Lenten Reading Challenge: James 1-5 (all)
• When and Where
The dating of James is widely disputed. Some argue it is actually older than Paul’s letters; others date it to the early 100’s. It is written to “the 12 tribes of diaspora.” Diaspora is a word used for Jews living in scattered lands, but this letter is a distinctly Christian document. That suggests it was written to not to Jews in general but to Christ-followers living in scattered places.
Tradition long held that this was written by the brother of Jesus, (who is mentioned in Galatians and elsewhere as the leader of the Jerusalem Christ-community.) If that were true, this could be a very early text (James the Just, as he was also known, was executed in the early 60’s). However, the author’s “use of Greek language and grammar is quite sophisticated – not impossible for a brother of Jesus from the peasant class whose native language was Aramaic, but at least somewhat unlikely.” Further, the author does not refer to himself as Jesus’ brother, which would seem likely.
Borg places it here (in the 70’s and after Mark but before Matthew) for 2 reasons: 1) Its material seems like early tradition but it also reflects the strife of a dividing society with Christ-followers increasingly excluded from synagogues, and 2) because of how James’ use of sayings of Jesus is quite similar to Matthew and Luke but not exactly like them, suggesting an emerging tradition around those sayings (more on that idea later in the week.)
• Key Insights
This is not a typical letter, lacking both specific addressees and a traditional closing. Instead, the text has much in common with OT wisdom literature, being focused not on theological concepts or doctrine, but how one lives a life of faith. The language of “the way” is similar to language used in Mark.
If Mark was about the reader responding to Jesus’ message, James is about how that looks lived out. It is largely a collection of practical advice and imperatives, full of contrasts indicating ways of life that are “from God” or of “this world.” Note that “this world” is not suggesting that creation itself is evil, but that the “humanly created [social] world of covetousness and violence” is not godly.
James has the most quotations of Jesus of any NT text other than the 4 Gospels. Its imagery focuses on economic themes, with frequent condemnations of “the rich.” Borg suggests that this may be one reason the letter is often considered “scandalous.”
He notes that many American Christians will never hear these texts in worship because they are not part of the Revised Common Lectionary. Despite this, a few phrases are well known, in particular “faith without works is dead.” Updated Note, while Borg says this on page 195 of his book, it is clearly an error as Year B has 5 straight Sunday’s. I knew that seemed odd when I read it, but I failed to check. Not the first time I’ve wished Borg’s “general audience” books used footnotes… Thanks to a reader for checking.
• Big Picture
The “letter” of James fascinates me. Martin Luther dismissed it as “an epistle of straw” and even suggested striking it from Scripture, while John Wesley found it central to Christian life. Their different reactions may have much to do with the state of the Church in their different times. Luther was right to decry an overreliance on practices like indulgences, but I think that concern blinded him to much James has to say. Wesley’s day had seen a 180-degree shift, with mere intellectual assent being all that was required. James’ fiery and passionate call for action rooted in faith informed Wesley’s urging of transformed lives of service.
We’ve seen in Paul’s letters this tension between trusting in Christ alone, as opposed to trying to earn salvation with human works. Yet, a faith that doesn’t affect how one lives is really no faith at all.
Blessings on your reading!
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