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Is the Book of James Attacking the Teachings of Paul?

Yesterday I began answering a question about the New Testament book of James.  The most interesting thing about the book, for most readers, is that it *seems* at least to be attacking a view vigorously espoused by the apostle Paul.  Are these authors at odds with each other?  Here is where I pick up on that discussion in my book Forged.  My sense is that a lot of readers of the blog will not anticipate where I stand on the issue.


There is one issue that the author is particularly concerned with, however.  It is an issue that reflects a bone of contention with other Christians.  There are some Christians who are evidently saying that to be right with God, all one needs is faith; for them, doing “good works” is irrelevant to salvation, so long as you believe.  James thinks this is precisely wrong, that if you do not do good deeds, then you obviously don’t have faith.

What use is it, my brothers, if a person says he has faith but has no works?  Is faith able to save him?  If a brother or sister is naked and has no daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and be filled,” without giving them what their bodies need, what use is that?  So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead, being by itself.  (James 2:14-17)

The author goes on to argue that having faith apart from works cannot bring salvation, and in fact is worthless.  This is shown above all by the example of Abraham, father of the Jews, who was saved by what he did, not just by what he believed.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.”  Show me your faith apart from works and I will show you my faith by my works.  You believe that God is one?  You do well: even the demons believe, and they shudder.  But do you wish to know, O shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren?  Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?  You see that faith was working with his works and faith was completed by the works.  And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”  And he was called a friend of God.  You see that a person is justified by works, and not by faith alone. (James 2:18-24)

Here then is a sharp invective against anyone who maintains that it is faith alone that can put a person into a right standing before God (in James’s words, that can “justify” a person).  His evidence is Abraham, and the Scripture he quotes in support is Genesis 15:6: “And Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”

One of the reasons this passage is significant is that it sounds almost like a parody of something that Paul himself wrote, earlier, in his letter to the Galatians, when he …

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Did James Write James?
One of My Favorite Letters in the New Testament: The Book of James



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 14, 2019

    Fascinating post and you are right in that I did not anticipate where you were headed about “works” meaning “obeying the Jewish laws” in Paul’s writing and meaning “good deeds” in the writing of the author of James.

  2. Avatar
    Uxorious  July 14, 2019

    I had never thought of this like that before. Very interesting in the different uses of “faith” and “works” by James and Paul.

  3. Avatar
    godspell  July 14, 2019

    Really interesting, Bart. And of course the faith vs. works debate continues in modern Christianity. But really, nobody ever says it’s all faith or all works. It’s more a matter of emphasis. And about who is justified before God. (And about saying “my faith is better than yours” which is missing the entire point, but there you are.)

    Jesus knew very well that people without much religion (or who practiced what he saw as a false religion) might do good works out of kindness and good will, and those who were avid about following the strictest letter of the Jewish law–Judaism being the only legitimate religion in his eyes–might be so obsessed with the fine points of the law that they forgot about people, got puffed up with self-love, and faith goes out the window.

    But Jesus never drew a line between faith and good works. Those who do good works simply because they are good will be given faith. They will enter the Kingdom because they lived as if it was already there. Those who have faith act as if they have it, and those who endlessly speak of faith but lack the real thing will likewise act accordingly (and that has been proven true, over and over again, not just in Christianity).

    Paul emphasizes faith, ‘James’ emphasizes works, but they’re really more or less on the same page. That being said, Paul could be used to justify faith alone, and has been. ‘James’ has been used to counter that view. And since both are in the bible, nobody ever wins the argument. 😉

  4. Avatar
    Nabokov  July 14, 2019

    Hi Bart, this is a bit out of topic, sorry for that – In the article “Yahweh is a Moral Monster” by Hector Avalos, he states that it was allowed to sacrifice children during a specific period of time according to the OT. The following passages are cited: Ezekiel 20,25-26, Exodus 22,29-30 and Judges 11 (Jephthah). Furthermore, he is citing Moshe Greenberg: “The polemic against child sacrifice (to YHWH) in Deuteronomy 12,29ff.; Jeremiah 7,31, 19,5, 32,35 indicates that at least from the time of the last kings to Judah it was popularly believed that YHWH accepted, perhaps even commanded, it”. Could you comment on that and tell me your opinion about this topic? Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2019

      It appears to have happened; none of the authors of the OT sanctions it per se, though. Big difference. Torture happens among Christians today too, but very few church leaders sanction it.

      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  July 15, 2019

        I agree that it did happen. In fact in my view is that the story of Abraham’s binding of Isaac was popularized the counter it:.

  5. Avatar
    AstaKask  July 14, 2019

    But would they both agree that works without faith gets you nothing?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2019

      Paul, definitely. James — maybe? Possibly? probably? Not sure! He doesn’t say.

  6. Avatar
    ksgm34  July 14, 2019

    I don’t feel clear on the distinction between Paul’s and James’ definitions of faith… isn’t Paul saying that it’s about trusting in the saving power of Christ’s death and resurrection the same as having belief?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2019

      Yes, for Paul it is *trust* in teh salvation provided by Jesus’ death. For James, though, it appears to be about accepting certain propositional statements (e.g. that there is a God.)

  7. Avatar
    anthonygale  July 14, 2019

    I’ve always liked the distinction of saying that something is “necessary but not sufficient.” Do you think Paul would have said that belief in the resurrection is necessary but not sufficient?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2019

      Yes, probably, though of course he didn’t have these kinds of aristotelian categories available to him.

      • Avatar
        Leovigild  July 15, 2019

        Perhaps he should have learned to read Greek and visited Athens.

        • Bart
          Bart  July 16, 2019

          Ha! Well, Aristotle is widely available in English today, and how many people do we know who have read him? (apart from my wife, who quotes him regularly….)

  8. Avatar
    jdmartin21  July 14, 2019

    1. It seems to me that, in order for it to be a Christian concept, the faith that James spoke of has to be more than an intellectual knowledge of God’s existence – it has to be an intellectual assent to the tenants of Christianity. If a person intellectually assents to those tenants, isn’t that indeed the same as Paul’s relational trusting that Christ’s death and resurrection can restore a person to a right standing before God?

    2. Paul used the phrase “works of the law” a half dozen times or so within Romans and Galatians. The question has always been, is Paul speaking about all six hundred and thirteen precepts of the Torah or of only the ceremonial precepts to the exclusion of the moral precepts? Doesn’t his reference to “knowledge of sin” in Romans 3:20 and “all things written in the book of the law” in Galatians 3:10 indicate that he considers “works of the law” more than just the ceremonial laws? If so, works would include the James’ good deeds.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2019

      1. Are you saying James has to mean something because otherwise he is not supporting the view that you consider to be the Christian view?

      2. Most of the non-ceremonial laws don’t involve the sorts of things that James talks about in his letters.

  9. fefferdan
    fefferdan  July 14, 2019

    Bart, I suspect you’ll give us an answer in the next post but do you have a date [or range] for the Letter of James? In the meantime, a related question is: how aware were “James” and other Christians of Paul’s writings? Theologically literate people today are hypersensitive to Paul’s ideas especially since the Reformation. But were Paul’s letters in wide circulation when ‘James’ was written?
    Regardless, my guess is that James may not have contradicted the actual writings of Paul so much as he was contradicting an unfortunate interpretation of them: namely that one did not have to do good works if one had faith, since such works are irrelevant to salvation. But one point on which James and Paul agree is that one should do good works, whether out of love of one’s brother, the prompting of the Spirt, or moral obligation.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2019

      My argument is that it is definitely post-Pauline, and near the end of the first century after Pauline thought had developed in the directions that James is opposing. It’s hard to know if the author knew Paul’s actual writings or not: it’s difficult to prove one way or the other.

  10. Avatar
    Bernice Templeman  July 14, 2019

    I am still figuring this out. I believe we are all created equal and good. We learn to sin, and we can also learn to stop sinning. It takes daily prayers and actions to affirm that you did not sin. You were good, said good, and we did well (good). Each one of us can have eternal life if we choose.

    I don’t think that the Bible is historically true, although it may have some spiritual truths in it. Names, places, and events may have occurred at different times with different stories. Some things may be based on myths from different cultures with new interpretations and insights.

    I also don’t think all Jews are aware of what the Bible says, because many are converting to Christianity. There are also Christians converting to Judaism.

    From what I have learned about the first century, Jews were at war with each other and some were at war with the Romans. Rome destroyed the Second Temple around 70 AD and that is why they need the Jewish definition of a King/Messiah/Anointed to rebuild the temple and restore Israel.
    But that happened after Jesus lived and was crucified.

    There were different sects before the destruction of the Second Temple, but I don’t know the names of who became the Jewish Christians and the Pauline Christians. Maybe the Christians were all one groups making sure Christians did not join Judaism.
    I question what the writers knew and why they wrote what they did. Did they know the Old Testament? Where they sinning on purpose?

    Paul in the New Testament writes: Galatians 2
    15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles
    16 know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in[d] Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.”

    But we know that we are all created equal and good ( and not supposed to rule others)
    Sin = to rule the world or to be God over others. Actually, there was a ruler in Ancient Mesopotamia named Narma-Sin.

    We know that throughout the Bible we hear about the Jews sinning.
    We also know that in the beginning we were told not to sin.

    Genesis 1:26-31
    Ezekiel 18:4-32
    1 Samuel 8

  11. Avatar
    mkahn1977  July 14, 2019

    Not totally unrelated to this post-since the law of Moses is mentioned are there any books and or articles you’d recommend on the historicity (or lack thereof) on Moses?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2019

      You might start with the books by William Dever; he probably talks about it (I guess?) In “WHo Were the Ancient Israelites and Where Did They Come From”

      • Avatar
        mkahn1977  July 15, 2019

        Already read it but will look at my copy again. Thanks!

  12. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  July 14, 2019

    “Even the demons believe God is one”– must be pre-Trinity, which seems to complicate that matter. If Christians of that era, or at least some of them, believed in Christ/Jesus as something somewhat subordinate to and not co-eternal with God the Father, as the Trinitarian formulation would have it then later Christians would have to consider them off base. It seems that the idea of the Trinity really bolixes things up– we must specify which PERSON of the Trinity we are putting our faith in? Jesus, as opposed to the God the Jews reverenced for ages? Hmmm, suppose I choose to worship the Holy Ghost, just to be contrary? If we have three persons in one God, can’t I just call it anything, and assume that all bases are being covered? And if the Jews were worshiping “GOD” and that “GOD” has always been a Trinity,– were they not by default worshiping Jesus as well? Apparently we must fully understand the God we are worshiping, which seems to be a tall order. It would be easier if we could just say “I love you Mrs. McGillicuddy, no matter WHAT you are!” In any case it is nice to have a distinction made between the parts of the law– the ceremonial part, and the moral/ethical part. Unfortunately that seems to have led to even more confusion. This is very interesting!

    • Avatar
      Leovigild  July 15, 2019

      “If Christians of that era, or at least some of them, believed in Christ/Jesus as something somewhat subordinate to and not co-eternal with God the Father, “

      That is the Arian view, not the view that became Orthodox.

  13. Avatar
    DominickC  July 14, 2019

    “But was he really James, or was he someone else claiming to be James?”

    Ah, the game’s afoot, eh?

  14. Avatar
    fedcarroll77  July 14, 2019

    Off topic question:

    So I was scanning through your book “After the New Testament” and you mention by the end of the third century about 5% of the Roman Empire were Christian.

    So a few questions…..

    Does these numbers seem reasonable? Or could that number be inflated?

    If the number is not inflated the only reason that could grow like that is by not conversion by them all, but 1 member of a family converting and then deciding for the rest to be.

    Now does that seem like a plausible reason why it grew like that? I.e. the husband of a family converted, and since he was the provider of the family he made decisions like what to worship. I know this is more or less a theological question due to it implies belief in a supernatural event.

    Your thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2019

      This was the subject of my (entire) most recent book, the Triumph of Chrsitianity. I blogged about it a good bit when it came out. Just search for Triumph, and look especially for posts of directe relevance, e.g., with titles involving things such as “growth” and “grew” etc.

  15. Avatar
    RGM-ills  July 14, 2019

    or it could mean that the works of Abraham “were going to be” killing his son. If carried out, these would have been the “works” performed, but he was interrupted before the deed or works were completed. By interrupting Abraham before the work, God had shown that it was not the works, but the mental acceptance. I find James’ reference in 2:21 to the obedience of Isaac upon the alter a poor choice for him to use in the discussion of works vs faith.

  16. Avatar
    Jim  July 14, 2019

    What was the level of Greek and writing style of James’s letter compared to the other NT books (higher, about the same, lower)? And how would you rate this writer’s skills to the writer of Ephesians? This book wouldn’t give the impression that Greek was a second language for this writer would it?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2019

      No, I”m afraid not. I’ll be saying a it about it in my next post.

  17. Avatar
    forthfading  July 15, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Would I be correct by concluding that the writer of James is trying to say that true faith is automatically follwed by works? That you can’t actually separate them like some of the interpreters of Paul concluded. If you really have faith then your heart is changed and a changed heart leads to good deeds or works.

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2019

      Yes, he probably thought something like that, since he thinks that if you don’t do works then you clearly don’t have real faith.

  18. Avatar
    brenmcg  July 15, 2019

    I think in the letter James believed the purpose of the law was to provide rules for doing good deeds. And that, for the writer, doing good deeds was what mattered – not strict observance of the law.
    Paul just followed that teaching to its full conclusion, that faith in jesus would bring forth good deeds and the law was no longer necessary.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 15, 2019

      Yes, the problem is that when he refers to works he doesn’t refer to the OT laws, but to doing good deeds.

      • NulliusInVerba
        NulliusInVerba  July 15, 2019

        Are the Beatitudes as well as exhortations to feed the hungry and clothe the naked considered by scholars to be original to Jesus or agenda items added by scriptural writers? If original to Jesus, then the issue of works (ala James) should be a slam dunk (i.e. taught by Jesus himself). Shouldn’t Paul have recognized that, even though he was speaking of the works of OT law? And if he recognized the teachings of Jesus, how could he say faith in the resurrection alone was sufficient to be saved?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 16, 2019

          Such ideas are multiply attested in early sources (M, Q, etc.) so they do appear to be the sorts of things Jesus’ taught. But it’s a huge question of how many of Jesus’ actual teachings Paul had heard, oddly enough. Maybe I should repost on that!

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  July 15, 2019

        But when he says “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, You shall love your neighbor as yourself” does he not mean you will do good works?
        If you follow this one law you’ll fulfill allow of it. (the assumption is that the point of the law is to get you to behave righteously).

        • Bart
          Bart  July 16, 2019

          Yes, that’s right. But it’s not a specific law like “If your ox gores your neighbor…. then you have to do xxx” There is this general injunction to love, absolutely. But it doesn’t tell you specifically what good works to do (as James does). And the specific good works that James says to do he doesn’t support by appealing to OT laws.

          • Avatar
            brenmcg  July 17, 2019

            But i think thats the point – following the royal law wont tell you what specific good works to do but will lead you to good works – which is what the law tries to do specifically – so following the royal law means you dont have to concern yourself with observance of all 613 commandments

  19. Avatar
    HawksJ  July 21, 2019

    \\Paul’s teaching on “works of the law” was taken to be a general principle about “good deeds.”\\

    Bart, while Paul may have meant ‘works of the Law’ when he talked about ‘works’, how much does he talk about ‘good deeds’?

    In other words, you may be correct that he was primarily making the point that keeping the Law wasn’t necessary, but don’t his (authentic) writings seem to conspicuously de-emphasize ‘good deeds’ as well? Certainly less emphasis than the alleged teachings of Jesus, at any rate.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 22, 2019

      He doesn’t ever use the term, but most of his letters do deal at some length with the importance of behaving properly toward others and following the “love commandment,” so it’s pretty clear he believed followers of Jesus would follow unusually good and helpful lives.

  20. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  September 5, 2019

    1. Is the term “justified” an equivalent for the term “saved”?

    2. And what is the Greek term as used in the NT (along with any nuances)?

    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 8, 2019

      It’s δικαιόω – DIAKAIOO. No, for Paul justified refers to being put into a right relationship with God; saved refers to being delivered from the judgment yet to come.

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