Early James Traditions


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.  ↩

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


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).  ↩

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Not by Paul Alone: The Formation of the Catholic Epistle Collection and the Christian Canon

I just started reading Not by Paul Alone: The Formation of the Catholic Epistle Collection and the Christian Canon by David Nienhuis. This is a slight revision of his doctoral thesis under Francis Watson at the University of Aberdeen. It is not a new book (2007) but I had not come across it during my James exegesis class. The book proposes an interesting thesis. Nienhuis argues that “the final form of the Catholic Epistles collection was the result of intentional design on the part of the canonizing community in hopes that it might perform a particular canonical function.”[1] But he also goes one step further in that he is arguing that James was “actually composed with this particular canonical function in mind” and it “was written with the nascent apostolic letter collection in view, in order that it might forge together a discrete collection on non-Pauline letters, one shaped according to a particular logic of apostolic authority (that is, ”not by Paul alone“) in order to perform a particular function in the larger Christian canon.”[2] In other words the letter of James is a canon conscience document, pseudipigraphly written in the second century.[3]

After reading Richard Bauckham’s argument for the letter of James being written by the brother of Jesus[4] Nienhuis’ argument of a late second century date seems far-fetched. But after reading the forward of Francis Watson I have decided that this argument may be plausible and needs to be examined.

Watson says:

As a supervisor of this thesis, I would like to put it on record that its starting-point was an interest in intertextual relationships within the Catholic Epistles collection, which long predated the development of the historical hypothesis. There was even an initial prejudice against the assumption that literary relationships were susceptible to historical explanations. If the historical hypothesis eventually took over the entire project, this was because it proved so unexpectedly cogent and illuminating–both to its author and its supervisor. This was genuinely a piece of research, and the outcome was neither foreseen nor foreseeable at the outset.

Some initial question I have are how do you address James 1:1 and its claim to be written to the twelve tribes of the dispersion? Bauckham gives a convincing argument that it was James writing for Jerusalem to the surrounding communities. Also, many (all?) of the allusions to Jesus’ teaching are are not quoted from the Gospels themselves but seem to be allusions to a Jesus tradition. If it were written in the late second century (after the Gospels were “functioning canonically for many Christians by the end of the second century”[5]) then why is there not any direct use of them? If this is a novel thesis, what historical evidence is there for this argument?

I hope to post some of my thoughts on here as I go through this book in the next couple weeks.

  1. He notes that he follows Robert Wall’s approach to the Catholic Epistles closely  ↩

  2. Nienhuis, David R. Not By Paul Alone: The Formation of the Catholic Epistle Collection and Christian Canon. Baylor University Press, 2007, 5.  ↩

  3. He makes a similar statement about 2 Peter saying, "2 Peter is not simply a pseudepigraph, but a canonically motivated pseudepigraph.  ↩

  4. Bauckham, Richard. James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage. New Testament Readings. London ; New York: Routledge, 1999, 11–28.  ↩

  5. Nienhuis, 6  ↩

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