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The General Epistle of James
There are no clearly defined parts in this Epistle; hence no classification of its contents is attempted. After the opening salutation the writer points out the significance of temptation in the life of his readers, exhorts them to ask in faith for the wisdom needed in bearing them and warns them not to refer their inward temptations to God, 1:1-18. Then he admonishes them to receive the Word in all humility and to carry it out in action, 19-27. He warns them against that respect of persons that reveals itself in favoring the rich at the expense of the poor, reminding them of the fact that he who violates the law in one point breaks the whole law; 2:1-13; and asserts that it is foolish to trust to a faith without works, since this is dead, 14-26. A warning against rash teaching and reproving follows, based on the difficulty of controlling the tongue, which is yet of the very greatest importance, 3:1-12. Wisdom from above is commended to the readers, since the wisdom of this world is full of bitter envy and works confusion and evil, while heavenly wisdom is plenteous in mercy and yields good fruits, 13-18. The author then reprimands the readers for their quarrelsomeness, which results from a selfishness and lust that infects even one’s prayers and renders them futile; and exhorts them to humble themselves before God, 4:1-12. He condemns those who, in the pride of possession, forget their dependence on God, and denounces the rich that oppress and rob the poor, 4:13—5: 6; after which he urges the brethren to be patient, knowing the Lord is at hand, 7-11. Finally he warns his readers against false swearing, gives special advice to the sick, exhorts them all to pray for one another, reminding them of the efficacy of prayer, and of the blessedness of turning a sinner from his sinful way, 12-20.
1. From a literary point of view the Epistle of James is quite different from those of Paul. The latter are real letters, which cannot be said of this Epistle. There is no benediction at the beginning, nor any salutation or greeting at the end. Moreover it contains very little that points to definite historical circumstances such as are known to us from other sources. Zahn calls this Epistle, “eine . . . in schriftliche Form gefasste Ansprache.” Einl. I p. 73. Barth speaks of it as, “eine Sammlung von Ansprachen des Jakobus an die Gemeinde zu Jerusalem,” which, he thinks were taken down by a hearer and sent to the Jewish Christians of the diaspora. Einl. p. 140. And Deissmann says: “The Epistle of James is from the beginning a little work of literature, a pamphlet addressed to the whole of Christendom, a veritable Epistle (as distinguished from a letter). The whole of the contents agrees therewith. There is none of the unique detail peculiar to the situation, such as we have in the letters of Paul, but simply general questions, most of them still conceivable under the present conditions of church life.” Light from the Ancient East p. 235.
2. The contents of the Epistle are not doctrinal but ethical. The writer does not discuss any of the great truths of redemption, but gives moral precepts for the life of his readers. There is no Christological teaching whatever, the name of Christ being mentioned but twice, viz. 1: 1; 2: 1. Beischlag correctly remarks that it is “so wesentlich noch Lehre Christi und so wenig noch Lehre von Christo.” The letter may be called, the Epistle of the Royal Law, 2:8. The emphasis does not rest on faith, but on the works of the law, which the writer views, not in its ceremonial aspect, but in its deep moral significance and as an organic whole, so that transgressing a single precept is equivalent to a violation of the whole law. The essential element of life according to the law is a love that reveals itself in grateful obedience to God and in self-denying devotion to one’s neighbor.
3. Some scholars, as f. i. Spitta, claim that this Epistle is really not a Christian but a Jewish writing; but the contents clearly prove the contrary. Yet it must be admitted that the Epistle has a somewhat Jewish complexion. While the writer never once points to the examplary life of Christ, he does refer to the examples of Abraham, Rahab, Job and Elijah. In several passages he reveals his dependence on the Jewish Chokmah literature, on the Sermon on the Mount, and on the words of Jesus generally; compare 1: 2 with Matt. 5:12 ;—1 : 4 with Matt. 5 : 48 ;—1 : 5 with Matt. 7:7;—1:6 with Mark 11:23;—1:22 with Matt. 7:24;—2:8 with Mark 12:31;—2:13 with Matt. 5:7; 18:33;—4:10 with Matt. 23:12; etc. Moreover the author does not borrow his figurative language from the social and civil institutions of the Greek and Roman world, as Paul often does, but derives it, like the Lord himself had done, from the native soil of Palestine, when he speaks of the sea, 1: 6; 3:4; of the former and the latter rain, 5: 7; of the vine and the fig-tree, 3:12; of the scorching wind, 1:11; and of salt and bitter springs, 3:11, 12.
4. The Epistle is written in exceptionally good, though Hellenistic Greek. The vocabulary of the author is rich and varied, and perfectly adequate to the expression of his lofty sentiments. His sentences are not characterized by great variation; yet they have none of the utter simplicity, bordering on monotony, that marks the writings of John. The separate thoughts are very clearly expressed, but in certain instances there is some difficulty in tracing their logical sequence. We find some examples of Hebrew parallelism especially in the fourth chapter; downright Hebraisms, however are very few, cf. the adjectival genitive in 1: 25, and the instrumental εν in 3:9.
According to external testimony James, the brother of the Lord, is the author of this Epistle. Origen is the first one to quote it by name, and it is only in Rufinus Latin translation of his works that the author is described as, “James, the brother of the Lord.” Eusebius mentions James, the brother of Christ, as the reputed author, remarking, however, that the letter was considered spurious. Jerome, acknowledging its authenticity, says: “James, called the Lord’s brother, surnamed the Just, wrote but one Epistle, which is among the seven catholic ones.
The author simply names himself, “James a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,” 1: 1, thus leaving the question of his identity still a matter of conjecture, since there were other persons of that name in the apostolic Church. It is generally admitted, however, that there is but one James that meets the requirements, viz, the brother of the Lord, for: (1) The writer was evidently a man of great authority and recognized as such not only by the Jews in Palestine but also by those of the diaspora. There is only one James of whom this can be said. While James, the brother of John, and James the son of Alphaeus soon disappear from view in the Acts of the Apostles, this James stands out prominently as the head of the Jerusalem church. During the Lords public ministry he did not yet believe in Christ, John 7: 5. Probably his conversion was connected with the special appearance of the Lord to him after the resurrection, I Cor. 15: 7. In the Acts we soon meet him as a man of authority. When Peter had escaped out of prison, after James the brother of John had been killed, he says to the brethren: “Go, show these things to James,” Acts 12:17. Paul says that he, on his return from Arabia, went to Jerusalem and saw only Peter and James, the Lords brother, Gal. 1: 18, 19. On the following visit James, Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, gave Paul and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, Gal. 2: 9. Still later certain emissaries came from James to Antioch and apparently had considerable influence, Gal. 2:12. The leading part in the council of Jerusalem is taken by this James, Acts 15:13 if. And when, at the end of his third missionary journey, Paul comes to Jerusalem, he first greeted the brethren informally, and on the following day “went unto James, and all the elders were present,” Acts 21:18. (2) The authorship of this James is also favored by a comparison of the letter, Acts 15 : 23-29, yery likely written under the inspiring influence of James, together with his speech at the council of Jerusalem, and certain parts of our Epistle, which reveals striking similarities. The salutation χαίρειν Acts 15: 23, Jas. 1:1 occurs elsewhere in the New Testament only in Acts 23:26. The words τὸ καλὸν ὄνομα τὸ ἐπικληθὲν ἐφ ̓ ὑμᾶς, 2:7, can only be paralleled in the New Testament in Acts 15:17. Both the speech of James and the Epistle are characterized by pointed allusions to the Old Testament. The affectionate term ἀδελφός, of frequent occurrence in the Epistle (cf. 1:2,9, 16, 19; 2:5, 15; 3:1; 4:11; 5:7,9, 10, 12, 19), is also found in Acts 15: 13, 23; compare especially Jas. 2: 5 and Acts 15:13. Besides these there are other verbal coincidences, as ἐπισκέπτεσθαι, Jas. 1:27; Acts 15:14; τηρεῖν and διατηρεῖν, Jas. 1:27, Acts 15:29; ἐπισκέπτεσθαι, Jas. 5 :19, 20; Acts 15 :19; ἀγαπητός, Jas. 1:16, 19; 2:5; Acts 15:25. (3) The words of the address are perfectly applicable to this particular James. He does not claim that he is an apostle, as do Paul and Peter in their Epistles. It might be objected, however, that if he was the brother of the Lord, he would have laid stress on that relation to enhance his authority. But does it not seem far more likely, in view of the fact that Christ definitely pointed out the comparative insignificance of this earthly relationship, Matt. 12: 46-50, that James would be careful not to make it the basis of any special claim, and therefore simply speaks of himself as a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ?
Now the question comes up, whether this James cannot be identified with James, the son of Alphaeus, one of the Lord’s apostles, Mt. 10:3; Mk. 3:18; Lk. 6:15; Acts 1:13. This identification would imply that the so-called brethren of the Lord were in reality his cousin’s, a theory that was broached by Jerome about A. D. 383, and which, together with the view of Epiphanius (that these brethren were sons of Joseph by a former marriage) was urged especially in the interest of the perpetual virginity. But this theory is not borne out by the data of Scripture, for: (1) The brethren of the Lord are distinguished from his disciples in John 2:12, and from the twelve after their calling in Mt. 12:46ff. ;Mk 3:31 ff. ; Lk. 8:19 ff. ; and John 7:3. It is stated that they did not belong to the circle of his disciples, indirectly in Mt. 13:55; Mk. 6:3, and directly in John 7:5. (2) Although it is true that cousins are sometimes called brethren in Scripture, cf. Gen. 14 16; 29:12, 15, we need not assume that this is the case also in the instance before us. Moreover it is doubtful whether James the son of Alphaeus was a cousin of Jesus. According to some this relationship is clearly implied in John 19: 25; but it is by no means certain that in that passage, “Mary the wife of Clopas” stands in apposition with, “his mother’s sister.” If we do accept that interpretation, we must be ready to believe that there were two sisters bearing the same name. It is more plausible to think that John speaks of four rather than of three women, especially in view of the fact that the gospels speak of at least five in connection with Jesus death and resurrection, cf. Mt. 27: 56; Mk. 16: 1; Lk. 24:10. But even if we suppose that he speaks of but three, how are we going to prove the identity of Alphaeus and Clopas? And in case we could demonstrate this, how must we account for the fact that only two sons are named of Mary, the wife of Clopas, viz. James and Joses, Mt. 27: 56; Mk. 15: 40; Lk. 24:10, comp. John 19: 25, while there are four brethren of the Lord, Mt. 13:55; Mk. 6: 3, viz. James, Joses, Judas and Simon? It has been argued that Judas is indicated as a brother of James the less in Lk. 6:16; Acts 1: 13, where we read of a ̓Ιούδας ̓Ιακώβου. But it is contrary to analogy to supply the word brother in such cases. (3) We repeatedly find the brethren of the Lord in the company of Mary, the mother of Jesus, just as we would expect to find children with their mother. Moreover in passages like Mt. 12:46; Mk. 3: 31, 32; and Lk. 8:19 it is an exegetical mistake to take the word mother in its literal sense, and then to put a different interpretation on the word brother. We conclude, therefore, that James, the brother of the Lord and the author of this Epistle, was not an apostle. There are two passages that seem to point in a different direction, viz. Gal. 1: 19 and I Cor. 15:7; but in the former passage ἐι μὴ may be adversative rather than exceptive, as in Lk. 4: 26, 27, cf. Thayer in loco; and the name apostle was not limited to the twelve. The considerations of Lange in favor of identifying the author with James, the son of Alphaeus, are rather subjective.
James seems to have been a man of good common sense, with a well balanced judgment, who piloted the little vessel of the Jerusalem church through the Judaeistic breakers with a skillful hand, gradually weaning her from ceremonial observances without giving offense and recognizing the greater freedom of the Gentile churches. He was highly respected by the whole Church for his great piety and whole-hearted devotion to the saints. The account of Hegesippus with respect to his paramount holiness and ascetic habits is in all probability greatly overdrawn. Cf. Eusebius II 23.
The authorship of James has been called in question by many scholars during the last century, such as DeWette, Schleiermacher, Baur, Hilgenfeld, Holtzmann, Harnack, Spitta, Baljon e. a. The main reasons for regarding the Epistle as spurious, are the following: (1) The condition of the church reflected in it reminds one of the church at Rome in the time of Hermas, when the glowing love of the first time had lost its fervency. (2) The Greek in which the Epistle is written is far better than one could reasonably expect of James, who always resided in Palestine.
(3) The writer does not mention the law of Moses, nor refer to any of its precepts, but simply urges the readers to keep the perfect law that requires love, charity, peacefulness, etc., just as a second century writer would do; while James believed in the permanent validity of the Mosaic law, at least for the Jews. (4) The Epistle bears traces of dependence on some of the Epistles of Paul, especially Romans and Galatians, on the Epistle to the Hebrews and on I Peter; and clearly contradicts the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith.
But these arguments need not shake our conviction as to the authorship of James. The condition implied in this letter may very well and, at least in part, is known to have existed about the middle of the first century. Jos. Ant. XX 8.8; 9.2 Cf. especially Salmon, Introd, p. 501 f. With respect to the second argument Mayor remarks that, accepting the view that Jesus and his brethren usually spoke Aramaeic, “we are not bound to suppose that, with towns like Sepphoris and Tiberius in their immediate vicinity, with Ptolomais, Scythopolis and Gadara at no great distance, they remained ignorant of Greek.” Hastings D. B. Art. James, the General Epistle of. The idea that James was a fanatic Judaeist and therefore could not but insist on keeping the Mosaic law, is not borne out by Scripture. He was a Jewish Christian and reveals himself as such f. i. in Acts 15:14-29; 21:20-25 and in his Epistle, cf.2:5 if.; 3:2;4:7, 14. His insistence on the spirit of the law, not at all Judaeistic, is in perfect harmony with the teaching of the Lord. The literary dependence to which reference has been made may, in so far as any really exists, just as well be reversed, and the contradiction between James and Paul is only apparent. Cf. the larger Introductions and the Commentaries.
The Epistle is addressed to “the twelve tribes which are in the dispersion,” 1: 1. Who are indicated by these words? The adverbial phrase, “in the dispersion” excludes the idea that the writer refers to all the Jewish Christians, including even those in Palestine (Hofmann, Thiersch) ; and the contents of the letter forbid us to think that he addresses Jews and Jewish Christians jointly (Thiele, Guericke, Weiss). There are, however, two interpretations that are admissible. The expression may designate the Jewish Christians that lived outside of Palestine (the great majority of scholars); but it may also be a description of all the believers in Jesus Christ that were scattered among the Gentiles, after the analogy of I Pet. 1: 1 and Gal. 6:16 (Koster, Hilgenfeld, Hengstenberg, Von Soden). Zahn is rather uncertain in his interpretation. He finds that the twelve tribes mentioned here form an antithesis to the twelve tribes that were in Palestine, and refer either to Christianity as a whole, or to the totality of Jewish Christians; and reminds us of the fact that there was a time, when the two were identical. Einl. I p. 55. We prefer to think of the Jewish Christians of the diaspora in Syria and neighboring lands, which were probably called “the twelve tribes” as representing the true Israel, because (1) the Epistle does not contain a single reference to Gentile Christians; (2) James was pre-eminently the leader of the Jewish Church; (3) the entire complexion of the Epistle points to Jewish readers.
The Epistle being of an encyclical character, naturally does not have reference to the situation of any particular local church, but to generally prevailing conditions at that time. The Jewish Christians to whom the Epistle is addressed were subject to persecutions and temptations, and the poor were oppressed by the rich that, possibly, did not belong to their circle. They did not bear these temptations with the necessary patience, but were swayed by doubt. They even looked with envy at the glitter of the world and favored the rich at the expense of the poor. In daily life they did not follow the guidance of their Christian principles, so that their faith was barren. There may have been dead works, but the fruits of righteousness were not apparent.
1. Occasion and Purpose. The occasion for writing this Epistle is found in the condition of the readers which we just described. James, the head of the Jerusalem church, would naturally be informed of this, probably in part by his own emissaries to the various churches of the diaspora, Acts 15:22; II Cor. 3:1; Gal. 2:12, and in part by those Jewish Christians that came from different lands to join in the great festivals at Jerusalem.
The object of the Epistle was ethical rather than didactic; it was to comfort, to reprove and to exhort. Since the readers were persecuted to the trial of their faith, and were tempted in various ways, the writer comes to them with words of consolation. Feeling that they did not bear their trials with patience, but were inclined to ascribe to God the temptations that endangered them as a result of their own lust and worldliness, he reproves them for the error of their way. And with a view to the blots on their Christian life, to their worldliness, their respect of persons, their vainglory and their envy and strife, he exhorts them to obey the royal law, that they may be perfect men.
2. Time and Place. The place of composition was undoubtedly Jerusalem, where James evidently had his continual abode. It is not so easy to determine when the letter was written. We have a terminus ad quem in the death of James about the year 62, and a terminus a quo in the persecution that followed the death of Stephen about A. D. 35, and that was instrumental in scattering the Jewish church. Internal evidence favors the idea that it was written during this period, for (1) There is no reference in the Epistle to the destruction of Jerusalem either as past or imminent; but the expectation of the speedy second coming of Christ, that was characteristic of the first generation of Christians, was still prevalent, 5: 7-9. (2) The picture of the unbelieving rich oppressing the poor Christians and drawing them before tribunals, is in perfect harmony with the description Josephus gives of the time immediately after Christ, when the rich Sadducees tyrannized over the poor to such a degree that some starved. Ant. XX 8.8; 9.2. This condition terminated with the destruction of Jerusalem. (3) The indistinctness of the line of separation between the converted and the unconverted Jews also favors the supposition that the letter was composed during this period, for until nearly the end of that time these two classes freely intermingled both at the temple worship and in the synagogues. In course of time, however, and even before the destruction of Jerusalem, this condition was gradually changed.
But the question remains, whether we can give a nearer definition of the time of composition. In view of the fact that the Christian Jews addressed in this letter must have had time to spread and to settle in the dispersion so that they already had their own places of worship, we cannot date the Epistle in the very beginning of the period named. Neither does it seem likely that it was written after the year 50, when the council of Jerusalem was held, for (1) the Epistle does not contain a single allusion to the existence in the church of Gentile Christians; and (2) it makes no reference whatever to the great controversy respecting the observance of the Mosaic law, on which the council passed a decision. Hence we are inclined to date the Epistle between A. D. 45 and 50.
Some have objected to this early date that the Epistle is evidently dependent on Romans, Galatians, Hebrews and I Peter; but this objection is an unproved assumption. It is also said that the πρεσβύτεροι mentioned in 5:14 imply a later date. We should remember, however, that the Church, especially among the Jews, first developed out of the synagogue, in which presbyters were a matter of course. Moreover some urge that the Christian knowledge assumed in the readers, as in 1: 3; 3:1, does not comport with such an early date. It appears to us that this objection is puerile.
Of those who deny the authorship of James some would date the Epistle after the destruction of Jerusalem, Reuss, Von Soden, and Hilgenfeld in the time of Domitian (81-96); Blom in A. D. 80; Bruckner and Baljon in the time of Hadrian (117-138).
There was considerable doubt as to the canonicity of this Epistle in the early church. Some allusions to it have been pointed out in Clement of Rome, Hermas and Irenaeus, but they are very uncertain indeed. We cannot point to a single quotation in Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian, though some are inclined to believe on the strength of a statement made by Eusebius, Ch. Hist. VI 14 that Clement commented on this Epistle, just as he did on the other general Epistles. There are reasons, however, to doubt the correctness of this statement, cf. Westcott, on the Canon p. 357. The letter is omitted from the Muratorian Fragment, but is contained in the Peshito. Eusebius classes it with the Antilegomena, though he seems uncertain as to its canonicity. Origen was apparently the first to quote it as Scripture. Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius and Gregory of Nazianze recognized it, and it was finally ratified by the third council of Carthage in A. D. 397. During the Middle Ages the canonicity of the Epistle was not doubted, but Luther for dogmatical reasons called it “a right strawy Epistle.” Notwithstanding the doubts expressed in the course of time, the Church continued to honor it as a canonical writing ever since the end of the fourth century.
The great permanent value of this Epistle is found in the stress it lays on the necessity of having a vital faith, that issues in fruits of righteousness. The profession of Christ without a corresponding Christian life is worthless and does not save man. Christians should look into the perfect law, and should regulate their lives in harmony with its deep spiritual meaning. They should withstand temptations, be patient under trials, dwell together in peace without envying or strife, do justice, exercise charity, remember each other in prayer, and in all their difficulties be mindful of the fact that the coming of the Lord is at hand.
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