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The Oddity of the New Testament: The Epistle of James

The epistle of James sticks out in the NT to me. Not because it seems to be a Judaizing Christian letter, but because it doesn’t seem Christian at all.

The first thing that sticks out to me is that James only writes “Jesus Christ” two times. The first line in chapter 1 and the first line in chapter 2. Keep in mind that all of our original books of the bible did not have “chapters” so there’s a strange coincidence going on there. What follows from the dearth of mentions of Jesus is the lack of any quotes of Jesus. Instead, James quotes from the Tanakh to make his points. He quotes from Leviticus 19:18, Exodus 20:14; Deut. 5:18, Gen. 15:6, and Prov. 3:34, but not from Jesus. The quotes from the Torah are only made for examples (well, except for Deut 5:18), but the Proverbs quote is deference to scriptural authority. Like my post on Paul’s silence, James could have simply quoted their lord Jesus on the issues that James is addressing instead of making arguments.

I realize that the epistle of James is short overall, but these two things — the mention of “Jesus” only twice and a lack of quoting Jesus — make it seem to me that this epistle was not originally a Christian document, but a Jewish document that was hijacked by (possibly Ebionite) Christians who inserted the two Jesus references. It would have been a lot shorter if James had simply quoted Jesus. Which would also have been more effective.

The epistle is certainly positive towards “the poor”; that phrase being what Ebionite means.

Removing the two references to Jesus Christ, the letter maintains its logic and flow, which makes me think they are interpolations. They don’t add any content, context, or logic to the letter. So either this is not a Christian document, or it has a view of Jesus that is similar to Paul (or it’s a type of Christianity that’s indistinguishable from Judaism). A Jesus that is an agent of salvation and not a wandering sage. This, however, is at odds with the Ebionites.

When James speaks of salvation or being saved, it has nothing to do with Jesus’ death or resurrection:

1:21 Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Obviously, a Logos-Christian could read this part and say that the word that saves you is the Word: The Logos Jesus. And on the other hand, Ebionites did not believe that Jesus’ death had any value in their salvation scheme. But still, one has to wonder what “word” it is that is doing the saving in James’ mind. I would guess some sort of preaching. Coincidentally, another possible strange thing is that this epistle doesn’t mention anything about good news or “gospel”.

The first witness that I could find who seems to know the epistle of James is Irenaeus writing in the late 2nd century. From Against Heresies 4.16.2:

2. And that man was not justified by these things, but that they were given as a sign to the people, this fact shows—that Abraham himself, without circumcision and without observance of Sabbaths, believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness; and he was called the friend of God.

This is a quote from James 2:23, but is actually a quote from Genesis 15:6. The part that’s unique to James (or Irenaeus) is the “friend of God” part. Here, I don’t think Irenaeus is quoting from James, but is quoting from Genesis and added the friend of God part himself. Irenaeus also doesn’t say who that short phrase “friend of God” he’s quoting from. In the contexts prior to this, Irenaeus doesn’t seem to have any problems saying who his quote is coming from:

(4.16.1) For we, says the apostle, have been circumcised with the circumcision made without hands (Colossians 2:11) And the prophet declares, Circumcise the hardness of your heart (Deut 10:16 LXX). But the Sabbaths taught that we should continue day by day in God’s service. For we have been counted, says the Apostle Paul, all the day long as sheep for the slaughter; (Romans 8:36)

It’s also quite possible that Irenaeus was viewing a version of James that was anonymous.

Origen, writing more than a generation after Irenaeus, seems to be the first unambiguous witness to the epistle of James. In his Commentary on John (19.61) he refers to it as ‘the Epistle of James that is in circulation’, so Origen would function as a terminus ante quem for when this epistle was written.

My thinking is that this epistle was originally Jewish, but Ebionites got a hold of it. They added some “Christian”/Ebionite flavor to this letter so that they have something in circulation in their arguments against orthodox or Paulinist Christians sometime in the 2nd century. But this still doesn’t explain why they wouldn’t add that this was the brother of Jesus writing this letter instead of a servant.

So who knows. I do know one thing – this letter has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus or any Christian specific subject matter. No resurrection, no cross, no gospel/good news. It really doesn’t belong. Maybe Martin Luther was right!

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Posted by on September 1, 2010 in ebionites, epistle of james, interpolation

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