the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers Ellicott's Commentary
by Charles John Ellicott
THE GENERAL EPISTLE OF JAMES.
The Epistle of St. James.
THE REV. E. G. PUNCHARD, D.D.,
Late Fellow of St. Augustine’s College, Canterbury.
THE GENERAL EPISTLE OF JAMES.
I. The Writer.—Questions of Identity.—“James, a servant (literally, a slave) of God and the Lord Jesus Christ:” this is all the direct information to be learned from the author concerning himself. The name James was, of course, a favourite with the Jews under the more common form of Jacob, and is familiar to us in studying the books of the New Testament. “We read there of:—
James the son of Zebedee.
James the son of Alphseus.
James “the Lord’s brother.”
James the son of Mary.
James “the Less” (or, “the Little”).
James the brother of Jude.
James the first Bishop of Jerusalem.
Is it possible for us to decide between so many, or even feel fairly convinced that we can identify one of these as the writer of our Epistle? To reject them all, and ascribe it to another James, of whom no further mention is made, would seem to be the addition of fresh and needless difficulty to a problem already sufficiently obscure. The first claimant in the above list may be dismissed at once, from the fact of his early death. James the Great, as he is called, the brother of John, was executed by Herod Agrippa I. in A.D. 44 (Acts 12:2), a date much too early for this Letter; and no tradition or opinion worthy of consideration has ever attributed it to him.
The next inquiry must be one of much circumspection, beset as it is with thorns of controversy: in fact, the conflict of authorities must seem well nigh hopeless to an ordinary mind. Apart from the main question, many collateral ones have arisen to embitter the dispute, and by no means the last word has been said on either side. If, then, an attempt be here made to arrive at some conclusion, it must confessedly be with muck misgiving, and full admission of the almost equal arguments against our decision.
By comparing St. Paul’s description concerning Numbers 4:7 (above) in Galatians 1:19; Galatians 2:9-12, it is thought he must be referring to one and the same man; let that be granted, therefore, to begin with. We may identify Numbers 3:4 by the knowledge that James the son of Mary had a brother called Joses (Matthew 27:56), and so also had James “the Lord’s brother” (Matthew 13:55); and further we may consider Numbers 3:6 identical, because each was brother to Jude (Mark 6:3; Jude 1:1); James the Little, number 5, is clearly the same as the son of Mary, number 4. (Comp. Matthew 27:56; Mark 15:40; Luke 24:10.) These might, it is true, be coincidences merely, and, when we remember the frequency of Hebrew names, seem insufficient for more than hypothesis; but we are arguing on probability only, and not to absolute demonstration. Thus far, then, Numbers 3:4, Numbers 3:5, Numbers 3:6, Numbers 3:7, are thought to be one and the same person—the Apostle James, and he the Lord’s brother; the claims of number 1 have been disposed of; those of number 2, the son of Alphæus, remain. The question, perhaps the greatest of all, is whether the process of identification can be extended further, for on this depends largely the issue of the dispute with regard to the brethren of the Lord and the perpetual virginity of His mother.
Further Consideration of “the Brethren of the Lord.”—We have no need in the present instance to enter on the war-path of this theological quarrel. There seems an intentional silence in Holy Writ concerning the family of our Saviour, to teach us, perhaps, that it stood in no spiritually peculiar position nearer to Him than we may be ourselves, and to remind us of His precious words, “Whosoever shall do the will of My Father which is in heaven, the same is My brother, and sister, and mother” (Matthew 12:48-50). Bearing this in mind, and with thoughts of peace in our heart for those who truly—and reverently—differ from us, we may soon learn the outlines of this discussion.
The terms “brother” and “brethren” meet us so often in the New Testament, as applied to Jesus Christ, that we can hardly pass them by. Do they infer the strict and actual relationship, or one merely collateral?
1. Uterine, or Helvidian Theory.—The advocates of the natural sense, that these men were the younger sons of Joseph and Mary, urge the plain meaning of the Greek word adelphos, i.e., “brother,” and deny its use figuratively. They point, moreover, to Matthew 1:25, and suppose from it the birth of other children in the holy family. Those who shrink from such a view are charged with sentiment, as impugners of marriage, and even with ideas more or less Manichæan concerning the impurity of matter. The German commentator Bleek, and Dean Alford and Dr. Davidson amongst ourselves, contend thus for the actual brotherhood, maintaining the theory originally propounded by Helvidius, a writer of the fourth century, answered by the great Augustine. To their first argument we may answer that in holy Scripture there are four censes of brotherhood, namely, of blood, of tribe, of nation, of friendship, and the three last of these will all apply to the case in point. As for the view based on Matthew 1:25, the words, either in the Greek tongue or our own, authorise it not. To say “ho did not do such a thing until the day of his death does not (as Bishop Pearson has observed) suggest the inference that he did it then or afterwards; and the term “first-born “by no means implies a second, even in our present use of language, under similar circumstances. Above all, though it is confessedly no argument, there is the feeling alluded to by Pearson and others, and acquiesced in by many, that there could have been no fresh maternity on the part of
“Her who with a sweet thanksgiving
Took in tranquility what God might bring;
Blessed Him, and waited, and within her living
Felt the arousal of a Holy Thing.”
“And as after His death His body was placed in a sepulchre ‘wherein never man before was laid, so it seemed fitting that the womb consecrated by His presence should not henceforth have borne anything of man.” It is right, however, that the reader should be referred to the excellent Note of Professor Plumptre on Matthew 12:46, where the question is carefully discussed.
2. Agnatic, or Epiphanian Theory.—A second class of divines are in accordance with the theory of Epiphanius, who was Bishop of Salamis, in Cyprus, towards the end of the fourth century, and no mean antagonist of the Helvidians. At the head of their modern representatives, facile princeps for scholarship and fairness, is Canon Lightfoot. The brethren of the Lord are said to be the sons of Joseph by a former wife, i.e., before his espousal of the Virgin Mary, and are rightly termed adelphoi accordingly. Far from being of the number of the Twelve, they were believers only after Christ’s resurrection. Thus, then, are explained such texts as Matthew 12:46, Mark 3:31, Luke 8:19, John 7:5. By this supposition, James the Lord’s brother must be a distinct person from James the son of Alphæus. But an objection—nay, “the one which has been hurled at the Helvidian theory with great force . . . and fatal effect”—is strangely thought by Lightfoot to be powerless against his favourite Epiphanian doctrine. It is this: our Lord on the cross commended His mother to St. John: “Behold thy mother,” “Behold thy son” (John 19:26-27); “and from that hour,” we are told, “that disciple took her unto his own home.” If the Uterine theory be right, she had at least four sons living at the time. “Is it conceivable that our Lord would thus have snapped asunder the most sacred ties of natural affection?” Nor could the fact of His brethren’s unbelief “override the paramount duties of filial piety;” and the objection is weakened further by our knowledge that within a few days “all alike are converted to the faith of Christ: yet she, their mother, living in the same city, and joining with them in a common worship (Acts 1:14), is consigned to the care of a stranger, of whose house she becomes henceforth an inmate.” Now, all this argument, forcible and fatal as it unquestionably is to the idea of real and full relationship, is hardly less so against that of step-sons. For, seeing they were borne by a former wife, they must have been older than Jesus; and, on the death of Joseph, the eldest would certainly have become head of the family, in full dominion over the younger children and the widow herself, and with chief responsibility for their protection and welfare. The custom prevailed under Roman law as well as Jewish, and exists in the East still: being, in fact, a relic of immemorial antiquity. Nor can we conceive, for other than the weightiest reasons, such as immorality or crime, that our Lord, who came “not to destroy the Law, but to fulfil,” would thus openly have set one of its firmest obligations aside. It seems clear that the widowed mother watching by the cross, and soon to be childless among women, with the sword of separation piercing to and through her own soul (Luke 2:35), had none to care for her, except the beloved disciple into whose charge she was given by her dying Son.
3. Collateral, or Hieronymian Theory.—There remains one proposition more, known, from the name of its foremost champion, Jerome, as the Hieronymian theory; and this, on the whole, presents fewest difficulties to the religious mind. The sons of Alphæus (or Cleopas: the name is the same in different dialects) were the cousins of our Lord, their mother and His being sisters; and such a relationship would entirely justify the use of the word “brethren.” The balance of evidence seems to the writer of these Notes to incline towards this venerable belief; and, identifying “the son of Alphæus” with “the brother of the Lord,” he considers him to have been the James of the Epistle. Unless this solution of the difficulty be allowed, we are committed to the recognition of a third James an Apostle, and one so called in only a secondary sense. It is true the term was not strictly applied to the original Twelve, and therefore might have been applied to a third James as well as to a Barnabas; and we will further admit that, if James were one of the unbelieving brethren mentioned in John 7:5, he could hardly have been the early convert enrolled by our Saviour in His apostolic band: though Bishop Wordsworth, on the contrary, thinks that he, like Peter, might have fallen away for a time. A better account for such a statement may be sought in the reflection that, although it is recorded “neither did His brethren believe in Him,” there is no evidence against them all; and in the absence of negative proof it seems safer—at least, not inconsistent with the charity which “hopeth all things”—to think of James and Jude as happy exceptions to the family jealousy and mistrust.
Again, unless we consider the son of Alphæus the brother of our Lord, in the tribal sense of Jerome, we must admit the existence of two men, strikingly similar in life and calling, evidently related, each with a mother named Mary, and brethren Joses and Jude; and to which of these two, if they were not one and the same, can the Epistle be best ascribed?
Opinions of Theologians.—These problems, hard assuredly, seem fairly such as may best be solved by the ingenuity of ancient writers, well acquainted with contemporary ideas. The opinions of moderns, such as Lightfoot, Bleek, Alford, and Davidson, are grounded on no discovery of facts hidden from theologians who were at least as able and honest as themselves; and the old testimony has been so thoroughly sifted that, until more be brought forward, we had better remain undecided if we cannot hold a conclusion fortified by the consensus of Clement of Alexandria and John the Eloquent, in the Greek Church; Jerome and Augustine, in the Latin; Pearson, Lardner, Horne, Wordsworth, and Ellicott in our own; and by German writers, such as Lampe, Hug, Meier, and Lange.
Conclusion.—Thus we see the best ecclesiastical authority and traditions have pretty constantly assigned the authorship of the catholic Epistle to the third name on our list (above), and identified him with the second, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh, in accordance with what we venture to affirm is the plainest path out of the maze.
Further History of James.—So much externally; for internal evidence we have a singular agreement between the fervid abrupt style of the Letter and the character of its reputed writer, known as “the Just” by the Jews, and termed by them (in honour, not reproach) the “Camel-kneed,” from his long and frequent devotions. In no way conspicuous amongst the disciples, he comes into prominence only after the Resurrection; perhaps that witness to the Lord Christ was specially needed in his case to perfect faith, and to transform the silent man of prayer into the strong and fearless leader of the infant Church.
As the first Bishop of Jerusalem we find him (Acts 15:0) presiding in a solemn assembly to hear the missionary reports and to arrange for the requirements of Gentile converts. The pastoral letter (Acts 15:24-29) may be compared with the catholic one now before us, as it was probably written by the same hand. The last Scriptural notice of James is (Acts 21:18) on St. Paul’s final visit to the Holy City, when, again, a synod of the elders seems to have been held. A Greek Christian writer, named Hegesippus, himself a convert from Judaism, tells us more of the fate of this “bulwark” of the fold. Comparing his highly artificial account (preserved for us in the history of Eusebius: too prolix for insertion here) with the narrative in Josephus, the plain truth seems that James the Just was hurled from a pinnacle of the Temple, and finally despatched by stoning, as a believer in Jesus of Nazareth, about the year 69, immediately before the siege of Jerusalem by the Roman emperor Vespasian. Josephus (Ant. xx. 9) accuses the high priest Ananus, a Sadducee, of the judicial murder, and declares that the “most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, disliked what was done,” and complained to King Agrippa and Albinus the procurator, who, in consequence, removed Ananus from his office. Many authors, ancient and modern, have been of opinion that the martyrdom of James was the “filling up of the sins of Jerusalem, and made its cup of guilt to overflow.”
“Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small:
Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness grinds He all.”
II. His Epistle.—To whom written.—In the first and chief place, James unquestionably wrote to his countrymen, scattered over the whole earth, though still belonging to their twelve tribes. But in no sense can the Letter be looked upon as an appeal to unbelieving Jews, abounding as it does with references to Christian doctrines held, and Christian works to be maintained, by those who had “the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That the majority of its readers would be the poor and meek can hardly be doubted, if we turn to such passages as those in James 2:0. And it would seem that these struggling societies of humble Christians were in a danger more peculiar to the poor—that is, of envying and fawning upon the rich and well-to-do; forgetting that they themselves were oppressed by such, dragged before judgment-seats, and exposed to the blasphemy and contempt outpoured by unbelievers on the “Christian” name (James 2:6-7).
Style and Character.—In his denunciation of the rich defrauders, James breaks out into a fiery eloquence worthy of an ancient prophet; the tender change from rebuke of the wrongers to comfort for the wronged (James 5:7-8) is unsurpassed in the whole roll of inspired utterance; and in condemnation of lust (James 4:1-4), pride (James 4:5-10), evil speaking (James 4:11-12), and all worldliness (James 4:13-17), the fervour and righteous indignation of the Apostle show of themselves the manner of his life and death: for again, as with God’s servant of old, “the land was not able to bear all his words” (Amos 7:10).
Scope and Aim.—Nothing can be clearer and simpler than the scope and aim of this Letter; as the Sermon on the Mount compared with the rest of Matthew, so this exhortation of James the Just (or “the Wise,” as the Greeks love to call him) stands forth among its fellow Epistles, a lovely gospel of good works, of Christian steadfastness and patience. Some theologians unfortunately, blinded by their own partial apprehension of one side of God’s truth, have misread its chapters, and found therein an opposition to the doctrine of St. Paul. Luther even could go so far as to call the Epistle “worthless as one of straw.” Happily, later criticism has vindicated the teaching of the brother of the Lord; and the plainest reader may learn for himself that Paul and James were at one, infallibly moved by the same Spirit of the living God.
State of Religious Opinion:—Judaism and Christianity.—Let us recollect a little more fully the condition of the faith among those Christians who were first converted from Judaism. With them the adherence to outward forms, the stickling for the letter of the Law, and other like barren principles, had become a belief, which displayed itself in new shapes, corresponding with their altered state of religion. “Wherever,” it has been well said, “Christianity did not effect a complete change in the heart the old Jewish spirit naturally manifested itself in the professed converts.” It was what our Puritan divines quaintly, but correctly, termed “the Popery of the human heart.” The souls that had trusted wholly and entirely in sacrifice as a bare substitution of victims, and deliverance from an indiscriminate vengeance, now clung to faith, as a passive thing, instead. The old idol had, as it were, been torn down by these ardent disciples: a new one was upraised to the vacant niche; faith in a faith became the leading idea, and the light which was in them turned to darkness, the breath of life to death.
Affected by Oriental Theories.—But perhaps a cause of this confusion is to be found much further afield. The Jewish Church had become largely affected by the more remote Eastern thought; the captivity, while it eradicated utterly all wish for idolatry, influenced the chosen people in a strange and unlooked for way. The power of the mystical speculations of India, more especially of the devout followers of Gotoma Sakya Muni, now known as Buddhists, is only beginning to be rightly pondered by Christian scholars and divines. It was not the Persian systems, nor the Chaldæan, but the Hindu (and not infrequently working through, and by means of, them) which perplexed anew the Oriental mind. Here was, doubtless, the origin of the Essenes and other offshoots of Judaism; and even in the Church itself similar mischief may be traced in the varying forms of heresy which drove her almost to destruction. The ancient theory of sacrifice in India was abandoned by the Brahmans, and in its place faith was everywhere preached; the sole essential was dependence on God; implicit “reliance on Him made up for all deficiencies in other respects, whilst no attention to the forms of religion or to the rules of morality was of the slightest avail without this all-important sentiment.” Precisely the same wave of thought seems to have broken on the Jewish Church; and one not much dissimilar, we know, in later times, has changed the whole set of religious tendencies in Western Europe.
 See Elphinstone’s India, Vol. i., Book 2, chap. iv., quoting from the text-book called Bhagwat Gita.
Denounced accordingly.—It seems, then, that in complete aversion from such innovations, James wrote what he did of moral righteousness, as opposed to correct belief; in other words, contending for a religion of the heart and not the lips alone; with him Christianity was indeed “a life, and not a mere bundle of dead opinions.” “Wilt thou know, O vain man,” pleads the impassioned Apostle (James 2:20-21), “that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he had offered Isaac?” And surely here we catch the echoes of a greater than James, who answered the Jews when they boasted to Him in the Temple, “Abraham is our father,” “If ye were Abraham’s children ye would do the works of Abraham” (John 8:39). His “faith, working by love,” upheld him through a desolating trial. If we look at the motive, he was justified by faith; if we look at the result, he was justified by works. No less a faith than Abraham’s could have wrought thus mightily before the face of heaven, or can so take the kingdom thereof by violence still; and the theology which could discern opposition in the plain declarations of God’s word herein is fit only for the dust that has buried its volumes on forgotten shelves.
“Who are we that with restless feet,
And grudging eyes unpurged and dim,
Among the earthly shadows beat,
And seek to question Him?”
Date of the Epistle.—The Epistle has been called “general”—that is, “universal”—chiefly because it was addressed to no body of believers in one place in particular. The absence of all allusion to Gentile converts fairly proves an earlier date than the circular letter preserved in Acts 15:24-29, that is, somewhere about the year A.D. 44. And, if such be correct, we must look on this as one of the oldest writings in the canon of the New Testament.
Genuineness and Canonicity.—It does not seem to have been known at first to all the early Church, no direct quotation being found till the time of Origen, though indirect references may be traced in the Apostolic Fathers. In the lists of sacred books universally acknowledged, or the contrary, drawn up by Eusebius, Bishop of Cæsarea (in Palestine), at the beginning of the fourth century, the Epistle of James is amongst the latter—the “antilegomena,” or “those spoken against,” along with the Epistles of Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John. The uncertainty was with regard to its author; little doubt over being felt concerning its inspiration. The great Greek Fathers of the fourth century all quote it as canonical, and are supported by the Latin. Some of the divines of the Reformation, however, mistrusted it, chiefly on account of internal and doctrinal evidence; and, of course, the German rationalists have eagerly attacked the Epistle from such a ground of advantage. But it has thus far well survived the storms of controversy, and will as surely remain unharmed, to be the help and delight of the patient souls who trust still that “the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.”
“Hora novissima, tempora pessima sunt, vigilemus;
Ecce minaciter imminet, Arbiter Ille supremus:
Imminet, imminet, ut mala terminet, æqua coronet,
Recta remuneret, anxia liberet, æthera donet.”
So wrote Bernard of Morlaix, seven hundred years ago, with the words of James (James 5:8) above quoted in his heart. It were well to grave them on our own: “For yet a little while, and he that shall come will come, and will not tarry” (Hebrews 10:37). The free translation appended is the familiar one, by Dr. Neale:—
“The world is very evil; the times are waxing late;
Be sober, and keep vigil; the Judge is at the gate:
The Judge that comes in mercy, the Judge that comes with might,
To terminate the evil, to diadem the right.”
ANALYSIS OF CONTENTS.
THE SALUTATION (James 1:1).
Appeals on behalf of—
1. Patience (James 1:2-4).
Prayer for wisdom: to be asked in faith (James 1:5-8).
Lowly-mindedness (James 1:9-11).
α. Endurance (James 1:12-15).
Because of God’s goodness (James 1:16-18).
1. Meekness (James 1:17-21).
Self-knowledge (James 1:22-25).
Practical religion (James 1:26-27).
Rebukes on account of—
α. Respect for persons (James 2:1-9).
Because leading to a violation of law (James 2:10-11).
Faith without works (James 2:14-26).
Example of Abraham (James 2:21-24).
Example of Rahab (James 2:25).
Summary (James 2:26).
Censoriousness and sins of the tongue (James 3:0).
Warnings and examples against (James 3:5-12).
Exhortations to gentleness, or silence (James 3:13-18).
1.α. Lust (James 4:1-4).
Pride (James 4:5-10).
Evil speaking (James 4:11-12;.
α. Worldliness (James 4:13-17).
Trust in riches (James 5:1-6).
Exhortation to patience (James 5:7-11).
Caution against swearing (James 5:12).
Advice of divers kinds:—
1. To the sorrowful (James 5:13).
To the joyful (James 5:13).
To the sick and suffering (James 5:14-15).
1. Concerning confession (James 5:16).
Concerning prayer: example of Elias (James 5:17-18).
Concerning conversion (James 5:19-20).
[References.—Much abler and fuller treatment of the subject may be read in the following books, to all of which, and to many others by way of reference, the writer of these Notes is under much obligation:—
Alford’s Greek Testament, with a Criticalty-revised Text. Vol. IV. Rivingtons, 1871.
Bleek’s Introduction to the New Testament. (Translated by Urwick.) Vol. II. T. & T. Clark, 1874.
Davidson’s Introduction to the New Testament Vol. III. Bagster, 1851.
Home’s Introduction to the Holy Scriptures. Vol. IV. Twelfth Edition. By Tregelles. Longmans, 1869.
Lightfoot on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians: Dissertation II., The Brethren of the Lord. Macmillan, 1869.
Meyrick’s articles on “James” and “The General Epistle of James,” in Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible. Vol. I. Murray, 1863.
Wordsworth’s New Testament, with Introductions and Notes, The General Epistles, &c. Rivingtons, 1872.]