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Does James (the Book) Have the Same Concerns as James (the Man)? Part 2

This will be my last post mounting the case that the brother of Jesus, James, did not write the letter of James.  Here I get into some of the most substantive issues: what does this author consider to be the most important aspects of his Christian faith, and how does this stack up against what we know otherwise of James of Jerusalem?  And are there indications that in fact he is addressing issues that simply do not appear relevant to Christianity in its earliest stages?


In light of the previous post, it is interesting to notice which sins and failures occupy the author of the letter of James (given the dominant interest of James of Jerusalem, so far as we can know, on the importance of strict Torah observance).  They are by and large not explicit violations of the Torah but moral shortcomings such as showing favoritism, not controlling one’s speech, and failing to help those in need.  So too, what is “true religion” for this author?  It has little to do with specific requirements of the Torah per se.  It involves “bridling” the tongue and “visiting orphans and widows in their affliction” (1:26-27).  It also involves “keeping unstained from the world,” which would seem to open up the door for a discussion of cultural separatism.  But instead of detailing the importance of maintaining Jewish identity in light of “the world’s” staining influence, the author speaks only of upright moral behavior.  Again, this is not an “unJewish” concern; it simply is not the concern attested otherwise for James of Jerusalem.  This author speaks of “fulfilling the entire Law” but says not a word about Sabbath, circumcision, purification laws, kashrut, or festivals.[1]

Further indications that the letter is not written by James are given by the intimations that it was written at a relatively late date within the development of early Christianity, after James had died, presumably sometime in the 60’s.  For one thing, the debate over whether….

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Is James Responding to Paul?
Does the Book of James Have the Same Concerns as the Historical James?



  1. Lev
    Lev  July 28, 2019

    I think this series on James is excellent – one of your best, Bart – and I would welcome further examination. I particularly like how you detect and unpack theological themes that are sometimes neglected (or unnoticed!) and reminds me of how Raymond Brown examines NT literature.

    My own view of James (for what it’s worth) is that it was composed shortly after James had died as a means of preserving his teachings. My guess is that it was composed by the same community (the men of James) who went onto influence the Gospel of Matthew as there are some close parallels between the unique M material and James:

    Controlling one’s temper and resisting human anger (Mt 5:21-22 / Jas 1:19-21)
    Following up what is heard with action (Mt 21:28-32 / Jas 1:22)
    Keeping the whole law (Mt 5:20 / Jas 2:10)
    Doing good works in order to be saved (Mt 25:31-46 / Jas 2:14-17)
    Prohibition on swearing oaths (Mt 5:33-37 / Jas 5:12 – almost a word for word parallel)

    I don’t have a settled view over the provenance of these teachings, but there’s a good possibility that two brothers were of the same mind on these matters.

  2. Avatar
    johnsotdj  July 28, 2019

    Thank you for a great series on the book of James and James the Brother of Jesus. My sense regarding the historical James the Brother of Jesus is, there is very little information on him, but it is multiply attested (Paul, Mark, Josephus),is that accurate?. I also appreciated previous posts in which you compared Paul’s account of meeting with James and the account in the book of Acts which, it seems, attempts to smooth over the conflicts of Paul with the “James Gang.”

  3. Avatar
    Hngerhman  July 28, 2019

    Dr Ehrman –

    I just want to make sure I have it clear in my head:

    Eschewing the laws that point up / set apart Jewish identity would be inconsistent with James of Jerusalem, but a focus on good deeds per se would not be. That is because a premium on good deeds (flowing from the second, love-of-neighbor commandment) would easily stem from Jesus’s teachings. It’s the absence of a focus on Jewish identity laws that’s the issue, not the presence of a focus on good deeds per se, correct? And then, secondarily, the *type* of good deeds at issue in the epistle tend to track those of a later debate in the Christian evolution?


    • Bart
      Bart  July 29, 2019

      Not quite. I’m not saying that James was not interested in people doing good things. But yes, what we know of his primary interests are precisely what is not reflected in this book. Something else is. And that something else is best explained by thinking that someone is using James to express his own views.

  4. epicurus
    epicurus  July 28, 2019

    Well count me in for more posts on why It was forged.

  5. Avatar
    godspell  July 28, 2019

    In my case at least, the absence of response is not due to an absence of interest. I’ve always liked this book of the New Testament (well, for as long as I was aware of it), and have been curious as to its origins.

  6. fefferdan
    fefferdan  July 28, 2019

    This comment is more about Paul vs the historical Jerusalem church than Paul vs the Letter of James, but… I like to think that Acts is describing a real event when it describes Paul going to perform, in essence, a public act of contrition at the Temple to show that he does not “teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs.” [Acts 21.21] I justify my view on the grounds that I see no evidence of Paul, in his own letters, teaching Jews not to circumcise their sons or follow most other Jewish customs. He does, admittedly, argue against Peter and the “men from James” when adherence to supposed Jewish law contradicts Christian fellowship. But I see that as an issue on which Jews themselves disagreed [Hillel’s school favoring a liberal attitude toward fellowship with Gentiles and Shammai’s school eschewing almost all contact]. The men from James may have insisted eating separately, but would James himself insist on this? Many issues of halakha [interpretation of religious law] were still unresolved in this era, as even now. Ditto for the issue of food sacrificed to idols, where Paul admits it’s better even for Gentiles to adhere to the Jewish tradition, while winking inwardly. [I Cor 8] So I think it’s quite possible that Paul’s reported behavior in Acts 21 may have been a actual case of trying to “be all things to all people,” even though this turned out to be impossible. Have I been taken in by Luke’s papering over a breach than never healed between Paul and the Jerusalem authorities?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 29, 2019

      Yes, I tend to think also that Paul was not opposed to Jews continuing Jewish practices. In my view, though, that has no bearing on whether he went to Jerusalem to take a Nazirite vow. Luke has his clear-cut reasons for wanting to stress Paul never did anything opposed to Judaism himself; and the vow is meant to show that. But Paul doesn’t paint the same picture of himself.

      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  July 29, 2019

        True. Paul speaks instead of acting as a Jew when among Jews, and a Greek when among Greeks. This is why I think Luke’s version is plausible despite his agenda [which I admit] to downplay division. Minor point is that Paul doesn’t seem to be taking a vow himself but participating in the purification ritual associated with it and paying the fees.

  7. fefferdan
    fefferdan  July 28, 2019

    Speaking of the Letter of James, the Book of Acts preserves a supposed [earlier] Letter sent to Antioch with James’ ruling from the Council of Jerusalem. It reads:
    ”We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.”

    It’s basically repeat in Act 21 as well. Another forgery, or a key historical document preserved for posterity?
    Related question is whether any such letter came to Antioch before, or after, Paul’s confrontation with the Men from James over table fellowship. I tend toward that view that it’s basically a real letter, or at least that it preserves a real policy — but that this policy did not deal with the controversy that the Men from James later precipitated. In other words the Men from James were NOT the same men who “went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you.” It was quite possible for two parties to adhere to the conciliar Letter and still have opposing views on the issue of table fellowship.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 29, 2019

      I think the best way to figure out if it’s historically probably or not is to compare what Paul hismelf says about this meeting with the ones before him in Galatians 1-2 with what Acts says in ch. 15. Does the vigorous support from the other apostles in every way evidenced in Acts 15 coincide with how Paul describes it himself. If a reader thinks yes, then indeed, the letter would be plausible. If not, not. (And one would need to explain why Paul never appeals to the letter in his opposition to Peter and James in Galatians 2 if in fact he knew about it)

      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  July 29, 2019

        Thanks. I’m guessing the conciliar ‘Letter’ preserves a known policy, but not necessarily an actual document. Paul was at least aware of the policy described in the letter regarding meat offered to idols. If I’m right, the Letter [whether real or a later construct] wouldn’t have been very important to him since he considered himself as having equal authority with James and Peter regardless. To appeal to it would negate his contention that he really doesn’t give a fig for what the supposed “pillars” of the church say if it goes against what he thinks he knows.

  8. Avatar
    brenmcg  July 28, 2019

    on a related topic – its agreed by some that the same writer composed John and revelation, but that the greek of revelation is much poorer.
    do you think this could indicate the writer got help with greek grammar in John but had to work on his own for revelation?

    ps – id be interested in reading why james might have been forged as it was

    • Bart
      Bart  July 29, 2019

      No, I don’t know of any critical scholar who thinks that the author of the fourth Gospel could have written the book of Revelation.

  9. Avatar
    Hormiga  July 28, 2019

    > I may devote some further posts to that question if I detect any interest in it here among you the blog readers.

    You are such a tease! 😉

    Now that you’ve argued the “what” and “how” (it’s forged), of course we want to know the “why”! For what purpose? What was the forger’s agenda?

    And also the “who”, at least in general terms. Having What and How and perhaps some idea as to Why should provide a clue or two as to Who.

    Lot of speculation there, but you’re in the best position to make informed guesses. Please guess away.

  10. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  July 28, 2019

    The question of why a document was forged does seem significant. Should we imagine that the forger had a specific agenda? Was that agenda spun out of personal preference, or was it based on a unique interpretation of other pre-existing documents? In that case the forger might have been trying to promulgate an interpretation of other documents deemed to be incorrectly interpreted. I also wonder about the target audience, since it would be hard to mass produce a forged document. The forger would have to present the document to those who would reproduce it and talk about it, and the forger would have to have some confidence that the recipients would not reject the document out of hand. And how do you present your forged document in the first place, in case there are questions of provenance? Seems tricky. You can’t just say, oh, I was walking down the street one day when the wind blew this old papyrus scrap into my face– lo and behold it says these amazing things! I have no idea how this would be done.

  11. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  July 28, 2019

    You make a good case that James the Just, the half-brother of Jesus, was not the author of this book.

    But it might be good to point out that just because Paul refers to some as the “party of James”, that there is no indication that James was a part of it. In fact, for those folks who claim that there is some deep animosity between James and Paul are overblowing the situation. James endorsed Paul’s outreach to the Gentiles and we have no indication that he ever opposed Paul later.

    The party of James could easily refer to those Christians who were converts from the Essene community at Jerusalem who converted to Christ and who were under the leadership of James the Just….a Zadokite high priest who was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple, an act reserved to the high priests.

    The fact is that James supported Paul’s outreach. Paul’s opposition to Peter was due to Peter’s treating the Gentiles as second-class Christians when in the company of Jewish-Christians.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 29, 2019

      Yes, it’s conceivable that some of James’s representatives misrepresented James’s views — but of course one would have to have reason to think so. (Paul himself, who knew both James and these representatives, doesn’t seem to think they do). Nothing connects them with Essenes.

  12. Avatar
    fishician  July 28, 2019

    James is interesting as both a relative of Jesus and an early church leader, so I can always listen to more about him. James Tabor over at UNC-Charlotte has written quite a bit about Jesus’s family; do you buy some of his ideas, or too speculative for you?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 29, 2019

      I think most of it is too speculative for my taste; but he’s on the blog and maybe can say some more things!

  13. Avatar
    forthfading  July 28, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I just recently watched the documentary “Fragments of Truth”. It is a very high quality production with some heavy hitting textaul critics such as Larry Hurtado, David Parker, and Dan Wallace. It is very well done and Craig Evans is the guide so-to-speak. I really enjoyed it! For an amateur biblical enthusiast like myself, it is the closest to seeing real manuscripts and seeing the libraries or museums that house them. Of, course the goal is too show how scholars are overstating the corruption of the text and that we have the original “wording” somewhere. It makes me laugh because I know they are really just addressing your work. Who else has written a best seller about textual criticism?

    I have learned so much from you over the years and I was able to watch a documentary like this with some of the leading scholars of early Christianity and form my own opinions and conclusions. Otherwise, I would just accept the findings and conclusions of the scholars on film. What frustrated me most was that they misunderstand most of your work. They make out like you are way off in left field with your research and conclusions, but you agree with almost all of what they conclude. Yeah, most variants are grammar related or not really viable, yeah, no cardinal doctrine is in jeopardy because of textual variants, yeah, we can be confident that what we read today is going to be pretty much what was written. They treat your work as if you disagree with these things. It really must be frustrating for you to have years of work just be misunderstood. It is when you break the books of the Bible away from each other and simply look at each book and each author as a sole voice that variants become meaningful and scribal corruption is evident.

    I just wanted to say thanks because your scholarship and passion for sharing knowledge with lay people like me made the documentary so much more enjoyable. It felt good to engage that documentary and it would not have been possible without you.

    What was your thoughts about the documentary (if you have seen it, if not do you plan on it)?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  July 29, 2019

      I’m afraid I haven’t heard of it. Of the group you mention, David Parker is by far the most eminent in terms of scholarship in textual criticism. But what you’re describing as the thesis of the program is the precise *opposite* of his view. So there must have been some serious editing of the program!

      • Avatar
        forthfading  July 29, 2019

        Dr. Ehrman,

        I would watch it if you can. It is really good. I am not really aware of David Parker’s views but Parker is the scholar who actually mentions you by name! He and Dan Wallace actually mention your work specifically. I would highly recommend you watching it, if for no other reason it would be a good discussion piece for the blog.

        Do you have an address that is public knowledge (like a work address or the UNC address)? I would be happy to send my copy of the Blu-Ray and let you watch it.


  14. Avatar
    qditt  July 29, 2019

    Hello Dr. Ehrman,

    It seems Paul was having the most success in his missionary work, do you think the leaders in Jerusalem like James and Peter changed some of their own theology based upon Paul’s success? I understand it’s difficult to speculate what’s in someone’s thoughts, but curious as to how you feel the relationship between the “Pillars,” and Paul evolved over time.

    Thank you for your time in advance as always. Appreciate your work.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 29, 2019

      I think it’s hard to know if Paul changed their mind. When he reports the events about his confrontation with Peter in Antioch, he notably doesn’t say that he was widely thought to have won the argument! I wish I knew how their views all evolved over time. My sense is that on this issue at least, Paul wasn’t going to budge. Maybe they either?

      • Avatar
        qditt  July 29, 2019

        Thank you for the response Dr. Ehrman. Perhaps you could focus your efforts on a time machine? THAT would answer so many questions! Probably create a few new ones as well.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 30, 2019

          Loved the book when I was a kid…

          • Avatar
            meohanlon  July 30, 2019

            Are you thinking of the brilliantly conceived “Behold the Man” ? Recently read that myself.

          • Bart
            Bart  August 1, 2019

            No, was thinking of The Time Machine!

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  July 29, 2019

        Dr Ehrman –

        At a tangent to the topic of James in Jerusalem:
        (A) Is there any (good) work you’ve seen that draws a connection between the early Jerusalem church and the Ebionites?
        (B) Remind me, what’s (roughly) our earliest indication of the Ebionites existence in the historical record (was it Iraneus or something else)?
        (C) Is there any (good) work you’ve seen that tackles the economics of the early church as a whole in detail (i.e., the poor in the Jerusalem church, the sustaining of the pillars in Jerusalem, the financial support for Peter and his wife on the mission field, Paul’s collection, Paul’s patronage by the Macedonians while telling the Corinthians he’s not asking Corinth to pay him, the affluent being the means by which the early church got going in houses and meals, etc.)?

        Thanks a ton!

        • Bart
          Bart  July 30, 2019

          We don’t start hearing of Ebionites until the second century. I suppose Irenaeus is the earliest? I’d have to check. They definitely traced their line back to the earliest Jewish Christians. If you’d like to read up on them, I’d suggest the work of A. F. J. Klijn on the early Jewish Christian Gospel tradition. Wealth in the early church: start with William Countryman? More recently Helen Rhea.

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  July 30, 2019

            Awesome, thank you!

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    Boltonian  July 29, 2019

    I would be interested to know more. For example; when was it written, by which community, and why was the name of James, rather than, say, Paul or Peter, used as the pseudonym? Thanks.

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    madmargie  July 29, 2019

    I would be interested in knowing when and how the concept of “salvation theology” developed. Do you know?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2019

      Not sure what you mean. Do you mean the view that Jesus’ death brought salvation? That developed soon after his death.

  17. Avatar
    jscheller  July 29, 2019

    Hi Bart, I would like to hear what you have to say on the book of James being forged. Thank you very much for addressing this book in your recent blogs. I love the book and I really appreciate learning more from your area of expertise.

  18. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 29, 2019

    I would like to know more about why it was forged. I assume the author had some view that he thought would carry more weight if it came from James rather than the author. What was that view?

  19. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  July 29, 2019

    Yes, please, there’s certainly much interest!
    About ten years ago I became aware of a movement here in South Africa of Christians who closely follow all the Jewish laws. It really surprised me, as did one of the friends I thought I knew who was a big ‘disciple’! He was in every way Jewish except he didn’t say the messiah has not yet come. It was new to me then.

  20. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  July 29, 2019

    I haven’t commented about the James thread, but I’ve been enjoying it. I’m interested in knowing more!

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