Wednesdays with James
Lesson One: Background and Big Picture
Ordinary Time provides an opportunity for those who follow the liturgical year to take a different direction in their approach to the Scriptures.
From Advent to Pentecost, the Church follows the Gospels as they depict the earthly career of Jesus the Messiah, the story of salvation. In the days after Pentecost we seek to live in the new life Jesus brought us through his Incarnation, Epiphany, death, resurrection, ascension, and pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Ordinary Time, by contrast, goes week by week, examining how we might live the life we share together in Christ.
I think, therefore, that Ordinary Time is 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. So, since we haven’t had a Bible study here in awhile, how about we take one up for the summer?
To start, I’d like to go where many Lutherans have feared to tread: the Epistle of James.
As I study this NT letter with you this summer, I will be consulting one of my favorite commentaries:
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I have never been a big fan of spending a lot of time hashing out introductory matters of books of the Bible. At some level, studying the background of who wrote the books, when they were written and to whom is important, but as a pastor I tried to keep my focus on these issues as brief and simple as possible. And as a blog author, I can’t imagine that people would want to come here and read an extended discussion about who the “James” might have been that purportedly penned this epistle (1:1).
What is important to me, given centuries of debate about these introductory questions, is to come to a reasonable conclusion about the possible author, setting, and audience, and proceed on that basis. Most of what matters about these things can be gleaned from the internal evidence of the epistle itself.
Peter Davids comes to the following working hypothesis:
This brief discussion has certainly not settled the complex problem of the date and provenance of the Epistle of James. The evidence examined does point toward a supportable conclusion. 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.
The Epistle of James, if we accept David’s suggestion, is made up of early Christian preaching and proverbs, sermons and sayings written down and edited into a kind of tract or document providing guidance for Christian congregations. James is one example of how, when we read the Bible, we are reading the Word proclaimed. If we who are preachers and teachers would recognize this, perhaps we wouldn’t feel the need so much to analyze and expound, as to seek to find ways to let the scriptures themselves speak.
Next, I have always loved getting a “big picture” of biblical books. The process of learning to read and understand scripture involves getting a good overview of the material, then diving into the details. In studying the details, we then revise our understanding of the book as a whole and how its themes and arguments develop. This is an ongoing process. We move from macro to micro levels and then back again over and over in a continuing circle of reading and interpretation.
As for the big picture of James, Peter Davids contributes wonderful insights that have been of great help to me. I’ll conclude today’s post by giving you my own edited version of his outline, which I think holds up as a good overview of the epistle’s contents.
I encourage you to read through the book of James several times and compare what you read with this outline.