5 Interesting Facts about the Letter from James

Saint_James_the_JustThe letter from James is “a one-of-a-kind document”, according to scholar and commentator Scot McKnight, with “no real parallel among ancient letters, essays, and homilies.”

It is a letter that addresses numerous topics, many of which underlie the tensions behind the headlines today, including suffering, social justice, and poverty. It also contains some challenging passages related to the role of faith and works.

Here are 5 interesting facts as we start our study.

1) It was probably written by the brother of Jesus

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ (1:1)

Most scholars (at least those writing evangelical commentaries) agree that the author of this letter is James the brother of Jesus (Matt 13:55; Mark 6:3; Gal 1:19), also known as James the Just. Another candidate is James, the son of Zebedee, the older brother of John, and an apostle in Jesus’ inner circle (Matt 17:1; Mark 5:37, 14:32-33). Many rule out the latter James, due to his early death at the hands of Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:2) around 44 CE. But that shouldn’t disqualify him. James the son of Zebedee would have been alive to write the letter if the earliest suggested dating of the letter is correct.

The primary reason for accepting James the Just as the author, over other possible candidates, is the tradition of the early church, which attributed the letter to him. Continue reading

A Machete Order Reading of the Bible (NT)

Imagine if you had a free weekend and decided to watch the set of Star Wars movies. There is great debate about the order in which one should watch the Star Wars movies. Should one watch them in the order in which they were released (IV, V, VI, I, II, III) or in historical order (I, II, III, IV, V, VI).

Rod Hilton has proposed an order called – machete order, which preserves the surprise relationship between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker as well as allow for the entire viewing to end on the celebratory high note of beating the Empire. This order has a very “epic” poem approach that “tells the story better”.

Star Wars: Machete Order

I was recently posed a question  about reading the Bible all the way through. Continue reading

Revisiting a fallible NT collection in light of self authenticating documents

Looking through church history, particularly within the first four centuries, we find multiple lists describing the NT collection of documents that are considered Scripture. This leaves us with questions like which list is right? And who determines (or discovers) which list of documents is correct? And can we be absolutely certain that a particular list is correct? The history of the canon led me to conclude that the list of NT books is fallible, even if the documents themselves are inspired.

A particular post on Canon Fodder got me thinking. How does the idea of self-authenticating documents impact the canon. Particularly how does it impact our ability to know that we have an inspired and infallible list of inspired and infallible documents. In the post Dr. Kruger concluded that tradition (the early church passing on the apostolic teaching) is important but it is not the only way to know which books belong in the canon.

… I think the consensus eventually reached by the church on the books of the NT can help us know which books are from God.  However, I would disagree with Patton (and the Catholics) that this is the only way to know (Patton said, “it is only through tradition…”).  Entirely overlooked in this regard is the intrinsic authority built into these books and how that intrinsic authority could play a role in their authentication.

What is this intrinsic authority?

The protestant reformers referred to this as the self-authenticating (autopistic) nature of Scripture.  It is simply the idea that the books themselves bear the qualities and attributes that can identify them as having come from God

Dr. Kruger expands on this idea in an interview with Derek Thomas:

Our belief that we have the right 27 books is certainly founded on the fact that God providentially worked in the early church.  But, our answer to the question of how we know we have the right books can go further than just saying “God’s providence.”  I argue in Canon Revisited that God has provided a reliable means by which God’s people can recognize his books (through the help of the Holy Spirit).  Part of that means is the fact that God’s books bear divine qualities; they have attributes that reflect God’s power and character.

I agree with Kruger that the inspired documents are self-authenticating and that the Holy Spirit was active in the role of the canon process. However, even with documents possessing these qualities, we are not any closer to obtaining absolute certainty regarding the collection of NT documents.

A document may be inspired and therefore possess divine qualities. However the book must still be assessed. While the assessment does not cause the document to be inspired, it is the recognition of the document as such, that allows the church to accept it. And it is fallible man that is still responsible for discovering or correctly evaluating that the book possesses these qualities. Unless people are able to recognize these qualities with absolute certainty, this would make the process of assembling the list fallible. This would be further complicated by man having to also understand what constitutes true divine qualities so that he may be able to identify them correctly in the document.

If the documents possess self-authenticating qualities, then who is to examine these documents and assess them? Was this a recognition that was done at a point in time by the early church to stand throughout history? Or is this something we encourage every believer to do today? How do we resolve conflicting claims?

If we are to evaluate the documents today, we are at a disadvantage. The early church would have had the “apostle’s teachings still ringing in their ears” and would have witnessed their signs and wonders which would help them recognize the documents that were written and inspired. Furthermore, we are reliant on their first cut of recognizing these books because these are the ones that are preserved for us to examine today. In this we are trusting their evaluations and relying on tradition.

The example of James

The epistle of James is part of our 27 document NT canon. However, history shows that this document, despite any self-authenticating attributes, has had a tough time keeping its place in the canon. James was missing from the Muratorian Fragment (2nd century) and was one of the books that was still being disputed in the early part of the fourth century as noted by Eusebius (Eccl Hist 3.25).

Martin Luther’s Preface to the New Testament in the 1522 edition calls James an “epistle of straw“. In the preface to the book of James itself, he writes “[t]hough this epistle of St. James was rejected by the ancients, I praise it and consider it a good book, …  However, to state my own opinion about it, though without prejudice to anyone, I do not regard it as the writing of an apostle…”. Luther goes on to describe the characteristics in the book that cause him to  consider it unworthy of a place in the canon.

Who evaluated the epistle of James correctly?

  • the many in the early church who recognized it
  • those in the early church who did not
  • Martin Luther
  • The Magisiterium at Trent
  • Each believer must evaluate the book

How ever we wrestle through these questions it seems we are still left with a certainty problem. And therefore I still have to accept a fallible list of infallible books. However the NT canon is a collection of documents that we can still have confidence in and accept.