James: A New Perspective (Part 1)

Before evaluating some of the internal indicators favoring the New Perspective on James (NPJ), it may be helpful to the reader if we first summarize the position.

According to the NPJ shortly after Pentecost (Acts 2) James rose to a position of leadership in the church similar to that of the Apostles. Furthermore, his leadership was so instrumental among the church that by the early 40’s A.D. he was widely recognized as the leader of the entire Christian movement—a first among equals. Varner illustrates, “If a stranger arrived in Jerusalem or in Antioch between the years A.D. 40-62 and asked, “Who is the person in charge of this movement?” any knowledgeable Christian, including Peter or John or Paul, would have answered without hesitation, “James” (p. 9). The NPJ asserts that James was so well known among the early Church that one could immediately recognize who he was by a single name without any additional description or qualifier—an interesting perspective when one considers how James begins his canonical epistle. Conversely, while the vast majority of Christians today attribute such a prominent position to either Peter or Paul, the NPJ challenges this assumption, and several canonical statements provide convincing support to this conclusion.

Thus with the summary behind us, we can now turn our attention to the supportive evidence found within the pages of the New Testament for the NPJ position.

An imperative starting-point for the NPJ acknowledges that Paul recognized James as an apostle. In 1 Corinthians 15:7, Paul declares that James received a special appearance from the risen Lord apart from the other apostles. The fascinating thing about this passage is that not only does James precede “all the apostles” in Paul’s description, but Paul actually refers James to as one of them. Some may object to this notion based on the context (1 Cor. 15:5), arguing that Paul is using the term in a wider sense that is not typically associated with the Twelve Apostles. However, this would fail to account for fact that Paul elsewhere mentions James as an “apostle” in the narrower sense—placing James and Peter in the same apostolic class (Gal. 1:19).

“This information is crucial for the argument that James became the leader of the entire church, because of what Luke and Paul later record about James. When Paul and Barnabas visited Jerusalem as described in Galatians 2:1–10 (probably the famine relief visit of Acts 11–12), they met privately with the Big Three—James, Peter, and John (Gal 2:9). The order of these “pillars” should not be overlooked. James was first in order and his primacy is illustrated in Peter’s attitude toward James from at least this point onward. After “the pillars” affirm Paul’s Gentile ministry they remind him to “remember the poor.” Paul was eager to add that he had done that and would continue to do so. Paul did what James requested that he do. Then around the same time, during the dramatic episode in Acts 12 when Peter was released miraculously from prison, Peter made a special effort to ask the people in John Mark’s mother’s prayer meeting to inform “James and the brothers” about his release. Peter here acknowledged the leadership role of James as he also did later at the Jerusalem Council.” (Varner, p. 10).

In Act 15, Luke records the events known as the Jerusalem Council. In this account Luke makes plain to his readers the leadership role that James had during the Council and among the church. During this assembly the decision concerning Gentile conversion to Judaism was solidified, and lo and behold it is James who rendered the final verdict as the moderator of the Council (Acts 15:19a). Varner details the significance of James’ words, writing:

“It is very important to take note of the crucial language attributed to James as he introduces his concluding decision in 15:19a: διὸ ἐγὼ κρίνω. Many translations blunt the force of these words that to any Greek reader would mean, “Therefore, I decide.” The transitional conjunction διὸ introduces the conclusion to the argument. This is followed by the pronoun ἐγὼ, which is not needed in Greek so it must be added for particular prominence and emphasis (Therefore, I …). Then the verb κρίνω describes James’ action in rendering the verdict. Standard Greek lexicons inform us that this verb often carries the sense of a judicial verdict or decision and should not be blunted by an idea like, “Well, let me sum up our discussion.” (p. 12).

Both Peter and Paul fully acknowledged James’ authority at the Council and proceed to align themselves with his judgment. For example, Varner explains, “When James added that certain practices particularly offensive to Jews should be observed by the Gentile believers and composes a letter requesting such, Paul delivered the letter as he was instructed to do (Acts 16:4). For the second time, Paul did what James requested that he do” (p.13).

Again, Varner continues with another example:

“In Acts 21:18–26 Paul exemplified what he calls elsewhere “becoming all things to all men” (1 Cor 9:22), by again doing what James asks him to do in regard to ending the Nazirite vows of four young Jewish men. Paul probably thought that such an action was not necessary, but out of deference to James, he does it. He perhaps even used some of the offerings from the Gentile believers that he had brought with him to pay for this action in the temple (2 Cor 8–9; Rom 15:25–29). For at least the third time, Paul did what James requested that he do” (p. 13).

In sum, the internal indicators outlined above provide a convincing case for the NPJ position from a biblical perspective. Nevertheless, while it is unlikely that one will coincide with the implications of the NPJ position simply based on this evaluation alone, the exposition of the above mentioned passages should provide more than enough to perk one’s interest and present James in a previously unexplored fashion.

In a future post our attention will be directed to the exploration of the external indicators in favor of the NPJ position—seeking to reconcile the above mentioned biblical decelerations with a vast array of historical claims.

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.

For more information about the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary please visit evangelicalexegeticalcommentary.com. You can also purchase Dr. Varner’s volume on James (EEC) in both digital and printed format.

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James: A New Perspective

It seems safe to assume that there are few individuals within early Christianity that have been more neglected than James. But this wasn’t always the case. In fact, there was once a day when such a statement would have been utterly unthinkable. James has traditional been understood as a prominent leader in the city of Jerusalem—well known among the Apostles. But how prominent was James’ influence during this period? Did he have an authority that overextended that of the Apostles? How would a first-century Christian have understood his leadership amid the Apostolic ministry of figures like Peter and Paul? The historical response to these questions may come as a complete surprise to many readers. Could James have actually been more than just another apostolic leader? Has the majority of Christian history unintentionally neglected the very individual whom the Apostles looked to for guidance?

“The proposal is simple, but its implications are profound…James was not merely a significant leader in the early church and not just the leader of the Jerusalem church, but that he was the leader of the church.” (Varner, p. 8)

Over the next several days our attention will focus upon what some have rightly labeled the New Perspective on James (NPJ). The content in the next three posts will draw from Dr. William Varner’s discussion in the recent volume for the Evangelical Exegetical
Commentary, and will center around the (1) internal and  (2) external evidence for the NPJ position.

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.