Epistle of James
The Epistle of James, often titled simply, James, is the twentieth book of the New Testament. It a letter written in ancient Greek anywhere from 60-125 CE by a person who identifies himself as "James" writing to the 12 Jewish tribes. The letter tells the reader to avoid evil, do good, be faithful, and extremely obedient.
Authorship and Dating
There is no consensus as to who wrote the epistle. The author identifies himself simply as "James," and different traditions in Christianity assign authorship to different biblical figures named James, of which there are at least six in the canon (although it may also be one not mentioned). No physical evidence ties this letter to any specific James, and scholars have pointed out problems with each possible James:
- The letter appears to have been originally written in Greek, and it is doubtful that any of the men believed to be the author could write in Greek.
- The author doesn't claim to have had a personal relationship with Jesus, but if the author was either of the Apostles named James, we could expected him to.
- There are parallels with the Q Source indicating that parts of the epistle may have been plagiarized.
- The letter was probably written after all eye witnesses were dead (see below).
The document is dated by scholars anywhere between 60 CE and 125 CE. Those who believe the author is a contemporary of Jesus have no choice but to give it an early date, when the author would still be alive. Those who prefer a later date give several reasons:
- No historical documents acknowledge the existence of the letter until around 180 CE, and the oldest scraps of this letter date back no further than around 250 CE.
- Scholars point to similarities between the Q source, suggesting other works which are generally dated around 100 CE.
- Most early Christians didn't think the letter was genuine. It wasn't until around 350 CE that they began warming up to it. Were this such an early letter, more of the early Christians churches should have revered it rather than doubted it.
The letter directs new Jewish Christians to continue to follow religious tenants, refrain from anything evil, avoid everything that is worldly, to have faith in God, to patiently await the coming of the Lord, and to be good to each other. It also stresses that faith must be proved by doing good works.
As far as the New Testament canon is concerned, the Epistle of James has little to do with Jesus. Although the letter mentions theos (God) and kýrios (Lord) dozens of times, it only makes two references to Jesus (1:1 and 2:1). It doesn't imply Jesus was the son of God, doesn't say he was crucified, resurrected, or performed miracles of any kind.
I have several translations of this book from various bibles, and have read the KJV and NIV translations.
- Some good general advice is scattered throughout the letter like 1:19, "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry." There isn't anything profound in the letter, but there are a couple generally good ideas.
- In 2:2-9, the author warns against giving undue respect to rich people, a message that seems lost on Evangelicals who subscribe to prosperity theology.
- In 4:17, the author has an interesting description of "sin" as, when you know you should do something good, but don't. This can be helpful in teaching basic ethics to children.
- If James was a follower of the son of a god, we should expect him to have access to deep wisdom, but the letter's content is pretty juvenile. It's mostly variations of saying, "don't do bad things, instead do good things."
- The author makes everything out to be black and white: if you're humble, you're of God, but if you're selfish, you're of the devil (3:13). While I can understand this as a general rule, the author doesn't leave room for any nuance. Is it selfish to keep food for the future in order to prevent starvation, or should you always humbly give it away to the hungry and run the risk of your own starvation? Is there an equilibrium point between the two, and, if so, where is it? Likewise, why is it that anyone who is a "friend of the world", must therefore hate God (4:4), and what does that even mean?
- The letter is unstructured. Aside from the single-sentence introduction, the letter is a jumble of thoughts starting and ending abruptly. To me, this is an indication either of a bad author or a bad redactor.
- In 1:13, the author says that God doesn't tempt men, but there are multiple instances of God temping men throughout the bible like Genesis 22:1. Also, the end of the Lord's Prayer it reads, "lead us not into temptation," but, if God would never tempt anyone, why would Jesus tell people to pray for God to not do tempt them?
- 2:14-18, 24 explains how faith without deeds is useless, which contradicts Romans 4:5 and Galatians 3:2-5, and says that faith by itself won't feed or clothe you, which is the opposite of what Jesus says in Matthew 6:25-26.
- The author suggests that, no matter how well you follow the majority of the laws, if you ever break a single one, you're guilty of breaking them all (2:10). In the Gospels, Jesus makes similar ridiculous statements in Matthew 5:28. If someone steals a candy bar, we don't punish them for rape, nor should any just society.
- The author suggests the Binding of Isaac is a great example of good works through faith (2:21) and the Torture of Job as an example of God's mercy (5:11). Both of these stories are horrific examples of obedience over doing what's right.
- The author suggests that the most important thing for a Christian to do, even above not bragging, not oppressing, not playing favorites, and even more important than submitting yourself to God, is to... not swear oaths! (5:12). This hugely contradicts the majority of the bible.