The Brother of Jesus
The Brother of Jesus and the Lost Teachings of Christianity. Jeffrey
J. Bütz. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2005. 220 pages.
If you are looking for an intelligent and readable book on James, the
brother of Jesus, look no further. This is the best single book on James
there is. Rev. Jeffrey Bütz, a Lutheran minister and a professor at
Penn State, clearly explains why understanding James, the brother of
Jesus, is important in understanding early Christianity and Jesus
himself. James was the leader of the Jerusalem church after Jesus and
subsequent leaders were also in Jesus’ family — thus founding a
"dynasty" or perhaps a "family-owned business." I
discovered this book after I read James
Tabor’s book The Jesus Dynasty but it was actually
published a year before it and puts forward some of the same arguments
In broad overview, Bütz discusses James in the family of Jesus as
well as in the controversies in the early church, including the
"apostolic council" (Acts 15), in which the whole question of
the relationship between Jews and gentiles is brought to the fore. He
brings out all the "heretical" sects in which James is
honored, including not only the Ebionites but the various "gnostic"
groups and documents in which James plays a role. He then discusses the
implications of all of this for the history of Christianity, for the
historical Jesus, and for the modern church. This is quite an
undertaking and a significant contribution to the whole history of this
period and for understanding Jesus himself.
Now on the face of it, you’d think this was pretty obvious. James,
the family of Jesus — obviously important to understand Jesus, right?
But most scholars and religious people have pretty much swept James (and
the rest of the family) under the rug, a footnote to history, much less
important than either Paul or the Q gospel (the sayings gospel
pre-dating, and used by, both Matthew and Luke). But actually, in many
ways James is more important for understanding Jesus than either
Paul or Q.
Bütz has done quite a service. You’d think that by now modern
liberal scholars would get a clue and look at James, but even with the
modern deluge of Jesus literature there have been precious few that have
done so — John Painter and Robert Eisenman being two of note. Bütz
takes a rather different path in considering James — and to me, a more
straightforward one — than either of these authors. He does not
utilize the idea of Robert Eisenman (author of James the Brother of
Jesus) that the Dead Sea Scrolls were early Christian documents, but
he does clearly acknowledge Eisenman, who famously concluded his mammoth
book with the statement — which Bütz quotes with approval —
"Whoever and whatever James was, so was Jesus."
The history of James was deliberately sidelined by the early orthodox
church, with the Catholic Church even today maintaining that Jesus had
no siblings at all (James being considered a cousin of Jesus). James is
additionally slighted when he is described as being the head of the
local church in Jerusalem, not the whole church, a task which is given
to Peter. One important reason this happened is that acknowledging that
James was the leader of the church after Jesus leads us directly to the
Jewish Christian Ebionites — those early Christians who, like Jesus,
still considered themselves Jews. Bütz understands the critical
importance of this connection and quotes with approval James Dunn’s
assertion that "heretical Jewish Christianity would appear to be
not so very different from the faith of the first Jewish believers."
The Ebionites held that it was James, not Peter, who was the true leader
of the earliest church, and on this point at least it was the
"heretics" who were right.
Among all this are several features which I found especially
interesting. Bütz has a brief but really brilliant summary of the whole
knotty and difficult problem of matching up the accounts in Galatians
with the accounts in Acts. In Galatians 2:1-10, Paul describes an
important meeting with James and Peter in which it is decided that
circumcision is not a requirement for new gentile adherents of the Jesus
movement. But to what in Acts does this correspond? Is it the apostolic
council in Acts 15, or was this already settled in Acts 11, with Acts 15
taking up thornier questions like meat offered to idols? Regardless of
what view you take on this, though, it’s clear that James played the
decisive role in this dispute.
And so what were these "lost teachings of Christianity,"
which we are promised in the title of his book? Bütz has an interesting
take on this question. In my book The Lost Religion of Jesus I
argued that the lost teachings were simple living, pacifism, and
vegetarianism. Bütz does not deny this approach, but it is not the
thing he singles out for emphasis, though he does quote at length (and
with approval) the famous passage from Eusebius which describes James’
refusal to eat meat or any animal food, or drink wine.
Instead, Bütz emphasizes a different aspect which I hadn’t thought
of, namely the need for interreligious harmony. Bütz says:
. . . our world desperately needs to recover James, and in the
process, recover Jesus — a Jesus who would want nothing more than
for all the children of Abraham — Jew, Christian, and Muslim — to
live together in peace as one family in the Kingdom of God.
This has obvious contemporary political implications because of the
current conflict involving the United States in the so-called "war
on terror." If Jesus was properly understood (through an
understanding of James), he would be seen as a common thread, rather
than a divisive figure between Christianity and Islam. In fact, as Bütz
points out, the characteristics of Jesus according to Islam are
precisely the features of Jesus according to Jewish Christianity. This
book is both an important contribution to the history of early
Christianity and to the unfolding revolution within modern Christianity.
June 30, 2006