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Does James Contradict Paul?

              I have a number of questions that I want to address in my Readers’ Mailbag, but one particularly important one requires a rather long response, and so I dedicate this entire week’s mailbag to answering it.  Here it is:



Bart, what is your view with regard to Paul and James teaching on the doctrine of justification by faith – are they contradictory?



Ah, this is a perennial question among readers of the New Testament.  I deal with it at some length in my textbook, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, in a chapter called “Does the Tradition Miscarry,” where I talk about whether Paul saw eye to eye with Jesus, with James, and with later traditions about Paul (e.g. in the Acts of Paul and Thecla).  My answer about the letter of James may surprise some readers, who would expect me to find it completely at odds with Paul.  Here is what I say in the book:




The most famous passage of the book of James is, 2:14–26, a text that has been much cited since the Protestant Reformation, when Martin Luther made the unequivocal claim that it contradicts the gospel proclaimed by Paul and so should have only a secondary standing in Scripture.  James (in this passage) and Paul (in his letters to Romans and Galatians) cover much of the same ground. Both discuss justification by faith, both consider the relationship between faith and works, and both use the Old Testament figure of Abraham to establish their points.

The points they make, however …

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  1. Avatar
    stokerslodge  September 4, 2016

    Excellent, thank you!

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  September 4, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, at what point (chronologically or historically) would you say that Paul’s letters went from being merely the recommendations of one Christian leader to divinely inspired scripture that carried unquestionable authority? Could it have been as early as the late 1st century?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2016

      Already the book of 2 Peter (around 120 CE?) speaks of them as “Scripture” on par with the Hebrew Bible (2 Pet. 3:16)

  3. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  September 4, 2016

    Very good post. I think those that stress “faith only” as in correct beliefs, do seem to forget that Paul also stressed proper behavioral requirements or standards to be a Christian. I think these behavioral requirements are not the Works of the Law as Paul teaches, but they are the types of “good works” that James speaks of and I agree that James and Paul seem to be in agreement about behavioral standards for Christians. To me Romans 6:1 is where Paul is saying something very similar to James’ theology. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?”

    The Works vs Grace dichotomy raises an historical question about the Roman Catholic Church. I was raised Roman Catholic and attended a Catholic School until the 8th grade. Roman Catholicism teaches that their origins go back to the early church with Jesus and his disciples. However, just like historians believe the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation evolved over time from Charlemagne’s Empire, the Roman Catholic Church (as it is today) also evolved over time to the point where it became the denomination it is today.

    Do you agree with the Roman Catholic Church’s version of its own history? Although the Roman Church was the only (or dominate) denomination in the West after the Great Schism and until the Protestant Reformation of 1517, is it possible to pinpoint a moment in time when the early Church became, evolved into the “Roman Catholic Church?”

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2016

      I’m not sure there is just one Roman Catholic version. What specifically do you have in mind. And not, I don’t think there’s a definite moment when you can say that the Catholic church did not exist before this but after this it did. It was very gradual.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  September 6, 2016

        Doesn’t the Greek/Eastern Orthodox Church also trace itself back to the very beginning and the Apostles?

  4. Avatar
    Pegill7  September 4, 2016

    Could not James’ assertion that faith without works is dead mean that someone who claims to have faith in Jesus but does not live the Christ-like life never really had faith at all? I think that Paul could accept that, and that Luther who thought that James was “a book of straw” would treat James more kindly instead of relegating it to the end of his translation of the New Testament.

  5. Avatar
    Stephen  September 4, 2016

    Prof Ehrman

    Sorry if you’ve discussed this before but I’m not sure why you think the author of James wants us to think he was “that” James. He identifies as a slave of God and as a teacher but doesn’t seem to mention anything that would associate himself directly with the brother of Jesus. Couldn’t we have the same situation as the John of Revelation where an author with the same name because associated with one of the early leaders of the Church by later Christians and their writing was privileged on that basis alone?


  6. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  September 4, 2016

    Do I recall correctly that Paul denied it was even possible for a man to wholly uphold or live by the Law? If so, would this not be a major point of disagreement with James 2:8-13 who writes, “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point….”? Not to mention that it was, for Paul, a major disagreement with God who taught Israel in Deuteronomy 30:8-11 that his people that there are not only the commandments and statutes to follow but the commandment to follow them. About that commandment, God says to Israel, “For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it” (11-14). Let’s repeat: “you CAN do it.”

    Also, neither Paul nor James could have meant works of the Law in his reference to Abraham since there was no Torah (“Law”) in Abraham’s time.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2016

      No, Paul doesn’t have that view in his letters. Look at Philippians 3:6 — with respect to the righteousness found in the Law, Paul claims that he himself (before following Christ) had been *blameless*! (It’s in the book of Acts hwere he claims the Law was a burden no one could follow. I think Acts really misrepresents Paul on that one)

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 5, 2016

    As Bill Clinton testified, it depends on the meaning of “is.”

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2016

      Yes, I’ve never understood conservative biblical scholars who thought Clinton was being ridiculous. These same scholars spend hours, days, lives, arguing over what it means to say “The Word was God” (all hinging on what the meaning of was was)

  8. Avatar
    godspell  September 5, 2016

    To me, the primary argument against Paul’s viewpoint would be the teachings of Jesus himself. Jesus made no distinction at all between faith and works. If you have faith, you will act as if you do. If you do not have faith, act as if you do, and faith will be given you. They are inseparable. If it’s enough to simply have faith in God’s redemptive power, without works, then why is it necessary to treat every stranger on the road as if that person were God in disguise? The Good Samaritan’s religious views are clearly contrary to those of Jesus and his followers, and yet his good deeds to his neighbors are alone enough to justify him. Jesus believed in the Jewish Law, but it didn’t go far enough for him. To simply do something because a book tells you to isn’t enough. You have to act from your heart, with faith–but you have to act. In this instance, James was correctly interpreting Jesus’ ideas, and Paul was not–which is not surprising. James knew his brother. Paul only knew the Jesus that lived in his own mind.

    And of course Paul didn’t have the gospels we have today–did he ever read any version of the gospel story? His knowledge of Jesus must have come pretty much entirely from stories he heard from others. Which means he knew many things we don’t, and didn’t know many things we do. He never heard many stories that are now fundamental to our understanding of Jesus.

    As you say, Paul had his own points to make, his own vision to convey, and it’s proved to be an enduring one. But it is important at all times to recognize him as a co-founder of Christianity, who differs crucially from Jesus on a wide variety of points. Most of all in that he actually wrote some of his ideas down.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  September 6, 2016

      Are you implying that the other “co-founder” was Jesus? Many people including NT scholars do not consider Jesus to be a founder of Christianity. Maybe you mean those who came before Paul from whom he inherited the Gospel?

  9. Avatar
    JR  September 5, 2016

    Thanks a really clear explanation. It is clear that ‘faith’ is being defined differently.

    The James passage causes hot flushes in Protestant circles but that is perhaps because Paul has been misread. As you mention, ‘works’ for Paul seem to be Jewish works and not good deeds in general.

    I was once told “the litmus test of faith according to Paul was how you answer ‘why should God let you into heaven’. Any answer that included Jesus death PLUS x (insert anything you have done) proves you aren’t a true christian.” But If ‘works’ are Jewish boundary markers and not good christian actions then i am not sure if Paul would agree. Is that fair to say?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2016

      Yes, Paul is more nuanced than that. He thought that if you had faith you certainly would do the things God wanted you to do.

  10. Avatar
    marcrm68  September 5, 2016

    Yeah, Paul has some very high standards of behavior regarding sexual relations…

  11. Avatar
    Tempo1936  September 5, 2016

    Same thought as James

    Ephesians 2:10
    For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2016

      Well, kind of. But note 2:8-9. You are saved by faith, not by doing good deeds. James may be reacting to precisely this kind of view.

  12. Avatar
    mjt  September 5, 2016

    If the scholars he refers to are correct–that Paul and James have different definitions of ‘works’…James 2 still presents a problem for some Christians. There are those Christians who believe that salvation has absolutely nothing to do with one’s works, whether the ‘works’ be related to the Jewish Law, or helping the less fortunate, for example. One is saved based entirely on their faith, and they need not do anything–hold to any Jewish laws, be baptized, give away their riches, or live a holy life, in order to remain saved.

    For these Christians, James 2 is still a big problem. As are the passages mentioned in Gal 5:19-21 and 1 Cor 6:9-12 and Eph 5:5. These passages clearly teach that you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven if your behavior doesn’t match your faith.

    I’ve never understood why James 2 gets all the attention…clearly, Jesus taught that one could enter the kingdom of God through works, without any mention of belief in Jesus (Mt 25:31-46, Mt 19:16ff, Lk 10:25ff.) he also stated in Mk 2:15-17 that there are righteous people, who don’t need Jesus. Why do these passages never get mentioned as contradicting Paul?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2016

      Ah, for a fairly obvious reason! But I often think of the Sheep and Goats as standing precisely counter to Paul on this question.

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  September 7, 2016

        I love the story of the sheep and goats in matt 25. Do you think this is something Jesus actually said?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 7, 2016

          I do in fact! I’ll add the question to the readers’ mailbag.

  13. Avatar
    dragonfly  September 5, 2016

    Would you be able to explain exactly what Paul meant by faith? He was preaching to predominantly gentiles who had no concept of a Messiah, and was telling them they needed to have faith in some dead guy they probably never heard of. As you say it didn’t just mean acknowledging that he died and was resurrected. Just what did having faith entail?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2016

      By “faith” Paul seems to mean something more like what we would say with the word “trust” rather than “intellectually acknowledge.” You trust Christ’s death to bring salvation; it’s not that you simply agree to a doctrinal proposition.

  14. Avatar
    Hume  September 6, 2016

    1. Did Hell begin with Gehenna (Valley of the Son of Hinnom)? This is the place outside Jerusalem where the old testament says children were sacrificed and burnt.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2016

      Yes, Gehenna is the word normally translated as “hell” in the NT.

      • Avatar
        Hume  September 6, 2016

        And Sheol was just a dark place of wandering spirits? A separate place?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 7, 2016

          Yes, it was that shadowy netherword that all souls go to at death.

        • talmoore
          talmoore  September 8, 2016

          Sheol used to mean simply the grave (whether interred or entombed), but as Jews started to believe in the soul surviving death, Sheol started to take on a meaning closer to Hades, and, by way of analogy, Gehenna could be thought of as the Jewish version of Tartarus.

      • Avatar
        Hume  September 6, 2016

        And so when Jesus spoke of Hell – he meant Gehenna?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 7, 2016

          It’s hard to know what he meant — the Greek in which his words are reported is “Gehenna.” This will be my next research project!

          • Avatar
            AlecRozsa  September 16, 2016

            Bart that is incredible. I hope you give it your all, as this is one of Christianity’s biggest driving forces. Hell is such an enormous part of American consciousness, that is the non-Biblical inferno “hell” described in literature such as Dante. I appreciate how you have illustrated that the NT concept of afterlife-based religion was a fairly new thing. Most ancient religions were not about what you believed, or where you went after you die, but how you pleased the deity (sacrificial cult, etc.) But just the topic of Gehenna’s poor rendering into English translation as “Hell” is enough of a weighty topic to warrant a good amount of study.

  15. Avatar
    Hume  September 6, 2016

    2. Does the Ascension of Isaiah demonstrate that Jesus was initially thought of as a Devine being?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 6, 2016

      I date it to the second century, so I don’t think it tells us the original Christian views.

  16. Avatar
    stokerslodge  September 6, 2016

    Bart, Re your remarks about Gehenna above: would you consider doing a mailbag on the burning question of Hell? I’m sure there are lots of readers who (like myself) would like to know more about the history of how that doctrine developed within Judaism and then Christianity.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2016

      I’m actually thinking of devoting my next book to it! So I’ll be dealing with it a lot over the next couple of years!

      • Avatar
        stokerslodge  September 7, 2016

        Go for it Bart, can’t wait!

  17. Avatar
    mjt  September 6, 2016

    I wonder if the writer of 1 John had a different idea of faith, more of a ‘mental assent’ idea…4:15 says that whoever ‘acknowledges’ (or ‘confesses’) THAT Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. And 5:1 says that whoever believes THAT Jesus is the Christ is born of God. (I guess Mulsims are born of God!)

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2016

      Yes, I think we start seeing a shift here to the view that what you *think* about Christ really matters (was he a human or not? For this author: YES)

  18. Avatar
    Habib  September 6, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, if I may … I would say the overwhelming majority of the Christians, past and present, believe that faith alone suffices. If work is involved in the equation, it defeats the purpose of Jesus’ death. I recall back in the early 80s watching either Jimmy Swagart or someone from the 700 club, back & forth on the stage screaming ” I don’t care what you do, & I don’t care how you live, as long as you accept Jesus as your personal Savior”. So yes… why should one prevent himself/ herself from doing anything we may consider a sin when Jesus already paid the wages of all sins?

    Whoever invented this notion / theory that Christ died for our sins did so to justify his involvement in acts of what is looked at as sin. That’s why, in my humble opinion, there is so much corruption and crimes going on everywhere, and why not? After all, he died to clear our sins that we may be admitted to heaven by simply believing.

  19. Avatar
    clipper9422@yahoo.com  September 8, 2016

    Excellent explanation of James and Paul. Nevertheless at least some of the time it seems like Paul is simply silent on the necessity of “good deeds” for justification rather than indicating either that they are or are not needed. He thinks good deeds are important but I’m not familiar with texts where he connects them with faith or justification.

    What makes a lot sense to me (as someone is open to Christianity but perennially unpersuaded) is that when people experience the justification that comes with trust in Jesus, they are so happy and so full of gratitude that they truly want to do good deeds-even if it’s not always easy or automatic or they sometimes fail. The experience of the gift (of the promise or hope) of salvation is the experience of God’s love. One way we accept God’s love is by loving ourselves and when we love ourselves we want to reveal and share ourselves with others-which is one thing that loving others means and includes good deeds. Plus we continue our experience of God’s love by channeling it into our relationships with others.

    Of course it’s not that easy but it would be nice if reality at least resembled that.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  September 9, 2016

      I would say that I too have been perennially disappointed except that I’ve been skeptical ever since I was a child. But I tried to be open because, if there was some truth to Christian faith, I wanted to know it. I always put a toe into Christianity in as neutral a frame of mind as I cold muster so as to not generate a placebo effect. I would say that’s what I was doing even long before I had such words to describe what I was doing. I went with friends a handful of times in high school to Christian youth groups they were part of. That was over 50 years ago. In college I talked with so many Christians and went with friends to a couple Bible Camps. I prayed alone and with them. But I didn’t read the Bible ’til I was about 35 years old. I’ve re-read parts of it many times, talked with and read believers and liberals and skeptics regarding it. I’ve never come across or experienced anything persuasive. My view is that Jesus is like a child’s invisible friend: of course, if you have such a friend, you will not feel alone and might even be motivated to be good because you imagine it is watching you and wants you to be good. My view is not that “The experience of the gift (of the promise or hope) of salvation is the experience of God’s love” but that it is the experience of the mythic power of the God’s-Love Myth. That our self-love and love of others is somehow God’s love is a hypothesis. It strikes me that many who have considered themselves unworthy sinners and who “found Christ” are basically saying to themselves, “If the God of the universe and Christ love me, then who am I to not love myself?” It’s not the invisible friend this time but the invisible King of all invisible friends. For such people, the way they have found does not say “we accept God’s love…by loving ourselves” but “we accept ourselves because we believe God loves us.” It just seems to me that the placebo effect has a HUGE role in belief and its effects on behavior.

  20. Avatar
    HistoricalChristianity  September 14, 2016

    I don’t think James is at odds with Paul. If anything, Paul is at odds with James. I think James is either earlier than Paul, or from a branch of Christianity that either didn’t interact with Paul or didn’t agree with Paul. Perhaps even the Ebionites, or the early Jesus Movement. Nothing in James is uniquely Christian. The author thought Jesus was anointed, but that might be as strong as modern Christians who consider a particular preacher gifted by God to preach.

    In the gospels, Jesus is portrayed as a sage of Second Temple Judaism. He taught Judaism. So of course, Paul disagreed with Jesus. Paul almost never mentions anything Jesus ever said or did. He passes on tradition that was passed on to him. Nothing in James disagrees with what the gospels say Jesus taught. With Paul, it’s the opposite.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  September 14, 2016

      Well, if Paul is at odds with James, then James is at odds with Paul; they are at odds with one another–that is, if we look just at what they wrote and not their chronological order.

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