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Does the Book of James Have the Same Concerns as the Historical James?

I continue now with my discussion of whether the book of James was actually written, as it implicitly claims, by the historical James, the brother of Jesus.  The issue is much bigger than whether James could write (a topic I discussed in my earlier posts).  Are the issues/concerns/interests of this book at all consonant with what we know about James himself?   The question is rarely asked, but it’s absolutely key.

Here is what I say in my book about it:


Other arguments support the claim that James the brother of Jesus almost certainly did not write the letter.  Of key importance is the fact that precisely what we know about James of Jerusalem otherwise is what we do not find in this letter.   The earliest accounts of James – one of them from a contemporary – indicate that he was especially known as an advocate for the view that Jewish followers of Jesus should maintain their Jewish identity by following the Jewish Law.  This seems to be the clear indication of Gal. 2:12 in the famous Antioch incident.  “Certain men from James” influenced Cephas no longer to eat with the Gentiles, out of “fear of those from the circumcision.”   The most sensible construction of the incident is that these “men” were representatives of James’s perspective, that he was a leader of the so-called circumcision party, and that this group of Christians, with him at the head, insisted on the ongoing importance of Jews maintaining their Jewish identity, which meant, in light of concerns stemming from rules of kashrut, not eating with Gentiles.

So too, the book of Acts.  Despite its concern for the Gentile mission and its insistence that Gentiles not convert to Judaism to be followers of Jesus, Acts portrays James as …

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Does James (the Book) Have the Same Concerns as James (the Man)? Part 2
The Brother of Jesus and the Book of James



  1. Avatar
    AstaKask  July 26, 2019

    What’s a Nazirite?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2019

      A Nazirite in ancient Israel took a special vow of sanctity to God that required, among other things, not touching a corpse, drinking wine, or cutting the hair. Think Samson.

  2. Telling
    Telling  July 26, 2019

    Hi Bart,

    Re: He was interested in “works of the Law,” not “good deeds.”

    But Paul writes in Galatians that he walked away from the Jerusalem Apostolic Council having received this message from James, Peter, and the others: “They only asked us to be mindful of the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.”

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2019

      Yes, the “pillars” appear to be asking him to help them take care of the impoverished Christians in Jerusalem, the basis for the “collection” that he indicates he was collecting in Macedonia and Achaea, and that he mentions in Romans.

  3. Avatar
    fishician  July 26, 2019

    Do you think James was following the lead of his brother Jesus in regard to following the Law, or was he reactionary to Jesus’ teachings and wanted to bring the Jewish Christians back to the Law? Here’s a stretch: after the death of John the Baptist Jesus believed he was the Messiah. After the death of Jesus did James see himself as taking over the role of Messiah, to save the nation of Israel?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2019

      Ha, yeah, good stretch! But, yup, don’t see any evidence of it. My sense is that Jesus himself never had to and never did confont the question of whether his followers were to follow the law. It was just a given.

  4. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  July 26, 2019

    The more I learn the more astonished I am at the incredible deceit practiced by the garden variety standard issue Christian clergy, who NEVER mention any of these issues, who seem very happy and very intent on preservation of ignorance in scriptural matters. If it was a simple case of the blind leading the blind, maybe understandable, but it seems that you have lots of clergy who know better who are determined to keep their “flocks” from knowing better. Rather contemptible, in my view. Since when has ignorance been a virtue? Since when has deceit been a virtue? Is virtue even the issue? The core issue in the various standard denominations seems to be money and power.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2019

      Some certainly do, but only those of a more “liberal” and “learned” persuasion. They tend not to have huge churches/followings.

    • Avatar
      doug  July 28, 2019

      When I was a student at a mainstream Christian seminary, they were concerned to not rock the theological boat too much for congregations, since that would drive away members. Retaining members was important so as to be able to minister to them in morality and meaning. It was also important so as not to lose members and have your congregation die. I left the ministry because if I were fully honest with a congregation, too many members would probably have left for the congregation to survive.

  5. Avatar
    Stephen  July 26, 2019

    I find this argument against Jamesian authenticity compelling. But couldn’t you use this same line of reasoning to argue against it being a deliberate forgery? The Pauline forgeries not only explicitly claim to be from Paul they also address specific Pauline concerns. As you point out “James” could have been written by any late first century Christian, Jew or Gentile. If you’re correct then the writer is hinting at James’ authority. But why do that if you’re not addressing Jamesian concerns? So while I agree it cannot be authentic I am not quite sold on its being a deliberate forgery.

    Fascinating discussion, thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2019

      I”ll be arguing that this particular forgery functions in a different way, precisely to *oppose* Pauline teachings by another respectd authority.

  6. Avatar
    lutherh  July 26, 2019

    I’m curious whether Dr. Ehrman believes the author of the epistle is a “Jamesian” who believes he is faithfully writing solidly in the tradition of James–even if he’s actually getting it wrong–or whether he believes himself to be correcting “flawed beliefs” of those audiences who held James in high regard.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2019

      I’m afraid there’s no way to know on that one (i.e., it’s impossible to know what he believed about himself).

  7. Avatar
    Eskil  July 26, 2019

    How can you be sure that the available sources about James are truthful?

    Today every one from president Trump to Jordan B. Petersen are stamped to be Natzies. I can imagine a historian two thousand years into the future comparing their long lost works with Mein Kampf and concluding that clearly their writings are not theirs because the ideology doesn’t match with true Nazi Ideology.

    I could even imagine myself cunningly laying false claims against James during the first century that say he is insisting everyone to obey Jewish laws just to win a political battle against him. How do you rule out such possibilities in your own reasoning?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2019

      I”m not sure what your point is. Trump really is not a Nazi, and an examination of his writings would prove it.

      • Avatar
        Eskil  July 28, 2019

        Of course he is not but some still make such claims. I meant that Paul, James and Peter were all some kind of reformers of Jewish religion but they were also competitors. Typically humans claim that competitors are more extreme than they truly are to gain more followers for themselves. That is why for example lefties make false claims about people on the other side of the political spectrum. What makes you trust Pauls claims about James and Peter’s views? Is it reliable to use such testimonies to asses is Epistle of James representing James’ ideas or not?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 29, 2019

          It’s all part of the evidence. It’s not simply a matter of saying “Paul says this and therefore it’s right.” It’s a matter of saying, OK, here is what one person who knew him said. Here is what another tradition said. Here is what we know about his historical context. Here is what we know about the culture at the time. Here is what…. You do that until there is no more evidence to consider, you evaluate it at length considering the value of each piece of evidence, and then you render a judgment.

          • Avatar
            Eskil  July 29, 2019

            I understand that based on the historical method your view might be the most likely. But is there any concept of reasonable doubt in the historical method? I can easily imagine a handful of alternative scenarios. In addition, after the destruction of the temple Christians started to claim that Jesus had prophesied its destruction. What other claims did they invent? Their intentional frauds alike should make all their testimony suspicious, right? Would you sentence anybody to prison based on such a weak evidence?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 31, 2019

            Yes indeed — that’s what hisotirans do, look at all the alternatives, with different scholars drawing different conclusions. My view is that Jesus probably did predict the destruction of the temple. But I don’t think there’s any way he predicted his own death and resurrection. I explain why in my various books (e.g., Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of th eNew Millennium)

          • Avatar
            Eskil  July 31, 2019

            Yes, I have red that book already. I don’t find the theory of Jesus and his followers being illiterate peasant apocalyptic prophets satisfactory. I think it leaves too many open questions. For example, NT has some very sophisticated ideas in it and this theory doesn’t explain their origin. For example, Christ being the second Adam, body of Christ being the symbol of congregation and Christ being the corner stone and believers being living stones building a spiritual house. These are very sophisticated metaphors that can be found in the texts of very learned people of the era like roman architects i.e. Vitruvius or Jewish Essenes community. The NT writers are writing similar ideas and clearly assuming that their readers will be interested on them too. Where did the writers got these ideas? Certainly not from some illiterate peasant apocalyptic! Why would they have become so obsessed by such a teacher in the first place? I find Steven Davis’s theory that Jesus originally represented the Jewish wisdom tradition and that his apocalypticism was later addition (words put into his mouth) more compelling. I recall Davis formulated such a thesis in his book THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS and Christian Wisdom. At least, it represents a reasonable doubt for me. His book also had some criticism towards your thinking about Gospel of Thomas, if I recall correctly. Have you ever replied to Davis somewhere?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 2, 2019

            Yes, I’m not saying the writers of the New Testament were lower-class peasants from Galilee. They were highly educated Greek speaking Christians of later times and other places.

  8. Avatar
    Silver  July 27, 2019

    I note that the ‘Thumbs Down’ symbol at the bottom of each blog comment has been removed. Is there any reason for this?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2019

      I’ve decided I believe in positive reinforcement. 🙂

  9. Avatar
    Truncated  July 27, 2019

    Off Topic RE: Strauss

    Dr. Bart, I just finished reading The Life of Jesus Critically Examined by Strauss. Reviewing your comments about Strauss on the blog, you said on Dec. 23rd 2017 that “I don’t agree with almost any of the details of Strauss’s very long book on Jesus, but on this basic point, I agree.”

    I enjoyed his analysis of many different issues in the life of Jesus, but without critical training I can’t discern the errors in his methods, other than those that are not based on Marcan Priority. Would you consider selecting a couple of his analyses where you find his methods or logic incorrect in any important way? For example, the announcement to Joseph & Mary about Jesus’ birth, feeding of the 5,000, healing of the lepers or the resurrection?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 29, 2019

      On the broad level, I don’t think the use of Hegelian philosophy to understand early Christian history, in the long run, is very useful. On the detailed level, yes, you’re right, I’d have to get into the details. Basic story is that I think he is incredibly perceptive as a reader, but since scholarship has learned so much more about these texts and their historical contexts in past 200 years, his views simply don’t command the same kind of authority any more. On yet another level, I think most historical Jesus scholars find more historical information in the Gospels than he did. But, yup, to unpack all that would take a few posts. I’ll think about it!

  10. Avatar
    forthfading  July 27, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    With what we have available to historians concerning methodology and criteria, what can we say historically about the death of James (what is most probable based on the evidence)?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2019

      I don’t think we have any reliable informatoin; later legends say that Paul was partly responsible for his being stoned, but there’s nothing we can trust there…

      • Avatar
        Judaswasjames  July 29, 2019

        Paul’s presence at ‘Stephen’s’ stoning in Acts 7, is, according to Dr. Robert Eisenman, significant detail joining Paul to the stoning, which bears tell-tale signs of things James the Just was famous for, such as “on his knees” and “crying out” as well as Qumanism “cast him out,” and even “uncircumcized in your hearts” for the circumcision party of James, but most telling of all, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of man on the right hand of God” with “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” — both quotes attributed to James by the writer of the Gospel of the Hebrews (and of course, to Jesus in the canon). This seems to be an overwriting of the stoning of James as ‘Stephen,’ reported in the Pseudoclementine Rec. 1.70.
        Maybe Bart, you could do a column on Dr. Eisenman’s ‘James the Brother of Jesus’? The many details of the life of the historical James are mind-blowing, and shed much light on the formation of the canon. It isn’t a pretty picture for the Pauline faction, for sure. Judas takes on a lot of the details in the death of James, as well, like falling “headlong” as in Ps. Rec. 1.70…. Have you read Eisenman’s work, Bart?

  11. Avatar
    brenmcg  July 27, 2019

    But Jospehus tells us James was sentenced to death as a law breaker – and acts 15 tells us the men that went to antioch went without the jerusalem councils authority.

    Also the letter says – “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”

    • Bart
      Bart  July 28, 2019

      Yes, that is definitely the view of teh book of Acts.

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  July 28, 2019

        but what about josephus saying James was sentenced to death as a law breaker?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 29, 2019

          Sorry, I’m out of town and don’t have my Josephus with me. Could you quote the passage for us? And remind us what you’re using it to argue?

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  July 29, 2019

            From the james passage in Antiquities “… he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned”

            If he’s accused of breaking the law in front of the sanhedrin can we take this to mean the mosaic law? And does not tell us that James’ enemies thought of him, much like Pauls enemies thought of him, as someone not obeying the law. Wouldnt this description fit fine with the epistle of james and with acts?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 30, 2019

            Yes, Josephus is claiming that he was stoned for violating this law. And no, neither Acts nor the book of James indicates that he violated the law.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  July 30, 2019

            But it shows his contempories didnt consider James to be a strict adherer of the law and we shouldnt expect a letter from James to be overly concerned with the observance of it by his jewish followers.

      • Avatar
        AlbertHodges  July 28, 2019

        Is it possible because the council at Jerusalem did not deal with issues impacting the whole Church but only issues related to the more strict Jewish converts (Essenes) in Jerusalem of whom, James the Zadok (Just) would have been a culturally important leader to them given their view of the Zadokite priesthood?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 29, 2019

          There isn’t any record of Essenes converting to Christianity. James is not a Zadokite, btw.

          • Avatar
            Judaswasjames  July 30, 2019

            But he was a Nazarite. What makes you say he was not a Zaddik?

          • Bart
            Bart  August 1, 2019

            Being a Nazirite involved taking a vow. Any Israelite could do it, not just the descendants of a priestly line.

  12. Avatar
    RAhmed  July 28, 2019

    I find it fascinating that James was able to lead the followers of Jesus for nearly 30 years from the very heart of Jerusalem while his brother was killed just three years into the movement. Do you think James watered down whatever revolutionary ideas that resulted in Jesus being killed or was it something else? Obviously James wasn’t claiming to be the Messiah, but I’d imagine he still believed that Jesus was and it must have been part of what he was preaching. Yet somehow James grew to be a highly respected figure within the Jewish community of his time. Any thoughts on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 29, 2019

      I”m not quite understanding your question, maybe because I’m not sure of what you’re assuming in it? I can’t think of anything to suggest, for example, that James was highly respected in the Jewish community. Or is that not what you’re asking? And I’m not sure what you have in mind about Jesus’ revolutionary teachings. I’m afraid we don’t know how James’s own teachings stacked up against those of Jesus.

      • Avatar
        RAhmed  July 29, 2019

        According to Josephus, James’ murder resulted in a bit of an uproar among the Jewish population so much so that the high priest was sacked by the Romans. Also, according to Hegesippus, James had access to the Holy of Holies. He also was the leader of an existing movement, which at least according to Acts, had thousands of believers. Based on these tidbits, it appears that James was a prominent figure and commanded enough respect that his death resulted in the sacking of the high priest.

        As for Jesus’ revolutionary teachings, I was just referring to him being killed for whatever it was that the temple and Roman authorities found so threatening. Perhaps it was simply his claim of being the messiah, but still it’s interesting that his brother and followers were able to remain and preach from Jerusalem and in even the temple for so long without also being killed. Other messianic figures had had their followers massacred along with them by the Romans, but James and his followers somehow avoided the same fate.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 31, 2019

          Yes, I’m not sure what to make of the Jopsehus passage; the Hegessipus is almost certainly not right. The family of Jesus was not from the tribe of Levi, and so couldn’t not be priests (it was hereditary, not voluntary).

  13. Avatar
    jogon  July 29, 2019

    Doesn’t hegesippus also say that James survived being thrown off the top of the temple? Is he that reliable as a historical source?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 4, 2019

      He ends up dying in the incident, I believe. And no, it’s not reliable.

  14. Avatar
    Steefen  July 29, 2019

    Does the Book/Epistle of James Have the Same Concerns as the Historical James?

    James did not write the Epistle.
    The Epistle was written after James died.
    The Epistle has Hellenized language.
    The Epistle does not address aspects of the Law that James championed.

    Neither Jesus nor his disciples wrote the gospels.
    We do not say the gospels do not have the same concerns as the historical Jesus.
    The Epistle of James was not written by James but was written by someone with a Hellenistic education.
    Well, if Stephen, one of the Hellenists gave his life for James’ brother, the remaining six Hellenist leaders could have been supportive of James.
    After James died and Paul’s position that faith in the blood of Jesus trumps the Law, the Oral Tradition of James kept by the Hellenist followers surviving Stephen could have focused on this specific challenge to the Law without a comprehensive position paper on James’ view of the Law.

    Conclusion: That James did not write the Epistle of James and that the major Torah values of James do not appear in James does not create a line of reason that Hellenists who kept his oral tradition could not have written one letter against Paul’s position that faith in the blood of Jesus trumps any general acts of observance of Law.

    1. We can agree that James did not write the letter.
    2. We can agree that there are Hellenistic touches in the letter.
    3. We can agree that the Letter of James is not a comprehensive position paper on James’ view of the Law.
    That does not mean James agreed with Paul [as you communicate: his interests were the same as Paul’s] who was pretty much run out of town by orthodox Jews and chose to run into the arms of the Roman Emperor.

    Are you saying James was unaware of Paul’s position of faith in the blood of Jesus was more important than Law?

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