Greg asked me write a few words on “What fascinates me about the Book of James?” There are many reasons, but chiefly it is three things:
a) James differs from many New Testament writings by focusing so strongly on astute practical advice about how to behave and live together in God’s ways. James highlights doing it more than thinking about theological rationales for doing it.
b) This focus aligns with the “wisdom” spirit characteristic of Jesus’ teaching as well as books like Proverbs, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, as well as some early Hellenistic moralists. (I have long been fascinated with wisdom writers generally.)
c) Because James focuses more on God than on the distinctiveness of Jesus (as did Jesus himself), it offers an approach that is more open to believers in God and good living who practice with other religious traditions. It seems to me, today we are constantly urged to separate ourselves from those who differ from us religiously. I rather think we need each other as support and as collaborators to aid a world that seems increasingly alienated from the values religious traditions foster, and increasingly self-destructive. Indeed, there may be particular value in a book like James who seeks to foster a believing community of Jews who are also believers in Jesus, and who apparently did not find that a conflict in practice. Are there useful lessons here?
1. The Book of James is a very early Christian writing, most likely by the brother of Jesus - even if the Book itself was edited/re-written/expanded/condensed by a colleague after James death.
2. There is no mention of Jesus’ death, resurrection, miracles, or any particular “historical” event, nor any direct quotation of Jesus’ parables or teachings. Yet, like Jesus, he regards “you shall love God with all your heart, soul and strength and your neighbor as yourself," as the central and essential teaching, which he calls the “royal law” or the “law of liberty.”. The Book of James frequently expresses the spirit of Jesus’ sayings without ever citing one in the exact form now found in the gospels - perhaps because he learned it from his brother, not from the (later?) gospel writers.
3. The Book addresses very early communities (congregations/synagogues) of Jewish believers in Jesus (which he never calls “Christians”!). They are small, struggling, lack formal structure, are still expecting the early coming of “the Lord,” and are oriented to Israel’s Torah (teaching), using it as mirror and standards for believers’ behavior. James focuses most upon the life of new believers in community, not their individual, private lives. James speaks to the question, “How can believers behave with one another in keeping with God’s gifts and teachings whuile living in a culture which is not in friendship with God?”
4. The focus throughout is on actions, behavior and relationships consistent with God’s kingdom, not just beliefs or faith-statements about God or Jesus. God’s laws are less a rule book to follow than they are a mirror by which we can see and assess ourselves clearly and truthfully.
5. The book describes a number of communal conflicts and other ways believers can go astray, in actions, relationships and speech, and then probingly asks, “Where do these come from?” It attributes our failures to mis-guided desires or cravings and to our “double-mindedness” - which leads us away from a religion “pure and undefiled,” that is, which cares for the poor and one another.
6. One of those conflicts which James shares with Jesus is the ongoing struggles between the rich and the poor (inside and outside the believing community) and how that affects believers living together faithfully and lovingly.
In this book we can glimpse some of the issues that faced these new communities of “Jewish believers in Jesus” in the first century, perhaps only thirty to forty years after Jesus. What is so striking to this reader is that both James’ diagnosis and description of these struggles, and his prescriptions for living in God’s ways, are so sound, realistic and relevant even today. And especially, again like Jesus, the spirit of this text is genuinely humble, as is fitting in “a servant of God and Jesus.”
If interested in further reading, try these quality works:
The Message: The New Testament in Contemporary Language by Eugene Peterson, offers contemporary paraphrase quite faithful to the text.
Luke Timothy Johnson, Brother of Jesus, Friend of God: Studies in the Letter of James. Eerdman’s, 2004. A series of excellent essays on James - historical, literary and theological.
Richard Bauckham, James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage. Routledge, 1999. Studies the wisdom qualities of James linked with Jesus, Kierkegaard’s use of James as well as the Book’s contemporary significance.