The First Great Bishop
William Painter, Just James: The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition (Fortress Press, 1999).
James "the Just", "the brother of the Lord", is remembered in Christian tradition as the first bishop of Jerusalem and the author of a canonical epistle. In the Orthodox Church, his feast day is marked by a special liturgy, celebrated on no other occasion. In short, he holds a place as a Great Man in the early Church. Nevertheless, his theoretical greatness is coupled with practical obscurity. Next to the towering figures of Peter and Paul, James is a shadowy presence.
John Painter seeks to restore the portrait of "Just James" to its original brilliance. He considers every ancient text that bears on James: the handful of references in the New Testament, the short but significant testimony of Josephus, the thin line of orthodox remembrance, and the much more abundant Gnostic and heretical appropriation of James' image. The available information about James has never before been so carefully and thoroughly assembled. Sadly, though, the pigments on the canvas remain scattered and faded, so that the Painterly picture has in it, in the end, as much of the artist as the subject.
On some elements of James' life, Professor Painter is fresh and convincing. He demonstrates the weakness of the evidence underlying the conventional opinions that James and the other "brothers of the Lord" converted to belief in Jesus only after His death and that James did not become the "leader" (whatever leadership may signify at that point in Christian history) of the Jerusalem church until Peter departed from the city. He also offers a clear treatment of the early controversy over mission strategies, though his symmetrical schema of six "positions" in the debate over preaching to non-Jews may be too abstract and tidy to reflect reality.
On the other hand, his discussion of other topics is less satisfactory. On the degree of kinship between Jesus and James, he presents the standard arguments against Jerome's hypothesis (that the two were cousins) but rejects the traditional view of the Eastern Church (that they were half-brothers) without grappling with it. His argument is half well-poisoning (guilt by association with the often-preposterous Protevangelium of James) and half literalism ("adelphos" means "brother", and that's that, as if there were any other common Greek word to use for a brother by only one parent).
Rather disconcerting is his analysis of the motives that led the Jerusalem authorities to put James to death in 62 A.D., an action that the non-Christian Josephus characterized as a judicial murder. The natural assumption, unanimously supported by Christian accounts, is that James was martyred for professing Christ. Professor Painter, on virtually no evidence, prefers to believe that James was closely associated with economically distressed Temple priests of pharisaic tendencies and was executed for his advocacy of their interests. Such a socioeconomic interpretation may resonate today, but one wonders how James and his small congregation could have genuinely threatened the political power of the High Priesthood and whether Professor Painter is right to presume that Pharisees would not have objected to injustice against someone who was not of their own faction.
Questionable points like these do not, however, undermine the value of this scholarly labor. The limitations of the surviving sources necessarily make the history of early Christianity largely a study of two apostles (or of one and a half, since Pauline material is so much more abundant than Petrine). An effort to fill in some of the rest of the picture is welcome.
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible, 1995)
A reader who encounters the Epistle of St. James without preconceptions is unlikely to see anything in it that would account for its position as one of the most disputed and problematic works in the New Testament canon. On the surface, the book is a series of disjointed reflections and injunctions, emphasizing the absolute goodness of God, human responsibility for sin, the need to restrain intemperate speech and other passions, and the deadness of religious faith that does not lead to action on behalf of the poor and suffering. Both form and content reflect what one would expect from a very early Christian writing in the tradition of Jewish Wisdom literature.
If the same reader consults the typical modern commentary, he will get a very different picture: of a pseudonymous composition, dating from as late as 150 A.D., whose real point is to attack the theology of St. Paul (which is allegedly either misrepresented or misunderstood). This negative view goes back as far as Martin Luther, who branded James "a right strawy epistle" and only reluctantly included it in his translation of the Bible.
Luke Timothy Johnson's commentary ably defends the epistle against its detractors and reveals the profound beauty of its thought. In a lucid fashion, with almost (but only almost) no academic jargon and turgidity (he really ought to find synonyms for "rich" and worry less about James' failure to use "gender-neutral" language), Johnson presents a wealth of information about the epistle's literary and historical background, its reception by the Church and its place in Christian thought and worship. Especially acute is his analysis of James' line of argument, which he shows to be remarkably coherent, albeit not linear and easy to grasp.
There has lately been a revival of scholarly interest in James, "the Brother of the Lord". Before turning to the solid but plodding John Painter (reviewed) or the wild-eyed Robert Eisenman, one would do well to absorb Johnson's thorough and informative study.