Monday, May 18, 2009

Explanatory Notes: James 1:1

I'm scheduled to teach General Epistles this Fall: James, 1 and 2 Peter, and Jude. It was largely my fault that Hebrews was split off from these, which I never regret when teaching Hebrews, but almost always regret when teaching General Epistles. It is difficult for me to have so much time to spend in Jude, 2 Peter 2, 1 Peter 3. It comes out to almost a week a chapter.

In any case, I thought I might slip some verse by verse explanatory comment in preparation. Any suggestions for a commentary on James to use this year? Thus far I've used the NIV Application commentaries, Nystrom on James; McKnight on 1 Peter, Moo on 2 Peter and James. Perhaps this isn't the semester to try new things with the seminary starting.

Anyway, here are some explanatory notes on James 1:1. By the way, I think I'm going to go way out of order and look at Dunn's comments on James in his new volume Friday.
James, slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes that are in the Diaspora, greetings.
This is a fairly standard ancient letter greeting, except for the more Pauline style expansion on who James is. It is possible that James (or the author if it is not James himself) knew of Paul's characteristic expansions in his greetings. We will later argue that James 2 is reacting to a simplified version of Paul's theology, so it is possible that James is following Paul's style. Paul only calls himself a slave in a letter opening in Philippians and Romans, but James 2 does parody a version of the theology of Romans.

The James of the greeting is almost certainly James, the brother of Jesus (e.g., Gal. 1:19). While we cannot preclude the possibility that he was a step-brother, perhaps even a cousin, we have no reason not to conclude that he was a younger brother of Jesus from Joseph and Mary. It is clear from Paul's writings that he was a central and powerful figure in the early church even within a few years of the resurrection. Paul indicates that he was an apostle before him (1 Cor. 15:7), and Galatians 2:12 shows that even Peter seemed to yield to him at times. By the time of his murder in AD62 by the high priest--in between Roman procurators--he seems to have been the undisputed leader of the Jerusalem churches (cf. Acts 21:18).

Some scholars consider James to be pseudonymous for various reasons. The most obvious would be the fact that it is written in fine and fluent Greek, to where we would probably need to say James had some help if he was in fact the author. The style does not seem to reflect an Aramaic speaker who has learned Greek as a second language. The way James seems to be responding to a simplified version of Paul's theology pushes the timeline close, for James died only a couple years after Paul was taken to Rome. Nevertheless, we have a window of a few years during which James could have written it.

We will keep an eye on both ways of reading James as we move through the epistle. It is probably appropriate to call it an epistle. An "epistle" is less situational than a "letter" and by nature addresses a more universal audience. Indeed, these letters at the end of the New Testament are sometimes called the "general" or "catholic" epistles for this very reason.

Evangelical scholars tend to reject the notion that James is pseudonymous. A pseudonymous writing is one written under the name of an authority figure from the past. We can debate whether the intent in such pseudonymous writings was always or ever to deceive. Certainly most conservative scholars reject pseudonymity because they cannot imagine the practice not involving deception. In theory, however, there is nothing about the letter of James itself that would have to be deceiving if its original audience clearly understood it to be a kind of "deposit" of James' teaching for the church.

James is written "to the twelve tribes that are in the Diaspora." The fact that James is in Greek fits with a message for those outside of Palestine, for whom Greek would be the language most in common. The first thought at the mention of the twelve tribes certainly goes to Israel, although it is more difficult to know whether only ethnic Jews are the intended audience or whether James figuratively means to include Gentile believers as well.

Given the picture of James we get from Paul's writings, as well as from Acts 21, it would be a little unexpected to hear James speak of the "twelve tribes of the Diaspora" and mean to include Gentiles. And James 2 speaks of the gathering of its audiences as a "synagogue" (2:2). Yet at the same time, there is little exclusively Jewish about James or distinctly Jewish in a concrete way. This is especially noticeable in its discussion of works in chapter 2. Paul's discussion of "works of law" is actually more Jewish in character than James'.

In the end, if the historical James is the author, we should probably think of James as a general letter to Diaspora Jews, one with which he has had significant help. If James is pseudonymous, we should perhaps think of it addressing all believers as a kind of deposit of James' essence and person to the church that remained.


Brian Small said...

I think Joel Green has a new commentary out on James that you might consider.

Steve Williams said...

Scott McKnight has been doing a long series on James: A Brother's Wisdom.