Is the Letter of James Pseudonymous?

James 1_5The Letter of James is often described as pseudonymous, meaning that the letter is attributed to James but not actually written by him.  In fact, this is an issue for several of the books of the New Testament: The Pastoral Epistles, Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Peter, and Jude have all been described as pseudonymous.  It is important therefore to think a bit about the practice of pseudonymity in the ancient world, especially as it relates to the authority of the text.

James Dunn wrote the article on Pseudepigraphy in the Dictionary of Later New Testament (IVP, 1997, 977-984).  Beginning with the alleged Pauline pseudonymous letters, Dunn creates a methodology for identifying a letter as post-Pauline.  Simply put, compare the letter to the others which are undeniably from Paul.  In his view, Ephesians and Colossians may or may not be pseudonymous, the pastorals likely represent a “post Pauline tradition.”  But as Dunn admits, this method is hard to use on James, Jude, and the letters of Peter.  There is no other undisputed work of James, so it is difficult to judge.  In fact, he says that the distinction between genuine and pseudonymous with respect to James and 1 Peter is a meaningless argument since in the end we cannot really tell.

On the other hand, a fair argument could be made that James the Just was the author of the letter of James. Conservative scholars (Karen Jobes, Letters to the Church, Terry Wilder, Faithful to the End) consider James’s allusions to the teach of Jesus as well as similarities with the character of James in the book of Acts a evidence the traditional authorship is at least possible (if not likely). These observations track with Dunn’s method (compare the letter to a known source), but at least the comparison to Acts is potentially week since we read the speech of James as reported by Luke, who was not yet a companion of Paul. I do think that Faithful to the End is correct in connecting the James of Acts 15 to the James of the Letter. The character of James in Acts is so consistent with the writer of the Letter of James I have no trouble equating the two.

But the issue of pseudonymity remains.  If a letter can be proven to be pseudonymous, does that reduce the authority of that letter in the New Testament canon?  Perhaps not.

A writer may choose to attach another name to their work for a variety of reasons, some of which are entirely innocent. For example, it is entirely possible that a writer knew the teaching of James very well and created a letter which accurately reflected the teaching of James, and perhaps this writer even used snippets of James’ teaching. In this case, the Letter of James was not actually penned by James, but is an accurate record of his teaching.  There are still some ramifications for inerrancy since the first lines of the book claim to be a letter from James to churches in the Diaspora, but this sort of soft-pseudonymity is not a serious problem.  In fact, it is likely that prophets of the Hebrew Bible were assembled in just this way by anonymous editors who accurately recorded the words of their prophet.

On the other hand, a writer may have attached the name of James to the letter in order to give credence to his own ideas, whether they came form James or not.  Usually any theory of this sort places the writing of the book well beyond the time of James life, perhaps as late as the second century.  This strong-pseudonymity is a much bigger problem for the authority of the text, since the books of the New Testament are assumed to have Apostolic authority. If the letter comes from a much later date and a non-Apostolic author, does it have the same level of authority?

For someone like J. I. Packer, “Pseudonymity and canonicity are mutually exclusive” (Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God, 184).  Conservative scholars appeal to Eusebius, who reported that the church fathers rejected anything that was not known to have come from an apostle or someone from within the apostolic (Eccl. Hist. 6.12.3).  I think most conservatives would agree with this assessment and dismiss any argument against the traditional answer that James, the brother of Jesus wrote the letter.

If James was a collection of sayings of the historical James rather than a letter written by him, would that change the authority of the Letter of James for you?

25 thoughts on “Is the Letter of James Pseudonymous?

  1. I personally don’t understand the point of addressing the issue of authorship in regards to the book of James. As it is, it reads “James, a servant of God.” To me, this is not worth debating, especially in an academic space. As far as the authorship is concerned, hypothetically it would not affect my understanding of the book and its authority. I side with history on the canon of scripture and trust the judgment of those who have adapted it into our Bibles today. It is my humble opinion that most 1st century texts like this one are as close as we will get to understanding Jesus and his teachings. Wether James wrote it or not is certainly relevant, but I see no reason to doubt it. At the very least, not as much reason as the pastorals or other NT literature.

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    • I think there’s a pretty big advantage if we can prove that the letter was written by the James from the book of Acts. That would mean we have a letter that reflects the earliest stages of Jewish Christianity, perhaps in the 40s AD. If the book is written much later say 80 or 100 years later then reflects much later stage in the development of Christianity. I suppose this is a historical, academic question, but it just makes a difference in how we read the letter itself.

      Perhaps from the perspective of authority, it makes no difference. The book is canonical whether it comes from historical James or not.

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  2. Topics like pseudonymity have always been an issue in my head. Since i understood that the New Testament was gathered by a group of individuals a few centuries after they were actually written, I have wondered what made them make the decisions they made. If they believed James was a letter from who it claims to be from, then why shouldn’t we believe it too? It does not matter to me either way though, because it is still in the list of books considered to be the Word of God penned out by whoever He had do it. If it was written by James’ disciples or someone who truly thought the same as he did and wanted his ideas to be made known, then that must be how God intended us to get the book of James. Honestly, and this is only my opinion lately–before last year it wouldn’t have mattered at all to me– the question of who actually physically wrote the book only matters when there are details or points of context that need to be addressed. And there might not even be any between James the Just writing it and some other person writing it. God wanted it in the Bible, so we have it in the Bible.

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  3. Some scholars argue the pseudonymity of the book of James. They claim such factors as the use of the Greek language, the author not identifying himself thoroughly, the slow acceptance of James into the canon, and the seemingly interactive writing with the works of Paul. Jobes sees these arguments as “not compelling evidence” to claim that the book could not have been written by James the Just.
    The book of James may have been written by the man who grew up as a brother to Jesus, by one of his followers who wrote for him, by one of several men named James who are mentioned in the New Testament, or by someone simply using the name of James to further his own writings. Whatever the source, this does not need to reduce the authority of this letter in the New Testament canon and the Holy Spirit’s guiding that it be placed among the Scriptures.

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  4. For me personally, no, the letter is in the Bible for a reason. God’s hand was over the entire process, from writing to keeping the words going, to the council that decided what went into the finished work of Scripture. The other reason I have no problem is the fact that it’s not all that contradictory to the rest of scripture. It doesn’t come up with some new Gospel. The book has 108 verses and 60 are commands, James intends to command readers on the nature of faith. Along with faith, he talks about religion and wisdom. Dates and author don’t really matter when truth, is being written. If it was truly a problem it wouldn’t be canonized.

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  5. In my opinion, the issues of pseudonymity should not be something that is dwelled on too much in Christian circles. If we truly believe the words of 2 Timothy 3:16, then ALL scripture is God breathed. If God is in charge of what scripture says, then does it matter which human wrote it down? 2 Timothy 3:16 also states that scripture is useful for preaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. James has great use for us as Christians regardless of the author.

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    • Can something be both inspired and pseudepigrphic? If God inspired a letter like James, then would it be authoritative even if it was not written by the James of Acts 15 or Galatians 2?

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    • I will be honest and say I agree with your point Taylor. If we are to believe that all scripture is God breathed, then we have to take into that belief the fact that it is the inspired word of God. Now I’m not saying the we should put 1 and 2 Chan in the Bible with the works of Francis Chan, but I do think that James does nothing to contradict scripture, and there are obvious reasons to why it was chosen by the original creators of the Canon of Scripture.

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      • My problem is that the Timothy text is applied to the entire 66 books- canon accepted by only a portion of Christendom, whilst in the first instance in its original context it referred ONLY to the Old Testament and then we are not absolutely sure if it refers the the current whole Old Testament or only the Torah (Law) and Nav’im (Prophets). I am however as comfortable with the Protestant Canon as sufficient for salvation, as I am with the Early fathers in their canon (rule, i.e. Eusebius’ argument for apostolic or apostolic school authorship) for establishing the Biblical Canon of 66 books even though it took some time (5 centuries if I am not mistaken) to get to that final stage. Anybody familiar with Canon history would know that various books now included has been subject to doubt until late (as Luther’s initially on James) whilst others initially included like Hermas has disappeared rather quickly from the canon list, even though such was highly regarded spiritually by the early church.
        I am sure that there would have been sufficient objection recorded at the time of writing should the pseudograph have diverted sufficiently from the original author’s thoughts, the same way a biographer’s work would be considered against the available knowledge or the original author himself if still alive. Thanks for wonderful food for thought.

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      • Adriaan, thanks for the comment, and I think your point is well made. Using Robert Wall as an example, he argues James was written very late, and although it may contain actual traditions that date back to a ‘historical James” it was the creation of an early second century Jewish Christian who sought to balance the growing influence of Pauline theology. By the time the Canon was being seriously discussed, James was accepted as authentic since knowledge of the process by which the book came to be was forgotten.

        Canon discussions start in the third century and most of the NT books were not questioned even as late as Nicea in AD 325. I am going to return to this in a few weeks when I address 2 Peter, the letter which seems the beset candidate for a pseudonymous authorship in the NT.

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    • I understand this kind of thinking, as it used to be mine. Even through the equivalent of a major in Bible (B.A.) and then 3 years of seminary (Talbot, M.Div.), I wasn’t much concerned about authorship and dating of books. I became so many years later, on deeper reflection and study.

      Now, I see clearly how and why “historical criticism” of the Bible got going, particularly in the 1700s, and usually by faithful, sincere “churchmen” (virtually no women back then, in scholarly pursuits).

      In your citation of 2 Tim. 3:16, for example, there is this significant issue: If indeed this was by Paul, there WAS no NT “Scripture” yet formed, for the “all Scripture”. That could only have referenced the Hebrew Scriptures, not yet even canonized themselves. Paul was clearly earliest of our canonical authors. General (never 100%) agreement on what was NT “Scripture” was roughly three centuries (!) yet to come. (Note: Pauline authorship of the “Pastoral Epistles” is the older traditional position, now held, for quite a while, by only a small minority of all biblical scholars, including a good many “conservative” ones, from the best I can ascertain. It became my position after serious study, some time ago.)

      So where does that leave us? With the need to understand and take seriously how “authority” was established, not by the end of the Apostles’ lives, but WELL after then. (The end of the “Apostolic Age” was essentially before 70 A.D. and Jerusalem’s destruction, with possible exceptions for John and Peter surviving and writing later. But we have no certainty they or any of the group survived that late or later… best chance re. John. But then, we can’t be sure he authored any of the 5 NT books attributed to “John” as author, or traditionally taken so (such as the Gospel of J.)

      This is not a definitive argument, but it’s a real stretch to think that any of the Galilean peasant disciples not only were literate in Greek (lang. of composition of the NT, with a couple possible exceptions unable to be proven), but had the higher-level Greek literary skills shown in books attributed to them. You have to know a fair amount about NT backgrounds and Greek writing to understand why this is so, but that is within reach of even an undergrad student who might pursue it.

      You probably know that Paul is not in this group… MUCH better educated and from a mixed-ethnicity area of Asia Minor (probably Tarsus, as cited in the NT once) where he would have known Greek quite well, at a literary level. And, going back to dating issues, we can be almost certain Paul died by the mid 60s A.D.; and that the Apostles in Jerusalem were at least scattered around the same time, if not killed or deceased by natural death.

      I know this is “down in the weeds” some, but study of NT backgrounds and Christian origins, both within the canonical NT and through the pertinent surrounding documents and archaeology is fascinating and important!

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  6. (The computer key board died in mid sentence in the library.) The website says that the disperision happened in 63 A.D. and went till 70 A.D. which is just after he died mean he could not have written it. But the James could also begin talking about a previous experience when the tribe was dispersed. Either way I would say that James wrote it because it doesn’t talk about the diaspora and the events that are going on in the one post his death, and the referring to the 12 tribes seems to be referring more to the previous one because they were more distinct tribes in the time prier.

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    • The ESV says there is no reason for it not to be James Jesus brother. It fits his writing style and also is in the time of his life. It is believed to be written in the 40’s A.D. And James didn’t die until 62A.D. When he was executed, also it speaks to the twelve tribes going through the diaspora and how they need to come together and cast away worldly hing and trust in God and become more spiritual again. This all speaks to the time of around 42-47 A.D. Right before the apostolic council. Because if the council had happened already there is no reason the author would have left that out and also there is no account of his own death in the letter which is common when written by someone else.

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      • Wellywellys, it appears you are working on how to analyze data points, implications, etc. That’s a good thing that too few do!

        However, a couple issues I note: I’d wonder what “ESV” means if they (committee, I believe) are the ones saying “it fits his writing style”. Based on what? I’m unaware of any other claimed writing by James to get this from. The other: at the end, you use an “argument from silence” twice. It’s shaky to use it even once, and if one does, one should support it with evidence why we’d normally really expect something that’s missing. To use “silence” twice without strong reasons is really risky.

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  7. To answer your question, no. It would not change the credibility of the Bible or the authority this book has in my life. Similar to what Nick said earlier. The authority the Bible has is from it being inspired by God and not from who wrote it. The authors who physically wrote the books are doing so by God;\’s guidance making it authoritative no matter the author.
    I can see the relevance in finding out who the author is, though. By finding the author it would help to understand the mind behind the author. James being Jesus’s brother would make it interesting to see what he was thinking. Knowing who the writer is could also help us know who was teaching what, and how thoughts were progressing in the time period that writer was in. This would all lead to in-depth research for the Bible.

    Does it lower the credibility of the book? No, but it makes it more interesting to read and know where the author

    -Tyler

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    • I’m sorry but I beg to differ, it is exactly Eusebius’ point that (human) authorship is important, claiming only Divine inspiration without acknowledgment of the human author is extremely dangerous, as then writings from anybody would be acceptable, for instance Diotrefes (3 John 9) or later Marcion and the danger is further that inspired Scripture would then technically be able to be authored to our day. The early church recognised this, therefore the restriction to Apostolic or Apostolic school authorship.

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  8. Wow… this post opens a lot of significant issues to discuss, in greater depth than one thread can well carry. I posted some of them under Taylor’s comments (above, from my current placement perspective).

    The issue of pseudepigrapha is an important one for not only “scholarship” but for lay Christians. We “progressives” also wrestle with authority issues related to this, though in different ways. Though I know he is probably either “forbidden” or just rejected reading for many of your readers or students, I highly recommend the book of a few years back of Bart Ehrman, “Forged”. It is one of the few lay-oriented books based on deep scholarship that elaborates the issues in what I consider a fair and truly historical way.

    He has some original and “corrective” contributions to our understanding of authorship, attribution and real attitudes toward forgery in the NT era… some of them right out of our NT. (Ehrman, as a former Evangelical and now agnostic, seems to be as objectively “historical” rather than “theological” as any scholar can be, though he does let his skeptical-of-traditionalism stance show through once in a while. His historical work is solid, though his implied theological conclusions are naturally challenged often by Evangelicals or other conservatives.)

    Additionally, Ehrman’s book, “Lost Christianities”, covers some of the authorship and attribution issues, plus a lot on canonization and particularly on how “proto-orthodoxy” and orthodoxy developed very gradually and with lots of intellectual and power-struggle battles. Of course, he’s got lots of company in scholars who’ve written on canonization and NT backgrounds without a bias towards confirming assumptions or 4th-century “conclusions”. These and subsequent ones were based heavily on the very dubious stories and points of Eusebius, who has repeatedly been shown to have been an early and major “spinmeister”, a creator of spin to make a point (and being, btw, under the employ of the dubiously motivated Constantine). This “Lost Christianities” is also a must read for Christians of all types, or others akin to it, if based on similar quality of scholarship. (Again, whatever fine-point critiques of Ehrman may be valid here and there, his overall work cannot be readily discounted and should be interacted with.)

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  9. This is a recurring topic, that i have noticed as i continue to read assignments for this class. It seems to be that almost every letter I have read so far is hard to put a for sure author to it. The conversation of if James is pseudonymous is yet another great example. However, my favorite saying from the above blog post by P. Long is this, “In fact, he says that the distinction between genuine and pseudonymous with respect to James and 1 Peter is a meaningless argument since in the end we cannot really tell”. No matter how much we look into it, no matter how much study is done, whose opinion it is, the truth of whoever wrote the book of James will still remain a mystery. It is only God who truly knows. Yet, that does not take away from the significance of the book. At least not for me. After reading the chapter on James by Jobes it states this on why it is imporant, “Jesus himself wrote no books of the New Testament, but the letters from James and Jude are likely to have come from Jesus’ own half brothers. That alone should make this book of special interest to Christians. This letter provides a glimpse into how a brother of Jesus came to understand the significance of Jesus’ life and the role Jesus’ family played in the early church” (Jobes, 178). Rather than worrying if the book is pseudonymous or not i like to look at it like Jobes states. There is value in the book of James whether it is directly from James or from someone who is speaking to what James believes. Therefore, the debate of if it is pseudonymous or not does not change the authority of the letter for me.

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  10. The textbook, “Letters to the Church,” by Karen Jobes presents five different reasons that one might believe the book of James to be a pseudonymous writing. The second reason she states is that, “…the author of James doesn’t identify himself as Jesus’ brother” (Jobes 154). She later goes onto explain that this actually argues against a pseudonymous authorship. If James did write the book then he would not have to explain that he was the brother of Jesus. He would know that everyone already knew who he was. Someone who wrote the book as James might have stressed the fact that they were Jesus brother so that they could be more credible as an author. Jobes gives other reasons for a pseudonymous authorship, but she combats them all with reasons why not. Whether or not the book of James is Pseudonymous, I do not believe that it loses any authority. If James wrote the book with his own knowledge then that is great. If someone who was close to James and knew his teachings wrote the book with James knowledge then that is great. 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” Therefore, the authority of James does not change for me.

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