Tuesday, July 14, 2020

WM 169: Who Wrote the Epistle of James?

In WM 169 I explore the question of who wrote the epistle of James, in connection with my commencement of a new sermon series through James on Lord’s Day mornings at CRBC. Last Sunday I preached the first message in the series on James 1:1-4 (listen here).

In that introductory message I necessarily spent some time teaching on the question of authorship. In v. 1a the author is identified: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ….”

“James” is the anglicized form of the Hebrew name Jacob.

He describes himself as a “servant [doulos, slave] of God” and a servant/slave of “of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

But the problem is, Who is this James?

The Gospels tell us that that there were two disciples of the twelve apostles who were named James (see the lists of the twelve in Matt 10; Mark 3; and Luke 6; cf. Acts 1).

The first was James, the brother of John and the son of Zebedee. He was one of the closest friends and companions to the Lord Jesus, along with Peter and John. This James is sometimes called James the Major or Greater.

The second was a disciple named James the son of Alphaeus, who is mentioned much less frequently in the Gospels, and has sometimes been called James the Minor or Lesser.

In addition, however, there is mention made in the Gospels of one who was a brother of Jesus named James (see Matthew 13:53-58; Mark 6:3: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him.”).

It is sometimes suggested that this was a third James, the brother of the Lord. It was said of some early writers that he has been among the seventy sent out by Christ (Luke 10) and that he was sometimes called Oblias and “James the Just.” It was he, they suggest, who is the James became the leader of the early church in Jerusalem, who stood up to speak in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13).

I might add that there is what we could call a fourth James, the brother (or father?) of the apostle Judas (literally “Judas of James”) (Luke 6:16; Acts 1:13; this is the Judas “not Iscariot” of John 14:22). Note: For the view of this person as a "fourth" James see D. E. Hiebert, James, 27. The traditional Protestant orthodox view (reviewed below) would see this James as James the son of Alphaeus and the Judas (Jude) here as the author of Jude and the brother of James son of Alphaeus (Jude 1:1).

Which James wrote this epistle?

Here are some observations that help us make a judgement:

First, notice that the author does not identify himself as James the brother of John, or James the son of Alphaeus, or as James the brother of Jesus. He does not identify himself as an apostle but simply as a slave.

Second, we know it is not likely that the author was James the brother of John, because that James died very early on as a martyr, the first among the apostles to die for his faith, at the hands of Herod (Acts 12:2).

Third, it is possible that James the apostle, the son of Alphaeus, and James the brother of the Lord were the same person, so that there were not three prominent men among the early Christians but only two.

So, how can we say that James the son of Alphaeus was also the brother of the Lord?

The key here would be to understand the word “brother” not with the nearest sense as “sibling” but more broadly as a kinsman or “cousin.” Those who hold this view say that this James was the son of the sister of Jesus’s mother, also named Mary, the wife of Cleophas (another name for Alphaeus). See:

John 19:25: Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.

Matthew 27:56: Among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s children.

Mark 15:40: There were also women looking on afar off: among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome;

Mark 16:1: And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.

Luke 24:10: It was Mary Magdalene and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and other women that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles.

This view that the author of James was the apostle James, the son of Alphaeus, who was also the brother (kinsman) of Christ, was held by many ancient men in the church, including Jerome (see his Lives of Illustrious Men, chapter 2) and of many of the early Protestant exegetes.

The Protestant men, in particular, pointed to Galatians 1:19 where Paul wrote of his early trip to Jerusalem, “But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother.”

Then they look to Galatians 2:9 where Paul refers to James, Cephas, and John “who seemed to be the pillars” and conclude that this James must have been an apostle, otherwise, he would not have been accepted as a “pillar” alongside Peter and John.

Here is the conclusion reached in Matthew Poole’s commentary (1685):

“It is not certain that there were three Jameses, two of them apostles and the third (called Oblias and James the Just) one of the seventy disciples; the scripture mentioning but two, one the son of Zebedee, the other of Alphaeus, called the brother of the Lord (Gal 1:19), as being of kin to his family; and said to be a pillar (Gal 2:9), and joined with Peter and John. And though some have thought the James mentioned here to have been the third James, called Oblias, and one of the seventy; yet it is more probable that he was indeed no other than the son of Alphaeus, and one of the twelve; nor is it likely, that one of the disciples should be numbered as one of the three pillars, and therein preferred above so many apostles. This James, therefore, upon the whole, I take to be the penman of this Epistle….”

Thomas Manton in his commentary on James (1693):

“For indeed there were but two Jameses, this latter James being the same with him of  Alphaeus; for plainly the brother of the Lord is reckoned among the apostles (Gal 1:19); and called a pillar (Gal 2:9); and he is  called the brother of the Lord, because he was in that family to which Christ was numbered…. Well then, there being two, to which of these is the epistle ascribed? ….Well, then, James the Less is the person whom we have found to be the instrument which the Spirit of God made use of to convey this treasure to the church” (12-13).

And Matthew Henry’s commentary (expanded upon and published after his death in 1714):

“The writer of this epistle was not James the son of Zebedee; for he was put to death by Herod (Acts 12) before Christianity had gained so much ground among the Jews of the dispersion as is here implied. But it was the other James, the son of Alphaeus, who was cousin-german to Christ, and one of the twelve apostles (Matt 10:3). He is called a pillar (Gal 2:9), and this epistle of his cannot be disputed, without loosening a foundation stone.”

I must note, however, that in John Calvin’s commentary on James of 1551 he concluded that whether James was written by James the son of Alphaeus or another James who was “the rule of the church at Jerusalem,” “it is not for me to say.” He prefaced this conclusion by saying, “It is enough for men to receive this Epistle, that it contains nothing unworthy of an Apostle of Christ.”

Though Manton is much firmer in his convictions that James the son of Alphaeus and “brother of the Lord” is author, he nevertheless refers to the human author as “the subordinate author or instrument.” His point being that whoever wrote it, whether an apostle or not, the true author was the Lord himself by his Holy Spirit.

This consensus of the Protestant orthodox appears out of step with the view of most contemporary Protestant evangelicals who see the author of James as the “third” James, not James the son of Alphaeus, but James of Jerusalem.

Here, for example, is the discussion of authorship from the introduction to James in the MacArthur Study Bible: “Of the 4 men named James in the NT, only two are candidates for authorship of this epistle. No one has seriously considered James, the Less, the son of Alphaeus (Matt. 10:3; Acts 1:13), or James the father of Judas, not Iscariot (Luke 6:16; Acts 1:13). Some have suggested James the son of Zebedee and brother of John (Matt. 4:21), but he was martyred too early to have written it (Acts 12:2). That leaves only James, the oldest half-brother of Christ (Mark 6:3) and brother of Jude (Matt. 13:55), who also wrote the epistle that bears his name (Jude 1)” (1924).

The Introduction to the ESV Study Bible also makes this assumption and makes no mention of the possibility that the author was the apostle James, son of Alphaeus: “The title of this book derives from the name of its author, James the Just (as he was called), the brother of Jesus (Matt. 13:55) and leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15)” (2387).

The older Protestant men seemed more intent to settle James as an apostolic work (written by an apostle: James of Alphaeus). They were not apparently troubled by suggesting that James was not a sibling of Christ but a kinsman, nor did they attempt to defend the proposition that Mary had other children after the birth of Jesus.

Modern Protestants and evangelicals seem to rush past the idea of James as directly apostolic, in favor of the suggestion that the letter was written by one who was not an apostle (James the Just).

Though ultimately in agreement with Manton that the most important thing is the fact that God himself is the primary author and that the human author is only “subordinate,” at this point I am persuaded by Poole, Manton, and Henry that James the son of Alphaeus is the likely author.

Addendum: At the close I noted the commentaries I am reading as I preach through James: two older (pre-critical) works: Calvin and Manton, and one contemporary work by Edmund J. Hiebert. For Hiebert’s intriguing bio on theopedia, look here.



Bill Hardecker said...

I believe James "the Just" may have been the author:

1. The writer did not introduce himself as an apostle (unlike Peter and Paul) and in not doing so, this would tend to eliminate the two others (the son of Zebedee [which I think, since he was martyred ca. 44 A.D. (Acts 12:2), that we all know that it can't be him; and the son of Alphaeus, since he was indeed an apostle).

2. The writer's style is similar to the James who pastored the church at Jerusalem. (cf. "Greeting" - James 1:1 & Acts 15:23; "Hearken my believed brethren - James 2:5 & Acts 15:13; "Your souls" - James 1:21 & Acts 15:24; "Visit" - James 1:27 & Acts 15:14.

3. It appears from Acts 21:17-18 (58 A.D.) that when Paul visited the church at Jerusalem, no apostles were present, otherwise they would have been mentioned. However, James the pastor is mentioned along with other elders.

4. James the Just seems to be the only James who lived long enough and had a pastoral role that fits well with the writer of the book of James which is doubtless written to Christian Jews (James 1:1 - diaspora or dispersed - the scattering of the Jews outside of the Holy Land.)

5. Nothing is conclusive nor clear cut for sure.

Very interesting podcast (Word Magazine). Thank you! and Be well!

A side note on James the son of Alpheaus. Could it be that he was also a brother to another apostle, Matthew (Levi) cf. Mark 2:14? Interesting.

It's just too many Marys, and too many James. Kidding.

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...

Bill, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments.

Yes, I sort of feel like I've fallen down a rabbit hole with this whole question but am seeing more and more the logic of the Protestant orthodox in their insistence that the epistle was written by James of Alphaeus.

In reply to your points:

1. The fact that the author does not claim in 1:1 to be an apostle does not necessarily prove that he was not an apostle. Here is how Poole responded to this objection: "...his not calling himself an apostle , need not be objected against his being so, when he doth no more than Paul doth in four of his epistles [Phil, 1-2 Thess, and Philemon]."

2. On the parallels between the speech of James at the Jerusalem Conference and the epistle of James, Hiebert also has a list, which includes a few other examples (see p. 16). One might object that the sample size of literary comparanda is too small for definitive conclusions here. More importantly, however, such agreements would not contradict the Protestant Orthodox view that the author of James was James the apostle since it also sees this man as the James of Acts 15.

3. On Acts 21:17-18: This seems like an argument from silence. Inconclusive.

4. But the Protestant orthodox view was that James the Just = James of Alphaeus.

5. So said one as skilled as Calvin: "it is not for me to say." Two things, however, I later noticed about Calvin here:

(a) His commentaries of the general epistles were ordered: 1 Peter, 1 John,James, 2 Peter, Jude. He was obviously still working through issues of canon. He has great confidence in 1 Peter and 1 John. Less in James, 2 Peter, and Jude. And he does not even complete commentaries on 2-3 John. He later, however, clearly affirmed all seven general epistles as canonical.

(b) In Calvin's commentary on Jude he insists, interestingly enough, that the James who was the brother of Jude was James of Alphaeus not another James (the Just).

Yes, Mark 2:24 is interesting (and I'm not sure what it means) as is sorting out the Marys (!).

Again thanks for the ideas and feedback.

Blessings, JTR