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James, Epistle of

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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1. The author claims to be ‘James, a servant of God, and of the Lord Jesus Christ’ ( James 1:1 ). He is usually identified with the Lord’s brother the ‘bishop’ of Jerusalem, not a member of the Twelve, but an apostle in the wider sense (see James 3:1-18 ). The name is common, and the writer adds no further note of identification. This fact makes for the authenticity of the address. If the Epistle had been pseudonymous, the writer would have defined the position of the James whose authority he wished to claim, and the same objection holds good against any theory of interpolation. Or again, if it had been written by a later James under his own name, he must have distinguished himself from his better known namesakes. The absence of description supports the common view of the authorship of the letter; it is a mark of modesty, the brother of the Lord not wishing to insist on his relationship after the flesh; it also points to a consciousness of authority; the writer expected to be listened to, and knew that his mere name was a sufficient description of himself. So Jude writes merely as ‘the brother of James.’ It has indeed been doubted whether a Jew of his position could have written such good Greek as we find in this Epistle, but we know really very little of the scope of Jewish education; there was every opportunity for intercourse with Greeks in Galilee, and a priori arguments of this nature can at most be only subsidiary. If indeed the late date, suggested by some, be adopted, the possibility of the brother of the Lord being the author is excluded, since he probably died in 62; otherwise there is nothing against the ordinary view. If that be rejected, the author is entirely unknown. More will be said in the rest of the article on the subject; but attention must be called to the remarkable coincidence in language between this Epistle and the speech of James in Acts 15:1-41 .

2. Date . The only indications of date are derived from indirect internal evidence, the interpretation of which depends on the view taken of the main problems raised by the Epistle. It is variously put, either as one of the earliest of NT writings (so Mayor and most English writers), or among the very latest (the general German opinion). The chief problem is the relationships to other writings of the NT . The Epistle has striking resemblances to several books of the NT, and these resemblances admit of very various explanations.

( a ) Most important is its relation to St Paul . It has points of contact with Romans: James 1:22; James 4:11 and Romans 2:13 (hearers and doers of the law); James 1:2-4 and Romans 5:3-5 (the gradual work of temptation or tribulation); James 4:11 and Romans 2:1; Romans 14:4 (the critic self-condemned); James 1:21 , James 4:1 and Romans 7:23; Romans 13:12; and the contrast between James 2:21 and Romans 4:1 (the faith of Abraham). Putting the latter aside for the moment, it is hard to pronounce on the question of priority. Sanday-Headlam ( Romans , p. lxxix.) see ‘no resemblance in style sufficient to prove literary connexion’; there are no parallels in order, and similarities of language can mostly be explained from OT and LXX [Note: Septuagint.] . Mayor, on the other hand, supposes that St. Paul is working up hints received from James.

The main question turns upon the apparent opposition between James and Paul with regard to ‘ faith and works .’ The chief passages are ch. 2, esp. James 2:17; James 2:21 ff., and Romans 3:28; Romans 3:4 , Galatians 2:16 . Both writers quote Genesis 15:6 , and deal with the case of Abraham as typical, but they draw from it apparently opposite conclusions St. James that a man is justified, as Abraham was, by works and not by faith alone; St. Paul that justification is not by works but by faith. We may say at once with regard to the doctrinal question that it is generally recognized that there is here no real contradiction between the two. The writers mean different things by ‘faith.’ St. James means a certain belief, mainly intellectual, in the one God ( James 2:19 ), the fundamental creed of the Jew, to which a belief in Christ has been added. To St. Paul ‘faith’ is essentially ‘faith in Christ’ ( Romans 3:22; Romans 3:26 etc.). This faith has been in his own experience a tremendous overmastering force, bringing with it a convulsion of his whole nature; he has put on Christ, died with Him, and risen to a new life. Such an experience lies outside the experience of a St. James, a typically ‘good’ man, with a practical, matter of fact, and somewhat limited view of life. To him ‘conduct is three-fourths of life,’ and he claims rightly that men shall authenticate in practice their verbal professions. To a St. Paul, with an overwhelming experience working on a mystical temperament, such a demand is almost meaningless. To him faith is the new life in Christ, and of course it brings forth the fruits of the Spirit, if it exists at all; faith must always work by love ( Galatians 5:6 ). He indeed guards himself carefully against any idea that belief in the sense of verbal confession or intellectual assent is enough in itself ( Romans 2:6-20 ), and defines ‘the works’ which he disparages as ‘works of the law’ ( Romans 3:20; Romans 3:28 ). Each writer, in fact, would agree with the doctrine of the other when he came to understand it, though St. James’s would appear to St. Paul as insufficient, and St. Paul’s to St. James as somewhat too profound and mystical (see Sanday-Headlam, Romans , pp. 102 ff.).

It is unfortunately not so easy to explain the literary relation between the two. At first sight the points of contact are so striking that we are inclined to say that one must have seen the words of the other. Lightfoot, however, has shown ( Galatians 3:1-29 , pp. 157 ff.) that the history of Abraham, and in particular Genesis 15:6 , figured frequently in Jewish theological discussions. The verse is quoted in 1Ma 2:52 , ten times by Philo, and in the Talmudic treatise Mechilta . But the antithesis between ‘faith and works’ seems to be essentially Christian; we cannot, therefore, on the ground of the Jewish use of Genesis 15:1-21 , deny any relationship between the writings of the two Apostles. This much, at least, seems clear; St. James was not writing with Romans before him, and with the deliberate intention of contradicting St. Paul. His arguments, so regarded, are obviously inadequate, and make no attempt, even superficially, to meet St. Paul’s real position. It is, however, quite possible that he may have written as he did to correct not St. Paul himself, but misunderstandings of his teaching, which no doubt easily arose ( 2 Peter 3:16 ). On the other hand, if with Mayor we adopt a very early date for the Epistle, St. Paul may equally well be combating exaggerations of his fellow-Apostle’s position, which indeed in itself must have appeared insufficient to him; we are reminded of the Judaizers ‘who came from James’ before the Council ( Acts 15:24 ). St. Paul, according to this view, preserves all that is valuable in St. James by his insistence on life and conduct, while he supplements it with a profounder teaching, and guards against misinterpretations by a more careful definition of terms; e.g. in Galatians 2:16 (cf. James 2:24 ) he defines ‘works’ as ‘works of the law,’ and ‘faith’ as ‘faith in Jesus Christ.’ We must also bear in mind the possibility that the resemblance in language on this and other subjects may have been due to personal intercourse between the two ( Galatians 1:19 , Acts 15:1-41 ); in discussing these questions together they may well have come to use very similar terms and illustrations; and this possibility makes the question of priority in writing still more complicated. It is, then, very hard to pronounce with any certainty on the date of the Epistle from literary considerations. On the whole they make for an early date. Such a date is also suggested by the undeveloped theology (note the nontechnical and unusual word for ‘begat’ in James 1:18 ) and the general circumstances of the Epistle (see below); and the absence of any reference to the Gentile controversy may indicate a date before the Council of Acts 15:1-41 , i.e. before 52 a.d.

( b ) Again, the points of contact with 1Peter ( James 1:10 , Jam 5:19; 1 Peter 1:24; 1 Peter 4:8 ) and Hebrews ( James 2:25; Hebrews 11:31 ), though striking, are inconclusive as to date. It is difficult to acquiesce in the view that James is ‘secondary’ throughout, and makes a general use of the Epp. of NT.

( c ) It will be convenient to treat here the relation to the Gospels and particularly to the Sermon on the Mount , though this is still less decisive as to date. The variations are too strong to allow us to suppose a direct use of the Gospels; the sayings of Christ were long quoted in varying forms, and in James 5:12 Samt. James has a remarkable agreement with Justin ( Ap , i. 16), as against Matthew 5:37 . The chief parallels are the condemnation of ‘hearers only’ ( James 1:22; James 1:25 , Matthew 7:25 , John 13:17 ), of critics ( James 4:11 , Matthew 7:1-5 ), of worldliness ( James 1:10 , James 2:5-6 etc., Matthew 6:19; Matthew 6:24 , Luke 6:24 ); the teaching about prayer ( James 1:5 etc., Matthew 7:7 , Mark 11:23 ), poverty ( James 2:5 , Luke 6:20 ), humility ( James 4:10 , Matthew 23:12 ), the tree and its fruits ( James 3:11 , Matthew 7:16; see Salmon, Introd. to NT 9 p. 455). This familiarity with our Lord’s language agrees well with the hypothesis that the author was one who had been brought up in the same home, and had often listened to His teaching, though not originally a disciple; it can hardly, however, he said necessarily to imply such a close personal relationship.

3. The type of Christianity implied in the Epistle . We are at once struck by the fact that the direct Christian references are very few. Christ is only twice mentioned by name ( James 1:1 , James 2:21 ); not a word is said of His death or resurrection, His example of patience ( James 5:10-11; contrast 1 Peter 2:21 ), or of prayer ( James 5:17; contrast Hebrews 5:7 ). Hence the suggestion has been made by Spitta that we have really a Jewish document which has been adapted by a Christian writer, as happened, e.g. , with 2 Esdras and the Didache . The answer is obvious, that no editor would have been satisfied with so slight a revision. We find, indeed, on looking closer, that the Christian element is greater than appears at first, and also that it is of such a nature that it cannot be regarded as interpolated. The parallels with our Lord’s teaching already noticed, could not be explained as due to independent borrowing from earlier Jewish sources, even on the very doubtful assumption that any such existed containing the substance of His teaching. Again, we find Christ mentioned (probably) in connexion with the Parousia ( James 5:7-8 ) [ James 5:6; James 5:11 are probably not references to the crucifixion, and ‘the Lord’ is not original in James 1:12 ]; ‘beloved brethren’ ( James 1:16; James 1:19 , James 2:5 ), the new birth ( James 1:18 ), the Kingdom ( James 2:5 ), the name which is blasphemed ( James 2:7 ), and the royal law of liberty ( James 1:25 , James 2:8 ) are all predominantly Christian ideas. It cannot, however, be denied that the general tone of the Epistle is Judaic. The type of organization implied is primitive, and is described mainly in Jewish phraseology: synagogue ( James 2:2 ), elders of the Church ( James 5:14 ), anointing with oil and the connexion of sin and sickness ( ib. ). Abraham is ‘our father’ ( James 2:21 ), and God bears the OT title ‘Lord of Sabaoth’ ( James 5:4 ) [only here in NT]. This tone, however, is in harmony with the traditional character of James (see James 3:1-18 ), and with the address ‘to the twelve tribes which are of the Dispersion’ ( James 1:1 ), taken in its literal sense. St. James remained to the end of his life a strict Jew, noted for his devotion to the Law ( Acts 15:1-41; Acts 21:20 ), and in the Epistle the Law, though transformed, is to the writer almost a synonym for the Gospel. His argument as to the paramount importance of conduct is exactly suited to the atmosphere in which he lived, and of which he realized the dangers. The Rabbis could teach that ‘they cool the flames of Gehinnom for him who reads the Shema [ Deuteronomy 6:4 ],’ and Justin ( Dial . 141) bears witness to the claim of the Jews, ‘that if they are sinners and know God, the Lord will not impute to them sin.’ His protest is against a ceremonialism which neglects the weightier matters of the Law; cf. esp. James 1:27 , where ‘religion’ means religion on its outward side. His Epistle then is Judaic, because it shows us Christianity as it appeared to the ordinary Jewish Christian, to whom it was a something added to his old religion, not a revolutionary force altering its whole character, as it was to St. Paul. It seems to belong to the period described in the early chapters of the Acts, when the separation between Jews and Christians was not complete; we have already, on other grounds, seen that it seems to come before the Council. Salmon ( Introd. to NT p. 456) points out that its attitude towards the rich agrees with what we know of Jewish society during this period, when the tyranny of the wealthy Sadducean party was at its height (cf. Jos. [Note: Josephus.] Ant . XX. viii. 8; ix. 2); there are still apparently local Jewish tribunals ( James 2:6 ). The movement from city to city supposed in James 4:13 may point to the frequent Jewish migrations for purposes of trade, and the authority which the writer exercises over the Diaspora may be paralleled by that which the Sanhedrin claimed outside Palestine. We may note that there are indications that the Epistle has in mind the needs and circumstances of special communities ( James 2:1 ff., James 4:1 , James 5:13 ); it reads, too, not like a formal treatise, but as words of advice given in view of particular cases.

On the other hand, many Continental critics see in these conditions the description of a later age, when Christianity had had time to become formal and secularized, and moral degeneracy was covered by intellectual orthodoxy. The address is supposed to be a literary device, the Church being the true Israel of God, or to have in view scattered Essene conventicles. It is said that the absence of Christian doctrine shows that the Epistle was not written when it was in the process of formation, but at an altogether later period. This argument is not altogether easy to follow, and, as we have seen, the indications, though separately indecisive, yet all combine to point to an early date. Perhaps more may be said for the view that the Epistle incorporates Jewish fragments, e.g. in James 3:1-18 , James 4:11 to James 5:6; the apostrophe of the rich who are outside the brotherhood is rather startling. We may indeed believe that the Epistle has not yet yielded its full secret. It cannot be denied that it omits much that we should expect to find in a Christian document of however early a date, and that its close is very abrupt. Of the theories, however, which have so far been advanced, the view that it is a primitive Christian writing at least presents the fewest difficulties, though it still leaves much unexplained.

4. Early quotations and canonicity . The Epistle presents points of contact with Clement of Rome, Hermas, and probably with Irenæns, but is first quoted as Scripture by Origen. Eusebius, though he quotes it himself without reserve, mentions the fact that few ‘old writers’ have done so ( HE ii. 23), and classes it among the ‘disputed’ books of the Canon (iii. 25). It is not mentioned in the Muratorian Fragment, but is included in the Peshitta (the Syriac version), together with 1Peter and 1 John of the Catholic Epistles. The evidence shows that it was acknowledged in the East earlier than in the West, possibly as being addressed to the Eastern (?) Dispersion, though its apparent use by Clem. Rom. and Hermas suggests that it may have been written in Rome. The scarcity of quotations from it and its comparative neglect may be due to its Jewish and non-doctrinal tone, as well as to the facts that it did not claim to be Apostolic and seemed to contradict St. Paul. Others before Luther may well have found it ‘an epistle of straw.’

5. Style and teaching . As has been said, the tone of the Epistle is largely Judaic. In addition to the Jewish features already pointed out, we may note its insistence on righteousness, and its praise of wisdom and poverty, which are characteristic of Judaism at its best. Its illustrations are drawn from the OT, and its style frequently recalls that of Proverbs, and the Prophets, particularly on its sterner side. The worldly are ‘adulteresses’ ( James 4:4; cf. the OT conception of Israel as the bride of Jehovah, whether faithful or unfaithful), and the whole Epistle is full of warnings and denunciations; 54 imperatives have been counted in twice as many verses. The quotations, however, are mainly from the LXX [Note: Septuagint.]; ‘greeting’ ( James 1:1 ) is the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] formula for the Heb. ‘peace,’ and occurs again in NT only in the letter of Acts 15:23 . The points of contact with our Lord’s teaching have been already noticed; the Epistle follows Him also in its fondness for metaphors from nature (cf. the parables), and in the poetic element which appears continually; James 1:17 is actually a hexameter, but it has not been recognized as a quotation. The style is vivid and abrupt, sometimes obscure, with a great variety of vocabulary; there are 70 words not found elsewhere in NT. There is no close connexion of ideas, or logical development of the subject; a word seems to suggest the following paragraph ( e.g. ch. 1). Accordingly it is useless to attempt a summary of the Epistle. Its main purpose was to encourage endurance under persecution and oppression, together with consistency of life; and its leading ideas are the dangers of speech, of riches, of strife, and of worldliness, and the value of true faith, prayer, and wisdom. The Epistle is essentially ‘pragmatic’; i.e. it insists that the test of belief lies in ‘value for conduct.’ It does not, indeed, ignore the deeper side; it has its theology with its teaching about regeneration, faith, and prayer, but the writer’s main interest lies in ethics. The condition of the heathen world around made it necessary to insist on the value of a consistent life. That was Christianity; and neither doctrinal nor moral problems, as of the origin of evil, trouble him. The Epistle does not reach the heights of a St. Paul or a St. John, but it has its value. It presents, sharply and in emphasis, a side of Christianity which is always in danger of being forgotten, and the practical mind in particular will always feel the force of its practical message.

C. W. Emmet.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'James, Epistle of'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​j/james-epistle-of.html. 1909.
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