This book is part of a ten volume series called Interfaces, described by its editor as “a curriculum adventure, a creative opportunity in teaching and learning, presented at this moment in the long story of how the Bible has been studied, interpreted, and appropriated” (p. v). In his introduction, Fr. Hartin points out that James of Jerusalem was not an isolated individual “but rather in interface with other great Christian leaders, Paul, Peter, and his ‘brother’ Jesus.” Study of James sheds new light on the early decades of Christianity “helping us rediscover dimensions either lost or glossed over in its transmission” (p. ix). Hartin says “James was a giant of the early Christian church, the residential leader of the Jerusalem community and other Jewish Christian centers. His vision was to remain true to his roots within Judaism and to his brother Jesus. As time went on his vision lost out to Paul” (p. xxi).
Hartin examines James as a member of the family of Jesus (as indicated in the Gospels), as leader of the Jerusalem community (Acts and Letters of Paul), as a wisdom teacher (Letter of James), outside the canonical writings, and finally he examines his legacy, concluding that “Despite the fact that James’ vision faded and lost out to Paul’s, James of Jerusalem still holds an importance and significance for today” (pp. 141-142).
Hartin looks at passages in the Gospels which speak of the relationship between Jesus and his family and seem to indicate a hostile relationship, particularly evident in Mark, but toned down somewhat in Matthew and Luke. He concludes that the passages in Mark are part of Mark’s rhetorical intention to draw a contrast between Jesus’ natural family and his “eschatological family,” those who follow Jesus and do the will of God. From this, Hartin argues, one cannot leap to conclusions regarding the historical relationship between Jesus and his family, including James who is named as one of Jesus’ “brothers,” a term which Hartin argues is best understood to mean a kinsman or relative.
Hartin reaches four conclusions after examining references to James in Paul’s Letters and in Acts. The picture of James is defined by the fact that he was a Jewish Christian. James did not envision that Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah should abandon the Torah. James’ attitude toward a Gentile mission was one of tolerance and acceptance, but this did not include table fellowship. Rather Gentiles were accepted into the Christian communities much as God fearers were into the Jewish synagogues. Finally, James emerges as the most influential person within the Christian community at Jerusalem.
Employing the concept of the implied author, Hartin affirms the traditional authorship of the Letter of James as James, the brother of the Lord. But he suggests the actual author may have been a disciple of James, writing in his name, shortly after James’ death in 62 C.E.. He concludes “The voice of the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount [in Matthew] and the voice of James [in the Letter of James] are very close in reproducing the authentic concerns of Jesus’ teaching” (p. 113).
In traditions outside the canonical writings of the New Testament James was considered the leader par excellence by Jewish Christianity and Gnosticism, while within emerging orthodox Christianity he was regarded simply as an apostle working together with the other apostles.
Hartin contends that the legacy of James for today is that in a postmodern world James “issues a challenge to remain faithful to one’s roots while respecting the perspectives of others,” his understanding of religion “challenges the believer to embrace a social concern as its very foundation,” and finally James challenges the Christian “to treasure his/her identity as a Christian and to hold onto the vision that fosters that identity” (pp. 153-154).
While some of the conclusions Hartin reaches rest on rather thin evidence, the picture he draws of what might be called the “multiple Christianities” of the first several centuries of Christianity is interesting and instructive. Most interesting is his description of Jewish Christianity, a Christianity which understood the mission of Jesus to be that of restoring the twelve-tribe kingdom of Israel faithful to God’s will revealed in the Torah. Christians who seek to be faithful to the teaching of Jesus today cannot ignore this vision even though most of us, as Gentiles, are not bound by the prescriptions of the Torah. We can thank Fr. Hartin for excavating this vision for us.