The epistle of James was likely written at approximately the same time as Paul's letter to the Galatians. While of equivalent length and date of origin, there cannot be two more dissimilar books of the Bible, however. Galatians is written to Gentiles who were new to the Christian experience. James was written to Jewish Christians calling on a thousand years of Jewish traditions. Paul wrote Galatians to address a specific, immediate threat to the church. James was written with the idea to address the more general, pastoral needs of people and to remind them how their conversion to Christ must be reflected in all of their life. Galatians was written to a specific geographical group of small churches. James was written to a people that had been scattered by the will of God to spread His word to the world.
There is described in the book of the Acts of the Apostles a time in early church history when the Jews who had accepted Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah were, for the most part, driven out of the city of Jerusalem. Only a few remained. It was during this time that the Spirit of God used the dispersal of the early church to create smaller communities of faith throughout the region, particularly in Antioch. We know from this early church history that this scattering led to the conversion of the Gentiles, but more importantly to this text, it also led to the writing of the epistle of James.
There are four men named James mentioned in the New Testament. Although the text does not claim to be from anything other than, "a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ," it has widely been held that James, the brother of Christ, wrote this epistle. Paul, Luke and many other historical texts acknowledged James as a leader in the Jerusalem church. He was widely regarded as a pious Jew known for his conviction and for his concern for the poor. Even though it was well known that he was a leader in the early Christian church, James does not appear to have been driven out of Jerusalem. In fact, there is no indication that James ever left the city once he came to live there following the death of Jesus.
We do not know how James intended this letter to be distributed, but it appears that this letter was taken from synagogue to synagogue wherever there were believers in Jesus Christ. Each synagogue apparently made its own copy and passed the letter on to a newer destination. Whenever this epistle addresses the corporate gathering of believers it does so from the original perspective of the synagogue. It appears to have been written before the addition of Gentiles to the church dramatically affected such modes of worship.
As a result, what we have here is a fairly primitive Christian text with deep Jewish influences. This letter is written by a pastor to a scattered flock. He is concerned for them and seeks to reinforce what the Spirit of Christ has shown him are the basic concerns of the church. He emphasizes the need to endure trial and persecution, the need to support one another and a common concern for the poor. The theology of James is a street-level theology. James believes in putting your faith to work. One must be a doer of the word, not merely a hearer. God's presence in our life compels us to action.
James has been compared with the prophets of the Old Testament. James speaks with the imperative voice. More than any other New Testament writer he says, "You must do this," or "You should do that." He clearly writes as a man of authority. He is used to people coming to him for advice and he clearly believes that God has given him these words to deliver to His people.
This letter has personally always reminded me of the Old Testament writing of Proverbs. Both works are recorded as a way of describing godly living. At first, both works appear to have a very loose, or perhaps a non-existent, unity. Yet, with further study, each book has common themes and elements that hold the disparate parts into a harmonious whole.
There is also a commonality seen between the epistle of James and the teachings of Christ that are recorded in the Gospel. The gospel of Matthew has been considered to be an influence of James, in particular the Sermon on the Mount. It is more likely though, that rather than a one-to-one direct influence, the gospel of Matthew and the epistle of James were written from a common background to a common audience. Both writers seemed to have used oral traditions on the life of Christ to write to an audience of predominately Jewish Christians.
Some Christian theologians have on occasion, disparaged the epistle of James. Martin Luther believed that James was too Jewish in nature and more rightly belonged with the Old Testament scripture. Many find James' perspective on faith and deeds to conflict with Paul's theology of grace.
Yet, despite these reservations, the epistle of James continues to be a source of strength for the Christian church and a wonderful example of practical theology. The same things that concerned this early Jewish pastor continue to concern pastors today: things like concern for the poor, the value of persevering through trials and the value of working together in harmony and peace. These common concerns make the epistle of James a valuable study for the contemporary Christian.
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