Early James Traditions

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I have been writing a mini-series of Not by Paul Alone: The Formation of the Catholic Epistle Collection and the Christian Canon by David Nienhuis. I have been summarizing his arguments throughout the book and giving basic initial thoughts and pushback.

In the second chapter of Nienhuis’ book he goes on to argue that the evidence used for an early dating of James are hypothetical at best and can better be explained by a second century date. He presents a strong case to at least give pause to dating James early. The strength of his case is the observetion that no church father explicitly cites James until Origen in the third century. He states that the “allusions” and “echoes” in writings previous to Origen are overstated based on the assumption that James was written at an early date[1]. This argument is strong given that the prominence of James’ the person was especially high. If this is the case then why do none of the writers explicitly state of a letter written by James or quote him directly? He also notes the many pseudepigraphal works that were on the rise at this time giving high praise to James the person but there is still no mention of any letter that he had written.

In Joseph Mayor’s commentary, he extensively cites many potential echoes and allusions to the letter of James but he does note that it is odd that a letter written so early does not gain canonical status until the third century (lxx) and that Origen is the first to explicitly cite James (lxxxi). Based on these types of arguments Nienhuis says that the burden of proof is on those who say James’ was written early to prove that these authors were referring to the letter of James and not visa-versa. He states that since the assumption that James is written early scholars then assume that later authors used similar language and themes of James.

One of the stronger arguments for a later writer using James is the author of Shepherd of Hermas’ use of δίφυχος. But Nienhuis argues that since “δίφυχος is used 19x, δίφθχεῖν 20x, and διφυχία 16x that this actually becomes a sub-theme of the book (120).” He goes on to say that “if we accept the notion that the Roman writers Hermas and Clement appealed to James as an authoritative source, we are then forced into the unlikely conclusion that the otter was a quotable authority in the Western church by the end of the first century but was somehow subsequently neglected for over 200 years (120).” That is to say why would James be extensively used by a book that was very popular (Hermas) then not be used in later writings?

One of my original questions in regard to Nienhuis thesis was how he would argue against the theory that James is using Jesus traditions in his letter. He argues that this doesn’t not necessarily necessitate an early date. Even until the second century Jesus’ sayings were still being used. Even the church fathers do not always explicitly quote from the Gospels but “echo” and “allude” to them. He says that the reason why Jesus is not explicitly quoted is that “James was not writing to Jews of the first-century synagogue; he was writing to a second-century Christian readership in order to promote the essentially Jewish underpinnings of Christian faith and practice (159).” By showing the importance of the Jewish Scriptures in the life of the Christian, the author follows in the steps of Jesus showing the moral and ethical understanding of the law is what should be followed and not the ritual aspects of it.

In the rest of the chapter he shows the rise of the person James throughout many other sources such as The Gospel According to the Hebrews, Hegesippus’ writings[2] (he makes extensive use of these), Iraneaus’ writings, Gospel of Thomas, and others.

He analyzes each work with 5 questions (122):

  1. How is James named in the text under review?
  2. What kind of authority is attributed to James in each text?
  3. How is his piety depicted?
  4. Some of the sources present James’ as a rather independent figure in relation to Jesus and the broader Christian movement. What standing does he have in these portraits?
  5. How is James’ murder depicted?

By asking these questions he hopes to give an understanding of the James tradition. By doing this he will be able to show “how the canonical letter of James fits into the broader depiction of his identity and character as it developed over the first two centuries (122).”

Overall, his argument so far is strong and needs to be reckoned with. In his introduction he notes that his thesis cannot be “airtight” because the unprovable nature of historical reconstruction but at least it should give us pause to reconsider the dating and authorship of James. Arguments from silence are always the best arguments but as Nienhuis points out the pervasiveness of the silence in light of the material about the person of James, should give us pause. I am looking forward to the final chapter because he will attempt to show the internal evidence for a “canon-conscious pseudepigraph” writing of James


  1. He interestingly notes that Jerome’s’ De virus illustribus was intended to show the Church was established on historical grounds and that he “anchored every other NT text in the authority of the historic, apostolic tradition” except James and 2 Peter. He says that “he (Jerome) lists traditions attributing Hebrews to Harnabas, Luke, or Clement; and on authority of Papias he explains that 2–3 John were written by John the elder and not the disciple of the Lord. The origins of James and 2 Peter, however, are left afloat in mystery. ↩

  2. His argument from Hegesippus using Wisdom 2 as a fulfillment to the murder of James the Just and its relation to James is strong. See pgs. 131–135, 150–152.  ↩

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