Sola Scriptura: 1 Corinthians 7:10-14, 25, etc

Sola Scriptura

A fundamental conclusion from our studies thus far is that the Scriptures (of the Old Testament), while continuing to be authoritative for early Christians, possessed a secondary, or supplemental, authority. The primary source of religious authority was located in what may be labeled broadly as the Apostolic Tradition. In the mind of first-century Christians, the Scriptures support and confirm the Apostolic Tradition. In turn, the Apostolic Tradition formed the basis of the New Testament Scriptures. There are three main components to this Tradition:

    • The proclamation (kerygma) of the Gospel, and the seminal Gospel narrative that developed from it.
    • The words of Jesus—sayings, teachings, parables—transmitted from the apostolic witness of what Jesus said and did.
    • The inspired teaching and instruction by the apostles (as representatives of Jesus).

The first of these was discussed in the previous study; here we will be examining the second—the words of Jesus.

2. The Words of Jesus

The apostolic witness (of what Jesus said and did) was at first (c. 35-50 A.D.) transmitted orally; gradually, the sayings and teachings of Jesus were preserved in written form—a process that likely took place during the years c. 45-60. There are three main lines of tradition in this regard:

    • The Synoptic Tradition, as represented principally by the Gospel of Mark
    • The so-called “Q” (for German Quelle [“source”]) material, and
    • The Johannine Tradition (represented by the Gospel of John)

These are altogether separate lines of tradition, with very little overlap, except insofar as each draws on some of the same historical traditions. For the most part, the Synoptic Tradition and the “Q” Tradition, drew upon separate sets of sayings and parables of Jesus; only occasionally do we find Synoptic and “Q” versions of the same historical tradition. Many scholars assume that “Q” existed as a single written document—that is, as an early written Gospel containing sayings and parables (with little in terms of narrative episodes), arranged and joined together based on common themes and shared words/phrases (“catchword-bonding”). I am not so convinced of the existence of a single, distinct Q-document; however, a parallel to such a theorized document can be found in the Coptic/Gnostic “Gospel of Thomas”.

The Gospels themselves clearly demonstrate the primacy of Jesus’ words and teachings as a source of authority for early Christians. This is further confirmed by the witness of the other New Testament Writings, though actual quotations or citations of sayings by Jesus are much rarer than one might expect. This can explained according to a number of factors.

In the book of Acts, for example, the focus is almost entirely on the early Gospel preaching (cf. the previous study), and on the confirmation of Jesus as the Messiah. The seminal proclamation (kerygma) of the Gospel was centered, almost exclusively, on the death, resurrection and exaltation (to heaven) of Jesus; and, the concern of demonstrating Jesus’ Messianic identity prompted the early preachers and missionaries to focus on the Old Testament Scriptures to support this message. The communication of Jesus’ sayings and parables, etc, would have been reserved for the early instruction (by the apostolic missionaries) in the newly-founded congregations. The preaching in Acts is generally located prior to such instruction, and the teaching in the Letters is subsequent to it.

1 Corinthians 7:10-14, 25ff

Paul’s teaching on marriage (and sexual relations) in 1 Corinthians 7 is instructive in terms of the early Christian understanding on the sources of religious authority. Three distinct sources of authority are involved: (1) a command based on Jesus’ words (vv. 10-11), (2) an inspired apostolic directive (vv. 12-14), and (3) an authoritative opinion by an apostle (giving his advice/recommendation, vv. 25ff). Let us consider the first of these:

“And to the (one)s having been married, I give along (this) message—not I, but the Lord—(that) a woman is not to make space (away) [i.e. separate] from her husband” (v. 10)

The verb paragge/llw simply means “give along a message,” but it is often used in the context of transmitting a directive or command, and that is certainly the sense here: the directive is that a woman is not to separate from her husband (and vice versa). Paul claims here that this directive comes from Jesus (“the Lord”) himself, indicating that Paul was aware of the Gospel tradition of Jesus’ teaching regarding divorce (Mark 10:11-12 par; Matt 19:9). Jesus’ teaching is thus the basis for the instruction that Paul gives here, but it is limited to the specific issue in vv. 10-11; for, in the very next verse (12), we read:

“And to the rest (of you) I say—not the Lord—if any brother has a wife…”

In other words, the instruction Paul gives in vv. 12-14 is not based on a transmitted teaching of Jesus, but comes, we may infer, from Paul’s authoritative (and inspired) teaching as an apostle. The implication is that, if a teaching by Jesus is known which directly addresses the issue, then that teaching/saying is given priority. Since no relevant saying was known for the issue in vv. 12-14, Paul had to rely on his own authority as an apostle. This is comparable to a judge or lawyer who cites earlier precedents, when they are on point, as a source of legal authority in making decisions.

Paul speaks even more cautiously regarding the issue in vv. 25ff:

“Now (on the issue) about the virgins, I do not have an order by (the) Lord on (it), but I give (you) a gnw/mh, as (one) having received mercy under (the) Lord, to be (taken as) trustworthy.”

Here he has neither a command from the Lord, nor does he give an apostolic directive, but offers what he calls a trustworthy (pisto/$) gnwmh/. The noun gnwmh/ essentially means “something made known,” usually in the sense of an opinion or advice, etc. Paul’s advice, in this instance, is that believers who are not currently married (or engaged to be married) ought to remain single; yet he is careful not to present this as a directive that needs to be obeyed.

Paul’s tendency to give priority, whenever possible, to sayings/teachings by Jesus, we can assume was commonplace among apostolic missionaries and church leaders. The relative lack of quotations or direct allusions in the New Testament Letters may simply reflect the fact that, for the majority of issues and concerns addressed by the writer, there was no saying or teaching of Jesus, known to the writer, that was on-point.

A notable occurrence of a Jesus tradition cited by Paul is 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 (cf. also 5:1-7), clearly drawing upon eschatological teaching by Jesus, such as we find in the Synoptic Gospels (see esp. the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus). Other clear allusions to teachings by Jesus are in Rom 12:14-21; 13:8-10 (cf. Gal 5:14); 14:14; 1 Cor 9:14. Many other loose allusions and general parallels (to Jesus’ teaching) can be cited, which demonstrates that, by the 50s A.D. (when Paul was writing), many Christians had assimilated the authoritative teaching of Jesus to the point that it pervaded their own thought and mode of instruction. As a vivid demonstration this, cf. on the letter of James, below.

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

A distinctive citation of a Jesus tradition by Paul is found at the heart of his instruction regarding the ‘Lord’s Supper’ in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. In this instruction, Paul addresses problems he sees (and which were reported to him) in how certain believers at Corinth were conducting themselves in relation to the Supper. In particular, their behavior was disrupting the unity of the congregation that should be made manifest through participation in the Supper (vv. 18-22, 33-34). Paul warns that treating the Supper in an unworthy manner was dangerous, and could lead to divine punishment (vv. 27-32).

At the center of this instruction, as a way to exhort his audience to work toward the ideal of unity in their handling of the Supper, Paul cites a Jesus tradition that conforms closely to what we find preserved in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 14:22-24 par). Paul introduces it this way:

“For I received along from the Lord, that which I also gave along to you…” (v. 23)

The chain of tradition is indicated by the use of the parallel verbs paralamba/nw (“take/receive along”) and paradi/dwmi (“give along”). Paul says that he received this tradition “from the Lord”; this should be understood as something that ultimately comes from Jesus (his words), as preserved through the apostolic witness, rather than being the result of a direct revelation to Paul from the risen Christ (cp. 2 Cor 12:9).

For a comparison of 1 Cor 11:24-26 with the Synoptic version, cf. my earlier article in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”.

The Letter of James

The Letter of James provides a good example of how first-century Christians assimilated the sayings and teachings of Jesus, and how these teachings came to take the place of the Old Testament Scriptures as a primary source of authority for religious and ethical instruction. There are many allusions to Jesus’ teaching throughout the letter, in particular to the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (Matt 5-7; Luke 6:20-49). In the repeated contrast between the rich/mighty and poor/lowly (1:9-11; 2:1-7, 15-17; 3:6-10; 5:1-5), James would seem to have more in common with the Lukan presentation of Jesus’ teaching, but he does not appear to be directly citing any written Gospel.

This indicates a time when Jesus’ sayings and teachings were widely known and transmitted, but had not yet taken a definitive written form (such as in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain and the so-called Q source; cf. above). Like many early Christians of the period, Jesus’ teachings were authoritative, but not as a written Law to replace the written Torah. There is no indication that the author knew any of the Synoptic Gospels; and, indeed, he may have been writing prior to the publication of the Gospels. Whether or not he was drawing upon some kind of written source, or was simply relying upon oral tradition, is difficult to say.

The similarities between James and the Sermon on the Mount/Plain can be demonstrated as follows:

And, for other similarities/parallels with Jesus’ teaching:

Cf. the commentaries by J. B. Mayor (1913) and Peter H. Davids (NIGTC, Eerdmans:1982, pp. 47-48); also W. D. Davies, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (1964, pp. 402-403).

This shows, I think, how fundamentally the author has assimilated Jesus’ teaching, and that it has become the basis for Christian ethical instruction. We see this throughout the New Testament and early Christian tradition—to the extent that the ethical commands and precepts of the Law remain in view for believers, they have been filtered and interpreted through the teachings of Jesus.

The Law in the Letter of James (Part 2)

James 2:14-26

This is the famous treatise of James on “faith and works”, which I have discussed at length in a recent study (on the Reformation-principle of justification by faith). Commentators continue to debate the relationship between James’ view on “faith and works” and that of Paul. As was discussed in the aforementioned study, Paul, especially in Galatians and Romans, consistently uses the term “works” (e&rga) as a shorthand for “works of the Law” (e&rga no/mou; for the corresponding expression in Hebrew, cf. the Qumran text 4QMMT). By this is expression is meant the dutiful performance or observance of the regulations laid out in the Torah. In the James treatise, however, it is clear that the author does not use the term e&rga in this Pauline sense.

The context of 2:14-26 demonstrates that “works” refer primarily to charitable acts on behalf of God’s people (believers) in their time of need (vv. 15-16, 25). Thus e&rga here does not refer to the Old Testament Law (Torah), except insofar as such acts of care and compassion represent a fulfillment of the “love command”. While it is not certain that the treatise depends on the previous section (vv. 1-13), there is reason to think that the reference to the “love command” in verse 8 informs the discussion in vv. 14-26 as well.

In other words, by acting with love toward believers (“brothers” and “sisters”) in need, we are fulfilling the Law, as it is embodied in the (single) “love command”. James does seem to share—with Paul and the Johannine writings—the understanding that the Law, for believers, is effectively summarized (and embodied) by the command to love. For more on this, cf. the special note on the expression “the royal law” in 2:8.

James 3:13-17

Following the instruction on ‘taming the tongue’ in 3:1-12, the author turns from the tongue (speech) to the heart—that is, the underlying intention (and impulse) that leads to the things we say and do. In this regard, it is worth considering how James views the means by which one controls the tongue (i.e., how one speaks). The motifs of the bit/bridle used to control a horse, or the rudder that steers a ship, are traditional, and can be found in a wide range of Greco-Roman philosophical and wisdom texts. It is especially common in Stoic authors, and is perhaps best exemplified by Philo of Alexandria (a Jewish contemporary of James); see, for example, his lengthy statement in On the Special Laws III.223ff (for other references, cf. Dibelius-Greeven, pp. 186-190).

According to this line of philosophical argument, it is the mind, or reason, the highest part of the soul, that is able to curb the lower passions and base impulses. For James, and from the early Christian standpoint, it is the soul (and mind) that is conformed to the Divine Wisdom, as represented especially by the teaching and example of Jesus. In verses 13ff, the author contrasts the Wisdom “from above” (a&nwqen) with the ‘wisdom’ that is earthly (“upon the earth,” e)pi/geio$). The heavenly, spiritual Wisdom is characterized by gentleness and humility (prau+/th$, etc), and the speech and conduct of believers should demonstrate such Wisdom. A person’s “works” (actions) will come naturally out of a habitual behavior that is imbued with the Wisdom of God. The term for this ‘habitual behavior’ is a)nastrofh/, which literally means “turn up,” i.e., turn/move about. The true believer will live and move in accordance with God’s wisdom.

The main point, in terms of our study here, is that the guidance is internal (coming from within the person), rather than governed through external means (i.e., laws/regulations that are imposed from without). Though the Spirit is not specifically mentioned in this context, there are general parallels with the contrast, between heavenly and earthly wisdom in vv. 13-17, and Paul’s famous treatment of the “fruit of the Spirit” (vs. the “works of the flesh”) in Gal 5:16-24. For James, the locus of this ethical conflict is in the heart (v. 14), though there is certainly still a place for external teaching (especially that which reflects Jesus’ teaching) in helping Christians develop a pattern habitual thought and behavior that is guided by Wisdom.

James 4:7-10

The author’s ethical instruction continues, along much the same lines, in the next section (4:1-12). The righteous (believers) are contrasted with those who remain rooted in the world and follow the worldly passions. The key verb is e)piqume/w, which means to have one’s impulse (qu/mo$) upon (e)pi/) something; in English idiom, we would say, ‘have one’s heart set upon’ something. The worldly (= ‘earthly,’ cf. above) impulses are directed toward various kinds of sensual pleasure (h(donh/), which, when unchecked, ultimately leads to sinful and violent behavior.

Again, the source of this conflict is within the person. Here, instead of the term “heart” (kardi/a), the word pneu=ma (“spirit”) is used (v. 5). This is not a specific reference to the Holy Spirit, but to the traditional philosophical idea of the ‘higher part’ of the soul; or, framed in more dualistic terms, it is the good part (the “good spirit”) that is in conflict with the “evil spirit”. It was instilled by God as pure and good, but is attacked, and can be corrupted, by the impulse toward sin and evil.

James goes no further than this traditional idiom, and no systematic treatment of the soul, the effect of sin, and what is changed for believers in Christ, is offered here. Even the exhortation that follows in verses 7-10 is traditional in orientation, and is framed in general religious terms that would be accepted by Jews and Christians alike. Two verbal imperatives introduce the instruction in verse 7: u(pota/ssw (“be under order”) and a)nqi/sthmi (“stand against”). The first verb indicates the believer’s relationship to God: to be (or put onself) under order to God—which may be explained as the order of things as God has arranged it. The second verb refers to the opposite: the believer’s relationship to the Devil. This exhortation to “stand against” the Devil is also found in 1 Peter 5:5.

For Israelites and Jews, the primary way that one puts himself/herself under order to God (vb u(pota/ssw) is by faithfully observing all that God commanded in the regulations, etc, of the Torah. James, like many early Christians, has clearly generalized and internalized (or spiritualized) this dynamic. One is to “come near” to God, and thereby cleanse (vb kaqari/zw) and make oneself holy (i.e. pure, vb a(gni/zw). The wording in verse 8b likely alludes to Psalm 24:4, combining the idea of clean hands (action/behavior) and a pure heart (intention/thought/desire).

The adjective “two-souled” (di/yuxo$) is parallel with “sinner” (a(martw/lo$), and characterizes the wicked worldly ones as those whose own (good) spirit is influenced (and corrupted by) the evil spirit. This also suggests a person who is of “two minds”, with a tendency to upright, but also to sinful, thought and behavior. In the Testament of Asher (3:1) this is described as “having the face of goodness and the face of wickedness”; the terminology is part of a traditional Jewish ethical instruction that was inherited by early Christians (cf. Dibelius-Greeven, pp. 226-7).

James 4:11-12

The answer for Christians, with regard to how they/we are to respond in the face of such ethical conflict, again has an inward focus. This begins in verse 9 with the exhortation to mourn and weep, suggesting an attitude of repentance. The wording is similar to Jesus’ Woe in the Lukan Beatitudes (6:21, 25), in which case it derives from an original message of judgment (against the wicked). But this simply reflects the ‘reversal of fortune’ motif in such ethical instruction: i.e., the one who mourns now will rejoice in the end (and vice versa). In other words, the righteous person who mourns for his/her sin and suffering now will not come to mourn in the final Judgment.

Along with this attitude of repentance, the believer should have a spirit (and mind) of lowness (tapeino/$) and humility “in the sight of the Lord”. The teaching in verse 10 is proverbial, and may reflect the saying of Jesus in Matt 23:12 par.

A more direct command is given in verses 11-12, along with a shift back to the theme of the tongue (i.e., our speech/speaking). Clearly, the tendency to speak evil reflects a conflict (and corruption) in the heart. The specific verb used here is katalale/w, “speak against,” or “speak down (on)”. While the proper meaning is general—that is, speaking evil against someone (in any manner)—it can also have the more technical sense of slandering someone. It is typically included as part of traditional sin/vice lists (cf. 1 Peter 2:1-2, 12), and is especially significant as being representative of the (non-violent) evil that can be directed against another person.

It is this representative character of “speaking evil” that explains the author’s comments that follow in vv. 11-12. James treats this sin as a particularly egregious attack against the Law itself. Let us see how he phrases the matter:

“You must not speak against one another, brothers. The (one) speaking against a brother, and (thus) judging his brother, speaks against (the) Law and judges (the) Law; but if you judge (the) Law, you are not a doer of (the) Law, but a judge.” (verse 11)

By speaking against another person, one speaks against the Law, which essentially means that such a person brings judgment against the Law, putting himself/herself in the role of a judge. But since God is the source of the Law, such a person essentially puts himself/herself as judge in place of God—which would be the height of wickedness. While this certainly involves a bit of rhetorical hyperbole by the author, the basic point is clear enough, and generally follows the early Christian tendency to epitomize the entire Law in the command to love one’s neighbor (Lev 19:18). We see a similar general principle expressed in the Testament of Gad 4:1f, where sin against another person (summarized as “hatred”) is especially egregious, since

“…it works lawlessness even against the Lord Himself. For it will not hear the words of His commandments concerning the loving of one’s neighbour, and it sins against God.” (Dibelius-Greeven, pp. 228-9; transl. Charles)

The fact that this situation described by James involves speaking evil against another believer (“brother”) strongly indicates that the term “law” (no/mo$) here refers specifically (and especially) to the “love command” —that is, the Law as it now applies to believers in Christ (cf. the earlier note on 2:8). The final warning in verse 12 reinforces how serious a matter such “evil speaking” is.

James 4:17

One final verse should be considered, at least briefly, in our study. It is the maxim given by the author in 4:17:

“Therefore (the one) having seen (what is) fine [i.e. good] to do, and (yet) does not do (it), it is sin for him.”

It ties the idea of sin to the failure to perform certain actions. This could well be seen as reflecting a traditional Jewish understanding of the Torah regulations as binding (obligatory) requirements. A failure to perform (or observe) any of these requirements represented a fundamental sin, and a violation of the covenant that had to be rectified (through ritual means). As we have seen, such a view of the Torah does not appear to be in view for the James (and the Jewish Christians to whom he is writing). However, is it possible that he still has in mind a certain set of obligatory commands, involving things that must be done?

Most of the ‘commands’ and exhortations provided by the author are framed as negative prohibitions (“do not…,” “you must not…”), and these tend to relate in some way to teachings of Jesus, such as those recorded in the Sermon on the Mount (on the parallels between James and the Sermon on the Mount, cf. the list in Part 1). A good example of this is the prohibition against swearing oaths in 5:12, which almost certainly represents a version of Jesus’ saying in Matt 5:34ff, also recorded separately in other early Christian writings (e.g., Justin, First Apology 16.5).

As far as positive actions are concerned, these are more or less subsumed under the “love command”, called the “royal law” in 2:8, and properly represents the Law of Christ, the perfect “law of freedom” (1:25). As I have noted, the letter of James shares with other early Christians the emphasis on the “love command” as an embodiment (for believers) of the entire Old Testament Law. While this effectively reduces the Torah regulations to a single command, it involves a principle that relates to virtually every area of the believer’s life.

Where James differs from other New Testament authors, is in his tendency to preserve the context of the love-principle, within the teaching of Jesus—which he frequently quotes or makes allusion to (without necessarily stating that it comes from Jesus), in a manner that Paul, for example, does not. He essentially treats these as authoritative teachings, but as part of a wider ethical and religious instruction that is to be internalized, until it becomes an integral and habitual part of one’s thought and action. While James (and his audience) may have possessed an authoritative collection of sayings, similar to the Sermon on the Mount (of which there are numerous parallels and allusions in the letter), there is no indication that these were thought of as anything like a law-code that would take the place of the Torah. The work known as the “Teaching [of the Twelve Apostles]” (Didache), in its early chapters, comes closer to that kind of treatment of Jesus’ teachings, but I do not find it present in the letter of James.

References marked “Dibelius-Greeven” above are to Martin Dibelius, A Commentary on the Epistle of James, revised by Heinrich Greeven, translated by Michael A. Williams. Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 1975).

Justification by Faith: James 2:18-19, 24; Eph 2:8-9

This study supplements and completes the discussion from the prior study on James 2:14-26, in relation to the doctrine (and Reformation principle) of “Justification by Faith”. The previous discussion will be supplemented by a study covering the following three areas:

    • The short rhetorical dialogue (vv. 18-19) that comes between the two arguments of the treatise
    • The specific declaration on “faith and works” in verse 24, with its seemingly direct contradiction of the Pauline doctrine, and
    • A consideration of Ephesians 2:8-9, as a broad statement of the Pauline doctrine, which is more relevant to James (and to the Protestant teaching) than Paul’s specific line of argument in Galatians and Romans.
James  2:18-19

In between the two (parallel) arguments of the treatise (vv. 14-17, 20-26), the author includes a brief rhetorical exchange, which serves the literary purpose of transitioning between the two arguments. However, it also is pivotal for an understanding of the author’s view on the relation between “faith and works”.

“But some(one) will speak (like this): ‘You hold trust, and I hold works’; show me your trust apart from works, and I will show you the trust (from) out of my works.” (v. 18)

The author of the letter suddenly introduces a second ‘speaker’ who functions as an opponent for debate. The hypothetical (rhetorical) nature of this person is clear from the wording used to introduce him: “but some(one) [ti$] will speak…”. This figure is a type, representing a conventional way of thinking, but reflecting a person who does not really understand the truth of the situation. We might paraphrase the author’s wording as “someone will surely say (this)…”. What the responder says (lit. “speaks/utters”) is: “you hold trust and I hold works”. What is meant by this?

Commentators offer several avenues for interpretation, but, since the author is the one who is advocating for the importance of “works” as a demonstration of a person’s “trust” (faith), the statement is perhaps best understood as a characterization of the author’s position. In other words, the speaker acts as a foil who misrepresents (or misunderstands) the author’s own position. There are people who might think that the author is making a facile contrast: you hold “trust”, but I hold works. The main point of contrast, however, is that such a separation of “trust” and “works” is not possible, either conceptually, or in reality. Yet, that is precisely what someone espousing the position of ‘justification by faith alone’ might imply: i.e., you try to gain salvation through works, but I rely on trust alone.

To conceive of a separation between trust and works reflects a faulty reasoninga point made clear by the author’s response in v. 18b: “show me your trust apart from works, and I will show you the trust (from) out of my works”. The contrast is expressed by the prepositions xwri/$ (“apart from, separate from”) and e)k (“out of”, i.e. coming from). The author challenges his ‘opponent’ to demonstrate his “trust” apart from any works. Such a demonstration is not possible, since, from the author’s viewpoint, there can be no true trust (faith) in Christ that is “apart” from works. This is the main argument in verses 14ff (and again in 20ff). By contrast, since true faith is manifested by a person’s “works”, one can readily demonstrate such trust through (or “from”, e)k) those works.

In verse 19, the author goes on to make a rather pointed (even harsh) criticism of the person who imagines that one can have any real or meaningful trust apart from works:

“You trust that ‘God is One’; you do well, and (yet even) the daimons trust (the same way) and shudder!”

By defining trust in the most general terms (for Jews and Christians), as a monotheistic declaration that “God is One”, the author makes the point most vividly: even the demons have that level of faith. He could have framed he example more in Christian termsviz., you trust that “Jesus is the Son of God”, fine enough, but even the demons will make such a confession (cf. Mark 3:11; 5:7 par, etc). The point is that such a “trust” in Jesus, if it is not manifest in “works” and, especially, by sacrificial acts of love toward fellow believersis empty, and without much meaning.

James 2:24

The declaration in verse 24, following directly upon the Abraham example (as an illustration of a person’s trust demonstrated by “works”), is the portion of the treatise that would appear most directly to contradict the Pauline teaching on “faith and works”. This is all the more striking when one considers the importance of the example of Abraham in Paul’s line of argument (in Romans and Galatians), and the fact that he uses the very same Scripture (Gen 15:6), but uses it to make the opposite point (cf. Rom 3:27-28)!

Here is the author’s conclusion, which he draws from the example of Abraham:

“You see that a man is made/declared right [dikaiou=tai] out of [i.e. by] works, and not out of trust alone.”

Compare this with Paul’s statement in Romans 3:28:

“For we consider a man to be made/declared right [dikaiou=sqai] by trust, apart from [xwri/$] works”

The two statements would appear to be contradictory. Paul even uses the very expression, “apart from works” (xwri\$ e&rga), that the James treatise categorically refutes. The Pauline expression in the translation above, however, is incomplete; for the full phrase is “…apart from works of the law [no/mou]”. Paul’s teaching in Galatians and Romans is that the regulations of the Torah (the Old Testament Law [of Moses]) are no longer binding for believers in Christ (and especially for Gentile believers). In the Pauline idiom “works” is a shorthand for “works of the Law” meaning performance or fulfillment of the Torah regulations.

In the James treatise, “works” does not have this specialized meaning. This is clear from the context of 2:14-26, where “works” primarily refers to acts of love (care and compassion) shown to fellow believers in their time of need. Paul would affirm the importance of this as well, though almost certainly he would not have expressed it the way our author has. It is also quite possible that the author’s view of the Lawthat is, the believer’s relationship to the Torah regulationswas not all that different from Paul’s. Though he does not treat the matter as forcefully (or as distinctively) as Paul does in Galatians and Romans, etc., there is no sense in the letter that the author views the Torah regulations as in any way binding on believers. Indeed, he shares with Paul (and with other early Christians) the view that the Torah is effectively summarized (and/or replaced) for believers by the “love command”, reflected in the teaching and example of Jesus. For more the Law (Torah) in the Letter of James, see my recent article and notes in the series “The Law and the New Testament” (and esp. the note on James 2:8).

The Pauline doctrine of “justification by faith” is well summarized by the statement in Rom 3:28 (cf. above). A person is “made right” (vb dikaio/w) in God’s eyes through trust alone—that is, through trust in the person and work of Jesus, his sacrificial death and resurrection (as God’s Son). The verb dikaio/w can also be understood in terms of being declared right (i.e., righteous, innocent), in a forensic or judicial sense. This aspect better fits the eschatological context of the coming end-time Judgment—of believers being saved from God’s Judgment on humankind. However, it is probably better to retain the more general meaning of the verb. Things are “made right” between human beings and God, and as believers we are “made right” (by God), through our faith in Christ.

In James 2:24, the verb dikaio/w perhaps should be understood in the sense of “being recognized as right(eous)” by God. That would certainly fit the context of the Abraham example, and of the wider principle that a person’s trust, if it is genuine, will be demonstrated by his/her actions. God recognizes the right(eous)ness that is reflected by such behavior. However, the author is also not unaware of the eschatological Judgment-aspect, and he surely would affirm that believers are saved from the coming Judgment by their faith—a faith that is manifested in works.

If the author of the letter was aware of Paul’s teaching, and is responding to it in some way, as seems likely, then it is possible his main concern is that the Pauline doctrine could be (or has been) carelessly reduced to a general “faith without works” slogan. Without the context of Paul’s arguments regarding the Torah, and a proper understanding of his use of the term “works” (e&rga) as a shorthand for “works of the Law” (e&rga no/mou), a person might mistakenly infer that no “works” of any kind were necessary for believers. The author clearly affirms that acts of love and care toward fellow believers, and similar “good works”, are necessary, at least in the sense that they will be present in the life of anyone who has true faith.

Whether or not there is a deeper opposition to Paul’s teaching in the letter of James (the treatise in 2:14-26) is difficult to say. The fact the author uses the same Abraham example (and Scripture, Gen 15:6) as Paul, only to make virtually the opposite point, does seem to suggest a more fundamental difference in outlook. If ‘James’ was aware of Paul’s writings, then the contradictory use of the Abraham example, etc, would have to be regarded as intentional, meant as a contrast to Paul’s teaching. But is there a real contradiction, at the theological and doctrinal level, between James and Paul? To give an answer to this question, we must briefly examine another important Pauline statement on “faith and works”, in Ephesians 2:8-9.

Ephesians 2:8-9

“For by (the) favor (of God) you are (one)s having been saved, through trustand this (does) not (come) out of you, (but is) the gift of God(and) not out of works, (so) that one should not boast (of it).”

The declaration reads like a theological expansion of the Pauline teaching on “justification by faith” (see on Rom 3:28, above). The core Pauline doctrine is certainly contained at the heart of Eph 2:8-9: “…having been saved (= “made right”/justified) through trust…and not out of works”. The exact relationship to the Pauline teaching, however, depends on one’s view regarding the authorship of Ephesians. For many critical commentators, it is pseudonymous, though still a product of the Pauline Tradition, representing a (secondary) development of Paul’s teaching. For commentators who maintain the traditional-conservative view (that the letter is genuinely written by Paul), Ephesians still shows important signs of development in Paul’s thought and manner of expression, suggesting that it was written some time after Galatians and Romans, etc.

The points of development can be seen in the elements that have been added to the core doctrine, forming the expanded statement of Eph 2:8-9:

    • The emphasis on the favor (xa/ri$) shown to us by God. While the term xa/ri$, used in this soteriological sense, is very much part of the Pauline vocabulary (cf. Rom 3:24; 11:5-6 etc), its close pairing here with pi/sti$ (“trust, faith”) is clearly intended to give a deeper (and clearer) theological formulation to the Pauline doctrine. One is saved/justified by faith, but only insofar as we were first shown favor by God; the idea of favor (or ‘grace’) is primary.
    • The same point of emphasis is seen in the parenthetical clause that follows the expression “by trust”. As if to reinforce the idea that our salvation derives primarily from God’s favor shown to us, rather than simply by virtue of our trust, Paul (or the author) declares unequivocally: “this is (does) not (come) out of [i.e. from] you, (but is) the gift [dw=ron] of God.”
    • The final purpose/result clause also reinforces the idea of our entire dependence on God (and his favor) for our salvation. Since it does not come from (“out of”) ourselves, by our own effort and intention, we certainly cannot rightly “boast” of it. The wording suggests that this is part of God’s very purpose in arranging things this way: “…so that one should not boast (of it)”.
    • Another minor sign of development is the use of the perfect participle (of the verb sw/zw, “save”) to characterize believers as “(one)s having been saved” (sesw|sme/noi). In contrast with comparable statements by Paul in Galatians, Romans, (and 1 Corinthians), Ephesians never uses the verb dikaio/w; instead, the verb sw/zw occurs here, and in something of a specialized sense.

Perhaps most significant of all, in the context of Eph 2:8-9, the noun e&rgon (pl. e&rga, “works”) does not necessary refer to “works of the Law,” as the term consistently does in Galatians and Romans. While Ephesians clearly affirms Paul’s view regarding the Torah (2:15), this is not given much emphasis in the letter. Rather, the meaning of “works” here appears to be more generalized, referring to any action taken by a person. The parenthetical statement “and this (does) not (come) out of you” would seem to confirm this point. Our salvation (having been saved by God) does not depend on anything we do (i.e. our “works”), but comes about as a result of the favor God has shown to us.

This more general formulation of the Pauline doctrine is closer to the Reformation principle of “justification by faith” than are Paul’s arguments that deal with the Torah (in Galatians and Romans). In its generalized formulation, the doctrine is adapted to mean: we are saved by trust (faith), and not by any effort of our own (“works”). But this adaptation, it may be argued, also places the doctrine more squarely in contradiction with the letter of James. As we have seen, in the James treatise, “works” does not refer specifically to “works of the Law”, but to other kinds of “good works” especially, acts of love and charity to fellow believers who are in need. Moreover, the wording in verses 14 and 24 suggests that such works will save a person and “make them right” (i.e., justify them) before God.

A proper understanding of the James treatise would recognize that the faith and works of a believer go hand-in-hand and function together (“work together with [each other]”, v. 22)they cannot be separated. Works are required, in the sense that they will be present in the life of a true believer, and will effectively demonstrate the living reality of a person’s faith. It is in this light that one can speak of works “saving” a person; in truth, it is the reality of believers’ faith, manifest in their actions, that saves them. Such, at least, is the view expressed in the James treatise. It is not necessarily incompatible with Paul’s viewpoint, though doubtless Paul would have expressed himself differently on the matter, using different imagery and lines of argument to make a comparable point.

 

 

 

Justification by Faith: James 2:14-26

Justification by Faith (James 2:14-26)

As we have seen in the prior studies, the Reformation doctrine of “justification by faith” was derived largely from Paul’s line of argument in his letters to the Galatians and Romans. As it happens, there is one passage in the New Testament that could be said to contradict the doctrine: it is the short treatise on “faith and works” in James 2:14-26.

It has been a longstanding matter of dispute among New Testament scholars and theologians as to whether, or to what extent, the letter of James is opposed to Paul’s teaching on “justification by faith”. Certainly, the declaration in 2:24 would seem to contradict the Pauline teaching:

“(So) you (have) seen a man is made right/just out of [i.e. by] works, and not out of trust [i.e. by faith] alone.”

But how far was the author of the letter aware of Paul’s writings and teachings, and is the Pauline doctrine the focus of his message here? There are three possibilities:

    1. The author is not responding to Paul at all, and the apparent points of contact are coincidental
    2. The author is responding to Paul, and opposes the Pauline teaching; in which case, there are two further possibilities: (a) he opposes, but misunderstands, the Pauline teaching, or (b) he opposes and understands the substance of it.
    3. The author is responding to Paul, but is primarily concerned with believers who misrepresent Paul’s teaching, or who reference it (as a slogan) without properly understanding it.

The first option seems most unlikely. Even if James was written as early as some commentators suggest (mid/late-40s), he (the author), and other Jewish Christians, would probably have been aware of Paul’s teaching regarding the Law (Torah), in relation to the missionary work taking place among the Gentile populations in the Roman Empire. The conflict regarding ‘works of the Law’ had already come to a point some years prior to the writing of Galatians and Ephesians (cf. Gal. 2; Acts 15). Moreover, while it is possible for other Christians to use the specific illustration of Abraham (and the citation of Gen 15:6), its importance for Paul and his own teaching on ‘faith and works’ (cf. the earlier study) increases the likelihood that the author of James is responding to the Pauline teaching as well.

When we turn to the treatise in 2:14-26, we see that is comprised of two parallel parts—two arguments (vv. 14-17, 20-26), separated by a rhetorical response by a representative opponent or (fictional) interlocutor (vv. 18-19). The two arguments share a common structure:

    • Rhetorical question that states the theme (vv. 14, 20)
    • Illustration (vv. 15-16, 21-25)
    • Closing declaration regarding “faith and works” (vv. 17, 26)

In the first argument, it is a practical illustration from life experience, while the second argument uses an illustration from Scripture. The latter is an expanded into a two-part illustration, with the example of Abraham (vv. 21-23) followed by the additional example of Rahab (v. 25); in between, there is a further declaration on “faith and works” (v. 24) that relates specifically to Abraham. It is just here that the author appears to be most directly at odds with Paul, as noted above. I will be discussing the matter further at the end of the article (and in the next study).

Since the three components of each argument are similar, it is worth discussing the two arguments together at each point.

1. The Rhetorical Question (vv. 14, 20)

The first argument begins with the question:

“What (is) the benefit, my brothers, if some(one) considers (himself) to hold trust [i.e. have faith], but (yet) does not hold works? Th(at) trust is not able to save him(, is it)?”

Through this rhetorical question, the author raises the possibility that a person might claim to trust in Jesus, and yet have no “works” (e&rga) to demonstrate the reality of this trust. In such a case, the author asks whether such ‘trust’ will actually save a person (from the Judgment); it is posed in negative, and the author assumes an answer in the negative: no, clearly, it cannot.

The crux of the relation between James and Paul on this matter of “faith and works” depends, in large measure, on how each author understands and uses the terms pi/sti$ (“trust,” i.e., “faith”) and e&rga (“works”). By all accounts, there is little or no difference in how the term pi/sti$ is used. It refers primarily to Christian faith—to trust in God (generally), and trust in Jesus Christ (specifically). The author raises the possibility that a person might consider/claim to have this trust, but that (in reality) it is not a true, saving faith.

When it comes to the term e&rga (“works”), on the other hand, we do find a fundamental difference in how the word is used, between Paul and James. The noun e&rgon denotes an action—i.e., something that is done, a work/task that is performed, etc. It can also connote something being made active (i.e., made to work). In Paul’s letters, and especially in Galatians and Romans, “works” (e&rga) functions as a shorthand for the expression “works of the law” (e&rga no/mou), by which is meant performance/fulfillment of the regulations and requirements in the Old Testament Torah.

For a detailed discussion on Paul’s view of Torah, in terms of the new religious identity of believers in Christ, cf. the relevant articles in the series “The Law and the New Testament” (Paul’s View of the Law). The expression “works of the Law” was not coined by Paul, but is traditional, as can be seen by the corresponding Hebrew terminology in a now-famous text from Qumran (the so-called “Halakhic Letter” [4QMMT]). That James has a rather different point of reference for the term “works” (e&rga) will be discussed below.

The rhetorical question in the second argument (v. 20) is as follows:

“And do you wish to know, O empty(-headed) man, that the trust (that is) apart (from) works is (itself) without work?”

There is a play on words in the Greek here that is typically obscured in English translation: trust that is “apart from works [e&rga]” is, quite literally, “without work” (a)rgh/). The adjective a)rgo/$ is derived from the root of the noun e&rgon (“work”) with the privative prefix a)– (i.e., “without”). In other words, the faith that has no “works” to back it up is ineffective and useless—it simply doesn’t work. This is another way of stating the claim in v. 14, that such ‘trust’ is not the kind of genuine faith that will save a person from the Judgment.

The idea of separation of trust from works is indicated the adverb xwri/$ (“with space [between], apart”), used in the grammatical sense of a preposition (followed by a genitive). Interestingly, Paul uses the same word to make essentially the opposite point regarding the relationship between faith and “works” (Rom 3:21, 28; 4:6).

2. The Illustration (vv. 15-16, 21-25)

In the first argument, the illustration used by the author (vv. 15-16) is a practical one, taken from life experience. It involves the situation where a fellow believer is in need. The use of the terms “brother” and “sister” makes clear that this refers to other believers, and not to needy persons in general. How does one respond to this situation? In the illustration, the person only gives lip service to the fellow believer’s need, without offering any real assistance—and the author askes “what [is] the benefit [of that]?”. Of course, this example matches the situation of the Christian who claims to have faith, but fails to demonstrate that faith in action. For the author, the point is self-evident, and leads to the conclusion in verse 17 (cf. below).

In the second argument (vv. 21-23), the illustration is taken from Scripture, focusing on the person of Abraham, much as Paul does in Galatians 3 and Romans 4 (cf. the earlier study). However, the author of the letter here makes rather the opposite point, using the example of Abraham to demonstrate that he was “justified” by his works, rather than by his faith alone. The author’s use of the very same Scripture (Gen 15:6), also used by Paul, to make this contrary point, would seem to be strong evidence indeed that he is responding to Paul’s teaching on the subject of “faith and works”.

The line of argument here has three components:

    • V. 21: Reference to the traditional narrative of Abraham’s willingness to offer Isaac as a sacrifice (Gen 22:9-18)
    • V. 22: The application to the subject of “faith and works”
    • V. 23: The Scripture citation (of Gen 15:6)

It was the act of offering his son Isaac that truly demonstrated Abraham’s trust in God. The author summarizes this within his argument as follows:

“…was not our father Abraham made/declared right [i.e. justified] out of [i.e. by] works (in his hav)ing brought up his son Yiƒµaq (and putting him) upon the (place of) slaughter [i.e. the altar]?”

The action, in this instance, is marked by the verb a)nafe/rw (“bring/carry up”). This most extreme of actions, indicating a willingness to put his son to death as a sacrificial offering, demonstrates the depth and extent of Abraham’s trust in God. The author uses this to show the relationship between trust (faith) and “works” for the believer:

“…the trust worked (together) with his works, and the trust was made complete out of [i.e. by] the works” (v. 22)

We have here another bit of wordplay, with the verb sunerge/w (“work [together] with”), a compound verb related to the noun e&rgon. The example of Abraham illustrates the opposite situation of the person “without works”. In that instance, the person’s trust was “without work” (a)rgo/$), proven to be ineffective and useless. By contrast, in the case of Abraham, the trust is effective since it “works together” with works. Moreover, the trust is made complete (vb teleio/w) by works. This implies that a person may begin with genuine faith, but, without the realization and manifestation of it through “works”, it will never become complete, never develop into true and saving faith.

The verb sunerge/w (synergéœ) is the basis for the theological term synergism, which relates to the idea that God and human beings “work together” in the process of conversion and salvation. Protestant theologians have tended to be opposed to theories that are framed in synergestic terms, and are often reluctant to emphasize the role of human “work” in the saving process. However, it is possible to characterize the line of thought in James 2:14-26 as “synergistic”, particularly in the way that the author applies the Abraham illustration, referring to faith being made complete by our actions, a dynamic for believers that ultimate results in saving faith.

It is in this light that we must consider the author’s use of Genesis 15:6 (v. 23), which clearly is applied (and interpreted) in a very different way than Paul has used it in Galatians and Romans (on this, cf. again the earlier study in this series). It was through Abraham’s demonstration of his trust that he was considered to be right and just (di/kaio$) in God’s eyes. For the author of this treatise, pi/sti$ (“trust”) is demonstrated by action; Abraham trusted (vb pisteu/w) God, and acted on that trust.

Following this example of Abraham, a second Scriptural illustration is offered—the example of Rahab (Josh 2:1-22; 6:23), who offered shelter to the Israelite spies in Jericho during their time of need. While seemingly a rather minor illustration, it confirms the significant point that the author is decidedly not using the term e&rga in the Pauline sense (as a shorthand for “works of the law“). Rather, as is clear here, and in the earlier practical illustration of vv. 15-16 (cf. above), e&rga refers to acts of kindness and mercy that are shown to God’s people (believers) when they are in need. Admittedly, the Abraham example has something of a different emphasis, but the overall context is one of “good works”, defined as acts of love demonstrated by the care shown to fellow believers. This “love command” was alluded to in the prior section (vv. 1-13, cf. my recent note on verse 8), and was very much part of the wider tradition among early Christians. The Johannine First Letter has an even stronger emphasis than does James on the importance of showing love to other believers, with trust and love being related as a binding command that Christians are obligated to follow (1 Jn 3:23-24, etc). The person who does not demonstrate their trust by such love cannot be regarded as a true believer.

As noted above, the declaration in James 2:24 seems especially to contradict the Pauline doctrine of “justification by faith”. Before proceeding to further discussion on this point, let us consider the final component the author’s overall argument.

3. Concluding declaration on “faith and works” (vv. 17, 26)

In the first argument (v. 17), this is:

“So also th(is) trust, if it should not (also) hold works, is dead by itself.”

The corresponding conclusion of the second argument (and the treatise as a whole) is:

“For just as the body apart from (the) spirit is dead, so also the trust apart from works is dead.” (v. 26)

In both instances, the declaration is made in the starkest of terms: faith apart from works is dead. This goes a step further than the idea that the faith no longer works, or is useless (cf. on verse 20, above)—it is actually dead! The lack of works is compared with the absence of an animating spirit or breath (pneu=ma) in a living body. It is a natural image to use, given the importance the author here places on action (i.e., animating movement) as a sign of a true and living faith.

In order to gain a proper understanding of how James 2:14-26 relates to the Pauline (and Reformation) doctrine of “justification by faith”, we must supplement the study above with a detailed examination of three areas:

    • The short rhetorical dialogue (vv. 18-19) that comes between the two arguments of the treatise
    • The specific declaration on “faith and works” in verse 24, with it seemingly direct contradiction of the Pauline doctrine, and
    • A consideration of Ephesians 2:8-9, as a broad statement of the Pauline doctrine, which is more relevant to James (and to the Protestant teaching) than Paul’s specific line of argument in Galatians and Romans.

This will be the basis of our next study, which will bring to a close our examination of Scriptural basis for the Reformation principle of “Justification by Faith”.

Supplemental Note on James 2:8 (“The Royal Law”)

The previous note examined the expression “the Law of freedom” in James 1:25; 2:12; today I will be looking at a second key expression involving the Law— “the royal Law” (no/mo$ basiliko/$) in James 2:8.

2. “The royal Law” (no/mo$ basiliko/$)—James 2:8

In the recent article (on the Law in the letter of James), I outlined the basic context of this passage (2:1-13); it may be divided into two parts—(a) a prohibition against showing partiality/favoritism to the rich and prominent in the world (vv. 1-7), and (b) a warning that such partiality is a sin and violation of the Law (vv. 8-13). The expression under examination here comes from the opening statement of the second section:

“If indeed you complete (the) royal Law according to the Writing— ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’ —you do well…”

Verses 8-9 together form a me/n…de/ construction (here me/ntoide/), i.e., “on the one hand… but on the other hand…”:

    • if, indeed (on the one hand [me/ntoi]), you fulfill the royal Law…you do well
    • but if (on the other hand [de/]) you take/receive the face [i.e. show partiality], (then) you work sin

Showing partiality/favoritism to the rich and powerful is declared to be a violation of the “royal Law”, and those who so transgress are “(themselves) being condemned under the Law [u(po\ no/mon] as (one)s stepping alongside [i.e. over the bounds of the Law and the right path]”. How should we understand the Law (no/mo$) here? In discussing the use of the word in James 1:25 (cf. the previous note), I argued that it carries a comprehensive meaning involving: (a) the Gospel message, (b) the teachings of Jesus, and (c) authoritative Christian instruction as a whole. Here in 2:8ff, however, specific commands seem to be intended—in particular, Lev 19:18 (“you shall love your neighbor as yourself”). Of course, this command, along with Deut 6:4-5, makes up the twin “greatest commandment” in Jesus’ teaching (Mark 12:28-34 par), and came to represent for early Christians a virtual epitome of the Law and of essential ethical instruction for believers (cf. Gal 5:14; Rom 13:8-10). Elsewhere in early tradition, the “love command” is nearly synonymous with the command(s) of God and Christ (Gal 6:2; John 13:34-35; 14:15ff; 15:9-17; 1 John 3:10ff; 4:7-20; 5:2-3; also 1 Thess 4:9; 1 Cor 13; 16:14; 2 Cor 5:14; 1 Tim 1:5; Jude 21).

What of the specific designation basiliko/$ (“of the king, kingly, royal”). There are several ways this might be interpreted:

    • As the chief, ruling (or leading) Law—i.e., the “great commandment” of Lev 19:18
    • As an honorific adjective emphasizing the nobility/greatness of the Law as a whole (the Torah and/or the teaching of Jesus)
    • Indicating that the Law (whether Lev 19:18 or the “Law” as a whole) has been given specifically by the King—God as King and/or Jesus Christ as Lord
    • It is the Law that the King (and those of the Kingdom) follow
    • It pertains generally to the King and the Kingdom (of God)

Before attempting a more definite interpretation, it is important to note the line of logic that stems from the expression “the royal Law”:

    • It is first identified with a specific commandment: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18) (v. 8)
    • The one who violates this command (by showing favoritism to the rich) is condemned under the Law as a transgressor (v. 9)
    • One who fails to keep the Law at just one point (i.e. a single command) is guilty of violating the entire Law (v. 10-11, cf. Gal 5:2)—more precisely, in its original (ancient) context, this means that the agreement (the covenant) between God and his people is broken, as the Law represents the effective terms of the covenant (see esp. Deut 27-28, and Paul’s reference to the curse that results from violating the covenant in Gal 3:10ff).
    • Believers must speak and act in a similar manner (v. 12a)—cf. the exhortation in James 1:21ff, where believers are called to be people who do the Word (lo/go$), just as Israelites and Jews were obligated to do the Law
    • Just as Israelites and Jews are judged under the Law (the Torah), so believers are, in a sense, judged under “the Law of freedom” (v. 12b)

From this we may conclude that “the royal Law” has a two-fold denotation in this passage:

    1. It is identified with a specific command—Jesus’ “great command” (Lev 19:18), as taught and exemplified by him
    2. It is also parallel with the expression “the Law of freedom”, representing the entire Law for believers—the Gospel and teaching of Jesus, and the Christian (ethical) instruction which derives from it, i.e. the Word/Logos of 1:21-25

This Law is described as kingly/royal (basiliko/$) likewise in a two-fold sense:

    • It expresses the will of God (as King) and of Christ (as Lord)
    • It is the Law followed by the King and those of the Kingdom

In the previous note, I explored the way that the expression “the Law of freedom” and the use of lo/go$ (in 1:21ff) may draw in part from Greek philosophical language, as preserved and transmitted in Judaism. This appears to be confirmed by the parallel use here of “the royal Law”. For example, note several key references in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, such as On the Life of Moses II.4: “(on the one hand) the king is an ensouled [i.e. living] Law, and (on the other hand) the Law is (also) a just king”. Reason (lo/go$) is the “royal road” which the wise and just person follows (On the Special Laws IV.168, On the Posterity and Exile of Cain §101, On the Giants §64). One should also consider 4 Maccabees 14:2, where reason (lo/go$) is associated with both royalty and freedom, as here in James. This sort of language and imagery continued on in the writings of early Christians, such as Clement of Alexandria, who were likewise influenced by Greek philosophical expression (cf. Stromateis 6.162.2, 7.73.5). [On these and other references, see esp. M. Dibelius’ commentary on James in the Hermeneia series, Fortress Press (1975), pp. 142-144.]

One should also note here the profound identification of the Law (“the royal Law”) with mercy (e&leo$), as the concluding statement in verse 13 makes clear. Actually this emphasis on mercy runs throughout the passage—the warning against showing favoritism to the rich and powerful in the world derives fundamentally from the concern and care one ought to show toward the poor and lowly. James emphasizes this at several points, especially in 1:27 where care for orphans and widows is defined as an essential component of true religious behavior and worship before God. It is also an important theme throughout Jesus’ teaching. In the Christmas season (soon approaching this year), which, at its finest moments, beautifully reflects this same exhortation to show love and care for the poor, and to be at peace with our neighbors, careful study and reflection on James 2:1-13 is altogether appropriate and worthwhile.

Supplemental Note on James 1:25 (“The Law of Freedom”)

This note is supplemental to the article on the Law in the letter of James (part of the series “The Law and the New Testament”). There are two primary references to the Law (o( no/mo$) in James, involving two particular expressions, which will be discussed in turn.

1. “The Law of freedom” (no/mo$ [th=$] e)leuqeri/a$)—James 1:25; 2:12

In James 1:25, the expression is actually “the complete Law of freedom”, including the adjective te/leio$ (“complete, finished”):

“but the (one) bending alongside (to look) into the complete Law th(at is) of freedom and remaining alongside…this (one) will be happy/blessed in his doing”

As discussed in the recent article, the context of verse 25 identifies the Law with the account (or “word”, lo/go$) which is planted in (e&mfuto$) believers. I take lo/go$ (lógos) here in a comprehensive sense, as the Gospel message and the teachings of Jesus, as well as (authoritative) Christian instruction generally. However, the author may also be drawing upon Hellenistic Jewish language and imagery (influenced by Greek philosophy) in the use of lo/go$ (cf. below). For the idea of Jesus’ word(s) as a seed, or involving other planting images, see the previous article. There are a number of references in Scripture to God’s word being within a person (i.e. in the heart), cf. Deut 30:14; Psalm 119:11, and especially in the New Testament (Matt 13:19 par; John 5:38; 8:37; 1 Thess 2:13; Col 3:16; 1 John 1:10; 2:14, etc), where the “word of God” is virtually interchangeable with the “word(s) of Christ”.

In what sense is this Law the “Law of freedom” (no/mo$ th=$ e)leuqeri/a$)? There are three possibilities:

    • Following the Law leads to freedom—This is attested for the Torah in Jewish tradition (e.g., m. Abot 3:5; 6:2; Baba Kamma 8:6; b. Baba Metzia 85b, cf. Davids, p. 99*); in other words, the Law gives freedom to those who faithfully observe its commands. Paul, of course, says virtually the opposite, often declaring that in Christ believers are freed from bondage under the Law (Gal 2:16; 3:10-14, 19-26; 4:4-5, 21-31; 5:1-6; Rom 3:20; 5:20-21; 7:1-6, 7ff; 8:2ff; 1 Cor 9:19; 2 Cor 3:17; note also Acts 13:38-39). Jesus in the Gospel of John promises freedom to his followers, those who hear (and keep) his word (Jn 8:32-36).
    • We follow the Law freely, not out of obligation or compulsion—As I have discussed previously, Paul appears to have held such a view for Jewish believers (himself included) with regard to the Torah: they may continue to observe its commands and regulations voluntarily, on the basis of the freedom they now have in Christ, no longer as a binding requirement. With regard to the Gospel and the teachings of Christ, the so-called letter of Barnabas (2:6) expresses the point clearly: “the new Law of our Lord Jesus Christ, being without the yoke of necessity [a&neu zugou= a)na/gkh$]”. Jesus himself refers to the “yoke” of his teaching (and example) as easy and light (Matt 11:29-30), while criticizing the ‘burdensome’ teaching and tradition of the Pharisees (Matt 23:2ff). The Old Testament Law is described as a burdensome yoke in Acts 15:10, and by Paul as a “yoke of slavery” in Gal 5:1.
    • The Law is a product of the freedom we have in Christ—According to Paul, believers are guided principally by the Spirit, which is the Spirit of Christ (and God) and represents the freedom we have in him (2 Cor 3:17; Gal 5:1, 13ff; Rom 8:2ff, 21); by way of this guidance, we naturally fulfill the “Law of Christ” (Gal 6:2; 1 Cor 9:21), which is no longer the commands of the Torah per se. Note the general similarity between James 2:8-12 and Gal 5:14; Rom 13:8-10.

The first interpretation best characterizes the expression here in James, especially when one considers the additional adjective te/leio$ (“the complete Law of freedom”). In Jewish tradition, the Law would have been regarded, generally speaking, as “perfect” and complete (Psalm 19:7, cf. also the Epistle of Aristeas §31, etc). In the New Testament, however, the adjective te/leio$ is used more precisely of the will (and character) of God, and of believers who conform themselves to it (Matt 5:48; Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 14:20; Col 4:12). In Matt 19:21 it is specifically tied to following Jesus—his teaching and example—as also in Phil 3:15 (and Eph 4:13); while in Col 1:28 believers are complete in terms of their union with Christ. All of this reinforces the view, expressed above, that the Law (no/mo$) here is not simply the Old Testament Law (Torah), but the Gospel and teaching of Jesus as transmitted to believers through Christian instruction and tradition. That this teaching still relates to the fundamental ethical commands of the Torah, is clear from the second use of the expression “Law of freedom” in James 2:12 (to be discussed further in the next note).

Even though the letter of James says nothing directly about the Spirit, it is possible that the “implanted word” (o( e&mfuto$ lo/go$) indicates something deeper and more abiding than simply the content of the Gospel message and teaching of Jesus which believers have received and assimilated. Within Hellenistic Judaism, under the influence of Greek (especially Stoic) philosophical terminology and concepts, the lo/go$ (logos) was used in reference to the indwelling reason, which the wise and just person followed, as a guiding principle or Law. Following the “law” of reason—the same Reason/Lo/go$ which orders and governs the universe—brings both freedom and completion/perfection to the wise person (cf. Epictetus Diss. 4.1; M. Aurelius 7.9; 10.33, etc). Seneca (On the blessed life 15.7) even states this principle in theological terms that nearly echo Judeo-Christian teaching (deo parere libertas est, “to obey God is freedom”). Philo of Alexandria, whose writings are roughly contemporary with the letter of James, brings Stoic teaching into line with Old Testament/Jewish tradition—of many references, cf. On the Creation of the World §3, The Life of Moses II.48-52, On the Decalogue §1ff [throughout], and, especially the treatise Every Good Man Is Free (e.g. §45) [cf. Dibelius/Greeven, pp. 116-118*].

In this regard, it may be instructive to look at the other places where lo/go$ is used in the letter:

    • James 1:18, where the expression is “the account/word of truth” (lo/go$ a)lhqei/a$)—here it is stated that “willing (it), he [i.e. God] was swollen with us [i.e. was pregnant/gave birth to us] in/by the word of truth“. The lo/go$ then is the power (or means) by which believers are given birth as the offspring of God. The word a)parxh/ (“beginning from [i.e. of the harvest]”, often rendered “first fruits”), is used by Paul in a similar sense, both of believers (Rom 8:23; 11:16; 16:5; 1 Cor 16:15; 2 Thess 2:13) and of Christ himself (1 Cor 15:20, 23).
    • James 1:21-22, part of the current passage (rel. to the reference in v. 25)—the author makes a distinction between simply hearing the word and doing the word as well. The lo/go$ then clearly represents something which a person does, similar to the way in which one does (that is observes/fulfills) the Law.
    • James 3:2—here lo/go$ is used in the simple, conventional sense of the word[s] a person says or speaks; interestingly, James also uses the adjective te/leio$ (“complete”) together with lo/go$ in this verse:
      “If any (person) does not trip/fall in (giving) account [i.e. in word/speech], this (person) is a complete man…”

The second expression involving the Law (“the royal Law” no/mo$ basiliko/$, James 2:8) will be discussed in the next note.

* References marked “Dibelius/Greeven” above are to Martin Dibelius, A Commentary on the Epistle of James (Hermeneia, rev. Heinrich Greeven, transl. Michael A. Williams; Fortress Press [1975]); those marked “Davids” are to Peter H. Davids, The Epistle of James (New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC], Eerdmans / Paternoster Press [1982]).

The Law in the Letter of James (Part 1)

The Law in the Letter of James

Introduction

By tradition, the “James” of the letter—who describes himself in the text simply as “a slave/servant of God and of (the) Lord Jesus Christ” —is James the brother of Jesus, the leading figure (after Peter) of the early Jerusalem Church (Acts 12:17; 15; 21:18ff; Gal 2:9, 12; 1 Cor 15:7). This identification is almost certainly correct; the only real issue is whether the letter is authentically by James or is pseudonymous. On this question, scholarly opinion is divided; as also is the dating of the letter, which ranges widely—from very early (40s A.D.) to very late (90-100 A.D.). On the basis of a careful and unbiased study of the letter, I find little that points to a date beyond 60-70 A.D.; the similarity of subject matter and terminology with Paul’s letters (Galatians/Romans), as well as 1 Peter, suggests a comparable milieu—somewhere between 50-60 A.D. The lack of any developed Christology is perhaps the strongest argument in favor of an early date.

If we take James 1:1 literally, then the letter was addressed to Jews of the Diaspora/Dispersion, “to the twelve tribes th(at are) in the scattering-throughout [diaspora/]”. We find similar Jewish imagery applied (symbolically) to Christians generally in 1 Peter, but here in James it seems certain that Jews (or Jewish Christians) are intended. The work is undoubtedly Christian, despite the relatively scant references to Christ or specific Christian doctrine (James 1:1, 18ff; 2:1; 5:7, 14, etc). The strongest evidence for this are the many allusions to Jesus’ teaching throughout the letter, in particular to the Sermon on the Mount/Plain (Matt 5-7; Luke 6:20-49). In the repeated contrast between the rich/mighty and poor/lowly (1:9-11; 2:1-7, 15-17; 3:6-10; 5:1-5), James would seem to have more in common with the Lukan presentation of Jesus’ teaching, but he does not appear to be directly citing any written Gospel. This indicates a time when Jesus’ sayings and teachings were widely known and transmitted, but had not yet taken a definitive written form (such as in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain and the so-called Q source). Like many early Christians of the period, Jesus’ teachings were authoritative, but not as a written Law to replace the Torah. The similarities between James and the Sermon on the Mount/Plain can be demonstrated as follows:

    • James 1:2—Matt 5:11-12 / Lk 6:23
    • James 1:4—Matt 5:48
    • James 1:5—Matt 7:7 (also Lk 11:9)
    • James 1:17—Matt 7:11 (also Lk 11:13)
    • James 1:20—Matt 5:22
    • James 1:22-23—Matt 7:24-26 / Lk 6:46-49
    • James 2:5—Matt 5:3-5 / Lk 6:20
    • James 2:10-11—Matt 5:19, 21-22
    • James 2:13—Matt 5:7
    • James 2:15—Matt 6:25
    • James 3:12—Matt 7:16 / Lk 6:44-45
    • James 3:18—Matt 5:9
    • James 4:2-3—Matt 7:7-8
    • James 4:4—Matt 6:24 (also Lk 16:13)
    • James 4:8—Matt 6:22
    • James 4:9—Matt 5:4 / Lk 6:25
    • James 4:11-12—Matt 7:1
    • James 4:13-14—Matt 6:34
    • James 5:1—Lk 6:24-25
    • James 5:2, 6—Matt 6:19-20; Lk 6:37
    • James 5:9—Matt 5:22; 7:1
    • James 5:10—Matt 5:11-12; Lk 6:23
    • James 5:12—Matt 5:34-37

And, for other similarities/parallels with Jesus’ teaching:

    • James 1:6—Matt 21:21; Mk 11:23-24
    • James 1:9-10—Matt 18:4; Lk14:11; note also Matt 6:29-30
    • James 1:12—Matt 10:22
    • James 1:21—Lk 8:8
    • James 2:6—Lk 18:3
    • James 2:8—Matt 22:39-40
    • James 2:14-16—Matt 25:31-46
    • James 3:1-12—Matt 12:36-37
    • James 3:13-18—Matt 11:19
    • James 4:10—Matt 23:12; Lk 14:11; 18:14
    • James 4:17—Lk 12:47
    • James 5:5—Lk 16:19
    • James 5:7—Mk 4:26-29
    • James 5:8—Matt 24:3, 27, 39
    • James 5:17—Lk 4:25
    • James 5:19—Matt 18:15; Lk 17:3

Cf. the commentaries by J. B. Mayor (1913) and Peter H. Davids (NIGTC, Eerdmans:1982, pp. 47-48); also W. D. Davies, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (1964, pp. 402-403).

This shows, I think, how fundamentally the author has assimilated Jesus’ teaching, and that it has become the basis for Christian ethical instruction. We see this throughout the New Testament and early Christian tradition—to the extent that the ethical commands and precepts of the Law remain in view for believers, they have been filtered and interpreted through the teachings of Jesus. It is important to keep this in mind when examining James’ view of the Law.

It is now time to look at the most relevant passages in James with regard to the Law.

James 1:21-25

The theme of this passage is the account (or “word”, lo/go$) which is planted in (adj. e&mfuto$) believers. In using lo/go$ here, the author probably means it in a comprehensive sense, including:

    • The Gospel message, centered on the account of Jesus’ death and resurrection, along with a proclamation of deliverance/salvation and new life in Christ
    • The teachings of Jesus (as in the Sermon on the Mount, cf. above) preserved and transmitted by apostles, missionaries and teachers such as “James”
    • Authoritative early Christian instruction and teaching, delivered principally by the apostles and fellow-missionaries

Paul uses lo/go$ with a similar range of meaning. Jesus also refers to his word (identified with the word of God) in the context of being planted (cf. Mark 4:4-8, 26-27, 31 par; Matt 7:17-19; 12:33; 13:24ff; 15:13; John 8:37; 15:1-7). In the Gospel of John, the lo/go$ is identified more directly with the person of Christ, and he (in/through the Spirit) himself is the living, eternal seed in the believer (cf. John 5:38; 6:53; 12:23-24; 14:17, 20; 15:4; 17:21; 1 John 2:14; 3:9). James does not go quite that far—his description of this lo/go$ as “the (thing) having power to save your souls” is reminiscent of Paul’s famous declaration regarding the Gospel in Rom 1:16. That this “word/account” serves much the same role for believers as the Old Testament Law previously did for Israel—this is indicated in several ways in the passage:

    • James exhorts people to become ones who do (poihtai/, “doers” of) the word (v. 22); this parallels closely the idea of “doing” the Law (i.e. observance of the Torah commands), cf. Gal 3:10-12; Rom 2:13, etc. The context makes clear that “doing” the lo/go$ involves (normative) ethical behavior and performance of good deeds.
    • There is also a normative, governing quality of the lo/go$ indicated by the metaphor of the mirror in vv. 23-24 (cf. Sirach 12:11; Wisdom 7:26). In Old Testament/Jewish tradition, the Torah also allows a person to see clearly, though more often the image is of light or a lamp (Psalm 119:105; Isa 51:4, etc).
    • A connection with the Law (o( no/mo$) is made specific in verse 25—one looks into the Word (lo/go$), one looks into the Law (no/mo$). Note the following details here that seem to echo both Paul and Jesus’ teaching:
      —This Law is called “complete” (te/leio$, cf. also vv. 4, 15; 3:2); note the important usage of this adjective in Matt 5:48; Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 2:6; 13:10; Phil 3:15; Col 1:28; Eph 4:13, as well as the related verb tele/w (“[make] complete”, sometimes in the context of fulfilling the Law, e.g. Luke 2:39; Matt 17:24; Rom 2:27; James 2:8), and the noun te/lo$ (“completion, end”, note esp. Rom 10:4).
      —It is also called the Law of freedom (e)leuqeri/a$); in this context, it is impossible to ignore Paul’s references to the freedom of believers with regard to the Law (cf. Gal 2:4; 4:21-31; 5:1, 13ff; 1 Cor 9:19; 2 Cor 3:17; Rom 7:1-6; 8:2ff, etc).
      —Doing this Law is referred to as “work” (e&rgon); again, one is immediately reminded of Paul’s regular expression “works [of the Law]” (e&rga [no/mou]), cf. Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10; Rom 3:20, 27-28; 4:2, 6; 9:11, 32; 11:6; also Eph 2:9.
      —Doing this Law leads to beatitude (maka/rio$, “happy, blessed”); the famous beatitudes in Jesus’ teaching (Matt 5:3-12, etc) are closely tied to the justice/righteousness (dikaiosu/nh) of God. For the Pauline teaching on the relationship between the Law and the justice/righteousness of God, see Rom 1:17; 2:13; 3:21ff; 4:3-13; 7:12ff; 8:3-4; 9:30-31; 10:3-6, et al.

The expression “the complete Law of freedom” is discussed in a separate daily note.

James 1:27

In this verse the author declares what is “qrhskei/a clean and without stain/soil alongside [i.e. before] God”. The original meaning and derivation of the word qrhskei/a is uncertain, but it generally refers to religious worship and practice, and is often translated simply as “religion”; elsewhere in the New Testament it is only used in Acts 26:5 and Col 2:18. In other words, James is defining what true and proper religion is before God: “to look upon (those) bereft (of parents) [i.e. orphans] and widows in their distress, (and) to keep oneself without spot from the world”. This definition is significant for a number of reasons, not least of which being that there is no mention of observing the Law, either generally or in its ceremonial sense. Instead we find a two-fold injunction which fairly summarizes much of the ethical teaching shared by Jews and Christians both, which ultimately derives from the Old Testament Scriptures (including the Torah): (1) to care for the poor and needy (esp. widows and orphans), and (2) to avoid the sinful/defiling influences of the world.

James 2:1-13

This passage can be divided into two sections: (a) a prohibition against showing partiality/favoritism to the rich and prominent in the world (vv. 1-7), and (b) a warning that such partiality is a sin and violation of the Law (vv. 8-13). Overall the emphasis is on care for the poor (cf. above on 1:27) and acts of mercy. It is in this context that the author of the letter makes his most prominent direct reference to the Law (o( no/mo$). Two principal points are made:

    1. Anyone who fails to fulfill the Law in one detail is guilty of violating all of it (v. 10; Paul makes much the same point in Gal 5:3). The verb ptai/w, rare in the New Testament (Rom 11:11; James 3:2; 2 Pet 1:10), refers to tripping and falling, used often in a metaphorical sense of failure.
    2. Showing partiality to the rich and mighty, which in turns shows lack of proper care for the poor and lowly, is a sin and a violation of the Law (v. 9)—indeed, it violates the “royal Law” (no/mo$ basiliko/$) (v. 8).

Because of the importance of this passage, it will be discussed in more detail—along with the expressions “royal Law” (v. 8) and “Law of freedom” (no/mo$ e)leuqeri/a$, v. 12)—in a separate note.

Notes on Prayer: James 5:13-18

The recent notes and studies on Hezekiah’s prayer (see the previous study in this series) dealt with the subject of praying for healing/deliverance from illness or disease. This is a longstanding aspect of human religious experience. There is a natural tendency to turn to God (or a particular deity) when one is faced with illness, and especially so if the condition is life-threatening (as in the case of Hezekiah). Even persons whose religious commitment or devotion is minimal are likely to petition God for healing in such circumstances. This continues to be true today, even with our much increased understanding of the scientific physiological causes of disease (and resultant treatment). The current pandemic, however, afflicting people in different parts of the world, has highlighted the limitations of even the finest examples of modern medicine, and brings to the fore a renewed interest in the religious phenomenon of prayer for healing.

Like the psalm that follows the prayer of Hezekiah (in the Isaian version, 38:9-20), and attributed to the king, there are a number of Psalms which are framed as petitionary prayers to YHWH for healing (from life-threatening illness, and/or related dangers). You may wish to consult, for example, my earlier studies on Psalms 6 and 30. In such Psalms, a lament for the suffering one faces alternates with thanksgiving for the deliverance God brings (or will bring). Mixed in with the petition is an appeal to God, based on the fact that the sufferer (the protagonist of the Psalm) has remained faithful and devoted to YHWH, repenting of any sin and disavowing association with any wickedness. The protection God provides the righteous, according to the principle of the covenant-bond, would include rescue/deliverance from any life-threatening danger.

When we turn to the New Testament writings, it is interesting to note how little is said regarding healing from illness—and of prayer for healing, in particular.

To be sure, there are many incidents of healing recorded in the Gospels and Acts. A number of healing miracles performed by Jesus are recorded, some of the episodes being told in a most memorable fashion, often tied to important sayings and teachings of Jesus. Healing miracles were especially characteristic of the Galilean ministry period, according to the narrative structure of the Synoptic Gospels (see esp. Luke 7:21-22 par, cp. 4:18-19ff). In addition to the specific miracles recorded in the Synoptic tradition, we have the key summary statements in Mark 1:34; 3:10 par, etc. Given the close association, in the thought-world of people at the time, between evil spirits and illness/disease, it was natural that miracles of healing were related to exorcism miracles, being performed equally (and at the same time) by Jesus (cf. especially the tradition in Mark 3:22ff par). His disciples were given authority over the evil spirits, so that they could perform the same sorts of healing miracles (Mk 3:15; 6:7, 13 par). This continues among the apostles and early Christian missionaries in the book of Acts (cf. 3:1-16ff; 4:30; 5:15-16; 8:7; 9:32-42; 14:8-10ff; 20:7-12; 28:8), where miracles were performed ‘in the name of Jesus’. Healing miracles were also part of the manifestation and work of the Spirit among believers, at least in the Pauline congregations (according to 1 Cor 12:9, 28ff).

In spite of all this, the recorded miracles of healing are not specifically tied to prayer by the person afflicted. Prayer is mentioned in the exorcism miracle tradition of Mark 9:14-29 par (v. 29), but as a requirement for the person performing the healing (i.e. Jesus’ disciples). The context of the Synoptic narrative tradition in Mk 1:35ff par would suggest that Jesus’ ability to perform healing miracles was connected in some way to his time spent alone in prayer. But nowhere do we see prayer enjoined on the person who is afflicted—i.e., that they should pray for healing, and thus be delivered from affliction. The closest we come to this, perhaps, is in the exchange between Jesus and the blind beggar in Mark 11:47-52 par (cf. also the exchange with the crippled man in John 5:6ff). However, the point is that trust in God (and in Jesus) results in healing, not prayer per se (cf. Acts 14:8-10).

More to the point, nowhere in the New Testament does the author direct or encourage believers to pray for healing when they are afflicted by illness. The inclination to pray to God in such instances was so commonplace (and natural) that perhaps there was no need to mention it; however, given the tendency toward superstition and quasi-magical ritual in such matters, one might expect some direct teaching on the subject. Even in the Lord’s Prayer, there is no petition for healing and physical health as such, unless it is to be subsumed under the request for ‘deliverance from evil’ (Matt 6:13); given the close connection between evil spirits and disease, this is certainly possible. The best support for the idea of praying for healing is found in Jesus’ instruction to his disciples in the “Last Discourse”, if we view requests to the Father “in my name” as a more generalized extension of the apostolic healings peformed ‘in Jesus’ name’ (Jn 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23-24ff; cp. Acts 3:6, 16; 4:7, 10ff, 30; 16:18; 19:13ff); requests for healing would thus be rightly included among believers’ prayers to God.

There is, however, little evidence on this point in the remainder of the New Testament writings. Paul refers repeatedly to prayer for deliverance, but typically in the context of rescuing he (and other ministers) from dangers and obstacles in proclaiming the Gospel (Rom 1:10; 15:30; Phil 1:19; Col 4:3; 2 Thess 3:1, etc), and not for healing from illness or disease as such. There is really only one passage in the New Testament that ties together prayer and healing from disease, giving specific direction for believers in the matter: James 5:13-18.

James 5:13-18

The teaching in this passage is relatively straightforward, even if we do not have complete information on the details of the prayer/anointing ritual that are being referenced.

“Does any(one) among you suffer bad(ly)? He must speak out toward (God) [i.e. pray]. Does any(one) have a good impulse? He must make music (to God).” (v. 13)

Two general conditions are described here: (1) suffering some kind of trouble or affliction (not necessarily illness or disease), as indicated by the verb kakopaqe/w (“suffer bad[ly]”); and (2) the opposite, where things are going well for a person, so that one “has a good impulse” (eu)qume/w, in English idiom we might say “is in good spirits”). One is to “speak out toward” God, making a request in prayer, when suffering affliction.

“Is any(one) among you without strength [i.e. sick/weak]? He must call alongside the elders of (the ones) called out (to assemble) [i.e. the congregation], and they must speak out toward (God) over him, rubbing [him] with oil in the name of the Lord.” (v. 14)

Quite often, sickness is defined by the term a)sqenh/$ (lit. “without strength”); here the denominative verb as)qene/w (occurring 33 times in the NT) is used, meaning “be without strength” (i.e. “be sick, weak”). This refers specifically to someone who is sick or weakened by illness, disease, or a debilitating condition. Such a person ought to call on leading ministers (“elders”) of the congregation, and it is they who will pray to God, anointing (lit. rubbing) him with oil reserved (and consecrated) for just such a ritual purpose. All of this is done “in the name of the Lord”, that is, in Jesus’ name, in accordance with early Christian tradition (cf. above).

“And the (word) of trust, spoken out (to God), shall save the (one) being wearied (by sickness), and the Lord shall raise him (up); and, if he would have been doing (any) sinful (thing)s, they shall be released [i.e. forgiven] for him.” (v. 15)

Interestingly, here it is not the trust/faith of the sick person, but of those ministering to him, that leads to healing. The trust of the sick person certainly is implicit in the process, at least insofar as he/she has trusted enough to call on the elders for help. Some allowance would doubtless be made for the person’s weakened condition; in such instances, it is necessary for the rest of the community (esp. the leaders of the congregation) to give their strength (of faith) to the person in his/her weakness. The trust of the ministers is expressed through their prayer, spoken out (loud) to God. This verse would seem to promise that such a prayer will be answered, when performed in the proper context of the community, where it is done “in Jesus’ name”.

On the latter point, there may certainly be a tendency to treat prayer “in Jesus’ name” as a quasi-magical formula, which, in turn, would lead to a superstitious sort of Christian practice. It may be debated the extent to which a magical healing-formula is in view here in the letter of James, any more so than in the early apostolic miracle-traditions in the book of Acts (cf. above). In the best sense, we are dealing not with a specific formula, but of trust in the divine power of Jesus Christ that is at work, in and among believers, through his Spirit (which also the Spirit of God). This seems to be specified here by the expression eu)xh\ th=$ pi/stew$ (“[word] of trust spoken out”). Ultimately, it is the power of Christ himself (“the Lord”) that raises the person back to health.

The verse here also makes a rather clear association between sickness/illness and sin, though recognizing (as elsewhere in the New Testament), that such illness is not necessarily the direct result of sin. Thus, there is the conditional statement here, using the subjunctive (and introduced by the conditional particle e)a/n): “if any one would have been doing (any) sinful (thing)s”, i.e., if the person has been committing any sins that may have led to his/her illness. The promise is that, through the prayer of trust, such sins will be forgiven (lit. “released”). In all likelihood, there is a similar connection between sin and illness in 1 John 5:14-17, a passage for which a precise interpretation has been notoriously difficult (and controversial). I discuss it at length in prior notes and studies. Whatever else one may say about the 1 John passage, it deals with the issue of the prayer by the community for a person who has sinned, and who may be suffering (illness?) as a result.

“So (also) you must give out an account as one to (each) other of the sins (you commit), and you must speak out (to God) over (one an)other, so that you may be healed. The request (to God) of a just (person) has much strength, being at work in (him).” (v. 16)

The connection between sin and illness is further extended here, with an instruction intended to prevent such sickness from occurring, and to bring about regular and timely healing of illness, before it reaches the point where it is necessary to call on the elders. This involves the public acknowledgement (i.e. confession) of sin, done on a regular basis. Admittedly, this is an aspect of early Christian practice that has largely disappeared from congregation life over the centuries, and is practically non-existent in most modern day churches. One expects that it would be most difficult to restore the practice, even if one believed that it should be restored (a point that can be debated). It does, however, reflect a sense of cohesive congregational unity that can be judged as quite healthy, on the whole. Like most aspects of communal Christian life, it requires that the practice be rooted in genuine trust, love, and the guidance of the Spirit. This latter point seems to emphasized here in the closing statement, regarding the strength of a just/righteous person’s prayer, based as it is upon the power of God/Christ that is “working in” (vb e)nerge/w) the believer—which we must identify with the Spirit, though it is not stated so in the letter. We might fill in the translation as “(God’s power) being at work (in him)”. On the role of the Spirit, as superseding any specific congregational ritual or practice, this point will be discussed in detail in an upcoming study.

From a Christian standpoint, the just/righteous (di/kaio$) person means, primarily, one who trusts in Jesus; yet the author concludes the discussion with an example of an earlier kind of “righteous one”, from the Old Testament (vv. 17-18)—the prophet Elijah, whose miracle-working power is attributed to his faith and earnest prayer to God. The illustration is taken specifically from the tradition in 1 Kings 18. Elijah was not especially associated with prayer in the Old Testament narratives, but this aspect became more prominent in subsequent Jewish tradition (e.g., 2/4 Esdras 7:109; m. Taan. 2:4; b. Sanh. 113a; j. Sanh. 10, 28b, etc; cf. Davids, p. 197).

Apart from this passage in James (and the possible context of 1 John 5:14-17, cf. above), there is only one other instance in the New Testament where health and healing are connected with prayer—in 3 John 2. There the sentiment is expressed in the most general manner: it is a wish for health and wholeness (in the body), even as things go well for the person in their soul.

To the relative paucity of references to prayer for healing, we must also add one famous passage where God does not answer a faithful believer’s fervent prayer for healing from a troublesome ailment. This, as you may guess, is Paul’s famous “thorn in the flesh” illustration in 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10. It will be discussed in the Notes on Prayer next Monday.

 

Prophecy & Eschatology in the New Testament: The Letter of James

James

In examining the eschatology in the letter of James, the extent to which it should be considered representative of the early Christian eschatology, depends on how the letter is dated. There is a considerable range of opinion among scholars on this question, with some dating it extremely early (40s A.D.) and others extremely late (first quarter of the 2nd century A.D.). I would tend toward the earlier side, regarding it as having likely been written sometime before 70 A.D. The apparent lack of a developed Christology in the letter is often taken as a sign of a relatively early date. While the identification of the “James” in 1:1 continues to be debated, there is no real reason to doubt the authenticity of the address—that the letter represents instruction addressed to Jews (i.e. Jewish Christians) throughout the Greco-Roman world (the “scattering throughout”, diaspora/).

In my view, the eschatology of the letter corresponds generally to that of the period c. 50-70 A.D. The expectation of the end (and the return of Jesus) is imminent, with a real sense that the time is quite short. Moreover, this eschatology is couched within a general ethical context that, apparently, has not yet been given a distinctly Christian form, in comparison with similar Jewish instruction. As with the letter as a whole, its eschatological references breathe the style and tone of Jesus’ teaching, especially that preserved in the Sermon on the Mount. At the same time, there are several peculiar details and points of emphasis that are atypical of Paul and other (later) New Testament writings.

Chapters 1-3

James 1:12

The main eschatological section of the letter spans 4:11-5:11 (discussed in detail below); however, there are several earlier references which anticipate this more extended treatment. The first is found in 1:9-16, which begins with a warning on the fate of the rich (and those who devote themselves to worldly riches), with echoes of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:19-20, 25-33. The image of the flower that fades away and perishes (vv. 9-11), symbolizing the brevity of human life with its uncertainty and sudden end, is a general wisdom motif, but it has special significance in an eschatological context. This is alluded to by the beatitude that follows in verse 12:

“Happy (is the) man who remains under [i.e. endures] (in the) testing, (in) that, (hav)ing come to be considered (worthy), he will receive the wreath of life which (God) gave the message upon [i.e. promised to give] to the (one)s loving Him.”

The image of receiving a wreath (ste/fano$) to wear—a traditional sign of honor/dignity, given especially to those who are victorious in battle or a contest—is frequently used in an eschatological sense in the New Testament, reflecting the idea of the heavenly reward that awaits the righteous (believers) at the end-time, following the Judgment. Cf. 1 Thess 2:19; 1 Cor 9:25; 1 Peter 5:4; Revelation 2:10; 3:11; the specific expression “wreath of life” occurs in Rev 2:10.

The theme of enduring testing (peirasmo/$) continues in vv. 13-16. This is often understood (and translated) narrowly in terms of “temptation”, however “testing” is more accurate, and better preserves the eschatological connotations of the word in many instances where it occurs in the New Testament–including Matt 6:13; Mark 14:38 par, as well as the more obvious eschatological references in 1 Pet 4:12; 2 Pet 2:19; Rev 3:10.

James 2:5

There is a similar eschatological context to the rich-vs-poor teaching in 2:1-13 as well. Indeed, the eschatological promise in v. 5 is couched in similar wording to that in 1:12 (cp. above):

“You must hear (this), my (be)loved brothers: has not God gathered out the (one)s (who are) poor in the world (to be one)s rich in trust and (one)s receiving the lot of the Kingdom, about which He (has) given a message (promising it) to the (one)s loving Him?”

The contrast is certainly clear: poor in the world vs. rich in trust of God, i.e. worldly vs. heavenly/divine riches. This again echoes the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:3ff, and note the stronger contrast in the Lukan version of this material, 6:20ff, 24ff). Paul makes a similar sort of comparison in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29. The noun klhrono/mo$ literally refers to one who receives (or is to receive) a share or lot (klh=ro$), often in the sense of an inheritance—i.e. the poor whom God has chosen (to be rich) will inherit His Kingdom. This is precisely the message of Jesus in the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3, 10ff).

The theme of trust (or “faith”, pi/sti$) continues in vv. 14-26, perhaps the best-known portion of the letter, due to the perennial debate over its relationship to the Pauline teaching on “faith and works”. In some ways this misses the point, since through the chapter the emphasis is clearly on “works” as demonstrating love and concern for others (especially the poor)—vv. 1-4, 6, 14-17. Insofar as the “works of the law” (to use the Pauline expression) are concerned, the author of the letter (“James”), despite writing to Jews (Jewish Christians), seems to have much the same view of the relationship between believers and the Torah as Paul does (cp. 2:8ff with Gal 5:14; 6:2, etc), though he expresses it rather differently.

The theme of judgment (kri/si$) is also introduced in vv. 12-13, which will be developed in the subsequent chapters (cf. below); this adds to the eschatological context of the teaching, though this aspect may not be immediately apparent. Both the lex talionis principle, and the reversal-of-fortune theme, are in view here, as we find also in Jesus’ teaching (esp. in the Sermon on the Mount). The one who judges others (on earth), will be judged in turn by God (in heaven), with the emphasis being on the harsh judgment that awaits for those who mistreat or disregard the poor and needy.

James 3:5-6

There would seem to be another eschatological allusion in 3:6. The author (“James”) has shifted the focus from his discussion on the rich and poor, to give a similar kind of ethical instruction on guarding the tongue (i.e. how we speak). The colorful imagery he uses is quite typical of Jewish Wisdom literature (on instruction regarding the “tongue” in Proverbs, cf. 10:20, 31; 12:18-19; 15:2ff; 17:20; 18:21; 21:6; 26:28). In vv. 5-6 the destructive power of the tongue is compared to that of fire (cf. Prov 16:27; 26:21). The imagery is applied in verse 5, and then is built on in v. 6, including, it would seem, a kind of eschatological warning:

“And the tongue (is indeed) a fire—(as) the world th(at is) without justice, (so) the tongue is placed down among our members, the (thing) staining the whole body and setting aflame the (entire) course of th(is) coming to be, even as it is being set aflame under the (fire) of Ge-Hinnom.”

At the very least, v. 6b contains a warning of the end-time Judgment that awaits the wicked. It is a Judgment by fire, using the motif of the Ge-Hinnom (Valley of Hinnom) drawn from Israelite history and Old Testament/Jewish tradition. Jesus uses the idiom with some frequency in his teaching, of the fire that will burn up the wicked and faithless (Mark 9:43ff par; Matt 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Luke 12:5). This is the only occurrence in the New Testament outside of Jesus’ teaching. For the use of fire elsewhere, in an eschatological Judgment setting, cf. Matt 3:10-12 par; 7:19; 13:40; 25:41; Lk 17:29; John 15:6; 1 Cor 3:13ff; 2 Thess 1:8; 1 Pet 1:7; 2 Pet 3:7ff; Jude 7; Rev 8:5ff; 14:10, 18; 18:8; 19:20; 20:9-10, 14-15.

The expression o( troxo\$ th=$ gene/sew$ creates some difficulty. The noun troxo/$ essentially refers to something running or rolling (from the verb tre/xw); it could indicate specifically a “wheel”, or to the “track” or “course” in which something runs/rolls. This is the only occurrence of the noun in the New Testament; in the LXX, it typically refers to a wheel. The other noun in the expression, ge/nesi$, literally means “coming to be”, sometimes specifically in the sense of coming to be born, i.e. “birth”. Thus, in English the expression might be translated “wheel of birth”, “circle of life”, or something similar. Here it is intended as a comprehensive expression, describing all life that comes into existence on earth. Thus the imagery spans the macro and micro—the entire evil and unjust world alongside the little tongue. In many ways the two are the same; here the image is of the tongue, with its evil-speaking, setting fire to the entire body (compare Jesus’ similar use of the eye in Matt 6:22-23), the whole being of the person. At the same time, the person’s existence—indeed, that of the entire world—is set on fire by Ge-Hinnom. This may contain an allusion to the idea of the world being consumed by fire at the end of the Age (2 Pet 3:12). At any rate, as noted above, it is a reference to the eschatological Judgment.

James 4:11-5:11

The main eschatological portion of the letter of James begins at 4:11 and extends through 5:11, spanning two parallel sections which may be outlined as follows:

    • 4:11-12—A warning against speaking evil
      • 4:13-17—Warning against the shortness and uncertainty of life
    • 5:1-6—A warning against trust in worldly riches
      • 5:7-11—Warning of the nearness of the end (and the Judgment)

The two areas addressed—speaking evil and worldly riches—have been themes throughout the letter (cf. above). The warning against them has the end-time Judgment in mind. This is clear enough in 4:12, where God is identified as the one who will act as Judge over all humankind. The one who judges others, speaking evil of them (or against them), will be judged in turn by God at the end-time. The condemnation of those who devote themselves to worldly wealth and riches, in 5:1-6, is even harsher. Given the uncertainty and shortness of life (4:13-17), piling up earthly treasure is, in general, foolish and inappropriate. How much more foolish is it when one realizes that the end of the Age is near— “You have gathered treasure (here) in the last days!” (v. 3b) And, since much, if not most, earthly wealth is obtained, at least in part, through the exploitation and oppression of others (including the poor), those who are rich will face God’s Judgment, which is coming soon enough:

“…the cries of the (one)s (hav)ing harvested [i.e. workers/laborers] have come into the ears of the Lord Sabaoth! You destroyed yourself (with pleasure) upon the earth and (liv)ed in luxury, you nourished your heart on a day of slaughter!…” (vv. 4b-5a)

In verse 7, the author turns to address those who are poor and oppressed; at the same time, he speaks to believers, who, in large part, would fit this category. So too, in Jesus’ teaching, he assumes that his disciples will be among the poor and meek, those who mourn and are persecuted, etc (see esp. the Beatitudes, Matt 5:3-12 par). The exhortation here assumes that the end-time Judgment, when the wrongs (on earth) will be righted by God, and the righteous will receive their true wage (reward), is coming very soon. Harvest imagery is employed, regularly used as part of eschatological instruction in the New Testament:

“So (then), brothers, you must be long of impulse, until the Lord’s (com)ing to be alongside (us) [parousi/a]. See! the worker of the earth [i.e. land] looks to receive out of (it) the valuable fruit of the earth, having a long impulse upon it, until he should receive (that which comes) before and (that which comes) later. (So) also you must be long of impulse, setting your hearts firm, (in) that [i.e. because] the Lord’s being alongside (us) [parousi/a] has come near!” (vv. 7-8)

The verb makroqume/w is difficult to translate; it means to be makroqumw/$ (“long of impulse”), that is, possessing a long and enduring impulse (qumo/$), or desire, such as for a specific goal or purpose. It can connote specifically the idea of endurance or being patient; however, here it is better understood in tandem with the verb sthri/zw (“set firm”), indicating a strength and firmness of purpose, willing to endure any suffering or hardship. Translating the verb makroqume/w as “be patient” could give the misleading impression that the Lord’s appearance and the end-time Judgment may not occur for quite some time. This is flatly contradicted by the clear statements expressing imminence—i.e., that the end will come very soon, possibly at any moment:

“the Lord’s being alongside us has come near” (v. 8b)
h( parousi/a tou= kuri/ou h&ggiken
“see! the Judge has taken (his) stand before the door” (v. 9)
i)dou\ o( krith\$ pro\ tw=n qurw=n e%sthken

So, too, in the example of Job, etc, in vv. 10-11, it is not the “patience” of Job that is being emphasized, so much as his firm resolve (we might also say his faith) while enduring suffering and hardship.

Twice in vv. 7-8, the noun parousi/a is used. It is a rather ordinary word, referring to a person “(com)ing to be alongside”; however, very early on, it came to serve as a technical term among Christians for the end-time appearance (return) of Jesus (the “parousia”)–cf. Matt 24:3, 27, 37, 39; 1 Thess 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess 2:1, 8; 1 Cor 15:23; 2 Pet 1:16; 3:4, 12; 1 John 2:28. In a Jewish setting, the expression “the Lord’s (com)ing to be alongside” (h( parousi/a tou= kur/iou) would have referred to the appearance of God, coming to bring Judgment and to deliver His people; however, for early Christians the title ku/rio$ could be used interchangeably for God the Father (YHWH) and Jesus. Moreover, even in Jewish eschatological tradition, God’s end-time appearance would take place through His appointed representative, a heavenly/divine being or Messianic figure. Paul uses the same expression (of Jesus) in 1 Thess 4:15 and 2 Thess 2:1, filling it out “the parousi/a of our Lord” (cf. also 1 Thess 2:19; 3:13; 5:23, “…of our Lord Yeshua”).

On the use of the verb e)ggi/zw (“come near”), and other terminology to express the imminent expectation of the end among early Christians, see my separate article on the subject.

Genesis 15:6 in Galatians and James

The famous contrast between the discussion of “faith and works” in the Epistle of James and by Paul in Romans/Galatians finds its greatest point of difference/disagreement in the use of Genesis 15:6

  )Abraa\m e)pi/steusen tw=| qew=| kai\ e)logi/sqh au)tw=| ei)$ dikaiosu/nhn
“Abraham trusted (in) God and it was counted to/for him unto justice/righteousness”

as rendered in Greek by the LXX and in the New Testament. Paul expounds this verse in the fourth chapter of Romans (Rom 4), but this treatment largely follows that in Galatians 3-4 (Galatians usually admitted as being written some time before Romans). It is also in Galatians that Paul presents a more forceful rhetorical and theological argument against “works of the Law”, as contrasted with trust/faith in Christ; therefore, it is more appropriate to use Galatians as the primary basis of comparison with the epistle of James (Jas 2:14-26).

In Galatians, Paul cites Gen 15:6 (in Gal 3:6) just prior to the Scriptural arguments, centered on Abraham, in Gal 3:7-29; cf. the articles on Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians These two arguments involve the blessing (3:7-14) and promise (3:15-29) to Abraham, emphasizing that the blessing comes by faith (not the Law) and that the promise comes to believers through Jesus Christ (not by observing the Law). Romans 4:4-25 provides a similar discussion.

In the letter of James, the citation of Gen 15:6 (in Jas 2:23) comes at a climactic point toward the end of the (ethical) instruction in 2:14-26. The central proposition (and declaration) is that faith “apart from works” is dead and cannot save a person (2:14-17). There would seem, on the surface at least, to be several significant differences between the claims made by Paul and the author of James (trad. James, the brother of Jesus), which were often emphasized in prior commentaries and works on New Testament theology. However, today scholars and commentators (of all stripes) tend to downplay or dismiss the idea of any real (direct) conflict between these passages, though often for different reasons:

    • Traditional-conservative commentators have generally sought to harmonize Paul and James, under the basic doctrinal assumption that the inspired Writings would not (or could not) be in disagreement
    • For critical scholars, on the other hand, among the more important factors are:
      (1) A tendency to look at individual New Testament writings, without feeling the need to compare/harmonize with others, and to focus more precisely on the specific context in each book
      (2) A tendency to soften or qualify Paul’s arguments in Galatians regarding the Law, limiting their rhetorical and theological scope, in light of what is (often) assumed as Paul’s more positive view of Judaism and the Law elsewhere in his life and writings

I am less willing than many to dismiss all conflict between the interpretive approaches of Paul and ‘James’ on this question of “faith and works”, as there do seem to be several substantive differences. In order to highlight these, it will be necessary to look briefly at the salient points of comparison:

e&rga “works”—It is sometimes said that James and Paul are using the term “works” (e&rga) in a fundamentally different sense, and, as such, are not really talking about the same things. This is not quite accurate; rather, it would seem that James is using the term in a general way, as “action”, while Paul is referring to specific types of religious action. The examples James offers are reflective of (a) charitable giving (esp. to the poor and needy) and/or (b) sacrificial giving (offering from oneself), but otherwise describe various sorts of action. Paul uses the expression “works of (the) Law” (e&rga no/mou) to refer specifically to the performance/observance of the commands and regulations in the Law (Torah), especially that of circumcision. Based on 2:8-13, James would presumably include “works of the Law”—at least the ethical aspects of the Law, as interpreted by Jesus (as in the Sermon on the Mount)—among the “works” described in vv. 14-26. There is no definite indication, anywhere in the letter, that James would include the ritual/ceremonial aspects of the Law (such as circumcision); in that respect, James and Paul are probably in agreement.

pi/sti$ “trust/faith”—Again, it would appear that James uses the word pi/sti$ in a more general sense than Paul does in Galatians, etc. It is likely that, despite the reference in 2:1, pi/sti$ in vv. 14-26 means “belief” without a specific object of belief necessarily being indicated (in v. 19 it is belief in God, generally). On the other hand, in Galatians, Paul typically, when contrasting “faith” with “works”, refers specifically to faith in Jesus Christ (Gal 2:16) or, more precisely, faith in response to hearing the Gospel message (Gal 3:2, 5).

xwri/$ “apart from”—Several times (in 2:18, 20, 26), James uses the expression “faith separate/apart from [xwri/$] works”, to emphasize the importance of faith/belief being expressed in action—the two (faith and action) go together, and cannot be separated. Paul never uses xwri/$ in Galatians, but does so notably in Romans, emphasizing that:

    • The justice/righteousness of God has been manifest [lit. has shone forth] “apart from [xwri\$] the Law” (3:21)
    • A man is made just/righteous by faith/trust “apart from [xwri\$] works of (the) Law” (3:28)
    • (Ps 32:2) Happy is the man for whom God counts justice/righteousness “apart from [xwri\$] works” (4:6)

The last reference matches the expression in James, and also shares the context of quotation from Gen 15:6 (cf. below). However, Paul’s use of “apart from works” could not be more different from that of James; indeed, he makes virtually the opposite point—faith (in Christ) is separate/apart from works! This, of course, is precisely the argument Paul makes in Galatians 2:15-21 and throughout chapters 3-4, and is the very context in which Gen 15:6 is cited.

dikaio/w “made/declared just”—Here, too, James (in 2:21, 24) seems to be saying the opposite of Paul, that Abraham was made/declared just (or righteous) “out of works” (i.e., by or because of his actions), rather than by/through faith (Rom 3:28; 5:1; Gal 2:16; 3:11, 24). But are James and Paul using the verb dikaio/w in the same way? This is an important question, and on it hinges the possibility of conflict between the two viewpoints. The verb does not appear in James apart from this section (2:21, 24-25), but the adjective di/kaio$ (“just/righteous”) is used in 5:6, 16, and the noun dikaiosu/nh (“justice/righteousness”) in 3:18 (apart from the citation of Gen 15:6 in 2:23). These instances suggest that James is using the words in their traditional/Jewish sense, of religious and ethical/moral behavior which is according to the will of God (and which will be rewarded by Him), much as they are used in the teaching of Jesus (cf. Matt 5:45; 9:13; 10:41, et al). Paul, on the other hand, developed a distinct theological (and soteriological) technical meaning and connotation for the word-group which would appear to be foreign to the epistle of James (especially if the early date often given for the letter is correct). Would James (that is, the author of the letter) have agreed with Paul’s usage? On objective grounds, this is difficult to say. Much depends on the interpretation of his use of Gen 15:6.

Genesis 15:6—The citation in James 2:23 occurs toward the end of the ethical instruction of 2:14-26, with an emphasis on the importance of religious faith (in God and/or Christ) being expressed in action, especially in charitable/sacrificial giving (to the poor and needy, vv. 15-16) and in obedience to the will of God. In respect to the latter, the example of Abraham is given, particularly of his willingness to sacrifice Isaac at God’s command (Gen 22). It is Abraham’s trust, expressed in action—a most momentous action—which is emphasized; Gen 15:6 is cited as though God’s declaration followed this action. Paul (in Gal 3:6, also Rom 4:3ff) treats it more properly in its Scriptural context (Gen 15:1-5); note the comparison:

Both contextual situations relate to God’s promise to Abraham of many descendants (through Isaac), but—

Paul refers to the original promise (Gen 15:1-5) of a son,
prior to any proving/testing of Abraham’s faith in action
James effectively refers to God’s confirmation of the promise (by the Messenger of YHWH, Gen 22:15-18),
subsequent to (and as a result of [cf. verse 16]) the testing/proving of Abraham’s faith in action

However, it could be argued that the use of Gen 15:6 in the context of Gen 22 is misplaced; certainly, for Paul, the promise is related entirely to faith/trust in Jesus Christ. The only sacrificial action or efficacious “work” he mentions in Galatians is that of Jesus (Gal 1:4; 2:19-20; 3:13; 4:5). To a lesser extent, he also refers to his own labors (as apostle/missionary of Jesus, 4:12-20); but, overall, praxis is minimal in his ethical teaching (6:1-2, 9-10), with more focus given on the Spirit as the guiding force for believers (5:17-26; 6:6-10). James gives much greater emphasis to specific behavior (Jas 1:19-21, 26-27; 2:1-7, 9-11, 15-16, etc).

In what sense, for James, was Abraham (or Rahab, 2:25) made/declared just through works? Verse 22 gives the answer by the use of two verbs:

    • sunerge/w (“work [together] with”)—”trust/faith worked together [sunh/rgei] with his works”
    • teleio/w (“complete, finish”)—”(his) trust/faith was completed [e)teleiw/qh] out of [i.e. from, by] (his) works”

In the first, proper religious/ethical action is the natural (and necessary) complement of faith; in the second, such action also completes one’s faith. This brings us to the last point of comparison:

teleio/w “complete, finish”—Interestingly, Paul uses an intensive (compound) form of this same verb in the context of his citation of Gen 15:6 (in the section Gal 3:1-6, v. 3), where he asks the Galatians:

“having begun in the Spirit, are you now being completed [e)pitelei=sqe] in/by (the) flesh?”

This contrasting juxtaposition is parallel to that between faith and (works of) the Law. Paul warns the (Gentile, non-Jewish) Galatians against adopting circumcision and observance of the Jewish Law (Torah), effectively arguing that their faith should not be “completed by works”. It is here that we perhaps encounter the greatest (substantial) difference between James and Paul. Consider how the logic in the letter of James essentially proceeds:

Abraham’s faith/trust in God was expressed (and confirmed/completed) by his action in sacrificing Isaac…
…therefore we, as believers, ought to express our faith (in Christ) through (sacrificial) action in love and obedience to the word of God

However, circumcision was another way in which Abraham demonstrated his obedience to God (also involving a kind of sacrifice of his son), cf. Gen 17:9-14; 21:4. Might not Paul’s Jewish-Christian ‘opponents’ argue in a similar way:

Abraham’s faith/trust in God was expressed (and confirmed/completed) by his action in circumcising Isaac…
…therefore we, as believers, ought to express our faith (in Christ) through action (circumcision and observing the Torah) in love and obedience to the word of God

While Paul certainly would have agreed with the importance of moral/ethical behavior (cf. Gal 5:16-25) and for believers to support one another (6:1-2), I doubt very much that he would speak of works (of any sort) completing our faith in Christ. Note how in Gal 5:16-26, the negative “works of the flesh” refer to specific sorts of actions, while the contrasting “fruit of the Spirit” are more general characteristics. The closest he comes in Galatians to a specific instruction regarding action for the believer is in the basic exhortation to “walk by the Spirit” (5:16, 25). Such practical instruction is relatively rare in the other epistles as well, being most prominent in 1 Corinthians, where the instruction is often prompted as the result of questions to him by the Corinthian congregations.

Paul’s emphasis on the (Holy) Spirit brings up another major difference with James—the two instances of the word pneu=ma in the letter (Jas 2:26; 4:5) both refer to the ordinary (natural) human spirit/soul/life, and not to the Holy Spirit. The lack of any reference to the Spirit in James is most striking, and is one of the reasons that some commentators consider the letter to be primarily a Jewish (and only nominally Christian) work. Indeed, much of the language, style and content of James follows traditional Jewish instruction, and is closer (in tone and emphasis) to the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount than to Paul’s epistles. These differences can be partially explained if one accepts the early date often ascribed to the letter of James (c. 35-40 A.D.). According to this view, James might have been written anywhere between 10 and 20 years earlier than Galatians and Romans, etc. Paul, in his letters, would, by this time, have established a more precise terminology and developed theology, especially with regard to the Jewish-Gentile question, the relation of believers to the Law, sin and salvation, the nature of the Gospel and Christian identity, and so forth—all areas of discussion which are virtually absent from James.