Epistle of James: Introduction

Today Matt Mouzakis of x44 and I took a slight break from our HUGE series on the church to do a miniseries on the epistle of James. I love the writing of James for several reasons. It has an ancient book of Wisdom feel to it, is very Hebraic in thought, and speaks right to the heart of discipleship. If you know me at all you know that these three things are nearly a life mantra to me.

The beginning of James doesn’t identify the author as some NT writings did, it could be several people. There two apostles with the name James, one was the brother of John, son of Zebedee and the other was the son of Alphaeus (Matthew 10). But the more likely candidate is the oldest half-brother of Jesus identified as James in Matthew 13:55 as Origen quotes around 200 A.D. It is interesting that as this letter has a bit of a historical Jewish flare because it was believed that James may have doubted Jesus as the Messiah until Jesus appeared to him after Christ rose (I Cor. 15:7.) He was present in Acts 1:14 and later became a leader in the Jerusalem church from 45-62 A.D. (when he was martyred) and is known in tradition for his prayer life and was said to have knees as calloused as camels. In Acts 21 we have Paul receiving advice from Him. He spent much of his life winning the Jews over to Christianity.

James reads like a piece of Jewish wisdom literature but is closely tied with the message of Jesus’ sermon on the mount with an eastern Hebraic mindset. Most scholars date James at 62 right before he would have been martyred. I would date it much earlier for several reasons, but my primary reason is that he seems to know Paul but pre-dates Paul’s leadership in many ways. I would agree with NT Wright on a much earlier date than his martyrdom. Consider the linking of “justification” to “works” as opposed to “faith alone” (James 2:24). Personally, I don’t think they conflict, but if these three aspects are in fact borrowed from Pauline letters, then James must be later than Romans and Galatians, for Romans 3:28 and Galatians 2:16 are the key passages in which Paul asserts that one is justified by faith and apart from “works of the law,” which would be the statements James is opposing. I don’t think this is the best option.

James was aware of Paul, but likely was not immediately familiar with Paul’s specific ongoings. Galatians was written as early as 49 CE, and Romans was written during Paul’s final stay in Corinth around 56 CE—not enough time to have traveled from Corinth to Rome and become influential enough to make their way back to Palestine, where James would have been writing in the 50s, and certainly no later than 62 CE, when he was martyred. In my mind, it makes the most sense to stay early with the dating in terms of harmony of scripture. But I am also influenced to go this way for another reason.

Some have proposed that the anonymity of the first sentence in the Epistle shows that James was a very well-known super prominent leader of the Jerusalem church. I have heard “normal people – not scholars” say things like Acts 2:41 tells us that Peter’s Pentecost sermon resulted in approximately 3,000 souls getting saved and baptized. These new believers then “…continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” and then Acts 2:47 we read that new converts were added daily. Consequently, Acts 4:4 says that not long after Pentecost, “…the number of the men came to be about five thousand.” By this thinking, many would assume that Jerusalem was a “MEGACHURCH” by these estimations. The problem is we are thinking with Western minds. Most scholars will tell you that the Biblical example of the first church would be to send apostles out to grow new churches as quickly as the number hit 70. As Jerusalem was likely one of the largest congregations, I doubt it resembled a mega church meeting of today. It was far more similar to a seminary of today’s design where people traveled to study and then GO OUT and plant churches as apostles after their study.

The closest thing in America we have to a first century church is likely a small seminary that communes and learns with each other several hours a day and then after a few years sends the students out to replicate the model they learned under.

This was called discipleship and it was why the church existed!

By this design we get James backwards in his intro. It isn’t a vague intro because everyone knew who he was as a megachurch hierarchical leader, but rather because he emptied himself of humility making the writing of that described as a slave (Doulos) rather than a king or CEO. In other words, he was saying follow me humbly as I follow Jesus. When we make James out to be a superhero pastor, we do the exact opposite of what he wanted adn personally promoted in this book. He understood his role as he describes himself as a bondservant in absolute obedience, absolute humility, absolute loyalty & All in discipleship!

This idea is also echoed in his mentioning of 12 tribes when only ten were scattered. It means that his understanding of the Diaspora was that ALL OF ISRAEL were to reclaim what was lost. This is metaphorical for Jews and Gentiles being regathered. At the end of Galatians, Paul sends his blessing to the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16). Peter calls Jews and gentiles in 1 Peter Exiles. Paul calls Jews and Gentiles the one new man and inheritors of the promises (Eph 1 & 2).  This notion comes through Jesus being the fulfillment of Israel and the true Jew and all those on Him are considered to be Jews. 

James teaches from 2 main sources: The sermon on the mount/plain and the sage wisdom of Proverbs 1-9. James is rhetorical mix of Proverbs and the teachings of Jesus. James 2-5 has 12 teachings (possibly a word play on the 12 tribes and Diaspora) that fall under the 3 categories we just covered and call the church to wholehearted devotion to the way of Jesus. All James teachings are grounded in what he calls the law of liberty or the Royal law: Love God & Love your Neighbor (The summary of the Torah).

The Big Idea of James:

·      Be wholly devoted to God (not the World)

·      Speak in Love

·      Serve the poor

Today the body of Christ needs more than ever to heed the words of this amazing letter. To be completely devoted in faith and allegiance, speak love, and live in the humility of Christ.

Comments are closed.