the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
James, General Epistle of
The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
Letter of exhortation and instruction, written by "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ," and addressed "to the twelve tribes which are of the Dispersion" (1:1, R. V.). The writer is supposed to be James, the brother of Jesus, on which account the epistle was accorded the first place among the so-called "general epistles" of the New Testament. As a matter of fact, aside from the reference to Jesus Christ in the introductory verse quoted above, and in 2:1 (where the words "Jesus Christ" are obviously an interpolation), the epistle contains nothing to indicate a Christian origin. It comprises, loosely joined together, a number of moral sayings which have their parallels in contemporary Jewish writings, and there is no reason for holding that "the brethren" addressed may not have been Jews of a particular frame of mind—pious and humble, suchas were the Essenes, who formed a strong brotherhood in the Diaspora. Especially noteworthy are the facts that the name of the meeting-place of the worshipers addressed is "synagogue" (ςυναγωγή; 2:2), not "church" ('εκκληςία), and that the Hebrew prophets Job and Elijah are regarded as patterns, but nowhere the personality of Jesus (5:10,11,17 et al.). The canonical character of the epistle has accordingly at all times been questioned; Eusebius ("Hist. Eccl." 3:25,3) counts it among the controverted writings—ἀντιλεγóμενα; Origen ("Johannem," 19:6, 20:10) speaks of it as "the so-called Epistle of James"; Luther, who calls it "a right strawy epistle," as well as Erasmus, doubted its genuineness; Schneckenburger ("Beiträge zur Einleitung in das N. T." 1832, pp. 196 et seq.) and Jülicher ("Einleitung in das N. T." 1894, p. 143) likewise find its standpoint to be Jewish; and Spitta ("Zur Gesch. und Lit. des Urchristenthums," 1896, 2:61-239), whom this article follows, has, notwithstanding all contradictions or doubts, established its Jewish origin and character.
Contents of the Epistle.
The author, beginning with the Greek formula of greeting (χαίρειν = "joy"), urges his "brethren" (1:2-4) to rejoice over their trials (comp. Judith 8:25; IV Macc. 7:22, 9:12), as through such "tests of faith" (comp. ib. 15:21) they shall acquire "patience" (Test. Patr., Joseph, 2, 10; IV Macc. 13:12, 60:8 et seq.; Book of Jubilees, 17:17 et seq.) and become "perfect" (comp. Philo, "De Abrahamo," § 33). The same test of virtue is given in Romans 5:4 and 1:5. He who lacks wisdom should, in order to be perfect (see Wisdom 9:6), pray to God for it with a confiding heart, free from wavering doubt (1:5-8; comp. Wisdom 1:3-5, 7:7 et seq.), and not be double-minded (δίΦνχος = "be-leb wa-leb"; Psalms 12:3 [A. V. 2]; Tan., Ki Tabo, ed. Buber, 3: "Pray not before God with two hearts"; comp. Ecclus. [Sirach] 1:28; Enoch, 91:4; "Shepherd of Hermas," Mandate, 9:4,5, and the Jewish apocryphon quoted; I Clement 23:3; II Clement 11:2). In allusion to Jeremiah 9:22 et seq. (comp. Ecclus. [Sirach] 3:18, 10:21, 11:1), the lowly brother is admonished to glory in that (through self-humiliation) he is exalted, and the rich to rejoice in that he is made low (by the speedy vanishing of his riches; 1:9-10). "Blessed is the man that . . . is tried; he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him" (comp. 1:12 with Job 5:17; Ecclus. [Sirach] 34:8-10; "Shepherd of Hermas," Visio, 2:2 et seq.; Wisdom 5:15 et seq.; the passage quoted in 1 Corinthians 2:9 and the passages in Yalḳuṭ, Judges, 59; see also Crown).
In 1:12-16 temptations are declared to come, not directly from God, but from the powers of the flesh, the "yeẓer ha-ra'"—lust which leads to sin and death (comp. Ecclus. [Sirach] 15:12; Test. Patr., Reuben, 2 et seq.; Judah, 14, 19; and often). "Only good gifts come from God" ("kol de-'abed raḥmana le-ṭab 'abed"); "What God doeth is for good" (Ber. 60b, after Genesis 1:31; comp. Philo, "De Profugis," § 15; and often). "The Father of Lights" (e., of the stars as sons of God; comp. Apoc. Mosis, 36; Philo, "De Somniis," 1:13; idem, "De Sacrificantibus," § 4) is one "with whom there is no variation or turning," as with the stars (Wisdom 7:18; Enoch, 41:8; 72:5,35). Especially is man created by His word of truth, the first-fruit of His creation (comp. Yer. Shab. 5b: "man is the pure 'ḥallah' [first dough] of creation").
Decidedly Jewish or rabbinical in conception and expression are the following sentences—1:19-27: "Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath" (comp. Abot 5:11-12: "Hard to provoke and easy to be pacified is the disposition of the ḥasid"; "Quick to hear and slow to forget is wise"). "Lay apart all filthiness . . . and receive in meekness the engrafted word which is able to save your souls" (comp. Zechariah 3:3 et seq.; pseudo-Phocylides, 128; Apoc. Mosis, 20-21; Psalms 119:11; Test. Patr., Gad, 4). "Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only" (comp. Abot 1:17, 5:14; Shab. 88a: "A crown for Israel's promise to do, and another for his promise to hear"). In 1:25 "the word" is spoken of as "the perfect law of liberty" (comp. Abot 6:2; IV Macc. 14:2; Philo, "Quod Omnis Probus Liber," § 7), the observance of which brings eternal bliss (IV Macc. 17:18, 18:23). "The attendance at the divine service where the word of God is read should lead to pure speech and a pure worship of God the Father [comp. Psalms 68:6] through works of charity, visiting the fatherless and widows in their affliction" (comp. Ecclus. [Sirach] 4:10, 32:14), and "keeping oneself unspotted from the world" (comp. Enoch, 48:7).
Synagogal Teaching and Practise.
In ch. the Synagogue and its specific teachings form the main subject of discussion, introduced by verse 1: "My brethren, show not respect of persons, while professing belief in [the Lord of Glory]" (comp. Enoch, 3, 63:2; Psalms 24:7-10; the Christian interpolation, "our Lord Jesus Christ," destroys the sense of the whole sentence and of all that follows). "Discrimination between the rich and the poor in the assignment of seats in the synagogue is not in keeping with the faith professed by the brethren, according to which God has chosen the poor as those rich in faith and as heirs to the kingdom promised to those that love Him" (2-5; comp. Ecclus. [Sirach] 10:22, 11:6; Wisdom 3:9; Enoch, 43:4; and often). "To despise the poor and honor the rich who drag the poor to the courts and thus desecrate the fair [καλòν; perhaps originally μέγαλον = "great"] name by which ye are called [that is, "ḥillul ha-shem"] is not fulfilling the royal Law, 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself' [Leviticus 19:18]; those who do so are transgressors of the Law, inasmuch as he who offends in one point is guilty of transgressing the whole" (6-11; comp. Leviticus 19:15; Deuteronomy 16:19, 27:26; the Decalogue is quoted after the LXX., Exodus 20:13-15; comp. Philo, "De Decalogo," §§ 24-26).
The writer then continues: "The freedom that comes from the study of the Law [Abot 6:2] does not consist in the mere speaking of it, but must be shown in the doing; the mere profession of faith without works is of no avail; words without action do not relieve the naked and destitute—the demonsalso believe that there is one God. Abraham, our father, testified to his faith by his action, so it was accounted to him for righteousness [Genesis 15:6], and he became the friend of God [comp. Book of Jubilees, 19:9]. Also, Rahab the heathen was justified by her work in relieving the messengers [Joshua 2:9-11] and not by mere confession. Faith without works is like the body without motion [so Spitta; text has "without the spirit"]" (12-26; comp. IV Esd. 7:24, 8:32-36, 9:7, 13:23; Enoch, 38:2). It has been assumed by most New Testament exegetes that these observations refer to Paul's doctrine concerning justification by faith, a doctrine which also is based upon Genesis 15:6 (see Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6), but which is contradicted by James. Spitta, however, insists that they were made independently of Paul (see, especially, c. 2:204 et seq.).
The Power of the Tongue.
Ch. contains observations, in the spirit of the Wisdom literature, regarding the evil tongue (comp. Psalms 32:9, 34:16; Ecclus. [Sirach] 22:25, 28:10-23). The readers are admonished not to pursue in large numbers the vocation of teachers, as it entails great responsibilities (comp. Abot 1:10,11), since by the unbridled tongue all men are apt to sin. The tongue often defiles the whole body and sets on fire the whole wheel of existence (A. V. "course of nature"). With the mouth with which we bless God the universal Father we also curse men made in His image (1-10; comp. Tan., Meẓora', ed. Buber, 4-5; 'Ar. 15b-16a; Test. Patr., Benjamin, 6). Let therefore the wise show his wisdom in removing strife and envy, for the wisdom that comes from above works peace and mercy without partiality and hypocrisy (11-18; comp. Abot 1:12, 2:15; Test. Patr., Levi, 13).
In ch. the brethren are warned against lusts which produce war among the members of the body (1-3; comp. Test. Patr., Reuben, 2; Dan, 5; Ned. 32b, with reference to Ecclesiastes 9:14). In the spirit of Essenism the author calls them (4-5) "adulterers," because cherishing unlawful desires, and says, "Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?" (comp. Enoch, 48:7); and with reference to Genesis 6:3 and Proverbs 3:34 (LXX.) he tells them to resist the devil, or tempter, and he will flee from them; and instead to cling to God, and He will draw nigh to them (comp. Psalms 18:26 [A. V. 25] et seq.; Zechariah 1:3; Test. Patr., Simeon, 3; Issachar, 4, 7; Dan, 5, 7; Naphtali, 8). They should therefore cleanse hands and hearts and weep over their sins, and through humbleness before God they will be lifted up (8-10; such monitions could never have emanated from a believer in Jesus as Christ without some reference to the power of forgiving sin ascribed to him by his followers). The brethren are especially warned against speaking evil against, and judging, one another, inasmuch as, being teachers of the Law, they thereby speak evil against, and judge, the Law itself. "God alone is the Lawgiver and Judge who is able to save and to destroy. Who art thou that judgest thy neighbor?" (11-12).
The Great Judgment-Day.
In the following (4:13-15) the rich merchants who plan great voyages and undertakings for the future are reminded of the uncertainty of human life (comp. Deut. R. ); they ought to say, "If God wills, we shall live and do this or that." (Compare the Jewish saying, "Im yirẓeh hashem" = "If God permits." On the other hand, "he who is able to do good and does it not, sins.") Finally, the rich ones who live only for their own pleasure and withhold the wages of their laborers are told to prepare for the great judgment-day (5:1-5; comp. Enoch, -c., 102:9, 103:5 et seq.; Ecclus. [Sirach] 31:21; Wisdom 2:20). On the other hand, the righteous who suffer innocently at the hands of the rich are admonished to wait patiently for the judgment-day of the Lord which is nigh, not to bear grudges one against another, and to take for their example the Prophets and Job, who also suffered in the cause of God (6-11).
Specific Essene Teachings.
Here follow, without any connection with the preceding, a number of Essene teachings concerning (1) swearing and (2) the treatment of members of the brotherhood. (1) "But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into [eternal] judgment" (12; comp. Josephus, "B. J." 2:8, § 6; Ecclus. [Sirach] 23:9-11; Philo, "De Decem Oraculis," § 17; Sifra, Ḳedoshim,; Ruth R. 7:5; Num. R.; Lev. R.; Ned. 8b; Shebu. 4:13: Matthew 5:33-37 is probably an amplification of this passage in James). (2) "Pray for the afflicted and sing psalms with the joyful." If one is sick, the elders of the congregation (A. V. "church") should be called to offer prayer for him and anoint him with oil (for healing) in the name of the Lord (comp. B. B. 116a; Ned. 40a; Apoc. Mosis, 9; Sanh. 101a; Yoma 77b; Yer. Ma'as. Sh. 2:53b; Shab. 14:3). A confession of sins ("widdui") should precede the prayer (Lev. R. ); "the prayer of true faith saveth the sick, and that of the righteous man availeth much" (comp. Ber. 5:4b, 5; Test. Patr., Reuben, 1:4; Gad, 5). As an example of the power of the saint the story of Elijah (1 Kings 17:1, 18:1) is referred to. As the ailing brother is thus induced by the one who visits him to repent of his sins, the writer closes with the general sentence (19-20): "If any of the brethren leads another to repentance ["teshubah"] he saves him from death, and hides [e., removes from sight] a multitude of sins."
To ascribe these instructions to a believer in Jesus as the Savior and Healer of men is absolutely without foundation. As Spitta has shown, much of early Christian literature, especially the Second Epistle General of Peter, is founded on the epistle.
- Spitta, Der Brief des Jacobus, Göttingen, 1896.
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Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'James, General Epistle of'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​j/james-general-epistle-of.html. 1901.