Furthermore, our pericope is also one of the most controversial in Christendom. Its content manifests the classic theological struggle of whether or not James and Paul contradict or complement each other. As we shall see my view is the latter. Apart from the syntax or theological interpretation, Paul is known for having the fortitude to confront theological error directly and publicly (Galatians 2:11). Because of this, and considering the seriousness of this issue, I feel it plausible that he would have done this with James, if such existed, through rather direct reference. Paul tells us that he met James while in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:9) and that James was, ironically, one of those who extended to him the “right hand of fellowship” (Galatians 2:9).
It seems plausible that some communication of such a matter between Paul and James would have been well known and well written, especially considering the status of James in the Jerusalemic church and early Christianity generally. In this paper I have been careful, as should we all, to mitigate Lutheran presuppositions in my interpretive paradigm. Luther has made considerable influences in popular theology. It is also commonly known that Luther’s view of the Letter of James is highly unfavorable. Some suggest that “Luther rejected James because he knew that it contradicted his theory; and it is amazing that any should hold that this is not the case.” This letter has been divinely placed and preserved in our present canon, I feel we should honor it as inspired and seek to understand its meaning further in harmony with the Pauline writings, rather than begin with the paradigm that it is possibly contradictory.
The Letter of James does not let us know of any specifics to his location while writing, but given James’s prominence in the Jerusalem church it is quite plausible that it was written somewhere in the Holy Land around the early or mid 40's. During these times, the Holy Land area was under Roman control. Around 40 B.C., Augustus appointed Herod the Great as king and Jerusalem, of course, was to be his home and place of reign. The history of Roman governors or many Roman leaders generally, is characterized with ruling by power and intimidation, but would yield some flexibility to the religious leaders.
In times of blessing and prosperity defections of the faith exist. Consider, Jerusalem or the Holy Land as being the location of this letter and the times of James and you will begin to see that compromise and defections from the faith were a high probability. Under Roman domination the city and area would be in literal religious turmoil, not only by the profaning presence of pagans with the sacred, but the certain conflict caused by Christianity between Sadducees, Pharisees, and of course a high priest. In such climates, Christians were the minority. Because of the conditions in and around the Holy Land, it is likely that many early Jewish-Messianic believers were tempted to compromise their values and beliefs in order to escape persecution or to improve the economy of their life situation.
The Letter of James is an attempt to make certain theological truths, some elaborately composed by the Apostle Paul later on, to come alive in practical understanding. James, the brother and later follower of Christ, writes earlier (before A.D. 49) than any of the Pauline discourses (1 Thessalonians being earliest; written A.D. 49-54). Carson-Moo-Morris suggest that “if, then, we allow some time for Paul’s teaching of justification by faith to develop and become known, the most likely date for the letter of James is sometime in the early or middle 40’s. "
In fact, this letter, was written before the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 or A.D. 48-50. It would cause one to wonder why Paul would not address any preconceived inconsistency with his understanding of The Faith with that of James. A sincere and inductive focus upon the reciprocity of the two should be sought.
For some time the Letter of James has been recognized as an example of religious paraenesis; ethical instruction rooted in religious values and beliefs. The purpose of this type of writing is to influence, direct, and further ground the actions of the readers with a particular understanding. “The letter of James resembles a letter only in its opening greeting. It has none of the other formal features that are usual in ancient letters, no personal information about the readers addressed, and no farewell message.”
Still other styles are suggested such as the Letter of James being an example of New Testament wisdom literature. In this style, James would be a wise teacher instructing his readers in ways of wise living. "His short, rather disconnected maxims resemble the ancient proverbs of Solomon. This feature has led some scholars to suggest that James wrote in the manner in which he taught. They suggest that this epistle is written catechetical (instructional) material.”
As we read The Letter of James a clear distinction between good and evil wisdom is seen (3:13–18). “A person whose life reflects jealousy and selfish ambition has not the true wisdom of God, but is earthly minded and unspiritual. But true, God-given wisdom is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity” (Jas 3:17).
One possible problem for James being a well-polished apologetic or instructional essay seems to be that James changes topics frequently, and randomly (e.g. 2:1-13, 14-26; 3:1-12). The Letter of James exhibits traditional wisdom, and has many of its sensibilities in Jewish thought rather than Greco-Roman. However, passage after passage lists crucial subtexts that are biblical references, not Greco-Roman—a perspective recently defended in L. T. Johnson’s commentary on James (See L. T. Johnson, The Letter of James (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 1995).
Dr. James B. Coffman has illustrated the Christocentric nature of The Letter of James. Coffman suggests that “there is no similar portion of the Sacred Scriptures so surcharged with the mind of Christ as is the Epistle of James. This is true to such an extent that the entire epistle exhibits all of the qualities of an inspired commentary upon the red-letter portion of the New Testament, especially upon the Sermon on the Mount.” Coffman also points out more than a few applications of the principles Christ laid down while on His earthly ministry. Christ said, "Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20); James wrote: "Did not God choose them that are poor in this world, rich in faith, to be heirs of the kingdom?" (James 2:5). Christ said, "Every one that asketh receiveth" (Matt 7:8); James wrote, "If any of you lacketh wisdom, let him ask of God ... and it shall be given him" (James 1:5).
It may be wise to consider these similarities as part of James’s theology but we should be careful that we do not make it primary. Ben Witherington suggests that the Letter of James exhibits a more conventional, less prophetic theological conception than found on the lips of the Synoptic Jesus. As we read the Letter of James we can also see many stylistic features in his text. The use of rhetorical questions is quite abundant (2:4, 5, 14, 21; 3:13; 4:1, 5), an imaginary debating partner (2:18-19; 4:13; 5:1), and abrupt changes (4:4). James also employs many metaphors, and figures of speech, e.g. tossing sea 1:6, the bridle (1:26), the brushfire (3:5), and so on.
I favor the advice of Carson-Moo-Morris here, which requests that the Letter of James not be too specific in genre. Yet, it can be seen as a series of homilies put into a letter to address issues with other Christians from afar.
1. As it is well known, our pericope and the book of James as a whole, practically was rejected by Reformation father Martin Luther.
2. Coffman, Burton James, Coffman's Bible Commentary, Copyright © 1971-1993 by ACU Press, Abilene Christian University. All rights reserved.
3. Mare, W. H. New Testament Background Commentary. © 2004 by W.H. Mare. All rights reserved.
4. Carson, D.A. Moo, J. Douglas, et al. An Introduction to the New Testament Copyright © 1992, 2005 by Zondervan Publishers
5. Loh, I., & Hatton, H. (1997). A handbook on the Letter from James. UBS handbook series (1). New York: United Bible Societies.
6. Keener, Craig S. (1993) IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament Published by InterVarsity Press. All rights reserved
7. Packer, J., Tenney, M. C., & White, W. (1997, c1995). Nelson's illustrated manners and customs of the Bible (360). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
8. Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Baker encyclopedia of the Bible. Map on lining papers. (2152). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.
9. Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments Copyright © 1997 by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA®. Electronic Edition STEP Files Copyright © 1998, Parsons Technology, Inc.
10. Witherington, Ben. Jesus the Sage, The Pilgrimage of Wisdom. Pgs.236-247 © 1994 by Ben Witherington. Augsburg Fortress Press.