James and Paul on faith and works

Apart from all the Bach, one of the joys of having a German organist of Lutheran background, as I do at one of my churches, is the opportunity to bait him regarding the erroneous Lutheran reading of Paul.

Readings from James as the epistle over the last and next few Sundays are an absolute gift in this regard! However, arguing in my homilies during these weeks, as I did at a conference in Tilburg many years ago, that the epistle represents the content of baptismal catechesis (a position of which I am more convinced than ever) it dawned on me today that the supposed contrast between faith and works in 2:14-17 is completely unrelated to the Pauline discussion with the works of the law in Jewish circles, but is basically and simply saying that those who claim to have faith in Christ should act in accordance with that faith. Was Paul even that important in Jewish-Christian circles in the period prior to the Bar Kosiba revolt that anyone would want to take issue with him?

It is much the same content as the, likewise catechetically originating, Matthew 7. Or Canones Hippolyti 37, certainly reflective of catechesis: “Thus somebody who says ‘I have been baptized and received the Body of the Lord’ and feels comfortable, and says ‘I am a Christian’, yet is a lover of selfish desires and is not conformed to the commandments of Christ, is like somebody who goes into a bath covered in dirt, and leaves without rubbing himself, since he did not receive the burning of the Spirit.”

We may finally note in this respect Athenagoras Legatio 11.4, stating that Christians manifest their teaching less by word than by deed. In this part of the Legatio Athenagoras is speaking of the contents of catechesis.

Quite probably the lack of connection between James’ teaching on faith and works and that of Paul has been argued previously (and if any passing Neutestamentler can give me any references to such an argument I would be grateful indeed). However, it is surely the recognition of a debt to catechesis that is the truly decisive argument here.



Filed under Anything else, Canons of Hippolytus

5 responses to “James and Paul on faith and works

  1. drddhannah

    Very interesting post, Alistair, to which I will give some thought. I have only time now to respond to your rhetorical question, “Was Paul even that important in Jewish-Christian circles in the period prior to the Bar Kosiba revolt that anyone would want to take issue with him?”
    Of course, the only possible answer is that we cannot know the answer to that because we know so little about Jewish-Christian circles of that period. However, there is a possibility (and I would say a real possibility) that some Jewish-Christian did know Paul, did value his writings and his reputation and so would have been concerned if someone “took issue” with those teachings.
    Clearly, the Nazoraean group responsible for the Commentary on Isaiah, which Jerome quotes, held a high view of Paul. The third fragment quoted by him from this commentary (on Isa 9.1 [Jerome, Comm.Isa. 3.30]) reveals their positive appreciation of him. Now, this commentary could be dated to the second century; the list of rabbinic authorities in the first fragment (on Isa. 8.11-15 [Jerome, Comm.Isa. 3.26]) is consistent with a date sometime after 135.
    Moreover, the comments of Justin on Jewish-Christians who keep Torah (Dial. 46-47), from circa 165, could have included Nazoraeans. This latter point is, of course, speculative, but not, at least my opinion, unlikely. Any case, Justin attributes to some of these Jewish Christians who keep Torah a remarkably Pauline attitude towards Gentiles who do not keep Torah.
    Thus, we may have two pieces of evidence from just after the Bar Kokhba revolt, when it would have been fresh in memory, that point to Jewish-Christians who valued the Apostle and followed Pauline teachings.
    James, which ever James this was, may not have been reacting to Paul’s teaching, but I think it unlikely that he did not know the Apostle of the Gentiles.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is standard nowadays to see Paul’s teaching on works of the law as unrelated to James 2:14-17. It has been suggested, however, that the letter of James responds to a misinterpretation of Paul.

    It is tangential to your question, but I argued that we have no evidence of tension between Paul and James, brother of Jesus. “Paul, Timothy, Jerusalem and the Confusion in Galatia” Biblica 99.4 (2018) 544-566.

    Hegessipus too spoke very positively of Paul’s legacy and of James.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank-you Richard, and thank-you Darrell for both learned and helpful comments. I find myself “standard”… this does not happen often!
    The 135 date is because I see this as a watershed moment for Jewish Christians, who at this point are distanced from other Jews and find themselves of necessity in community with non-Jewish Christians.
    The comment about “Was Paul that important” comes about because several years ago I wrote an essay (for a publication which is still unpublished, in the Pauline and patristic scholars series) on Paul and the Jewish Christian apologists, and came to the conclusion that for all the attempts to generate a Tubingen redivivus tension between Jewish Christians and Paul I couldn’t find any evidence, but likewise no evidence of any engagement at all. So I would be particularly interested to hear from Richard on the Hegesippan valuation of Paul’s legacy.
    Once again, gentlemen, my thanks.


    • I am discussing my article in a series of 2 or 3 guest posts on Ehrman’s blog, and someone brought up Hegesippus. This is what I quoted Ecclesiastical History 4.22.7-8 and wrote:
      I see no reason to suppose that the piety of James was of the exclusivist type that would insist on circumcision for Gentiles. You appeal to Eusebius’s quotation of Hegesippus, but these men did not think that James’s piety was incompatible with Paul’s legacy, for Eusebius also writes:

      “Hegesippus … states that on a journey to Rome he met a great many bishops, and that he received the same doctrine from all. It is fitting to hear what he says after making some remarks about the epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. His words are as follows: “And the church of Corinth continued in the true faith until Primus was bishop in Corinth. I conversed with them on my way to Rome, and abode with the Corinthians many days, during which we were mutually refreshed in the true doctrine.”

      Hegesippus was a fan of both James and Paul. There was no rift.
      Many still sit in the long shadow of Tubingen.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Fergus King

    Always a joy to read your posts, Alistair. This is one of the rare ones in which I feel sufficiently confident to offer a comment.
    May I offer an alternative comment simply based on Pierre Hadot’s remarks that the philosophical traditions of antiquity, unlike modern Western philosophy, were primarily focussed on a rationale to explain how adherents lived well.
    If the schools are paralleled by the haireseis of Second Temple Judaism (and Josephus for one suggests analogies), it would be very odd for any of them, irrespective of their engagement with each other, to advance a worldview which did not include works, that is, advice on how to live well…
    Add in Matthew Bates’ comments (in Salvation by Allegiance Alone) that faith includes (a) allegiance and (b), in Jewish circles, an understanding of covenant which can never be solely intellectual, cerebral or psychological, but must include a lived response, and the so-called gap between James and Paul becomes gey thin…simply because a “philosophy” without works would be a very rara avis

    Liked by 1 person

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