Did the Apostles Paul and James believe in the same Jesus?
The thesis of Mustafa Akyol’s 2017 book The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims is basically this:
The first faithful followers of Jesus (who, like Jesus, were Jews) understood Jesus to be the completely human Messiah who the Jews had been waiting for. These Jewish Christians stayed faithful to all of the Old Testament law and their leader was the Apostle James, brother of Jesus.
Then, the Apostle Paul came along. He taught that Christians didn’t have to follow the Old Testament law and that they are saved by faith alone. Furthermore, mixing in some beliefs of the pagan Romans, these Christians proclaimed Jesus to be God in the flesh.
Clearly, according to Akyol, these two branches of early Christianity were at odds with each other, but Paul’s version won out and survives to this day as mainstream Christianity, which is the corrupted version of true Christianity. Akyol seems quite confident in his theory, even stating that it’s “historical fact that the two men had become the originators of two different branches of Christianity.” (P.5) Yes, you read that right; this, according to Akyol, is “historical fact”! According to Akyol, the true Christian faith of the first Jewish Christians “vanished in history,” condemned as heresy.
Akyol isn’t the first person to try to argue that Paul invented Christianity as we know it or that Paul corrupted the pure Christianity of Jesus. Akyol isn’t even the first person to pit Paul against James.
Akyol puts much stock into his idea that the Epistle of James, which is part of the New Testament canon, demonstrates an “implicit divergence from mainstream Christianity.” (P.4) Christians throughout history have noticed what may be a tension between Paul’s emphasis on salvation-by-faith-alone and James declaring “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24), and this has been addressed by many, many Christian theologians and scholars over the centuries (and we’ll take time to address it in a later blog), but Akyol goes even further in suggesting that the letter of James is totally at odds with historical, orthodox Christianity, as if it’s a remnant of the earliest, truest Christianity that has somehow snuck itself into the New Testament canon.
Akyol points out that James’ letter never calls Jesus “the Son of God” (P.3) and elsewhere he states James (and the early Jerusalem Church, which James led) did not believe Jesus was God incarnate (P.35).
If Akyol is right and James’ letter is representative of the first Jewish Christians – the true followers of Jesus, according to his theory – then the letter would NOT confirm the deity of Jesus.
Did James believe Jesus was a strictly human messiah? Did James not believe Jesus was the incarnate, divine, second person the Trinity? If the idea of Jesus being divine was foreign to James, we should expect, at least, that he is silent on the issue of Jesus’ divinity in his letter, right?
“LORD” VS. “GOD”
Let’s go to the actual letter of James in the New Testament and see what James has to say himself:
1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
So, as we start with chapter one, we are only one verse in and we already run into an issue with Akyol’s theory. (Yes, we didn’t even get out of James 1:1!) Here, James begins by referring to Jesus as “the Lord.”
Here’s the thing: we modern people see the word “God” and we think – well – “God,” meaning a divine being. And when we see the word “Lord,” we think that could just be a human. For example, Lord Byron was just a man. And those familiar with the Bible likely see “Lord” and think, “Well, that could be God, but it could also be just a human.” And how they determine which “Lord” it is – divine or human – they must look at the context of the writing to figure it out.
But there’s the rub: when we read the New Testament and we see “Lord,” it is a divine title. In other words, “God” means God and “Lord” means God. Thus, when Jesus is called “Lord” in the New Testament, he is being called “God.”
Let’s go back to the Old Testament.
The name of the one, true God of the Bible is Yahweh, as given to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3). This is God’s personal, proper name.
In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, adonia is a title often given to the one, truly divine being, Yahweh, but it is a title that can also be given to people. Adonia is usually translated as “lord.”
The Hebrew word elohim is another title, which is usually given to the one, truly divine being, Yahweh. This is usually translated “god.” But, the thing is, elohim can (though not often) even be a title given to powerful humans. For example, see Psalm 82:1 and 82:6 (and Jesus’ comments about this Psalm in John 10:34-35). Yet over time, as we see in our day, the title “god” came to only refer to divine, supernatural beings, and when someone says “God” today, they are referring usually to a specific idea of a divine being and using it like a proper name for that being.
(Important note: Biblical Hebrew and Greek do not have lower and upper case letters; thus, when reading the original languages, we can’t depend on a word being capitalized or not – like in English – to help us interpret the understanding of certain words. We must look at context.)
In ancient Israel, in order to not accidentally break the commandment to not use Yahweh’s name carelessly (one of the Ten Commandments – Exodus 20:7), the ancient Jews would avoid saying “Yahweh,” even when reading Scripture, and would instead substitute it with adonia (Lord). They would do this in writing as well.
This tradition carried over into the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures – what we call the Old Testament). So, where the original Hebrew reads “Yehweh,” the translators of the Septuagint instead wrote the Greek word for Lord: Kyrios.
This tradition continues into our modern English translations today. If you open up your English Old Testament to a random page, you’ll likely find “THE LORD” written in all small caps. This is to signify that the original Hebrew reads “Yahweh.”
The evidence in the New Testament shows that when Jesus and the first Christians quoted Scripture, they quoted the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament. Scholars confirm this. Thus, the Septuagint was the translation of Jewish Scripture primarily used and read by Jesus and the Apostles, and the Septuagint refers to the only one, truly divine being as Lord (Kyrios).
Just as “god” became a word to exclusively mean divinity, the word “lord” (kyrios) to the New Testament writers was a word to describe divinity as well. In other words, when the New Testament authors write that Jesus is “Lord,” they are saying Jesus is the God of Israel.
Read the New Testament letters carefully. You’ll notice almost exclusively (with some exceptions), God the Father is called “God” and Jesus/the Son is called “Lord.” (And, yes, sometimes, Jesus is called “God” too!)
So, James 1:1 should be understood as follows:
“James, a servant of God [the Father] and of the [God] Jesus Christ.”
The New Testament writers understood the Father and the Son as two persons (of three) of the Trinitarian Godhead; they were different persons sharing the same divine substance. Thus, they referred to one divine person by the title “God” and the other by the title “Lord,” yet both were titles for divine beings.
If you don’t believe me, let’s let James speak for himself…
JAMES SPEAKS FOR HIMSELF
Make a short, short jump from 1:1 to 1:5-8, and we already see this in James’ letter:
5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
Here, James first says to ask for wisdom from God. Then, James explains how to ask properly, saying we shouldn’t assume we’ll “receive anything from the Lord.” James is clearly using “God” and “Lord” as interchangeable synonyms; God is the Lord, and the Lord is God. Who did James call “Lord” in 1:1?
Later in Chapter 1, James refers to God as “the Father” (1:17) and also writes “God, the Father” (1:27). Though God is referred to as a father in the Old Testament, referring to God as “the Father” and as “God the Father” are unique titles given to God by the writers of the New Testament, implying the Trinity.
Chapter 3 of James’ letter begins with the famous “taming of the tongue” section, where he warns of the dangers of careless talk. Using the tongue as a symbol of human speech, he writes:
9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. (3:9)
Already, we saw how “God” and “Lord” are interchangeable in 1:5-8 and also that “Father” is a title for God. Here in 3:9, we see that “Lord” and “Father” are interchangeable. Not only that, but the whole point of 3:9 is that humans are not to use the same mouth they use to praise God to curse humans, who are made in God’s image. Clearly, the Father, the Lord, and God all share an identity.
Moving on to Chapter 5, we see “the Lord” throughout. Should we understanding these to be references to the strictly human, non-divine Jesus of Akyol’s theory or as references to Jesus, God the Son, second person of the Trinity? Let’s see what the context tells us:
Verses 7 and 8 speak of the end times coming of “the Lord.” If what we looked at above is ignored, a Muslim like Akyol could likely argue that this reference is to Jesus and nothing about it implies divinity; it’s a common Muslim belief that Jesus was a human prophet of Allah who will also return at the End Times. But as we read on in Chapter 5, we see “the Lord” (which is how Jesus is referred to in 1:1) is clearly God, Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament:
10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. (5:10-11)
Take note, James refers to the prophets (which can only mean the Old Testament prophets) “who spoke in the name of the Lord,” i.e. Yahweh, i.e. God. Next, we have a reference to the book of Job of the Old Testament and Job’s encounter with “the Lord,” which can, again, only mean Yahweh, i.e. God.
Thus, the “Lord” of verses 7 and 8 who will return at the End Times is Yahweh, and both Christians and Muslims agree that it is Jesus who will return at the End Times. Further, again, who is called Lord in James 1:1?
There are other times “Lord” appears in James, but I think you get my point. James calls Jesus “the Lord.” James calls God “the Lord.” Thus, James believed Jesus is God.
OK, ONE MORE VERSE
Finally, let’s jump back to James 2:1:
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.
If this is a proper translation, here we find James explicitly stating that Jesus is God. To a good Jew like James, only Yahweh is “the Lord of glory”! Now, to be perfectly transparent, this is a hard sentence to translate, and other translations do not translate it in the same way as the ESV quoted above. Here are other ways to translate it:
“…faith in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“…faith in our Lord of glory, Jesus Christ.”
“…faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Glory.”
“…faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”
Some of these translations may be giving Jesus a divine title more overtly than others, but in David P. Nystrom’s commentary on James, he states, “In any event it seems clear that in this rare case of Christology in the book of James, Jesus Christ is identified with the Shekinah, the visible manifestation of the divine. James believes that in Jesus God is revealed… the very manifestation of God’s glory” (James: NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan P. 114).
In support of this understanding, see 1 Corinthians 2:8, where Paul speaks of Jesus as “the Lord of glory,” and Acts 7:2, where Stephen describes Yahweh as “the God of glory.”
Ironically, Akyol actually quotes 2:1 in his book to emphasize how Jesus is only mentioned by name twice in Jame’s epistle, not realizing the significance of Jesus being called “Lord” in both passages where Jesus is named and “the glory” in 2:1.
WRAPPING IT UP
To wrap up, Akyol makes a mistaken assumption when using James’ letter to argue that James did not believe in the divinity of Christ: he assumes that just because James’ epistle is in the New Testament, that the letter must explicitly declare the divinity of Christ. Think about it: if – for example – a pastor was writing to his church, which he already knew believed Jesus was God, would he need to lay all that out to them again?
Yet, Akyol does not take into account the specific purpose, audience, or even genre of the writing. If James is writing to Christians already familiar with Christian beliefs, why would he need to explicitly declare Jesus’ divinity? Why assume every letter written by an Apostle will lay out the whole of Christian theology?
The truth is, most letters in the New Testament are not theological manifestos. They are written to specific churches about specific topics and issues. With this, James’ epistle more closely follows the genre of Proverbs than the theologically heavy letters of the New Testament, such as Romans or Hebrews.
Finally, as we’ve seen, what Akyol misses is that James does declare Jesus to be God. Does James explicitly proclaim it? No, he assumes it. This implicit proclamation is weaved throughout his letter, and once noticed through careful reading, it is just as powerful as any explicit declaration of the God-man Jesus Christ.