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The Epistle of James

Authorship

The introductory verses assume that Christians in the Diaspora will have heard of James and respect his authority. (Similarly the book Jude is validated in v1 by a vague connection with James.)

The book used to be attributed to James the son of Alphaeus (Mark 3:18, Acts 1:13) but modern scholars think it means James the brother of Jesus (perhaps half-brother or step-brother[2]) mentioned in Galatians 1:19, Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3. He became elder of the church at Jerusalem (Acts 12:17 and 15:13, Galatians 2:9 and 12). McKnight[9] says his theology resembles that of the Magnificat because Mary taught him as well as his half-brother Jesus. Eusebius mentioned "James the Just", the first bishop of Jerusalem[3], who lived as a Nazirite and spent so long praying in the temple that his knees became calloused[4]. James was stoned to death by the Jews in 61 CE.[2 p.1256]

Date

Some argue that James was written after James's death, because there is no early reference to it as a canonical book, though Origen cited it often. On the other hand, the author knew the teaching of Jesus but did not quote any known gospel, suggesting a date before the Gospels were written. Some commentators argue for a date as early as 48 CE[2] when the rich were persecuting the church as 2:6 says.

Audience

The references to "trials" and the Diaspora in the first few verses suggest that the intended audience was Jewish Christians outside Palestine, a much wider scope than other canonical epistles.

Style

The Greek is good, but the sentences are short and blunt, like a Jewish "string of pearls" sermon composed of loosely connected "sound bytes", or like a Christian version of "Proverbs". The language makes many doubt that James wrote it personally. He might have dictated his thoughts to a scribe, or others might have edited and published material from James.

Content

The teaching is practical and uncompromising yet traditional, like that of Matthew. James, being conservative, was able to remain in Jerusalem after most other Christians had left. Brown[5] sees similarities between James and the Sermon on the Mount, as indicated in the commentary below.

Martin Luther criticized James for saying that works are essential to salvation. (James actually says that faith leading to salvation can always be seen in the works that arise from it.) This caused Luther and the Protestant movement that followed him to reject James as "a right strawy epistle" [6] (though Calvinists accept it). Luther found Paul's teaching about "freedom in Christ" a wonderful antidote to the medieval church, which he thought bound by stifling rules, and assumed that Paul must have been reacting similarly to a Judaism that he had found similarly stifling and rule-bound. Christianity was the antidote to the legalism of the Mosaic Law, and from this he argued that James is not a fully Christian book. However, we now know that Judaism at the time of Christ did not see the Law as a burden, nor as the route to salvation, but that salvation was the free gift of God, and obedience to the Law was the proper joyful response to it. That is precisely what James says about Christianity, which makes Judaism a much closer precursor to Christianity than has traditionally been taught.

Luther's understanding of Paul comes from passages such as Galatians 2:16 and Romans 3:28. James 2:24 seems to flatly contradict them, yet they both justify their arguments by referring to Genesis 15:6. James is reacting not to Paul's teaching, but a misunderstanding of it: Paul taught that Christians are not saved by keeping the Mosaic Law (such as circumcision); James adds that the works required by the New Covenant (as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:2) are those of love[1] [2] [5].

Structure

Ch:verse after Reiner[2]after Brown[7]
1:1PrescriptGreetings
1:2–18Joy in TemptationsThe role of trials and temptations
1:19–27Hearing, speaking, doingWords and deeds
2:1–9The love command & dead faithPartiality toward the rich
2:10–13 Keeping the whole law
2:14–26 Faith and works
3:1–12Ethics of speech for teachersThe power of the tongue
3:13–18Wisdom and humilityWisdom from above
4:1–10 Desires as the cause of division
4:11–12 Judging one another as judging the law
4:13–17Warning to the richMore about arrogant behaviour
5:1–6 Warning to the rich
5:7–11Patience until the 2nd comingPatience until the coming of the Lord
5:12–20 Behaviour within the community

Commentary

1:1

The reference to "God and Jesus" suggests a date before the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. The target audience are Diaspora Jews.

1:2–11

These opening verses summarise the letter; verse 12 begins to develop the theme of verse 2, and so on.

1 Peter 1:7 agrees that testing can lead to growth, and Hebrews 5:8 says that when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness his strength to resist was built up. Testing is painful, and we may pray against it (Matthew 6:13, Matthew 26:39) but nevertheless we still get plenty of it. Perhaps the intended audience was experiencing persecution.

1:2

cf. Matthew 5:10–12. The discussion of joy picks up from the Greek greeting.

1:4

cf. Matthew 5:48.

1:5

cf. Matthew 7:7. This verse picks up the idea of lack from verse 4 and develops a specific instance of it. The theme of wisdom is then developed in 3:13–18.

1:6–8

God, like us, is unimpressed by someone who wavers, so doubt is a bad thing in prayer (Matthew 21:21–22). To pray to an idea of God that is too small to meet your need is to mistrust him.

1:8

See animals.

1:12

See Appendix 2: Bless.

1:13

cf. Matthew 4:1. God does not tempt us but he allows us to be tempted. By obedience we avoid situations in which we would be tempted beyond our strength to resist (1 Corinthians 10:12–13).

1:18

The word of truth might not mean only scripture but also preaching.

1:19–20

cf. Matthew 5:22. The theme of listening (to God) is developed in 1:22–25, speaking in 3:1–12, and anger in 4:1–2, and the connection between anger and sin may be based on Psalm 37:8.

1:21

"The implanted word" seems to mean the Gospel which someone has believed. It supersedes the Mosaic Law. It is described like a sacrament, containing within itself the power to save, and yet James seems to urge holiness through sheer effort.

1:22

cf. Matthew 7:24. Leahy[1] describes this as "an apt summary of the whole letter".

1:25

"Law of liberty" seems contradictory to Christians, but the Psalms (e.g. Psalm 1:2) describe the Old Testament Law as a joy rather than a burden, so this is a familiar Jewish idea.

2:1

We all pale in comparison with the risen Jesus.

2:2

The word synagogue can refer to both Jewish and Christian assemblies.

2:5

cf. Matthew 5:3.

2:10

cf. Matthew 5:19.

2:12

"Law of liberty": see comment on James 1:25 above.

2:13

cf. Matthew 5:7, Matthew 18:23–35.

2:14–26

cf. Luke 6:43–49, John 14:15.

2:17–26

cf. Matthew 7:16–18, Matthew 8:4, John 7:38, Romans 6:15. John agrees that faith is shown in action in 1 John 2:4 and 1 John 4:20. There is a tension between salvation by purely by faith and the need to act in obedience to God's commands. Jesus was critical of those who did the right things for the wrong reasons, as in Matthew 23:23. The balance is clear in the case of Abraham in Genesis 12 and Genesis 22: Abraham's obedience was a response to his faith. Do we preach salvation by faith, yet carefully observe rules and traditions?

2:21

The writer seems to be responding to Romans 4:3.

2:23

The writer quotes Genesis 15:6.

2:25

Rahab: see comment on Joshua 2:10.

Divisive Sins

3–5:6

Half of the book is chiefly focussed on sins that threaten to divide the fellowship. This aligns with Jesus's prayer "that they may be one" (John 17:1 and 22).

It is possible that everything after 3:1 is addressed to teachers rather than the congregation.

3:6

The text uses obscure images from Greek culture alongside Gehenna (the Valley of Hinnom), a Jewish image of hell used in the Gospels but not in any other epistle.

3:12–15

cf. Proverbs 3:7f and Matthew 7:16.

3:16–18

cf. Matthew 5:9.

4:1–3

Unselfish prayer is the most effective kind, though we should also pray for what we need and be honest to God about our fears, hopes and desires, as Jesus did in Gethsemane. See Matthew 6:31–33, James 5:16.

4:6

James quotes Proverbs 3:34. cf. 1 Peter 5:5.

4:10

cf. Matthew 5:5.

4:13–16

Perhaps James is expounding Matthew 6:25f.

5:1

The contrast between verses 5:1–6 addressed to "the rich" and 5:7f addressed to "brothers" implies that this section is not about oppression by Christians, but persecution of the faith. Perhaps the purpose of these verses, like Psalm 73, is to urge believers not to envy sinners.

5:2–3

cf. Matthew 6:19–20, Luke 6:24–25 and 12:33–34.

5:4

cf. Leviticus 19:13, Deuteronomy 24:14–15, Luke 10:7. The mention of adultery might be a metaphor for apostasy, as in Hosea.

5:5

Perhaps James is quoting some apocryphal book, now lost.

5:6

James quotes Proverbs 3:34 (1 Peter 5:5–9 makes similar use of Proverbs 3:34, so perhaps both authors were drawing on some widely used church teaching) which he goes on to expound…

5:7–8

cf. Matthew 24:37f. Leahy[1] p.915 regards this reference to Jesus's Second Coming as practically the only thought in James that is specifically Christian and could not arise in a Jewish setting. Given the context, it is probably the poor who need to be patient, because the rich will continue to oppress them.

5:9

cf. Matthew 7:1. James seems to think that failure of relationships between Christians will be judged particularly harshly at the Second Coming.

5:10

cf. Matthew 5:10–12.

5:12

Leahy[1] p.915 thinks that this may be closer to what Jesus actually taught than Matthew 5:34–37; here it is not the swearing that is sinful, but distorting the truth.

cf. Matthew 5:34–37. It was traditional to end a letter written in Greek with an oath confirming that the letter was genuine. Some say that James turned the tradition on its head by using the section where an oath would be expected to forbid swearing; however, this is not the end of the letter...

5:14

Brown[8] says this passage was important to the debates about which sacraments are biblical. Those who said that anointing is sacramental reasoned that healing of the sick, sometimes involving anointing, was performed in the New Testament by people who were later recognized as Bishops, Priests or Deacons. This ministry began when Jesus sent out the Twelve (Mark 6:7). Finally, James promises that the action ordained by Jesus will be effective; it is therefore a sacrament. This argument prevailed in the Roman church, but not in the reformed churches.

Leahy[1] p.916 compares this passage with others such as 1 Corinthians 12:9 and concludes that both charismatic healing (by those specifically equipped by the Holy Spirit) and liturgical healing (by authorized church leaders) are biblical.

5:15

The saving and raising up implies both physical healing and cleansing from sin. In both New Testament and medieval times the ambiguity seemed irrelevant because sickness was thought to be caused by sin.

5:16

See also James 4:3, Isaiah 1:15. The prayer of any righteous person, not only those who are ordained, is powerful. This is a reason why we should all pursue righteousness. Some see in this verse an instruction to confess one's sins before intercession, in order to be sufficiently righteous to pray effectively. James seems to hope that the result will be healing of the Christian community. Reiner[2] thinks that confession should make believers more ready to accept each other's shortcomings.

Didache 4:14 confirms that confession did not have to be heard by a Priest in the early church, and this presented a difficulty to those who considered anointing and confession to be sacraments, and that sacraments are the preserve of the clergy.

5:17–18

Leahy[1] p916 notes that James cites a duration for the drought though 1 Kings 18:1 does not. Jesus quotes the same duration in Luke 4:25, so the figure seems traditional, and is perhaps related to the apocalyptic "time, times and half a time" in Daniel 7:25 and 12:7, which also appears in Revelation 11:2 and 12:6.

5:19–20

James believes that a fallen believer can be restored, unlike Hebrews 6:4–6. Covering is a metaphor for the way God deals with sin, saving us without denying the truth about us, as in Psalm 32:1.

References:

  1. Leahy, T. "The Epistle of James" in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 1990) p.910f: the name James is a translation of the Greek Iakobos, a late form of the Hebrew name Jacob.
  2. Reiner, R. "James" in Barton, J. & Muddiman, J. (eds) The Oxford Bible Commentary (Oxford: OUP 2001) p.1255f
  3. Eddy, P. & Boyd, G. The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (2007: Baker) p.189
  4. Leahy q.v. p.909
  5. Brown, R. An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997) p.733f
  6. Drane J Introduction to the New Testament (Oxford: Lion 1999) pp341–3
  7. Based on Brown q.v. p.726f
  8. Brown q.v. p.736f
  9. McKnight, Scott The Real Mary London: SPCK, 2007 UK edn. p.105

© David Billin 2002–2021