James: A New Perspective (Part 2)

“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.

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.