January 16, 2021

Wednesdays with James: Lesson Two


Ordinary Time provides an opportunity for those who follow the liturgical year to take a different direction in their approach to the Scriptures. In Ordinary Time, we go week by week, examining how we might live the life we share together in Christ. Ordinary Time is therefore 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.

Our study this summer will be on the Epistle of James.

• • •

Wednesdays with James
Lesson Two: To Whom Was James Written?

To whom was the Epistle of James originally written?

Last week, I expressed essential agreement with Peter Davids, who in his commentary on James came to the “supportable conclusion” that the epistle finds its source in James the Just, brother of Jesus and leader in the early Jerusalem church. Its final form may be the result of at least two stages: (1) James’s original teachings, and (2) either James’s or a later editor’s gathering of those teachings into a teaching letter to be circulated among various churches.

With this conclusion, Patrick J. Hartin in his Sacra Pagina commentary agrees.

The major argument against James of Jerusalem as the author of this document has been that the letter is reacting to Paul’s thought. This stems from the notion that everything in the New Testament derives its significance from Paul’s position and thought, not from any evidence within the text. Further arguments against James of Jerusalem’s authorship have emanated from the preconceived idea that his knowledge of Greek would have not been sufficient [a notion both Davids and Hartin disprove].

An early date for this writing is required from the evidence noted above, namely (1) the way the author refers to himself, expecting his hearers/readers to know his identity; (2) the closeness of the author to the heritage of Israel (he still sees himself as belonging to that world); (3) the use made of the Jesus traditions (prior to the appearance of the canonical gospels); (4) the closeness to the spirit and vision of Jesus; (5) the total lack of reference to the Gentiles in any form; and (6) the omission of any reference to the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem. (p. 24)

If James wrote this letter (or if his teachings form its content), and it was sent as a circular or encyclical letter to various churches, can we identify who those churches might have been?

In his famous commentary on James, Martin Dibelius said “no.” He saw the letter as pure paraenesis — a general “wisdom” work that consists of “popular slogans” strung together without reference to any specific local situation. Most commentators today do not see it that way.

Patrick Hartin, for example, puts stock in James 1:1, where the Epistle is addressed: “To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” If taken literally, this tells us that the epistle was for “believers from the world of Judaism who are scattered outside Palestine throughout the Roman empire” (p. 25). This would correspond somewhat to what we see in Acts 15, where James and the elders of Jerusalem send a letter to (Gentile) believers throughout the Mediterranean world with counsel about Jewish-Gentile relations worked out in the Council of Jerusalem.

It is clear that this letter (James), however, is sent to believers from a Jewish background. The letter says they are believers in Jesus (2:1), but James also speaks of the law, calls Abraham “our father,” references several stories and characters in the Hebrew scriptures, calls God “the Lord of hosts,” and calls the place where they meet a “synagogue.” It is also clear that they are poor and marginalized in the communities where they live. Hartin suggests that they may be living in Jewish ghettoes in various cities around the Roman empire and that both the “rich” and the “poor” they are oppressing are Jewish, since there is no mention of “Gentiles” (as there is in 1Peter, for example).

Peter Davids sees a different provenance for the letter. He suggests that the situation portrayed in James fits well what we know about Palestine in the years before the the first Jewish War (AD 66-73).

…one can easily picture a setting for James during the last three decades before the first Jewish War. It was after the death of Herod Agrippa I that there was a severe deterioration in the internal stability of Palestine as well as a series of famines. Also, as the Pauline collection shows, the church itself was impoverished in this period. During the last decade of this period even the temple clergy were at odds, the wealthy high-priestly families siding with the Romans and depriving the lower clergy of their tithes, while the lower clergy were impoverished and sided with the Zealots.

One can picture what this situation did to the church in Palestine. On the one hand, the church naturally felt resentment against the rich. They had “robbed” many of the members of their lands; they probably showed discrimination against Christians in hiring their labor; and they (at least the high-priestly clans) were the instigators of attempts to suppress the church (which was probably viewed as a revolutionary movement). On the other hand, if a wealthy member entered the church or was a member, there would be every reason to court him…. (p. 33)

Davids goes on to make an important point.

Whatever the exact nature of the external pressures facing the Christians he is writing, those pressures were causing stress fractures within the congregations themselves. The spectrum of potential divisions would run from those wanting to pander to the rich and compromise the faith to those who were itching to join the Zealots who sought (sometimes violent) revolution. The very things James writes about in this letter portray a church “tested” by complaining, bitterness, conflicts, and a breakdown of love, unity, and charity.

The tests of faith were breaking the church apart as people yielded to pressure. The call is for internal unity and charity with an attitude of prophetic denunciation toward the rich yet a refusal to engage in hatred and violence. The Lord’s intervention, not man’s, is sought. The outward collapse raises eschatological expectation. (p. 34)

What I find clear in all of this:

  • James of Jerusalem (or a compiler of James’s teachings) was writing a circular letter to Christian communities composed of believers from a Jewish background.
  • These believers were scattered abroad in various communities (whether in Palestinian regions or around the Mediterranean world).
  • Many of these believers were poor and being oppressed by their rich neighbors (probably also members of Jewish communities).
  • The oppression and marginalization these believers were experiencing was threatening the unity of their communities and their practice of “true religion.”
  • The Epistle of James was designed to speak to these communities of believers that were undergoing “stress fractures.”


  1. Ronald Avra says

    My experience in churches in my locale is that Christians aren’t educated or interested in resolving issues which arise between their members. Of course, if you are the typical person who has been beaten up during the work week with issues on the job, family, or school, by the time Sunday arrives, you are ready for a respite and not another problem to resolve. Besides, church goers today typically arrive from a geographical area that would have been unthinkable for a pedestrian society. That pedestrian society allowed for Christians to interact much more frequently in daily life, to know each other intimately, and to participate in common social concerns. Today, the only time contemporary believers even meet each other is at church functions, and the only shared communion is that of the herd, faced forward toward the performers. That makes cliques and church splits the norm for resolving sometimes even marginal differences. It takes time, energy, and thoughtful discourse to participate in the life of the body of Christ, even in good times. In difficult ones, I would probably prefer to just go crawl in a cave.

  2. I know that some people are fond of looking too deeply “behind the text,” because of the problems of historical reconstruction, the lack of access most Christians have had to this information throughout history, et al. But I LOVE this stuff and I’m listening to this series intently.

  3. This series is what a Wednesday Bible study should look like. The best opinions gleaned and made available. Intelligent and educated people with common sense answering basic questions with a high degree of probability. Who wrote this? When? To whom? Under what circumstances? For what purpose? How did the people reading or hearing it understand it? What, if anything, does it have to say to us today? No hidden agenda, room for discussion, if answers are educated guesses, make that plain. If opinions vary, make that plain. Already looking forward to next week.

    The Dispersion mentioned as recipients may have been those Jews from foreign countries, the Diaspora, mentioned as being baptized in the thousands at Pentecost, who must have returned back to their various homes retaining their Jewish identity as they walked the Way. But may also have been those local Jewish Christians in Jerusalem who fled the city to escape the persecution that arose when Stephen was murdered, who likely maintained their Jewish identity. Doesn’t matter one way or another as far as I can see.

  4. Robert F says

    The outward collapse raises eschatological expectation.

    It did then. It has in every former age. It does now. That expectation has often been very misleading; all of us are all too familiar with this reality. God acts through his human agents in this and many other matters; I have stopped expecting him to come crashing into our reality to set everything right for us. Long ages show that it isn’t God’s way; Jesus shows that it isn’t God’s way. God’s way is a human hand, and a human heart, reaching out to help.

    • Robert F says

      The Epistle of James itself is just such a reaching out to help.

    • “God’s way is a human hand, and a human heart, reaching out to help.”

      Yes. You’d think he’d get tired of us messing it up all the time but he seems to be infinitely patient. Much like the perfect Father Scripture and Jesus paint him to be, I believe he delights in our infantile efforts to love and is overjoyed on those occasions when we do successfully reach out to help one another. Maybe someday we’ll grow up.

  5. This is how I try to make my Sunday School lessons. Ther is plenty of dissent and pushback, but the most discouraging reaction is someone saying “Just tell me what to believe…”.

    I LOVE this stuff!

Speak Your Mind