Tired of seeing ads while studying? Now you can enjoy an "Ads Free" version of the site for as little as 10¢ a day.

Bible Commentaries

Arthur Peake's Commentary on the Bible


- James

by Arthur Peake



THIS short epistle belongs to a type of literature which we call “ open letters.” It is not private and unstudied correspondence, like Paul’ s letters, nor again a treatise destined for permanence. Its literary affinities are decidedly with the OT: it is prophecy speaking its last word, in the old manner, but with many characteristics of the Wisdom Books. The date, authorship, and purpose are alike much disputed; and in so brief an account it is only possible to present the interpretation favoured by the writer of the commentary, warning the reader that it is an individual view, which only pretends to be a consistent hypothesis, offering some explanation of admitted problems.

The book has been variously regarded as the earliest and one of the latest written of the NT Canon. Its author, if one of the “ Jacobs” of the NT, was almost certainly “ the Lord’ s brother” of Galatians 1:19, who is best regarded as a son of Joseph and Mary, eldest of the group of Mary’ s younger children named in Mark 6:3. He was the leader of the early Jerusalem Church, as appears from his position in Acts 15. Two most formidable difficulties stand in our way. ( 1 ) How could so conspicuous a Christian write a letter to fellow-believers and only name Jesus twice, even seeking in Job the supreme example of “ endurance” ( James 5:11), instead of recalling Him “ who endured a cross, despising shame” ( Hebrews 12:2)? ( 2 ) How did an authentic work of James remain among disputed books till the latest stage of the development of the Canon? To these difficulties the present writer ventured a new solution in Exp. for July 1907 , to which he holds in spite of objections raised by Peake (INT) and Moffatt (INT), because alternative answers seem wholly insufficient. The epistle is addressed to unconverted Jews, by the one Christian leader for whom the Jews had a profound regard, as we know from Josephus and Hegesippus. He would not name Jesus ( James 1:1 *, James 2:1 *), since the name would immediately turn them from reading. But he brings in a multitude of His sayings, hoping that their intrinsic beauty and power would win their way, and prepare for better thoughts of the Speaker when His authorship became known. His main purpose is to shame them out of a blind unbelief based on “ party spirit” ( James 3:14; James 3:16). But the success of the appeal was ruined by the martyrdom of James as a Christian, and the fanatical hatred which consequently replaced veneration for a man pre-eminently holy according to the standards of the Law. Accordingly the little book was rejected by Jews as the work of a Christian martyr, and ignored by Christians generally because it had so little distinctively Christian teaching. Prized in a narrow circle, it came to its own at last through its association with the great name of James. The theory will be tested best by assuming it as a working basis for interpretation. It will be seen that if it is tenable the epistle becomes one of the earliest NT writings— the earlier the better, in view of the rapid widening of the gulf between Judaism and Christianity. In that case it is prior to 1 P., which has several points of contact with its language, and to Rom., which is either independent or written partly to correct some dangerous and mistaken inferences from its teaching.

Literature. Commentaries: ( a) Plumptre (CB), Bassett, Knowling (West.C), Bennett (Cent.B); ( b) J. B. Mayor (which supersedes all others), Hort (a posthumous fragment), Carr (CGT), Oesterley (EGT), Ropes (ICC); ( c) von Soden (HC), Beyschlag (Mey.), Hollmann (SNT), Windisch (HNT), B. Weiss; ( d) R. W. Dale, C. Brown ( Dev. Comm.) , Plummer (Ex.B). Other Literature: Parry, A Discussion of the General Epistle of James; Mayor in HDB on “ Brethren of the Lord,” and Lightfoot in Dissertations; Spitta in Gesch. u. Litt. des Urchristentums; J. V. Bartlet and A. C. M’ Giffert, each in The Apostolic Age; Hort in Judaistic Christianity; Relevant articles in Introductions to NT and Dictionaries. The RV with fuller references is assumed throughout.



THE exact significance of the epithet “ catholic” or “ general,” as applied to the seven writings which bear the names of James , 1 and 2 Peter , 1, 2 , and 3 Jn., and Jude, has been a matter of considerable debate. It has been surmised that they are so entitled because they are the work of the apostles generally as distinguished from the compact body of Pauline letters; or because they contain catholic in the sense of orthodox teaching, or general rather than particular instruction; or again because they were generally accepted in contrast to other writings which bore apostolic names but failed to make good their claim. A more likely reason than any of these is that they were addressed to Christians in general or to groups of churches instead of to individual communities like Corinth and Rome, to which Paul usually wrote. We say “ usually,” because Galatians was written to a group of churches, and there is reason to think that Ephesians was meant as a circular letter. Cf. also Colossians 4:16. Of the seven “ catholic” epistles, two ( 2 and 3 Jn.) hardly satisfy our test, for they were written to a particular, though unnamed, church and to an individual respectively. Their inclusion in the group is thus a mere matter of convenience; they would naturally come to be associated with 1 Jn. Jas. is addressed to “ the twelve tribes of the Dispersion,” 1 P. to Christians in Asia Minor, 2 P. and Jude broadly to the writer’ s fellow-believers; 1 Jn. has no address, and is more like a homily than a letter.

The earliest record of the name appears to be about A.D). 197 , in the anti-Montanist writer Apollonius (see Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., Hebrews 13:18), who declares that the heretic Themiso wrote a “ catholic” epistle in imitation of that of the apostle (? John). Clement of Alexandria ( c. 200 ) refers to the letter of Acts 15:23-Joel : and to Jude as “ catholic.” Origen ( c. 230 ) applies the epithet to the epistle of Barnabas, as to 1 Jn., 1 P., and Jude. Dionysius of Alexandria ( c. 260 ) uses it of 1 Jn. in opposition to 2 and 3 Jn. Such usage, and that of Eusebius of Cæ sarea ( c. 310 ), who uses the adjective of the whole seven ( Hist. Eccl., ii. 23 ), is sufficient to disprove the opinion that “ catholic” means “ recognised by the whole church.” As a matter of fact, most of the seven were hotly contested, and only gradually secured their place in the NT canon. 1 Jn., which was the first to be so styled, evidently won the epithet because of the encyclical nature of its appeal— it was an exhortation to the church at large rather than to a narrow circle, a single church, or even a group of churches, like the Pauline letters and 1 P., to say nothing of individual persons— and because its contents were official in a sense in which even Paul’ s epistles were not. Most akin in this respect were Jude and 2 P., and perhaps Jas., if the twelve tribes can be taken as representing the new Israel of Christendom. The recipients of 1 P., too, included well-nigh half the Christian world. 2 and 3 Jn. secured their footing because of their name. The little canon of Pauline letters was usually designated “ the Apostle,” and it would only be a question of time for the group of non-Pauline epistles to be entitled “ catholic.” When the name of the group became known in the Western Church, it was misinterpreted and taken in a dogmatic sense as equivalent to “ canonic,” i.e. apostolic or genuine. As “ the canonic epistles” they became known in the West, and the original idea of contrast with the Pauline letters disappeared. Junilius Africanus ( c. 550 ) understands “ canonic” as “ containing the rule of faith.”

So late as Junilius’ day, 1 Jn. and 1 P. stood apart for him, though he says that very many add the other five. This majority opinion was due to Jerome and Augustine. Chrysostom’ s Synopsis names only three ( 1 Jn., 1 P., Jas.), thus following Lucian and the school of Antioch, which also influenced the Peshitta or “ Vulgate.” Syriac. Eusebius puts 1 Jn. and 1 P. in the class of universally accepted books, while Jas., Jude, 2 Peter , 2 and 3 Jn., are a second class, “ disputed,” but making their way towards the first class ( Hist. Eccl., iii. 25 ). Cyprian of Carthage ( d. 259 ) received only 1 Jn. and 1 P. The Muratorian Fragment (if we admit Zahn’ s very tempting emendation [108] ) shows that at Rome, c. 180 , these two books were received. 2 P. was not generally accepted for reading in church, while Jude 1:2 and 3 Jn. formed a little group scarcely regarded as apostolic (for they are linked with the Wisdom of Solomon), yet “ accepted in the Catholic Church.” Jas. is not mentioned.

[108] Gwatkin, Selections from Early Christian Writers, p. 87.

The influence of Augustine has been mentioned. In De Fide et Operibus (xiv. 21 ) he points out that Paul pressed his doctrine of justification by faith so far as to be in peril of being misunderstood. Paul lays the foundations, the Catholic Epistles raise the superstructure; he is careful for the genuineness of the root, they for the good fruit; he feels himself a minister of the Gospel, they speak in the name of the (nascent Catholic) Church.

It may be granted that there are certain points of relationship between the seven epistles, despite their varied authorship. They lack in general the personal note, and seek to meet more widespread need by general counsel. Jü licher ranks them as a class in which the epistle is merely a literary form whereby the unknown writer holds intercourse with an unknown public. The transition from the Pauline letters to the Catholic Epistles is by way of Ephesians, Hebrews, and the Pastorals ( cf. p. 603 ). None of them is lengthy, none starts a far-reaching train of thought, or contributes much to pure theology. They are concerned mainly with practical advice and edifying exhortation. Their modest dimensions gave them an advantage over such longer works as the Epistles of Clement and Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas. in circulation, and therefore in recognition; apart from the fact that these works, favourites in the Early-Church, bore no apostolic names.

The critical questions, often very perplexing, connected with the separate epistles are discussed in the commentaries that follow. We may note here that, apart from the titles (which are late), 1 Jn. is anonymous, 2 and 3 Jn. simply purport to be from “ the elder,” 1 and 2 P. definitely say they are by Peter the apostle; “ James” and “ Judas, the brother of James” are the slender descriptions given by the authors of the other two epistles. John, James, and Judas (or Jude) were all very common names, and give us no clue to the identity of the authors. As to date, 1 Jn. and 1 P. were in circulation early in the second century, and were attributed to the two apostles before its close. Jude and 2 Jn. were circulated and attributed by about 160 . Jas. was also in circulation then, but no attribution of authorship was made for another half century. Clear traces of 3 Jn. and 2 P. appear a little before 200 . Perhaps the earliest and the least uncertain as to authorship is 1 P., the latest 2 P. The seven epistles cover the sub-apostolic age from, say, A.D. 64 to 150 , and are a valuable reflection of the life and thought of the church during that period. In 1 P. (nearest to Paul in time and in thought, [109] and to many minds one of the choicest books of NT) we see something of the peril that assailed a church from without; in 1 , 2 , and 3 Jn. we are shown the danger from within in matters of doctrine and problems of organisation. Jude is the effort of a teacher who is similarly alarmed by the growth of an antinomian gnosticism and the sins of unbelief, pride, and sensuality. 2 P. is an elaboration of Jude, and also reflects the disappointment felt at the delay of the Second Advent. Jas. is in a class by itself, and resolutely defies any agreed solution of its date and authorship. It sets forth Christianity as the new law.

[109] This commonly received opinion is questioned by H. A. A. Kennedy in ET 27264 (March 1916).

The epistles, though modern scholarship cannot unhesitatingly accept their apostolic authorship, at least represent what the Early Church regarded as apostolic teaching, and subsequent generations have confirmed their practical value. Some may feel that because there is no certainty about their apostolic authorship they should not be included in the KT; but the Early Church was often guided by the intrinsic merits of a book, and accepted it as. apostolic because of its worth. We have to remember, too, that the ancient conception of authorship was widely different from our own— a book would be called John’ s because its teaching agreed with that of John. A writer might go so far as to assume the name of a great teacher in order to gain a reading for his book; and if he succeeded in presenting what might fairly be regarded as the views of the man whose name he assumed, no one felt aggrieved. The practice was especially common in apocalyptic literature. We do not argue in this way now; and similar literary devices when they are practised are tolerated only because we know that they are devices, and generally know also the name of the real author.

The order in which we have the seven epistles has come to us from the fourth century, but there were many earlier variations. The position of the group in early MSS. and versions is also far from fixed. Most Gr. MSS. arrange thus: Gospels, Acts, Cath. Epp., Paul, Rev. The Syrian order is Gospels, Paul, Acts, Cath. Epp., Rev. In Egypt: Gospels, Paul, Cath. Epp., Acts, Rev. In the Muratorian Canon, representing the early West, we have apparently Gospels, Acts, Paul, Cath. Epp., Rev., which is the order followed in the Vulgate and in the English versions.

( See also Supplement)