I have the privilege of teaching with Dr. Peter Davids at HBU. Peter is a world class scholar who has devoted much of his writing and research to the Catholic or General Letters. Peter assisted with us in the theological review of many NT books for The Voice project. I asked him recently about the portrait of Jesus in the letter of James.
According to James, Jesus is the exalted and glorious Lord who now reigns and will come again to judge the living and the dead. James is not a Gospel, so there is no narrative of Jesus’ life and death. Yet James draws heavily on the example and teaching of Jesus.
While modern Christians may be focused on the afterlife, James is fixed on this life and what faith in Jesus means now. His readers claim to be following Jesus; well, are they really? James is a teaching letter and his ethics appear close to what we find in Matthew, particularly the Sermon on the Mount.
There are no direct quotations of Jesus’ teaching in James, the closest we come to that is James 5:12 (similar to Matthew 5:35-37):
12 It is even more important, my brothers and sisters, that you remember not to make a vow by the heavens or the earth or by anything. When you say “yes,” it should always mean “yes,” and “no” should always mean “no.” If you can keep your word, you will avoid judgment.
John Kloppenberg has made the case that James makes use of aemulatio, a rhetorical form where James takes a teaching of Jesus and conforms it to his setting. In other words, James reworks Jesus’ teaching to fit the current situation of the diaspora churches he is addressing.
So James is not all that different than what we find in the rest of the NT. Jesus is coming again as judge. Are you obeying him now? James’ emphasis on Jesus’ future coming implies that their present sufferings are not without meaning; so, be patient and don’t take matters into your own hands. Trust the judge to settle all scores.
But if James were the only account we had of Jesus’ life, we wouldn’t know much about his past. The Church would celebrate his coming and his ascension to the right hand of the Father. With no account of his birth, however, we would probably not celebrate Christmas. There would be more emphasis on calling people to obedience to Jesus now. The Church’s mission could be summed up this way: calling people to Jesus as Lord and living in the hope of his coming.
With James as our guide, the church probably would not have developed the kind of hierarchy we see in some churches. Yet James does speak as a patriarch of sorts, a central authority writing from the mother church in Jerusalem and instructing scattered Christian communities in the tense times they found themselves in.
According to tradition, James was a member of Jesus’ family, but the letter never makes the explicit claim. Still it must have meant something in the early Jewish-Christian communities to have been part of the family of Jesus. Later generations may de-emphasize that fact and privilege Paul and Peter over members of Jesus family. Still it must have been “a big deal” to have had been related to Jesus.
Dr. Davids said that Paul is often misread over against James. But if pressed, James would have agreed with Romans 10:9-10:
So if you believe deep in your heart that God raised Jesus from the pit of death and if you voice your allegiance by confessing the truth that “Jesus is Lord,” then you will be saved! 10 Belief begins in the heart and leads to a life that’s right with God; confession departs from our lips and brings eternal salvation.
For James, however, saving faith is faith that goes to work for the poor, faith that obeys the risen Lord, and faith that seeks wisdom from above. So for James—as a follower of Jesus—salvation results not only a secure future with God but ethical behavior before God.