounds as weird in English as it does in Greek (since “Cephas” is not a name in either). Not sure if I’m explaining that clearly!

  9. Avatar
    forthfading  July 21, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Outside of committed Catholic scholars, do any reputable schloars think James was not a blood brother based on the NT writings? Also, are there committed Catholic scholars that feel the evidence supports a true blood brother despite the teachings of perpetual virginity? Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  July 22, 2019

      Not that I”m aware of. And yes, Catholic NT scholars like Raymond Brown and John Meier, if I remember correctly, think that he probably was Jesus’ actual brother. But someone can correct me if I’m wrong.

  10. Avatar
    Stephen  July 21, 2019

    Sorry if I’m jumping the gun but what specifically about the book do you think made it so popular in “very many churches” that the higher-ups didn’t feel they could successfully challenge it’s authority?


    • Bart
      Bart  July 22, 2019

      They saw no need to challenge it. They thought it was a useful book and most of them assume James wrote it.

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