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that the words of John xix. 25 refer the terms “his mother's sister” and “Mary the wife of Clôpas” to the same person, and that the James and Joses who were her sons were identical with the two who bear those names in the list of the four “ brethren" of the Lord in Matt. xiii. 55, Mark vi. 3, and that they are called “ brethren,” though really only cousins.
Against this conclusion however we have to set the facts : (1) that it is by no means certain that in St John's enumeration of the women who stood by the Cross, “his mother, and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clôpas, and Mary Magdalene," even when taken by itself, warrants the inference that “his mother's sister” was identical with “ the wife of Clôpas;" and (2) that a comparison with Matt. xxvii. 56, and Mark xv. 40, makes it far more probable that she was the same as Salome, the mother of the sons of Zebedee. (3) In Acts i. 13, the “ brethren” are named after the Eleven Apostles, and clearly as distinct from them; St Paul, in i Cor. ix. 5, in like manner distinguishes them from the Apostles. It is primâ facie utterly improbable that the two writers should so have spoken had three, or even two, of the “brethren” been enrolled in the company of the Twelve. (4) Yet more important in its bearing on the question is the part taken by the “brethren of the Lord” throughout His ministry. They come, with the mother of Jesus, to check His preaching, and are contrasted by Him with His disciples as His true brethren (Matt. xii. 46–50; Mark iii. 31–35; Luke viii. 19—21). The tone in which the men of Nazareth speak of them (Matt. xiii. 55 ; Mark vi. 3) is hardly compatible with the thought that they had accepted Him as the Christ. As late as the last Feast of Tabernacles before the Crucifixion, St John definitely quotes words as spoken by them which imply doubt and distrust, and states that they did not then believe on Him (John vii. 5). It is surely scarcely conceivable that those of whom such things are said could have been among the Twelve who were sent forth to proclaim their Lord as the Head of the Divine Kingdom. On these grounds, therefore, in spite of the authority of many great names which might be cited in its favour, we are, I believe, compelled to reject the hypothesis that James the son of Alphæus was identical with the brother of the Lord, and except on that hypothesis, there are absolutely no grounds whatever, external or internal, to connect the former with the authorship of this Epistle.
IV. It remains, therefore, that we should (1) consider the claims of the last-named James, known as the brother of the Lord, and (2) inquire into the nature of the relationship which that name was intended to express. When these two points are settled we can pass on, without further hindrance, to what we know of the life and character of the writer.
It must be admitted that the evidence in this case begins at a comparatively late date. Eusebius (Hist. III. 25, circ. A. D. 330) reckons “the Epistle known as James's” among the writings which, though accepted by the majority, were yet open to question (antilegomena). It is clear from another passage that by this James, the reputed author of the Epistle, he means the brother of the Lord," to whom the Apostles had assigned the "throne" of the bishopric of Jerusalem (Hist. II. 23). The first of the Epistles known as Catholic was said to be his. He adds, however, in his truthful desire of accuracy, “It should be known that it is counted spurious by some. Not many of the ancients, at any rate, have made mention of it, as neither have they of that of Judas, which also is one of the seven Catholic Epistles. But nevertheless we know that these two have been publicly read and received in very many Churches.” Origen (Comm. in Foann. xix. 6) had spoken of "the Epistle reputed to be by James," and quotes from it as by him (Hom. VIII. in Exod.), but does not specify to which James he assigns it. Jerome, whose long residence at Bethlehem makes him the representative of the Syrian as well as the Western tradition, takes up the language of Eusebius. “James who is called the brother of the Lord, known also as the Just, wrote one Epistle only, which is one of the seven Catholic Epistles. Yet that too said to have been set forth by some one else in his name, though gradually, as time went on, it gained authority.” (Catalog. Script. Eccles.)
The very early list of the books of the New Testament, in the Ambrosian Library at Milan, known, from the name of its first editor, as the Muratorian Fragment, and referred to a date about A.D. 190, though having no authority, except from its antiquity, is remarkable as confirming the statement of Eusebius that the Epistle of St James was not universally accepted. The list includes, besides books about which there was no doubt, the Epistle of Jude, and two Epistles of St John, the Apocalypse of Peter (a book conspicuously apocryphal), the Shepherd of Hermas, and even the Wisdom of Solomon, but it makes no mention of the Epistle of St James. After the time of Eusebius, however, in spite of the doubting tone in which he speaks, it won its way to general acceptance. It appears in the list of the Council of Laodicea, .c. 59 (A.D. 363), of the third Council of Carthage, c. 39 (A. D. 397), of the so-called Apostolic Canons. It is acknowledged by Cyril of Jerusalem (Catech. iv. 33, A.D. 349), by Epiphanius of Cyprus (Adv. hær. LXXVI. 5, circ. A.D. 403), by Athanasius (Epist. Test. 39, before A.D. 373), by Gregory of Nazianzus (A.D. 391), and no question was raised as to its authority till the 16th century, when the dogmatic bias of Luther and his school led them to revive the old doubts as to its inspiration and canonicity.
The conclusion from these facts would seem to be that the Epistle of St James came somewhat slowly into general circulation. It was natural that it should do so. Though addressed to the Twelve Tribes of the Dispersion, it does not follow that any very effectual measures were taken to secure its reaching them. And so far as copies did find their way to distant cities, they were addressed, we must remember, to the declining and decaying party of the Church of the Circumcision. They came from one whose name had been identified, rightly or wrongly, with that party in its attitude of antagonism to the teaching of St Paul and the freedom of the Gentile Churches. The writer's personal influence had not extended beyond the Churches of Judea, and the Churches of the Gentiles did not feel the impression made on those who knew him by the saintliness of his life and character. The writer of the Muratorian Fragment represents this early stage of the history of the Epistle. He does not reject it. He has obviously not heard of it. When the letter becomes known to the students and scholars of the Church, to men like Origen, Eusebius and Jerome, they naturally at first speak of it with some hesitation. After a time inquiry leads to a more prompt and unquestioning acceptance. The more critical writers have no doubt that the James, whose name it bears, was the brother of the Lord, and not the son of Zebedee; and their judgment, as the result of inquiry and given in the teeth of the natural tendency to claim an Apostolic authority for any fragment of the Apostolic age, may well be looked on as outweighing the conjecture of a Syrian transcriber in the 9th century who yielded to that tendency, or the scarcely less conjectural inferences of recent writers.
V. So far, then, we have reached a fairly firm standing ground, and may take a fresh start on the assumption that the Epistle was written, not by the son of Zebedee, nor by the son of Alphæus, but by James the brother of the Lord. A question of great difficulty, however, once more meets us on the threshold. What kind of relationship did that description imply? Very different answers have been given to that question.
(1) We have the view that the “brethren of the Lord” were the sons of Joseph and of Mary, and therefore His younger brothers. This has in its favour, the common and natural, though not, it must be admitted, the necessary, meaning of the Greek word for “brethren," perhaps, also, the primâ facie inference from Matt. i. 25. It was adopted by Helvidius, a Latin writer of the 4th century, and has been revived by some recent scholars of high reputation, among whom are Dean Alford and Canon Farrar. It has against it the general consensus of the Fathers of the third and fourth century, resting on a wide-spread belief in the perpetual virginity of the mother of the Lord, and the fact that Helvidius was treated as propounding a new and monstrous theory. It may be admitted that the word does not necessarily mean that those who bore it were children of the same mother, and that Matt. i. 25 does not necessarily imply what, at first sight, it appears to mean. It is scarcely likely, however, with such words at hand as the Greek for “sister's son" (Col. iv. 10) or “cousins" (Luke i. 36), that it would have been used to express either of those relationships. Slightly weighing against it, perhaps, are (1) the action and tone of the brethren in relation to our Lord (Matt. xii. 46; John vii. 3-5), which is that of elder rather than younger relatives, and (2) the fact that the mother of our Lord is commended to the care of John, the son of Zebedee and Salome (John xix. 26), and not to those who, on this view, would have been her more natural protectors. It is probable, however, as stated above, that the wife of Zebedee may have been the sister of the Virgin, and if so, then there were close ties of relationship uniting St John to the latter. All that can be said is that the New Testament writers, if their language does not exclude the alternative theories, are, at least, not in any measure careful to exclude this.
(2) There is the theory that the “brethren” were the children of Joseph by a former marriage. It need scarcely be said that there is nothing in the New Testament to prove such a theory. Indirectly it falls in with what has just been said as to their tone towards our Lord, and the preference of a sister's son (assuming Salome to have been the mother's sister” of John xix. 25) to step-sons as a guardian and protector, would be sufficiently in harmony with the practices of common life. In the second, third, and fourth centuries this appears to have been the favourite view. It met the reverential feeling which, rightly or wrongly, shrank from the thought that the wedded life of the mother of Jesus was like that of other women. It gave to the word “ brethren," without any violence, an adequate or natural meaning. It was maintained by Epiphanius (A.D. 367), by Origen (in Joann. ii. 12, in Matt. xiii. 55), Eusebius (Hist. II. I), Hilary of Poitiers (A.D. 368), Gregory of Nyssa (A.D. 394), Cyril of Alexandria (in Gen. vii. p. 221), and with the modification that Joseph's first marriage was with the widow of his brother Clôpas, by Theophylact (Comm. on Matt. xiii. 55, Gal. i. 19). It has been revived in our own time by Canon Lightfoot (Excursus on “The brethren of the Lord” in Commentary on Galatians), and maintained as against the third hypothesis now to be mentioned, with arguments which seem to the present writer to admit of no satisfactory answer.