January 25, 2021

Wednesdays with James: Lesson Four

Solitude, Chagall

Solitude, Chagall

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 is on the Epistle of James.

• • •

Wednesdays with James
Lesson Four: An Encyclical from James

James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus the Messiah, to the twelve dispersed tribes: greetings.

• James 1:1 (Kingdom NT)

This epistle begins with a standard letter greeting, indicating that:

  • It was a letter.
  • It represented the teaching and counsel of a well-known Christian leader.
  • It was a letter designed to be circulated and read in a number of different communities.
  • It was sent to Jewish-Christian communities outside of Palestine.

As a letter, James is rather impersonal. Perhaps we should call it a “pastoral letter” or a “teaching letter” so that we don’t confuse it in our minds with a letter containing news and personal greetings and so on. We find none of that in James. I like the word “encyclical,” as it combines the ideas of official communication and circulation.

It was sent out representing James. As we saw in an earlier study, this most probably refers to James the Just, who was the brother of Jesus and a leader in the church of Jerusalem. Whether or not James actually penned the epistle as we have it now is an open question, but it is certainly cast as representing a body of his teaching. Quoting Peter Davids:

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.

James’s description of himself is consistent with that of a Jewish Christian leader. To call oneself a “slave” of God (doulos) was to employ a “thoroughly Hebrew term” (Hartin) expressing the relationship between God and his people. “It captures the concept of God’s ownership of God’s people and their willingness to carry out God’s will” (Hartin). The following phrase designates James as a follower of the one he believed to be the promised Messiah of Israel. He also calls him “Lord,” a title used in the LXX to refer to God, and a common NT designation indicating his kingly authority.

This immediately adds an eschatological flavor to the letter of James. James sees himself as a representative and servant of the true Messiah (King) who came to inaugurate the “last days,” to reconstitute the “twelve tribes” of Israel and bring righteousness and peace to the world.

This eschatology is further confirmed by his description of the addressees: “to the twelve dispersed tribes.” Patrick Hartin explains:

The end-times have begun with these Christian communities emerging within the house of Israel. James uses the eschatological perspective as motivation for his wisdom advice. This horizon culminates at the end of the letter with an exhortation to his hearers/readers to patient endurance: “Be patient, then, my brothers (and sisters), until the coming of the Lord” (5:7). As the first fruits of the reconstitution of God’s people, his hearers/readers must hold fast to this identity until the end-times have reached fulfillment. (p. 52)

Some have suggested a more “spiritual” meaning to the twelve tribes here. They say that James is addressing Christians (Jewish and/or Gentile) as exiles in a metaphorical sense, as Peter seems to do in 1Peter 1:1. Heaven is their true home and, until the day they arrive there, they are dispersed throughout the world.

This viewpoint fails to give enough weight to the thoroughly Jewish character of this letter. It is much more likely that James’s words are going out to communities of (mostly) Jewish Christians, who would have been seen as a sect within Judaism at this early date. “The parting of the ways between the house of Israel and Christianity has not yet taken place” (Hartin). These believers are members of communities outside of Palestine, geographically separated from what would have been understood by them as “home” — Jerusalem and the Promised Land.

• • •

A few thoughts on this text

(1) If the “James” we read about in 1:1 was Jesus’ brother, we have here an example of humility and Christian identity. He presents himself as a “slave” to God and Jesus the King. His identity is rooted in God and what he has done in Jesus.

(2) Christianity is Jewish. A letter like James reminds us of our heritage and the continuities between the Hebrew Bible and the Greek NT, between the patriarchs and the apostles, between the Torah of Moses and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

(3) The “end-times” are not characterized by spectacular, supernatural, other-worldly events, but represent the working out of God’s promises in history, to be grasped by people of faith in communities of faith, whose lives among their neighbors evidence wisdom and love. The “twelve dispersed tribes” will receive that kind of instruction in this letter, and we would do well to listen in so that we may apply this wisdom to our own contexts today.


  1. I’ve never thought about what it would be like to grow up as the brother of Jesus. It’s not something you would go bragging about. He was without honor in his hometown as he noted. We hear little or nothing of the rest of his family or even his father for that matter. It’s interesting that James and Mary are the only family to be recognized followers. Where was Joseph when Mary was following him to the cross? Just as the sword pierced Mary’s heart a certain unique suffering would have been experienced by James. He must have been compelled by great love.o

    • Robert F says

      Catholic and Orthodox believe that Jesus had no brother by the same mother, Mary, because they believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary, that she never had any sexual relations, and so no children. If so, the people referred to as the siblings of Jesus in the NT would either be his cousins, or his half-siblings; if the latter, then Joseph would have been previously married to another woman before Mary, who presumably died before his marriage to Mary. Some traditions suggest that Joseph may have been considerably older than Mary, and that he may have died before most of the events of Jesus’ adult life, hence his MIA status.

      • Robert F says

        Correction: Not his half-siblings, but his step-siblings….

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          And we honestly have nothing to substantiate the relation of anyone involved at that level of detail.

          • Christiane says

            it’s all oral tradition …… except for one interesting thing that brings the tradition very close to the beginning of the Church:
            the early centers of Christianity all were founded when the Apostles came from Jerusalem in the beginning, and the various traditions of those earliest centers of Christianity all speak of Mary in the same way, as Virgin mother

            You are right, it is all just oral tradition, but then . . . . . 🙂

      • Robert F says

        I must say, I think this idea that Joseph was married, with children, before Mary, and that he died young, makes a lot of sense.

        • flatrocker says

          The Protoevangelium of James lends some credence to this possibility. While clearly non-canonical for valid theological reasons, it does raise an interesting and plausible historical alternative.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          +1. It is easy to make a lot of assumptions about the domestic situation. Joseph need not even to have died young to not see his children into their 20s; he was a laborer in the first century – not a great life expectancy – and we have no idea how old he was when he was married. Death back then was easy enough to find.

    • Christiane says

      Hi Chris S.
      The oldest tradition of the Church relates that St. Joseph, Our Lord’s foster father, had already died, and that from the cross, Our Lord placed His mother Mary into the guardianship of St. John and placed John into Mary’s maternal care.

      • Robert F says

        It would be odd for Jesus to leave Mary to John’s care if she had other sons, who presumably would have that responsibility as a matter of social roles. But if Mary had no biological offspring beside Jesus, and if a rift had opened up between Jesus and his step-siblings, and Mary and her step-children, due to his controversial mission and reputation (I believe there is support for this idea of a rift between Jesus and his “family” in the Gospels; in this case, perhaps James came around to seeing things differently after the resurrection?), then it makes total sense, and seems very plausible, that Jesus would leave Mary to the care of non-family Apostle: Mary had no other family beside Jesus. It fits the NT narrative. Of course, there is no proof, and this is ultimately guesswork.

        • Robert F says

          I’m not necessarily saying any of this is historically accurate; it may all be pieces of non-historical legendary Jesus-traditions that worked their way into the NT. But it seems to me that the absence of Joseph in the Gospel accounts of Jesus as an adult figure, along with Jesus’ remanding of Mary into John’s care from the cross, strongly suggests, if not the historicity of these events, the likelihood that the community’s stories about them were all linked from early on to the traditions that later crystallized in the tradition/dogma of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary.

      • ChrisS))) says

        Hi Christiane,
        I never heard that tradition except for the part that’s in the gospels about Mary and John. I do take note in this context that Jesus dismissed the traditional notion of family for an expansive view that might seem harsh and unloving to the blood relatives unless they believed and followed.

  2. Heather Angus says

    As a Protestant, I haven’t been required to believe in the Perpetual Virginity of Mary. It’s true that in reciting the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed we refer to the “virgin Mary,” but that says nothing about “perpetual virginity.” The most natural sense of the Biblical stories of Jesus is that Jesus had brothers and sisters and that people of the time referred to them as such. It is also true (I believe) that the earliest references to Jesus, by Paul, make no reference to Mary’s virginity, but rather just note that Jesus was, unremarkably, “born of a woman.”

    The “perpetual virginity” of Mary was extremely important to the Church in the Middle Ages, and I’d suggest that that might be because, after around 1100 AD, priests were required to be celibate. It would therefore be natural for the higher ranks of churchmen to value celibacy and perpetual virginity very highly, and to regard the celibate life as far superior to the married life.

    But there are arguments on both sides, of course, and all I’m saying is that, for most Protestants, I don’t think Mary’s virginity must be seen as “perpetual.” Myself, I find it most reasonable (without any strain to the text) to think that Mary and Joseph had several children, and that that is a blessed thing in the context of a married life.

    • As a fellow Protestant, my faith does not include as central to it a belief in the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, either. But I do find Joseph’s absence from much of the Gospel accounts intriguing, and have always wondered about it. That he died before Jesus grew up seems quite plausible, and even likely, to me.

  3. “Whose lives among their neighbors evidence wisdom and love” — What a great reminder of that which I so often fail to live.

  4. I find James referring to himself as a slave of God and of Jesus interesting. My sense is that the word “slave” did not have the extreme baggage for James that it does for us, and that translations using “servant” are probably closer to what he meant. Jesus in John 15 is quoted as telling his disciples that he no longer calls them slaves but friends, this conditionally depending on them following his commands. James recognizes that Abraham was considered a friend of God but doesn’t seem to apply the term to himself, perhaps out of a hard bitten humility. He doesn’t mention that he is both brother of Jesus and bishop of the main church.

    I regard Jesus’ teaching of God as Father to be mostly unique in world religion, and the church seems to have given it lip service without understanding what being a child of God actually means. I don’t see any way I can think of myself as a child of God and a slave of God at the same time. A servant of God, yes. This may be one of the areas where the cultural understanding of the early Jewish church and the Greek church differed. My extreme antipathy to slavery of any kind today probably affects my understanding, but I see this as one area where James could have moved up a notch.

    • ChrisS))) says

      We regularly say things in writing here that might seem quite contradictory if we lined up all of our personal posts side by side from over the years. In one post I may recognize the merits of embracing mundanity in the Christian walk while in another I recognize the mystic nature of life in Christ. My point is that James called himself a slave in this ‘post’ with the thought of relaying that aspect of reality to a particular audience. If we had two hundred letters from him we might, perhaps, have some sentiments about his friendship and brotherhood with Jesus. It does occur to me, as you noted, that if he is in fact the brother (or even cousin) of Jesus he might wish to emphasize that he finds no special status in that.

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