Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Converting James

John Painter has challenged the tide of scholarship on the historical James, suggesting a new hypothesis to explain the extant evidence that we have. Painter calls for a re-evaluation of three widely held positions: [1]

  1. James and the other brothers and sisters of Jesus were not believers during Jesus ministry.
  2. James became a believer through a resurrection appearance of Jesus to him.
  3. A transition from Peter’s leadership to that of James was necessitated by Peter’s forced flight from Jerusalem

The last of these three is, at this point of the discussion, unimportant. What I wish to respond to is Painter’s claim that James was a follower of Jesus pre-crucifixion. That means that the first two positions are related and should be dealt with together.

Was Jesus' mother and brothers were among his retinue during the Galilean ministry (John 2:12; 7:3-5; Mark 3:21 // Matt 12:46 // Luke 8:19) ? Painter argues that the Gospels’ treatments of Jesus family must be read against the Gospel writers editorial tendencies.[2] In both Mark and John, the brothers of Jesus “are portrayed as ‘fallible followers’ rather than as outright unbelievers.”[3] Painter notes:

The overall effect of John 2:1-11, 12, is to lead the reader to the conclusion that the mother and brothers of Jesus were among his intimate supporters. This impression is not altogether undone by John 7:3-5, in which the narrator informs the readers that they did not believe in him at this stage. Yet, the impression that his brothers were followers is confirmed by the presences with Jesus.[4]

Painters conjecture seems unwarranted for several reasons. Firstly, in the absence of positive evidence suggesting James [not just the brothers in general] was in fact a disciple of Jesus [pre-crucifixion], all that Painter’s argument can do is cast doubt as to when James converted.

Secondly, there appears to be several strands of data that lead us to conclude that James was not in fact a disciple of Jesus. From the traditions in Mark, through Matthew and Luke to John, the evidence for James as a disciple is particularly scant and flimsy. The internal evidence from John’s gospel is insufficient to warrant Painter’s conclusion. This is especially evident from the fact that a presence with Jesus does not automatically entail that presence being a disciple. Many people were with Jesus at various stages of his ministry. Not all of them were disciples, and to suggest that just because one was with Jesus made them a disciple, is to go beyond what evidence we have.

The least we can conclude is that according to John 2, Jesus’ brothers [does this have to include all his brothers or just a couple?] may have, at one point early in his ministry, been followers. But by John 7 they have abandoned the way [cf. James 5:19-20, where James could be highlighting wisdom from his own experience though this remains speculative]. Mark 3:21 & 6 suggests that the brothers of Jesus took offence at his ministry. Witherington notes:

Thus, as minimum, we must conclude that mark in vv. 20-21 is presenting the unflattering picture of Jesus being misunderstood by his own family. They either thought he was unbalanced or, at least, not in control of the situation he was precipitating. If the latter, then they may be trying to protect Jesus rather than remove him from the public scene because of the shame and controversy he was bringing on his family. Yet the verb, which occurs again in 6:17 and 12:12, is a strong on and refers in those texts to attempts to arrest Jesus. Here it must mean at least that they have come to restrain Jesus, a forceful action… Seen from the perspective of honour and shame conventions, it is possible to see the action of the family as an attempt to protect their own family honour rather than protect Jesus in particular. They did not want him to disgrace the family.[5]
Witherington’s argument is historically more probable and plausible than the one reference from John. Thus, this explains why Jesus’ brothers felt it necessary to be close to Jesus. They felt the need to protect the honour of their family, and thus restrain their deviant older brother.
[1] John Painter, Just James: The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition (Fortress Press, 1999), 13
[2] Ibid., 15.
[3] Ibid., 17.
[4] Ibid., 18
[5] Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, pg. 155. Witherington goes on to suggest “There may also be this further connection between the family passage and the passages about the scribes – the reference to a house divided against itself could in fact be taken as an allusion to Jesus’ own household.” Witherington further notes that “The door is left open for Jesus’ physical family to join the family of faith in 3:35, but Mark does not suggest that the family, even later, walked through that door.” Pg. 156


john said...

Hi Sean,

Great idea in getting others to help you in working on James. Wish I had thought of it.

I am also working on James and decided to combine some teaching I am doing with a paper that I must present for an Honours course I am doing.

But I am feeling a bit lost as to the nature of James. When will you be posting the contributions you have received? Or perhaps is it possible for you to e-mail me a sneak preview of some of the stuff the geniuses out there have discovered?


Sean du Toit said...

Hey John, would love to email you some stuff. What's your addy?

Cheers, sean D.