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Is the Author of James Rejecting Paul Himself?

I have been talking about how the letter of James appears to refer to Paul’s letters in order to contradict them (as has long been thought by scholars — going back at least to Martin Luther).  But as it turns out, I don’t think it’s actually that simple.   I briefly mentioned this in an earlier post, but here is the fuller scoop.   This again is taken from my book Forgery and Counterforgery.   I should remind you what I mean by those terms, “forgery” and “counterforgery.”

The term “forgery” is a technical term for a book that claims to be written by a famous person who in fact did not write it.  (So “forgery” does NOT mean, in this context, something like “a made-up story.”  It refers specifically to the claim by an author — either explicit or implicit — to be someone other than he is.)  A “counter-forgery” is a kind of forgery — it refers to a forgery written in order to contradict the views found precisely in someone else’s forgery (whether or not the counter-forger realized that the book he is opposing was forged or authentic).

I will be arguing that the letter of James does not oppose Paul.  It opposes letters *claiming* to be written by Paul but weren’t.  So it’s a counter-forgery.   Here’s how I start making the case.


James as Independent of Paul

            Even though James has picked up phrasing, concepts, contrasts, and Scriptural proofs from Paul, his actual position, as often noted, may not be contradictory to Paul’s.  True, he certainly sounds contrary to Paul.  For James a person is justified by works, not by faith alone; for Paul a person is justified by faith not by doing the works of the Law.  The problem is that Paul and James appear to mean different things by both “faith” and “works.”

I do not need to provide a lengthy disquisition on Paul’s use of the two words.   Faith, for Paul, refers to …

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Why Did the Author of James Claim to be James in Particular?
The Close Connections of James and Paul



  1. Avatar
    fishician  August 5, 2019

    Faith vs. works continues to be an issue in Christianity today. I used to belong to one of the groups that said you had to be baptized to be saved. Other groups would say, no, faith only, baptism is a work, and works can’t save you. The reply would be that it is a work of God, not man. And back and forth the arguments would go, each using their proof texts. I’d be interested in some posts about how the traditions about baptism evolved, as an example of how the early Christians expanded and developed what the early texts said, or what was passed down.

  2. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  August 5, 2019

    Well done, sir!

  3. Avatar
    ksgm34  August 5, 2019

    Apologies for the (not wholly, I guess) unrelated question but please could you give an example of a good bible commentary that takes an historical-critical approach, rather than a devotional/ systematic theology one?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 6, 2019

      If you’re looking for a one-volume commentary, you might try the Harper-Collins Bible Commentary.

  4. Lev
    Lev  August 5, 2019

    I’m a little confused with your presentation of Paul’s position.

    You argue that for Paul, doing good deads *was* related to “a right standing with God”:

    “This does not mean, of course, that Paul thought that “doing good deeds” was unrelated to a right standing before God. Much of his surviving correspondence, after all, involves urgent paranesis.”

    Yet, you also argue that Paul believed good deeds were unnessary for salvation:

    “for Paul justification does not come by doing good deeds (either instead of or in addition to faith) but by faith in Christ.”

    Could you clarfy please?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 6, 2019

      To put it in its most simple terms: Paul did not think that doing good things for others would bring a person salvation; but he did think that if a person had salvation she/he would do good things for others. And if someone was consistently not doing good things for others, but behaving badly as a rule, that might be grounds for thinking they did *not* have salvation.

      • Lev
        Lev  August 6, 2019

        Would you say this parallels with E P Sanders Covenantal Nomism (CN)?

        Jewish CN: Brought into the covenant through birth,
        stays within the covenant by keeping the law.

        Christian CN: Brought into the covenant through faith,
        stays within the covenant by doing good deeds.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 7, 2019

          Interesting way of putting it; I hadn’t ever put it in those terms before, and would need to think about it.

  5. Robert
    Robert  August 6, 2019

    Bart: ” If he actually had access to literary forms of the later Pauline tradition, for example, the letter of Ephesians itself, then his writing is not just a forgery. It is a counter-forgery”

    Have you really succeeded in making the case here that the author of the letter of James had access to the deutero-Pauline letters of Ephesians or Titus? Maybe I haven’t paid close enough attention, but I haven’t seen anything convincing about that yet in your posts. Maybe you make that case in your book, but not so much in your posts here? I have your Forgery Counterforgery book so I should read that section there. I’m not at all opposed to the idea, especially the idea of secondary orality (!), but so far I haven’t really seen a good argument for literary dependence of James on the deutero-Paulines.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2019

      I don’t know if I’ve *succeeded* but I certainly tried. yes, it would be laid out in Forgery/Counterforgery. In this particular case: if James is not reacting to Paul’s own letters, but seems to be reacting to views of Paul that developed later, it makes best sense that he saw these someplace, and assumes his readers have as well.

      • Robert
        Robert  August 8, 2019

        Do you present any kind of word-for-word agreement to suggest literary dependence of ‘James’ upon sections of the deutero-Pauline letters? Otherwise, it seems like there are counter-indications that ‘James’ is directly opposing some views expressed, even in the passages of the two deutero-Pauline letters you’ve pointed to here, for example:

        Ephesians 2,10: “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

        Titus 3,1 “Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, 2 to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone. … 8 … I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone.”

        • Bart
          Bart  August 9, 2019

          That’s right. If there were verbatim agreements there would be little to argue about!

          • Robert
            Robert  August 9, 2019

            Bart: “That’s right. If there were verbatim agreements there would be little to argue about!”

            Thanks. I suspect Neirynck is at least chuckling if not actually rolling over in his grave.

  6. Avatar
    RAhmed  August 6, 2019

    It’s interesting that someone from the post-temple era was still holding on to anti-Pauline (or deutero-Pauline) views and that his letter was popular enough that it actually ended up being preserved by the Proto-orthodox community. Of all of the early Christian groups we know of (marcionites, Gnostics, ebionites, etc.), Which group do you believe the author of James belonged to?

    If I recall, Ignatius makes a passing reference to people who try to convert Christians back to Judaism. Do you think that these people were perhaps remnants of the Jerusalem church and that the author of James belonged to this group?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 7, 2019

      I don’t think these groups existed yet in James’s time. But there certainly were groups of followrs of Jesus who wanted to maintain their jewish identity, into and far beyond the time of Ignatius.

  7. Avatar
    Brand3000  August 7, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I’m looking to make the prima facie case that Paul, James, and Peter were all together on the resurrection of Jesus being indispensable to the nascent Church. What do you think is better to use? Anything I’m missing that could help?
    Gal. 2: “…meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles [which we see in 1 Cor. 15:1-8]…As for those who were held in high esteem…they added nothing to my message…they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised…James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me.” OR 1 Cor. 15:11 “Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.”

  8. Avatar
    Brand3000  August 26, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    In 2 Cor. 11:5: “I do not think I am in the least inferior to those “super-apostles.” Who are these “super-apostles”? Peter and James? If so why so angry? or are these, other, false apostles? others?

    • Bart
      Bart  August 26, 2019

      They are unnamed outsiders who have come into the church of Corinth with a different understanding of the faith from Paul’s; they were almost certainly not the Jerusalem apostles, but Paul never gives us any names (he had no need to, since he was writing to people who personally knew them)

  9. Avatar
    joemccarron  December 17, 2019

    I learned of the interpretation of Paul which draws a distinction between ceremonial “works of the law” and moral works. I find it the most convincing interpretation but I am also interested in problems.

    Here is the view I subscribe to:
    Paul was mainly referring to the more ceremonial “works of the law” (kosher laws and circumcision etc.) rather than the view that Paul meant acting morally is irrelevant, seems a better fit for Paul. The problem is Paul uses the term “works” in an ambiguous way and doesn’t always clarify. He does say we as Christians should act morally and God will reward good works when he judges us e.g., Romans 2:6-11. So without some understanding of context Paul is contradicting himself in the same letter.

    With respect to Abraham both Paul and James would agree he was not justified by “works of the law” in the ceremonial sense. For example both would agree Abraham was not justified by eating Kosher. That is likely what Paul is often arguing and James would agree with that.

    But I do agree with Dr. Ehrman that it seems likely many people took what I consider Luther’s view of Paul as saying none of our actions matter, instead of understanding him in the context he was writing, and James is addressing that more extreme view that our actions don’t matter at all. (Although I see no reason to think James was responding to an actual written text as opposed to oral arguments based on Paul) Given other passages by Paul where he encourages moral behavior I don’t think Paul would have an issue with the epistle of James.

    I doubt Paul would deny that Abraham actually acted on his faith in God. It wasn’t just that Abraham said in his heart oh yeah God you are great but never acted on what God wanted. Abraham *lived* by his faith and that living was not irrelevant. That is the point James is making and I doubt Paul would deny that.

    Paul is clearly sometimes ambiguous with the term “works.” Distinguishing ceremonial works
    (kosher and circumcision) versus moral works (love) is the best interpretation of Paul. Faith hope and love/charity and the greatest of these is …

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