Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Baptism in James?

Jas 2:7 provides us with an interesting piece to the perplexing puzzle of devotion to Jesus in James. The referents of James 2:7 are rigorously disputed among various scholars. What was that “beautiful/excellent name”? To whom did this name belong? What did it mean or entail to take on this name? James suggests that this ‘beautiful name’ was ‘invoked over’ them. What does that mean? To what event, if any, does it refer? Did it mean to take on the name ‘Christian’? Or did it refer to the cultic event within the life of countless believers, i.e., the baptismal rite? In his section on “Judean Jewish Christianity” Larry Hurtado suggests that Jas. 2:7 is an “allusion to the ritual use of Jesus’ name in baptism.”[1] Ropes and Moo, as well as others, remain sceptical as to whether this refers to a baptismal rite.[2] I shall, however, suggest that the data does not suggest an agnostic position and although one cannot be certain, plausible judgements may still be administered. The purpose of this discussion is to investigate Hurtado’s claim that this is an allusion to baptism in the epistle of James with reference to those whom he writes. These are all complex and interrelated issues to which we now turn.

ουκ αυτοι βλασφημουσιν το καλον ονομα το επικληθεν εφ υμας Is it not they who blaspheme the beautiful name that was invoked over you?

The Context

The context of our section provides few clues as to the practical referent. Thus we must ask, what is the rhetorical benefit of James’ question and how does it add to his argument? What images or stories does it evoke in the minds of those to whom James is writing? Is there a narrative sub-structure into which our piece of the puzzle will slot and therefore unlock the answer to our search? Once this is recognized, we may be in a better position to investigate the plausibility of this as a baptismal referent. The section begins in 2:1 with an acclamation that the Lord Jesus Christ is glorious. In vs. 5 James notes that the poor are chosen to inherit the kingdom.[3] Vs. 9 describes the command to “love your neighbour as you love yourself” as a royal law. Sandwiched between these two elements is our verse in question. Royal law and kingdom almost certainly provide the appropriate context to refer to Jesus. Furthermore, since James has already suggested that he is a slave of both God and the LORD Jesus Christ, and he has just referred to Jesus as “our Glorious LORD Jesus Christ” (2:1) we may be confident that James has Jesus in view here.[4]

Jews took very serious the charge of blasphemy (cf. Lev 24:15-16). It was because of Jesus’ supposed blasphemy that the ruling elite had him handed over to the Romans. Jews were prepared to fight and die for the honour of God’s name. God’s name was sacred and any attempt to defame it was met with serious resistance.

Blasphemy is an attempt to injure a man by gravely malignant speech; against God, it is the sin of attempting to bring him into dishonour by such speech.[5]

Thus, if James suggests that this name could be blasphemed, this implicitly suggests a serious reverence for whoever this refers to from James. We may assume this applies to the community as well, for James offers no defence of this position, but merely notes it. Moo notes that,

Because James supplies so little information, we can only speculate about the exact situation here. It may have been Gentiles profanely mocking the God whom believers claimed to worship. It may have been Jews criticizing Christian claims about Jesus. Or, more generally, it may have involved unbelievers making fun of Christian morality and worship practices.[6]

We may not have enough information to describe the exact situation to which James refers, but we must endeavour to understand the boundaries of what James may be referring to. What name could Jews and Christians revere so much? What did this reverence for a name suggest about their allegiance and commitment to the one named? The fact that James uses such a strong word (blasfhmew) suggests that whoever is being referred to is the recipient of a generous amount of cultic allegiance.

But who is the referent of this ‘beautiful name’? Martin notes that the name is either that of Jesus or “the Christian’s own title to faith.”[7] Adamson suggests that it refers to the name “Christians” (See Acts 11:26; 13:45; 18:6; 26:11, 28; 1 Cor 12:3; 1 Tim 1:13; 1 Pet 4:14, 16).[8] If Luke is correct in suggesting that the title ‘Christian’ was conceived at Antioch, then it seems unlikely that that is what James has in view here.[9] There is no reason to suggest that this title was in use within the communities to which James writes, so we can but speculate.

We should also pay careful attention to what James has written. Our verse refers to a single past tense event where the beautiful name was invoked over them. This suggests that the name is not currently being invoked over them, since they have already given themselves to this name. This makes the reference to “Christians” unlikely, as this would be a continuous name used to designate believers. Given the context of this pericope, as noted above, it seems more likely to refer to the actual name of Jesus, than to title the ‘Christians’. It becomes, therefore, important to appreciate the use of ejpiklhqe;n, as used when “someone’s name is called over someone to designate the latter as the property of the former.”[10] Davids notes that,

The phrase “to call a name upon one” is a septuagintalism, indicating possession or relationship, particularly relationship to God (Amos 9:12; Dt. 28:10; 2 Chron 7:14; Is 43:7; Jer 14:9; Pss. Sol. 19:18).[11]

Historical Options

Where was this name invoked over them? What options does early Christianity provide us with? Could we postulate a worship setting where the name of Jesus is invocated over believers? But then would this be a continuous element of worship gatherings or a single event? When pagans[12] converted, was the name of Jesus invoked over them? What evidence is there for this claim? The natural response to this is that the new believer would invoke the name of Jesus, not over them [as we have here in James] but they would just invoke it, requesting salvation. This at least is the Lukan and Pauline paradigm that we have from early Christianity.

So the one option, when discussing James, that springs to mind, is that of baptism. There are many examples of the name of Jesus being invoked at baptism (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48). Hurtado observes that,

The widespread acceptance of baptism in Christian circles as the defining initiation rite, and involving the ritual use of Jesus’ name as a constituent feature, is best accounted for by positing its origin among early, respected and influential circles of believers, among whom the Jerusalem church held unrivalled status.[13]

Based on this, and the notion that we have no other event that calls for such an invocation, we may plausibly suggest that Vs. 7 appears as a reference to the baptism rite that followers undergo to express their allegiance to Jesus the King. This verse then indicates that the name of Jesus was a particularly sacred name that was to be revered and not misused. Those to whom James is writing take offence from anyone misusing the name of Jesus, since that was the name of the one to whom they belonged, and to whom they gave their allegiance as the Glorious Lord Jesus Christ (Jas. 2:1).

this blog is a work in process :: thoughts expressed are not necessarily final judgements... Thoughts? Comments? Criticisms? All Welcome...

[1] Hurdato, L. Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003), pg. 202. Various other scholars have taken the same position. See P. H. Davids, The Epistle of James (Eerdmans, 1982), pg. 113-114; S. Laws, A Commentary on the Epistle of James (A & C Black, 1980), pg. 105; L. T. Johnson, The Letter of James (Doubleday, 1995), pg. 226; and P. J. Hartin, James and the ‘Q’ Sayings of Jesus (Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), pg. 92 .

[2] Moo, The Letter of James, pg. 109; J. H. Ropes, St. James (T & T Clark, 1961) pg. 197

[3] The Kingdom of God is the central message of Jesus, but it was not an ubiquitous concept in Judaism thus making its appearance here more likely due to Jesus than anything else.

[4] Davids, The Epistle of James, pg. 113 writes “‘The good name called upon you’ is certainly the name of Jesus.”

[5] Adamson, J. The Epistle of James (Eerdmans, 1976), pg. 112

[6] Moo, D. The Letter of James (Eerdmans, 2000), pg. 109

[7] Martin, R. P. James (Word, 1988), pg. 67

[8] Adamson, The Epistle of James, pg. 112-13

[9] Contra Adamson, The Epistle of James, pg. 112

[10] Bauer, Walter, Gingrich, F. Wilbur, and Danker, Frederick W. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979, [Online] Available: Logos Library System. See 2 Sam 6:2; 1 Kings 8:43; Jer 7:30; 14:9; Am 9:12; 2 Ch 7:14 and Ac 15:17.

[11] Davids, The Epistle of James, pg. 113

[12] Like L. Hurtado, At the Origins of Christian Worship (Paternoster, 1999), pg. 4 the word ‘pagan’ is employed to designate those that do not belong to Judaism or Christianity. It is not meant in a pejorative sense.

[13] Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, pg. 203


Derek Brown said...

Great post Sean!

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