January 19, 2021

Wednesdays with James: Lesson One


Wednesdays with James
Lesson One: Background and Big Picture

Ordinary Time provides an opportunity for those who follow the liturgical year to take a different direction in their approach to the Scriptures.

From Advent to Pentecost, the Church follows the Gospels as they depict the earthly career of Jesus the Messiah, the story of salvation. In the days after Pentecost we seek to live in the new life Jesus brought us through his Incarnation, Epiphany, death, resurrection, ascension, and pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Ordinary Time, by contrast, goes week by week, examining how we might live the life we share together in Christ.

I think, therefore, that Ordinary Time is a good season for the Church to study books of the Bible, in particular, the epistles, which were written to various congregations and individuals to guide them in the Christ-life. So, since we haven’t had a Bible study here in awhile, how about we take one up for the summer?

To start, I’d like to go where many Lutherans have feared to tread: the Epistle of James.

As I study this NT letter with you this summer, I will be consulting one of my favorite commentaries:

• • •

I have never been a big fan of spending a lot of time hashing out introductory matters of books of the Bible. At some level, studying the background of who wrote the books, when they were written and to whom is important, but as a pastor I tried to keep my focus on these issues as brief and simple as possible. And as a blog author, I can’t imagine that people would want to come here and read an extended discussion about who the “James” might have been that purportedly penned this epistle (1:1).

What is important to me, given centuries of debate about these introductory questions, is to come to a reasonable conclusion about the possible author, setting, and audience, and proceed on that basis. Most of what matters about these things can be gleaned from the internal evidence of the epistle itself.

Peter Davids comes to the following working hypothesis:

This brief discussion has certainly not settled the complex problem of the date and provenance of the Epistle of James. The evidence examined does point toward a supportable conclusion. G. Kittel appears to be correct in arguing for an early date for the book, in that the source material probably was early, and this means that this material is probably by James the Just. In the light of the Greek idiom used in the work, it is likely that either James received assistance in the editing of the work or that his teaching was edited at a later date (perhaps after his death) as the church spread beyond Jerusalem and began to use Greek more extensively….

The preceding section has argued that James is a two-stage work, an initial series of sermons and sayings, which ostensibly come from James the Just…, and a later redaction of these units into an epistle by either James or a member of the church.

The Epistle of James, if we accept David’s suggestion, is made up of early Christian preaching and proverbs, sermons and sayings written down and edited into a kind of tract or document providing guidance for Christian congregations. James is one example of how, when we read the Bible, we are reading the Word proclaimed. If we who are preachers and teachers would recognize this, perhaps we wouldn’t feel the need so much to analyze and expound, as to seek to find ways to let the scriptures themselves speak.

Next, I have always loved getting a “big picture” of biblical books. The process of learning to read and understand scripture involves getting a good overview of the material, then diving into the details. In studying the details, we then revise our understanding of the book as a whole and how its themes and arguments develop. This is an ongoing process. We move from macro to micro levels and then back again over and over in a continuing circle of reading and interpretation.

As for the big picture of James, Peter Davids contributes wonderful insights that have been of great help to me. I’ll conclude today’s post by giving you my own edited version of his outline, which I think holds up as a good overview of the epistle’s contents.

I encourage you to read through the book of James several times and compare what you read with this outline.

Outline of James


  1. Richard Hershberger says

    “And as a blog author, I can’t imagine that people would want to come here and read an extended discussion about who the “James” might have been that purportedly penned this epistle”

    [shuffles feet, clears throat, raises hand…]

  2. Steve Newell says

    As a Lutheran, I love the book of James because it gives us practical view of how to live out our faith. It’s about faith in action. I have lead a detailed study of this book in my Lutheran Church.

    I view James as being complementary to Paul not contradicting Paul.

  3. Ronald Avra says

    I’m looking forward to this. I have absolutely no knowledge of Biblical Greek, so I will definitely be relying on others to do the heavy lifting on this study and discussion.

  4. Looking forward to this!

  5. I look forward to this study of James as I don’t have time to read the commentary and appreciate a synopsis of the best thought. At the same time I do look at big pictures and regard them as crucial to understanding. In my view Luther’s biggest mistake was his dismissal of the epistle of James, and it affected everything else he thought and wrote. In general, the church has treated James as a minor and somewhat irritating add on. If I had to choose between going the rest of my life with either the epistle of James or Paul’s to the Romans, I would choose James without hesitation. I regard him as that important.

    We speak of the early church and we usually mean the Greek church as described in Paul’s letters. The first church was that in Jerusalem, and it was Jewish, and James was pope, I regard the Roman claim that Peter was the first pope as pure silliness, and doubt Peter ever set foot in Rome while alive. Peter may have acted as leader of the little band of disciples in the time between the crucifixion and the ascension, but I gather that as the church took form with additional people, James was chosen early on to act as its head.

    The Jewish church was quite different from the Greek church. At one point after Paul had received instruction, presumably from the mouth of Jesus or his Spirit, and was establishing churches, he came to Jerusalem to make sure that he and the church as headed by James were on the same page. James was that important. There are many views on how the brothers and sisters of Jesus mentioned in the Bible came about, but I find the most convincing account that has James, Jacob, a teen-ager from a previous marriage, acting as baby sitter for Jesus from the time Jesus was born, and likely knew Jesus better than anyone else on earth with the possible exception of mother Mary. That in itself makes James important.

    James was probably more comfortable with people like John the Baptist and the Essenes than he was with the religious elite of the Temple, and yet he appeared to continue praying and teaching in the Temple until he was murdered there by that same religious elite that had killed his step-brother Jesus. This happened not too long before the Jewish War and was likely a contributing factor to that war, which was as much a civil war as a revolt. The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple was also the end of the Jerusalem Church in its early Jewish form, at least as far as commonly seen. We have a few scattered accounts in the New Testament and the letter from James. I don’t think we want to go back to that early form of the church, but there are lessons there that might help balance out this lop-sided monstrosity we’ve ended up with today. I look forward to this series.

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    “Ordinary Time”. Time to be ordinary and just live our lives. (Which is a major emphasis in Judaism.)

    So many Christians want to be constantly Speaking in Tongues, Casting out Demon after Demon after Demon, Fulfilling Prophecy after Prophecy after Prophecy, in the middle of a density of supernatural events worthy of Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, and Revelation combined. And only THAT is Real True Christianity. (Just as being a cloistered Monk or Nun in 24/7/365 Devotions was before the Reformation Wars.)

    What about the rest of us? Our ordinary lives in Ordinary Time?

    Ordinary Time restores a much-needed BALANCE.

    • Good points, HUG. And one of the reasons I chose James. Down-to-earth spirituality.

      • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

        Thanks, CM! I love James. I always found his style interesting – I suspect his amanuensis was an intern. He has some flowery language, but also some bluntness – he uses more imperatives than all of Paul’s epistles combined (Paul preferred the hortatory subjunctive). The message of James, however, is immanently practical.

  7. James is one of the most interesting documents in the NT. Unfortunately perhaps one of the most interesting aspects is the question of provenance. While I can understand the reluctance to get bogged down in controversies of authorship, James is one of those works whose interpretation is inevitably colored by your initial approach. It does makes a difference to what kind of argument you think is being made in the book whether you think it is some hypothetical early controversy between a historical James, the actual biological brother of Jesus, and the historical Paul, or, as many scholars have come to believe, an argument that reflects a late first century situation.

    I won’t belabor the point. If folks are interested commentaries abound. I just get queasy when we proceed without examining our assumptions and authorship of this book by James the actual biological brother of Jesus is extremely problematical.

    • We will deal more with questions of provenance, but I think details regarding the setting are somewhat clear from the book itself. As for the supposed debate with Paul, I think Davids debunks that convincingly. We’ll talk more about that when we come to chapter 2.

      At this point in the study, I am accepting Davids’s thesis as a reasonable and supportable place to start.

      I also have found it more effective to discuss many background issues in the course of the study, rather than at the beginning, because, before we start to read the material itself, most people don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.

  8. Rick Ro. says

    I just went through a study of James at my church. One thing that struck me about the book *THIS* go-round is a feeling that it isn’t so much a book about “faith in action” or “I’ll know you by your works”, but rather it’s a book about Christian character. This allows me to look at what James wrote not so much as “do this, do that, guilt, guilt, guilt because you’re not doing enough,” but rather to examine myself and ask: “as a Christian, what is my character” or “is my character showing my faith?”

    I’ll be curious to see if this idea is supported as the series progresses!

  9. That is cool to me, of course, since I wrote the book a bit ago. You might want to see a bit of my development in A Biblical Theology of James Peter and Jude (Zondervan 2014). But the commentary on the Grrek text is still good. And who is more monkish than James? (I might add that I belong to a monastic movement, the domestic expression of the Brothers and Sisters of Charity).

    • Christiane says

      The Brothers and Sisters of Charity . . . that group where you are in community, are they Franciscan like the ‘Little Portion’ folks ?

    • >>And who is more monkish than James?

      I’m guessing Bro. Jacob would have longed to be out with Bro. Anthony had they been contemporaries. Maybe he was tight with the Essenes. Being bishop in the big city was probably not his heart’s desire. Glad you’re here.

    • Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

      Thanks for your work!

    • Peter, so thankful you checked in today! I have treasured your commentary for many years. I hope we’ll hear from you again on future Wednesdays (and any other day, of course!) as we work our way through James.

    • Only Peter David I know writes Star Trek novels, but this is pretty cool too lol

  10. Because there is no special place to speak of this, I read the above article, 10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About the New Charismatics, and read it again, something I rarely do. Aside from getting testy if someone wants to label me Progressive or Evangelical, it could be talking about me, not that I have ever called myself a Charismatic. And as to it being “new”, I’ve been doing what it’s talking about for the past thirty years, mostly by myself. It’s good to hear that folks are waking up and smelling the coffee. I wish Old Prophet was still around to comment on the article.

  11. Michael Bell says

    I had the privilege of taking Hermeneutics from Peter Davids in 1990 and have kept in touch. When I saw the topic of the post I asked him to stop by.

  12. Christiane says

    “Faith is an encounter with Jesus Christ, with God . . . . . Faith that does not really involve you and that does not lead you to bear witness, is not faith. It is words and nothing more than words.”
    (Pope Francis)

    I think St. James’ writing strongly encourages us to give life to our faith by witnessing with our whole being, living out the teachings of Christ (the ‘Way’), and carrying those teaching forward through our witness.

    I think James sees witnessing as ‘an act of faith’, proclamation yes, but a proclamation of Christ incarnated into the very ways of our living.

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