February 25, 2009

James' Epistle, c.AD 52 (part 3)

One flawed but common argument for putting James’ Epistle before the Council of Jerusalem (in 50 AD) has been that James did not seem to address the Gentile believers anywhere in that letter. More careful scholars amend this somewhat, because obviously James had been aware of the gentile church in Antioch for quite some time previously. The more precise argument therefore claims that James should have mentioned the Council itself. Should. So they say. Nuanced this way, the argument still basically says that if James had written after 50 AD, we’d expect to see him addressing Gentiles directly, or at least topically. It may not be so simple.

To be blunt, I think any form of this argument is clearly illogical. At the very least we should object that James had every right at any point in time to simply choose to write only for Jews. There is certainly nothing about the Council’s decision in and of itself that required James to address Christian Gentiles or the Council event, and no word has been sent down from Heaven or breathed into Scripture to suggest God Himself would have required more eccumenical literature. But there are better reasons to rethink the Epistle’s traditional date than the mere absence of such mandates. In fact, circumstances at the time suggest it was far more likely, after the Council had ended, that James would naturally avoid bringing the subject back up again.

If James was writing shortly after the Council, he’d have no special reason to address what had already been sufficiently covered. All that we know of James suggests he’d have no additions or modifications to make on the verdict, especially since his voice was the strongest one during the Council. If James and the Elders of the church in Jerusalem believed their decision was being conveyed with authority, there was simply no need to repeat it. Their letter on the matter was more than simple and straightforward – it was expressed comprehensively. From the position of James and Jersualem, according to Acts, there was nothing more that needed to be said on the subject. It might be referred to offhand, but why should it be?

In addition to that, there were good reasons not to say anything. Aside from avoiding redundancy, there was no reason to remind everyone of what essentially seems to have been a begrudging compromise – at least, according to what the behavior of many would later reveal. Circumcision was the only major requirement Gentiles had actually been spared, and there was no need for clarification on that issue. More broadly, re-raising such a controversial subject without offering additional concessions would have been extremely poor diplomacy by anyone from Jerusalem.

It is clear, of course, that Jerusalem had no further concessions to make. But even if the would-be “mother church” had been mysteriously moved to subtract from their expectations for the Gentiles, such information would more appropriately have come in a separate letter specifically designated for that purpose. Any follow-up correspondence would most likely have come addressed from James and the Elders, at least, but certainly not from James only. Granted, James had a lot of authority over the church, but not nearly that much.

So with no new information to include, and no proper license to meddle in regional politics all by himself, James' silence would appropriately reflect that the new status quo was to be silently honored. After the settlement, no one had any polite cause to speak (much less write) an unneeded reminder that Gentiles could still keep their foreskins. Besides, the principal fact of that matter did not greatly please anyone, anyway. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that any letter written from James after the Council was over would have been most wise to avoid remarking in any way on the unique and contentiously enumerated “burdens” of the believing Gentiles.

Obviously, this view is the opposite of the traditional argument. It should also be pointed out that the absence of any direct reference to Gentiles does not necessarily mean they were absent from James’ thoughts entirely, while he was writing. Nothing rules out the possibility that James fully intended for Gentile believers (at least some of them) to read his Epistle as well. At the very least, there were surely god fearers in Jewish-Christian communities. And, to be bold, one gets the distinct impression from James’ whole life that he largely expected all Gentile believers to live as if they were Jews in most many ways.

In the end, the original observation that James did not mention the Gentiles may prove to be true be for certain only in terms of direct reference. That gives us much more to consider...

(Note: for my thoughts about the obvious conflict between James and Paul - in their lives, if not strictly in their writings - see Parts One and Two in this series.)


Neil said...

It seems to me that your points indicate that the letter could logically fall before OR after the council. You simply take issue with those who argue it HAD to come before.

I'd have to agree that a need for clarification on Paul's meaning of the word "justification" may well have endured for years between James and Paul. Just consider that two of our leading theological voices today (John Piper and N.T. Wright) have written entire books within the last couple of years on the subject, with each one trying to outdo the other when it comes to figuring out what Paul meant when he used that word.

And I'd have to agree that if James felt he was primarily called to ministry to his own people (as Paul said in Gal 2:9), then he wouldn't have to address Gentiles in his letter, either before or after the council.

Bill Heroman said...

Dead on, Neil, for all points. I have a ways to go yet before I get around to justifying a date c.52 AD.

Piper vs. Wright is a great illustration of some points I made in part two. I haven't read either one (yet) but I've heard enough to know it could go on a while.

In my view, acknowledging the historical difficulties shared by James & Paul should give us more grace for interacting with each other these days. It should not, however, require us to diminish our high view of scripture in the least. As you know, seeking that balance is part of my motive in all this.

Extremely nice to have you weigh in on this, by the way. :)

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