Introduction to the Epistle of St. James
Fr. James Early · December 11, 2009
Fr. James provides a broad overview of the Epistle of St. James, beginning with authorship.
Welcome to the study of the Epistle of St. James. As I mentioned earlier, we’re going to narrow it down and look at just St. James’ Epistle, and today we’re going to do a broad overview. And the first thing we’re going to look at is authorship.
Anytime you look at a biblical book, one thing you need to understand; one thing that’s helpful to know at least is authorship. We can’t always know this. A lot of biblical books, we don’t know who wrote them. But in this case, the author identifies himself as James.
So who is this James that wrote the Epistle of St. James? And there’s a lot of different, scholarly opinion out there. He calls himself James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. Now James is of course in Greek Iákōbos. And so actually, Iákōbos is the Greek for the Hebrew name Jacob or Ya’aqov.
Really, the name Jacob and the name James are the same name. How did Jacob become James? I think it came through Italian. The Italians took out the K, and it’s spelled like G, I, A, something with an M in there. I don’t know. Somewhere along the line, the K got changed to an M, and then the English picked up on that. I don’t know how that happened exactly.
The author is Iákōbos or James. It’s interesting. When I went to the Greek monastery one time, and I had already spoken to the abbot and told him who I was. This was a long time ago, before I was even a deacon. And when I went forward to Communion, he called me Iákōbos, and I thought that was kind of neat.
Now this Iákōbos, or this James, does not give any further information about his identity. So he doesn’t tell us exactly who he was, what position he filled, or anything. He just said, he’s a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now this has led many biblical interpreters, throughout the history of the Church, to conclude that he must have been a well known figure in the early Church. In other words, if you don’t go out of your way to say, this is the James I am. I’m the James who lived on such-and-such street, and this was my job and everything, son of so-and-so.
He didn’t do all that. He just says, James, bondservant of the Lord. So in other words, he must be somebody that must have been well-known. And we can make the assumption that if he’s that well known to where he didn’t really have to spell out who he was, he probably would have been mentioned in the New Testament.
Doesn’t that seem like a reasonable assumption? Most of the really big cheeses, if you will, in the early Church were mentioned in the New Testament. So let’s look at the New Testament evidence. There are four people named James, specifically in the New Testament.
The first one is the disciple James. He was the brother of John. You always hear Peter, James, and John. He took Peter, James, and John with him and did such-and-such. This James was one of the inner circle, if you will. He was one of the three that got to see a lot of the things that the others didn’t; the Son of Zebedee.
Now there’s another James, who’s also one of the Twelve. And he is called James, the son of Alphaeus, or James the Younger or James the Lesser sometimes—to distinguish him from the other James. So that’s the second one.
The third one is James, the father of the disciple Judas, not Judas Iscariot. You remember there was one disciple named Judas; he’s also called Thaddeus. A lot of people had two names, like Simon Peter. He was not the Jude that wrote the Epistle. That Jude was the brother of James, who we are going to identify here in just a minute.
So we have three Jameses, and here we have another one mentioned only occasionally in the Gospel. He really comes into prominence in the book of Acts, and he’s also mentioned in some of the Epistles, like Galatians. And this is James, the Lord’s brother.
He’s often called Adelphotheos. That’s the Greek name that you’ll see for him on the icon. His icon is right over here. I don’t know if you can see it. But if you look at it, it will say Adelphotheos. He was a son of Joseph. And we believe, in the Orthodox tradition, he was a son of Joseph by a previous marriage.
The Protestants would say that he is Jesus’ younger brother, a physical brother, a son of Joseph and Mary, but that’s not what the early Church believed. That was invented later on, by the reformers. Even people like Luther and Calvin believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary. That was invented by some of the more radical reformers.
So anyway, this James was the son of Joseph the Betrothed, from a previous marriage. So he would have been older than Jesus. And I think in the Catholic tradition, he’s seen more as a cousin to Jesus. They agree that he’s not a literal brother, but they take his origin slightly differently.
But in any case, he’s called the brother of the Lord. Or actually, literally, Adelphotheos—the brother of God, which is a startling statement to some. But we don’t have a problem with it, because we know it doesn’t mean the brother of God the Father or the brother of the Holy Trinity. It means the brother of God the Son.
So there’s four Jameses in the New Testament. The son of Zebedee, the one that was in the inner circle, and the brother of the Lord are really only prominent enough. They’re the only ones that are really all that prominent in the early Church.
We don’t really know what happened to James the Younger. I think there’s some tradition about him, but he’s not really mentioned a whole lot. He’s not mentioned much in Scripture. I don’t think he’s mentioned at all after the Resurrection. I could be wrong on that. So he’s probably not the one.
James, the father of Thaddeus or Judas the disciple, we don’t know if he was ever a Christian necessarily. So he’s probably not it either. And he disappears. He’s only mentioned once or twice.
So we narrow it down to James, the son of Zebedee, or James, the brother of the Lord. And some people would say that it is James, the son of Zebedee. But James, the son of Zebedee, was murdered by Herod Agrippa in the year 44 A.D. It’s mentioned in Acts 12:2.
He was actually the first of the Twelve to die. Did you know that? It’s kind of interesting because he was in that inner circle. He was one of the three who witnessed the Transfiguration; he witnessed the suffering of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. But he was also the first to be killed.
And that martyrdom is probably too early for him to have been the author of the Epistle. In other words, the Epistle, most scholars believe, was written later than that. So we narrow it down then to James Adelphotheos, the brother of God, as the most likely author. And indeed, nearly all the early Church Fathers ascribe the Epistle to the Lord’s brother.
So in other words, Orthodox tradition and historical evidence agree about the author’s identity. Now we could have probably just skipped all that. I could have just said, it was St. James, the brother of the Lord, and move on. But I think it’s interesting to look at a little bit of the history here.
Now St. James, the brother of the Lord, is mentioned only a few times in the Gospels. Sometimes he’s mentioned in a group. There’s one place where it says, “Your mother and your brothers are looking for you,” and “He spoke to His brothers.” There’s a few times the brothers are mentioned as a group, half-brothers we would say.
But he’s not really mentioned a whole lot, and certainly we don’t have any of his words, anything he ever said, in the Gospels. But by the time we get to Acts 12:17, Peter implies that James has become the leader of the Church in Jerusalem. This is confirmed independently by St. Paul in the Epistle of the Galatians.
Paul talks about St. James. He talks about him as the leader of the Church in Jerusalem. When we get to Acts 15, James is chairing the Jerusalem Council, the first ever Church Council. And he issues a ruling on behalf of the council at the very end. He says, “I judge;” this is my ruling; this is what I say.
The ruling was given in the form of a speech, which is found in Acts 15:13-21, kind of right in the middle of Acts 15. And then, there was also a letter written. Maybe this is the first encyclical, the first episcopal letter, if you will. And that’s right after that; it’s at the end of Acts 15.
Now, I’ve not studied this in detail in the Greek. I’m not a big Greek scholar. I hardly even can read it. But what’s interesting is one of the commentaries, I was looking at, mentions that the Greek of the Epistle of St. James is very similar to the Greek in the letter that is ascribed to St. James that we find in Acts.
In other words, that first episcopal letter, if you will, the first encyclical, uses some of the same language and types of writing that is used in the Epistle of James. So it’s very likely that it did come from the same hand. That’s further confirmation that St. James, Bishop of Jerusalem was the author of the Epistle.
There’s another feature of the Epistle that points toward St. James being the author. It’s a very Jewish letter. I don’t know if any of you had a chance to read much of it this week. I hope you did. If not, read it for next time.
But it’s very Jewish. There’s a lot of, what we call, Hebraisms. In other words, things that would be natural for someone who is steeped in Judaism to use, to say. There’s a lot of Old Testament quotes, references, and allusions to the Old Testament. There’s other Jewish teachings. There’s some rabbinic teachings reflected in the Letter as well.
And also, we see the proverbial nature of Jewish wisdom traditions. In other words, read James and you see a lot of really short, pithy statements, like the Proverbs. I’ve even heard St. James’ Epistle referred to as the “New Testament book of Proverbs,” and you have the Old Testament book and this is the New Testament book.
And then another Jewish feature is what one scholar called, “the denunciatory preaching of the Prophets.” In other words, you’ve read the Prophets, right? And you know that Isaiah, Jeremiah, and all those guys, they let them have it. They hit hard with their preaching. They didn’t say, “Oh, would you please turn back to God?” No, they said a lot of hard stuff. And James does the same thing in this letter.
In addition to this, the meeting place of the Church is called the synagogue. That in James 2:2. And another big theme is the oneness of God; obviously that’s a central Jewish tenet. “Here O Israel, the Lord your God is one.” And he mentions that in James 2:19. He says, “You believe that God is one.” So he stresses the oneness of God, not that he denies the Trinity—far from it in fact. I’m going to talk more about that later.
So all these features suggest an author who is writing at a very early date, in a Jewish context, and who sought to maintain good relationships with Judaism. You remember, of course, that very early on most of the Christians were Jewish. They were ethnically Jewish. They came from a Jewish background, and they did not see themselves as starting a new religion.
They saw themselves as the logical continuation of Judaism. They were faithful, pious Jews who believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah. And so, a lot of them continued to practice the dietary laws. A lot of them continued to circumcise their children. They didn’t become un-Jewish overnight. They didn’t, necessarily, leave Judaism. They were just part of a fulfilled Judaism, a complete Judaism they would have said.
Of course the Pharisees and the Saducees and most folks would have said heretical Judaism. And so when you see something like St. James’ Epistle that has all these Hebraisms or Jewishness in it, then you naturally think that this is really early, before there was a lot of Gentile influence in the Church. We’ll talk about date in a minute.
I had a quote here, but I’m going to skip it due to time. Do you have any questions or comments on St. James or on the writing of the Epistle, the authorship?
Questioner 1: He must have been part of the Seventy or with Jesus before the Resurrection, if he was made Bishop of Jerusalem.
Fr. Early: Right. That would have been a quick promotion.
Questioner 1: I mean, it seemed like Peter and James and the other Peter and the other James and John would have had a little bit to say about that.
Fr. Early: Yeah, exactly right. But they seemed to not have; that’s right.
Questioner 2: According to Josephus it was Peter, James, and John that gave the ordination to James.
Fr. Early: Okay, I wasn’t aware of that. Well I think part of it…well let me back up to what you said, that James must have, at least, been in the Seventy or if not officially in the Seventy, part of Jesus’ followers.
When I was a Protestant, I always believed that none of His brothers believed in Him until after the Resurrection. Because there is one passage in the Gospels that seems to imply that. It said, even His brothers did not believe in Him. I think it’s in John 7. But that doesn’t necessarily mean all of His brothers.
There is an Orthodox tradition that James actually went down to Egypt with the Holy Family when they were forced to flee during the time of Herod. Have you heard that tradition? There’s an icon that shows Mary on the donkey, Joseph walking beside, and James is walking on the other side. So there is an Orthodox pious tradition that James was in the loop or with it from the very beginning.
So that’s steeped in mystery to us. But if the Church says he was with it from the very beginning, that’s good enough for me. And I think part of the reason, maybe, that Peter, James, the other James, John, and Thomas, why none of them stepped up to take charge, is that they knew that they had been commissioned to go into other parts of the world.
Now it took them a little while to go. They hung around a little while in Jerusalem. But you know that Jesus obviously said to them, “Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to all nations.” And I don’t know if Jesus gave them each a specific assignment i.e, you north and you south. He may or may not have.
They knew they weren’t going to be staying around in Jerusalem for very long. So they would be more than happy to let someone else, that’s a local person that had grown up there, take charge. Apparently, James had spent most of his life in Jerusalem, so he was a good person to be the Bishop.
Alright, let’s talk about the date and the place of writing. St. James
was martyred around A.D. 62. And if you’ve never read the story of St. James, I strongly recommend a little biography of him. I have one on my blog if you want to go there, but certainly there’s other places as well.
St. James was a man of great prayer. And he prayed so much that it was said he had knees like camels. In other words, his knees were hard and knobby because he spent so much time in prayer on his knees. And he was martyred by the Jewish leaders in about A.D. 62.
So the Letter, obviously, has to before 62 A.D. Most scholars believe that it was written long before this for two reasons. We already touched on one thing, and that is the Jewishness of it. And I think I’m going to cover that again in just a minute. But think about the relationship between the preaching of Paul and the teaching of James.
There seems to be a tension. Read St. Paul, who is always stressing salvation by faith; justification by faith. He never says “faith alone,” by the way. And James says, “It is not by faith alone; it is by works.” So what some scholars have suggested and what I tend to agree with, is that when St. Paul began his ministry in the 40s, he went out and preached about justification by faith apart from the works of the Mosaic law, “the law”.
He doesn’t say, no works and no law of any type. He says you are not saved by “the law”. Some people heard that, probably some Jewish people because St. Paul always started preaching in the synagogues. Somebody heard that, and they misunderstood him, and they ran back to James. And they probably said, “Hey James, Paul is preaching that you can be saved apart from works at all.”
But that’s not what he said. So it seems that James was hearing a kind of perverted, twisted version of what Paul was preaching. And so James felt the need to correct that. So probably the Letter was written before the two men had ever even met.
Now, I’m not sure if this is the first time they ever met. But a significant meeting of James and Paul was at the Jerusalem Council. We’ve already touched upon the Council. Peter was there and Barnabas was there. It took place in A.D. 48 or 49 roughly.
We know that. During this time, the two men would have had a lot of time to talk. And Paul was able to assure James that the concept of justification by faith alone was not what he had been teaching. Does that make sense? So see, James was responding in his Letter to a twisted version of what Paul had been preaching.
Questioner 3: We don’t know how long James had been the head of the Jerusalem Church at this point, do we?
Fr. Early: No we don’t know. I think he became the head very early.
Questioner 3: It was like eighteen years after Christ had resurrected.
Fr. Early: Right. That’s right. Christ would have been resurrected and ascended around 30 A.D., give or take a year or two. The Council was minimum fifteen years later, but about eighteen years, definitely. So the Church had been around for quite some time.
And Paul mentions in one of his letters, how he did come down, and he did present the Gospel that he preached to James and to Peter and to John and to all the others. And they approved of it. So it wasn’t off just half-cocked and just did whatever he felt like. He did submit his message to the authorities, but it seems that the letter was written even before that.
That’s why it has to be so early. It really has to be, probably, before the Council. So the Council is 48 A.D.; we’re talking maybe 45ish roughly. Now, we also do not see, in the Letter, the controversies between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians that we see in other places.
You read the Epistles of Paul—Romans, Galatians, Philippians has some of this—where a lot of Gentiles came into the Church and some Jewish Christians went to them and said, “You’ve got to be circumcised. You’ve got to follow all the laws, the dietary law, and everything.”
Questioner 4: When they came into the Church were they coming into the synagogue? Is that where Paul was establishing his Churches to begin with?
Fr. Early: Well what Paul would do, is he would go and preach in the synagogue for a number of Sundays, until they threw him out. And he’d get himself nice and kicked out, and then he would go to the Gentiles. And he would go wherever he could, dependent on the city.
Sometimes he didn’t get a chance to do that. Sometimes the Jews literally ran him out of town. They didn’t exactly tar and feather him, but sometimes they came pretty close. They stoned him one time.
Questioner 5: Well, he was a Roman citizen so they better be careful
Fr. Early: That’s right, and that came up as an issue a few times in Paul’s ministry. Do you know who the “God-fearers” were? The “God-fearers” are Gentile people who were attracted to Judaism, but they didn’t want to go all the way. It is kind of like someone who is a permanent catechumen. Or we have people who visit are Church and aren’t Orthodox, and they love the Church, but they don’t want to necessarily convert.
So the “God-fearers” were Gentiles who didn’t want to be circumcised. They didn’t want to go kosher. They wanted to have cheeseburgers. They didn’t want to have their cheese and meat separate. But they would come to the synagogue a lot, and they would hear Paul preach. And then after Paul got kicked out, they would tend to follow him.
He’d go stand under a tree, or he’d go rent a lecture hall, or he’d go out by the river, wherever he could. And these people would become Christians. And they would say, “Yes! We can believe in God, and we can accept Jesus as the Messiah without having to be circumcised and without having to do all that.”
But then people would come to them later and say, “Oh! No, no, no! Paul was wrong. You misunderstood Paul. Yes, you do. If you want to be a Christian, you have to be a Jew first. So yes, you must be circumcised.” And there was a big controversy, and this was settled at the Jerusalem Council.
The Jerusalem Council ruled that no you do not have to become a Jew first. You just have to believe in faith. They gave them a few things you had to do. You had to abstain from sexual immorality, and you had to avoid eating blood, and you had to avoid food that was sacrificed to idols. That was it.
But the point of all this is that you don’t see that in James’ letter, which means again, it has to be really early before a significant number of Gentiles started flooding into the Church; before Paul went out and did a lot of his preaching—not that Paul hadn’t preached at all. Paul had already been preaching by that time.
In fact, I think Paul actually started preaching thirteen or fourteen years after he was converted, because he mentions going to Arabia for ten or eleven years. And he mentions three years later after that, so he’s got some time references.
Does that make sense? I hope so. This is kind of academic. But the fact that we don’t have the Jewish and the Gentile controversy, and the fact that we have this need of St. James to argue against this idea of salvation by faith alone, that points to a really early date. So it was probably written around 45 A.D.
And if that’s the case then St. James’ Epistle is one of the earliest; maybe the earliest. I personally think it’s the earliest. I think it’s the oldest Epistle in the entire New Testament corpus. By comparison, St. Paul’s Epistles were mainly written in the 50s and 60s.
Questioner 6: So St. James’ Epistle is older than the Gospels?
Fr. Early: Yes! It’s much older than the Gospels. The Gospels were the last things written. At the earliest, Mark might have been written in the 50s. And then, we think that Matthew and Luke were wrote in the 60s. But some would say much later. Some would say the Gospels didn’t even start until the 70s or 80s.
Questioner 7: So where would The Didache fall in time frames?
Fr. Early: Oh The Didache...I wish The Didache would have been put in the New Testament. It would solve a lot of controversies right now. We’d have fewer Protestants. Forgive me. That’s going to get cut out.
The Didache was probably written around 100 A.D., give or take 30 years. We just don’t have any way to know. It could be 70 A.D., which would mean it’s about the same time or after the Gospels were written. The Didache is certainly very early, but scholars can’t really pin that one down because there is no historical references in it whatsoever.
A lot of Paul’s Epistles mention names of people. We know when they lived, and we know when they died, but not The Didache. Now before we talk about the audience, let me open it up to this audience and see if you have any other questions about the dating of the Epistle or the place it was written.
Questioner 8: Father, you might want to explain what The Didache is.
Fr. Early: The Didache is a writing, which is literally called The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. Didache is Greek for teaching, and it’s one of the earliest extra-biblical documents. It was not accepted into Scripture, although some people did include it in the New Testament.
But in the end it was not included as part, mainly because nobody knew who wrote it. It seems to be a collection of Jewish wisdom teaching as well as Christian liturgical teaching. I like the The Didache because it tells you specifically that you fast on Wednesday and Friday, and it tells you that you baptize by triple immersion in “living water,” which means running water. Try to find running water, but if you can’t use still water.
But it really gives us a good description of what the early Church believed and taught. It gives an extra-biblical witness to it. And I love reading that. It’s pretty short too. If you ever get your hands on that, read that. I think you’ll really enjoy it.
I didn’t mention this, but the Epistle was almost certainly written in Jerusalem. Because the Church at this point had not expanded much beyond Jerusalem, and St. James spent his entire life, or most of his adult life at least, in Jerusalem. So there’s really no question, it was written in Jerusalem.
Now, let’s talk about the audience. Who was it written to? Well, he was writing primarily, we believe, to Jewish Christians. As I mentioned before, it’s a very Jewish Epistle. Hebrews is also very Jewish. But other than Hebrews, St. James’ is the most Jewish Epistle we have.
The spirit and imagery of the Old Testament and Judaism permeate the Epistle from beginning to end. If you have it open, look at James 1:1. It says, “The twelve tribes, which are scattered abroad.” That’s a very Jewish reference. Now, he’s not speaking to Jewish Jews, necessarily. Although, I’m sure he wouldn’t have been disappointed if they read it.
But he doesn’t mean literally the twelve tribes, because by this time most of the tribes had disappeared. You’ve heard of the ten lost tribes. If you go back and look at the Old Testament, Israel was broken down into twelve tribes.
Ten of them were split away and became the Northern Kingdom, and that group was taken over by Assyria. And they were scattered, literally. The Assyrians, as a policy, broke them up and sent some here and some there. They dispersed them all over the known world at that time, so that they could never unite again and become a power again.
So then you just had the Southern Kingdom, and the Southern Kingdom was Judah and Simeon. If you look at a map of the Old Testament distribution of the tribes, Simeon was a little circle, completely surrounded by Judah. And it just got swallowed up by Judah. That’s why it’s two tribes and not one. Simeon ceased to exist and became part of Judah.
And that kingdom survived a little bit longer, and eventually it was conquered. But the Babylonians were in power that time, and the Babylonians moved them as a group. They did not disperse them all over the world. They kept them as a group in one part of Babylonia. And later on a bunch of them did go back, and did eventually set up another kingdom.
So the twelve tribes is not being used in a literal sense; it’s being used to refer to the Church. But at this time the Church was Jewish people. The word for scattered abroad is literally the diaspora. It literally says, the twelve tribes in the diaspora, which is a word we hear a lot today in discussions of Orthodox unity.
Did you know that we are the diaspora, even though most of us have never traveled from one country to another. Anyway, I digress. The diaspora is Jewish people, people of Jewish descent, who have moved around, lived in different parts of the Roman Empire, and they’ve become Christians. So he’s writing to Jewish Christians who have lived throughout the Roman world.
There was a large Jewish community that lived, for example, in Alexandria, Egypt. There were a lot of them in Rome. Actually Rome had a large Jewish community, until they threw them out. There were certain parts of Greece; Antioch had a lot of Jewish people. And a lot of those became Christians, at least some of them.
Questioner 9: I’ve read where the Romans, prior to Jesus, also had several uprisings. And the Romans would come in, take whole villages and towns, and send them to other parts of the Roman Empire.
Fr. Early: Right. So the Romans would uproot an entire Jewish village and move them as a group to say Athens, or something like that.
Questioner 9: Also what I’ve read was maybe the citizens of one of those groups that had been situated in Tarsus.
Fr. Early: Oh okay, right. There was a good community in Tarsus, so that makes total sense. One of the commentary writers that I quote from and that I used to prepare this, he says:
If James were the head of the Jerusalem Church, by this time, it’s entirely natural that he would have addressed a pastoral admonition to those believers from his home church, who had been scattered abroad because of persecution.
You remember the stoning of Stephen in Acts 8? I think it’s Chapter 8. It mentions that after Stephen was stoned, there was a great persecution against Christians, and they were scattered abroad. So those may be some of the very people that James is writing too right here.
Not only were the original recipients Jewish Christians, but they seem to have been mainly poor people caught in a situation of great social tension. I’m using this commentary. It’s by an evangelical author, but at least the introduction is really, really good. And his name is Moo. He’s a professor at one of the evangelical colleges. I can’t remember which one. This is what he says:
Oppressed and taken advantage of by wealthy landlords; hauled into court by rich people, who also scorned their Christian faith, the readers are exhorted to be patient and reminded of the coming of the Lord, the judge, and the deliverer, who is at hand.
Understanding the Epistle’s original recipients, helps to understand the teaching. As a dedicated pastor, St. James was clearly concerned about the situation of the early Christians in the world. But an even greater concern was with the world getting into the Church. He’s concerned about the Church in the world, and how to live out your faith in the world.
But he’s even more concerned with the world that the world not infiltrate the Church, if you will. That’s not a concern at all today is it? No…there’s no chance. The world never sneaks into the Church, does it? Actually, it’s even worse probably now or at least as bad. So that’s why this Epistle is so relevant.
You may be thinking, “Well, I’m not a Jewish Christian. I don’t go to the synagogue and things like that. What does this have to do with me?” But you will find that this is one of the most practical Epistles in the entire New Testament.
Questioner 10: Renaissance Rome.
Fr. Early: Renaissance Rome. What’s that?
Questioner 10: It’s the world infiltrating the Church.
Fr. Early: Right, yeah. Oh, good point. And unfortunately, it happened in the east some too. Let me read this quote to you.
James warns his readers that ‘friendship with the world is enmity with God’ and highlights as one key ingredient of ‘pure and undefiled religion’ ‘keeping oneself unstained from the world.’ The worldliness in the Church has manifested itself in a number of ways:
So these are the things we see in the Epistle that James is fighting against; that he’s arguing against and telling them not to be involved with.
a fawning deference to the rich and callous indifference to the poor; uncontrolled, critical speech; ‘earthly, unspiritual, devilish’ wisdom with its envy and selfish ambition that in turn produce dissensions and violent quarrels; arrogance and, most of all, an ‘essential double-mindedness’ with respect to God that short circuits the effectiveness of prayer and manifests itself in a failure to put faith into practice.
So these are the things we see in the Epistle. The world is getting into the Church. People are starting to doubt God. They’re starting to criticize each other. They’re fighting. They’re backbiting. And they’re ignoring the needs of the poor. James calls on his readers to repent of this worldliness; to humble themselves before the Lord so that he might exalt them.
And to work diligently to bring other sinners back from the error of their ways. Does that sound like something that we need to do as well? Absolutely. I’ll go through this last part really quick. If you want to read in more detail, the notes are on the blog, which of course is http://saintjameskids.blogspot.com/
Now St. James’ Epistle is most likely thought of as a literary letter. It’s not a pure, Plain Jane, Epistle. It starts with a standard greeting like you see in other Epistles, but it lacks personal reminiscences. It lacks references to specific problems and situations, and it lacks closing remarks.
If you read Romans or 1st Corinthians at the end, the whole last chapters says, “Greet so-and-so. Greet this person. Greet that person.” But you don’t see that in James. This is more like an open letter, an encyclical if you will. That’s not really a good word for it, because it’s not that formal. Let me give you some stylistic features.
First of all, you see a strong tone of pastoral exhortation. In other words, he’s a concerned pastor who wants to minister to his flock. And so he tells them, “Don’t let this happen. Do this. Be sure you’re doing this. Don’t let the world take you over.”
We also see a loose structure. There’s not a real tight, closely argued, reasoned out structure that you read in some of St. Paul’s Epistles or the Hebrews. It’s very loosely organized. He’ll talk about one topic, and then he’ll switch to another, and then go right back to the first one. And there’s not a lot of structure.
Also, we see a lot of metaphors and illustrations. This is one of my favorite things in the letters. Those of you who are teachers, don’t they always tell you to use word pictures? Use metaphors and use object lessons. Those help so much.
James uses all these wonderful images. He talks about the billowing sea. He talks about the withered flower, the mirror, the horse, the ship, the brush fire, the taming of animals, the water spring, the arrogant businessman. That one’s still very contemporary. The corroded metal, the moth-eaten clothes, the patient farmer are also used.
These metaphors are universal in their appeal. In other words, they don’t just help people in the 1st century. They help us now. We can relate to most of those things, and they go a long way towards accounting for the popularity—the Epistle among ordinary readers.
And a final interesting feature of the Epistle is James’ tendency to borrow from other sources. You will read things in James’ Epistle that are direct quotations from Jesus. They come straight out of the Sermon on the Mount. For example he says, “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.” Where have you heard that before?
What’s another one? He talks about, “Do not swear, either by Heaven or Earth.” Well, that’s kind of related to the yes and no. There’s another one that’s slipping my mind right now, but you’ll see them as we go through.
He also borrows from a lot of the same sources that made it into other Epistles, like 1st Peter and some of the ones that are not in the Bible i.e., The Shepherd of Hermas, 1st Clement, The Didache, and the Letters of St. Ignatius.
Now obviously, James wasn’t quoting from The Didache or from St. Ignatius or anything like that. They came after him. They may have been quoting from him. But I think they were all drawing on a common source of wisdom that came from both Jewish wisdom and the teaching of our Lord, Himself.
Let me go ahead then, and just very briefly say what kind of literature it is if it’s not a pure Epistle. The Epistle of St. James is best understood as a brief. Perhaps, it’s condensed sermon or homily. Or maybe it’s an extraction drawn from a series of sermons, and then it was sent out in the formal letter.
So probably what we’re looking at is some sermon notes, basically. Somebody wrote down a lot of James’ teachings and put them together into a letter. I’m sure James was involved with the composition as well. I’m sure he would have at least approved it.
It’s kind of like Chrysostom. When you read Chrysostom, you’re not reading something that he actually wrote. Sometimes you are, but I’m speaking specifically about the homilies. When you go read John Chrysostom On the Gospel of John, for example, he didn’t sit down and write a commentary on the Gospel of John.
Some Fathers did, but he didn’t. He preached on it, and there were people in the congregation furiously taking notes. They probably had Greek shorthand or something. And they were writing it down, and then they would go back and fill it in. And so, you’re seeing sermon notes.
And again, I’m sure that St. John probably approved them, and said, “Well, no change that. I didn’t say that.” So that’s kind of what we have here. We have some people’s notes on James’ sermons condensed and compiled into one volume. That’s what a lot of scholars think. And then, James sent it out as a letter to the people.
Let me give you a brief structure. If you look at the beginning of St. James in The Orthodox Study Bible and if you don’t, I’ll just say this quickly to give you the overall structure of how we’re going to be breaking it down when we study it.
James 1:1-18 is an opening statement. The Orthodox Study Bible calls it “Trials and Endurance,” so one of the themes is trials and endurance.
Questioner 11: How do you connect what you just said with divine inspiration?
Fr. Early: How do I connect my theory of how the Epistle was put together with the theory of inspiration?
Questioner 11: In the Epistle of Peter that every word is inspired by God.
Fr. Early: Right. Well I think the Holy Spirit inspired St. James as he preached, certainly. There’s a sense in which every preacher is inspired. But I think this goes beyond that. I think this was inspired, especially, by God.
As you mentioned, St. Peter says, “Every prophet is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and he’s not speaking his own interpretation.” One of the verses we couldn’t remember to quote last week. But I think, the Spirit guided what St. James said. I think the Spirit guided the people who wrote down. I think He made sure that they wrote down the correct stuff; that they didn’t accidentally misquote him or something like that.
And I think the Spirit guided the editing process. In other words, I think that James sat down with whoever wrote down his sermons and said, “Yes, I did say that. That’s correct. No, let’s change this.” The Spirit was involved with that. It’s a divine-human process. It bears repeating and we all know this, but as Christians, we don’t believe the Scriptures were God dictating to somebody and taking over their hand and writing it down like strict dictation.
That would be the Islamic theory of inspiration. And the Muslims would say that that’s how Muhammad came up with the Koran. God spoke to him directly. He couldn’t even write really. So God had him do that.
We don’t believe that. We believe that the human element is very present. Human beings were involved with writing, speaking, editing, compiling the Scriptures, and even putting the different books together. Why wasn’t The Didache put in there? Why do we have 2nd Peter, but not The Apocalypse of Peter, which is a non-biblical book?
The Spirit was involved with that. The Spirit nudged people in making their decisions. That’s how I would describe it. Does that sound logical?
Questioner 12: I think also we have to bring in the idea that these people had been purified, illuminated, and deified. Once they were deified, they were in constant communication with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is praying in their heart and continues to be constantly. So they’re in the presence of the Holy Spirit no matter what they’re doing.
Fr. Early: Right. St. James had that unceasing prayer that is mentioned in 1st Thessalonians that none of us has. And so that’s a big part of it.
Questioner 13: Well, I was just reflecting. If we believe, as we say we do, then we are evangelicals, because we are doing the evangel. And certainly that’s true of anyone who has dedicated to the love and service of God i.e., the priests and bishops. It would be very difficult to find a sermon preached by a holy man of God, a bishop, that does not have some of that influence in it that comes from the Holy Spirit, activating the evangelical in them.
Fr. Early: Right. Well spoken.
Questioner 14: Also the Holy Spirit has the principle of reiteration that the Scripture agree with each other in various parts and places.
Fr. Early: Right. Things that were way out in left field didn’t get included into the Scriptures, exactly. Scripture agrees with Scripture. We also have the element, in the fact that St. James spent his whole life with Jesus or a good chunk of his life.
He spent time with Jesus, and he literally sat at His feet and heard him teach. Can you imagine some of the discussions they must have had? So there’s an element there that is not present with later writers and later generations—even St. Ignatius.
As much we love St. Ignatius, and he did study under some of the Apostles; he may have even heard Jesus teach. But when you go down further to Chrysostom, he certainly didn’t sit at Jesus’ feet. He certainly prayed, and he was inspired, but not in the same way that St. James and St. Paul and them were.
Questioner 15: I was thinking about how James was considered a family member of Christ, and then to be the Bishop of Jerusalem is huge, but he didn’t use either of those when he set forth it. He came out very humble as a bondservant of Christ, instead of “Listen to me. I walked with Christ. I’m his brother for crying out loud! I’m the Bishop of Jerusalem!” There’s none of that element in this letter. There’s a very humble beginning.
Fr. Early: That’s a great point. He was a man of great prayer and great humility. Like you said, he could have said, “James, the man who grew up with Jesus, and knows everything there is to know about His teaching and who is the first Bishop of Jerusalem.” But he didn’t. He just said, I’m a servant of the Lord.
Let me give you the rest of the structure real quick. So we have James 1:1-18 is an opening statement in which he talks about trials and endurance. Then if you want to jot this down, and it’s also in The Orthodox Study Bible, 1:19-2:26 is about putting the word into practice, faith and works. And that’s a great part. I can’t wait to get to it.
3:1-4:12 is about community strife and it’s antidote. Now The Orthodox Study Bible breaks it down into two sections. The first part is about counseling others and what we say. So there’s a lot about the tongue, speaking, and then there’s a lot about quarreling and humility.
And then 4:13-5:11, we have life in the last days, which is also called “Greed and Contentment.” And then the last part is oaths and prayer or “Needs and Power” as it says in The Orthodox Study Bible.
So you can see we’ve got five or six major sections, but that doesn’t mean the study is only going to be five weeks. I don’t think I could do some of them in one week. But that’s going to be our basic outline. So the next time we look at James, we’re going to look at 1:1-18. So make sure you read that and read the notes in the The Orthodox Study Bible if you have it, and you’ll be well-prepared for that.