The book of James is, perhaps, one of the more enigmatic books of the Bible. From the beginning, it had problems getting into the canon, but once accepted, it led the section known as the epistles. Then during the Reformation period, it fell into serious disrepute. Martin Luther referred to the book of James as "an epistle of straw." He thought that James contradicted Paul and all Scripture. And for the next half millennium, Luther's comments would dominate scholarly opinions about James.
Ironically, it is only in recent years that interest in James has been fervently rekindled. It was in the spring of 2002 that an Israeli collector invited another collector to see some difficult-to-read pieces that he had acquired. One of them was an ossuary with the inscription, "James, son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus," emblazoned on its side. Too good to be true, subsequent painstaking tests revealed the "brother of Jesus" part to be a later addition! But it certainly added to the interest and study of James, a study that is both informative and revealing regarding the early church.
Notwithstanding several arguments that Jesus didn't have any brothers (because legend has it that Mary and Joseph were perpetual virgins [!]), we're going to proceed on the basis that Jesus did have a brother named James and that this was the person who wrote the book of James. So, what do we know about this individual? Traditionally, scholars have always believed that Jesus' family was pretty unimpressed with his ministry and none of them believed in Jesus until after the resurrection. According to tradition, however, Jesus appeared to James after his resurrection, and the next thing we know is that James is in charge of the Jerusalem Church. Most people think this occurred after Peter had decided to go up to Rome, leaving the church in Jerusalem in James' capable hands.
Today, scholars are questioning many of these assumptions – and for good reason. First of all, if James had been an unbeliever until Jesus appeared to him, how is it that we don't know about his conversion? Paul's is recounted three times in Acts alone, and surely James' conversion would have been just as significant. Yet, there is only a passing reference to it – by Paul, no less. Secondly, there are really only a few passages that suggest Jesus' family was unsupportive (See Mark 3:20-21; John 7:1-5). Most of the traditional interpretations of these passages have been based on preconceived assumptions that Jesus' family was unsupportive.
But some leading scholars now believe that Jesus' family could have been followers of his ministry prior to his crucifixion. Several even argue that they were there from the beginning. Why is this important? Because of the way James is portrayed in Paul's letters and the book of Acts.
Paul states in Gal 1:18-19: "Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Peter, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord's brother." This encounter with James and Peter occurred just a few years after the resurrection. James is already on the scene in Jerusalem and influential enough for Paul to want to see him. There is, of course, no proof that he had been there all along, but to achieve such high standing within a few short years would be nothing short of a meteoric rise to the top. And since it took so long for the apostles to accept Paul, it seems illogical that they would have embraced James if he had opposed Jesus' mission throughout his lifetime. Indeed, Paul calls him an apostle – "I saw none of the other apostles, except for James." The earliest definition of an apostle was given by Peter when they were in the process of replacing Judas. He states in Acts, "It is necessary to choose one of the men that have been with us the whole time, that Jesus went in and out among us. Beginning from John's baptism through the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection" (1:21-22). Remember how Paul had to defend his apostleship because he had only seen the Lord afterwards? If James had not been a follower of Jesus before his death, where is his defense? Interesting question!
Let's talk about James and Peter. The prevailing opinion has always been that Peter was the leader of the church until he was imprisoned following the death of James, the brother of John. The night before Peter was supposed to be sentenced, an angel led him out of the prison and he went to the home of Mary, where believers had gathered. He told them all that had happened and said, "Go, show these things unto James and all the brethren." Then he left, basically handing the reigns over to James. This would have been around 47-48CE. Over against this, however, are the writings of several church fathers, which refer to James as the first Bishop of Jerusalem. Clement of Alexandria goes so far as to say that after the resurrection, "Peter, James, and John did not claim pre-eminence….but chose James the Just as Bishop of Jerusalem." In an apocryphal writing, known as the Gospel of the Hebrews, it states that Jesus' first resurrection appearance was to James and according to this tract, James was present at the Last Supper.
Obviously, scholars are giving these issues new attention. Regardless of how that turns out, one thing is known for certain about James in the early church. By the year 48-49CE, when they convened the first Jerusalem Council to determine whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised, James was clearly the man in charge. It was James, the brother of Jesus, who made the final decision. He cast the deciding vote and argued that scripture provided the warrant for them to know that God's people would include those taken from among the Gentiles – apart from circumcision. The importance of this step cannot be overemphasized. This is to be seen as an expansion of the Jewish nation. He maintained that the church would be the means by which the Gentiles came to God. His final word was to "not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God." That was the decision. Case closed.
Do we think this is historical? That James had this amount of authority? Scholars give it a lot of weight, primarily because Luke, whom most scholars see as being an advocate of Pauline doctrine, wrote Acts. He would not have made this up if it hadn't really happened. This is virtually ascribing to James the final say, the last word. James is the one who issues the so-called Apostolic Decree.
Years later, when Paul returned to Jerusalem for the last time, he was anxious to visit "James and all the elders." That visit ended with Paul's imprisonment. At that point it would appear that the Jewish Christians, led by James, seemed to have the upper hand. They were also converting thousands who were faithful to the Law. It basically affirms Jesus' mission to the lost sheep of the house of Israel – a mission that included circumcision and the following of certain dietary restrictions. And according to that scenario, James' ministry was simply an extension of what Jesus had intended all along. The Gentiles are there too, but there is little harmony between them.
Josephus, a first-century historian, gives us a sense of James' influence in writing about his death, which occurred in 62. Festus had passed away that year, and before the Romans could send another governor, the chief priest, Ananus, quickly convened the Sanhedrin and brought James and a few others before the court. He accused them of transgressing the law and delivered them up to be stoned. The account reads, "Those of the inhabitants of the city who were considered the most fair-minded and who were in strict observance of the law were offended at this. They therefore secretly sent to King Agrippa urging him …to order [Ananus] to desist from any further such actions." King Agrippa did better than that -- he deposed Ananus after only three months.
Now, out of curiosity -- who were the "fair-minded ones…who were in strict observance of the law" that were so offended by this action on the part of the high priest? Wouldn't they also be Jews? Obviously, the Christian church in Jerusalem is still very Jewish. Asking such questions of history has opened up a whole new view on all aspects of the early church – including the role of the Pharisees in the New Testament, as well as James.
The book of James itself appears, like Paul's epistles, to be a letter, but it lacks many of the common elements that comprise the components of an ancient letter. For that reason, others have likened it to a sermon, or moral exhortation. Some of it reads like the book of Proverbs. There are similarities between James and the wide range of wisdom literature from the ancient Near East. Nonetheless, James has a slightly different focus in that he is concerned with the practical wisdom of right behavior as it applies to Torah. He has a very favorable outlook on the law, seeing it not as a burdensome set of rituals, but as a royal command rooted in the law of Leviticus – Love thy neighbor as thyself.
A careful reader of James will recognize many statements similar to those found in Matthew's Sermon on the Mount. Consider this from 5:12: "Above all, my brothers, do not swear – not by heaven or earth or by anything else. Let your 'Yes' be yes, and your "No,' no, or you will be condemned." In Matthew 5:34-37 we read: "But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven…or earth….Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one." Some scholars make much of the fact that James, unlike Matthew, does not attribute these words to Jesus. Then again, if this epistle had been written decades before Matthew's gospel, maybe he didn't have to; maybe everyone already knew who had said those words. In fact, these could be the most authentic words of Jesus in the New Testament.
And if that's true, then James becomes very interesting in light of that which he leaves out. For example, there are no miracle stories in James, no mention of Jesus' earthly ministry or his life either, for that matter. James does not talk about Jesus' death or resurrection, nor does he discuss baptism, the Holy Spirit, or the Lord's Supper. In fact, there are only two references to Jesus. However, James does talk a lot about God. God is often the subject of an active verb. God is, first and foremost, one (2:19). He is generous (1:5) and holy (1:13); He is immutable (1:17) and the unchanging source of good. He is creator of all (1:17) and has created humans in His own likeness (3:9). He has planted a word within humans, which can save (1:21). He accepts religion as pure and faultless if it includes looking after orphans and widows in their distress (1:27). He has chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom God has promised those who love Him (2:5). He invites people to come near to Him and promises He will come near to them (4:7); all those, who humble themselves before God, will be lifted up by Him (4:10). Those who are sick will be healed, and sinners will be forgiven (5:15), for God is full of compassion and mercy (5:11). In all this He is sovereign and will judge accordingly because He alone is able to save and destroy (4:12).
The book of James, then, is very God-centered; Paul would be considered more Jesus-centered. Life, as seen through the eyes of James, would be a life where God is on one hand and the world is on the other. People must choose one over the other, for they can never be harmonious. The world will always be in opposition to God. This is not unlike what Jesus states in John 15:18: "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first." James talks about this either/or concept in terms of friendship. He maintains that one cannot be friends with the world and be a friend of God. A friend of the world bases his life on desire, competition, envy, violence, murder and war. That person will always be in opposition to the one who lives his life in terms of God's gifts and who leads a life of peace and cooperation. At the heart of his book, James takes those to task who want to live in both spheres. Maybe they have the words down pat; they get everything on an intellectual level. But their practice doesn't always match what they profess. This doesn't cut it for James; he calls them "double-minded," because they want to live in both worlds. Not only does he call them on this, but he also shows how illogical and self-deceived they really are. In the final chapters of his book, he calls them to conversion, to will only one thing – to be a friend of God.
So would this kind of thinking be considered an early or late development of early Christianity? Most opt for an early date, which is completely consistent for the majority of scholars because they accept James the Just as the author of this book. But look at the implications of this. In the world that James is writing to, there is no hint of the Gentile-Jewish controversy. James refers to the meeting or assembly of the church with the word synagogue, indicating there had been no break between the Jews and the Christians. (2:2) In fact, there is no suggestion of a controversy over circumcision or Judaizers either. The book is addressed to the "twelve tribes which are scattered abroad." Perhaps this is a reference to the twelve tribes of Israel, the Jewish Christians outside of Palestine. Or it could be a metaphorical reference to all those who are spiritual heirs to Israel and living far away. Indeed, if it is a reference to Jews in the Diaspora, this letter could have been written soon after the persecution and dispersion of Jews that was perpetrated by Paul. If this were true, it would make James the first book of the New Testament.
Maybe the book of James should be read and studied a lot more. Yet most readers would find among its pages a way of life that would seem very radical in today's world. It would be a life that is rooted in social ethics based on peace and security rather than opposition and aggression. But that might not be all bad.
There are roughly six sections to this letter: 1:1 – Introduction/Statement of Faith; 1:2-27 – Trials and Temptations; 2:1-26 – Treatment of the Poor and Faith that Works; 3:1-18 – Wisdom Involving the Tongue; 4:1-12 – Christians in the World; 4:13-5:20 – Misplaced Confidence and the Coming of the Day of the Lord.
I -- 1:1 – Introduction/Statement of Faith - NIV
James introduces himself as servant of God and Jesus Christ. The letter is sent "to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations"
II – 1:2-27 – Trials and Temptations
- The testing of faith
- James addresses his readers as "brothers"
- He will not mince words, yet he greets them warmly
- When they suffer trials, they are to consider it pure joy
- These trials refer to times when faith is severely tested
- The joy comes from seeing God's perspective in the matter
- Testing of faith develops "perseverance"
- This is a heroic virtue that leads to stability and strong character
- "Perseverance" is developed slowly, in accord with one's commitment to Christ
- The final result is someone who is "mature and complete, not lacking anything"
- If they lack wisdom (don't know how to do this), they should ask of God
- God will give (wisdom/Holy Spirit) generously to all and without finding fault
- People, however, must ask in the context of faith (believe and not doubt)
- A doubter is "like a wave of the sea," a wind-tossed, unstable Christian
- That person has no right to expect anything of the Lord
- That person is "double-minded" – unstable and untrustworthy
- The true believer will see beyond present circumstances
- The humble Christian will take pride in his/her position
- God has already exalted him up
- The rich, however, "will pass away like a wild flower"
- What appears to be success accounts for nothing in the future kingdom
- Therefore, "blessed is the man that perseveres under trial"
- Those who withstand the test will be rewarded – given the "crown of life"
- Enticement to sin does not come from God
- Those who fail the test (of perseverance) generally have excuses
- Yet, they cannot say that God sent the test and he made it too hard
- God does not tempt anyone
- Therefore, God can be trusted
- When people are tempted (and fail), it is due to their own evil desires
- (There is no Satan to blame here)
- The source of temptation lies within the individual
- There is a chain reaction – test, desire, sin, death
- The ultimate result of failing the test is not maturity, but death
- In this they should not be deceived
- "Every good and perfect gift is from above…"
- If the gift is wisdom, then God gives the answer, not the problem
- Wisdom allows us to withstand (persevere) the test
- God is immutable, "the father of heavenly lights" which do not change
- This is unlike the sun and moon, which do change
- God has given us birth through the word of truth (gospel)
- (This is a spiritual, not material birth)
- We are, indeed, the firstfruits of God's good creation
- Listening, receiving, and doing of the Word
- Proverb: "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger"
- This is not just a personal truth for all, but a requirement for harmony
- In a community ripe with "gifts of the Spirit" people needed to work together
- It wasn't about grandstanding; it was about the good of the community
- Human anger cannot bring about the righteous life that God desires
- The appropriate response can only be one of meekness and endurance
- They should purge themselves of all "moral filth" and evil
- In so doing, they will accept the word that is planted in their hearts
- This commitment will result, no doubt, in a change in lifestyle
- They cannot merely "listen" to the word, they have to "do" the word
- True knowledge leads to right actions
- Those who merely listen are compared to looking in a mirror
- As soon as the morning routine is completed, everyone forgets about his/her appearance
- But the one who looks intently and continues to do so will be blessed
- It is the "perfect law" that gives freedom
- "Law" here means the teachings of Jesus
- "Freedom" is not license to misbehave, but to live rightly
- This law does not enslave but is freely accepted and practiced
- Those who think they are religious will keep a close reign on their tongue
- Anything less is simple self-deception and their religion is worthless
- The religion that God accepts as pure and faultless is not rituals and ceremonies
- God's religion is based on looking after widows and orphans and keeping oneself pure
- This requires active charity for others and a renouncing of human culture
- Conversion means nothing without a changed life
III – 2:1-26 – Treatment of the Poor and Faith that Works
- The integrity of faith
- James admonishes the "brothers" not to show favoritism
- He compares two visitors, one finely dressed, the other shabbily attired
- If you show favor to the one and not the other, "have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?"
- God is an impartial judge and He is to be their guide
- God has chosen those who are poor to be rich in faith, to inherit the kingdom
- God views the poor very differently from how the world views them
- The church lacks this perspective
- They have shown preference to the rich, who have exploited them
- The rich have been dragging them into court (for nonpayment of debts)
- The rich have also been mocking Christianity (the name of our Lord)
- In spite of all this, the church acts just like them in insulting the poor
- If they really want to keep the law of Scripture, they are to "love your neighbor as yourself"
- (The "neighbor" would be the poor)
- They cannot choose which part of the law to keep; they must keep the whole law
- To break one part of the law is to be a lawbreaker
- Both their speech and action must be looked at in the light of judgment T
- he law gives freedom – it points away from sin and shows the way of life
- Those who have not shown mercy will be judged without mercy
- "Mercy triumphs over judgment"
- Mercy here literally means caring for the poor
- The connection between faith and action
- There is no faith without corresponding action If faith is only intellectual, only expressed in religious practices, it cannot save
- James uses the example of seeing someone without clothes and food
- This person clearly has a great need
- If you wish him well without helping him, "what good is it?"
- In the same way, "faith without action is dead"
- (Paul: the only thing that matters is faith expressed through love [Gal 5:6])
- Some might say, "You have faith; I have deeds" (Different gifts of the Spirit)
- James' response: "Show me your faith without deeds and I will show you my faith by what I do"
- Faith must be demonstrated by your works
- People say they believe in God – so do the demons!
- If they haven't committed themselves to a life of obedience, they are no better than Satan
- James cites scriptural illustrations to make his point
- The first is Abraham who was asked to sacrifice Isaac
- He demonstrated his faith by his actions
- God was real to Abraham; God governed his life
- He responded when tested and was found righteous
- He was called "God's friend"
- "You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone"
- "What he does" means works of love and charity
- "Faith alone" means an intellectual knowledge of Christ without commitment
- God will not save the one who only goes through the motions
- His second illustration is Rahab, the prostitute (See Joshua 2:1-21)
- Rahab had faith, but it was her actions that saved her (and her family)
- "As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead"
- Only faith with commitment and right actions is able to save
IV – 3:1-18 – Wisdom Involving the Tongue
- Dangers of the tongue
- "Not many of you should presume to be teachers"
- Because teachers are important, they will be held to a higher standard
- Teachers are models for behavior, not just instructors of the word
- Those who claim to be teachers will be held accountable if they mislead
- There are many ways to "stumble," but the tongue is hardest to control
- The mature (perfect) Christian will keep his tongue and his whole body in check
- If you keep your speech pure, the rest will follow
- James uses the analogy of a horse with a bit in its mouth and a ship's rudder
- A small bit controls the whole horse; a small rudder turns the biggest ship
- The tongue is also small, "but it makes great boasts"
- The smallest spark can set off a great forest fire
- The "tongue is also a fire" – spreading evil, corrupting the whole body
- Words can have serious consequences
- Humans have tamed all kinds of species, but they cannot tame the tongue
- "It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison"
- The tongue is used to praise God and curse men who are made in God's likeness
- This should not be the case; it shows double-mindedness
- James concludes his argument with more analogies
- Fig trees don't bear olives; grapevines don't have figs
- Salt springs don't have fresh water
- Therefore good men will have good words; evil men will have evil words
- Discerning wisdom
- Is wisdom good rhetoric or a good life?
- Actions speak louder than words
- A good life is demonstrated through good deeds, deeds that are "done in the humility that comes from wisdom"
- If, however, the Christian's heart is filled with envy, selfish ambition, "don't boast about it" (pretend to be filled with the Spirit)
- Don't compound the evil by claiming that God inspires your behavior
- That would only blind them further to the truth
- Such "wisdom" does not come from God; it is earthly, unspiritual, and of Satan
- Envy and selfish ambition lead to disorder and every evil practice
- This is the logical consequence
- In contrast to worldly wisdom is the true wisdom that comes from God
- It is pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive
- All are qualities of a teachable person
- It is full of mercy and good fruit – charitable actions
- It is impartial and sincere
- Motives match the outward acts
- "Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness"
- One cannot have true peace unless everyone is treated justly
V – 4:1-12 – Christians in the World
- If God is the author of peace, "what causes fights and quarrels among you?"
- It is the desires that battle within you
- It is a battle between your commitment to God and the influences of the world
- Your desires are frustrated, and frustrated desires are the source of sin and conflict
- You should turn your desires over to God – ask God!
- Believers might respond that they have prayed about this
- Perhaps they ask with wrong motives
- Their hearts need to be in tune with God's desires
- Prayer is not a technique used to manipulate God to get what we want
- God is a gracious God and will give good gifts
- But prayers cannot be motivated by selfish desires
- James calls these people adulterous – spiritually unfaithful
- They have two choices – to be friends with the world or with God
- "Friendship with the world is hatred toward God"
- The world's values and goals are in opposition to obedience to God
- God longs for the Spirit that he made to live in us
- (God breathed into his people at the moment of creation)
- God will judge those who refuse to repent, yet God is a gracious God
- It is God's nature to forgive
- He "opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble"
- Believers, then, should submit to God, resist the devil
- Even though this is an internal struggle, if they give in, they will be yielding to the devil
- If they turn to God, God will turn to them
- He wants them, then, to purify their hearts, "you double-minded"
- Proper repentance includes grieving, mourning, and wailing
- But if they humble themselves before the Lord, he will lift them up
- James warns them not to slander one another or to speak against another
- In so doing, they would be speaking against the law and judging it
- Negative comments would suggest that they are trying to improve God's rules
- There is only one Judge and one Lawgiver
- That is the only one who can save and destroy
- Who are you to set yourself up as judge?
- The one who is critical usurps God's role
VI – 4:13-5:20 – Misplaced Confidence and the Coming of the Day of the Lord
- Another example of worldly wisdom involves the (Christian) businessmen
- They make plans and carry them out, but they do not know what will happen tomorrow
- They need to consult God with their plans, not have a false sense of security
- Everything should be in accord with God's will, not their own
- It doesn't mean not to make plans; those plans just need to be in accord with God's goals and ideas – that's true security
- As it is, they only boast and brag – "all such boasting is evil"
- Such an attitude robs God of his true sovereignty and exalts themselves
- "Anyone who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins"
- In reference to the businessmen, they know they should obey and follow God
- Sometimes, though, they ignore what they know they should be doing
- Denunciation of those who are wickedly rich
- If these are Christians, he classifies them as non-believers
- They should weep and wail over the misery that awaits them
- He provides a graphic description of that coming misery
- Their worldly possessions will fade, rot, or corrode
- Their day of judgment has already arrived
- Some refused to pay wages; the cries of the laborers have reached the ears of the Lord
- They have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence
- Now, like the fatted calf, they will be slaughtered
- They have condemned and murdered those who were not opposing them
- The courts of justice have always benefited the wealthy
- But the final court is God's and He has heard the cries of the oppressed
- Be patient until the coming of the Lord
- James uses the analogy of a farmer who plants, then waits
- In like manner, believers should be patient for the Lord's coming is near
- As they wait, they should stand firm; they should not doubt
- The Lord's coming is bad news for the rich, unbelievers
- He again warns them about grumbling against each other
- Tempers can be short if people are feeling pressured
- But such behavior is very destructive to a community
- If they are harsh on others, God will be harsh on them
- "The Judge is standing at the door!"
- They should take their lead from the example of the prophets
- The prophets were "an example of patience in the face of suffering"
- Though mocked in their day, prophets are now blessed for their perseverance
- The example is Job who was restored by the Lord
- "The Lord is full of compassion and mercy"
- Thoughts on prayer
- Do not swear – not by heaven or by earth
- "Let your 'Yes' be yes, and your 'No' be no" (Very similar to Matt 5:34-37 in the Sermon on the Mount)
- Every word should be trustworthy, hence there is no need for an oath
- For anyone in difficult circumstances, he should pray
- Prayer has value in every aspect of life
- Those who are happy should sing songs of praise
- If anyone is sick, he should ask the elders to pray for him
- "The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well"
- Prayer grows out of a life committed to God
- Those who have sinned will be forgiven
- All should confess their sins and pray for each other so they will be healed
- "The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective"
- Elijah is used as an example
- He was just like us, but his prayer was effective in both starting and stopping the drought
- Do not wander from the truth
- If anyone wanders from the truth, someone should "bring him back"
- The person who does so not only will save him from death but also will "cover many of his sins"
- God does not desire the death of anyone; his grace is available for all
James ends his piece with a note of grace and forgiveness. According to his last line, one can best save himself by saving another. The "letter" lacks the customary final greetings, but it resembles 1 John and Jude. It invites the reader to pray for others and challenges them to act on behalf of those going astray. In a sense, this is similar to the gospels in that it is a commission to go out and share the good news. But it appears that James is less interested in converting others than he is about doing good deeds within the believing community. He wants Jesus' followers to remain true to their commitment – and to have concern and responsibility towards each other.
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Hartin, Patrick. "James." Sacra Pagina. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 2003.
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