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James Vs. Paul: Two Different Versions of Christianity? (Bonus Section)

SERIES INFO: This series of blog articles will include topics (and bonus sections) I couldn't fit into my book Reintroducing Jesus: Uncovering Jesus of Nazareth in the Misinformation Age.



JAMES VS. PAUL: LET’S GET READY TO FUMBLE


In Reintroducing Jesus, I lay out how Jesus’ first followers certainly understood him to be God in the flesh—but don’t high-five yourself yet, modern Christians! Did Jesus’ own brother James actually believe he was God?


First, let’s consider what it would take to convince your brother or sister that you’re God. If there’s anyone who knows how imperfect you are, it’s your own siblings who watched you pick your nose throughout first, second, and eleventh grade. If there’s anyone who knows how neurotic and awkward you are, it’s the sibling you shared your bedroom with in your teens. Your sisters and brothers, who shared a bathtub with you as a toddler (as you peed in it with no restraint), would have a pretty good idea that you’re not divine.


We spent time in Reintroducing Jesus getting to know “James the Just,” who wasn’t a follower of his brother Jesus before his crucifixion, but afterwards we find James as an important leader in the Jerusalem church. The earliest known Christian creed tells us James encountered the resurrected Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:7), which is ample reason for his change of heart. But did James come to believe his own brother was actually God in the flesh?


One of the big ideas of Mustafa Akyol’s book The Islamic Jesus [1] is basically this: the first faithful followers of Jesus (who, like Jesus, were Jews) understood Jesus to be the completely human Messiah. These Jewish Christians stayed faithful to all of the Old Testament religious laws and their leader was James, brother of Jesus [2]. But, then, along comes the pesky Paul. Paul taught that Christians didn’t have to follow the Old Testament religious law and they’re saved by faith in Jesus alone. With him, a group of non-Jewish Christians arose, and after mixing in some pagan Roman beliefs, they proclaimed Jesus to be God in the flesh. So, Paul was the culprit responsible for starting a new religion mixing Judaism, Jesus’ teachings, and Roman paganism [3]. According to Akyol, these two very different versions of early Christianity were in conflict, but Paul’s version won out and has survived to this day as mainstream Christianity, which is (according to Akyol) actually a corrupted version of Jesus’ (and James’) Jewish Christianity [4].


Now, Akyol isn’t the first person to pit Paul against James. Akyol isn’t even the first person to accuse Paul of corrupting the pure religion of Jesus or for inventing Christianity as we know it today. Unable to provide any substantial historical evidence to back this up, Akyol puts much stock in the idea that James’ New Testament letter demonstrates an “implicit divergence from mainstream Christianity” [5]. He argues James’ letter is the earliest New Testament writing, written before Paul’s corrupting influence could dominate the rest of the New Testament. Akyol points out that James’ letter never calls Jesus “the Son of God,” and he claims James never believed Jesus was God in human form [6].


Did one of the earliest writings of the New Testament not testify to Jesus being the incarnate, divine, second person of the Trinity? [7]


Let’s allow James to speak for himself. His letter starts with these words:


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


Stop! We’re only one verse in and we’ve already hit a speed bump in Akyol’s theory.



THE NAME & TITLES OF THE ONE-AND-ONLY GOD


James begins his letter by referring to Jesus as “the Lord.” When we modern folks see the word “God,” we think, well, God—a divine being—and when we see the word “Lord,” we think, Okay, that could be God or just be a human. For example, I could proclaim myself the Lord of Planet Ikea and you would still understand me to be a human (and a weird one). When we see “Lord” in the Bible, we think, God or human? In order to determine which “Lord” it is, we have to look at the context. A non-biblical example would be if we’re reading a medieval tale and a knight calls his king “Lord.” In this case, we know “Lord” doesn’t mean God. Yet, if the same knight is praying, “So I can impress the desirable damsels, kindly grant me some shiny new armor, Lord,” we know from the context that he’s using “Lord” to address God.


But here’s the thing: when we read the New Testament and see “Lord” applied to Jesus, it’s a divine title. In other words, “God” means God and “Lord” means God. So, when the writers of the New Testament call Jesus “Lord” (like in James 1:1), they’re calling Jesus God.

Let’s back it up to the Old Testament.


The name of the one, true God of the Bible is YHWH, likely pronounced Yahweh [8]. This information was given to Moses by God himself (Exodus 3:13–15) [9]. Yahweh is God’s personal, proper name. Translated into English, God’s name is “I AM.”


The Hebrew word adonai is a title often applied to Yahweh, the one-and-only God. Yet, it’s a title that can also be given to humans, usually translated as “Lord.” (The Greek equivalent is kyrios.)


Likewise, elohim is another title—not a name. It’s usually translated in English as “God” or “gods,” and often applied to the utterly unique being Yahweh [10]. The thing is, elohim (theos in Greek) is even a title given to powerful humans (though rarely) or a general term for beings who inhabit the spiritual realm [11].


Yet, over time, the title “god” came to only refer to divine, supernatural beings, as it does in our day. When someone says “God” in the West today, they’re usually referring to a specific deity and using “God” like a proper name for that deity. But the proper name of the God of the Bible is not “God,” but Yahweh. (Take note: we can’t look for capitalization in Hebrew and Greek to help us identify proper names.)


In ancient Israel, in order to show reverence to Yahwah’s name and not inadvertently break one of the Ten Commandments by using God’s name disrespectfully or carelessly (Exodus 20:7), the ancient Jews would avoid saying “Yahweh” even when reading scripture. Instead, they’d substitute it with adonai (Lord). They would do this when they wrote as well. This tradition carried over into the Septuagint, the widely-used, ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, created about 200 years before Christ. Where the original Hebrew manuscripts read “Yahweh,” the translators of the Septuagint instead wrote the Greek word for Lord—Kyrios.


This tradition continues into our modern English translations to this very day. If you open up your English Old Testament and scan a random page, you’ll likely find “LORD” written in all capital letters [12]. This is to signify that the original Hebrew manuscript reads “Yahweh.”


Let’s recap:

  • Yahweh (Hebrew) = God’s proper name = “I AM” (English); “the LORD” (in English translations)

  • Adonai (Hebrew), Kyrios (Greek) = Title = “Lord” or “lord” (English)

  • Elohim (Hebrew), Theos (Greek) = Title = “God” or “gods” (English)


Based on the wording of Old Testament references in the New Testament, we know the Greek Septuagint was the version of the Old Testament primarily used by Jesus’ apostles [13]. In the Septuagint, the translators replaced “Yahweh” with “Lord” (kyrios). Interestingly, when we turn to the New Testament, we don’t find “Yahweh” anywhere. Instead, theos (God) and kyrios (Lord) are used to refer to the one and only God.


My point? Just as the title “God” became a word to exclusively mean divinity, the word “Lord’ came to be a word to describe divinity as well. In other words, when the New Testament authors write that Jesus is “Lord,” they’re calling Jesus the God of the Jews.

Read the New Testament letters carefully, and you’ll notice a pattern of God the Father being given the title “God” and Jesus given the title “Lord.” For example, Paul often opens his letters with something like this: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:7) [14]. But sometimes Jesus is called “God” too! Paul does it (Romans 9:5; Titus 2:13); Peter does it (2 Peter 1:1); the writer of Hebrews does it (Hebrews 1:8); John does it (John 1:1). To the New Testament writers, “God” is usually used to denote God the Father and “Lord” is usually used to denote God the Son, but they also use “God” and “Lord” interchangeably.


When the New Testament writers refer to Jesus as “the Lord,” they’re calling Jesus divine; they’re calling him Yahweh. I’ll let the dynamic duo of scholars Kostenberger and Kruger bring it on home: “The designation of Jesus as ‘Lord’ implies an equation of Jesus with Yahweh, the Creator and God of Israel featured in the Hebrew Scriptures… the universal New Testament ascription of ‘Lord’ to Jesus attests to an early and pervasive understanding of the orthodox view that Jesus was God” [15].



BRINGIN’ IT BACK TO JAMES


So, James 1:1 reads,


“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”


From what we’ve covered, we know it could be understood as follows:


“James, a servant of God [the Father] and of the [Lord God] Jesus Christ.”


or


“James, a servant of God [the Trinity] and of the [Lord God] Jesus Christ.”


If you’re not convinced, make a short bunny hop from James 1:1 to 1:5–8 to see this interchangeability of “God” and “the Lord.” (I’m going to underline to help us out.)


If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord... (James 1:5–8)


Did you catch that? Here, James first says to ask for wisdom from “God.” Then, he explains how to do so properly, saying we shouldn’t assume we’ll “receive anything from the Lord.” James is using “God” and “Lord” as interchangeable synonyms: God is the Lord, and the Lord is God. Who did James call “the Lord” in 1:1?


In Chapter 3, James begins with the famous “taming of the tongue” passage, where he warns of the dangers of careless talk. Using the tongue as a symbol of human speech, he writes,


With it we bless our Lord and Father [16], and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. (James 3:9)


Already, we saw how for James “God” and “Lord” are interchangeable. Here, we see that both “Lord” and “Father” are God because the whole point is that humans aren’t to use the same mouth they use to praise God to curse humans, who are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:26–27). Clearly, the Father, the Lord, and God are one.


Moving right along to Chapter 5, we see “the Lord” throughout. Should we understand these to be references to the strictly human, non-divine Jesus of Akyol’s theory or as references to Jesus, God the Son? Let’s see what the context tells us:


As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

(James 5:10–11)


James refers to the prophets, which can only mean the Old Testament prophets, “who spoke in the name of the Lord,” i.e. Yahweh, i.e. God. Next, we have a reference to the Old Testament book of Job and Job’s encounter with “the Lord,” which, again, can only mean Yahweh, i.e. God. So, I ask again, who did James call “the Lord” in James 1:1?


“The Lord” appears other times in James, but I think you get the idea. James calls Jesus “the Lord”; James calls God “the Lord.” James believed Jesus is God. (And, once again, the Trinity is the best solution to the data we find here.) Ironically, Akyol points out how Jesus is only mentioned by name twice in James’ letter, not realizing the significance of Jesus being called “Lord” in both verses [17].


Yes, James the Just, Jesus’ brother, certainly understood his older brother to be God in the flesh.




[1] Mustafa Akyol, The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims, (New York, NY: St. Martin’s, 2018), Kindle.


[2] After this strictly-human Jesus was crucified (and didn’t resurrect), why would James and other Christian Jews continue to believe in him as the Messiah? Akyol never addresses this yawning abyss of a plot hole.


[3] Yes, Paul was a Roman citizen, but he was also a “Hebrew of Hebrews”—a zealous, highly-educated Pharisaic Jew, who trained under Gamaliel, one of the most influential rabbis of his day (Philippians 3:5–6; Acts 22:3). It’s highly unlikely Paul would be open to pagan influence. Akyol conveniently ignores all of this.


[4] Mustafa Akyol, The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims, (New York, NY: St. Martin’s, 2018), Kindle, Loc 101.


[5] Same as above. Loc 80.


[6] Same as above. Loc 69, 610.


[7] James’ letter is certainly one of the earliest New Testament writings, but it’s difficult to say which was the first.


[8] Hebrew doesn’t have vowels. If you’re fancy, call God’s name the Tetragrammaton. That’s Greek for “four letters.”


[9] Interestingly, at least Noah and Hagar were aware of God’s proper name before Moses. Genesis 9:26, 16:11.


[10] Elohim is actually plural, but when the title is applied to the God of the Jews singular verbs are used. Unlike English, Hebrew has plural and singular forms of verbs. The plural title Elohim is applied to God to express his utter uniqueness. It also points to the Trinity; the singular verbs show that God is one.


[11] For example, see Psalm 82:1, 6 (and Jesus’ comments about this Psalm in John 10:34–35).


[12] Actually, in what’s called small caps. “In typography, small capitals (usually abbreviated small caps) are lowercase characters typeset with glyphs that resemble uppercase letters ("capitals") but reduced in height and weight, close to the surrounding lowercase (small) letters or text figures.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small_caps


[13] Remember, the New Testament was written in Greek, and Greek was the most commonly spoken language of the day thanks to Alexander the Great.


[14] For another example, see 1 Corinthians 8:6.


[15] Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J. Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodox, (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2010), Kindle, Loc 1535.


[16] The use of one article with two substantives strongly suggests these are the same person.


[17] James 1:1, 2:1. To see a similar example but in a gospel, read Luke 2:9–11.




















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