I will be addressing two quite disparate questions in this week’s Readers’ Mailbag: one about my work habits and one about the New Testament epistle of James: how do we know that the author expected his readers to think (or know) that he was actually the brother of Jesus himself? If you have questions you’d like me to address in a future Mailbag, send them along!
I notice you seem to get quite a bit done in a day (more than most people I know,) and that you have been doing that from a fairly young age (at one point you even experimented with decreasing your sleeping hours, If memory serves). The biggest hindrance to productivity for me is procrastination (like right now for example). How do you deal with it? You must feel it too sometimes. Did you always have an easier time concentrating than other folks? Did you learn it early in life (maybe by watching your parents)? If so, what techniques do you employ to deal with it?
Yes, my wife and I both agree that I may not have many fine qualities, but one I do have is the ability to get a lot done in a short amount of time. And yes, that is a gift I’ve cultivated since my early years. I’ve been crazy busy since I was about 17, always with more to do than could reasonably be done. And so early on I developed (and worked hard on) habits that could make me productive in what little time I had.
I don’t know that there’s a recipe for these habits, but the two personal qualities I have that seem to matter the most are my abilities to compartmentalize and to focus. They go hand in hand. I compartmentalize easily – being able to turn to one aspect of my life without allowing other aspects to bleed over into it. When I’m working on my blog, I’m not thinking about the movie I saw last night. When I’m teaching my class I’m not thinking about the book I just read. When I’m writing a chapter of a book, I am not thinking about what I’ll be having for dinner. I move from one task to the other with my full attention.
And relatedly, I can then focus on the one thing I’m doing. Even when I multi-task (you’re not supposed to do that, but I do, and can get away with it because I can shift my focus quickly and decisively from one thing to the next) I turn completely to the new thing and then back again, completely. Focus for me is the key to productivity. By concentrating entirely on whatever it is I’m doing at the moment, I can accomplish the task more quickly and efficiently.
For my line of work, it also helps that I can write unusually fast. That has developed over time, and it is directly related to focus. When my mind is completely centered on what I’m writing, then basically I can write as quickly as my fingers will fly over the key board. That’s a real gift – not one that I’ve earned, but one that I am very grateful to have been given.
I’m not sure why you think the author of James wants us to think he was “that” James [i.e., the physical brother of Jesus]. He identifies as a slave of God and as a teacher but doesn’t seem to mention anything that would associate himself directly with the brother of Jesus. Couldn’t we have the same situation as the John of Revelation where an author with the same name because associated with one of the early leaders of the Church by later Christians and their writing was privileged on that basis alone?
Yes, I’ve struggled with this question in the past, but now feel very comfortable with my view that the author definitely wanted his readers to think he was Jesus’ own brother. Here is how I explain the (persuasive to me) reasons in my book Forgery and Counterforgery:
The letter of James begins simply enough: “James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the dispersion, greetings” (1:1). A number of persons are named James in the New Testament, including the father of Joseph (Jesus’ “father,” Matt. 1:16), the son of Zebedee (Matt. 4:21 etc.), the son of Alphaeus (Matt. 10:3 etc.), the father of Jude (Luke 6:16), and, most famously, the brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3 etc.). There is a compelling two-pronged argument that the author of this short letter intends his readers to understand that he is the best known James, Jesus’ brother, the head of the church in Jerusalem. On one hand, the author does not further identify himself, to indicate which James he is, in a world where the name was exceedingly common. This must mean that he can assume – at least he thinks he can assume – that his readers will know “which” James he is. That would work if this were a letter written to his own close-knit community, for whom further identification would be unnecessary. But the letter is addressed instead – this is the second prong – to the twelve tribes of the dispersion. That is, it is going everywhere.
There have been protracted debates about the ostensible recipients of the letter. Obviously it is not being sent to the twelve Jewish tribes, since these no longer existed; and there is nothing to suggest that it was being sent to non-Christian Jews around the world, as its concerns are Christian (even though Christ himself is mentioned only twice). More plausibly, then, the letter is being addressed to Jewish Christians scattered throughout the empire or, possibly, to Christians in general. Since there is nothing uniquely Jewish about the letter (nothing non-Jewish either, of course), perhaps the final option is the best.
With respect to authorship, in any event, the point is that this is a letter intended to be read far and wide by someone who simply calls himself “James” without indicating which James he was; the recipients would have no way of knowing his identity unless they assume that he is “that” James – the most famous one of all, the brother of Jesus in charge of the mother church in Jerusalem. It is worth noting in this connection that this particular James is often named in the New Testament without further qualifier (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; 1 Cor. 15:7; Gal. 2:12).
There are other forgeries produced in the name of James from the early Christian centuries, including the Protevangelium Jakobi, which I will discuss in a later chapter, and three works discovered at Nag Hammadi: the Apocryphon of James and two separate Apocalypses of James. Later times saw the production of other forgeries in his name as well. No one thinks James wrote any of these other works; why should we think that he wrote the one that came to be included in the New Testament? My view is that it, like the others, is forged in his name. One leading reason for thinking so is that like his compatriot Peter, as discussed in the previous chapter, James could almost certainly not write. [I go on to give the evidence that the letter was not really written by Jesus’ brother, even though the writer wanted his readers to think it was]
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