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Is James Responding to Paul?

I now begin to explain why someone might have wanted to (falsely) claim to be James the brother of Jesus when writing the letter attributed to him in the NT.  My basic argument is that the letter is being written to oppose the writings of Paul (at least as they were being *interpreted*: whether Paul himself would have agreed with the interpretation of his views that they oppose is a completely different question), and the author needed someone of the stature of James in order to make the refutation convincing, both because James was the head of the Jerusalem church and because it was widely thought that he was at loggerheads with Paul.

I have taken this again from my book Forgery and Counterforgery.  It’s written for scholars, but I’ve tried to make it accessible by explaining the terms I use and translating the Greek.  This will take a few posts, so here’s the start, where I lay the groundwork: the letter of James does seem to be responding to the writings of Paul.


James as a Counter-forgery

Luke Johnson has made a strong argument that there is no hard evidence of real animosity between the historical James and the historical Paul, based in large measure on Paul’s neutral references to James in 1 Cor. 15:7; Gal. 1:19; 2:9, 12, and possibly 1 Cor. 9:5.[1]  This reading may falter on the Antioch incident of Gal. 2:11-14, as already mentioned (if you’re not familiar with the passage – go ahead and read it).  If “James” is not to be blamed for the highly controversial stance of Cephas – who acted “out of fear for the circumcision party” –why would Paul bother to specify that it was the representatives of James who created the problem in the first place?  Paul’s stance, in any event, is clear: these “men from James” represented a completely intolerable view that threatened the essence of his gospel message.  Would James have agreed?  We have no way, ultimately, of knowing.  What we do know is that later traditions portrayed James and Paul at loggerheads.

This can be seen, for example, in the graphic account of the (apocryphal fourth-century book called the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions), where Paul is said to have tried to murder James for …

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The Close Connections of James and Paul
Does James (the Book) Have the Same Concerns as James (the Man)? Part 2



  1. Avatar
    qditt  July 31, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, thanks for the post. This is completely off topic, and perhaps you can point me to the direction of an earlier blog or book if one was written. In studying Egyptian theology, it seems to almost be more in line with Jesus’ possible beliefs than say Jewish theology. Could it be possible that Jesus did spend time in Egypt and in turn used much of what he learned there to develop his teachings, or was it mainly his descipleship of John? Heck, what made John so radical to begin with? Too many questions.

    Thank you as always.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2019

      Almost all of John’s, and Jesus’ own, teachings/beliefs are closely paralleled in Jewish apocalyptic sources — so that’s his milieu. No, there’s nothing to suggest he had ever been to Egypt, and given what we know of his socio-economic standing, it seems implausible. So he probalby picked it all up from his own home environment.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  July 31, 2019

    Would referring to Abraham as ‘our father’ necessarily mean a writer in this period was Jewish, or would that phrasing also be used by gentile converts who had absorbed Jewish ideas, viewed (as you recently discussed) the Old Testament to be their legacy as well?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2019

      Good questoin. But yes, Christians (non-Jewish) also considered themselves “true” children of Abraham.

      • Avatar
        nichael  August 3, 2019

        And at a later period, this is likewise true of Islam, of course.

  3. Lev
    Lev  July 31, 2019

    “What I will be arguing… is that even though the author based his argument against Paul on “authentic” Pauline traditions, he read these traditions through the lens provided by later Pauline interpreters, so that what he attacked was not (the “real”) Paul but a kind of Deutero-Paul, one evidenced, in fact, in surviving Pauline forgeries. The book of James, in other words, is a counter-forgery.”

    I’m hoping you will be getting into the weeds with this argument – it sounds fascinating.

  4. Avatar
    Judaswasjames  July 31, 2019

    There is an ENTIRE BOOK devoted to this in Dr. Eisenman’s pivotal http://www.amazon.com/James-Brother-Jesus-Unlocking-Christianity/dp/014025773X/ref=pd_sim_b_2

    If everyone read this book, Christianity would be dead on the altar where it belongs. Salvation is of the living by the living (saviors): John 9:4-5 (C. Sinaiticus original “sent US”). Current living savior: http://www.rssb.org

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2019

      Maybe so. But most scholars who have read it haven’t found it convincing. In fact, I don’t think I know any who has….

      • Avatar
        lutherh  August 2, 2019

        Apologies if this is too far off topic, but do you find Eisenman’s (and possibly earlier scholars’–I know he’s basing a lot of his work off people like SGF Brandon and others) discussion of the splitting/multiplication of possibly actual people into numerous Biblical ones at all convincing? E.g., that the various Jameses were initially just one James (the brother of Jesus) and that possibly the various Simons (and thus Peters) and Johns and Judes/Judases were actually just a core group of brothers/family?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 4, 2019

          No, I’m afraid not. These were exceedingly common names in antiquity: lots of people had them.

    • Avatar
      godspell  August 2, 2019

      I tend not to put much faith in comments that contain the phrase “If everyone read this book–“, not least because there’s no book ever written that EVERYBODY has read. Not even “Goodnight Moon.”

      I’m sure they were saying the same thing about “The True Word” by the pagan philosopher Celsus, back in the 2nd century CE. The fact that we only know this book through it being excerpted in a counter-polemic by Origen tells you how that went, though of course the fact that we still calculate what year it is based on the estimated birth date of Jesus tells you even more.

  5. Robert
    Robert  July 31, 2019

    Bart: “Moreover, both James 2:23 and Romans 4:3 quote Gen. 15:6 in order to establish their (contrary) views about Abraham in relationship to his justification. Again, nowehere else in early Christian (or Jewish) literature is Gen. 15:6 brought to bear on the question of justification, let alone justification by works or by faith.”

    I certainly agree with you the author of James was responding to interpretations of Paul and Gen 15,6 is of paramount importance for this view. But one should not focus entirely on Gen 15,6 to understand Paul here. See also the obvious parallel in Habbakuk 2,4 also alluded to by Paul and it’s use in the Dead Sea Scrolls, as investigated by Takamitsu Muraoka in “Justification by Faith: Paul and Qumran” in Biblica 99.2(2018):281-284. Interestingly, the Qumran commentary on Habakkuk (1QpHab 8,2-3) interpreted this faith as trust placed in the Teacher of Righteousness.

    • Robert
      Robert  July 31, 2019

      Ran out of time above. Note that Muraoka also looks at allusions to the related faith/righteousness texts of Gen 15,6 and Psalm 106,31 in other Qumran texts. Bottom line, although I completely agree that ‘James’ is arguing with ‘Paul’, there were indeed other early Jewish discussions of the role of faith and righteousness and Gen 15,6 going on at this time. His interpretation of MMT is especially pertinent, especially since this is the only other contemporary reference to ‘works of the law’.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2019

      Yes, that’s right. At this point I’m just referring to the verbatim parallels.

  6. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  July 31, 2019

    I’m really lost right now. The author of James was pretending to be James, the brother of Jesus—I got that part. But his views sound like Gentile views to me, not Jewish views, even though they’re not anti-Jewish. The letter comes across to me as James being a Gentile Christian who follows the Noahide Laws—no? Did the author even understand the views of the historical James? I can’t figure that part out. He’s also against Paul’s views, but he’s misinterpreted those views. I’m confused about what he misinterpreted and what his counter-argument is. I read it, but I didn’t quite understand. I thought you were saying in the previous posts that the author of James was not against Paul’s views, only misinterpreting them, then expounding on them. The misinterpretation being that *James* believed Paul to be talking about the spiritual law not the Jewish law. But I don’t see how he could get all of that wrong. The more I talk about it, the more confused I’m getting!

    And I didn’t know there was a tradition about Paul murdering James. Is it saying Paul was the reason James was executed by the Sanhedrin? Is there any grounds for this being true?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2019

      Hopefully the next posts will help out. The traditoin about James being murdered is almost certainly legendary. But yes, Paul is at fault, and no, no way it’s historical.

    • Robert
      Robert  August 2, 2019

      Hi, Patty. The author of the ‘letter’ of ‘James’ not only misinterpreted the teachings of Paul as filtered through deutero-Pauline sources, but he also diametrically opposed to this misinterpretation of Paul. As a start, does that help?

      • Avatar
        Pattycake1974  August 5, 2019

        Yes, thanks. I appreciate that. This is pretty interesting, so I decided to go ahead and order Forgery and Counterforgery.

  7. Avatar
    nichael  July 31, 2019

    Off-topic, but I assume you’ve likely seen this, but just in case…

    — ————————————————————-
    “Citing the scarcity of historical accounts of the life of Jesus Christ, an American New Testament scholar named Bart Ehrman has speculated that the central figure of Christianity might not have existed at all, the Sunday Express reports.

    “Exploring the matter in his book titled “How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee,” Ehrman notes that aside from a mention in Tacitus’ annals, “pagan authors from the time of Jesus” had literally “nothing” to say about him, not to mention that the Bible itself has “no mention of Jesus’ life between the ages of 12 and 30″. […]”

    — ————————————————————-


  8. Avatar
    Zak1010  July 31, 2019

    I have always perceived James as the acknowledged Leader and Pillar of the early followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, and Paul was self accredited leader in diaspora, but Paul clearly reported to James and acknowledged James as the Leader.(Gal 2 1 10 ). Never could figure out why Paul was in diaspora, Is it because he was on a ‘mission’, or he was on the ‘run’. After all Paul was known as an assassin to the followers of Jesus. Face to face with James, Paul took a stance of submission to James, however in Antioch ( in his territory ) Paul takes a different stance with Peter ( I assume/understand Peter was on James’ side ) Gal 2 11 14. This was more of a stance of opposition. A stance of a …( hypocrite ? maybe ).
    Years later after James and Paul had left the scene and the fall of Jerusalem, the presence of early followers of Jesus had diminished fleeing east and the Asia minor Gentiles ( Pauls Followers ) were much bigger in number and had more clout. So their narrative overwhelmed the Jerusalem narrative. By the 4th century the negative rhetoric was voiced by the Gentile Pauline followers / converts not from the James camp followers.

    Dr Ehrman, is there or are there any letters from James to Paul from the period right after the Peter- Barnabas- meeting with Paul in Antioch ?
    Also, I believe there is reference to Paul and Peter reporting to James who was clearly the Leader ( in Acts ). Is that correct?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2019

      No, we have no writings at all from the histoircal James (including no letters). Acts 15 shows them all at a conference in Jerusalem, and James seems to be the main character/leader.

  9. Avatar
    Mamaosa63  July 31, 2019

    The Jews and their scriptures:

    If the Jews were in captivity by Egypt, how did they preserve their scriptures.

    And when their temple was destroyed in 76 ce. How did they preserve their scriptures up to our modern time.

    Are there any ancient scripts or scrolls in existence today.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2019

      In the Bible the Israelites are in Egypt *before* Moses was given the law. The Scriptures were not kept only in the Temple. And the earliest copies of the Hebrew Bible we have come from the Dead Sea Scrolls, roughly from the time of Jesus.

  10. Avatar
    fishician  July 31, 2019

    When do you think the Book of James was written? I assume after James and Paul were dead? So, the forger would have to pretend James had written this some time earlier, and just now it was getting distributed? I suppose given the general prevalence of illiteracy and scarcity of such writings nobody would raise an eyebrow? Also, has anyone taken the time to compile the early Christian writings that portray or suggest conflict between Paul and the Jerusalem church and its leaders? Final question: is it proper for me to end every sentence with a question mark?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2019

      Yup, something like that. I’m not sure, but it would be a short list — just Galatians and … possibly allusions elswhere, and then non-canonical works like the Pseudo-clementines? And apparently so!

  11. Avatar
    AstaKask  July 31, 2019

    Do you think Paul would agree with the position “James” is arguing against?

    Also, I think you messed up the James 2:21 quote. A google search gives something like “Was not Abraham our father justified by works?”

  12. Avatar
    JohnKesler  July 31, 2019

    “James 2:21: Abraham our father was not justified by works”

    Should this say that Abraham *was* justified by works?

  13. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  July 31, 2019

    So the forged letter of James was in response to forgeries in the name of Paul? The waters certainly got very muddy very quickly– how COULD the Holy Spirit permit such goings on! In a more serious vein, I hope you will explain how the forgers managed to introduce their forgeries, and get them accepted. I’m trying to imagine how I would go about that, and with modern social media it might not be too hard, but in those days, surely, it took some careful sneakiness.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2019

      We don’t know exactly, but it appears all they would need to is say they had received a copy from a friend or, something like that, and have friends/fellow Christians read it.

      • Bart
        Bart  August 2, 2019

        It’s the science of palaeography. Brent Nongbri has talked about it on the blog. Search for palaeography, or his name.

  14. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  July 31, 2019

    Am I correct in understanding that the Cephas you refer to is Peter?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 2, 2019

      Yes, usually understood to be. Cephas is Aramaic for “rock”; Peter is the Greek word for it.

  15. Avatar
    Bernice Templeman  July 31, 2019

    Creating a division between Christians who do good works vs not doing good works but believing they are saved by the death of Jesus and therefore do not have to stop sinning?
    Creating suffering in Christians? The Abusers and the abused? The cycle of violence?

    I believe in a good God and eternal life. You don’t need to suffer to go to heaven. You don’t need to be poor.
    My eternity does not depend on Jesus, my eternity is a result of my beliefs in me, God, others, and my actions.
    We are all created equal and good (in the Garden). If we leave the garden, we can go back. Change your heart, beliefs, and actions.

    Abuse and inequality are not fun. I don’t enjoy spending time with abusers.
    I also don’t let others block my spiritual connection.
    So maybe Christians were martyred. Do they even realize it?
    I think people are suffering and I don’t think they have to be. I think they can choose to triumph over sin and evil.

    Abraham may have been written after the exodus and settlement in Israel. In the story, the first son was with Ancient Egypt. The second son was with Ancient Mesopotamia.
    Abraham didn’t sacrifice his second son. (I don’t think God asked him to sacrifice his son.)

    My current thoughts are that Coptic Catholic Christians are the descendants of Ancient Egypt. To attract Ancient Egyptians into Christianity, they needed stories of resurrection and eternal life to compete with the pyramids.

    The Jewish Messiah wasn’t Spiritual, just a king to rule others. We don’t need a messiah for eternal life. We were born with it and can choose it with our beliefs and actions.

    It may have worked out for the best because now there are Coptic churches around the world. Descendants of Ancient Egypt around the world. There are also descendants of Jews around the world. Likewise, Greeks and Romans.

    We can all triumph over sin and evil if we choose to.
    Ancient Egypt, Jew, Catholic, Christian, others, & babies from around the world are already in heaven. They made it, so can you.

    Personally, I chose to go back to the Catholic church and found I also like the Coptic church. I didn’t choose Judaism. I do have to interpret the Bible to fit with my eternal beliefs.

  16. Avatar
    Adrian Cioara  August 1, 2019

    Does not disturb you that in the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew (what I call “the real and most similar to the original gospel of Matthew”), the verse 13:55 not only that not includes James as the brother of Jesus, but it says that he had three brothers: “Do you not know all these : his mother Mary. his three brothers: Joseph, Simon and Judah, and his sisters?”
    Why are we all the time taking for granted that James was his brother?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 3, 2019

      Interesting point. Nearly all scholars see the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew to be a medieval translation, not the oldest form of the text. In any event, James is identified as Jesus’ brother not only in Mark, but also by Paul, who actually knew him. So I wouldn’t say we’re taking it for granted, but basing our views on the ancient sources.

  17. Avatar
    meltuck  August 1, 2019

    Having gone back and re-read the Epistle of James, I don’t find persuasive evidence that the writer is claiming to be any particular James, so I am not inclined to regard it a a forgery. It’s just the opinions of an early Christian named James.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 3, 2019

      Did you read my argument for why it is that particular James? It’s not an argument I myself came up with, but I can’t think of a good answer to it, so I find it completely convincing.

      • Avatar
        meltuck  August 3, 2019

        I have just gone back and re-read your explanation in “Forged,” and I still am not convinced that the writer expects to be regarded as the particular James of Jerusalem. I have always been impressed with the logic of the writer’s argument, which I don’t see as minimizing the importance of faith. To me, it says that if your life doesn’t manifest the kind of works about which he writes, i.e. helping those in need, then you don’t really have the faith you are claiming. And, it seems the issue gets muddied by the use of the words “saved” and “salvation.” Most people today seem to relate these terms to a person’s eternal destiny, and whether this is determined by faith or by works. It’s worth pointing out that the term “salvation” is used more than eighty times in the Old Testament, but nowhere does it refer to what happens after death. I think the writer’s concern is with the right motivation. We should want to be living in right relationship with God, and if we are, our works will show it. We don’t believe the right things or do the right things just to earn a reward or escape a punishment after death.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 4, 2019

          OK, that’s all fine of course. But it’s not clear to me if you are meaning to deal with my specific argument for why James is probalby claiing to be “that” James (you don’t deal with it here.)

          • Avatar
            meltuck  August 5, 2019

            OK, you say that “the author of the book of James does not identify himself further, suggesting that he expected his readers to know which James he was. . . . is writing to the dispersed Jewish Christians.” I find this explanation rather brief and therefore not too convincing. Since I don’t have your advantage of being able to read the New Testament in the ancient languages and being sensitive to the subtleties of their grammar, I have to rely on what I read in English translations, (usually NRSV). Perhaps the writer was hoping his readers would think he was James of Jerusalem, but if so, he seems to have been careful not to make that claim directly, so he could never have been convicted of forgery.

  18. Avatar
    robgrayson  August 1, 2019

    What an absolutely fascinating series of posts this is!

  19. Avatar
    pdahl  August 2, 2019

    Thanks, Bart, for this illuminating series of posts on James and Paul, what they actually may have believed, and who wrote later in their names, sometimes distorting an original teaching. Along these lines, do you think that James, the brother of Jesus and 30-year leader of the Jerusalem church following Jesus’s death, regarded the core message in the teachings of Jesus as strictly an expansion of the Jewish religion, and so not a repudiation thereof? As for Paul, when he wrote of “faith” (*pistis* in the Koine Greek), could he not have meant “faithfulness” (to the teachings of Jesus) — especially when he uses that word in relational contexts — rather than simply assent to certain propositions about Jesus and/or trusting that his death/resurrection is what saves people?

    To the extent that the propositions in both my questions are true —namely, that the long-standing theological distinction between “faith” and “works” is at least somewhat artificial — then one can further posit that perhaps there wasn’t much actual daylight between James and Paul on this point of contention after all. Any merit in this idea?

    As for what actually “saves” people, presumably for some personified afterlife, Paul does seem pretty explicit that “trust” (another meaning of *pistis*) in the death and resurrection of Jesus is the key. However, although James witnessed Jesus’s death first-hand and also came to believe/trust in Jesus’s resurrection, is there any evidence that he also thought (like Paul) that these events somehow saved people from their sins or paid some perceived “debt” or “penalty” owed to God — as commonly preached in today’s Christianity? If not, then is there any way to recover the essence of James’s now-lost Jewish Christianity?

    Lastly, as you noted in an earlier post, James 2:21 reads in the form of a question: “Was not … Abraham justified by works…?” This form would buttress your main point of the current post, in which however you phrase James 2:21 declaratively, as: “Abraham was not … justified by works…” But this rephrasing seems to obscure the main point of your current post, I think, for anyone who didn’t recall your prior post. Please clarify.

    Thanks again, Bart, for a fascinating series of posts on James and Paul.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 3, 2019

      Yes, I’m reasonably sure the historical James though that his brother gave the correct understanding of their ancestral religion, and that he also believed in his death and resurrection for salvation. And yes, I mistyped by translation of James 2;21.

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  August 4, 2019

        Dr Ehrman –

        What do you think is the best explanatory line between the Markan tradition that Jesus’s family thought he had gone bananas and the ultimate conversion of James? I know this is a speculative question, so I appreciate any color or reading recommendations you’re willing to provide.


        • Bart
          Bart  August 4, 2019

          My sense is that James really did have a vision of Jesus after his death — or, possibly more likely, that he believed other people who told them that *they* had had a visoin (e.g., Peter)

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  August 4, 2019

            Awesome thanks!

      • Avatar
        Yochanan  August 14, 2019

        Hi Bart,
        In Acts 21 we find James telling Paul (paraphrasing) that there are rumours about him teaching Jews in Gentile lands to forsake Moses, so to prove he is also fully obedient to the Torah he must publically follow a Temple Nazarite ritual then offer a sin offering.
        Why did the early Christians continue to sacrifice and perform temple rituals if they believed Jesus was their sacrifice?

        • Bart
          Bart  August 14, 2019

          Apparently the view that he was the ultimate sacrifice that vitiated the need for all otehrs came later. In Jewish tradition sarifices were not only for the expiation of sin: there were numerous grounds for various kinds of sacrifices (e.g., the Passover lamb that was sacrificed: it was not to bring forgiveness/atonement. It was a remembrance of what God had done at the Exodus)

          • Avatar
            Yochanan  August 14, 2019

            The sacrifices of the Nazarite vow ritual Numbers 6 from memory, has a few offerings all related to non commemorative sacrifice like the Pesach lamb.
            They were sin, guilt and peace sacrifices. Again I ask why would they ask Paul I’m Acts 21 to offer a sin offering and guilt offering when these have been “nullified” according to their doctrine? This would have been maybe 10+ years after the alleged resurrection too. I see no connection to Memorial sacrifices here.

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  August 15, 2019

            Dr Ehrman –

            I’m apprised (generally) of your macro views on Luke/Acts (from your books, blog) – but, curious as to your view on the historicity of the Acts 21 James/Paul incident above?

            Thanks much!

          • Bart
            Bart  August 16, 2019

            No, I don’t think it’s historical.

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  August 16, 2019

            Thank you!

  20. Avatar
    robgrayson  August 16, 2019

    Hi Bart,

    You said in an above comment that you don’t consider the James/Paul incident in Acts 21 historical. With apologies if I’ve missed any earlier exposition, could you please say (or point me to) why you think this?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 18, 2019

      Paul says nothing about it. And it runs very much against the tenor of his writings, as someone who never yielded to the views of the Jersualem apostles and was not completely committed to doing anything that might be seen as contrary to the law. On the other hand, it works perfectly with Luke’s own agenda, that Paul and the Jerusalem apostles all saw eye to eye on everything and that Paul was a good Jewish boy to the very end, in every way, so taht his persecution was because of hatred by Jews, not by anything he himself did.

      • Avatar
        robgrayson  August 19, 2019

        Thanks for the explanation, Bart. That’s fascinating to consider. I suppose I had up to now thought (rather naively, I guess) that Luke was among the more “historically reliable” NT writers, and thus relatively free from such bias.

      • Avatar
        Yochanan  August 20, 2019

        Interesting take on Acts 21 Dr Ehrman.
        I always suspected this. Thank you

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