James stands unparalleled among biblical books. Possibly first and foremost, its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is a transitional work that serves as a bridge between the first and second Testaments. In content and emphasis it can be seen as the last of the Old Testament’s prophetic or wisdom literature, and at the same time, the first of the New Testament’s affirmation of Jesus as Lord.
The document also seems not to have a parallel in either the Hebrew or Christian scriptures. Its combination of epistolary style and wisdom utterances combined with ancient prophetic denunciation and messianic concern for the marginal, sets it apart from all other 66 books of the Christian canon.
Finally, I believe, that James, the brother of Jesus is the author, and this book is the first to be written by a member of the Christian community, so it should have pride of place in Christian thought and practice. The Epistle of James’ proximity to the historical Jesus and the life and ministry of the primitive Christian church should make it a foundational source in the life of the Christian and the practice of the church.
Yet, this has not been the case for the 2000 years since it was first penned. In recent decades it has been ignored by most except for the extremist conservative right who tout it for their legalistic works foundation. The radical left also use the book selectively to promote a socio-political agenda.
This ignoring and downright rejection nearly caused the deathnell of the book during the first 300 years of the Christian era. James, along with a few other works (such as Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation) was relegated to a second-class status and had a difficult time gaining acceptance into the canon.
The most lasting impact on the negative press that James has received came from Martin Luther, the sixteenth century father of Protestantism. For Luther, James was an “epistle of straw,” which did not portray Christ and the gospel in distinct ways as did the writings of Paul, particularly those of Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians. Even though Luther did not banish James to the oblivion of the noncanonical dump-heap, he lessened its importance by placing it in a secondary place—at the back of the canon; thus creating a canon within a canon.
It is my conviction that Luther’s influence and the dominance of the theology and writings of Paul in protestantism have led many scholars at the podium, pastors in the pulpit, and members in the pew to relegate James to the “junk mail” of the sacred scriptures.
The late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen resurgence in the study and appreciation of James both in the academy and the church. As scholars, pastors, and members begin to read James through his lenses and not through the lenses of Paul, or through the theological focus of any other biblical book or personal preconceived theology, this little document comes alive and authoritative in its own right as the Word of God, secondary to none.
We do not know when Jesus’ siblings became his followers. Some have suggested that they might have come to believe in him after his death and resurrection. This we know, that they were part of the upper room inner circle praying and waiting for the Day of Pentecost immediately after the resurrection (Acts 1:14). From then on James and his brothers became active in the Jesus movement. Of interest is the tradition that their father, Joseph, died and left Mary as a widow with at least seven children. If this was the case, one can understand James’ concern for widows and orphans in their distress (1:27).
Of all the brothers James became the most prominent in the early primitive church. If Peter was the charismatic leader, James seems to be the administrative head of the church. In Galatians 2:9 he is the first listed among the “pillars” of the church. In Acts 15 he is the peacemaker who has the final word—even after Peter and Paul! These two incidents highlight two of James’ concerns in his epistle. First, in the Galatians passage the other “pillars” agreed with Paul to have separate ministries to the Jews and Gentiles. However, in Gal. 2:10, they agreed on one thing: they would not forget the poor. Both in Galatians and in the epistle he is a champion of the poor.
The second incident in Acts 15 portrays James as the peacemaker in the most contentious debate in early Christianity. His wise words in Acts 15:13-21 are illustrative of his call in Jas. 3:13-18 for wisdom to be linked to peacemaking. These two incidents are illustrative of how the tone, language, and content of the epistle resemble that of the historic first administrative leader of Jerusalem.
It is unfortunate that due to the western thrust, shift, and growth of Christianity James disappeared from influence in the Christian church. Within a generation or two not only the man, but his seminal book sunk into almost oblivion. And the Protestant Reformation added a nail to the coffin—recapturing Paul and burying James!
With this quarter’s lessons on James, our community can recapture the message of this important book.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6315