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THE epistle of St. James is a pastoral or homily addressed to Christians in general (see on i. 1). The author is a teacher of the church, who writes this tract for the special purpose of recalling Christians to the agenda of their faith. But who they were, and who he was, no tradition explains. Neither is there any internal evidence that enables us to place the homily, except within broad limits. It is fairly plain that the writer was acquainted with First Peter, and also with the teaching of the Pauline epistles; it is also more than probable that our tract was known to Hermas, who in the second century composed The Shepherd. If it could be shown that Clement of Rome, towards the end of the first century, used James, this would fix the date of James still further, as being not later than about A.D. 90. Provisionally it may be placed between about 70 and 90 (110).
It was addressed to churches which were still governed by presbyters; they and teachers are the only officials mentioned, and the lack of any reference to bishops proves that it was either written prior to the development marked by Ignatius, or composed for communities which were as yet unaffected by the change to a monarchical episcopate. One country which would answer to this is Egypt, and there are some minor indications that point to an Egyptian origin for James, e.g. the use of Alexandrian books like Sirach and Wisdom, and the fact that the first author to quote it is Origen.2
Even Origen shows hesitation about citing it as canonical, and down to the fourth century its place in the N.T. canon was both limited and disputed. Thus Eusebius (Hist. Eccles. ii. 33) records the opinion that it was composed by James the brother of Jesus, but adds candidly, ‘I must observe that it is considered spurious. Certainly not many writers of antiquity have mentioned it.’ Evidently there was no tradition linking it to the apostle James; indeed the western Church seems to have ignored it altogether until the second half of the fourth century. Jerome believed it was the work of the apostle James, but he records another, older view that it was pseudonymous, ‘ab alio quodam sub nomine eius edita, licet paulatim tempore procedente obtinuerit auctoritatem.’ There are still critics who maintain this theory, although it is not easy to see why a writer who desired to float his tract under the flag of the apostle James did not make more , use of the apostolic name and prestige.
The alternative theories are (a) that it was really written by the apostle James, either before or after St. Paul, or (b) that it was composed by some teacher of the church called James, of whom we know nothing. The latter upon the whole meets the facts of the case adequately; it is no longer needful to discuss the hypothesis that the tract was originally a Jewish document, interpolated by a Christian in i. 1 and ii. 1, etc. The address of the letter, in i. 1, does not claim apostolic authorship, indeed; but as no homily could gain entrance, into the canon apart from some claim to apostolic inspiration, it was natural, as it was fortunate, that the church came to read ‘James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ,’ as an allusion to James the apostle. In 3this way the homily won a tardy and partial footing in the canon, which its own merits might not have secured.
And its merits are marked. James, as Zahn remarks, ‘is a preacher who speaks like a prophet . . . in language which for forcibleness is without parallel in early Christian literature, excepting the discourses of Jesus.’ The style is pithy and terse, often aphoristic; in 108 verses there are no fewer than 54 imperatives. This corresponds to the spirit of the writer. He has met Christians who—
In self-belyings, self-deceivings roll,
And lose in action, passion, talk, the soul.
His arguments and appeals are directed against abuses of popular Christianity as it developed in circles where worldliness was infecting the faith, and where misconceptions of belief were prevalent. There is no problem of Jew and Christian present to his mind; it is only a misinterpretation of passages like ii. 2 and 21 that has led to the idea that the tract was designed for Jewish Christians of the primitive period. The situation presupposed in the homily is that of oecumenical Christianity, exposed to the ordinary trials and temptations which met the later stages of the apostolic age.
The homily begins with five paragraphs loosely strung; upon the thread of trial or temptation (i. 1-16), followed by reflections on the true word and worship (i. 17-27), which open up into a denunciation of some abuses in contemporary worship (ii. 1-13, iv. 11-12). Then comes an indignant refutation of a merely formal faith (ii. 14-26, iv. 17). But excess of words is as fatal as lack of deeds in religion, and James now proceeds to expose the vices of the tongue (iii. 1-12), dosing with a passage on the true wisdom of life 4(iii. 13-18), as opposed to the factiousness and worldliness which are rampant in the church (iv. 1-10). He then censures scheming traders (iv. 13–16) and oppressive landlords (v. 1-6), and exhorts the poor, patient Christians to be of good cheer (v. 7-11). Some scattered counsels (v. 12, 13, 14-18, 19-20) conclude the homily.
The tone of its advice and the very structure of its paragraphs recall the gnomic Hellenistic literature. For it is plain that the writer’s mind is steeped in the teaching of Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon, two products of Egyptian Judaism, which were much read by primitive Christians. Sirach may have been known to Jesus himself; at anyrate, it was familiar to the authors of the gospels, and perhaps to Paul; sometimes it even was included among the canonical scriptures. As for the Wisdom of Solomon, it was probably known to Paul. In the Muratorian canon of the second century (an Egyptian list of N.T. scriptures) it is ‘accepted in the catholic church’ along with the epistle of Judas and two of the Johannine epistles. The homily of James shows us on every page how instinctively the writer drew upon these books for his exposition of the Christian wisdom or practical philosophy of life.11See Professor H. A. A. Kennedy’s paper in The Expositor (8th Series), vol. ii, pp. 39–52. He knows of course the other books of the Greek Bible, and some current writings which have not come down to us (see on iv. 5–6).
Twice in literature James has been robbed of his due. Elijah was a man with a nature just like our own. Pascal cites this in his Pensées. Thus ‘dit saint Pierre,’ he observes, ‘pour désabuser les Chrétiens de cette fausse idée qui nous fait rejeter l’exemple des saints, comme disproportionné à 5notre état. “C’étaient des saints, disons-nous, ce n’est pas comme nous.” Que se passait-il donc alors? Saint Athanase était un homme appelé Athanase, accusé de plusieurs crimes, condamné en tel et tel concile, pour tel et tel crime; tous les évêques y consentaient, et le pape enfin.’ Editors correct ‘Pierre’ to ‘Jacques,’ but Pascal wrote ‘Pierre’ by some lapse of memory. English literature has a similar instance in Tennyson’s Queen Mary. Cranmer is on the scaffold, in the fourth act of the drama, and speaks his final words to the people:
God grant me grace to glorify my God!
And first I say it is a grievous case,
Many so dote upon this bubble world,
Whose colours in a moment break and fly,
They care for nothing else. What saith St. John:
‘Love of this world is hatred against God’?
But it was James, not St. John, who wrote, The world’s friendship means enmity to God.6
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