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James Overview

Author and Date

Tradition generally holds that this letter was written by James, the brother of Jesus, who is also called James the Just, and sometimes identified as James, son of Alphaeus, and James the Less.1

Hegesippus, a second century church father, says, “After the apostles, James the brother of the Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem.” And that, “[James] drank no wine or other intoxicating liquor, nor did he eat flesh; no razor came upon his head; he did not anoint himself with oil, nor make use of the bath. He alone was permitted to enter the holy place: for he did not wear any woolen garment, but fine linen only. He alone, was wont to go into the temple: and he used to be found kneeling on his knees, begging forgiveness for the people–so that the skin of his knees became horny like that of a camel’s, by reason of his constantly bending the knee in adoration to God, and begging forgiveness for the people.”1

Jesus’ brothers – James as well as Jude, Simon and Joses – are named in Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3. James’ name always appears first in lists, which suggests he was the eldest among them. The Gospel of John never mentions anyone called James, but mentions Jesus’ unnamed “brothers” as being present with Mary when Jesus attended the wedding at Cana (John 2:12), and later that his brothers did not believe in him (John 7:5). In a passage in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities, the first century Jewish historian describes James as “the brother of Jesus who is called Christ.”1

Paul describes James as being one of the persons to whom the risen Christ showed himself (1 Corinthians 15:3–8); later in 1 Corinthians, Paul suggests “the brothers of the Lord” could have been married (9:5); and in Galatians, Paul lists James with Cephas (better known as Peter) and John the Apostle as the three “pillars” of the Church (2:9)1

James died around 62 AD. The High Priest Hanan ben Hanan took advantage of this lack of Rome’s imperial oversight to assemble a Sanhedrin who condemned James “on the charge of breaking the law”, then had him executed by throwing him off the temple, then by stoning.1

If written by James, the time of the writing of his letter would be sometime before 62 AD. Jerusalem would be the place of origin. This would make this book on of the earliest written in the New Testament.2

There is some internal evidence to suggest such an early date:2

  • The letter does not mention Christians who are not Jewish. The first Christians were almost all Jews.
  • When Gentiles became Christians, there were problems about the rules that they were to obey (Acts 15). There is no mention of this in the letter.
  • The use of the word ‘*synagogue’ (in 2:2 translated as ‘meeting place’) shows that the Christians were still meeting with the Jews.
  • After the death of Stephen (Acts 7) Jews tried to kill the Christians. As a result, many of them left Jerusalem and went to live in other countries (Acts 8). Many think this is the “twelve tribes dispersed abroad,” that James is writing too.

Many scholars also think James’ speech in Acts 15 contains some parallels in language with the epistle of James.15

Historical Context

Wisdom Literature

Though James is written as a letter, many scholars think there are parallels to the Wisdom genre because, like Proverbs and Sirach, it consists largely of moral exhortations and precepts of a traditional and eclectic nature. 2

Wisdom literature is characterized by sayings of wisdom intended to teach about divinity and virtue.

The Wisdom books in the Bible are Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes.The Hebrew word for “wisdom” is mentioned 222 times in the Old Testament. It was regarded as one of the highest virtues among the Israelites along with kindness and justice.14

Wisdom literature was written by individuals who considered themselves sages. Sages had two sources of information about life: the natural world and their Wisdom tradition. Unlike prophets and priests, the sages believed that God wove important principles into the fabric of the universe, which careful observation could discern. For example, many sages believed in a balanced universe in which the good are rewarded for their goodness and the evil are punished. These two sources were in tension at times; human experience showed that sometimes good people suffer and evil people sleep peacefully. The sages agonized over the contradictions in their system and took different sides in their debates.In general, priests and prophets dealt with religious and moral concerns (proclaiming, teaching, interpreting and applying God’s word to his people), whereas the sages generally focused more on the practical aspects of how life should be guided in the created order of things (Proverbs) and on the intellectual challenges that arise from the ambiguities of human experience (Job, Ecclesiastes).7

For these sages, Wisdom was fruit of the unending quest for the meaning of man’s experience of life and religion. “Where shall wisdom be found?” asks the Book of Job. “Man does not know the way to it. It is hidden from the eyes of all living things, God understands the way to it” (Job 28:12, 21, 23). The search for the higher wisdom led to the twin convictions that, in the last analysis, wisdom comes to man only as a divine gift, and that it belongs to the very nature of God himself.8

Creation plays a prominent role in the speculative/philosophical reflections on wisdom. Wisdom is the principle by which God structured and created the earth and the heavens (Prov 3.19–20); wisdom appears to God at the moment of creation in Job 28.23–27; personified wisdom is present alongside God when God creates the world in Prov 8.22–31; wisdom “covers the earth like a mist” inSir 24.3; and wisdom is “poured out upon all [God’s] works, upon all the living” in Sir 1.9–10. Within creation lies a principle of order that is expressed in the harmonious society as well as the proper functioning of the natural world. The relationship between creation and wisdom developed in later Jewish and Christian literature (cf. Col 1.15–16).9

Wisdom came to signify the unifying principle of order that undergirds the universe, and the sages believed that reflection upon the world could lead one to glimpse aspects of this principle.9

Philo, a Hellenised Jew writing in Alexandria in the first century, attempted to harmonize Platonic philosophy and Jewish scripture. He used the Greek term logos, “word,” for the role and function of Wisdom, a concept later adapted by the author of the Gospel of John in the opening verses and applied to Jesus Christ as the eternal Word (Logos – Wisdom – Unifying Principle) of God the Father.14

There are several other New Testament passages that link Jesus to Wisdom as portrayed in the Old Testament:14

  • Like Wisdom, Christ pre-existed all things and dwelt with God (John 1:1-2)
  • The lyric language about Wisdom being the breath of the divine power, reflecting divine glory, mirroring light, and being an image of God, appears to be echoed by 1 Corinthians 1:17-18, 24-5 (verses which associate divine wisdom with power), by Hebrews 1:3 (“he is the radiance of God’s glory”), John 1:9 (“the true light that gives light to everyone”), and Colossians 1:15 (“the image of the invisible God”).
  • The New Testament applies to Christ the language about Wisdom’s cosmic significance as God’s agent in the creation of the world: “all things were made through him, and without him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:3; see Col 1:16 Heb 1:2).
  • The Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:21) is not only “secret and hidden” (1 Cor. 2:7) but also, defined by the cross and its proclamation, downright folly to the wise of this world (1 Cor. 1:18-25).
  • Christ says he is ‘greater’ than Solomon, the Old Testament wise person and teacher par excellence (Matt 12:42).
  • Paul names Christ as “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24) whom God “made our wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:30; cf. 1:21).

Audience

The recipients of this letter were the Jewish Christians of the Diaspora, Jews who had scattered from Palestine and had come to faith in Christ.10  References to them meeting in a synagogue (2:2), monotheism (2:19), and the lack of circumcision controversy so prominent in Paul’s letters to largely Gentile audiences, indicates that this was entirely a Jewish audience. Further, the Palestinian background of either the author or the readers is seen in the references to the autumn and spring rains in Jas. 5:7, a weather phenomenon limited to the eastern Mediterranean coastal plain and lowlands.15

James’ audience is made up largely of poor folks who are oppressed. It likely because of their poverty (possibly brought on by the famine mentioned in Acts 11), combined with their Christian conviction, that they were oppressed.15

Major Themes

Framed within an overall theme of patient perseverance during trials and temptations, James writes to encourage believers to live consistently with what they have learned in Christ. He desires for his readers to mature in their faith in Christ by living what they say they believe. James condemns various sins including pride, hypocrisy, favoritism, and slander. James encourages believers to humbly live heavenly wisdom rather than worldly wisdom, and to pray in all situations.2

The Book of James teaches us that faith in God should result in behavior that is in harmony with God’s will.10

Some behaviors James is most concerned with:10

  • Attitude towards trials. God’s goal for believers is personal maturity.
  • Prejudice. God’s goal for believers is love for all people.
  • Speech. God’s goal is that believers bless others with speech.
  • Interpersonal relationships. God’s goal is that believers maintain peace with others.
  • Use of money. God’s goal is that believers use their money to serve others, rather than hoarding it for themselves.
  • In general James says we must challenge the philosophy of the world. The world system says: Avoid trials; Give preference to those who can help you; Promote yourself by what you say; Demand your rights; Grab all the money you can.

James also makes many references to themes found in the Sermon on the Mount:10 & 11

  1. Righteousness, or “right conduct.”
  2. Maturity, or being “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
  3. Seeking God’s approval above man’s approval.
  4. Commending those who are “spiritually poor,” meek, merciful, and peacemakers.
  5. Warning about the deception of riches.

Discussion

  • What is today’s wisdom literature look like? Who are the sages? What do they say about how we should behave?
  • If Jesus is the “pattern of the world”, the “rationale of creation”, or the “single unifying principle of creation” as indicated by the title “Logos” (Word of God), then what should the world be like? How are we to help shape it back to it’s intended form?
  • James wrote to a Christian Jewish audience who still attended synagogs, followed the Mosaic Law and sacrificed animals. What would you think if you met someone like this today? What would you tell them about what you believe? What do you think you could learn from them? How has Christianity changed? Why?

References

  1. James the Just
  2. Epistle of James
  3. Darby’s commentary
  4. Jewish Christians
  5. Wisdom Literature
  6. Penchansky on Wisdom Literature
  7. Biblical Wisdom Literature
  8. Scott on Wisdom Literature
  9. Breed on Wisdom Literature
  10. Constable’s commentary
  11. James’ commentary
  12. Mackervoy’s commentary
  13. Coffman’s commentary
  14. Wisdom
  15. Wallace’s commentary
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