For me, the Epistle of James is one of the most important books in the Bible. It is thought to be based on a sermon by James the Just, Jesus’s illiterate younger brother, the one who took over the running of the ‘Jesus movement’ in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death. It repeats key elements of Jesus’s message and develops them into a rigorous anti-capitalist ethic. James chose a life of asceticism and poverty for himself, and fought in the corner of the oppressed and impoverished of his time. The community he led shared all they had in a kind of primitive communism that is ignored by the church today, but which has inspired many believers to ‘give it a try’ throughout history. (See Zingcreed “Red Christian” Posts [Index].) For about 30 years, from Jesus’s ascension till James’s martyrdom in 62 C.E., James was CEO of the international ‘Jesus movement’.
This Epistle has been disdained and neglected: the church (especially the Protestants) has ignored and sidelined James’s clear socialist message because
(a) if it was put into practice it would upset the status quo; and with the exceptions described in my “Red Christian” Posts, the church has always been pro-status quo, i.e. it has always sided with the rich and powerful;
(b) James was solidly Jewish, and his views were not always to the taste of the cosmopolitan, Gentile, ‘Hellenists’ who joined the early church outside the Holy Land;
(c) Paul’s Christ-centered teachings, which bore little relation to what Jesus taught, came to ‘win the battle for hearts and minds’ after Titus wiped out the Jerusalem ‘Mother Assembly’ (same thing as ‘the early church’ or ‘the Jesus movement’) in 70 C.E.
James emphasised Jesus’s teachings not his person. James did not even consider his brother to be divine. (Well, who would consider their own brother to be divine?!) Paul on the other hand emphasized the person of Jesus, not his teachings.
(d) James fraternal link to Jesus was embarassing to the Roman Catholic church, who in their misogynistic, sex-hating way had declared Mary to be a “Perpetual Virgin”, whose only child was Jesus. So they ignored James’s epistle and it only just became part of the canon.
As readers of my previous Posts on the books of Proverbs and the Psalms will know, I go through picking out anything that catches my eye. I may or may not comment on it. I quote ‘experts’ where appropriate:
It was written about 50 C.E. when James would probably have been in his forties.
It was probably written by one of his supporters for him and would be based on a sermon delivered by him. It was written in very good Greek, and includes dozens of words not found in any other epistles.
The target audience are almost certainly the ‘Hebrews’, i.e.the Jews living in Jerusalem. Note how in order to avoid antagonising them he doesn’t go on about how Jesus is their Messiah.Instead he quotes Jesus at length without naming him, including more of his teaching than all the other Epistles in the Bible put together.
He gets in a few digs at Paul and the Hellenists while he’s at it.
There are only five chapters.
Mostly I paraphrase the J.B.Phillips translation, and as he doesn’t give verse numbers neither do I.
Instructions on how to live a good life and be happy
Love God and not the world, and trust God unreservedly.
True happiness comes from learning how to endure temptation.
(Giving in to internal desires leads to sin and eventual death, so don’t be contaminated by the world.)
Control your tongue and don’t be too quick to speak.
Never get angry.
Don’t be a snob.
Don’t judge people by their appearances. Remember God chose poor men.
Endure suffering patiently.
Put humility before jealousy and rivalry.
Be gentle and approachable.
No favouritism or hypocrisy.
Obey the (Jewish) Law.
Don’t be judgmental.
Don’t assume the future will go the way you expect; things happen if God wills them to.
Find the answers to your problems through prayer.
In the community (i.e. the church) admit your shortcomings to each other.
If you’re happy – sing!
Social work (I think James means within the church community rather than in the world at large.)
Your faith must be expressed in actions!
Put the divine Law into practice to win true happiness!
Always listen to what others have to say.
Be full of tolerant thoughts and kind actions.
Visit the widows and orphans.
Feed the hungry.
Clothe the naked.
Be a peacemaker.
In the event of sickness, the church Elders will heal with prayers and oil.
Help fellow Christians who have gone astray to get back on the right path.
“The brother who is poor may be glad because God has called him to the true riches.” (1:9)
“Suppose another man, obviously poor, arrives in your meeting in shabby clothes, and you say to him “You stand over there, please, or if you must, sit on the floor,” doesn’t that prove that you are making class distinctions in your mind, and setting yourselves up to assess a man’s quality?- a very bad thing. For, do notice my brothers that God chose poor men, whose only wealth was their faith, and made them heirs to the kingdom promised to those who love him.. And if you behave as I have suggested it is the poor man that you are insulting….The man who makes no allowances for others will find none made for him.” (2:2-13)
I like Reza Aslan’s own translation of 2:1,9 “Do you , with your acts of favouritism [towards the rich] really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” he asks. ” For if you show favouritism, you commit sin and are exposed as a transgressor of the law.” So James goes so far as to suggest that if one does not actively support the poor one cannot truly be a follower of Jesus. (p.205)
James is echoing the words of his brother’s Beatitudes in Luke 6:24-25: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full, for you shall hunger.Woe to you laughing now, for you will mourn.” And “Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours.” (Lk 6:20)
“The cries of the swindled labourers are heard by the Lord of Hosts himself.” (5:4)
“The rich may be glad that God has shown him his spiritual poverty. For, the rich man, as such, will wither away as surely as summer flowers. One day the sunrise brings a scorching wind; the grass withers at once and so do all the flowers – all that lovely sight is destroyed. Just as surely will the rich man and all his extravagant ways fall into the blight of decay.” (1:10-11)
“Don’t ever attempt, my brothers, to combine snobbery with faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ! Suppose one man comes into your meeting well dressed and with a gold ring on hiis finger…If you pay special attention to the well dressed man, by saying, “Please sit here – it’s an excellent seat,” doesn’t that prove that you are making class distinctions in your mind and setting yourselves up to assess a man’s quality? – a very bad thing.” (2:1-4)
“Look around you. Isn’t it the rich who are always trying to ‘boss’ you? Isn’t it the rich who drag you into litigation? Isn’t it the rich who usually blaspheme the glorious name by which you are known?” (2:6-7)
I shall quote Elsa Tamez’s comments in full (i) p.1:
‘If the Letter of James were sent to the Christian communities of certain countries that suffer from violence and exploitation, it would very possibly be intercepted by government security agencies. The document would be branded as subversive because of the paragraphs that vehemently denounce the exploitation by landowners:
“And now, you plutocrats, is the time for you to weep and moan because of the miseries in store for you! Your richest goods are ruined; your hoard of clothes is moth-eaten; your gold and silver are tarnished. yes, their very tarnish will be the evidence of your wicked hoarding and you will shrink from them as if they were red-hot. You have made a fine pile in these last days haven’t you? But look, here is the pay of the reaper you hired and whom you cheated, and it is shouting out against you! And the cries of the other labourers you swindled are heard by the Lord of Hosts himself. Yes, you have had a magnificent time on this earth, and have indulged yourselves to the full. you have picked out just what you wanted like soldiers looting after battle. You have condemned and ruined innocent men in your career, and they have been powerless to stop you.” (5:1-6)
and the carefree life of merchants:
“Just a moment, now, you who say: “We are going to such-and-such a city today or tomorrow. We shall stay there a year doing business and make a profit”! How do you know what will; happen even tomorrow? What, after all, is your life? It is like a puff of smoke visible for a little while and then dissolving into thin air. Your remarks should be prefaced with “If it is the Lord’s will, we shall still be alive and shall do so-and-so.” As it is you get a certain pride in yourself in planning your future with such confidence. That sort of pride is all wrong. No doubt you agree with the above in theory. Well, remember that if a man knows what is right and fails to do it, his failure is a real sin.” (4:13-17)’
This is very strong stuff for the Bible or for any other historical literature. The nearest to it in the N.T. would probably be his mother’s ‘Magnificat’ (Lk 1:46-55). See Adolfo Ham’s analysis of the link between poverty-oppression-plunder-violence in the Post Jesus’s Communist brother James (3) A Cuban View.
Tamez comments “James’s radical critique of the rich has contributed to this ‘crafty theft’ of the letter. I know of churches where the letter is skipped over in liturgies because there are many rich members in the congregation, and it is very uncomfortable to speak against them when they are sitting in the front seats. Certain parts of James, especially chapter 5, are very concrete and thus very difficult to ‘spiritualize’. ” (p.5)
Attack on Paul
Aslan claims that “James’s epistle was very likely conceived as a corrective to Paul’s preaching…the hostility to Pauline theology is unmistakable.” (p. 206) For example:
(1) Paul dismisses the Law of Moses as a “ministry of death, chiseled in letters on a stone tablet.” (2 Cor. 3:7).
To James it is “the law of liberty” (1:25)
(2) Paul claims that “one is not justified by the works of the law” (Gal. 2:16)
To James “faith without works is dead.” (2:26)
I will expand on this theme – it is worth a Post in its own right.
Vivid metaphors and similes
(The doubter) ” is like a wave of the sea, carried forward by the wind one moment and driven back the next”.
“The rich will wither away as surely as summer flowers.”
“A man who hears and does nothing about it is like a man catching the reflection of his own face in a mirror….”
“Yes, faith without action is as dead as a body without a soul.”
“Men control the horse with a tiny bit, and big ships with a small rudder. The tongue is also as dangerous as a tiny spark of fire.”
Well, Jesus for one. But the wily writer doesn’t want to antagonise the strict Jews all around him in Jerusalem so he just quotes Jesus right, left and centre without often mentioning him by name. This led Martin Luther to hate what he called “The Epistle of Straw”. However, the letter contains more quotes from Jesus than the other N.T. letters put together. James doesn’t talk overtly of Jesus’s death and resurrection, but he calls Jesus ‘glorious’, he refers to the second coming (5:7) and he talks of Jesus as a judge (5:9).
Faith versus works
I don’t want to get bogged down in this (imaginary?) theological argument. Saint Paul is supposed to be for ‘Justification by Faith’ (Think good thoughts and go to Heaven); St James is supposed to be for ‘Justification by Works’ (Be good and worry about doctrines later.)
I’m not going to list all those places where James says faith without works is dead. Look for them yourself. They are certainly there.
J.B.Phillips (the translator whose version of the epistle I chose) says “The emphasis in this epistle on behaviour has sometimes been supposed to contradict Paul’s teaching on “justification by faith”. In fact it does not contradict but complement. Paul says that a man is “justified before God not by achievement but by a real faith”; James says the test of a real faith is whether it issues in appropriate behaviour.” (iii)
Page (iv) likewise reckons the difference is exaggerated. “Paul nearly always ends his letters with with a list of things to do. Paul understood that faith always results in works, and that faith which does not result in good works is not real faith at all.” Who wrote this verse? “The only thing that matters is faith expressed through love”. It could have come straight out of James but it is Paul (Gal 5:6).
Related Zingcreed Posts
Jesus’s communist brother James (1) His life
Jesus’s communist brother James (3) a Cuban view
Ebionites. The residual Hebrew Christians
Pagan influences on early Christianity
The psalms – what a load of sycophantic paranoia
Sages #1: Solomon (The book of proverbs)
Hebrew to Hellenist. How the church metamorphosed
Titus destroys Jerusalem
Apocalypse in the gospels
508:How Paul and Lukere wrote history to marginalize James’ early church
(i) Tamez, Elsa “The scandalous message of James. faith without works is dead” Crossroad Books (2002)
(ii) Aslan, Reza “Zealot. The life and times of Jesus of Nazareth” Westbourne (2013)
(iii) Phillips, J.B. “Letters to young Churches” Geoffrey Bles (1947)
(iv) Page, Nick “The Bible Book. A User’s guide” HarperCollins (2008)
[258, indexed & linked, t&c]