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Towards a law of liberty: the epistle of James
Though recent studies have vigorously asserted both the Christian value of the letter of James and the significance of its evangelical truth when compared with the theology of Paul,' in certain respects it still lacks clarity. It seems like a text rendered historically incomprehensible by contemporary circumstances.
The writer was an influential person on account of his kinship with Christ and with the family of David? The letter is addressed to the twelve tribes of the dispersion, of the Diaspora' understood in the traditional sense: the provinces beyond Babylon, whither the tribes had been deported (722 B.C.) and from whence they had disappeared. However, the author considers them to have been found and reconstituted by the « good endowment » and by the perfect gift . . from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change».4 This is why the Lord Jesus Christ, « the Lord of glory »,5° willed to bring them forth u by the word of truth.6
It is only because Christ had been invoked upon them while they awaited his parousia8 and the judgment 9 that it was lawful, as James seems to suppose, to envisage a reunion of all the tribes of Jacob.10
At the head of his list of those present in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, Luke mentions « Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia »," in other words, Jews of the classic Diaspora. Flavius Josephus confirms that innumerable crowds of Jews lived in the neighborhood of Babylon.12
James is, then, in all probability, writing to the Jewish Christians of the Babylonian Diaspora whom it was unnecessary to identify in any other way, unlike those to whom St. Peter addressed his letter!' For them the term would have had a spiritual and specifically Christian meaning. Moreover, James seems to be speaking to wavering Christians, a prey to doubt and inconstancy,'° tempted, in their relations with the synagogue to which they were still linked, to favor the rich over the poor," to forget the legal persecution and the wrongs they had suffered." Heirs to a tradition of teaching " and of wisdom," they were exposed, on account of their faith, to many trials 19 at the hands of those who blaspheme the u honorable name »." Possessors of great riches?' they amassed gold, silver, treasures," like bankers, and areas of land like proprietors." This information given in the letter suggests fellow believers severely tempted of whom some were already wandering far from the truth and in need of being brought back.25
Finally, the allusion to the twelve tribes of Israel supposed to have reappeared on the stage of history is univocal and corresponds to the vision of the servants of God marked by the angel: twelve thousand from each tribe, making a total of 144,000 according to the author of Revelation.
We can therefore believe that among the Jews of Babylon, the Christian faith after an initial flowering had weakened or at least been unable to produce an institution distinct from Judaism. It had not given birth to a church that could carry and be the special object of James's letter which in consequence, together with the proposal of a « law of liberty », received a short-lived welcome?27
Content of the en law of liberty
He who studies attentively the perfect law of liberty and perseveres in putting it into practice will find happiness in his conduct:" « So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty »29 Nobody, either in the Bible or in Judaism, had ever given this epithet of liberty to the Law.si It is admitted that there is a general connection between the thought and style of the epistle of James and Jesus' thought and style. This is proved by literary parallels, especially between the letter and the Sermon on the Mount?' It remains for us to reach an understanding of how such an author as James who, because he was addressing himself (as we affirm) to believers of Jewish origin and formation, preferred to take his quotations from the Law (the five books of the Torah)," could have been led to use a neologism, and to use it precisely in connection with the Law. What does the content of this Law mean to him?
James considers three points in connection with this content:
1. Visit orphans and widows in their affliction (>," show a faith without partiality 34 and confirmed by good works " as a concrete example of the royal law proposed by Scripture: q You shall love your neighbour as yourself. 36
2. Bridle the tongue" and through good conduct accomplish acts full of gentleness as a manifestation of wisdom.38
3. « Keep oneself unstained from the world »" and abstain from judging:4° « There is one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you that you judge your neighbour? »41
It is evident that the content of the « law of liberty Y is still the traditional content of the Torah as understood at the time of the Second Temple. Full allowance is made for the fact that owing to semantic amplification the expression was used also in the sapiential instructions," thus making a synthesis of law and wisdom," but the importance given throughout the letter'" to the evangelization of the poor, and its value as a messianic sign - in relationship to prophecy's in the words of Jesus to John?' point to a law that expresses the messianic faith of its author.
The prophets had indeed announced: 4( In that day the deaf shall hear . . . the eyes of the blind shall see. 07 James is concerned for the sick: q . . . the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up. s. « The poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. t>" James adds: « Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise. >>" Let him count it all joy when he meets various trials?' let him q boast in his exaltation s(.52 Let him remember that God chose « those who are poor in the world N.53 In accordance with the prophecy « the ruthless shall come to naught and the scoffer cease, and all who watch to do evil shall be cut off y," James rebukes the proud and the violent;" he calls for the practice of good." Again it is said: « (those shall be cut off) who by a word make a man out to be an offender, and lay a snare for him who reproves in the gate, and with an empty plea turn aside him who is in the right. James is pitiless towards him who does not bridle his tongue," drags his brother into court," speaks evil against others," condemns and kills the righteous man who does not resist.°' The prophet says: « Woe to the rebellious children . . . who carry out a plan, but not mine », and who plan journeys." James declares: c You who say, `Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town ...' Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that.' » 63
Observance in a messianic spirit
The Law is thus seen in the light of the Lord's imminent coming:" « Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain. off James insists on the responsible and voluntary observance of the Law that should characterize the faithful in view of the coming of the messiah, and in the perfection of the Law itself in expectation of his return.66
In conclusion, James calls it the law of liberty because it is that of the messianic times: c I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts.*" However, he calls it the law of liberty above all because Jesus himself had asked the Jews, his disciples, to observe it with freedom in the spirit of sons not of strangers.
According to Matthew, Jesus, after the transfiguration, ordered Peter to pay the tax: « `What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their sons or from others?' And when he said, "From others', Jesus said to him, `Then the sons are . However, . . . go . . . and give (the shekel) to them for me and for yourself. " Though the editing of this text is late, its basic tradition gives the authentic words of the Lord and alludes to the archaic Jewish-Christian practice of paying the Temple taxes"
James suggests that the Law should be observed in a new messianic spirit, following the example of Jesus. It should be seen as a law of liberty manifestly different from Paul's conception of it. Paul considers the gentiles whom he was addressing dispensed from the obligation of circumcision and from the laws governing purification. He speaks of liberty with regard to sin, to the Law, to death, and sees the Law as a prison, as a mere pedagogue whose role it is to lead to Christ."
James's proposal of a law of liberty accords with certain characteristics of the Jewish-Christian church of Jerusalem: the witness of poverty, healing of the sick, aid to widows," the honor due to the Law and zeal for its observance."
Does the letter contain elements of a dialogue on the Law between traditional Jews and Jewish-Christians in Palestine?
Study of the Jewish prayers of the Italian rite which originate in an ancient Palestinian tradition shows that the morning and evening prayers (even on the Sabbath) contain special petitions for bridling the tongue, bearing wrongs patiently, accomplishing God's commandments with solicitude, being humble as dust before everybody, preparing the way for the study of the Torah, for. wisdom, for prudence, for understanding." We find the desire to observe, carry out and realize every word of the Law, and gratitude for the law of truth." In short, the synagogue liturgy is penetrated by a very strong sense of the Law as a gift and by messianic expectation."
Henceforth, in the observance of the Law, abstraction can no longer be made of this messianic expectation, and in Jewish-Christian dialogue on the Torah, discussion can no longer be confined to the theology of Paul l° while the proposition of James is neglected.
Finally, James's letter calls for a Christian c praxis of voluntary observance of the evangelical law of liberty in witness to Christ's next coming and in opposition to the various forms of worldly praxis. This invitation seems to be valid still today and to await a response even among the gentiles.
This article first appeared in Bibbia e Oriente, anno XVIII, fast. 5-6 (1976). The English translation is printed here by permission.
1. Fr. Mussner, La lettera di Giacomo, Brescia: Paideia, /970 (Der Jakobusbrief, Freiburg: Hcrder, 1964); J. Cantinat, Les Erin-es de Saint Jacques et de Saint Jude (. Sources Bibliques 2), Paris 1973.
2.Jas. 1..1; Mk. 6.3; Gal. 2:9, 12; Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; cf. Jude 1.
3. Cf. the word diaspora by K.G. Schmidt, Grande Lessico del Nuovo Testamento, Brescia: Paideia, 1965-, vol. II, col. 995-1012 (Theologisches Witrterbuch rum Neuen Testament, G. Kittel, G. Friedrich, Stuttgart 1932, II, pp. 97-104).
4. Jas. 1:17.
5. Jas. 2:1.
6. Jas. I:18; cf. Mt. 28:1820. For a pre-apostolic Christian preaching in the Diaspora, see A. Ammassari, La Resurrezione neWinsegnamento, nella profezia, nelle apparizioni di GeSiE, Roma: Citta Nuova, 1976, pp. 139/45; 168-170.
7. Jas. 2:7: the a honourable name r.
8. Jas. 5:8-9.
9. Jas. 1:12; 2:5, 13.
10. Sir. 36:11; cf. Acts 15:16.
11. Acts 2:9.
12. Annan. 15. 14, 39.
13. 1 Pet. 1:1.
14. Jas. 1:6-8.
15. Jas. 2:1-9. 25
16. Jas. 2:6-7.
17. Jas. 3:1ff.
18. Jas. 1:5; 3:13-17.
19. Jas. 1:2-4; 5:7-8.
20. Jas. 2:7; cf. Acts 4:1711.
21.. Jas. 1:10.
22. Jas. 5:2-3.
23. Jas. 5:4-5.
24. Jas. 5:7-9.
25. Jas. 5:19-20. The timeliness of the attempt seems confirmed by the fact that the faithful wanted to attribute to God the responsibility for any evil which might befall them (Jas. 1:12-15).
26. Rev. 7:2-8.
27. Cf. K. Hruby, Les chrdtiens et le Christianisme dans les documents de la littirature rabbinique ancienne, Rome: Institut Biblique Pontifical, 1970-73; J. Neusner,
A History of the Jews in Babylonia. Vol. I-V, Leiden: Brill, 1965-1970.
28. Cf. Jas. 1:25.
29. Jas. 2:12.
30. J, Cantinat, op. cit., p. 110.
31. Cf. Fr. Mussner, op. cit., pp. 74-78.
32. Jas. 2:8: Lev. 19:18; Jas. 2:11: Ex. 20:13; Jas. 2:23: Gen. 15:6; Jas. 5:7: Deut. 11:14; Jas. 5:11: Ex. 34:6; contr a, Jas. 4:6: Pray. (LXX) 3:34.
33. Jas. 1:27.
34. Jas. 2:1, 9.
35. Jas. 2:13, 26.
36. Jas. 2:8.
37. Jas. 1:26.
38. Jas. 3:1-18. Moreover, wisdom is necessary for considering trials as a motive for perfect joy (Jas. 1:5).
40. Jas. 4:11.
41 Jas. 4:12.
42. Pray. 1:8; 3:1; 4:2; 6:20; 7:2.
43. Cf. the word nemos by W. Gutbrod, Grande Lessico, VII, col. 12964300; 1302-1309; (TWNT, pp. 1038-1039; 10401042).
44. Cf. excursus a II valore religioso della poverty nella lettera di Giacomo 4 in Fr. Mussner, op. cit., pp. 113-124.
45. Is. 29:19; cf. 35:5-6; 61:1ff.
46. Mt. 11:2-6; Lk. 7:18-23.
47.. Is. 29:18; Mt. 11:5.
48. Jas. 5:14-18.
49. Is. 29:19.
50. Jas. 5:13.
51. Jas. 1:2.
53. Jas. 2:5.
54. Is. 29:20.
55. Jas. 1:9-11; 4:6-11; 5:1-6.
56. Jas. 1:21-25; 2:1425; 4:17.
57. Is. 29:21.
58. Jas. 1:26.
59. Jas. 2:6.
60. Jas. 4:11-12.
61. Jas. 5:6.
62. Is. 30:1-2.
63 Jas. 4:13-17.
64. Jas. 5:8.
65. Jas. 5:7.
66. Jas. 1:26; cf. Mt 5:17-48.
67. Jer. 31:33.
68. Mt. 17:24-27.
70. Cf. the word eletit(h)eros by Schlier, Grande Lessico, III, col. 448-468 (TWNT, IL pp. 492-500).
71 Cf. Acts 2:41-47; 4:32-37; 5:1-16.
72. Acts 6:13; 7:53; 11:1-3ff ; 15:1-29.
73. Cf. D. Prato, Le Preghiere di Rim !Milano, Rome 1949, pp. 99, 225, 263.
74. Ibid., pp. 71, 137.
75. Ibid., pp. 15, 129.
76. J.Z. Werblowsky, « Torah ve-hesed «, lecture given at the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome, April 26, 1976.
77. H. Montefiore, Jesus and the Temple Tax s, New Testament Studies, Vol. 11 (1964), pp. 60-71.