Jesus’ Vexing Brother

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By Gary T. McDonald, author of The Gospel of Thomas (the Younger)

Why do Fundamentalists hate James?

I don’t have a lot of conversations with them, but not too long ago my mother’s caregiver tried to engage me on the subject. She had come for her shift on a Sunday directly from church where some guy there had opined that James’ Epistle should be kicked out of the Bible. The caretaker wanted my opinion, but obviously sympathized with her church friend.

Now, I tended to avoid all discussion of politics and religion with this woman. She cared well for my mom and I wanted to keep things on an even keel. So I just said, “Interesting,” and left the room. I didn’t tell her that many scholars doubt that James even wrote the Epistle and I didn’t ask for her friend’s arguments. I suspected she would tell me that the James letter’s statement (in Chapter 2: 17) that “faith without works is dead” (meaning you can’t be saved by faith alone) clashes directly with Paul (and Luther’s) teachings. Unacceptable for a Protestant Fundamentalist.

And yet, the basic premise of Fundamentalism is that the Bible, as is, (including that vexing James Epistle) is perfect, the literal word of God. Including James’ statement.

But James presents an even bigger problem for Christians. He is barely mentioned in passing in the first three gospels and then only as one of Jesus’ brothers. John’s gospel (7:5) tells us Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him as a divine miracle worker.

But then suddenly, out of nowhere, James emerges in Acts 12 as the leader of Jesus’ followers after the crucifixion. And this flies in the face of Jesus’ earlier pronouncement in Matthew (16:18) that Peter would be the foundation, and surely, the leader of the new church. So how did James become the leader? We don’t know. But he certainly did.

Of course, Paul did not know Jesus in life. But Paul’s letters were written before the gospels (and The Acts of the Apostles) and his theology influenced their narratives. And Paul certainly acknowledges James’ leadership in his letter to the Galatians (2:9, 12). And Acts (15 and 21) confirms that impression when James is given the last word in his dealings with Paul.

As I’ve written elsewhere, we know from Paul’s letters and Acts that there were significant disagreements between James and Paul on various issues. We have no writings from James or his followers except the disputed Epistle. We only have a summation of these disagreements from the Pauline camp. And it would not serve their interests to bring up disagreements about basic Pauline positions like the divinity of Jesus and belief in Jesus’ divinity as a requirement for salvation. Keeping the matters of these disagreements confined to issues like the need for Gentiles to obey circumcision and dietary requirements, etc., served the Pauline camp. It gave them a few areas of disagreement since it was well known there were disagreements. But if it were known there were disagreements with those who actually knew Jesus in life on his divinity, etc., it would undermine Paul’s cult dogma on the foundational points.

Using the Pauline camp’s own history, we can guess that there may have been disagreement between the two groups on these points. How? When James’ followers were arrested and tried by the Sanhedrin, the leader of the Pharisees speaks up for them and they are promptly freed (Acts, Chap.5).

But later, when the Hellenized Jew Stephen is arrested for preaching his theology (and Paul’s), he is convicted and stoned to death (Acts, Chap. 7). (“Hellenized” Jews here means Jews like Paul and Stephen who grew up in other parts of the Empire rather than Palestine and spoke and wrote in Greek, the lingua franca of the time.)

Despite possible Pauline obfuscation about these two incidents in Acts, this suggests to me that James’ followers were preaching something different (and less provocative) than what the Hellenized Jews preached. These Hellenized Jews were accustomed to “mystery cults” that featured demigods (offspring of a mortal and a god) who live as mortal humans and sometimes perform resurrections or die in some sacrificial manner to aid the human plight (Dionysus, Isis, Attis, Baal-Tarraz).

It would not be surprising that they used Jesus’ story as a basis for a mystery cult of their own since Jews were not welcome in the other cults. But this sort of thing may have been distasteful, if not roundly rejected, by James’ thoroughly Palestinian followers who might very well have seen it as blasphemy. If so, we would not know it from the Pauline camp’s perhaps obfuscated history in the New Testament. I suspect that the Pauline authors of the gospels and/or the scribes who copied the manuscripts edited much of James’ actual participation out of the narrative of the origins of the Christian cult as a means of discounting another, more factual, understanding of Jesus’ life and teaching. And if that’s true, what else has been subtracted or added?

Let me repeat — James’ mysterious non-appearance in the gospels and sudden emergence as leader of Jesus’ followers in Palestine suggests Pauline obfuscation of the facts about what happened after Jesus’ death, but also perhaps about his teachings as rendered by the Pauline camp.

I suspect Jesus was a highly charismatic wandering wisdom teacher and Jewish reformer like the great Pharisee teacher Hillel before him. He most likely did not believe he was a divine being or believe that one’s salvation depended on belief in that blasphemous idea.

But the Pauline camp’s Bible is what it is. And it makes Paul’s case. Except for that vexing Epistle attributed to James. If we were ever to find writings from the James’ followers we might have a very different picture of the origins of Christianity. My book, The Gospel of Thomas (the Younger) imagines what that written record might be. Learn more at www.garytmcdonald.com

“A convincing faux gospel that challenges orthodoxy. Thomas traverses his world encountering First Century figures from Jesus to Nero bringing his times and the origins of Christianity alive in a fresh, new way with wry humor and exciting storytelling.”
―Winston Groom, author of Forrest Gump

“Gary T. McDonald is a born storyteller, and his research is impeccable. The book is fascinating from beginning to end, and his long-overdue, iconoclastic portrait of the Apostle Paul made me stand up and cheer.”
Lewis Shiner, author of Glimpses

“An inherently fascinating and deftly crafted work of truly memorable fiction, The Gospel Of Thomas The Younger is an extraordinary novel by an extraordinary writer and unreservedly recommended…”
― Midwest Book Review

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