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.
I can’t really say that I “believe deep in my heart that God raised Jesus from the pit of death.” Would request you kindly be nice to me and others who don’t believe this. Thank you.
Many people do not believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, but that is central to the Christian faith. If you are interested in learning what Christians mean by this, consider Mike Licona’s book The Resurrection of Jesus. I would hope that all Christians would be “nice” to people who may disagree with them. Also central to the Christian faith is “do to others what you would want others do to you.” That includes being nice.
What about James’ christology?
I think this does speak of James’ Christology, though it would take a much longer post to address that.
I think it touches on Christological issues, but to say that it “speaks of James’ Christology” is in my opinion a bit of an oversell. Yes, a longer post might be necessary. I have a take on it myself, which only finds limited company among orthodox Christians.
Jaco van Zyl
You are correct. This touches on christology but it is not a comprehensive, synthetic view of James’ assessment of Jesus and his significance. I’m thinking of christology in the non-technical sense, a word or thinking about Christ. Whenever we do that, we are doing Christology. To do so adequately, would take 40-50 pages. So what is your take on James’ Christology?
The letter of James, the brother of Jesus, is a Jewish writing oriented toward wisdom theology. It focuses more on daily living and existential practice than on doctrine and dogma, although the writer’s own theology and theology of the target audience can be adduced by what he writes. This is also the case with the writer’s Christology.
The letter of James draws an ontological distinction between God and Jesus Christ (1:1). God is identified as the Father (1:26) and Jesus Christ is called “Lord” (1:1; 2:1; cp. 3:9) in the opening verses (as discussed below, “Lord” was probably also understood to refer to God). This distinction is also drawn in 1:13-15 where God is said to be the one who does not tempt with evil, nor can he be tempted with evil. Since the target audience would have been well aware of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, they would understand him to be someone other than their God – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. To the writer, the God of Israel and the Father is one and the same. Reference is made to the sovereign truth of the Shema in 2:19 – so much so that not even the demons deny it – which the writer understood to be referring to God, the Father, the same One who befriended Abraham (2:23). The same One – God who is the Father – is the One identified in OT reference as He who “opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (4:6, cp. Prov. 3:34). To submit to God (4:7) and to submit to the Lord (4:10) could either refer to the same Person (cp. 2 Chr. 34:27), or to God and Jesus respectively.
God is to be asked for wisdom (1:5), and the “Lord,” probably the risen Jesus, is understood to be the one from whom what is requested is also received (1:8). The victorious would receive the crown of life (1:12) from the One they love. Some textual variants read “he,” others “the Lord” and yet others “God” from whom the crown would be received. Ultimately all good gifts come from the Source of these – “the Father of lights” – from whom “birth” is given by the word of truth, rendering these newly born “first-fruits” (cp. Ro. 8:23; 1 Cor. 15:20). From an earlier writer, the risen Jesus Christ would be the first among the first-fruits (1 Cor. 15:23).
Reference is also made to God’s righteousness (1:20; cp. Ro. 1:17; 3:21, 22; 10:3; 2 Cor. 5:21) and to His having chosen the poor to be “rich in faith” and be “heirs of the kingdom.” Allusion to Deuteronomy 7:6 and 14:2 is probably made here, as well as to Psalm 33:12, Isaiah 43:10 and 65:15, understood to have been ultimately fulfilled in first-century followers of the Lord Jesus. In these OT texts, the selection as heirs of this kingdom was understood to be made by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God also of Jesus.
Some texts have been used to show a high Christology in their reference to Jesus. The rationale employed is usually the kurios-YHWH relationship in the LXX. Almost by default, then, the kurios title as it refers to Jesus is understood to be YHWH and the conclusion made that Jesus is somehow ontologically identical to YHWH. There are several problems with this favourite interpretation.
Firstly, the title kurios could apply to more than God alone (Matt. 10:24, 27:63; 1 Pet. 3:6). In the case of the Messiah, Jesus was understood to be the human Lord, representative of YHWH, according to Ps. 110:1. This second Lord was never understood to be anything other than a glorious human. Crowned with glory, it is fitting for the writer of the letter of James to call Jesus the Lord of glory (2:1, cp. 1 Sa. 2:8, Ps. 8:5). Elsewhere this divine glory would be attained by humans who would be transformed by the same Spirit which transformed Jesus the Messiah (cp. Ro. 6:4, 8:18, 2 Cor. 3:18, 4:6; 1 Pet. 4:14).
Since the writer understood the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be the Father, and Jesus to be someone else, possible explanation is required for references, such as “Lord of hosts,” (5:4), “prophets who spoke in the Lord’s name” (5:10) and that the “Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” (5:11; cp. 2 Cor. 1:3). Clearly these references could either apply to YHWH of the OT, or to Jesus who by derived authority acted in YHWH’s behalf. In Jesus, the Messianic King, YHWH would come (5:8), he would judge (5:9, cp. Ac. 17:39), and in His Name the sick would be anointed and raised up (5:14, 15, cp. Ex. 23:21).
While a high Christology can be derived from the Book of James, keeping it within a first-century Jewish Sitz im Leben paints a picture different from the ontologically divine Lord Jesus of later Church councils.