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New Testament: James

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Summary

James  The Letter of James, although ostensibly in the form of a general letter, has more the character of a sermon or treatise. In its brief span of 108 verses it repeatedly urges Christians to conduct their lives according to that wisdom that is from above, from the God who is the giver of "every perfect gift," rather than according to earthly wisdom, which leads to death. Empowered by God's "implanted word," Christians are called to be not merely "hearers" but "doers" who show forth their faith in specific and practical acts of love and mercy that shape and sustain community. The author is traditionally associated with James the brother of the Lord, who was a leader in the early church.

So What?

The Letter of James breathes a powerful encouragement for the practice of responsible Christian action amid the complex realities of daily life. The "implanted word" of God forms a people as "first fruits," who through the gift of wisdom are enabled to bring their "hearing and doing" together in specific practical actions of justice and care on behalf of the poor and needy in the world. Such faithfulness shapes a community that is constituted and sustained by the gift of God's wisdom and by the confident and effective exercise of prayer.

Where Do I Find It?

The Letter of James is the twentieth book in the New Testament. It is the first in the section of books typically referred to as the "Catholic Letters" (James through Jude).

Who Wrote It?

The author of the letter, "James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ," has been traditionally identified with James the brother of Jesus, leader of the Jerusalem church and martyred just before the outbreak of the Jewish War of 66-70 C.E. Some readers, however, assume the letter to be pseudonymous, written by an unknown Christian who deliberately associated the exhortation of this wisdom "sermon" with a revered church leader from the past.

When Was It Written?

Opinions differ as to the dating of James and are obviously connected to those regarding authorship. Those who note the apparent lack of ecclesiastical structure, the prevalence of wisdom traditions, and the frequent allusions to what seem to be traditions related to Jesus tend to support the tradition of James the brother of Jesus as the author and place the letter as early as the mid 50s C.E. Those, on other hand, who note the letter's style, its resonance with features of Hellenistic moral literature of exhortation, and the nature and presence of much pseudonymous literature in the early church tend to reject James as the author and place the letter later, even well into the second century C.E.

What's It About?

Empowered by wisdom as God's "implanted word," Christians are called to be not merely "hearers" but "doers" who show forth their faith in specific and practical acts of love and mercy that shape and sustain community.

How Do I Read It?

Whether its origins are from James or from a later Christian author, the content of the letter is fairly clear. It needs to be read in the manner and tradition of wisdom literature, which breathes with the conviction that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverbs 9:10). What might seem to be a somewhat random stringing together of moral exhortation and precepts is focused in the conviction that God's gift of wisdom has the ability to empower a community to single-minded unity of hearing and doing that plays out in practical acts of justice and mercy. As such, James needs to be read with an appreciation of its confidence in the gifts of God and in the ability of the gift of wisdom to enable a faithful community to make a real difference in the world.

AUTHOR: James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek

1. Greeting (James 1:1)

James, "a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ," sends greetings to the "twelve tribes in the Dispersion," an apparent linking of this Christian community with its Jewish roots.

2. Count It All Joy (James 1:2-18)

A series of admonitions literarily linked to the opening greeting ("joy" and "greetings" are the same Greek word) introduce themes the letter will repeatedly pick up: joy, wisdom, blessing, faith, growth, endurance, creation, word, and first fruits. Christians endure and grow by a stable-minded wisdom that knows them to be blessed as the "first fruits" of a creative word coming from the Father, who is the giver of "every perfect gift."

3. Hearing and Doing (James 1:19-27)

Like those who observe themselves in a mirror, Christians are to be hearers who remember who they are. God's "implanted word" is "the perfect law, the law of liberty" that has power to enable "doers" who, while keeping themselves unstained by the world, are blessed through effective action on behalf of the needy.

4. The Royal Law of Mercy (James 2:1-13)

Faith that responds to the call of its Lord Jesus Christ to love the neighbor as the self fulfills the "royal law" of Scripture. Such faith lives by the "law of liberty," which demonstrates the power of mercy to triumph over a partiality that caters to the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and oppressed.

5. Faith without Works Is Dead (James 2:14-26)

Through imaginary dialogue and pointed repetition, the theme of "hearing" and "doing" is picked up and expanded in terms of "faith" and "works." Abraham and Rahab are models of a faith whose action for others is as essential to its life as the soul is to the body.

6. Controlling the Tongue (James 3:1-12)

If the previous section picked up the theme of "doing," this section picks up and emphasizes the theme of "hearing." One should be quick to hear and slow to speak, because the tongue is a restless and dangerous fire that has potential both to bless God and to curse God's creation.

7. Learning True Wisdom (James 3:13-5:6)

In what might be regarded as a kind of mini-handbook on Christian wisdom, this section brings together a number of themes suggested in the letter's opening reference to wisdom (see 1:5). Typically, the author contrasts wisdom that is from above and full of mercy through God's gift with wisdom that is of this world and the author of destruction and death.

A. Conflicts and Disputes (James 4:1-12)

Conflicts and disputes arise from unrestrained wants that forget the gifts of God. Wisdom, on the other hand, knows the graceful gift of God's presence and yearning Spirit within and is thus enabled to live in humility and integrity with the neighbor.

B. Living for Today (James 4:13-17)

Wisdom knows the uncertainty and limits of being created and thus knows that the future remains in God's hands. Such humility allows us to know that we cannot do everything, but that perhaps we can do the one thing that is right for today.

C. Remember to Do Justice (James 5:1-6)

Wisdom knows that God hears the cries of those who have been treated unjustly by the rich and the powerful, and that God's judgment on them will surely come.

8. Concluding Exhortation: Patience, Prayer, and Power (James 5:7-20)

Finally, the Christian community is encouraged to live patiently in the surety of the nearness of the Lord's coming and to endure in the "truth" and certainty that the end is in the Lord's hands. In the meantime this community should exercise prayer on behalf of one another in the knowledge that prayer has power for healing, forgiveness, and ultimately salvation from death.

AUTHOR: James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek

The setting of the Letter of James is fairly obscure. Most of what can be gleaned about that background must come from the letter itself, and there is little particular detail in its generalized moral exhortation. Much depends on what one thinks about the identification of the author as James and whether this James is indeed the same as the one identified as "the Lord's brother" in Galatians 1:19 and elsewhere. It further depends on the precise meaning of the letter's address "to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion." Is this to be assumed, with many, as symbolic language referring to the Christian community in its relation to Israel and thus consistent with other Jewish themes in the letter, such as wisdom traditions? Although the text speaks of testing (persecution?), partiality of rich and poor in the assembly, doing business and making money, and laborers and harvest, these are all very general references and do not give much indication of date or setting.

From the earliest times, opinions on the origin and character of James have varied. It is missing from many lists of scriptural books from the first centuries of the church, and there are no definite traces of the book's use in the church until after 200 C.E. Origen of Alexandria, who lived approximately 185-254, quotes the book as Scripture, but when he discusses the canon, he includes it among those books that are "disputed."

Many Christians will be familiar with selected verses from James, such as 1:17 and 1:27. Nevertheless, evaluation of James as Scripture was not helped by Martin Luther's well-known characterization of it as an "epistle of straw." Still, as to its character, Luther's specific remarks are telling. His evaluation is based on his judgment that James does not have enough of what is centrally Christian, with only brief references to Jesus Christ, and that it seems to lack continuity or clear development of an argument, a judgment that is consistent with the book's many seemingly weakly linked exhortations.

Examination and appreciation of James in the last century has been encouraged by new information and interest in Jewish and Christian communities of the first century. Comparative studies have also opened up a vast literature of moral exhortation from the wider Greek-speaking world. Still, the fact that James seems to betray aspects both of Jewish literature and tradition (particularly wisdom literature) and of Hellenistic moral exhortation has led to diverse opinions about its precise background.

Those who argue for the book's associations with James the brother of Jesus and Jewish traditions tend to place the letter as early as 52 C.E., while those who argue for its Hellenistic setting and associations with Hellenistic paraenetic literature and to pseudonymous authorship tend to place it later, even well into the second century C.E.

AUTHOR: James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek

Faith and works. Faith is a confident and unwavering trust in the effective power of God's gift of wisdom, not only to weather the storms of life, but to enable growth toward maturity expressed in pure religion that cares for the poor and needy in the world (1:5-15, 27). Wisdom binds faith and works together, just as it binds together hearing and doing, a life-constituting unity as essential as that of body and spirit (2:26). Faith and works are not opposing alternatives but constitute the life-giving reality of God's gift of wisdom. Making clear this unified perspective is important enough to be the focus of one of the longest sections of this brief book (2:14-26), but this perspective also runs through the whole of the letter. Since the unity of hearing and doing is so integral a part of the letter's conception of wisdom and creation, not all interpreters are convinced that the author of James was familiar with Paul's treatment of faith and works in his letters (especially Galatians) or was responding to a misunderstood Pauline emphasis. Still, the particular framing of the distinction and the character of the argument in James makes better sense against a Pauline backdrop.

Wisdom and creation, grace and law. The theme of wisdom is at the heart of James and is a key to its understanding and appreciation. At the very beginning, in a transparent allusion to Solomon and his request for wisdom (see 1 Kings 3-4), James attributes being mature and not lacking in anything to the possession of wisdom, which God grants "generously and ungrudgingly" to all who ask for it with sincere faith (1:4-5). This wisdom is a chief constituent of God's "perfect gift" of creation, centered in that "word of truth" that has given birth to God's people as the "first fruits" of all of God's creation (1:17-18). Confidence in wisdom as the creative gift of God that enables God's people to live and grow in responsible maturity undergirds the whole of the letter. Thus, one who looks for explicit language of grace in James will be disappointed by the one meager reference in 4:6 and will be potentially misled by the appreciative evaluation of the law in such phrases as the "perfect law" or the "law of liberty" (1:25; 2:12). Wisdom is the literal word and shape that grace assumes in the perspective of James; wisdom is God's gift that enables God's creation to be not only hearers but doers who act by living out God's "royal law" of loving the neighbor as the self (1:25-27; 2:8). Such confidence in practical wisdom for responsible Christian behavior in the world sets the stage for the prevalent exhortation in the letter.

AUTHOR: James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek

Caring community. Those who are hearers and doers exhibit a wholeness and integrity of faith and action that is shown in solidarity with the poor and needy and in the building up of community. Such community is established and shaped through patterns of the Christian life illustrated in, for example, the control of speech for the common good (3:1-12), the avoidance of conflicts and disputes through humble refusal to judge one another (4:1-12), and the sustaining power of intercessory prayer (5:12-20).

Faith and works. The key theme of the "law of liberty" as "love of the neighbor" is further developed in the dialogue about "faith and works" in 2:14-26. The unity of hearing and doing has its counterpart in the assertion that a faith that is not active in works of mercy on behalf of the community is dead.

God. James is intensely theological, in that "God" is the second word in the letter in the original Greek, and God is at the center of its language and perspective (almost twenty-five references in the 108 verses). The one living God, unchanging in purpose, answers generously the prayer for wisdom (1:5), is the giver of every perfect gift (1:17), and is the author of the implanted word of truth that holds the saving power to make people hearers and doers (1:21-25; 2:8). God causes the Spirit to dwell in us and gives grace that the wisdom from above show fruits in righteousness, mercy, and peace (3:17; 4:5-6).

Hearing and doing. In a number of places James seems to rely on traditions of Jesus' teaching, although without explicit reference. One of those key themes is in the exhortation to be not only hearers of the word but also doers (1:22-25). Those who are hearers only and not doers are like those who look at themselves in a mirror and then forget who they are as people constituted and empowered by God's implanted word (1:21).

Implanted word. Wisdom as the gift of God is described as an implanted word of truth that gives birth to God's people as the "first fruits of creation." Such creatures are not only "hearers of the word" but "doers," whose actions of mercy and justice are blessed as they fulfill the call of God to love the neighbor as the self.

The law of liberty. In several places, again apparently relying on Jesus' teaching tradition, James speaks in terms of the law as "perfect law," a "law of liberty," or the "royal law" of Scripture (1:25, 2:8, 12). Similar to Jesus' teaching in the Gospels, this law is specifically identified with the summary command to "love your neighbor as yourself" (2:8). Such a law supports the letter's exhortation to a unity of hearing and doing that is demonstrated in the "pure religion" of caring for the poor and needy (1:27; 2:12-13).

Power of prayer. Confidence in the power of prayer literally frames the letter. James begins with the assurance that those who lack the key component of the Christian life, wisdom, need only ask for it from a God who gives generously to those who ask in expectant faith (1:5-6). In the concluding exhortation, readers are again called to the exercise of prayer for endurance in suffering, for the power of healing for the sick, and for mutual confession and forgiveness that is the key mark of this Christian community (5:13-20).

Single-minded faith. A person is blessed who asks and receives wisdom from God in an unwavering faith. Purity of heart is to will one thing (4:8). Such persons endure in the midst of trials (1:5-15) and demonstrate by a good life that their "works are done with gentleness born of wisdom" (3:13).

Solidarity with the poor. If the community addressed by James is called to be doers who act, a key character of this action is to be in solidarity with the poor and oppressed. In a number of places (1:27; 2:1-8, 15-16; 5:1-6) the writer exhorts Christians to mindfulness of God's special concern for those who are continuously at risk of mistreatment by the rich and powerful. Love of the neighbor is specifically contrasted with a partiality shown to the rich at the expense of the poor (2:6-8).

Wisdom and creation. Clearly, the greatest gift of God is wisdom, and so James opens with the promise that God gives wisdom generously to all who ask confidently in faith (1:5-6). Such wisdom "from above" (3:17) leads to life, constituted in the implanted word of God that has power to shape persistent hearers and doers whose works are done in a "gentleness born of wisdom" (3:13). It is contrasted to a false wisdom that is "earthly, unspiritual, and devilish" (3:15) and leads to death.

AUTHOR: James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek