The following review first appeared in Heythrop Journal 40 (1999), pp. 481-2. It is reproduced here with permission.
John Painter, Just James: The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition Studies on Personalities of the New Testament Pp. xiv, 326, Columbia SC, University of South Carolina Press, 1998, £27.95.
Among recent attempts to rehabilitate James the brother of Jesus, John Painter's deserves special honour. In a careful, thorough study, Painter patiently reviews all of the available evidence and concludes that we underestimate the historical importance of "James the Just" at our peril. He was "the first bishop of the Jerusalem church" and "the leading authority in Christian Judaism" (p. 274). Yet subsequently, in spite of leaving his mark on the New Testament, Josephus, the Fathers, the Nag Hammadi texts and the Christian apocrypha, "the weight of history crushed him" -- "in the end all we have is just James" (p. 276).
Painter's monograph is part of a new series on "Personalities of the New Testament". It studies the evidence in three carefully delimited sections. The first, dealing with the New Testament evidence, begins with the Gospels (Chapter 1) and proceeds with Acts (Chapter 2), Paul's letters (Chapter 3) and a consideration of the roles played by Peter, James and Paul in early Christian missions (Chapter 4). The second deals with "images of James in the early Church" and discusses the traditions in Eusebius (Chapter 5), the Nag Hammadi Library (Chapter 6) and other Christian apocrypha and later evidence (Chapter 7). Finally, Part Three concludes by looking at the figure of James within Jewish Christianity, focusing specially on the Epistle of James (Chapter 8). Painter adds an eleven page excursus on Robert Eisenman's mammoth, sensational book on James (pp. 277-88), the ultimate antidote, one hopes, to his excesses.
Painter does not attempt to write a critical life of James and his approach contrasts markedly -- and so in some ways complements -- Pierre Antoine-Bernheim's recent James, Brother of Jesus (ET, London: SCM, 1997). The advantages of not taking the biographical route are clear: Painter is able to give due weight to the "tradition" that is mentioned in his title, discussing all kinds of interesting material that would not have found its way into a more restricted "historical" approach. Further, each source is able to speak for itself within its own context -- the reader can assess each one as s/he works methodically through the book.
The meticulous sorting of traditions into particular categories does, however, cause a few problems. There is no separate consideration of what is arguably the most important source of all, Josephus' Antiquities, dealt with by Painter in the context of the broader discussion of Eusebius (pp. 132-41). Similarly, the Gospel of Thomas, Logion 12, in which Jesus names James as leader, surely has a far stronger claim to reflecting early, first century tradition than do the other traditions with which it appears in "The Nag Hammadi Library" chapter (pp. 160-3).
Overall, Painter is careful to temper boldness with sobriety. He is bold, on one hand (and probably right), to be wary of the evangelists' tendency to play down the importance of James during the ministry of Jesus. He is sober, on the other hand, both in his treatment of Jerome's theory that Jesus and James were merely cousins and in his discussion of the "Epiphanian" view that James was Joseph's son by another marriage. But sometimes Painter is too sober: one would have liked to have seen the careful arguments of Richard Bauckham in favour of the Epiphanian view taken seriously. Painter's tendency to lump it together with Jerome's view as something solely apologetically motivated does not pay adequate attention to (a) the much greater antiquity of the Epiphanian view; (b) the fact that there is no sign of Joseph in the gospels when Jesus is an adult; (c) the fact that Mary is clearly still alive in Jesus' ministry in spite of (d) having at least seven adult children alive in a time when mortality in childbirth was high.
Perhaps the most questionable part of the book, though, is the somewhat inflated role played by "M" (Matthew's special material) as witnessing to a Jamesian form of Christianity. "M may well emanate from James," Painter says, "while it is likely that Q is a Petrine tradition" (p. 263), yet Peter is absent from Q, markedly present in M (in which he becomes a leader, 17.24-27; cf. 14.28-32 and 16.17-19) and James is present in neither. To assign such material to figures in the early church, material that is only source-critically extrapolated from Matthew on the basis of whether or not it has parallels in Luke, is quite problematic.
The book is well produced but some major errors have slipped through the proof-readers' nets. Michael Goulder does not argue that "Luke and John are Pauline Gospels, while Mark and Matthew form bridges to the Jerusalem mission" (p. 85) but that Mark and John are Pauline and that Luke and Matthew form bridges. Painter refers to "Clopas's martyrdom" when he means Simeon's (p. 149). Crossan does not name the Gospel of Peter as "one of his early Gospel sources" (p. 201) but Peter's hypothetical source, the Cross Gospel. And Painter's chart of parallels between the Epistle of James and the Synoptics (pp. 261-2) has enough errors to make it partly incomprehensible: under number 2, "1:45:48 M" should read "1.45 5.48 M"; under number 9, the source for Matthew 19:23-24 should read Mark 10.23-25 // Luke 18.24-25 and not "Q(Luke 19:24)", the latter perhaps an error for a separate entry on Q (Luke 6:24); and under number 10 the source should be Mark 12:31 and not "Mark 12.38-44".
In spite of the qualms, there is no doubt that Painter's book is an excellent study of one of the most fascinating figures in Christian history and tradition. Its scope and erudition ensure that there will be something here to educate everyone.
University of Birmingham