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The Epistle of James for Jews and Christians
The Epistle of James receives little attention from readers of the New Testament, but it has a unique importance in offering the Church a testimony of the Jewish character of the earliest Christian community and its teaching. "Here a Christian Jew speaks to fellow Jews with a sense of belonging to an uninterrupted continuity of faith. It is this dimension which makes the Epistle of James such a valued witness to the brief period when there was a shared horizon between Torah-observant Jews and other Torah-observant Jews whose faith in Jesus did not separate them from their brothers and sisters". ft is therefore an important document for those interested in reassessing the relations between Judaism and Christianity, and in re-thinking the nature of Christian discipleship.
Although the Epistle of James has a secure place within the New Testament canon, it has been criticised more often than it has been admired. has rarely escaped the suspicion of being marginal, both to our knowledge of the early Christian Church and to the principal impulses which continue to shape Christian thought and identity. Even today, it hardly figures in anyone's list of favourite New Testament writings, even though it is a Golden Epistle in which, nearly as much as in the Sermon on the Mount, we hear the genuine accents of Jesus' teachings. The presence of the Epistle within the Christian canon of Scripture is, at the very least, an invitation to take it seriously as a text which continues to speak to the Church about foundational ways of feeling and thinking which, in their early context, were felt to be normative aspects of Christian identity.
One cannot even claim that it fell out of fashion: its acquisition of canonical status in the early centuries was art unenthusiastic and slow process, and the Western Church recognised it as canonical only at the Third Council of Carthage in CE 397. II seems to have had little impact on the early Church and Origen, some time before CE 253, gives the first direct quotation from it. So if the Epistle originates in Jerusalem in the decades before the fall of the city in CE 70, then for nearly two hundred years after its composition it had either limited circulation or limited impact as an Apostolic testimony.
The reasons for its marginal position are not hard to find. There is no mention of central Christian themes, such as the messianic status of Jesus, the saving value of his death and his vindication by the Father in the resurrection. There is no treatment of the role of the Holy Spirit. The Epistle refers to Jesus by name only at the beginning of the letter and in the opening verses of chapter 2. Indeed, the Epistle pays more attention to the lives of Abraham, Rahab and Elijah than to Jesus. The tone is exhortatory and moral, rather than theological, and the Epistle is an example of early preaching rather than a sustained reflection at the heart of early Christian experience. The appeal of the Epistle is not to the intellect, but to the readers' experience and instinct for right living. Not surprisingly, even its character as a Christian work has been questioned: in 1896, Spitta suggested that the work was originally a piece of Jewish moral teaching, subsequently modified by a Christian editor. It is a theory not without influential supporters: Bultmann judged that:
Every shred of understanding of the Christian's position as that of "betweenness" is lacking here. The moralism of the synagogue tradition has made its entry here, and it is possible that James not merely stands in the general context of this tradition, but that its author took over a Jewish document and only lightly retouched it. (1)
"An Epistle of Straw"?
But even if it is accepted, as it should be, as an authentically Christian work deeply rooted in the Judaism of the first century CE, the Protestant tradition in particular has harboured reservations about the quality of its teaching which seems to contain a feeble and legalistic response to Paul's insistence on the priority of justification by faith (2:1) (2). Since the Reformation, the Epistle has struggled to escape from Luther's damning judgment that it is an "epistle of straw", at odds with Pauline teaching that we are justified not by works but by faith. The bald statement, "You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone" (2:24), appeared to the Reformers an unworthy Scriptural mandate for the Catholic "religion of works", at odds with Paul's statement that "a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ" (Gal 2:16).
The reading of James 2:14-26 in the context of the Reformation controversies pitted a "Catholic", "Judaising" and semi-Pelagian James against the liberty of faith offered by the "Reformed", evangelica] Paul. Luther estimated that James taught "nothing about faith, only law", and that although it was a good book, it was not profitable for salvation since its failure to preach the death and resurrection of Jesus was a breach of apostolic duty (3). As long as justification by faith was taken to be the heart of the New Testament message, the different, but equally Christian, voice of James was reluctantly tolerated simply because it was in the New Testament but it was usually passed over with embarrassment.
A Liberationist Text?
In recent years, the Epistle has seemed less marginal to Christian life under the influence of Liberation Theology which has drawn the Epistle to the centre of the stage by focusing on its radical critique of the relations between rich and poor and the commercial exploitation of the powerless (2:1-7, 14-15; 5:1-6). From this perspective, James becomes the "Amos of the New Testament", an example of Christian liberationist praxis, and as a result, the core of the Epistle is made to seem more socially prophetic than it actually is. But James does not expound a social gospel any more than Jesus does: there may be social implications within their words, but their shared teaching is primarily religious: ethics, and therefore social relations, arise as the practical expression of loving God.
The Reformers read the Epistle negatively in the light of the principle of justification by faith, and Liberationists read it positively from the centrality of the option for the poor. Neither gets it right, because if Scripture is read in the light of one particular criterion, then some texts are discarded because they fail to satisfy the interpreter, and others are used to promote particular positions. Then either a selectivity ("the canon within the canon") or an ideological narrowness (a preference for "socially transforming" themes) governs the pattern of insights which Scripture offers. But the breadth of the Christian canon of Scripture means that Christian belief is internally complex, composed of a range of themes and experiences, subject to complex transformations. No one insight is the regulative norm for "acceptable Christian truth" (4).
Jewish and Christian
This is relevant to the reading of the Epistle: if it comes from a period when fidelity to the Torah and Christian Messianism could be held together, then it will have difficulty in speaking to a Christian community which has grown accustomed to setting the two traditions over against one another. Hence, for example, Bultman's difficulty in accepting it as Christian precisely because it seemed so "Jewish". In his eyes, its degree of "Jewishness" meant that it could not be profoundly "Christian" - a strange position when stated so starkly, but not an uncommon prejudice. Because the Epistle is profoundly Jewish and profoundly Christian at the same time, it has had difficulty in finding a place within a Christian culture whose instinctive reaction is to set the traditions of Law and Gospel in opposition to one another.
But it might be received differently in a Christian community which has begun to be aware of the need to reconnect with the experience of Jewish faith and to move beyond an inherited negative assessment of Jewish Torah. The Epistle may be recovered for the contemporary Church by being read, in the context not of Reformation and Liberationist debates which, I suggest, are too partisan in their presuppositions, but of the pressing need to re-evaluate the relationships between Judaism and Christianity in the first century CE. Our present century has seen an explosion of scholarly and popular interest in the tangled and shared roots of modem Judaism and Christianity in the decades of that first century, and not only out of historical interest.
The dominant writings within the New Testament John, Paul and Hebrews were composed at a time when the older harmony of Jewish faith and Messianic belief had broken down: they had, in different ways, to affirm continuity because God's revelation must be unitary but they focused more on the fact of separation and rupture between Jewish life and emerging Christian distinctiveness. The Epistle of James, on the other hand, does not know of this rupture hence its unique value for a Christian Church which has begun to reassess its relationship to its Jewish roots and subsequent Jewish faith.
The New Catechism
An important step in this process has just been taken by the New Catechism which the Vatican has just published. In this authoritative document, particular care has been taken to avoid the "Teaching of Contempt" which has marred Christian thinking about Judaism. In that line of teaching, the Torah was regarded by Christians as an oppressive, legalistic burden from which Jesus freed us. The Catechism, however, deliberately presents Jesus as the perfectly observant Jew, the only righteous one, subject to the Torah and uniquely able to fulfil it in his teachings and in his life. The passage is worth quoting at some length:
Jesus, Israel's Messiah and therefore the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, was to fulfil the law by keeping it in its all-embracing detail according to his own words, down to "the least of these commandments". He is likewise the only one who could keep it perfectly... If he did not want to seem a casuistic hypocrite, Jesus had to prepare the people for God's unprecedented intervention through the perfect execution of the law by the only righteous one, in the liace of all sinners, and so reveal the law's ultimate meaning.
The perfect fulfilment of the law could only be the work of the divine legislator, born subject to the law in the person of the Son. In Jesus, the law no longer appeared engraved on tables of stone but on the heart of the Servant who became "the covenant to the people", because he faithfully brings forth justice. Jesus fulfilled the law to the point of taking upon himself "the curse of the law" incurred by those who do not "observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law", for his death took piace to redeem them "from the transgressions of the first covenant". (578-80)
According to the Catechism, the Gospel of Jesus does not erect a boundary between later Christian identity and the Jewish Law, since it arises in "the heart of the Servant" whose obedience to God is the summit of Torah observance. Equally, in the Epistle, there is no sign of a frontier between Christianity and Judaism: Christians stili meet in a "synagogue" (2:1) where the leaders of the community, called "teachers" (3:1) or "elders", are summoned to pray over and anoint the sick (5:14ff.). Equally, there is no sign in the Epistle of the problem which troubled the Jerusalem community in the wake of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15): should Gentiles be admitted to the Christian community and on what conditions? Here a Christian Jew speaks to fellow Jews with a sense of belonging to an uninterrupted continuity of faith. It is this dimension which makes the Epistle of James such a valued witness to the brief period when there was a shared horizon between Torah-observant Jews and other Torah-observant Jews whose faith in Jesus did not separate them from their brothers and sisters.
What the Epistle offers is a teaching from that brief period of Christian Jewishness which ended , on the one hand, with the consolidation of Pharisaic/Rabbinic Judaism in the wake of the destruction of the Temple in CE 70, and, on the other, with the revision of Christian identity brought about by the success of the Gentile mission...
James may be an isolated voice before "the parting of the ways", one of the earliest, and therefore highly treasured, testimonies to teachings by Christian Jews before the weight shifted away from a lived continuity with Jewish life towards a transformation in which opposition and mutual exclusivity between Gospel and Torah wrenched the traditions apart (Ga1.2:15-16; 3:23-25; 5:1-6). Adamson judges that:
Ali the evidence leads us to think that the Epistle emanates from a pious Jewish group at Jerusalem led by the Lord's brother - a group that, linked with ordinary people of deep piety, carried on the tradition of Israel. Imbued with a healthy Hebraic respect for righteousness, they could not, even while embracing the Gospel, accept that Gospel without continuing to reverence the Jewish law (5).
It seems beat to understand the Epistle as a tract offered to "the twelve tribes of the Diaspora" (I:1), to Jews living outside Palestine who may have come to Jerusalem for the feasts. Robert Murray suggests that it was written perhaps with the aim of presenting to Jewish pilgrims the sort of teaching which Christian Jews in Jerusalem receive as their weekly instruction. It may be saying to these hearers, "This is the kind of Jewish teaching which we Christian Jews offer. As you can see, it is fully in keeping with our traditions. Because we are disciples of Jesus, we are able to fulfil the demands of the Torah". (6)
If the work was used in this way, as an approach to fellow-Jews, then this would explain why there is no exposition of "higher" teachings offered: they would come later, and the principle of "reserve" regulating how far outsiders are to be given detailed instruction about Christian belief would come into play.
Law and Gospel
The Jerusalem group obviously antedates the tensions which Paul addressed so tortuously in his antithetical treatment of faith in Christ and observance of the Law. The supposedly "antiPauline" polemic of 2:18-26 is addressed not against Paul, but against slogans elevating the gift of faith over the works of love. There is no real clash between James and Paul on the issue of works, since their use of the term is quote different: when Paul criticises "works", he is speaking of what he regards as patterns of observances which are closed to the Torah's fulfilment in the Messiah, Jesus. James, on the other hand, thinks of "works" as the expression of love of one's neighbour, therefore of the second great commandment, and as the practice of the love of God in every aspect of life, as taught by Jesus, the interpreter of the Torah. Paul, writing to the very different community in Corinth, speaks of the Christian condition as "'in-lawed' to Christ" (ennomos Christou) (1 Cor 9:21), and it is a phrase which accords with the perspective of the Epistle of James. James' discussion of "faith and works" is entirely consonant with Paul's judgement that "the only thing that counts is faith working through love" (Gal 5:6): faith flows into deeds, inspired by gifts from above (James 1:17; 3:17).
However, James' discussion of the relationship of "faith and works" is closer to Matthew, especially the Sermon on the Mount's contrast between "hearing" and "doing" (Mt.7:24-26), the Parables of the Two Sons (Mt 21:28 ff.) and of the Last Judgement (Mt 25:31ff.). There are numerous echoes of Synoptic teachings in the Epistle: Davids points to 36 parallels between the Epistle and the Synoptic Gospels, 25 of which are with the Sermon on the Mount, and several important thematic links with Luke (7). Although James does not explicitly quote Jesus, Rendall says that James gives us "a revised and authoritative ethic, derived from the teaching of Jesus, and, as in Jesus, expressed in a revaluation of the Jewish Law" (8). But while Matthew presents Jesus' teaching as a "new Torah" in which there is severe criticism of Jews (e.g. 20:1-16; 21:33-41; 22:1-14), James promotes Christian teaching without this negative assessment of Jewish practice and faith.
At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, we are told that the proper reaction to the teachings of Jesus is "hearing and doing" (Mt 7:24-27): the knowledge gained is to flow into practical expression, so that "true knowledge" can be contrasted with the kind of wrong "doing", characterised by the tax-collectors, Pharisees, scribes and pagans. Betz characterises the Sermon as an "epitome" of the theology of Jesus, in ways which are applicable also to the Epistle of James:
(The epitome's)function is to pro vide the disciple of Jesus with the necessary tools for being a Jesus theologian. "Hearing and doing the sayings of Jesus", therefore means enabling the disciple to theologize creatively along the lines of the theology of the master. To say it pointedly: the Sermon on the Mount is ...theology to be intellectually appropriated and internalized, in order to be creatively implemented in concrete situations of life (9).
If we are right in thinking that the Epistle represents a collection of teachings which, like the Synoptic compilations of Jesus' words, takes us dose to the piety of the earliest Christian community and to the forms of oral traditions behind the Synoptic Gospels, then the impulses behind its composition are shared with those of the Sermons of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. The Epistle, too, has the character of an "epitome", albeit incomplete, and coming from James and not from Jesus: it may be thought of as an epitome of the basics of practical living for Christian Jews for whom the Torah is interpreted and fulfilled in the Messianic teaching of Jesus. In particular, the Epistle makes even more explicit than the Synoptic Gospels the programme of "hearing and doing" as the characteristic of discipleship within "the royal law" given to Moses and interpreted by Jesus.
The emphasis in the Epistle is, of course, practical: how to live in trials (1:2); in temptation (1:12); with single-mindedness (1:8); with fervent prayer (5:17ff); with confession of sins to one another (5:16); with respect for the poor (2:2ff) and with a correct perspective on the condition of the rich (5:1ff); with patience (5:7ff); with due control over the tongue (3:3ff) and with heavenly wisdom (3:13ff). But its centrai teaching is on the need for faith to find expression in actions (2:14ff): an intellectual belief in God is insufficient - even the demons can make the great confession that "God is one"! (2:19). "Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (2:17). True piety, by contrast, comes to the relief of the helpless, the orphans and widows in their distress, and keeps a moral distance from evildoing (1:27). This is a theology, not of inner experiences, but of the hands and the body as the focus of religious observance. It regards religious living as a pragmatic and existential task in which moral behaviour shapes the heart. In this respect, it is eminently Jewish in character, a piece of Halakhic wisdom, a traditional Jewish instruction on piety and behaviour which avoids the speculative and mystical dimensions of religion. Jacob Neusner describes the characteristics of this type of Jewish halakhic teaching:
Halakhah is normally translated as "law", for the halakhah is full of normative rules about what one must do and refrain from doing in every situation of life and at every moment of the day. But halakhah derives from the root halakh, which means "go", and a better translalion would be "the way". The halakhah is "the way": the way man lives his fife; the way man follows the revelation of the Torah and attains redemption. For the Jewish tradition, this "way" is absolutely central (10).
It is not unreasonable to see the Epistle as a Christian Halakhah, a delineation of how the Torah interpreted by Jesus is to be lived. The Epistle teaches how to live obediently within what the author calls "the perfect law, the law of liberty", "the royal law" (1:25; 2:8): this can only be the Torah expounded by Jesus, the Law of the Kingdom of God. What the Epistle of James offers is instruction on Christian Halakhah or discipleship: the terms can be used interchangeably and accurately, since if we ask what Christian discipleship is, it can only be a pattern of life whose regulative norm is Jesus' observance of the Torah, the Halalkhah of his religious practice which becomes the definitive law of the Kingdom (2:8).
James speaks unreservedly with a sense of the union of the two dispensations, and ought to be heard more attentively at this stage of the Church's history. Hence its continuing importance for a Church whose identity needs to be strengthened by a deeper engagement with the impulses which lie at its foundation. The Epistle of James, far from being peripheral to that project, may in fact be one of the most significant and non-polemica) witnesses to that dimension of the Church which we call the ekklesia ex circumcisione, and which we usually ignore.
(1) R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, (SCM, 1955), p. 143.
(2) An excellent discussion of the supposedly anti-Pauline sentiments of this section is found in James Adamson, James: the Man and his Message (Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 195-227). Cf. also Davids' judgement: "...James user every significant term, pistis, erga, and dikaiosune with a differing and more "primitive" meaning than Paul... It seems best to understand James to be refuting a Jewish Christian attempt to minimize the demands of the gospel than a misunderstood Paulinism". (Peter Davids, The Epistle of James (Paternoster Press, 1975, p. 21).
(3)In Luther's opinion, James "throws things together so chaotically that it seems he must have been some good, pious man, who Look a few sayings from the disciples and tossed them off on paper. Or it may have been written by someone on the basis of his preaching". Further references to Luther's opinions are in M. Dibelius, James A Commentary on the Epistle of James, revised by M. Greeven (Fortress Press, 1975), pp. 54 ff.
(4)Newman's reservations about the attempt to establish a "centre" for Christian belief are stili apposite: "One aspect of revelation must not be allowed to exclude or obscure another; and Christianity is dogmatical, devotional, practical ali at once; it is esoteric and exoteric; it is indulgent and strict; it is light and dark; it is love and it is fear' (The Development of Christian Doctrine, 1.2) James is practical!
(5)Adamson, op. cit. p. 34.
(6)Robert Murray SJ "Jews, Hebrews and Christians: Some Needed Distinctions", Novum Testamentum XXIV (1982) pp. 194-208 (p. 204). C.L. Mitton has a similar suggestion: "It was written for the benefit of Jewish-Christian visitors to Jerusalem who wished to have some record of James' characteristic teachings to take back with them for the benefit of Christians in their home towns". (The Epistle of James (XXX, 1966), p. 9.
(7)P. Davids op. cit., p. 47ff. cf. also Adamson, op. cit p. 169 ff. W.D. Davies comments: "the words of Jesus break through more often (in the Epistle) than in any other document outside the Synoptics, while at the same time they are subsumed under a single principle, the law of love" (The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1964), p. 402.
(8)G.H. Rendall, The Epistle of James and Judaic Christianity (1927), p. 66.
(9)Cf. Hans Dieter Betz, Essa» on the Sermon on the Mount (Fortress Press, 1985), pp. 15-6 ff.
(10) J. Neusner, The Way of Torah (Belmont, 1979), p. 51.
* John McDade SJ
lectures in Theology at Heythrop College, University of London, and is the Editor of The Month.
This article first appeared in The Month (London), March 1993 and is published here with kind permission.