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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 and exposition.

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.

Keith Akers
June 30, 2006