James 0

The Bible is not necessary for Christian faith. The New Testament was written to people who already had Christian faith. The gospels, the accounts of Jesus’ life, were written decades after the events they describe. Even the letter of James, the earliest New Testament text, came several years after Jesus. So what did those recipients of James’ letter believe, if they did not have the Christian Bible?

Scripture actually answers this. Paul, toward the end of one of his letters to the believers in Corinth, took his audience back to the first principles they shared. His letter reminds them of the good news he received and passed onto them, point by point. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, he wrote:

I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures, and that he was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that he was seen by over 500 brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that he was seen by James, then by all the apostles.

This is what Paul received, the first creed. This was the faith he accepted and transmitted. In the attempt to explore the first flowering of Christian scripture by reading James, this creed therefore represents an important starting point. If you will, this creed is James chapter 0. It was the assumption so fundamental to the New Testament audience that the first New Testament letter did not mention it.

That’s not to say that this is all the first believers knew. Jesus’ life and teachings were in the air and under discussion. Likely there were even some initial written accounts that no longer survive. But the people then could only have had very different levels of access to this information. Direct eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus knew a great deal, while far-removed believers knew little. That was OK, said Paul. Only a few elements are vital.

To paraphrase Paul’s passage above, those key elements are:

1. Christ died for your sins.

2. He was buried.

3. He was raised.

4. His death and resurrection unfolded as the Old Testament foretold; and

5. His return to life was a real historical event that real people saw.

That’s it. Just this much comprises the starting premise. To know just this much is to have enough equipment to set out, to begin a walk of faith. James takes it from there.

[Coming: 31 Days of James]