The Letter of James–20th book of the New Testament—A.D. 45-49
Optional Yearly Reading Schedule–January 8
5. A Movement Explodes in Palestine
The book of James has been regarded by “tradition” as the first book of the New Testament to be written, the first surviving letter by a Christian leader, authored by the Lord’s brother James, who, by the late 40s was regarded as the head of the Christian church in Jerusalem.
From Jerusalem the Way moves outward in every direction
In the twenty years after Jesus’ death (30 a.d.), much had happened.
The two chief forces on the Church during the 30s and 40s were seeming opposites—violent persecution of the “Jesus movement” within Judaism, and the explosive growth and expansion of that movement. The more Jewish officialdom tried to stamp out “the Way,” the more it grew. Since the persecution was largely centered in Jerusalem, Christian leaders, led by the original Apostles, began traveling about the region of the Mediterranean, spreading news of Jesus and his teaching wherever they went, and gaining converts as rapidly as they had in Jerusalem.
Before many years had passed, Antioch in Syria to the north became as vibrant a center for growing Christianity as Jerusalem itself. This will be a hugely significant fact in the years to follow. Antioch was an entirely different city than exclusively Jewish Jerusalem—cosmopolitan, Greek, and Roman. It was this cultural shift between Jerusalem and Antioch that would eventually precipitate the first major controversy in the young church, as budding “Christianity” tried to figure out its own identity—was it a sect within Judaism, or did it represent a complete break with the past.
From our vantage point today it is difficult to appreciate the historical context of the pivotal twenty years between 30 and 50 a.d. of the budding Christian movement. Nearly all followers of Jesus were at first Jews, and considered themselves faithful Jews. They had no intent nor desire to break with Judaism. They saw their discipleship to Jesus as fulfilled Judaism, not non-Judaism.
It was at Antioch, as more and more Gentile converts accepted the Christian faith, along with official Judaism’s violent repudiation of “The Way,” that this self-perception began to change.
Dating the first century
One brief word about dating is in order. “Tradition” had it that Jesus was born in the year 0, began his ministry in the year 30, and was crucified in the year 33. That is now universally recognized to be in error. After the current BC/AD calendar was adopted, it was discovered that a mistake had been made in establishing the year of Jesus’ birth. By the time the mistake was discovered, however, it was impossible to go back and change it. The dates now more or less recognized are as follows:
The date of Jesus’ birth is widely speculative but generally thought to be in the neighborhood of 6 b.c. based on the fact that Herod the Great, alive at the time, died in 4 b.c. From Luke 2:2 we also know that Quirinius was governor of Syria from 6-4 b.c. Modern astronomical computer models of various signs and alignments of planets and stars also confirm this date as a likely possibility for a bright stellar or planetary event in the Near East.
Jesus’ baptism is therefore considered to have taken place and his ministry begun in a.d. 26-27, “the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea.” (Luke 3:1) Tiberius became co-emperor in 11 a.d., add fifteen years and we have the year 26.
Jesus’ crucifixion is then usually dated in the spring of either 29 or 30. The latter year represents the most commonly held view.
Attempts to stamp the thing out before it gains a foothold
The Jerusalem-based persecution of The Way that set in during the 30s, as well as precipitating expansion outward through the Roman empire, had this additional significant fact associated with it—the chief persecutor of the church quickly became a brilliant young Jewish Pharisee named Saul, a cultured and literate Roman citizen from Tarsus, a city further north from Antioch and likewise Roman and cosmopolitan.
The young church’s first association with this fireball Pharisee from Tarsus was his involvement with the stoning of Steven. Immediately afterward, Luke writes in Acts 8:3-4: “Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison. Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.”
Saul’s persecution continued. Acts 9:1-2 reads: “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
A surprising leader steps forward
As the church spread out and dispersed, one major figure remained in Jerusalem. Gradually he was viewed with equal stature as a church leader along with the twelve Apostles. He apparently became the “spokesman” for the twelve, even above Peter himself. This was James, the brother of Jesus.
As even Peter himself (the “backwoods” fisherman whose Galilean accent betrayed his humble roots—Luke 22:59) was traveling about, James came to be known as the head of the Church in Jerusalem. In Gal. 2:9 Paul refers to him as one of the pillars of the church alongside Peter and John.
Several things about James are absolutely fascinating. The first is the most obvious, that James was capable of overcoming the natural “prophet not without honor” tendency of being blind to the greatness of one so close to him. Can you imagine it—he grew up with Jesus, played with Jesus as a boy, worked alongside him. The level of intimacy is almost beyond comprehension.
Then Jesus grew up, no doubt began to change. Possibly he became quieter, inward, distant. There are conjectures (unprovable but intriguing) that he traveled, that he spent time in the desert with the Essenes, possibly with his cousin John, later the Baptizer. Can we not imagine his brothers and sisters and friends and cousins thinking, “Jesus and John, they’re different…actually they are both getting downright weird!” How could they not think such things! As time continued to pass, as young adults in their twenties, we know at first that most of Jesus’ family did not believe he was the Messiah. John 7:5 reads: “For even his brothers did not believe in him.”
Between that time of unbelief and the late 30s (Gal. 1:19), something changed dramatically for James bar Joseph. He was humble and wise enough to become his brother’s faithful and lifetime disciple. The change may have come after Jesus’ resurrection, for James was singled out to be one of the first individuals visited by the risen Jesus: “Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” (1 Cor. 15:7)
If it staggers the imagination to envision Jesus and James as boys and teenagers together, consider that meeting when Jesus, risen from the dead, appeared to his brother. Wow!
At some point fifteen to twenty years later, in the mid to late 40s, James either penned a open letter or gave a spoken address that was written down and distributed among believers of “The Way” who had been scattered and dispersed outward from Jerusalem.
6. From the Brother of Jesus—The Practicality of A Carpenter’s Son
Tradition concerning James
In light of our earlier discussion of revisionism concerning traditional authorships, James is one of the Bible’s books about which questions of authorship are long-standing. These questions are not necessarily revisionist. They have been present throughout the entire history of the church. That James was not included in the very first groupings of proposed New Testament Scriptures may not imply doubts about its authorship, but rather that it was viewed as of insufficient theological stature. Other New Testament books whose authenticity is not seriously challenged have similar histories.
But there are statements of ancient date that cast upon James the shadow of doubt. Origen in the mid-200s wrote, “…as we read in the letter which is currently reported to be by James.” His words are hardly a ringing endorsement of authenticity. And Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century, though personally accepting James as authentic, recognized it as one of the “disputed” books. Athanasius, however, in 367 issued a list of books that were to be taken as Scripture, in which James was definitely included.
So even though there are questions regarding James, none of them have been convincing. Most seem to have been put to rest early in the church’s history. We will therefore take both the authorship and dating of James as tradition has brought them to us.
The humility of both author and message
When one begins reading what is in all likelihood the first surviving written document of Christendom, most fascinating of all may be James’ opening line of introduction: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Here indeed is a true leader for the church—leading according to the standard Jesus himself set. “If any would be great among you, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
As we continue through James’ letter, the whole practical treatise exudes the same tone of humility. James’ words about showing no partiality carry all the more weight realizing that he is a living example of that principle even as he writes about it.
The opening of James’ letter would seem to make specific reference to the persecutions facing the early Christians during that time. No more fitting first written document could exist for the new Christian faith to present to the world. While Paul’s letters are full of theology and controversy and, as we shall see, more than a little self-aggrandizement, James is simple, straightforward, and so beautifully in harmony with the practicality of the sermon on the mount. It is as though the two brothers Jesus and James thought alike, saw things alike—practically.
Jesus says Give to him that asks…lend money…agree with your adversary before he take you to court…give to beggars…let him have your cloak as well.
James echoes his brother with: Bridle your tongue…visit orphans and widows…be slow to speak…do good works…don’t speak evil against your brothers…ask for wisdom…don’t swear…pray for one another.
It is a wonderful expansion of the Lord’s message for a new era, to be delivered into the church and form a foundation for its teaching twenty years later.
James and the sermon on the mount
In his book New Testament Introduction, Donald Guthrie notes a striking series of parallels between James and the sermon on the mount. He writes, “There are more parallels in this Epistle than in any other New Testament book to the teaching of our Lord in the Gospels.”
James 1:2 Joy in the midst of trials Matthew 5:10-12
1:4 Exhortation to perfection 5:48
1:5 Asking for good gifts 7:7 ff.
1:20 Against anger 5:22
1:22 Hearers and doers of the Word 7:24 ff.
2:10 Keeping the whole law 5:19
2:13 Blessings of mercifulness 5:7
3:18 Blessings of peacemakers 5:9
4:4 Friendship with world as enmity with God 6:24
4:10 Blessing of the humble 5:5
4:11-12 Against judging 7:1-5
5:2ff. Moth and rust spoiling riches 6:19
5:10 Prophets as examples 5:12
5:12 Against Oaths 5:33-37
This fact alone, the similarity between James and the Sermon on the Mount argues persuasively for the pivotal importance of the message of James as reinforcing Jesus’ own teaching.
Remarkably, however, (as we will see also with the Gospel of Mark) James initially suffered from being considered too simple. In the minds of many, these two foundational New Testament books (James and Mark) did not rise to the level of stature of the other gospels and the meaty theology of Paul’s letters. They were thus completely overshadowed. It was in doubt for centuries, in fact, whether James should rightfully be included in the New Testament canon at all. Martin Luther called James “an epistle full of straw because it contains nothing evangelical.” The tendency to intellectualize and theorize Christian doctrine, overlooking practical simplicity and obedience, obviously began early in the church!
Practical themes that will become foundational in Christianity
The straightforward sermon-on-the-mount simplicity of James, however, mustn’t obscure the profundity of this initial document of the church. In James’ brief exposition we encounter many towering themes of the Christian faith that will be expanded and amplified in all the New Testament writings that follow:
Faith and works functioning in balance and harmony.
Suffering as producing perfect character and endurance.
Equality of all men in Christ.
Command to do the word not just hear it.
Genuineness versus pretense.
Availability of wisdom to all who ask.
Dangers of misuse of the tongue.
How to combat the devil.
Church structure and leadership.
Reliance on Old Testament writings.
The power and necessity of prayer.
The second coming.
How to handle waywardness within the church.
Many other themes are raised by James than these. He truly fills a brief letter with a positive wealth of the important practical commands and considerations of Christian living. If no other books or letters had made up the New Testament other than the gospels and the book of James, would we be much worse off?
In James, then, we have the first written document circulated among the Christians of the New Testament era, probably initially sent out between 45 and 50 a.d. In actual fact, many scholars believe that it was not actually “written” originally as a letter, but delivered as a “sermon” and then copied and edited into its final form afterward.
According to tradition, James was stoned to death in the year 62 on orders from Sadducee Ananus in one of his first acts as the new high priest.
— A Window into Reading the Bible for the Big Picture —
Dating, Tradition, and Revisionism–Bringing Objectivity to the Scriptures
The dating of biblical texts is one of the most speculative and controversial of all fields in biblical scholarship. There is little agreement about anything. Opinions run an enormous gamut. Depending on what source you look at, the book of James, for example, is dated anywhere from 45 a.d. all the way up to 150 a.d. In two reference Bibles I have before me at the moment for comparison, both in the Revised Standard Version, the Harper Study Bible and the Oxford Annotated Bible, the Introductions to James date the book more than fifty years apart—the Harper at approximately 45 a.d., the Oxford at the end of the first century.
Obviously, then, any attempt to fix the books of the Bible into a precise chronology is speculative. At the same time, the dating of its texts is one of the most fascinating topics in all biblical study.
One might say, “What do the dates matter? It is a book’s content we should focus on.”
That is of course true. But understanding the time and circumstances of a book’s writing gives insight beyond the mere text itself. The books of the Bible were written for reasons. None of the authors sat down thinking, “I am going to write an immortal selection of great literature that will be included in Holy Scripture.” Most would be surprised at the reverence we give their works. Therefore, the historical circumstances that prompted them to write what they did shed valuable light on the content itself.
Revisionism—necessary but dangerous
As intriguing as the question of dating itself are the perspectives and agendas of those ascribing dates to the various books. In general there are long held “traditional” theories on the dates and authorship of the books of the Bible that have been held, as they say, “from time immemorial.” But in recent centuries, as biblical scholarship has advanced, and as more and more archaeological discoveries have been made (the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example), and as knowledge of ancient history has expanded, many of these long held traditions have had to be modified and revised. This has been generally a good thing. It has deepened our knowledge of Scripture. But there is always the danger that such “revisionism” will go overboard. It sometimes seems to be the perspective of modern scholarship that all traditional viewpoints need to be thrown out. This is an error just as great as clinging to formerly held perspectives long after they have been shown to be false.
All fields are subject to revisionism which occurs at different times in the development of that field’s body of knowledge. In biblical research this revisionism began in the eighteenth century and has continued and expanded until our own time. The question that must be asked is whether the revisionism is honest and whether it gives tradition its due weight alongside new discoveries, or whether the revisionist historians are simply bent on throwing out every former theory whether sufficient evidence exists to do so or not. All too often the revisionists of modernism challenge and debunk all traditional theories beyond what the internal evidence, archaeological discoveries, and new historical findings warrant.
Evolutionism is a classic example of a “revisionism” in the fields of anthropology and biology and the dating and sequence of the development of animal life on the earth. It is a case where revisionism went too far, and where important scientific discoveries gave rise to a wholesale debunking of everything that had come before. The revisionism based on evolutionary theory has run wild through all the scientific disciplines, far exceeding legitimate conclusions that can be based on actual evidence. This debunking mentality tends to make revisionism itself a god rather than facts and truth.
On the other side of it, the fundamentalist Christian community misreacts in the opposite direction, refusing to accept even legitimate and provable data (the age of the earth, as one example) brought forth by modern research. Their god becomes debunking the debunkers rather than looking honestly at the evidence and saying, “Hmm, this is fascinating…maybe we need to modify our understanding in some areas as a result of these findings.”
The result is often an obscuring rather than a clarifying of truth on both sides.
Balancing tradition and skepticism
In biblical research, whereas at one time it was uniformly accepted that all the books of the New Testament were written by those whose names appeared in the text claiming authorship, or to whom tradition ascribed it, modern studies now dispute most traditional New Testament authorship except possibly some of Paul’s letters and Luke and Acts. There exist studies saying that Mark didn’t write Mark, that Matthew didn’t write Matthew, that John neither wrote his gospel nor any of his three letters nor the Revelation that bears his name, that Peter didn’t write either of his letters. And so it goes. Every theory about anything will have a revisionist counter-theory disagreeing with the traditional theory. Our job as students of the Bible and of history is to sift and sort through the morass of opinionated and agenda-driven information and revisionism and counter-revisionism and try our best (absent opinion, agenda, and over-reaction…but using intelligence, common-sense, and the historical facts that we have before us) to find balanced truth.
Some traditions are almost certainly erroneous. When this is the case, it accomplishes nothing to hold blindly to the tradition in the face of facts that clearly disprove it. On the other hand, how did tradition become tradition except that people have believed it for a very long time. The tradition started somewhere. It seems logical to assume that it started with what was perceived at one time to be truth, which was then passed down from generation to generation, until a set of principles gradually became the widely held tradition.
We have to look at traditional beliefs with both regard and skepticism, and then try to discern truth as best we can. Some tradition is little more than fanciful wishful thinking. Other tradition is surely based on fact. How to tell the difference is not easy. For centuries, it was assumed that the world was 6000 years old, and that creation took place in exactly 4004 b.c. because that’s what it said at the top of Page 1 of millions of King James Bibles that had been circulated through the 1600s and 1700s when science did not have the tools to know any better. It was a tradition of dating, however, that was undeniably wrong, as science (a God-inspired science, by the way) in succeeding centuries proved clearly enough, though it continues to be held by many even today according to the wishful thinking scenario. In the case of the age of the earth, many compelling reasons exist to revise and reject the former tradition. This is good revisionism, based on scientific fact.
But when it comes, say, to the traditional authorship of the Gospel of Mark, though certain debunkers and revisionists go too far by insisting that there is no evidence that it was written by Mark, it can be said with equal weight that there is no reason to suppose that it wasn’t written by Mark. Debunking revisionists tend to throw out tradition on general principle. We see this in the leap modernism has made in saying, “Ah, since the earth is older than 6000 years, and since Bible publishers 400 years ago were wrong about that…there must be no God.” It is one of the most illogical conclusions the scientific community (not all of it) has ever swallowed. This is the constant danger of revisionism—that a few newly discovered facts lead to broad conclusions far beyond what those scant facts support.
Overreactions to Scripture in both directions are profoundly puzzling. Both sides claim to be seeking truth. Yet both stubbornly refuse to look objectively at any evidence but that which proves their own case.
The difficulty of objectivity
When it comes to the books of the Bible modern scholars bring revisionism into their analysis of nearly every book, often with the argument that certain documents were written later than tradition has assumed, with the name of an important individual from an earlier era attached to add credibility.
Now we have to recognize that it was indeed common in the ancient world to attach the name of some great past figure to works that were published. In this sense, revisionists often have point. Understanding this historical practice will indeed help us in our analysis. Jewish and other literature of New Testament times is full of examples. That this practice was occasionally employed, however, gives no grounds for thinking it was always employed. What we must beware of is a wholesale but unsubstantiated revisionism, in which the debunking motive is all too transparent.
One of the scholars whom we will turn to with some regularity for his objective analysis, Donald Guthrie (1915-1992), former Lecturer in New Testament Studies at the London Bible College, and author of the book which has become a standard in biblical reference works, New Testament Introduction (1970), makes the point when discussing the Pastoral Epistles that, if one works backwards from a predetermined conclusion, it is possible to find scriptural validation for any conclusion one desires. This, he maintains, is often the practice of revisionists, who postulate non-traditional dates and authorships for various biblical books, and then read into the texts those motives and interpretations which support their views.
Guthrie is basically confirming the old adage that it is possible to find justification in the Bible for anything one wants to believe. This argument is usually made about doctrine. But it applies equally to questions of dating and authorship. If one is going to take the position that Paul, for instance, didn’t write 1 Timothy, then you can go through the text of the letter, with the conclusion already in place, and find as much evidence as you want to support it.
On the other side of the coin, however, must we mustn’t be so doctrinally wedded to traditional explanations and interpretations that we are afraid to hold them up to the searchlight of honest question when compelling evidence demands that we give alternate views a fair hearing.
The result is often ambiguity: There is no hard evidence that certain books are not the works of their stated authors, any more than that there is categoric proof they are.
The view of tradition we will adopt as we progress is one of both honor and balanced common sense. We will assume that there are reasons for tradition—in some cases stupid reasons, but in many cases sound and legitimate reasons. This assumption will be our starting point. Unless compelling evidence exists that forces us to rethink traditional perspectives, we have no reason not to take what has come to us through history as it has come to us, and assume the tradition generally reliable.
January 11: James 1-2:13
January 12: James 2:14-3:18
January 13: James 4-5