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Bible Commentaries
James 1

Orchard's Catholic Commentary on Holy ScriptureOrchard's Catholic Commentary

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Verse 1


The Author— ’James the servant of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ’, this is all the direct information which the author of this Epistle gives about himself. Is it to be considered an authentic work of apostolic times, or ’as probably the pseudonymous production of a Christian of Jewish origin, living in Palestine in the last quarter of the 1st cent or in the first quarter of the second’ as Ropes conjectures (p 1)? Catholic tradition solidly favours authenticity, and many nonCatholic authors concur with this tradition. Those who hold that the Epistle is pseudonymous point out: its pure Greek style, its silence on many questions which were agitating the Church of the first generation, and its uncertain position in the NT canon. Yet the following facts strongly favour authenticity. A forger would have identified himself with James the Apostle, or the Lord’s brother, by inserting the title in the inscription. Likewise the authoritative tone adopted by the author seems to indicate that he held an official position which would be recognized by Jewish converts. Lastly, the Epistle has many points of contact with the First Gospel, and’ there is every appearance that the writer had been a personal follower of the Lord’, * G. Salmon, Introduction to the NT, London, 19049, 454.

Assuming, therefore, that the author belonged to NT times, can we identify him with one of the Apostles of Christ, or with the Lord’s brother, the Bishop of Jerusalem? The majority of the Fathers of the Western Church identify the writer with James the Apostle, the son of Alphaeus, whereas in the Eastern Church the opinion of Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. 2, 23, 4, led some to distinguish between the son of Alpheus and the Lord’s brother, who was Bishop of Jerusalem. For a discussion of the question’ The Brethren of the Lord’ cf. §§ 672-3. There are, however, solid arguments for the view that James the Apostle is identical with James the Lord’s brother. In Galatians 1:19 St Paul writes: ’But other of the Apostles I saw none, save James the brother of the Lord’; and 2:9 he says: ’James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship’, where James is put on a par with Peter and John, two Apostles. Ae 1:13 names all the Apostles, and among them the name of ’James’ appears twice. Later, 12:2 we read: ’And he (Herod Agrippa) killed James the brother of John with the sword’. In the same chapter, 12:17, Peter, who had just been miraculously delivered from Erison, says: ’Tell these things to James and the brethren’. Here ’James’ is used without any distinguishing epithet, and we logically think of the only other James mentioned earlier in Acts, namely, James the son of Alpheus. Acts 15:13, James again appears at the side of Peter, and speaks with apostolic authority to Paul and Barnabas and the whole Christian church. Acts 21:18 tells how this same James receives an account from Paul of his missionary labours, an evident indication that he held an official position in the Jerusalem community.

Canonicity— Until the middle of the 3rd cent. the inspired character of Jas was questioned by some churches and accepted by’ others; and a century later Eusebius, Hist. Ecclesiastes 3:25, lists Jas among the ’antilegomena’ or disputed books of the NT. St Jerome, De Vir. Illust. 2, writes: ’Some hold it was actually written by another under his name, though in the course of time it gradually was accepted as authentic’. It is omitted from the canonical list contained in the Muratorian Fragment, but finds a place on other canonical lists of NT books, e.g. of Athanasius, PG 26, 1176; Origen, PG 12, 857; Cyril of Jerusalem, PG 33, 500; Third Council of Carthage, Dz92; Pope Damasus, Dz84; "Innocent I", Dz96. Commentaries on Jas were written by Clement of Alexandria and SS Cyril of Jerusalem and John Chrysostom, PG64, 1039 ff. Finally, Jas is quoted as Scripture by SS Ephraem, Hilary, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine and others. Hence we can claim that this Epistle found almost universal acceptance in the Church from the th to the 16th cent., when Erasmus, Cajetan and Luther revived the doubt about its authenticity and canonicity. Both were settled for Catholics at the fourth session of the Council of Trent, Dz784.

Destination and Purpose— The Epistle was addressed to Christians, 1:18; 2:1; converts from Judaism, 1:I; exposed to trials of many kinds, 1:2, 12; 5:7, 10; poor in material goods, 2:5; and oppressed by the rich, 2:6. Amid such hardships they sometimes manifested a lack of ’the wisdom from above’; eg. they sought too eagerly for material richs, 4:1 f, catered for the rich and snubbed the poor in their community, 2:1-3; neglected the corporal works of mercy, 2: 14-17; failed to control the tongue, 3:14; and quarrelled among themselves, 4:1 f. Such faults were common to all Jewish communities, and cannot be used to identify any particular community to which this Epistle was sent. The purpose of the author was to correct these faults and to encourage the faithful to be patient, constant in faith, cheerful, charitable, sincere, and to seek the peace and wisdom that descends from above, 3:17 f.

Date and Place of Composition— There is considerable uncertainty about the time when this Epistle was written. Scholars who admit the authenticity are nearly equally divided in claiming an early or a late date. The former group call attention to the primitive character of the teaching embodied in this Epistle, to the absence of any trace of the decision adopted by the Council of Jerusalem, Acts 15:28f., or of the controversy which occasioned it. The allusions to hunger, poverty and persecution are said to indicate the date of composition as a.d. 45, when the famine foretold by Agabus, Acts 11:28-30, and the persecution inflicted on the Church by Herod Agrippa, Acts 12:1ff., were raging, cf. CE 8, 276. The other group consider these arguments less cogent than the following, which postulate a later date: the teaching of St Paul regarding justification by faith seems to have called forth some of the statements made in James 2:14-26. Likewise the conditions mentioned in the Epistle, namely, a certain laxity in the performance of Christian obligations,

2:14 ff.; lack of charity, 1:27ff., mercy, 2:13 ff., moderation, 3:1 ff., temperance, 4:1-5, humility, 4:6-10 and justice 5:1-6, seem very much out of place in the earliest Christian period. Since the date assigned to St James’ death is about a.d. 62, the probable date of composition might be a.d. 61, and the probable place Jerusalem, where James was bishop, cf. Chaine, LXXXVII ff.

Theme and Analysis of the Epistle— Many different topics are treated, and often the transition is abrupt. What St James chiefly wished to correct was the tendency among converts from Judaism to follow the ways of worldy instead of heavenly wisdom. After a brief salutation, he alludes to various trials and bids his readers to bear them with joy and patience, 1:2-4, for which wisdom is needed that must be secured by confident prayer, 5-8; help may also be found in a correct estimate of the existing conditions of life, 9-11. Happy are they who remain steadfast under trial, for their reward will be an eternal crown, 12. Not all will be constant, but if any are overcome let them not blame God for their sin, who tempts no man to evil, 13-18. It avails naught to be a mere hearer’ of the law, 19; so let them curb a tendency to anger and malice, practise charity and purity, 20-27. Directly opposed to Christian justice and charity is the practice of catering for the rich and despising the poor; for God chose many of the latter to the faith, and the rich as a class are enemies of Christ and his followers. Christians must observe the whole law, and so speak and act as the Gospel requires, for according to its precepts they will be judged, 2:1-13.

Faith without works is a contradiction, and charity that limits itself to kind words, without manifesting itself in works of mercy, is an anomaly. A mere theoretical faith in God differs little from the belief of the devils. Abraham’s and Rahab’s faith revealed itself in works, which shows that faith without works is dead, 14-25.

No one should be over-anxious to assume the responsibility of a teacher, and all should exercise great care in restraining the tongue, a powerful instrument for good or evil. He who controls his tongue has perfect self-command. How inconsistent and unnatural to use the same instrument to praise God and curse the neighhour, 3:1-12. Gentleness and moderation are products of true wisdom, whereas envy, contention and falsehood spring from earthly wisdom, 13-18. Wars and contentions grow out of unrestrained desires. By becoming too attached to this world, men are alienated from God. Only humble submission, purity of heart, and true repentance can draw down God’s favour and grace,4:1-10. Detraction and rash judgment should be carefully avoided, 11-13a. Man is ever dependent on God for life and everything else; hence when he acts and speaks as if he were his own master, he violates God’s rights, 13b-17. Terrible will be the judgement of God on the rich, who glory in riches accumulated through injustice and used for purposes of self-indulgence and oppression of the just, 5:1-6. Then follow words of comfort for the oppressed, who are exhorted to be patient and trust in God, as did Job. Let them avoid swearing, and have frequent recourse to prayer, particularly in times of sadness, joy, sickness of body or soul; for God willingly hears the prayers of the just, as is proved by the example of Elias, 7-18. Finally, they are told to work for the conversion of their erring brethren, 19-20.

Doctrinal Content— Being pre-eminently a practical message, the Epistle does not expound the distinctive teachings of Christianity, but rather supposes them; e.g. we shall find no reference to the redemption through the passion and death of Christ, to his resurrection or the coming of the Holy Spirit. Yet the exhortations are Christian in tone, and there are many allusions to Christ’s teachings, particularly as found in the Sermon on the Mount. Like his Divine Master, St James stresses the blessedness of poverty and purity of heart; he would have us bear our trials with joy and pray with confidence; he warns against yielding to anger, forming rash judgements, indulging in oaths, courting the friendship of the world; he shows the uselessness of faith without works. But all these are practical, not doctrinal matters.

It has sometimes been rashly asserted that St James contradicts the teaching of St Paul on justification by faith. In Romans 3:20 and Galatians 2:16, the latter states that man is justified not by the works of the law, but by faith St James, on the contrary, insists that faith without works is dead and of no avail for salvation, 2:14-26. The explanation of this apparent discrepancy is to be found in the different approach of each writer to the subject. St James is explaining the nature of fatih which justifies, namely, that it cannot remain purely theoretical, but must issue in good works. St Paul, however, is arguing against certain Judaizers, who wish to make salvation dependent on the observance of the Mosaic Law. His point is that Christians are freed from the yoke of the Mosaic Law and not bound by its precepts. The Christian law has superseded the old law, hence the works of the old law are worthless for salvation, whereas faith in Christ is absolutely necessary for it. But St Paul does require good works to accompany faith and to spring from its teachings. In Galatians 5:6 he speaks of ’faith that worketh by charity’; Romans 2:6, ’God will render to every man according to his works’; Ephesians 2:10 says that we are created to perform good works; and every Epistle has its exhortations to practise Christian virtues, e.g. Rom 12-14; Eph 4-6. It is the teaching of the Council of Trent, session 14, De Extrema Unctione, canons 1-4, Dz926-9, that James 5:14 refers to the Sacrament of Extreme Unction. There is question in this passage of a Christian who is seriously ill., He is to summon the priests of the church, who should do two things for the sufferer: ’pray over him’, i.e. apply certain prayers with perhaps an imposition of hands, and ’anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord’, i.e. by commission and with the authority of Christ. This latter phrase applies to both the prayer and the action. Accordingly the anointing is to be regarded as a religious rite and not as a medicinal remedy, which seems to follow also from the effects described in verse 15: God will save the sick man, raise him up, and forgive him his sins. The first two phrases, independently of the context, might refer to a restoration of bodily health; but the third phrase expresses an undoubted spiritual effect, which includes a bestowal of sanctifying grace. ’To save’ is used five times in this Epistle, 1:21; 2:4; 4:12; 5:20 and in this context 5:15. In the first four instances it refers to saving the soul; hence it is very probable that it has the same meaning here. Without excluding a restoration of bodily health, we claim that ’saving the soul of the sick man is a legitimate interpretation of the phrase in its context. The purpose, therefore, of the prayer of faith and the anointing with oil is to heal the soul and wipe out the remains of sins of the sick man. Restoration to health through the Sacrament of Extreme Unction is a secondary effect which does not always happen. cf. C. Pickar, O.S.A. art. "Is Anyone Sick among You?" CBQ 7 ( 1945) 165-74.

Text and Style— Variant readings in the Greek.text of this Epistle are few and of little importance. Vg differs from the Greek text about eight times, as indicated in the commentary. The style of Jas is individual and striking, unlike that of any other book of the NT. It somewhat resembles that of Prov and Wis, and occasionally rivals the oratory of the prophets. The Greek is fluent and accurate, the vocabulary extensive, the expression vivid and colourful. It abounds in apt and impressive illustrations frequently drawn from nature. Some of the warnings and rebukes are severe and cutting, being prompted by true zeal and sincerity of purpose.

Verses 2-27

I-1 The Greeting— The short and simple form of this greeting corresponds to the ordinary type of address of a Greek letter, Acts 23:26. James, like Moses, is a servant of God; and like Peter, a slave of Jesus Christ, 2 Peter 1:1. His words of spiritual counsel and encouragement are addressed to the Christian Israel in all parts of the world. On ’the dispersion’ cf. 1 Peter 1:1.

2-4 Value of Trials— This opening paragraph shows the anxiety of the writer for the faithful under trial.

2. Aware that their faith is being put to the test by manifold afflictions, he bids them to look upon themselves as blessed when they suffer persecution for justice’s sake.

3. For the time of trial is a training school in which lessons of endurance, constancy, and solid virtue are effectively taught. Men of strong faith will stand firm in times of affliction when weaker brethren falter and give way.

4. Patient endurance tends to purify the soul, to sanctify and perfect it. A soul is perfected by the removal of everything contrary to the love of God, cf. Aquin. ST II, 2, Q. clxxxiv, Art. 2.

5-8 Plea for Heavenly Wisdom— Usually men see only the pain and difficulty connected with afflictions, and far from bearing them with joyful resignation they complain bitterly and even rebel against them.

5. Human nature, left to its own resources and guided only by natural reason, is incapable of regarding the hardships of life as sources of joy. Only God-given wisdom can cause men to look upon tribulations as messengers of Divine Providence. 6. This wisdom is bestowed upon those who ask for it with confidence. God is always ready to grant it with fatherly affection, setting no limits to his generosity and administering no reproaches. But the prayer must be made with faith, i.e. with entire confidence, never doubting God’s goodness and bounty. 8. He who hesitates will not be heard because he is ’double-minded’, i.e. when he prays, his mind fluctuates between hope and fear, doubt and desire; and his whole conduct is fickle and inconsistent. Is it surprising that such a petitioner should receive nothing from God?

9-11 Practical Application— 9. The poor man, through the patient endurance of poverty, will resemble his Divine Lord, who promised eternal life to the poor in spirit, Matthew 5:3. Thus is he exalted through his low condition.

10. The rich man, under the influence of divine wisdom, should humble himself before God, and recognize the worthlessness and transient nature of his wealth. Two other possible interpretations of this verse are: the rich man is to rejoice when he is brought low by adversity; and, taking the phrase ironically, the rich man rejoices in what is worthless in God’s sight, hence by glorying in perishable wealth he is actually degrading himself, because he does not live up to Christian standards. The first meaning seems best in the context.

12. The climax to this section on the value of trials is reached in the reward promised to the man who remains steadfast. With character matured, virtue perfected, and the love of God fully tested by trials patiently endured, the victor’s crown of eternal glory will be his according to God’s promise.

13-18 The Source of Temptation to Evil— Unfortunately not all Christians remain steadfast and many are overcome by temptation. They are warned not to throw the blame for their failure on God. Temptations may be considered as external trials or internal solicitations to sin. Previously St James was speaking about tests of character or of virtue; now he refers to influences that allure to sin. In themselves temptations are not sins, and when resisted they are the occasions for exercising virtue. When not resisted, the voluntary yielding to the temptation is what constitutes the sin.

13. Weak men are so apt to try to shift the blame for their inconstancy on God, who put them in such circumstances, gave them so yielding a disposition, and allowed them to meet with such evil companions. But God himself ’is untempted by evil’, and everything sinful is utterly foreign to his nature. He cannot desire evil, nor solicit man to commit evil.

14. Temptation to evil has its source in the individual. The bait that draws and allures him is concupiscence, the unruly passions and disorderly appetites. Sensuality or pride is aroused by some inducement to self-indulgence: anger or jealousy is stirred up by someone crossing his path, or standing in the way of his ambitions. When passion is aroused, it acts like a lustful woman on the will of man; it seeks to induce the will to enter into an unlawful alliance.

15. If the will consents, the first sin is committed through the evil desires that fill the heart, whereby concupiscence is said to conceive. The desires may lead to acts, and graver sin results. Finally, the sinful state may persist and grow to a sinful habit. Thus completed, sin begets death, eternal death, which stands in contrast to the ’crown of life’ held out to him who resists temptation.

17. Good gifts come from God, because he is Goodness itself. Unlike the luminous bodies which he created by an act which entitles him to be called ’the Father of lights’, he is unchangeable in his eternal purpose, which is never obscured or altered. No need to find here ’echoes of Zoroastrian cult’ or ’astrological speculation’. The beauty of the criental heaven by day and night deeply impressed the Psalmist, Psalms 18:1ff., and might readily suggest to a naive observer that the Creator of such bright, spotless, heavenly bodies could not will anything evil; also, to the fact that the mutations and revolutions of the heavenly bodies indicate dependence on a Creator, cf. Meinertz, 24,

18. God’s most perfect and absolutely free gift to us is our regeneration through the word of truth, the Gospel, whereby he willed to make us ’a kind of first-fruits of his creatures’. Under the old dispensation, the first-fruits of the harvest were offered to the Lord as an acknowledgement that the entire harvest came from him and belonged to him. Under the new dispensation, those regenerated through faith and baptism are the firstfruits of the human race. They belong to God, and are a reminder that all men belong to their Creator, and have duties towards him.

19-21 Curbing Anger and Malice— Dedication to the service of God puts the regenerated under special obligations, expressed in a proverb similar to sayings in the OT; Proverbs 13:3; Proverbs 17:27; Sirach 5:13-18.; 20 passim.

19. A certain eagerness in hearing, and reticence in speech, and slowness to take offence is recommended. Men are often sorry for having said too much, or having spoken out of anger; but they seldom regret that they listened first and held their angry feelings under control.

20. Outbursts of anger are not conducive to holiness, and God’s cause may suffer much through untimely and intemperate zeal.

21. Another hindrance to holiness is uncleanness, i.e. every kind of sinful defilement, and ’excess of malice’, which is opposed to meekness. These hindrances are like weeds that encumber the ground and prevent the growth of the seed, the implanted word, Matthew 13:22; but when the word of God is free and unencumbered, it is able to save men’s soul.

22-27 Doers and Hearers of the Word— 22. The Gospel requires the co-operation of man’s will to make it effective for salvation. It is not enough to listen to it and approve it; it must be taken to heart and reduced to action. Apparently some of the readers had not been making sufficient efforts to live in strict conformity with Gospel principles; yet these must regulate their lives, not merely in general but in every phase of it. Whoever is satisfied with knowing what is required, without making the necessary effort to act according to this knowledge, is deceiving himself by thinking that he is on the road to salvation.

24. The comparison to a man, who idly gazes into a mirror without having any definite purpose in mind while doing so, illustrates the fallacy by which the ’hearer’ is deceiving himself. The reflexion of the mirror will not remove the stains and blemishes it discloses.

25. Now the Gospel is a mirror of the soul, which shows one’s conformity or lack of it to the requirements of Christian conduct. Looking into it calls for a spiritual change; and if this does not follow, no benefit has been received. Compared to the old law, the Gospel is’ the perfect law of liberty’, being founded on love and not on fear, Romans 8:15. One who continually lives according to its principles leads a blessed life. He is at peace with God and his neighbout.

26. As illustrations of what must be done and what should be avoided, St James cites three urgent duties: restraint of the tongue, a practical interest in the needs of orphans and widows, and an avoidance of the vices of the pagan world.

Bibliographical Information
Orchard, Bernard, "Commentary on James 1". Orchard's Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/boc/james-1.html. 1951.
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