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The Epistle of James as a reception of Paul: Rehabilitating an epistle of straw

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 August 2020

John-Christian Eurell*
Stockholm School of Theology, Bromma, Sweden
*Corresponding author. E-mail:


The Epistle of James is one of the most overlooked texts in the New Testament. This is partially due to Luther's judgement of the epistle as anti-Pauline. This article suggests that James should rather be seen as an early reception of Paul that brings new insight into the Pauline legacy of the late first century. James also helps us understand more about the theological issues of its day.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2020

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1 Since James receives no further identification in James 1:1, most scholars take the name to refer to James the Just, the brother of the Lord, who is also mentioned in Galatians, although other bearers of this common name cannot be entirely ruled out.

2 See Niebuhr, Karl-Wilhelm, ‘A New Perspective on James? Neuere Forschungen zum Jakobusbrief’, Theologische Literaturzeitung 129 (2004), pp. 1019–43Google Scholar; Niebuhr, , ‘James in the Minds of the Recipients’, in Niebuhr, Karl-Wilhelm and Wall, Robert W. (eds), The Catholic Epistles and Apostolic Tradition: A New Perspective on James to Jude (Waco, TX: Baylor, 2009), pp. 4354Google Scholar.

3 See Tsuji, Manabu, Glaube zwischen Vollkommenheit und Verweltlichung. Eine Untersuchung zur literarischen Gestalt und zur inhaltlichen Kohärenz des Jakobusbriefes, WUNT II/93 (Tübingen: Mohr, 1997), pp. 3844Google Scholar; Schnelle, Udo, The History and Theology of the New Testament Writings, trans. Boring, Eugene (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1998), pp. 384–8Google Scholar; Ehrman, Bart D., Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics (Oxford: OUP, 2013), pp. 862–79Google Scholar. It should be noted that already Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. 2.23.25) suggests that the Epistle of James is pseudonymous.

4 Meyer, Arnold, Das Rätsel des Jacobusbriefes (Gießen: Töpelmann, 1930), pp. 305–6Google Scholar. He argues that it was composed when Paulinism was fading away, around 80–90 (and so before 1 Peter and 1 Clement).

5 Wifstrand, Albert, ‘Stylistic Problems in the Epistles of James and Peter’, Studia Theologica 1 (1947), pp. 170–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Lüdemann, Gerd, Paulus, der Heidenapostel II: Antipaulinismus im frühen Christentum (Göttingen Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983), p. 201Google Scholar, argues that James should be placed more specifically in a Diaspora-Jewish context, since it speaks only of moral law and not ceremonial law. However, such a sharp distinction between Palestinian and Hellenistic Judaism cannot be made; cf. Hengel, Martin, Judentum und Hellenismus: Studien zu ihrer Begegnung unter besonderer Berücksichtigung Palästinas bis zur Mitte des 2.Jh.s v.Chr. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1973)Google Scholar.

7 Allison, Dale C. Jr., ‘The Fiction of James and its Sitz im Leben’, Revue Biblique 108 (2001), pp. 529–70Google Scholar, suggests a twofold audience for James: it is an apology which serves as edification for those who share his convictions, and a clarification for those who do not (primarily non-Christian Jews).

8 It is worth noting that the self-designation of James as δοῦλος (Jas 1:1) differs significantly from that of στῦλος in Gal 2:9.

9 Contra Matthias Konradt, ‘The Historical Context of the Letter of James in Light of its Traditio-Historical Relations with First Peter’, in The Catholic Epistles and Apostolic Tradition, p. 125, argues that the author of James views himself as a legitimate heir of Jacobian theology, thereby reflecting the theological legacy of James. It is, of course, clear that the author who chose James as pseudonym for the letter viewed himself as in line with James and thus in some regard in continuity with his legacy, but there is no indication in the letter that it transmits some kind of specifically Jacobian tradition.

10 Martin Dibelius, James, rev. Heinrich Greeven, trans. Michael A. Williams (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1975), pp. 6, 21.

11 On the possible implications of the relationship between James and the Pauline notion of ‘works of the law’, in relation to the ‘New Perspective’ on Paul, see Avemarie, Friedrich, ‘Die Werke des Gesetzes im Spiegel des Jakobusbriefs: A Very Old Perspective on Paul’, Zeitshrift für Theologie und Kirche 98 (2001), pp. 282309Google Scholar.

12 Bartmann, Bernhard, St. Paulus und St. Jacobus über die Rechtfertigung (Freiburg: Herder, 1897), pp. 151–2Google Scholar, argues that these two verses alone make clear that there must be some kind of literary relationship between James and Paul. Jeremias, Joachim, ‘Paul and James’, Expository Times 66 (1954–5), pp. 368–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar, states that there can be no doubt that James here presupposes Paul.

13 Hengel, Martin, ‘Der Jakobusbrief als antipaulinische Polemik’, in Hawthorne, Gerald F. and Betz, Otto (eds), Tradition and Interpretation in the New Testament: Essays in Honor of E. Earle Ellis for his 60th Birthday (Tübingen: Mohr, 1987), p. 253Google Scholar.

14 Theißen, Gerd, ‘Die pseudepigraphe Intention des Jakobusbriefes: Ein Beitrag zu seinen Einleitungsfragen’, in von Gemünden, Petra, Konradt, Matthias and Theißen, Gerd (eds), Der Jakobusbrief: Beiträge zur Rehabilitierung der ‘strohernen Epistel’ (Münster: LIT, 2003), pp. 5482Google Scholar. He argues that at the time when James was written, works were emphasised also in mainstream Paulinism (cf. the Pastoral Epistles).

15 Lindemann, Andreas, Paulus im ältesten Christentum: Das Bild des Apostels und die Rezeption der paulinischen Theologie in der frühchristlichen Literatur bis Marcion (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1979), pp. 240–52Google Scholar. Schammberger, Hermann, Die Einheitlichkeit des Jacobusbriefes im antignostischen Kampf (Gotha: Klotz, 1936)Google Scholar, on the other hand, argues that James is anti-Gnostic rather than anti-Pauline.

16 Bauckham, Richard, James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 112–40Google Scholar. See also Walker, Rolf, ‘Allein aus Werken. Zur Auslegung von Jakobus 2, 14–26’, Zeitschrift für Theologie und Kirche 61 (1964), pp. 155–92Google Scholar; Konradt, Matthias, Christliche Existenz nach dem Jakobusbrief: Eine Studie zu seiner soteriologischen und ethischen Konzeption (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1998), pp. 241–6Google Scholar; Konradt, , ‘Der Jakobusbrief im frühchristlichen Kontext: Überlegungen zum traditionsgeschichtlichen Verhältnis des Jakobusbriefes zur Jesusüberlieferung, zur Paulinischen Tradition und zum 1. Petrusbrief’, in Schlosser, J. (ed.), The Catholic Epistles and the Tradition (Leuven: Peeters, 2004), pp. 171212Google Scholar.

17 Lyder Brun, Jakobs brev (Oslo: Aschehoug, 1941), p. 111.

18 Vielhauer, Philipp, Geschichte der urchrlistlichen Literatur (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1978), p. 576CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

19 Tsuji, Manabu, Glaube zwischen Vollkommenheit und Verweltlichung: Eine Untersuchung zur literarischen Gestalt und zur inhaltlichen Koharenz des Jakobusbriefes (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997), pp. 134–86Google Scholar.

20 Syreeni, Kari, ‘James and the Pauline Legacy: Power Play in Corinth?’, in Dunderberg, Ismo, Tuckett, Christopher, and Syreeni, Kari (eds), Fair Play: Diversity and Conflict in Early Christianity. Essays in Honour of Heikki Räisänen (Leiden: Brill, 2002), pp. 397437CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

21 Aland, Kurt, ‘Der Herrenbruder Jakobus und der Jakobusbrief’, in Aland, Kurt (ed.), Neutestamentliche Entwürfe (Munich: Kaiser, 1979), pp. 233–45Google Scholar, gives the example of the Epistle of Barnabas 13:7 in relation to Epistle of Barnabas 4:12; 19:1, as well as the Shepherd of Hermas, Vis. 8.10.3; 9.21.1–2; 10.4.

22 Adolf von Harnack, ‘Verklärungsgeschichte Jesu, der Bericht des Paulus (I. Kor. 15, 3ff.) und die beiden Christusvisionen des Petrus’, Sitzungberichte der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (1922), pp. 62–80, argues that the resurrection appearances to Peter and the twelve, and to James and the apostles are formulas that originate from communities seeking to legitimate Peter and James, respectively. Murphy-O'Connor, Jerome, ‘Tradition and Redaction in 1 Cor 15:3–7’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43 (1981), pp. 582–9Google Scholar, argues that 1 Cor 15:6–7 was appended to the traditional formula in 1 Cor. 15:3–5 by Paul himself in order to make a smooth transition into speaking of his own revelation of the risen Christ; but Moffitt, David M., ‘Affirming the “Creed”: The Extent of Paul's Citation of an Early Christian Formula in 1 Cor 15,3b–7’, Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 99 (2008), pp. 4973CrossRefGoogle Scholar, argues convincingly that the references to Peter and James are in fact part of the same creedal formulation, which Paul relates to his own resurrection experience (1 Cor 15:8–10).

23 Farmer, William R., ‘James the Lord's Brother, According to Paul’, in Chilton, Bruce and Evans, Craig A. (eds), James the Just and Christian Origins (Leiden: Brill, 1999), p. 134Google Scholar.

24 Goodspeed, Edgar J., New Solutions of New Testament Problems (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1927), p. 40Google Scholar, argues that James is influenced by Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians and probably Ephesians.

25 Sanders, Jack T., Ethics in the New Testament: Change and Development (London: SCM, 1975), p. 121Google Scholar.

26 Chester, Andrew, ‘The Theology of James’, in Chester, Andrew and Martin, Ralph P. (eds), The Theology of the Letters of James, Peter, and Jude (Cambridge: CUP, 1994), p. 21Google Scholar.

27 Paul speaks of the obligation to obey the entire law (Gal 5:3) and continues by claiming that the only thing that matters is not circumcision or uncircumcision but πίστις δι' ἀγάπης ἐνɛργουμένη (‘faith working through love’; 5:6), culminating in the fulfilment of the law through love to the neighbour (5:14). Thus, we can find a positive correlation between faith and works already in Paul.

28 This might indicate that James is not, as is often argued, a Jewish Christian text.

29 See Heiligenthal, Roman, Werke als Zeichen. Untersuchungen zur Bedeutung der menschlichen Taten im Frühjudentum, Neuen Testament und Frühchristentum (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1983), p. 50Google Scholar.

30 Penner, Todd C., The Epistle of James and Eschatology. Re-reading an Ancient Christian Letter (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), p. 51Google Scholar; cf. p. 60, where Penner despite this does not consider James to be dependent on Paul.

31 Räisänen, Heikki, Paul and the Law (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1983), p. 210Google Scholar, argues that the differing use of in James in Paul is due to their differences in time and context.

32 Sanders, Ethics, p. 122.

33 Penner, Todd C., ‘The Epistle of James in Current Research’, Currents in Biblical Research 7 (1999), pp. 257308Google Scholar.

34 Cf. not only Luther, but also Baur, Ferdinand Christian, ‘Die Christuspartei in der Korintischen Gemeinde, der Gegensatz des petrinischen und paulinischen Christentums in des ältesten Kirche, der apostel Paulus in Rom’, Tübingen Zeitschrift für Theologie 4 (1831), pp. 61206Google Scholar. It is remarkable that Goulder, Michael, A Tale of Two Missions (London: SCM, 1994)Google Scholar, does not pay much attention to James, despite placing him in the Peter-camp in his relaunch of Baur's dichotomy of Christian origins.

35 Dibelius, James, p. 21.

36 See Niebuhr, Karl Wilhelm, ‘Der Jakobusbrief in ökumenischer Perspektive: Ein Vorgriff auf meine Kommentierung im EKK’, in Luz, Ulrich, Söding, Thomas, and Vollenweider, Samuel (eds), Exegese – ökumenisch engagiert: Der ‘Evangelisch-Katholische Kommentar’ in der Diskussion über 500 Jahre Reformation. Ein Rückblick und eun Ausblick (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016), pp. 137–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37 It is often suggested that James knew Q; see Foster, Paul, ‘Q and James: A Source-Critical Conundrum’, in Batten, Alicia J. and Kloppenborg, John S. (eds), James, 1 & 2 Peter, and Early Jesus Traditions (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), pp. 334Google Scholar. See also Hartin, Patrick J., James and the Q Sayings of Jesus (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991)Google Scholar. Schlatter, Adolf, Der Brief des Jakobus (Stuttgart: Calwer, 1932), pp. 1929Google Scholar, noted that there are significant affinities between James and Matthew's Gospel.

38 See Popkes, Wiard, ‘James and Scripture: An Exercise in Intertextuality’, New Testament Studies 45 (1999), pp. 213–29CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 These parallels are especially interesting, since 1 Peter is often regarded the most Pauline and James the least Pauline of the non-Pauline epistles; see Ropes, James Hardy, The Epistle of St. James (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1916), p. 22Google Scholar.

40 In this instance, it is significant to note that James and 1 Peter agree against the LXX; see Popkes, Wiard, ‘The Composition of James and Intertextuality: An Exercise in Methodology’, Studia Theologica 51 (1997), pp. 97112Google Scholar.

41 Dibelius, James, p. 30.

42 Cadoux, Arthur Temple, The Thought of St. James (London: James Clarke & Co., 1944), pp. 3943Google Scholar, suggests that 1 Peter is an adaption of James with the purpose of widening its scope to speak also to the situation of gentile Christians. This suggestion is implausible not only due to the unfortunate use of a Judaism/Hellenism dichotomy, but mainly because there is no reason to view 1 Peter as a revision of James. In the case of Jude and 2 Peter, such a suggestion is warranted, but in James, the significant parallels are limited to certain passages.

43 Johnson, Luke Timothy, The Letter of James: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1995), p. 54Google Scholar.

44 Rendall, Gerald H., The Epistle of St James and Judaic Christianity (Cambridge: CUP, 1927), pp. 96–7Google Scholar. See also Mayor, Joseph B., The Epistle of St. James (London: Macmillan, 1910), p. ciiGoogle Scholar; Meyer, Arnold, Das Rätsel des Jacobusbriefes (Gießen: Töpelmann, 1930), p. 78Google Scholar.

45 Konradt, Matthias, ‘Der Jakobusbrief im frühchristlichen Kontext: Überlegungen zum traditionsgeschichtlichen Verhältnis des Jakobusbriefes zur Jesusüberlieferung, zur paulinischen Tradition und zum 1. Petrusbrief’, in Schlosser, Jacques (ed.), The Catholic Epistles and the Tradition (Leuven: Peeters, 2004), pp. 207–11Google Scholar; Konradt, , ‘The Historical Context of the Letter of James in Light of its Traditio-Historical Relation with First Peter’, in Niebuhr, Karl-Wilhelm and Wall, Robert W. (eds), The Catholic Epistles and the Apostolic Tradition (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009), p. 110Google Scholar.

46 See Backhaus, Knut, ‘Der Hebräerbrief und die Paulus-Schule’, BZ 37 (1993), pp. 183208Google Scholar; Rothschild, Clare K., Hebrews as Pseudepigraphon: The History and Significance of the Pauline Attribution of Hebrews (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

47 Harrisville, Roy A. III, The Figure of Abraham in the Epistles of St. Paul: In the Footsteps of Abraham (San Francisco, CA: Mellen Research University Press, 1992), p. 39Google Scholar.

48 In light of the possible connection between James and Matthew's Gospel mentioned in n. 37, it is worth noting that Rahab is mentioned as an ancestor of Jesus in Matt 1:5.

49 It should also be noted that Heb 12:11 is rather similar to Jas 3:18.

50 See Young, Frances, The Theology of the Pastoral Epistles (Cambridge: CUP, 1994), pp. 2831Google Scholar. Gerd Theißen, ‘Pseudepigraphe intention’, p. 73, mentions the examples 1 Tim 2:10; 5:10, 25; 2 Tim 2:21; 3:17; Tit 1:16; 2:7, 14; 3:1, 8, 14.

51 It is interesting to note that Abraham, who is such a significant link between Paul, James, and Hebrews, is used in 1 Pet. 3:6 in order to argue for submission of wives.

52 See Dibelius, James, p. 11.

53 It is not insignificant that Cephas, James, and Paul, who are the only three individuals that are named in 1 Cor 15:1–11 (Paul's name is not explicit but implied) are those to whom pseudonymous epistles are ascribed (James is also mentioned as a pillar in Gal 2:9, but is not mentioned in Gal 1:19).