“Hamilton” is in some ways a victim of its own success. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to remember that in, say, 2015, very few people knew much of anything about the historical Alexander Hamilton. So when characters in Miranda’s musical muse about the fickle nature of fate and the unpredictability of “who lives, who dies, who tells your story,” it can be hard to remember that, in the context in which Miranda wrote those lyrics, Hamilton’s story was largely untold.
That’s why I’m going to do a whirlwind tour through the Letter from James before getting to the Gospel of Luke. I’m off work this week, so I’m going to try to get through the (short) letter now, then move on to Luke next week. I’ll try to post these on my long-neglected blog, Reading Francis, as well as here on Facebook, where people actually occasionally read what I write. That way, those of you who can only take so much of my long-winded ramblings at one sitting know where to find more later.
The story of the New Testament is dominated by Paul’s success in building the Jesus movement among non-Jewish believers. Paul, the chief evangelist of the Gentiles, writes half of the books in the New Testament and is the subject of the only canonical history of the early Church (Acts), and one of the primary questions of the Gospels (especially Luke) is how to understand a God who claimed the Jews as His own, and yet has spawned a movement that is more successful among Gentiles. That dynamic is so central to the Christian story that the first believers, the Jewish Christians based in Jerusalem, have been all but forgotten historically. Their theology, which claims Jesus as the Messiah within a context that still honors the Torah, seems so strange to the Church that springs from the Gentile missions that when Martin Luther decides to sort out the “real Bible”, he’s tempted to put books like James in an appendix.
James himself is a mysterious and challenging figure. There are two disciples named James in the Gospel – one is the brother of John and is in Jesus’ innermost circle with his brother and Peter. The other is known as James the Lesser and has very little tradition connected to his life. This seems to be a third James. He is clearly the leader of the Church in Jerusalem, arguably even more so than Peter. Though Acts is focused on telling the story of Paul and the Gentile Mission, the author clearly knows James is the leader of the original band in Jerusalem.
Then there’s this: this James is referred to most often as “the brother of Jesus.” Some argue that the term “brother” could have really meant “cousin” or “step-brother” (from an earlier marriage of Joseph’s) or something less literal. But the text says brother, in which case one wonders whether he was among the kin who came to take Jesus home because they thought he was off his rocker, the kin Jesus said had been replaced by those who listened to him and believed him. For those who believe that to be so, James’ emergence as the leader of the Church is truly as remarkable a turn of fate as Paul’s switch from Christian persecutor to champion.
I can’t tell you if James was really Jesus’ brother. I can’t tell you whether the letter attributed to him was really his writing or that of a disciple. I can’t tell you whether it was written in the mid-late first century, during the time of persecution around the destruction of the Temple, or if it came decades later. But I can tell you that, contra Luther, it has a lot to say to Christians today, and it’s a remnant of a story that has mostly been lost. The world is wide enough for both James and Paul, you could say.
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