Ordinary Time provides an opportunity for those who follow the liturgical year to take a different direction in their approach to the Scriptures. In Ordinary Time, we go week by week, examining how we might live the life we share together in Christ. Ordinary Time is therefore 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.
Our study this summer will be on the Epistle of James.
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Wednesdays with James
Lesson Two: To Whom Was James Written?
To whom was the Epistle of James originally written?
Last week, I expressed essential agreement with Peter Davids, who in his commentary on James came to the “supportable conclusion” that the epistle finds its source in James the Just, brother of Jesus and leader in the early Jerusalem church. Its final form may be the result of at least two stages: (1) James’s original teachings, and (2) either James’s or a later editor’s gathering of those teachings into a teaching letter to be circulated among various churches.
With this conclusion, Patrick J. Hartin in his Sacra Pagina commentary agrees.
The major argument against James of Jerusalem as the author of this document has been that the letter is reacting to Paul’s thought. This stems from the notion that everything in the New Testament derives its significance from Paul’s position and thought, not from any evidence within the text. Further arguments against James of Jerusalem’s authorship have emanated from the preconceived idea that his knowledge of Greek would have not been sufficient [a notion both Davids and Hartin disprove].
An early date for this writing is required from the evidence noted above, namely (1) the way the author refers to himself, expecting his hearers/readers to know his identity; (2) the closeness of the author to the heritage of Israel (he still sees himself as belonging to that world); (3) the use made of the Jesus traditions (prior to the appearance of the canonical gospels); (4) the closeness to the spirit and vision of Jesus; (5) the total lack of reference to the Gentiles in any form; and (6) the omission of any reference to the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem. (p. 24)
If James wrote this letter (or if his teachings form its content), and it was sent as a circular or encyclical letter to various churches, can we identify who those churches might have been?
In his famous commentary on James, Martin Dibelius said “no.” He saw the letter as pure paraenesis — a general “wisdom” work that consists of “popular slogans” strung together without reference to any specific local situation. Most commentators today do not see it that way.
Patrick Hartin, for example, puts stock in James 1:1, where the Epistle is addressed: “To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” If taken literally, this tells us that the epistle was for “believers from the world of Judaism who are scattered outside Palestine throughout the Roman empire” (p. 25). This would correspond somewhat to what we see in Acts 15, where James and the elders of Jerusalem send a letter to (Gentile) believers throughout the Mediterranean world with counsel about Jewish-Gentile relations worked out in the Council of Jerusalem.
It is clear that this letter (James), however, is sent to believers from a Jewish background. The letter says they are believers in Jesus (2:1), but James also speaks of the law, calls Abraham “our father,” references several stories and characters in the Hebrew scriptures, calls God “the Lord of hosts,” and calls the place where they meet a “synagogue.” It is also clear that they are poor and marginalized in the communities where they live. Hartin suggests that they may be living in Jewish ghettoes in various cities around the Roman empire and that both the “rich” and the “poor” they are oppressing are Jewish, since there is no mention of “Gentiles” (as there is in 1Peter, for example).
Peter Davids sees a different provenance for the letter. He suggests that the situation portrayed in James fits well what we know about Palestine in the years before the the first Jewish War (AD 66-73).
…one can easily picture a setting for James during the last three decades before the first Jewish War. It was after the death of Herod Agrippa I that there was a severe deterioration in the internal stability of Palestine as well as a series of famines. Also, as the Pauline collection shows, the church itself was impoverished in this period. During the last decade of this period even the temple clergy were at odds, the wealthy high-priestly families siding with the Romans and depriving the lower clergy of their tithes, while the lower clergy were impoverished and sided with the Zealots.
One can picture what this situation did to the church in Palestine. On the one hand, the church naturally felt resentment against the rich. They had “robbed” many of the members of their lands; they probably showed discrimination against Christians in hiring their labor; and they (at least the high-priestly clans) were the instigators of attempts to suppress the church (which was probably viewed as a revolutionary movement). On the other hand, if a wealthy member entered the church or was a member, there would be every reason to court him…. (p. 33)
Davids goes on to make an important point.
Whatever the exact nature of the external pressures facing the Christians he is writing, those pressures were causing stress fractures within the congregations themselves. The spectrum of potential divisions would run from those wanting to pander to the rich and compromise the faith to those who were itching to join the Zealots who sought (sometimes violent) revolution. The very things James writes about in this letter portray a church “tested” by complaining, bitterness, conflicts, and a breakdown of love, unity, and charity.
The tests of faith were breaking the church apart as people yielded to pressure. The call is for internal unity and charity with an attitude of prophetic denunciation toward the rich yet a refusal to engage in hatred and violence. The Lord’s intervention, not man’s, is sought. The outward collapse raises eschatological expectation. (p. 34)
What I find clear in all of this:
- James of Jerusalem (or a compiler of James’s teachings) was writing a circular letter to Christian communities composed of believers from a Jewish background.
- These believers were scattered abroad in various communities (whether in Palestinian regions or around the Mediterranean world).
- Many of these believers were poor and being oppressed by their rich neighbors (probably also members of Jewish communities).
- The oppression and marginalization these believers were experiencing was threatening the unity of their communities and their practice of “true religion.”
- The Epistle of James was designed to speak to these communities of believers that were undergoing “stress fractures.”