Lectionary Calendar
Friday, December 8th, 2023
the First Week of Advent
For 10¢ a day you can enjoy StudyLight.org ads
free while helping to build churches and support pastors in Uganda.
Click here to learn more!

Bible Encyclopedias
Epistle of James

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

Search for…
Prev Entry
Next Entry
Epistle of Jeremy
Resource Toolbox
Additional Links

A book of the New Testament. The superscription (Jas. i. 1) ascribes it to that pre-eminent "pillar" (Gal. ii. 9) of the original mother church who later came to be regarded in certain quarters as the "bishop of bishops" (Epist. of James to Clement, ap. Clem. Hom. Superscription). As such he appears in a position to address an encyclical to "the twelve tribes of the dispersion"; for the context (i. 18, v. 7 seq.) and literary relation (cf. I Pet. i. 1,3,23-25) prove this to be a figure for the entire new people of God, without the distinction of carnal birth, as Paul had described "the Israel of God" (Gal. vi. 16), spiritually begotten, like Isaac, by the word received in faith (Gal. iii. 28 seq., iv. 28; Rom. ix. 6-9, iv. 16-18). This idea of the spiritually begotten Israel becomes current after I Pet., as appears in John i. 11-13, iii. 3-8; Barn. iv. 6, xiii. 13; 2 Clem. ii. 2, &c.

The interpretation which takes the expression "the twelve tribes" literally, and conceives the brother of the Lord as sending an epistle written in the Greek language throughout the Christian world, but as addressing Jewish Christians only (so e.g. Sieffert, s.v. " Jacobus im N.T." in Hauck, Realencykl. ed. 1900, vol. viii.), assumes not only such divisive interference as Paul might justly resent (cf. Gal. ii. I-10), but involves a strange idea of conditions. Were worldliness, tongue religion, moral indifference, the distinctive marks of the Jewish element? Surely the rebukes of James apply to conditions of the whole Church and not sporadic Jewish-Christian conventicles in the Greek-speaking world, if any such existed.

It is at least an open question whether the superscription (connected with that of Jude) be not a later conjecture prefixed by some compiler of the catholic epistles, but of the late date implied in our interpretation of ver. 1 there should be small dispute. Whatever the currency in classical circles of the epistle as a literary form, it is irrational to put first in the development of Christian literature a general epistle, couched in fluent, even rhetorical, Greek, and afterwards the Pauline letters, which both as to origin and subsequent circulation were a product of urgent conditions. The order consonant with history is (1) Paul's "letters" to "the churches of" a province (Gal. i. 2; 2 Cor. i. I); (2) the address to "the elect of the dispersion" in a group of the Pauline provinces (I Pet. i. I); (3) the address to "the twelve tribes of the dispersion" everywhere (Jas. i. 1; cf. Rev. vii. 2-4). James, like 1 John, is a homily, even more lacking than 1 John in every epistolary feature, not even supplied with the customary epistolary farewell. The superscription, if original, compels us to treat the whole writing as not only late but pseudonymous. If prefixed by conjecture, to secure recognition and authority for the book, even this was at first a failure. The earliest trace of any recognition of it is in Origen (A.D. 230) who refers to it as "said to be from' James" (4Epop tni ?j 'Iarceef30v 'ErcvroX)), seeming thus to regard ver. 1 as superscription rather than part of the text. Eusebius (A.D. 325) classifies it among the disputed books, declaring that it is regarded as spurious, and that not many of the ancients have mentioned it. Even Jerome (A.D. 390), though personally he accepted it, admits that it was "said to have been published by another in the name of James." The Syrian canon of the Peshitta was the first to admit it.

Modern criticism naturally made the superscription its startingpoint, endeavouring first to explain the contents of the writing on this theory of authorship, but generally reaching the conclusion that the two do not agree. Conservatives as a rule avoid the implication of a direct polemic against Paul in ii. 54-26, which would lay open the author to the bitter accusations launched against the interlopers of 2 Cor. x. - xiii., by dating before the Judaistic controversy. Other critics regard the very language alone as fatal to such a theory of date, authorship and circle addressed. The contents, ignoring the conflict of Jew and Gentile, complaining of worldiness and tonguereligion (cf. I John iii. 17 seq. with James ii. 14-16) suggest a much later date than the death of James (A.D. 62-66). They also require a different character in the author, if not also a different circle of readers from those addressed in i. r.

The prevalent conditions seem to be those of the Greek church of the post-apostolic period, characterized by worldiness of life, profession without practice, and a contentious garrulity of teaching (I John iii. 3 - IO, 18; I Tim. i. 6 seq., vi. 3 - io; 2 Tim. iii. 1-5, iv. 3 seq.). The author meets these with the weapons commanded for the purpose in I Tim. vi. 3, but quite in the spirit of one of the "wise men". of the Hebrew wisdom literature. His gospel is completely denationalized, humanitarian; but, while equally universalistic, is quite unsympathetic towards the doctrine and the mysticism of Paul. He has nothing whatever to say of the incarnation, life, example, suffering or resurrection of Jesus, and does not interest himself in the doctrines of Christ's person, which were hotly debated up to this time. The absence of all mention of Christ (with the single exception of ii. 1, where there is reason to think the words 1 7 µ)v ' 17 7 aov Xpr.crov interpolated) has even led to the theory, ably but unconvincingly maintained by Spitta, that the writing is a mere recast of a Jewish moralistic writing like the Two Ways. The thoughts are loosely strung together: yet the following seems to be the general framework on which the New Testament preacher has collected his material.

1. The problem of evil (i. I-19a). Outward trials are for our development through aid of divinely given "wisdom" (2-II). Inward (moral) trials are not to be imputed to God, the author of all good, whose purpose is the moral good of his creation (12-19a; cf. I John i. 5).

2. The righteousness God intends is defined in the eternal moral law. It is a product of deeds, not words (i. 19b-27).

3. The "royal law" of love is violated by discrimination against the poor (ii. 1-13); and by professions of faith barren of good works (14-26).

4. The true spirit of wisdom appears not in aspiring to teach, but in goodness and meekness of life (ch. iii.). Strife and self-exaltation are fruits of a different spirit, to be resisted and overcome by humble prayer for more grace (iv. i - Io).

5. God's judgment is at hand. The thought condemns censoriousness (iv. II et seq.), presumptuous treatment of life (13-17), and the tyranny of the rich (v. 1-6). It encourages the believer to patient endurance to the end without murmuring or imprecations (7-12). It impels the church to diligence in its work of worship, care and prayer (13-18), and in the reclamation of the erring (19-20). The use made by James of earlier material is as important for determining the terminus a quo of its own date as the use of it by later writers for the terminus ad quem. Acquaintance with the evangelic tradition is apparent. It is conceived, however, more in the Matthaean sense of "commandments to be observed" (Matt. xxviii. 20) than the Pauline, Markan and Johannine of the drama of the incarnation and redemption. There is no traceable literary contact with the synoptic gospels. Acquaintance, however, with some of the Pauline epistles "must be regarded as incontestably established" (0. Cone, Ency. Bibl. ii. 2323). Besides scattered reminiscences of Romans, I Corinthians and Galatians, enumerated in the article referred to, the section devoted to a refutation of the doctrine of "justification by faith apart from works" undeniably presupposes the Pauline terminology. Had the author been consciously opposing the great apostle to the Gentiles he would probably have treated the subject less superficially. What he really opposes is the same ultra-Pauline moral laxity which Paul himself had found occasion to rebuke among would-be adherents in Corinth (I Cor. vi. 12; viii. 1-3, II, 12; X. 23 seq., 32 seq.) and which appears still more marked in the pastoral epistles and i John. In rebuking it James unconsciously retracts the misapplied Pauline principle itself. To suppose that the technical terminology of Paul, including even his classic example of the faith of Abraham, could be employed here independently of Rom. ii. 2 1-23, iii. 28, iv. I; Gal. ii. 16: iii. 6, is to pass a judgment which in every other field of literary criticism would be at once repudiated. To imagine it current in pre-Pauline Judaism is to misconceive the spirit of the synagogue. 1 To make James the coiner and Paul the borrower not only throws back James to a date incompatible with the other phenomena, but implies a literary polemic tactlessly waged by Paul against the head of the Jerusalem church. Acquaintance with Hebrews is only slightly less probable, for James ii. 25 adds an explication of the case of Rahab also, cited in Heb. xi. 31 along with Abraham as an example of justification by faith only, to his correction of the Pauline scriptural argument. The question whether James is dependent on I Peter or conversely is still actively disputed. As regards the superscription 1 Nothing adduced by Lightfoot ( Comm. on Gal. Exc. "The faith of Abraham") justifies the unsupported and improbable assertion that the quotation James ii. 21 seq. "was probably in common use among the Jews to prove that orthodoxy of doctrine sufficed for salvation" (Mayor, s.v. " James, Epistle of" in Hasting's Diet. Bible, p. 546). the relation has been defined above. Dependence on Revelation (A.D. 95) is probable (cf. i. 12 and ii. 5 with Rev. ii. 9, Jo and v. 9 with Rev. iii. 20), but the contacts with Clement of Rome (A.D. 95-120) indicate the reverse relation. James iv. 6 and v. 20 = Clem. xlix. 5 and xxx. 2; but as both passages are also found in 1 Peter (iv. 8, v. 5), the latter maybe the common source. Clement's further development of the cases of Abraham and Rahab, however, adding as it does to the demonstration of James from Scripture of their justification "by works and not by faith only," that the particular good work which "wrought with the faith" of Abraham and Rahab to their justification was "hospitality" (1 Clem. x. - xii.) seems plainly to presuppose James. Priority is more difficult to establish in the case of Hermas (A.D. 120-140), where the contacts are undisputed (cf. James iv. 7, 12 with Mand. xii. 5,6; Sim. ix. 23).1 The date (A.D. 95-120) implied by the literary contacts of James of course precludes authorship by the Lord's brother, though this does not necessarily prove the superscription later still. The question whether the writing as a whole is pseudonymous, or only the superscription a mistaken conjecture by the scribe of Jude 1 is of secondary importance. A date about 100-120 for the substance of the writing is accepted by the majority of modern scholars and throws real light upon the author's endeavour. Pfleiderer in pointing out the similarities of James and the Shepherd of Hermas declares it to be "certain that both writings presuppose like historical circumstances, and, from a similar point of view, direct their admonitions to their contemporaries, among whom a lax worldly-mindedness and unfruitful theological wrangling threatened to destroy the religious life." 2 Holtzmann has characterized this as "the right visual angle" for the judgment of the book. Questions as to the obligation of Mosaism and the relations of Jew and Gentile have utterly disappeared below the horizon. Neither the attachment to the religious forms of Judaism, which we are informed was characteristic of James, nor that personal relation to the Lord which gave him his supreme distinction are indicated by so much as a single word. Instead of being written in Aramaic, as it would almost necessarily be if antecedent to the Pauline epistles, or even in the Semitic style characteristic of the older and more Palestinian elements of the New Testament we have a Greek even more fluent than Paul's and metaphors and allusions (i. 17, iii. 1-12) of a type more like Greek rhetoric than anything else in the New Testament. Were we to judge by the contacts with Hebrews, Clement of Rome and Hermas and the similarity of situation evidenced in the last-named, Rome would seem the most natural place of origin. The history of the epistle's reception into the canon is not opposed to this; for, once it was attributed to James, Syria would be more likely to take it up, while the West, more sceptical, if not better informed as to its origin, held back; just as happened in the case of Hebrews.

It is the author's conception of the nature of the gospel which mainly gives us pause in following this pretty general disposition of modern scholarship. With all the phenomena of vocabulary and style which seem to justify such conceptions as von Soden's that c. iii. and iv. 11 - v. 6 represent excerpts respectively from the essay of an Alexandrian scribe, and

a triple fragment of Jewish apocalypse, the analysis above given will be found the exponent of a real logical sequence. We might almost admit a resemblance in form to the general literary type which Spitta adduces. The term "wisdom" in particular is used in the special and technical sense of the "wise men" of Hebrew literature (Matt. xxiii. 34), the sense of "the wisdom of the just" of Luke i. 17. True, the mystical sense given to the term in one of the sources of Luke, by Paul and some of the Church fathers, is not present. While the gospel is pre-eminently the divine gift of "wisdom," "wisdom" is not personified, but conceived primarily as a system of humanitarian ethics, i. 21-25, and only secondarily as a spiritual effluence, imparting the regenerate disposition, the "mind that was in Christ Jesus," iii. 13-18. And yet for James as well as for Paul Christ is "the wisdom of 1 On the contacts in general see Moffat, Hist. N. T. 2 p. 578, on relation to Clem. R. see Bacon," Doctrine of Faith in Hebrews, James and Clement of Rome,"in Jour. of Bib. Lit., 1900, pp. 12-21.

2 Das Urchristenthum, 868, quoted by Cone, loc. cit. God." The difference in conception of the term is similar to that between Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon. Our author, like Paul, expects the hearers of the word to be "a kind of first-fruits to God of his creation." (i. 18 cf. i Pet. i. 23), and bids them depend upon the gift of grace (i.5, iv. 5 seq.), but for the evils of the world he has no remedy but the patient endurance of the Christian philosopher (i. 2-18). For the faithlessness ( Sci ' v to i. 6-8; cf. Didache and Hermas), worldliness (ii. 1-13) and hollow profession (ii. 14-26) of the church life of his time, with its "theological wrangling" (iii. 1-12), his remedy is again the God-given, peaceable spirit of the Christian philosopher (iii. 13-18), which is the antithesis of the spirit of self-seeking and censoriousness (iv. 1-12), and which appreciates the pettiness of earthly life with its sordid gains and its unjust distribution of wealth (iv. 13 - v. 6). This attitude of the Christian stoic will maintain the individual in his patient waiting for the expected "coming of the Lord" (v. 7-11); while the church sustains its official functions of healing and prayer, and reclamation of the erring (v. 13-20). 3 For this conception of the gospel and of the officially organized church, our nearest analogy is in Matthew, or rather in the blocks of precepts of the Lord which after subtraction of the Markan narrative framework are found to underlie our first gospel. It may be mere coincidence that the material in Matthew as well as in the Didache seems to be arranged in five divisions, beginning with a commendation of the right way, and ending with warnings of the judgment, while the logical analysis of James yields something similar; but of the affinity of spirit there can be no doubt.

The type of ethical thought exemplified in James has been called Ebionite (Hilgenfeld). It is clearly manifest in the humanitarianism of Luke also. But with the possible exception of the prohibition of oaths there is nothing which ought to suggest the epithet. The strong sense of social wrongs, the impatience with tongue-religion, the utter ignoring of ceremonialism, the reflection on the value and significance of "life," are distinctive simply of the "wisdom" writers. Like these our author holds himself so far aloof from current debate of ceremonial or doctrine as to escape our principal standards of measurement regarding place and time. Certain general considerations, however, are fairly decisive. The prolonged effort, mainly of English scholarship, to vindicate the superscription, even on the condition of assuming priority to the Pauline epistles, grows only increasingly hopeless with increasing knowledge of conditions, linguistic and other, in that early period. The moralistic conception of the gospel as a "law of liberty," the very phrase recalling the expression of Barn. ii., "the new law of Christ, which is without the yoke of constraint," the conception of the church as primarily an ethical society, its functions already officially distributed, suggest the period of the Didache, Barnabas and Clement of Rome. Independently of the literary contacts we should judge the period to be about A.D. 100-120. The connexions with the Pauline epistles are conclusive for a date later than the death of James; those with Clement and Hermas are perhaps sufficient to date it as prior to the former, and suggest Rome as the place of origin. The connexions with wisdomliterature favour somewhat the Hellenistic culture of Syria, as represented for example at Antioch.

The most important commentaries on the epistle are those of Matt. Schneckenburger (1832), K. G. W. Theile (1833), J. Kern (1838), G. H. Ewald (1870), C. F. D. Erdmann (1881), H. v. Soden (1898), J. B. Mayor (1892) and W. Patrick (1906). The pre-Pauline date is championed by B. Weiss (Introd. ), W. Beyschlag (Meyer's Commentary ), Th. Zahn (Introd. ), J. B. Mayor and W. Patrick. J. V. Bartlet (Ap. Age, pp. 217-250) pleads for it, and the view is still common among English interpreters. F. K. Zimmer ( Z. w. Th., 1893) showed the priority of Paul, with many others. A. Hilgenfeld ( Einl.) The logical relation of v. 12 to the context is problematical. Perhaps it may be accounted for by the order of the compend of Christian ethics the writer was following. Cf. Matt. v. 34-37 in relation to Matt. v. 12 (cf. ver. 10) and vi. 19 sqq.;cf. ver. 2, and iv. 13 seq.). The non-charismatic conception of healing, no longer the "gift" of some layman in the community (1 Cor. xii. 9 seq.) but a function of "the elders" (i Tim. iv. 14), is another indication of comparatively late date.

and A. C. McGiffert (Ap. Age ) place it in the period of Domitian; Baur (Ch. History ), Schwegler (Nachap. Zeitalt. ), Zeller, Volkmar (Z. w. Th. ), Hausrath (Ap. Age ), H. J. Holtzmann (Einl. ), Jiilicher (Einl. ), Usteri (St. u. Kr., 1889), W. Bruckner ( Chron. ), H. v. Soden (Handcomm. ) and A. Harnack (Chron. ) under Hadrian. A convenient synopsis of results will be found in J. Moffat, Historical New Test.2 (pp. 57 6 -5 81), and in the articles s.v. " James" in Encycl. Bibl. and the Bible Dictionaries. (B. W. B.)

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Epistle of James'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​e/epistle-of-james.html. 1910.
adsFree icon
Ads FreeProfile