“If this leadership role of James was the real situation reflected in the NT writings, did the early church in later centuries recognize James’ primacy? The answer is yes, and it is witnessed by writers, Jewish and Christian, from the second through the early fifth centuries (p. 13).”
In this post we will seek to outline some of the external arguments that provide support for the New Perspective on James (NPJ). As one would rightly expect if the biblical arguments presented in part one are true, there are several extra-biblical or external indicators that also confirm the NPJ conclusion. If you are unfamiliar with the NPJ position and have yet to read the prior post (which outlined some of the internal arguments for the NPJ), I would highly encourage you to read part one first—as it demonstrate to be a helpful introduction to the position and it function to construct a foundation that will primarily be seen as an assumption in the following survey. Thus, with our task present before us, lets go ahead and enter into the content.
The martyrdom of James took place in 62 A.D. and is vividly described by the Jewish historian Josephus. Josephus intentionally records the details, writing, “…so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James…and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned” (Ant. 20.200). There is very little present need at this point in the discussion to elaborate, as the account by Josephus is widely accepted as an authentic description of the death of James. However, as Varner rightly points out, there is another important issue that arises from this text that is far to often overlooked:
“The simple fact that Josephus never mentions any other prominent leaders of the early Christian movement, such as Peter, John, or Paul, seems to have been overlooked in previous scholarship. Or at least no one seems to have recognized the significance of this omission. Apart from a statement about “the tribe of Christians” in the controversial Testimonium Flavianum (“Flavian Testimony”) about Jesus, the only early Christian that Josephus mentions is James! This recognition of his death is because of James’ leading role in the fledgling Jesus movement, a role that was recognized even outside the movement!” (p. 13)
Clement of Alexandria is another individual with which one could easily argue displayed knowledge of James that would perfectly align with the conclusion found in the NPJ. This is something that is affirmed by Eusebius’s citation of the well know Jewish-Christian historian Hegesippus (see Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., 2:23), as well as Jerome (see Jerome, On Famous Men, 2). For purpose here it will be helpful to at least present the manner in which Hegesippus beings his account of James martyrdom, which is taken from the same section that Eusebius uses to support his citation of Clement. Hegesippus writes, “James, the Lord’s brother, succeeds (διαδεχεται) to the government of the Church, in conjunction with the apostles.” Thus, according to Hegesippus, James was given the governing role in the Church in union with the other apostles, and was given this position by the Lord himself. This is a point that is made emphatically clear in the original language by the forward placement of succeeds (διαδεχεται) in the sentence structure—it is actually the word that leads the sentence.
Similarly, declarations by such orthodox leaders as these are also reiterated in a number of pseudepigraphical works, such as the well known second century document, The Gospel of Thomas. The author of Thomas writes, “The disciples said to Jesus, ‘we know that you will depart from us. Who is to be our leader?’ Jesus said to them, ‘wherever you are, you are to go to James the just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being’ (logia 12).” As Varner correctly explains, “This quotation is included, not because we should be certain Jesus actually said that but because these and many other sayings about James’ role reflect an attitude that prevailed in the early church despite the growing authority of Peter’s so-called successors in Rome! (p. 13)” It should be clear from the surveyed statements thus far that original role of James in the Church was perceived as universal knowledge—even the gnostics identified his God-given leadership authority.
Finally, one must equally notice the monumental comparative statement made in the fifth century by one of James’ predecessors to the Jerusalem church, Hesychius of Jerusalem. In a sermon on Acts 15 Hesychius declared the following about James:
“How shall I praise the servant and brother of Christ, the commander in chief of the new Jerusalem, the prince of the presbyters, the leader of the apostles, among the heads the highest, among the shining lights the one who shines brightest, among the stars the most illustrious? Peter speaks, but James makes the law. ‘I judge,’ whose judgment neither the law of custom nor the decree of an assembly can challenge. For in me speaks the one who is judge of all, the living and the dead.’ ”
Varner summarizes the historical implication of Hesychius, writing, “Even after acknowledging a strong measure of rhetorical hyperbole by Hesychius, this description must clearly indicate a prevalent view about the position that James held, at least in the minds of Christians, four centuries after his death” (p. 14).
The external evidence for the NPJ provides a substantial amount weight to the discussion. The diverse array of literature detailed in this post was clearly intentional, and while it may have been brief, the content sufficiently surveyed over four centuries of historical Christian tradition—all of which support the conclusion of the biblical text as outlined in part one. And while much more in the way of content could have been discussed, the aim here was not to be exhaustive.
1. Varner, William. James. Edited by H. Wayne House, W. Hall Harris III, and Andrew W. Pitts. Evangelical Exegetical Commentary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012.
2. Josephus, Flavius, and William Whiston. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987.
3. Hegesippus. “Fragments from His Five Books of Commentaries on the Acts of the Church.” In Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, the Clementina, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Ages, edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, translated by B. P. Pratten. Vol. 8. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886.
For more information about the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary please visitevangelicalexegeticalcommentary.com. You can also purchase Dr. Varner’s volume on James (EEC) in both digital and printed format.