Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Quest for the Historical...James?

So, I know the quest for the "historical Jesus" is the sexier topic (if one can call a horse that has been beaten to death, resurrected, beaten to death again, turned into a zombie, beheaded, and then brought back as a cyborg, sexy...), but whatever position you take, somebody is always going to accuse you of having an agenda. (People in atheist circles have accused ME of being a fundamentalist for affirming the historicity of Jesus!)

So let's start with somebody in whom not nearly so many people have an investment in: James, the brother of Jesus.

Our earliest references to James come from the same source as our earliest references to Jesus: the letters of Paul. Except Paul claims to have met James, and not in a struck-blind-by-a-vision way.

Now, it's possible that Paul made up James, except for one thing:

He says James disagreed with him.

Or at least the followers of James did. In Galatians 2:1-2, Paul reports that Peter ate with gentiles (a violation of Jewish dietary practices) when James's followers were around, implying that James, or his faction, believed observance of Jewish laws was still mandatory, at least for Jews like Paul and Peter. Paul (in his version of the story) sets Peter straight, arguing that faith, not observance of law, is the source of salvation, even for Jews.

Now, it's likely that Paul is putting his own spin on the incident for rhetorical purposes (the author of Acts has a somewhat different take), and we can tackle the quest for the historical Peter some other time, but if Paul invented the whole episode, why would he make the leader of the group opposing him the brother of Jesus? It would be a bizarre rhetorical move.

James shows up elsewhere in the NT, briefly in the gospels and prominently in Acts. He is considered by some traditions to be the author of the Epistle of James, but there is no real evidence to support this. But he is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus in the Antiquities of the Jews (20.9.1), written around 93 CE, and unlike the other reference to Jesus in Josephus, this one is generally accepted as authentically the words of Josephus.

So how do you think the evidence stacks up? For me, the slam-dunk is Paul's own report of James disagreeing with him. It seems far more likely that Paul was reporting a real disagreement (even if inaccurately) with a real person than concocting a disagreement with a fictional one. If Paul didn't believe James was real, his audience certainly did, or Paul's references to him would have been meaningless.

Now, a historical James does not necessarily imply an historical Jesus. I suppose James could have been the one who made Jesus up, or started claiming to be the brother of a fictional Jesus who had been concocted by someone else. But that kind or thinking leads down a mighty deep rabbit-hole. We should be critical of our sources, and look for signs of bias, ideology, and other agendas that would influence their accounts, but if we go al Dr. House and assume everybody is lying, we don't have much history left.


  1. I cannot take "Paul's" letters seriously. To me they are all just blatant pseudepigrapha, not written at the time we're told they're supposed to have been, and definitely not written by a Jewish man (unless he was schizo, which is of course a huge possibility, the more you read Paul). The best case for James was made by Robert Eisenman in his massive book, "James the Brother of Jesus." True, he relies some on the Pauline corpus, but he also cites of tons of other curious data. The biggest problem with the thesis is that it's difficult if not impossible to locate a "historic Jesus" within it.

    1. Some of the letters attributed to Paul are certainly pseudepigraphal, but one of the reasons we know this is that there is a core of letters that are very consistent in language, rhetoric, and general (if not specific) theological content. The are the product of a single author, and it is highly unlikely that they are later forgeries, because they reflect a church without a developed hierarchy, still struggling with its identity, and still awaiting an imminent end of the world. The theology and christology are much less developed than what we find in works even from the end of the second century. And we have quotes from Paul in Christian writings from the turn of the second century, so he can't have been THAT late.

      Paul only seems un-Jewish if you assume Judaism means RABBINIC Judaism, which hadn't even developed in Paul's time. Paul is very consistent with some varieties of apocalyptic Judaism, and indeed, I have written arguing that some of the seeming inconsistencies between his letters are the result of the dualistic worldview of apocalyptic Judaism.

      Eisenman's claims about James (and Paul) are...not unproblematic, and have little support among scholars. There is far too little evidence to construct that kind of elaborate narrative.

    2. That seems bizarre to say that they are ALL pseudepigraphal. What would be the benefit in making up some random figure "Paul" who has not significance. At least some of them have to be authentic or his name would have never been chosen.

      John Walker |

    3. Well, they could _theoretically_ all be pseudepigraphal if Paul had developed some sort of authority through tradition. (They aren't, but they _could_ be.) The epistles of Peter and Jude, for instance, are likely all pseudepigraphal, but these figures had developed enough authority because of their close relationship with Jesus that it was productive to write in their names.


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