A Commentary on St. James: His Letter & His Legacy
Embarrassing Family Members
In the Gospel of Matthew we read:
While [Jesus] was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man that told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother’ (Matthew 12:46-50).
A common misconception about Jesus’s life is cleared up in this passage. It may surprise you to learn, but Jesus had many siblings. A surprising number of people are completely unaware of this fact, and I believe that this ignorance stems from the teachings of some early Church fathers, like Saint Jerome, who tried to reinterpret “brothers” to refer to Jesus’s cousins. This interpretation, and others like it, are completely misguided and likely stem from the deeply held belief in Mary’s virginity. Nevertheless, just because Jesus is said to be born of a virgin, nowhere in the Bible does it say that his mother was a perpetual virgin. The Gospels repeatedly mention Jesus’s “brothers,” and there should be no doubt about what these words of scripture actually mean. Moreover, belief in Jesus’s virgin birth is in no way threatened by this truth.
What is more, we read in all three Synoptic Gospels how a prophet is never accepted by the people closest to him, those in his own country or home:
And when Jesus had finished there, and coming to his own country he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, ‘Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not his sisters with us? Where did this man get all this?’ And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house.’ And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief (Matthew 13:53-57).
The tense dichotomy between Jesus the man and Jesus the Son of God is on full display in this passage. At one moment, the people are marveling at Jesus’s teaching, and the next they are offended that one so familiar to them, one so lowly, could presume to speak with such authority. It is like the old adage goes, ‘familiarity breeds contempt.’ Or at least, in this case, familiarity breeds skepticism and suspicion.
The interplay between the two above passages is important to understand. We are indirectly given an answer in the second passage, why his brothers and mother were outside interrupting his preaching to the people in the first passage. It is because, as Jesus tells us, “a prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house.”
By turning to the Gospel of Mark we get the full breadth of the story: “Then Jesus went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they said, ‘He is beside himself’” (Mark 3:19-21).
As we can see from this passage, those closest to Jesus were embarrassed by him, and they not only tried to stop him, but they also made excuses for his behavior because they believed it reflected poorly on them. What's important to note here is it is right after his mother and siblings arrive, trying to stop him from fulfilling his mission, that Jesus denounces his earthly family, and claims a heavenly family in their stead. In fact, scripture tells us that he stops teaching at home altogether because of their lack of faith.
It is clear from the above passages that Jesus had siblings, and what is more, they did not honor or accept him as divine. (One could even say that they denied him — but I will return to this point later).
James, the Lord’s Brother
Interestingly enough, after Jesus’ crucifixion, it was his brother James who became the de facto leader of this new church left in his wake. This makes logical sense. After all, Jesus was “the King of the Jews,” (i.e. the Christ) and like other kingdoms, the crown is passed on to the next of kin. The apostles appointed James the Bishop of Jerusalem. James was called “the Just” because he was deemed by all to be a man of righteousness. In fact, second century church Christian chronicler Hegesippus left behind an account of James that Eusebius refers to as the “most accurate account of him.” In which, Hegesippus paints a picture of a man who is about as holy and orthodox as they come:
The church passed to James, the brother of the Lord, along with the apostles. He was called ‘the Just’ by everyone from the Lord’s time to ours, since there were other Jameses, but this one was consecrated from his mother’s womb. He drank no wine or liquor and ate no meat. No razor came near his head, he did not anoint himself with oil, and took no baths. He alone was permitted to enter the sanctum, for he wore not wool but linen. He used to enter the temple alone and was often found kneeling in worship of God and in prayer for the people. Because of his superior righteousness he was called the Just and Oblias — meaning, in Greek, ‘Bulwark of the People’ and ‘Righteousness’ — as the prophets declare regarding him.
It is clear from Hegesippus’s account that James became the official leader of the church after the death of his brother. This appointment is only partly because he shared the same womb as Christ, in which he was “consecrated.' The real reason seems to be because of his unquestioned holiness. (Or perhaps it is because they shared the same womb that he grew into one of unquestioned holiness — it’s the story of the chicken and the egg really) Nonetheless, it is clear, to many, James was the ideal leader for this new church, because he represented the new covenant with God as ushered in by his brother Jesus, yet he was also a devout Jew and held fast to the Old covenant as well. For many in the early church, holding fast to the Jewish tradition was of the utmost importance. This is what James represented: a break from the old way, but not really.
The Book of Acts is the first history of the early church, and it mostly revolves around the actions of two individuals, Peter and Paul. Nevertheless, it is the Lord’s brother James who is literally and figuratively right at the center of it all. In Acts 15 we read how Peter and Paul both spoke before the apostles and the elders about how and why to accept Gentiles into the new church. The assembly remained silent after Peter spoke, and then Paul spoke, and we read:
After they finished speaking, James replied, ‘Brethren listen to me… therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who would turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood. For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues. (Acts 15:13,19-21)
As we can see, James is willing to accept the Gentiles into the fold as long as they are willing to accept at least some of the Jewish tradition. After James finishes speaking we read, “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas” (Acts 15:32). So, as we see, Peter and Paul both addressed the assembly of apostles and elders with their reasons for how to convert the Gentiles, but it was not until James spoke on the issue, that it was settled. In other words, James was the one with the proverbial last word on the matter. This scene shows the authority of James in the eyes of the apostles and elders. Matter of fact, his authority was so well understood that Paul both appeals to it for credibility while preaching among the Gentiles, while also blaming it indirectly for the hypocritical actions of Peter against the Gentiles. Let us look at two passages from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians to see what I mean:
Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter], and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you before God, I do not lie!) (Galatians 1:18-20).
One must remember here, Paul is not an actual “apostle” in the true sense of the word — meaning, he did not personally know Jesus. So it is important for Paul to associate himself with the people who did actually know the Lord. In this passage, Paul is connecting himself directly with Peter the Apostle, and James the Lord’s brother. He even swears on God that this happened, knowing how crucial it is for his credibility that this point be believed. (What is more, for a man who was willing to be tortured, imprisoned, and killed for his belief in this same God that he is swearing by, I think it is safe to say that Paul is telling the truth about his meeting with James and Peter in Jerusalem.) Paul tells us that during that meeting, the Apostles confirmed his teachings to the Gentiles, and accepted him into the apostolic brotherhood, writing, “And when they perceived the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas [Peter] and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship” (Galatians 2:9). However, despite this seeming camaraderie and shared mission, when Peter came to visit Paul in Antioch, he seems to have brought the authority of James, which is to say his subservience to James’s authority, along with him. For Paul writes,
But when Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he ate with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And with him the rest of the Jews acted insincerely, so that even Barnabas was carried away by their insincerity. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the Gospel I said to Cephas before them all; If you though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentile to live like Jews? We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by the works of the law, shall no one be justified (Galatians 2:11-16).
In short, Peter came to visit Paul and the Gentiles in Antioch, and the meeting was going fine, until more men had been sent by James from Jerusalem. At which time, Peter withdrew from the Gentiles in order to fit in with his Jewish brethren. Paul saw this action as antithetical to the teachings of Jesus, and he lashed out at Peter for it. Or rather, he lashed out at James, through Peter, for it. Paul draws a clear line in the sand — it is by faith alone that one is justified, not by works of the law, which is to say, by adhering to all the Old Jewish traditions.
This conflict between Paul and James will all be better understood once we take a much closer look at the Letter of James.
The Letter of James
As you can probably tell by that long intro describing the character of James, the Lord’s brother, I do in fact believe that the Letter of James was written by this same James despite what most modern scholars believe. What may surprise you, is that this position is not such a radical view. For you see, there is a common misconception among scholars, where they misinterpret the reluctant acceptance of the Letter of James into our Biblical canon by early church fathers, such as Origen or Eusebius, as a challenge to the letter’s authorship . Their reluctance, however, actually stems from a rejection of some of its teaching, not from the credibility of the authorship. That is to say, the reasoning of the early church fathers had less to do with authenticity of the letter than it had to do with its theology. Biblical scholar John A.T. Robinson argues, “In fact the argument for pseudonymity is weaker [in the letter of James] than with any other of the New Testament epistles.” It is the intro of the Letter of James that Robinson uses as evidence of his point. The letter begins:
“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greeting” (James 1:1).
Robinsons persuasively argues that if one were using James as a pseudonym to give the letter Apostolic authority, why not add the description “the brother of the Lord” that was well understood and widely used by others, or at the very least say, “James, the Bishop of Jerusalem”. That does not happen, however, which suggests two things. One, that James and his theology were so well known, that all he had to do was say his name in connection with Jesus Christ, and everyone knew who was writing to them. And two, James, using only his name without any authoritative title, seems to suggest his genuine authorship, because it would appear that if one were writing simply using James as a pseudonym for apostolic authority, they missed a huge opportunity to boost that authority at this point by adding some kind of description or title along with the name to emphasize the point.
If that were not enough, the language and theology of the letter also seems to clearly align with what we know about James. For instance, in his letter, in his opening remarks he says, “Count it all joy, my brethren” and in Acts we read that when he began his speech to the apostles and elders he said, “Brethren, listen to me.” The two greetings share a clear similarity of language. One could argue that Luke could have just been copying the language in the Letter to capture James’s voice. Perhaps that is true. Nevertheless, that would still suggest that Luke believed that the Letter of James to be authentic, or else why use the same language. Either way, Luke's goal was to capture James' voice and thus make his own writing more credible as a result, whether that is by copying the letter or simply recording how he actually spoke -- the point is the same, the voice of James' is distinct and recognizable. Furthermore, beyond these small linguistic tendencies, it is the theology represented in the letter that is of the utmost importance to our present discussion.
When Paul was lashing out at Peter for acting as if being a Jew made him somehow better in the eyes of the Lord than a Gentile, what he was really doing was standing up against the teachings of James.
By establishing that James did in fact write this letter, and that Paul was responding to James in Galatians via Peter, we can attach an historical date to the writing. Robinson’s exhaustive research led him to place the Letter of James around 47 or 48 AD, making it the first letter of the New Testament to be written. What is more, this date makes a lot of sense in the light of the Griesbach Solution to the Synoptic Problem, which I argue in favor of in my research on the matter. Without going too much into the Synoptic Problem at this time, I would just like to make the following point. The vast majority of scholars today subscribe to Markan priority of the Gospels, which means that they believe the Gospel of Mark was written first and it was then used as a source by both Matthew and Luke. The Griesbach Hypothesis, on the other hand, contends that Matthew was written first. For many reasons (which I extensively elaborate on in my essay on the Synoptic Problem), I subscribe to Matthean Priority. One of the main reasons I believe that Matthew’s Gospel was the first gospel written, is because it most closely coincides with the teaching in the Letter of James, which we just argued was the first letter written. As Robinson writes, “There is no doubt that it is Jesus’ teaching, particularly as found in the Sermon on the Mount and the Matthean tradition, that lies behind everything that James says." In other words, in light of the Synoptic problem and the chronological order of the Gospels, it makes logical sense that the first letter of the New Testament would coincide theologically with the first Gospel written, a theology which Robinson describes as a “Pre-Matthean Palestinian tradition.”
Before I get into the linguistic and theological similarities between the Letter of James and the Gospel of Matthew, I want to first address a major difference between the two. Where the Gospel of Matthew presents a complete narrative of Jesus’s life, the Letter of James, on the other hand, only mentions Jesus’s name twice; and at neither time does James discuss Jesus’s life, death, or resurrection in any way. As E.M. Sidebottom contends, the Letter of James gives “the impression of an almost precrucifixion discipleship.” That is to say, the letter gives one the sense that it was written very early on in the formation of the church. What James is presenting in his letter is essentially Old Jewish teaching with a thin veil of a new Christian morality applied to them. In fact, some hardly see a change from the old way at all. As Robinson puts it, ‘There is indeed nothing that conflicts with or goes beyond mainstream Judaism.” This is where the Letter of James and the Gospel of Matthew converge; however, it is also where the teaching of James and Paul diverge. Let us first look at the convergence of Matthew and James.
The Letter of James and the Gospel of Matthew share not only the same audience, but they share a near identical theology. Let us look at a few clear examples of what I mean. The first of which is their attitude toward the rich, who mistakenly value their possessions more than their relationship with the Lord (which should be noted is a common Old Testament trope). In James it is written:
Come now you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire (James 5:1-3).
And similarly, in the Gospel of Matthew, it is written:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-20).
The shared language and sentiment between these two passages is clear. Precious metals will rust and moths will devour everything else, so turn from your treasures on earth toward heavenly rewards. Another example of the theological and linguistic overlap of James and Matthew, is seen when we look at what they each have to say about the dangers of judging and speaking against others. James writes:
And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature and set on fire by hell…from the same mouth come blessing and cursing (James 3:6,10).
And in Matthew it is written,
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool! Shall be liable to the hell of fire’ (Matthew 5:22).
Both passages are quite explicit that the things that one says and the judgments one makes against others leave one open to the dangers of the fires of hell. Judgment of others typically stems from a misconception of one’s worth compared to that of another. Both James and Matthew make it abundantly clear, that it is through humility, not boasting or judging, that one pleases God. James writes:
God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble…Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you (James 4:6,10).
And likewise, in Matthew it is written:
He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Matthew 23:11).
What is more, not only do James and Matthew share the same teaching of humility. They share a similar teaching about faith. James writes,
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave on the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind (James 1:5-6).
And in Matthew it is written,
Ask and it will be given you; seek, and you will find (Matthew 7:7).
Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith (Matthew 21:22).
James and Matthew are each describing the power of faith, and its ability to grant one the gifts of God. That is, if one is willing to ask without doubting. The power of faith described here, especially for James, is much more complicated (and more controversial) than it seems at first glance. We discover that it is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition and the observance of the law, referenced in the verse that I am about to quote as “works.” As James explains, “Faith by itself, if it has no works is dead” (James 2:17). He elaborates on this point by citing the faith and works of Abraham, when Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac to God as an action to prove his faith. The point James is making is Abraham not only believed God’s word, but he acted on it as well. James says that “faith [is] completed by works” (James 2: 22) and “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).
This should all start to sound very familiar to us. These words reflect back to the argument between Peter and Paul in Antioch, where the latter lashed out at the former for siding with the Jews who were sent by James, against the Gentiles that were there with Paul. Let us remind ourselves right now, what Paul said at that time:
We ourselves our Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified (Galatians 2:15-16).
It seems apparent that Paul is lashing out at James through Peter at this moment. What is more, Paul also invokes Abraham to make his own point about faith, in stark contrast to the view of James. Paul writes, “For what does scripture say, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness…and to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (Romans 4:3).
It is important to understand that Paul is in a precarious position here. Here he is, a non-Apostle (in the original sense of the word), holding no prominent position in the early church, and he is finding himself at odds with Peter, arguably Jesus’s closest and most famous disciple, and James, the brother of the Lord/ head of the church in Jerusalem. This suggests that Paul is either an unnecessarily contentious person who does not understand diplomacy at all, or (more likely) he felt very strongly that all one needed was faith in Jesus to be saved, and that most of the Law of Moses became a relic of the past because of Christ's resurrection. As we will see, according to Paul, it was through the Lord’s own blood sacrifice that our sins have been forgiven, making the works (i.e. rituals and sacrifices) of the law superfluous and obsolete. Just prior to Paul’s Abrahamic example in his letter to the Romans (mentioned above), he writes:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-26).
It seems apparent that Paul is responding directly to the letter of James in these two passages from Romans, in much the same way he lashed out against him via the actions of Peter in Antioch (detailed above in his letter to the Galatians). Scholars who argue for a later dating of the Letter of James, will often say that Paul wrote his letters first, and James was simply responding to him. Let us step back for a moment and ask the all important question: who is responding to whom? Although there are some scholars who contend that the Letter of James and the Letters of Paul have no interrelationship at all, which is to say neither one is arguing against or responding to the other. This seems highly unlikely; not only are they using the same language, but also, as Robinson argues, both Paul and James each cite the same scriptural source, invoking Abraham as an example to prove their point. I agree with Robinson’s conclusion: it makes a lot more sense that Paul is responding to James than vice versa, because as Robinson says of James’ letter, “James is not concerned with the controversy between Jews and Gentiles in the church.” He makes it clear, “James is addressing all who form the true spiritual Israel, wherever they are. And he can address them in such completely Jewish terms not because he is singling them out from Gentile Christians, but because, as far as his purview is concerned, there are no other Christians.”
This understanding and application of strictly Jewish teachings to only Jewish Christians, evident in the Letter to James, is a clear indicator of three things: authorship of the letter (this fits James's reputation and character), the dating of the letter (missions to convert Gentiles were only secondary to Jews for a very brief period in time, at the very beginning of the church), and third, how the figure of Paul relates to the figure of James (Paul is clearly responding to, what he believes is the wrong foundation on which to build the new church).
This contentious debate in the early church of whether one is justified by faith and works or by faith alone has never ceased. In fact, it was at the heart of the Protestant Reformation, and is still one of the main divisions between Catholics and Protestants today. However, to say that the Catholics subscribe more to the teachings of James, and the Protestants subscribe more to the teachings of Paul, is to put it all too simply. After all, Paul makes it clear that faith without love is worthless. And for many, who do “works,” which James describes in his letter as comforting widows and helping the poor, as their way of serving the Lord, that too, can clearly be seen as an act of love. I think C.S. Lewis put it best when he said, “I think all Christians would agree with me if I said that though Christianity seems at first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond.”
It is important to note the evolution that Lewis is describing here. It is a growth from following rules and adhering to moral duties, which start off trying to control our behavior, to a far deeper understanding of what it means to be moral and the effect that those actions actually have on yourself and others. This then leads you to behave without even thinking about rules and duties, as if you are just a conduit to the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, this evolution from obeying the rules to simply following the spirit, not only describes the evolution of an individual Christian, but it also describes the evolution of the early church as well, as it evolved past its own the strict adherence to Law of Moses, to an understanding of faith alone, where the Lord has “written the Law on [our] hearts” (Romans 2:15).
The Legacy of James
As much as I (and others) can see the overlap in James’s and Paul’s teaching, a controversy, nonetheless has been left in the wake of the Letter of James. It raises the question: was Jesus here to save only the nation of Israel, or was he here to save all nations?
As we have already said, it is the Gospel of Matthew that most closely resembles the theology of James — very much based on Jewish tradition and geared toward a Jewish audience. In the Gospel of Matthew, it is written, [Jesus] said, ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matthew 10:5-6). The point here seems clear: Matthew’s Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who has come to only save the Jews. This flies right in the face of everything that Paul believed and taught. Paul was converting the Gentiles after all. As Paul writes of his mission in Galatians, ‘I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised, (for he who worked through Peter for the mission to the circumcised worked through me also for the Gentiles)” (Galatians 2:7-8). What I find particularly interesting about Paul’s words here is the way in which he mentions a “gospel for the circumcised,” which is to say a gospel for the Jews, and a “gospel for the uncircumcised," which is to say a gospel for the Gentiles. It is as if he is declaring them to be two separate and distinct gospels. To further this argument, all one has to do is look to the Gospel written by Paul’s missionary companion and confidant, Luke. As Origen said, "Luke... wrote the Gospel praised by Paul for Gentile believers."
One can see the same interplay between James, the first letter writer, and his theological connection with Matthew, the first Gospel to be written, that can be sees between Paul, the second letter writer, and Luke, the second Gospel to be written. In other words, the teachings of James and Matthew (which came first) represent the “gospel for the circumcised,” and the teachings of Paul and Luke (which came second) represent the “gospel for the uncircumcised.”
There is an interesting story shared by both Matthew and Luke, where Jesus comments on the faith of a Gentile. The two renditions of the story are quite similar, even sharing some parts verbatim. Nonetheless, I believe that it is in their differences that we see the larger picture. The Gentile in question is a Roman Centurion who heard about Jesus and sought him out to heal his servant. Let us look at what Matthew’s Gospel says:
As [Jesus] entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, beseeching him and saying , ‘Lord my servant is lying paralyzed at my home, in terrible distress.’ And he said to him, ‘I will come and heal him.’ But the centurion answered him, 'Lord I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.’ When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith' (Matthew 8:5-10).
Now let us look at Luke’s version of the same story:
After [Jesus] had ended all his sayings in the hearing of the people he entered Capernaum. Now a centurion had a slave who was dear to him who was sick at the point of death. When he heard Jesus, he sent to him elders of the Jews, asking him to come and heal his slave. And when they came to Jesus, they besought him earnestly, saying, ‘He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he built our synagogue.' And Jesus went with them. When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying to him, ‘Lord do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word and let my servant be healed. For I am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another “Come,” and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.’ When Jesus heard this he marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude that followed him. ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith’ (Luke 7:1-9).
In both passages, Jesus marveled at the centurion because of his faith. Faith that is so exemplary, that Jesus in both passages stresses that the Gentile’s faith is even greater than that of the Jews (“not even in Israel have I found such faith”). This may seem surprising that Matthew’s Gospel, which I have connected with the deeply Jewish theology of James, would say such a thing. On the other hand, it seems to be right in line with my point about Luke’s Gospel, aligning with the teaching of Paul, that he would depict such a scene. Yet as I have already said, I believe that Matthew’s Gospel was written before Luke's. Accordingly, Luke must be copying Matthew here. So what is the point Matthew is trying to make here, and what do the differences in Luke's account tell us about his theology in contrast to that of Matthew's?
In both versions of the story, the centurion says to Jesus that he is not worthy of him. Luke, however, adds a bit more nuance to this point. In his version, the Jewish elders are sought out first, as the gatekeepers to Jesus. It is they who tell Jesus, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation.” Luke is literally making the Jewish Elders (symbolic of James) tell Jesus that this Gentile is worthy of his grace because of his love for Israel. So you see, different than Matthew’s version that simply exalts the faith of the centurion, as a means to show that Jesus’s kingly power was expanding everywhere, and that the Jewish Messiah even had authority over those who had authority on Earth, Luke is showing us, on the other hand, that this Gentile’s faith is seen as “worthy” by not only Jesus, but by the Jewish leaders as well.
It is not hard to see that this interplay between the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, could clearly represent the "gospel of the circumcised" and the "gospel of the uncircumcised" as described by Paul in his Letter to the Galatians. Not necessarily in the literal sense, meaning both Gospels were fully developed and written by the point of Paul’s writing (although that is possible), but rather, it is Paul stressing the importance of making sure there is a Gospel for Gentiles.
The point: Luke’s Gospel is responding to Matthew’s in much the same way that Paul’s letters were responding to James’.
Although this interlude has no bearing on the current essay, I would like to take a moment here to complete the picture. The same connection that we see with James’s theology and Matthew’s Gospel - and - Paul’s theology and Luke’s Gospel. Can also be seen in Peter’s theology with Mark’s Gospel. Peter, who represented the middle man (middle way) between Paul and James, (as seen in Acts and Paul’s letters, particularly at that moment in Antioch) explicitly said at the end of his First Letter that he thought of Mark like a son. (I go into much more detail about their close relationship in my Commentary on the Gospel of Mark.)
As early church father and contemporary of the apostles, Papias, said of Peter and Mark's relationship, “Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote down accurately, but not in order, all that he remembered of the things said to be done by the Lord.” And likewise, it was B.H. Streeter — the pivotal Biblical scholar that advanced the current majority theory of the Synoptic Problem, the Two Source Hypothesis — who referred to Mark as the “middle term” between Matthew and Luke.
In the First Letter of Peter, a middle ground between the theology of James and Paul is presented: And if you invoke as Father him who judges one impartially according to his deed, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake. Through him you have confidence in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God (1 Peter 1:17-21).
As you can see, at the beginning of this passage, God judges according to one’s “deeds,” which seems to suggest that salvation is indeed tied up with works of the law as James contends. However, God judges “impartially” suggesting that his redemption is open to all. Moreover, Peter seems to be in agreement with Paul’s understanding, that as the blood sacrifice, Jesus himself has abolished “the futile ways” of the “fathers,” which is to say the Law of Moses.
[*To see how Mark’s Gospel provides a harmony or middle ground for Matthew and Luke, as Peter does for James and Paul, I would invite you to read My Commentary on the Gospel of Mark as well as my essay on the Synoptic Problem.]
Let us recap the major points of our current commentary, so that we can draw our conclusion. While Jesus was alive, James, along with the rest of his brothers and sisters, denied their brother’s divinity (at least as far as scripture tells us). Nevertheless, upon Jesus’s death, his mantle fell to his brother James to lead this new church of Christ. This raises two important questions. One, why would James want to lead a church of Christ if he did not believe in him? And two, why wouldn’t one of the apostles be the leader instead? I will handle the second question first. As the historians record, James was a devout Jew and a very righteous man. It was for this reason (or this reason in tandem with his familial relation to Lord) that he became the de facto leader of the church.
Now let us answer the first question: why would James even want to be the leader of this new church dedicated to his brother, whose divinity he denied? Well, for the answer to this we look to none other than Paul. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes what many scholars see as the church’s first creed and/or oral tradition:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).
These words of Paul seemingly present us with a timeline of resurrection appearances, using personal delineations (or groupings) in order to mark each appearance. First it is Peter, then the rest of the twelve, then five hundred people at one time, then James, then the rest of the apostles, and then finally Paul. The main thing to notice here is that according to Paul, James saw the resurrected Christ. (Jesus’s resurrection appearance to James is also recorded in the apocryphal Gospel of the Hebrews, but I am not using that as evidence here of anything other than 2nd Century admiration for James).
What is more, even though James is not named explicitly in the Gospels as one of the people that the risen Jesus appeared to, there is a scene in Luke’s Gospel where the resurrected Jesus appears to two men on the road to Emmaus, and it has been suggested by some scholars that the unnamed man in this scene is James.
We read that “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary, mother of James,” (which is to say Jesus’s mother), returned from the empty tomb to tell the apostles what they had seen, and they were not believed. And then we read:
That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus about seven miles from Jerusalem and talking with each other about all these things that had happened . While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, ‘What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?’ And they stood still looking sad. Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, ‘Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem that does not know the things that have happened there in these days?’ And he said to them, ‘What things?’ And they said to him, ‘Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes and besides all this, it is now the third day since this had happened… And he said unto them, “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself (Luke 24:13-27).
There is a lot to unpack here. There are two men. One is named and one is unnamed. The one that is named is Cleopas. Cleopas is the name of Joseph’s brother. Or another way to put it, Cleopas is the name of Jesus’s and James’s uncle. This is a subtle indicator that the unnamed man may also be one of Jesus’s relatives as well. What is particularly interesting is that when Cleopas speaks to the risen Jesus, it is clear. That is, the passage explicitly says that “Cleopas answered him,” however, when Jesus asks them the question regarding their conversation we read that “they said to him.” To me, the ambiguity of this responder suggests that it is the unnamed person speaking. The unnamed person says that “we hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” This is essentially the main thrust of the theology of James and Matthew. Jesus calls them “foolish men,” who are “slow of heart.” It is my opinion, that Luke, as Paul’s protege, is challenging the unnamed James here by having Jesus refer to him as “foolish” for thinking Jesus was only there to “redeem Israel,” and not all nations; and moreover, scripture has already made it clear that Jesus saw his brothers as being “slow of heart” for not believing in his divinity… Well, that is, until this moment presumably.
This seems to be the answer to our earlier question: why would James want to become the leader of a church that believes in the divinity of someone he once denied? It is because according to Paul, (according to the apocryphal Gospel of the Hebrews), and I believe according to Luke as well, James saw the risen Jesus. Of course, one cannot say definitively whether or not the resurrected Christ appeared to his earthly brother, but the evidence does seem to suggest that whatever happened to James after his brother’s death, (on the road to Emmaus or otherwise) something made him believe that his brother was indeed the Christ. How do we know that? Despite his strict Jewish orthodoxy, James was willing to pay the ultimate price for his newfound belief in the divinity of Jesus.
Eusebius records how the people began to turn on James: “When Paul appealed to Caesar and was sent to Rome by Festus, the Jews were disappointed in their hope regarding the plot they had devised against him and turned against James, the Lord’s brother, to whom the bishop’s throne in Jerusalem had been assigned by the apostles. This is the crime that they committed. They brought him into their midst and in front of the whole populace demanded a denial of his faith in Christ. But when he, contrary to all expectation, loudly and courageously confessed before them all that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was the son of God, they could could not tolerate his testimony any longer since he was universally deemed the most righteous of men because of the heights he had reached in philosophy and religion.”
So James, who the Gospels tell us denied his brother while he was still alive, saw the risen Jesus according to Paul (and possibly according to Luke), and when the Jewish populace turned their attack on James after Paul slipped through their grasp, appealing to the protections awarded him by his Roman citizenship, James became the object of their machinations. The people and tradition that James had represented so loyally were now turning their back on him. At that moment, James had to decide what was more important — the religion he had faithfully adhered to his whole life, or his belief that his brother Jesus was in fact the prophesied Christ. We find out that he chose the latter, which seems to suggest that something extremely profound happened to James after the crucifixion of his brother. Eusebius emphasizes just how incredible it was that James would side with Christ over Jewish tradition at that moment, by saying that it was “contrary to all expectation.”
Jewish historian, Jospehus (who is our best and only non-Christian source bearing witness to the historical Jesus in the 1st century). also speaks of James’s martyrdom in Antiquities, Book 20:
“Ananus thought that with Festus dead and Albinus still on the way he would have the proper opportunity. Convening the judges of the Sanhedrin, he brought before them the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, whose name was James, and certain others. He accused them of having transgressed the law and delivered them up to be stoned.”
What is more, not only was James willing to die for his faith in Christ, but he was willing to be tortured as well. Hegessippus describes James’s martyrdom in even greater detail, “So the scribes and Pharisees made James stand on the temple parapet, and they shouted to him, ‘O righteous one, whom we all ought to believe, since the people are going astray after Jesus who was crucified, tell us, what does ‘the door of Jesus’ mean?’ He replied with a loud voice, ‘Why do you ask me about the Son of Man? He is sitting in heaven at the right hand of the Great Power, and he will come on the clouds of heaven.’ Many were convinced and rejoiced at James’s testimony, crying, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David.’ Then the scribes and Pharisees said to each other, ‘We made a bad mistake in providing such testimony to Jesus, but let us go up and throw him down so that they will be afraid and not believe him.’ And they cried out, ‘Oh, oh, even the just one has gone astray!’ This fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘Let us remove the just man, for he is unprofitable to us. Therefore, they shall eat the fruits of their works.’
“So they went up and threw down the righteous one. Then they said to each other, ‘Let us stone James the Just,’ and they began to stone him, since the fall had not killed him. But he turned and knelt down, saying, ‘I implore you, O Lord, God and Father, forgive them: they do not know what they are doing’… Such was his martyrdom. They buried him on the spot by the temple, and his gravestone is still there by the temple. He became a true witness to both Jews and Gentiles that Jesus is the Christ.”
So after all the tension between the Jewish tradition (represented by James), and the acceptance of Gentiles in the church sans major portions of the Law (represented by Paul), James in the end sided with Jesus as Christ, above all else, even against the tradition that he held so dear. And because someone, who was as orthodox and righteous as James, was willing to do what he did, it showed that there was something much bigger at play here, something that transcended the Jewish tradition and even the most devout followers thereof. As Hegesippus tells us, through his martyrdom, James became “a true witness to both Jews and Gentiles that Jesus is the Christ.”
The Legacy of James is complicated, but extremely important for us to understand. James is the gateway to understanding, not only the foundation and formation of the early church, but also the inter-relational nature of the Gospels and Letters in the New Testament. James was the FIRST -- The FIRST bishop of Jerusalem, the FIRST writer of the New Testament, and the FIRST of Peter, Paul, and Him to be martyred for the Lord.
Some early church figures, such as Origen and Eusebius, as well as some later church figures such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, see the figure of James and his teaching, as too stuck in the Old Testament traditions, attached to superfluous works of the law. They instead, subscribe to the teachings of Paul, who preached that a person is saved by faith alone (sola fide).
Before we go taking sides on the matter, we should understand the larger context. Whatever you may think of James, it is important to remember he was not only the brother of the Lord, but he was also a Christian pioneer. As I said James was repeatedly the FIRST. What may seem to some as “too traditional” through the lens of a later point of view, was at the time more radical than you may realize. Despite the controversy, James’s profound effect on Christianity cannot be denied (and should not be ignored).
2. Paul L. Maier, Eusebius: The Church History. (Kregel Publishing, 1999, 2007), 71.
3. John A.T. Robinson, Redating the Gospels, (Wipe and Stock Publishers: Oregon: 1976), 132.
4. Ibid., 129
6. Ibid., 138.
7. Ibid., 125.
9. Ibid., 123.
10. Ibid., 121
11. Ibid., 127
12. Ibid., 128
13. Ibid., 122
14. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (Harper Collins:1952), 149.
15. The Church History, 207
16. Ibid., 114.
17. Craig A. Evans, Mark Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem: Four Views, (Baker Publishing: Michigan, 2016), 17.