A Canonical History of the New Testament Catholic Epistles Collection Pt. 1

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The other day I wrote about Nienhuis’ these concerning the Catholic Epistles and their formation along with his new proposal that James is a second century document written in order to close the Catholic Epistles collection. It is placed at the head of the collection because James was one of the most venerated of the apostles and it opens up this “division of labor” well.

Today, I just want to summarize the first half of chapter 1 and give some thoughts concerning his method.

The purpose of Nienhuis first chapter is to address the canonical formation of the Catholic Epistles. He first identifies the method/criteria that he will use and then gives his argument for using an “argument from silence.” He then argues for an early acceptance of 1 Peter, 1–2 (possibly 3) John, and Jude. He consistently points out the lack of quotation or allusion to a letter of James or 2 Peter. Throughout, he argues that there was a recognized “division of labor” (not a division of the Gospel) between James, Peter, and John against the apostle Paul. With this focus on the apostolic pillars it seems unusual that there are no explicit citations from the letter of James.

Criteria for the Patristic Citation to Scripture

Recognizing the difficulty in coming to a conclusion to whether or not one is specifically alluding to a scriptural text, Nienhuis gives four criteria that he will use throughout his book. It is of note that he does say that he “will resist the temptation to compile long lists of supposed allusions to and echoes of James from patristic writers as evidence that the letter is known and used before Origen[1].” He accuses Mayor[2] of having an expansive list of “echoes” that do not have much weight. At this point it would be helpful to engage with Mayor and show specifically why Mayor’s echoes are unwarranted[3]. He also argues that it is near impossible to show whether or not James used 1 Clement and Shepherd of Hermas or vice versa[4]. He notes that Luke Timothy Johnson shows a vast amount of parallels but “makes the mistake of simply assuming throughout that James is the earlier text[5].” With these issues in mind he follows with the four criteria he will be using for determining a patristic use of a scriptural text.

4 Criteria for the Patristic Citation to Scripture

  1. In the case of uncertain allusions and echoes there needs to be exegesis of the broader context to see whether it is plausible that the writer was using that specific text.
  2. Refuse to use any parallel that can be traced down to a common previous source[6].
  3. He states that the fathers often “cite(d) apostolic text intertextually (for example, passages from Paul are often supported by appeal to parallel passages from 1 Peter).” For these cases he will show that a cluster of verses cited sometimes have a strong similarity to a James passage but James isn’t alluded to.
  4. One must look at how the church father speaks about a particular apostle. Later he shows that often times the person James is spoken highly of but there is still no citation to the letter of James.

Much of his argument is an argument from silence. In previous studies, arguments from silence were quickly thrown about. But he makes a strong case (building on others) that a well crafted argument from silence can be useful[7].

3 Criteria for an Argument from Silence

  1. Is the silence comprehensive? He notes that if all the Fathers do not echo James then this argument for silence would provide stronger evidence for a late date of James.
  2. Is the silence counterintuitive?
  3. Is the silence contextually suggestive? Can one make a case for the why and how?

Throughout the rest of the chapter he analyzes the texts of Iranaeus of Lyon, Tertullian of Carthage, Hippolytus and Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria to show that both James and 2 Peter are not alluded to or cited.

For each text he does the following:

  1. The Accepted Texts
  2. The Letter of James
  3. Other Ancient Letters Cited
  4. The Figures of James, Peter, and John
  5. Conclusion

So far, Nienhuis has provided a solid argument that the letter of James and 2 Peter were not cited in the above works. I would like to re-read Mayor’s analysis of the use of James in the church fathers to weigh the evidence. But in the mean time his argument by itself seems plausible, defended from a detailed analysis of each text.


  1. Nienhuis, David R. Not By Paul Alone: The Formation of the Catholic Epistle Collection and Christian Canon. Baylor University Press, 2007, 30.  ↩

  2. Mayor, Joseph B. Epistle of James, The. Kregel Classics, 1990, xlviii-lxviii.  ↩

  3. At some point I would like to use Nienhuis’ criteria on Mayor’s echoes to James. Much is hanging on his argument that James was not written until the second century so it would have been helpful to have some engagement instead of an one sentence rebuke of his method. Granted, throughout the chapter he does his own analysis to refute the notion that James was quoted early but to show specifically how other commentators are wrong would strengthen his argument considerably.  ↩

  4. He notes that a 1944 article by O.J.F. Seitz, “The Relationship of the Shepherd of Hermas to the Epistle of James”, actually argues for an independent source in which all three are using for certain vocabulary.  ↩

  5. Nienhuis, 31. Again, it would be helpful for some engagement with Johnson on this issue.  ↩

  6. Later he gives an example of Clement’s citation of “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble,” which seems to be a reference to James 4:6 but the James reference is actually a citation of Proverbs 3:34 (and 1 Peter 5:5). In this case it is difficult to prove (along with not other citations of James) that Clement was quoting James and not Proverbs or 1 Peter.  ↩

  7. For example, “The classic argument from silence sees it as reflecting reality and bases specific arguments on that. This works best when the silence is so comprehensive, yet so counterintuitive, that any general arguments needs to account for it.”, Henige, Historical Evidence and Argument, 175–176 (cited on p. 33 FN11).  ↩