Hershel Shanks & Ben Witherington III, “The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story and Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus and His Family”

This is a really interesting book — two books really, as discussed below.  I’ve observed elsewhere that, if you take the New Testament seriously or are thinking of doing so, you’d love to get biographical information of anyone who was both an important author and an important actor in that book, and James (along with Paul, Peter, and John) falls into that distinguished category.  Below are the notes I took.

The book is divided into two parts:  first a description of the archaeology of the James ossuary, and second a discussion of the (neglected) importance of James.  Both are good; the second is by Ben Witherington III, of whom I’m a fan (other books by him are discussed elsewhere on this site).  Witherington’s overarching point here is James’s role as a Jewish Christian, complementing Paul’s role as an apostle to the Gentiles; he sees this as an opportunity to build a Jewish-Christian bridge.  He also argues that the ascendancy of Peter (with Catholics) and Paul (with Protestants) has led to the unfortunate neglect of James.

Chapter 10 is all on the letter of James.  Striking parallels are discussed between what that letter says and what Jesus says in the various Gospels (147-52).  I found worthy of separate note that Jesus says (John 5:28-29) that the righteous are saved but the unrighteous judged.   And there’s this analogy (161):  Paul is to James as how to be saved is to how to live once saved.

There’s also a very interesting discussion (134-35, quoted below, footnotes omitted; more at 139-40) of the reason for the focus of the James compromise on eating and sex (see Acts 15:.28-29).  It’s an obvious question, after all, why of all the many sins that they could be committing, just these few were singled out for Gentile Christians as no-no’s.  In short, it was to keep Gentile converts out of the pagan temples:

   Let us suppose that the decree was as much about venue as it was about eating and sexual immorality.  Then we might ask, Where would Gentiles regularly encounter and be tempted by these four items?  What would be the most basic requirements that God requires of people?  Obviously the Ten Commandments suggest that a person must give up idolatry and immorality to properly worship the God of the Bible.  This is most likely what James is requiring in the decree, by saying, in effect, “Stay away from pagan temples where there is idol worship involving idol meat and blood and things strangled and sexual immorality.”

   James is requiring, then, that Gentiles forsake their pagan past, with its idolatry and immorality, and give up attending the worship and banquets found in pagan temples.  Temples, priests, and sacrifices were the essence of pagan religion in antiquity.  Often the sacrifices were performed ritually in the context of festivals and feasts.  Pagan temples became like some modern clubs, with guilds and associations and groups and individuals socializing and conducting business with their friends.  For Gentiles to stop going to pagan temples did not mean just retaining from participating in pagan rituals.  It meant giving up a large part of their social networking.

   James is not imposing food laws per se on Gentiles.  If Gentiles would consistently do what James requests, it would be a witness to Jews in the empire that the heart of the Ten Commandments was being honored.  We know from a text like Corinthians 8-10, which discusses the very matter of attending idol feasts, that Gentile Christians were tempted to continue following that social practice even after their conversion, and we know that Paul warned that it was scandalizing Jewish Christians, as well as Jews in Corinth.  In my view, Paul is implementing the decree in that instance.

   The implications of this interpretation of the decree are important for our understanding of James.  James is not imposing on Gentiles a modicum of food laws from the Old Testament.  He is rather urging a hard-and-fast break with their pagan past, especially with pagan worship and dining practices in temples.  In this regard, James and Paul are by no means far apart.

As to the ossuary’s authenticity, I looked at a couple of Wikipedia articles, and that authenticity remains quite plausible but it is also disputed.  This book was written in 2003, by the way.