Essenic Piety and the Epistle of James

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The Gospels, the book of Acts, and Paul’s letters tend to dominate our view of early Christianity. With the possible exception of Revelation, the books that appear after the Pauline corpus (i.e., Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude) are usually treated as little more than extraneous sweepings, even by those who would never intend to slight any part of the Bible.

The Gospels, the book of Acts, and Paul’s letters tend to dominate our view of early Christianity. With the possible exception of Revelation, the books that appear after the Pauline corpus (i.e., Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude) are usually treated as little more than extraneous sweepings, even by those who would never intend to slight any part of the Bible. Among scholars, the older view is that most, if not all, of these writings are too late to serve as a window onto pre-Pauline Christianity. Recently, however, that view has come under fire, and with that development some now contend that these books contain invaluable clues to the earliest Christian movement.

Those scholars who have busied themselves with this back-of-the-Bible material have known all along that there was more to these books than others were willing to credit, but it is not so much the ongoing work of New Testament scholarship per se that now promises to give these writings a more prominent and natural light. Rather, this promise is largely due to developments in a neighboring field, Qumran studies, as well as the spillover from that field onto our understanding of popular Jewish piety beyond Qumran. If asked which stream(s) of first-century Judaism Christianity most resembled, many scholars today would confidently answer “the Essenes”. David Flusser anticipated this understanding long ago by calling attention to the Essenic quality of “pre-Pauline Christianity,” and Matthew Black (among others) added support to this view shortly thereafter.[1] Neither Flusser nor Black, however, said much about the Epistle of James, which, in recent discussion, is probably the New Testament book that has done more than any other book to insinuate the Essene-like quality of early Christianity.

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  • [1] See David Flusser, “The Dead Sea Sect and Pre-Pauline Christianity,” in Scripta Hierosolymitana, vol. 4: Aspects of the Dead Sea Scrolls, eds. Chaim Rabin and Yigael Yadin (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1958) 215-66; Matthew Black, “The Scrolls and Christian Origins: Studies in the Jewish Background of the New Testament (New York: Scribner, 1961) 75-88.

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  • Jack Poirier

    Jack Poirier

    Jack Poirier is the chair of biblical studies at the newly forming Kingswell Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio (scheduled to open in Fall 2008). Jack earned his doctorate in Ancient Judaism from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where he wrote a dissertation…
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