The following review first appeared in Reviews in Religion and Theology 7 (2000), pp. 52-4. It is reproduced here with permission.
Richard Bauckham, James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage, New Testament Readings London and New York: Routledge 1999 ISBN 0415103703 pp. x + 246
By common consent, the Routledge series of New Testament Readings is shaping up to be one of the better series on the New Testament in recent times. With a lively introductory volume (by series editor John Court) and a healthy mixture of contributions from both younger and more established scholars, most from the United Kingdom but some from abroad, the series is not, apparently, constrained by canonical boundaries (witness Valantasis on Thomas), nor is it afraid to take some risks and let conservative approaches interact with contemporary perspectives. So far, the volumes are all at least interesting. And this is one of the best yet, for Richard Bauckham appears to have achieved the imposssible: he has written a genuinely stimulating book about the epistle of James. He adds to the impossible what many will think to be the unarguable: that James the brother of Jesus is the author of the epistle.
Richard Bauckham, an expert -- arguably the expert -- on the family of Jesus, describes the epistle as "a encyclical from James to the diaspora" (Chapter 1). He argues against the standard view that this is a pseudonymous letter with only a fictional audience and instead defends the view that it was authored by James the brother of Jesus, just as earlier in his Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church, Bauckham argued that Jude the brother of Jesus authored the epistle bearing his name. Following common practice, James writes a "paraenetic encyclical" letter from Jerusalem, communicating to Jewish Christians in the Diaspora "how they should live as Messianic Jews" (p. 29). Bauckham makes a surprisingly plausible case, having little trouble demonstrating that the standard reasons against these options are flawed.
Chapter 2, which makes up the bulk of the book (pp. 29-111), is at its heart, lending the whole the subtitle "The wisdom of James, disciple of Jesus the sage". It expounds the fascinating thesis that "James, as a disciple of Jesus the sage, is a wisdom teacher who has made the wisdom of Jesus his own, and who seeks to appropriate and to develop the resources of the Jewish wisdom tradition in a way that is guided and controlled by the teaching of Jesus" (p. 30). Bauckham proceeds by isolating literary forms in James (aphorisms, similitudes and parables etc.) and comparing them with the usage of similar forms both in Jesus' teaching and, more generally, in Wisdom Literature. Further, Bauckham wants to claim that the epistle is not "a haphazard collection of heterogeneous paraenetic traditions", as Dibelius influentially cast it, but rather "it is a compendium of James' wisdom, arranged, after an introductory epitome, in a series of discrete sections on various topics", a form and structure that is "well suited to its purpose, which is to provide a resource for acquiring the wisdom that is expressed in obedience to God in every day life" (p. 108).
There are several advanges in Bauckham's approach. Not only does he manage to steer clear of the vexed attempts to relate material in James to hypothetical gospel sources, but also he avoids the quagmire of arguing about whether or not James "alludes" to sayings of Jesus by simply bypassing the debate and replacing the language of "allusion" and "echo" with the (in any case more imaginative) language of "creative re-expression". From time to time the readers will find themselves thinking that "creative re-expression" inevitably takes for granted that the saying being re-expressed is at the same time being "alluded to", but the fresh category and the stimulating re-think encourage us not to press the point too far. For Bauckham, proving dependence between specific sayings in the Gospels and specific sayings in James is not the issue; rather, this book is about James' appropriation of his teacher's spirit.
Bauckham emulates the author he is attempting to describe and rejects contemporary wisdom on other fronts. When he comes in Chapter 3 to discussing "James in canonical context", he forges a powerful argument against the common perspective on James, which contrasts Paul's view of "justification by faith" with James's qualifications about works, judging in favour of the former and subordinating the latter to an inferior canonical position. Bauckham argues that scholars have misinterpreted James by reading it as anti-Pauline polemic and that they have failed to see how they can be complimentary voices within the canon. Indeed he regards the entire issue as overplayed and he pushes the reader to pay attention to the more blatant relationships James has with other parts of the canon, Torah, the Synoptics, Wisdom and 1 Peter.
Indeed Bauckham is so good at smoothing over the differences between Paul, James and other streams of early Christianity that one begins to think that Bauckham would be capable of proving that Paul himself could have written this epistle. Bauckham comes to us as a kind of modern-day Luke, for whom all in the early church is harmony, where disagreements are only over degrees of emphasis. But it is a useful corrective in the current climate of New Testament studies in which the obsession to find disparate communities under every strata of every book, canonical, non-canonical and hypothetical, and to drive wedges between them, reigns supreme.
In each chapter Bauckham hints at the contemporary relevance of James and the whole is done in dialogue with Kierkegaard, whose admiration for James contrasts with Luther's frequently cited disdain for the book. Bauckham's own admiration for both Kierkegaard and James then culminates in a final chapter on "James in Modern and Contemporary Contexts" (Chapter 4, pp. 158-208), a fine piece of reflective theological writing of the kind all too rare in contemporary works of New Testament scholarship.
Not only is this without doubt one of the best books on the Epistle of James ever to have been written, it is also a book with major implications for questions of canon, Christian origins, the historical Jesus and Gospel studies. It is fine achievement for a book based on what was once merely an epistle of straw.
University of Birmingham