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(The First Radical Pamphlet in Christian History and Why Martin Luther Reviled It)
They call it the Epistle of James. It is found near the end of the New Testament. Tradition says the author was “the brother of the Lord” and that he wrote it to the Jews living outside Judea. Most scholars date it within 30 years of the founding of the Church. Many say it was written as early as 45 AD. Tradition is a powerful force, isn’t it? It often carries more influence than common sense. If you are one who places more weight on tradition than on common sense, please don’t bother reading this article. But if you consider yourself a free thinker, then please consider this, as well:
Most assumptions about the Book of James are wrong. They are neither based on the letter itself nor on hard historical evidence. And worst of all, these fallacies aren’t just the result of ignorance — they are attempts to deny and conceal a dirty little secret. But we’ll discuss that later. First, let’s consider the objective evidence.
Who Wrote It and When
The author only refers to himself as “James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Beyond this, he makes no reference to his own identity, or authority, or place of residence, as Paul, Peter, and John do in their letters. Christian tradition presumes him to be “the brother of the Lord” based simply on another presumption of Christian tradition — that everything in the New Testament must have been written by an apostle or a bishop or somebody important in the clergy. And Christian tradition further presumes that the clergy-laity system was part of the foundation of the early Church.
Of course, we can tell from what Paul wrote that a distinction between clergy and laity was foreign to the early Church.1 According to Paul, all disciples were expected to take their identity as priests seriously and to bring to each gathering a song, a teaching, a revelation, and so on, and he encouraged all the disciples to prophesy. This is supported by Hebrews 3:6, which tells us that the defining characteristic of God’s house is something translated as “confidence” — the parrhesia (literally “outspokenness” or “freedom of speech”) of the people.
So there is no reason, other than the traditions of the clergy-laity system, to think of the writer James as being an apostle or even a leader in the early Church. There is every reason to believe that, like many of the Old Testament prophets, he rose from obscurity, moved by the Holy Spirit to express his concerns.
The usual date assigned to the writing (45-63 AD) is also a presumption, based on the presumption that James, “the Lord’s brother” (who is supposed to have been killed around 63 AD), is the author. Some scholars have objected to an early date, arguing that the spiritual condition James addresses is such a stark contrast with the fervor of the disciples at the time of Pentecost. Others reason that the sins he mentions “could have been found in the Church at any decade of its history” — a remarkable rationalization which we will address shortly. First, though, let’s consider who received this “epistle.”
Who It Was Written To
The opening sentence says, “to the twelve tribes scattered abroad.” The traditional take on this phrase is that “the Lord’s brother” wrote a general letter to all the Jews who lived outside of Judea — as if they would have read a letter from someone in a despised sect that was spoken against everywhere.2 But there is a problem with presuming that these “twelve tribes” are the physical tribes of Israel. You see, only the two tribes of the Babylonian captivity, Judah and Benjamin, along with a few Levites, retained any identity as Israelites. The other ten tribes, taken captive by Assyria, had been swallowed up by the surrounding cultures, and it would have been impossible to address a letter to them. Besides, the term “twelve tribes” would hardly refer to the Jews (technically, only one tribe), and could scarcely be applied to Jewish believers (comprising only a small percentage of that tribe).
Actually, other references in the New Testament make it clear that the term “twelve tribes” referred to the whole Church — a spiritual nation made up of both physical Jews and physical Gentiles. For example, the “Bride of Christ” in Revelation is pictured as a city with twelve gates, each gate being one of the twelve tribes of Israel.3 Also, in Paul’s trial before King Agrippa4 he said that, in order to attain the promise made to Abraham, the “twelve tribes” that Paul was part of were earnestly serving God night and day — and this was why the Jews (obviously not part of the tribes he referred to) were accusing him.
Given the objective evidence, it is clear that the “twelve tribes” James was writing to was identical with the “Commonwealth of Israel” of Ephesians 2:12, made up of both Jews and Gentiles, who had been made into one nation by the blood of Messiah. But there were some problems in the commonwealth, and that is what moved James to write.
Why He Wrote It
James saw that the new nation — the one Messiah had purchased with the sacrifice of His own life5 — was on the verge of being destroyed. Those who had been united through the cleansing power of His blood were now becoming alienated from one another, because His blood was no longer covering their sins. And the reason their sins were not being covered was that they were no longer confessing and forsaking their sins.6 The Church was in deep trouble — and it wasn’t just one or two communities, such as Corinth or Laodicea, it was the whole nation (the twelve tribes). There was a shocking contrast between the condition of the Church that James was writing to and the quality of the life the disciples lived at the time of Pentecost.
Unlike the congregation described in Acts 4:32, who were all of “one heart and soul,” James portrayed a Church that was splintered by quarrels and conflicts, largely as a result of the poor members envying the rich.7 That envy was based in part on the failure of the prosperous to meet the needs of the less prosperous,8 but both the envy of the poor and the self-centeredness of the rich could be traced to friendship with and love for the world,9 which James fl atly condemned as spiritual adultery. Not only were the prosperous neglecting the needs of others, but the poor were being slighted socially, while the rich were lavished with attention. James rebuked this practice as inconsistent with having faith in Messiah.10
Despite the sins of the affluent, James did not justify those who were envious of them. He condemned both bitter jealousy and selfish ambition as demonic,11 especially when those attitudes resulted in defaming their fellow disciples.12 To those who would not bridle their tongue, but hypocritically blessed God while cursing men made in His image, James declared their religion to be worthless.13 Still, he reserved his harshest words for those who stored up riches, especially by unjust means:
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days… (James 5:1-5)
The topic that James is best remembered for, however, is that of faith versus works. But it wasn’t just a general doctrinal subject that he addressed with theological detachment. He was specifically attacking the lack of love in the Church that spawned their favoritism toward the rich and neglect of the needy.14 He was alarmed to find so rare those works of love which had been so common in the Church’s infancy. He was appalled at the complacency of those who failed to meet their brother’s needs while still professing to have faith.15 He even boldly challenged their claim of being saved.16 So-called faith, without works of love, was to James not only useless,17 but also dead.18
The scenario painted by James is so vastly different from the portrait of the Church in the book of Acts that it leads the reader to wonder whether the two writings were actually talking about the same group. In Acts, the brethren were devoted to the teachings of the apostles, were together, associated with each other, were of one mind, one heart, and one soul, gladly ate their meals together, shared everything they had, and even sold their possessions to meet the needs of their brothers, to the point that none among them were needy.19 In James, however, the brethren heard the apostles’ teaching but did not do it,20 were continually traveling from town to town in search of financial gain,21 were divided along economic lines,22 and even defamed and quarreled with each other because of the economic injustice in their midst.23
The Church that James was writing to had degenerated far beyond the condition of the individual churches addressed elsewhere in the New Testament. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians (written around 55 AD) spoke of the foolishness and carnality of an immature community, but gave clear direction what they must do in order to grow up. John’s letters to the churches in the book of Revelation (written around 90 AD) pointed out the things each one was faithful in, as well as the things they had fallen away from, and once again, called each church to heed the specific warnings and mend its ways or else face the consequences. James, however, was writing unilaterally to all the churches, addressing a spiritual condition virtually identical to that of the Pharisaical Judaism the Son of God had called His followers out from. For the Church to have reached that state, James could not have been writing before the beginning of the second century AD.
General Epistle or Underground Tract?
Unlike the writings of Paul and John, which gave authoritative direction to specific churches, James only stated the general problems and made an appeal to individual disciples to obey the commandments of their Master if they found themselves in those situations. It is as if James had no hope of calling the Church back to the deeds of love that characterized the Church at Pentecost. John, on the other hand, specifically commanded the Ephesians24 to repent and do the deeds of love they had done in the beginning, for if they did not, their lampstand (their validity before God as a church) would be taken away. But James did not try to keep any lampstands lit. Things had degenerated beyond that point, and all he could do was simply warn the rich men25 in the congregations (he did not refer to them as brothers) about the judgment coming upon them and appeal to each of the brothers26 who were oppressed by them to bear their sufferings patiently and be true to the commands of the Master.
It is obvious from the context that the sins James was confronting had become accepted practices within the Church. It made him so distraught that he wrote down the burden of his heart and began distributing the document to the entire Church. And so, rather than being a “general epistle” by someone in authority, the “Epistle of James” is clearly more of an “underground manuscript” exposing the problems that the shepherds and elders and overseers had turned a blind eye to. James himself, rather than holding the prestigious position of “the Lord’s brother,” was more of an insurgent — not outwardly belligerent against the hierarchy of the compromising Church, but inwardly revolting against their accepted policies. It’s not hard to imagine the outrage among the rich and prosperous which this little essay generated originally — back when it wasn’t tucked away in the back of the Bible and watered down by commentaries. Just think what would happen if you stood up in the midst of a worship service and read aloud his condemnation of the rich.27
Why They Got It Wrong
Someone may ask, “So if James was really an obscure outsider in the second century, grieved by sins the Church was tolerating, why don’t most people see it that way, and how did his writings become part of the Bible?” The second question is the simplest to answer: James is part of the Bible because it is almost entirely a restatement of Messiah’s teachings. It had to become part of the canon because it is so utterly orthodox. The first question takes a little more explanation.
Recall that some commentators claimed that the sins James spoke of “could have been found in the Church at any decade of its history.” There was a reason for that rationalization: To admit that backbiting, defamation, favoritism, quarrels, and (most of all) divisions between rich and poor were not part of the status quo in the first century Church would raise a very uncomfortable question: “Why have they been the status quo throughout the rest of Christian history?”
It is very convenient, even comforting, to claim that James was “the Lord’s brother” writing in 45 AD. That would mean that the obvious deeds of the flesh28 were running rampant through the Church scarcely a decade after it was founded. And if the Lord’s brother could do no more about it than moan weakly, “these things ought not to be this way,” then that lets the rest of us off the hook, doesn’t it? If this is the way it has always been, then this is the way it will always be, because the flesh is just too strong and human nature is too warped to do anything about it. The obvious conclusion: “All we can do is just have faith in the Lord and wait ’til we get to heaven.”
Most people are content to accept such rationalizations and cover up the “dirty little secret” that the whole Church fell away from the faith around the end of the first century. Most people miss the fact that James tells us twice29 that “faith” without works is dead, once that such “faith” is useless,30 and once that such “faith” cannot save a person.31 They eagerly agree with him that “no man can tame the tongue,”32 but overlook his comment that if a man does not bridle his tongue,33 then his religion is completely worthless. But not all people are quite that dull. Martin Luther wasn’t. What James said about bridling the tongue irked him, because Luther was never one to control his tongue. What James said about works being the proof of faith especially irked Luther, because it messed up his pet theory that “faith alone” was all God required. That is why Luther called James an “epistle of straw.”
Hopefully, you who read this will be as perceptive as Luther, but rather than rejecting what James had to say about works, you will understand the implications of it. Consider what happened to the false “faith” that had taken over the Church in James’ day and failed to produce the works of love that were normal for all disciples when the Church began. Did it go away? Was it replaced by a resurgence of the self-denying love that motivated the believers at Pentecost? Hasn’t the bad fruit of that “faith” only gotten worse over the last nineteen centuries, in spite of reformations and counterreformations and countless so-called revivals? Instead, isn’t it time for the restoration of the life of love that resulted from the message of the apostles? The “faith” that has been passed down to us by organized religion is none other than the false “faith” James was exposing — a “faith” that cannot save. Only if we can realize this do we have any hope of being delivered from a worthless religion where such “faith” is the norm and brought back to the true faith that turned the world upside down.34
- 1. 1 Corinthians 14:26-32
- 2. Acts 28:22
- 3. Revelation 21:9-12
- 4. Acts 26:6-7
- 5. Revelation 5:9-10
- 6. 1 John 1:9; Proverbs 28:13
- 7. James 4:1-3
- 8. James 2:14-17
- 9. James 4:4
- 10. James 2:1-13
- 11. James 3:14-16
- 12. James 4:11; 5:9
- 13. James 1:26; 3:8-12
- 14. James 2:8-10
- 15. James 2:19-20
- 16. James 2:14-17
- 17. James 2:20
- 18. James 2:17,26
- 19. Acts 2:42-46; 4:32-35
- 20. James 1:22; 4:17
- 21. James 4:13
- 22. James 2:2-4
- 23. James 4:1 - 5:9
- 24. Revelation 2:4-5
- 25. James 1:10
- 26. James 1:9
- 27. James 5:1-3
- 28. Galatians 5:19-21
- 29. James 2:17,26
- 30. James 2:20
- 31. James 2:14
- 32. James 3:8
- 33. James 1:26
- 34. Acts 17:6