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

Sometimes the questions I get from readers are short and to the point, but require long answers over a number of posts.  Here’s one of the recent ones:

 

QUESTION:

Could you write a blog on the book of James and why it is considered a forgery?

 

RESPONSE:

I think this question deserves an entire thread of responses.  I haven’t talked much about the letter of James on the blog (at least so far as I can remember and tell!).   So why not?   It’s a short “book” – just five brief chapters.  You can read it in fifteen minutes.  Go ahead!  What I say about it will then make better sense.

The best known feature of the letter is that it *seems* to be opposing the writings and teachings of Paul.  But does it?  Martin Luther, father of the Reformation, thought so.  He included the book only as an appendix to the New Testament.

I talk about the letter, and the reasons I don’t think it was actually written by James, the brother of Jesus, in both my popular book, Forged, and my longer scholarly book Forgery and Counterforgery.   There are indeed a lot of scholars today who think that James actually did write it.  I used to think so myself!  But when I started looking deeply into the matter, I came away thinking “no way.”  I’ll explain why in later posts.

For now, I’ll start the discussion by saying a few words about the book itself, apart from the question of who wrote it.  This post and the next come from Forged.

************************************************************

In the New Testament we find at least one book that appears to attack Paul’s teachings, or at least a later misinterpretation of Paul’s teachings.   This is a letter that claims to be written by someone named James.  In the early church it was widely assumed that this James was the brother of Jesus.

(This) James was known throughout the history of the early church to have been …

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Is the Book of James Attacking the Teachings of Paul?
Is the Qur’an More Reliable than the New Testament?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    NTDeist  July 12, 2019

    The book of James is also my favorite book in the NT. I’m so glad to read your views on it. What are your thoughts about the James Ossuary? Do you think the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” is a forgery?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2019

      I’ll have to look to see if I’ve posted on that before!

    • Avatar
      AlbertHodges  July 14, 2019

      The James ossuary is the bone box of the son of Joseph, son of Alphaeus, not James the Just. There is a bone box in the same tomb inscribed with the name “Joses”, which is the nickname of Joseph, son of Alphaeus mentioned in Scripture. This James is NOT the son of Joseph of Nazareth (father of James the Just and the reputed father of Jesus of Nazareth) but rather the cousin of Jesus through his cousin, Mary of Clopas. Mary was the daughter of Clopas, the daughter of Clopas, who married Alphaeus and who was the mother of James the Less and Joses (or little James and little Joseph).

  2. Avatar
    stan1027  July 12, 2019

    In what way was the James you are talking about here, the “brother” of Jesus? Was he another one of Mary’s sons from Joseph? Was he another one of Joseph’s sons from a previous relationship? I know that you, Bart, don’t think that Jesus was anything but an ordinary human being, perhaps an eccentric Rabbi, who ended up on the wrong side of Roman authority, end of story. So why even pursue it beyond that?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2019

      Ah, maybe I should post on that. He was almost certainly his blood-brother, born of the same parents. I’m not sure what you’re asking in your final question. Are you asking why I would be interested in knowing more about a person who wasn’t God? Jesus *is* the most important figure in the history of our world, of course!

      • Avatar
        AlbertHodges  July 14, 2019

        Dr. Ehrman, there are a number of references to James the Just from writings of the first 2 centuries that indicate James was the son of Joseph PRIOR to his marriage to Mary. What source do you rely on to contradict this besides the typical Protestant view that the use of brother of the lord MUST mean blood brother, even though that is reading a modern view of family into an ancient one and for which there is no direct evidence?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 15, 2019

          See today’s post. The word really does normally mean blood brother in ancient texts, a male sibling of your parents.

  3. Avatar
    fishician  July 12, 2019

    Luther may not have liked the book of James for theological reasons, but I suspect that the Religious Right is not fond of the book when it says things like, “did not God choose the POOR of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?” James 2:5, and later, “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver have rusted; and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have stored up your treasure! Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and which has been withheld by you, cries out against you; and the outcry of those who did the harvesting has reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you.” James 5:1-6

  4. Avatar
    AndrewHLivingston  July 12, 2019

    “The author of the book of James…does not identify himself further, suggesting that he expected his readers to know which James he was.” I’m not saying I’m sure you’re wrong about the topic itself but I’m still a little confused, Doc: the author of Revelation was content to simply call himself John, and you’ve said *that* book isn’t a deliberate forgery.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2019

      Good question. But arguing it’s a very different situation. “John” is writing to a specific community that he has long been a part of and that knows him well. “James” is not writing to a specific community but sending the letter out to the “twelve tribes of the dispersion.” John doesn’t need to identify himself because his readers knew who sent the letter. The readers of James would not know *which* James he was, since they are not members of his community — they are simply all those readers out there who happen to get the letter. IN that case a person normally identifies himself, unless he has reason to think everyone will know Oh, it must be *THAT* James. Maybe I’ll address that further in a later post.

  5. Avatar
    godspell  July 12, 2019

    Bart, do you have an opinion, one way or another, on whether Jesus came from an especially religious family? I mean by the standards of the time and place he lived in. Evidence for any conclusion is extremely spotty, and somewhat contradictory, and there is reason to believe many if not most of his close family members were looking somewhat askance at the claims he was making after his ministry began, which isn’t hard to believe.

    But then again, if members of his family were seeking positions of authority in the new cult on the basis of their blood ties, wouldn’t the gospel authors, representing other factions in the new church, have a potential motive to exaggerate any split between Jesus and his relations? James (the real one) clearly did embrace his brother’s ideas. And had his own take on them.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2019

      Not really. I’m not sure the disparities between the *really* religious and the “not at all* religious were quite as pronounced in that context as in ours? I.e., there wasn’t a huge range of options available. But we don’t have any hard evidence on how devoted the rest of the family was to their religious or cultural heritage.

      • Avatar
        godspell  July 14, 2019

        James reportedly died for his faith. I’d say that was fairly exceptional (hardly unheard of among Jews of that time period, but hardly the norm, or Palestine would have been in perpetual rebellion against Rome). That was after his brother’s crucifixion and alleged resurrection–the latter of which he supposedly witnessed. One could imagine any number of reasons why James would take up his brother’s ministry. But I can’t imagine any situation in which one sibling would come to believe that another was divine.

        We don’t have much information about the rest of Jesus’ family after the events of the gospels. And truthfully, they were a problem, as more and more Christians came to think of Jesus as the begotten Son of God born of a virgin, and therefore an only child. All those younger siblings had to be explained away. And what they had to say about their brother–well, has there ever been a sibling who didn’t have something uncomplimentary to say about another? Even if said in love. They still say it. I’m the eldest of four, and I know. 😉

        I feel like Jesus’ extreme devotion to his God–and to other people–had to have come from somewhere. Family seems a logical place. We hear a lot more about Mary than we do about Joseph. The father is not always the strongest influence in a family.

  6. Avatar
    sleonard  July 12, 2019

    Recently when blogging about the church in the 1st century, you cited Romans 16, as showing that in the Roman church, Paul identified 6 of the 26 people as Jewish. When looking at the actual verses though, I see only 3 (Andronicus & Junia in vs 7 and Herodion in vs 11) that are specifically identified as Jewish. Who are the other 3?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2019

      Ha! Look closer! Then come back to me.

      • Avatar
        sleonard  July 15, 2019

        After some further digging around, it looks like Prisca and Aquila get added in, as Paul mentions them as Jewish in Acts. That brings my count up to 5. I’m guessing the other one I’m missing is also identified as Jewish somewhere other than Romans 16?

        And 1 more question… As I was going down this rabbit hole, I came across the assertion that Romans 16:1-23 wasn’t meant for the church in Rome! The claim is that it was a separate letter of recommendation for Phoebe to the church in Ephesus that was later appended to the end of Romans. Do you give this claim any credence?

        Thanks!

        • Bart
          Bart  July 16, 2019

          Nope. But nice try! It’s v. 21. Unfortunately — I didn’t remember this till I looked it up just now — some translations says that the last three names in the verse are Paul’s “relatives.” ERG. The word is for “compatriots” — i.e., fellow Jews.

  7. Robert
    Robert  July 12, 2019

    The ‘letter of James’ is a wonderful piece of writing that gives us a unique view into the early Wirkunksgeschichte of Paul’s letters (as does 2 Peter) . I wish we’d knew more about the author. Although he presumably wanted readers to think he was James, the brother of Jesus, he stops short of making such an explicit claim–do you think he might have had some qualms of conscience about his implicit forgery?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2019

      No, I think he was being subtle. As it turns out, it’s not an unusual ploy among forgers. (Not even the Hitler Diaries, if I recall correctly, come out and say, “I Adolf am writing these….”) But I’ll say more about it in a later post.

  8. Avatar
    forthfading  July 12, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Would you mention something or some things you disagree about with John Painter concerning James? I think it really helps when you discuss how scholars disagree by presenting examples. Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2019

      Ah, I haven’t looked at the book in probably 10 years. But I deeply disagreed with his views of forgery, and maybe I could post on that.

  9. Avatar
    Naifeh  July 12, 2019

    “He was well known for his great piety: one early source indicates that he prayed so often and at such length that his knees became as calloused as a camel’s. The best historical records indicate that he died around 62 CE, after heading the Jerusalem church for thirty years.” Would you mind telling us what these sources are?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2019

      I believe it’s Hegessipus, as quoted in Eusebius Church History.

      • Avatar
        Naifeh  July 14, 2019

        Thank you!

      • Avatar
        Judaswasjames  July 19, 2019

        Bart,
        This passage in Hegesippus (not “Hegessipus”), via Eusebius, also has this, after James is asked to address the crowd about “the door of Jesus”: “Why do you question me about the Son of man? [Showing that the ‘Son of man’ isn’t Jesus, but in truth, ‘the door of Jesus.’] I tell you, He is sitting in heaven at the right hand of Great Power, and he will come on the clouds of heaven.” Jesus supposedly said that in Mark 14:62/Matt. 26:64/ and nearly so in Luke 22:69. The fact that all synoptics have it, shows that this quote from James was important and had to be included in the Gospel Passion story, but it was not the passion of Jesus, It was the passion OF JAMES. He was also tried illegally, by Ananus, in a kangaroo court for blasphemy, just like you-know-who was. The Gospel of the Hebrews – an early sort of Matthew – has the bread (of Life) given to James in a post-resurrection appearance, not Jesus, as was portrayed in the Last Supper scene. And Judas asks Peter to ask the beloved disciple to” tell us who it is” (RSV) who ‘betrays’ (hands over) Jesus there at the dinner, This is significant detail showing that Peter defers to the beloved disciple, who is Judas, because he is “on the breast of Jesus” and the only one close enough to receive the bread (that Gospel of the Hebrews tells us was given to James). James is therefore the successor. (This is further confirmed in John 13:18 with a reference to Psalm 41:9, but that is too involved for this short commentary.) There are at least two references to James in the Gospel of Judas, but that is also for another time.

        James was the preeminent religious figure of his day. He, as a threat to the nascent Pauline Church, had to be overwritten — out of history — so the new Church of Jesus (Paul’s heavenly redeemer figure) could get up and running. The ruse worked, beyond the elders’ wildest dreams, and ultimately became the Catholic Church, the richest organization the world has ever know. But it should have been built on James, not Jesus, “Judas” and “Stephen” — all ciphers for the real savior of the day, James the Just.

  10. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  July 12, 2019

    Faith alone vs some combination of faith and works seems to be an old controversy. And the “authoritative source”, the Bible, does not seem at all clear. Odd in any case that one’s behavior would be considered irrelevant. Various dodges exist: only have faith and you WILL become charitable, and you WILL do good deeds, etc. I have not seen much of that, frankly, And it is somewhat offensive to me to find that God ignores the good and decent and honorable, and charitable and merciful, unless they have faith in Jesus. How about faith in God, period? Oh no! Not enough! Jeeeesus! ONLY Jesus! It will be interesting to get a sense of the history of this, this… mess. I use the word “mess”. It is far from the most appropriate word but I’m trying to be civilized.

  11. Avatar
    nichael  July 12, 2019

    A right strawy epistle.

    😉

  12. Avatar
    Brand3000  July 13, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    What names of the canonical NT authors do you think held the adoptionist Christological position & which names do you think held what came to be called the orthodox position?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2019

      I don’t think any of the authors held these views in the forms they developed in later times. If you’d like to see the complicated progression, check out my book How Jesus Became God. But roughly speaking, the speeches in Acts and some fragments quoted by Paul appear to favor what later became adoptionism; and Paul himself and John seem to be developments toward what later would be transformed into the orthodox position.

  13. Avatar
    Tm3  July 13, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,
    I asked my pastor if the “Pastoral Epistles” were written by Paul. He couldn’t tell me they weren’t because he would have to admit the Bible contained forgeries and he couldn’t tell me they were because he would be lying. So he simply told me that he believed the Holy Spirit guided the early church fathers in their selection of the books of the New Testament.
    With respect to your discussion of James I think that the early church fathers simply chose from the best available proto orthodox books at the time. I think that seeming contradictions were not a big issue to them because they “NEVER “ intended for the laity to read the Bible. It was a tool for the exclusive use of the clergy to use in their guidance of the faithful. What do you think?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2019

      I don’t think it was a matter of actually choosing among a host of possible candidates as it was endorsing some books widely used and rejecting others. And I’m not quite sure that the clergy never “intended” others to read the Bible. They weren’t enforcing ignorance, I don’t think. It is more that they lived in a world where most people simply couldn’t read and no one envisioned a world where there would be mass education, so the question probably never would have occurred to anyone.

  14. Avatar
    AstaKask  July 13, 2019

    I’m working on a project (a setting for a role-playing game) where I want a Christian sect with an strict Adoptionist Christology. They accept Paul’s teaching that Christ’s sacrifice has superseded the law, but they have their own Bible where they have removed non-Adoptionist teachings as heretical. What do I need to remove to make semi-plausible? I suppose the Gospel of John has to go, and the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. Anything else?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2019

      Ah, I’m afraid that’s way too big of a question for a blog comment! You’ll need to read the Bible starting wiht verse 1 and make a decision verse by verse!

  15. Avatar
    The Agnostic Christian  July 13, 2019

    Do you think 1 Peter 5:6 is a recension of James 4:10? My feeling is that the passage in 1 Peter is an expansion of the passage in James. The author of James is clearly Jewish right? And the passage has clear parallels (in my mind at least) with many passages in Proverbs, but none say it quite like James does. Peter seems to simply add on a few words. Like how the author of 2 Peter does with Jude.

    Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. – 1 Peter 5:6

    Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. – James 4:10

    Before a downfall the heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor. – Proverbs 18:12

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2019

      It’s always hard to know who’s zoomin’ who. (You may not be old enough to remember the song — mid 80’s!) Or if this is simply a common tradition floating around that both authors express in different words.

  16. Avatar
    Nathan  July 13, 2019

    A few questions:
    1) When do you think the Book of James was written?

    2) With no reference to the sayings of Jesus and only calls on the OT, do you think the author is unaware of the Gospels?

    3) To me it seems to end abruptly. Is the book missing some chapters?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2019

      1. Not sure. End of first century, after Paul’s letters and even some forgeries in his name were in circulation.
      2. No, I don’t think we know (there are lots of parallels to the Sermon on the Mount). He’s just not interested in quoting sayings of Jesus (as is true of many, many early Christian authors.)
      3. No, this appears to be the end of the letter.

  17. Rick
    Rick  July 13, 2019

    Professor, there were several … instances in the course of my laypersons NT study where I have found it very helpful to learn a historical persons real Jewish name and it’s Old Testament connection – something people who are not “language impaired” as I am may take for granted. Above you noted “James” was a common name. In reading on the Talpiot tomb other writers mentioned that the names of Jesus and his brother James were common; but, that didn’t really mean much until I pursued the translation back to the Hebrew of Jesus and James as Joshua and Jacob! Of course then it made perfect sense there would be a lot of Joshua’s and Jacob’s among first century Jews….

    • Avatar
      nichael  July 15, 2019

      Likewise it’s useful to be aware of this name-coupling when reading things like English or Scottish history where (just as the period or other events that occurred under the reign of Queen Elizabeth are labeled “Elizabethan”) it is standard practice to refer to the period under the reigns of the various King James as “Jacobian”.

  18. Avatar
    Judaswasjames  July 19, 2019

    Bart,
    Btw, there is also the tradition of Paul leading the mob which killed James.
    http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf08.vi.iii.iii.lxx.html
    Acts 7 covers this with arch-prototype disciple ‘Stephen’ (which James in fact was). It was a convenient way to dispense once and for all with him. This all comes from Dr. Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus.

    Re: “the door of Jesus” from Hegesippus:
    The “door of Jesus” is the OT “Name of the Lord” (Genesis 4:26), the gnostic “Apophasis Logos,” “Word” of John, “Messenger” of the Qur’an, and now, “Shabd” of Sant Mat and the Sikhs. It is the NT ‘Son of God’ or Son of man, if you are ‘Jesus.’ This is why John 3:16 is so resoundingly misunderstood. God so loved the world that he gave (past tense means not Jesus) his only begotten SON, the Holy Spirit, for mankind to use as a portal to God.

    Masters come all the time. (rssb.org) I wrote two books on Masters of the Bible. Jesus is not among them. Why not devote a guest column to this, and I will cover as much as I can for your readers.

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