Monday, November 30, 2009

Historical facts (and speculation) about The General Epistle of James

1. It is possible that James was not originally a letter, but rather that it contains a grouping of collected (and edited) discourses by James. Some scholars have claimed that the Greek in James is too fluent for James himself to have written it. It is possible that the epistle of James that we have was compiled and edited by someone much more fluent in Greek than James, but I feel that the words still belong to James.

2. James is one of the seven Biblical epistles that are referred to as “Catholic Epistles” (The KJV Bible refers to these letters as “General” Epistles). No, this doesn’t mean that they were only written for Catholics. The word Catholic is based on the Greek word “katholikos” which means “universal”, and refers to the fact that these letters were intended for the entire church (and anyone else who might read them). These letters are less concerned with regional problems, and generally focus on broader concepts that apply to the entirety of Christianity. Or in other words, they contain concepts that have “universal application”. Apparently we have Eusebius (who lived from roughly AD 263-339…He was Bishop of Caesarea (in Palestine) during the fourth century, and was a contemporary of Constantine. He has been referred to as the Father of Church history because of his important works that chronicle early Christian history) to thank for this designation, as he coined the term in his “Ecclesiastical History”. According to Eusebius, all seven of these letters have something in common, namely that they were all some of the most disputed of the books that eventually formed our New Testament. This is because the clerics that decided what books would make up the canon believed that these letters were written late in the Christian era, and a late authorship date would mean that some of these letters are forgeries. Part of the reason that they suspected both the authenticity and the antiquity of James is because they couldn’t find any references to the writings contained in the Epistle in any of the writings of the “Ancient” Christian Fathers. Therefore they surmised that The Epistle of James might have been one of myriad late (“late” in this instance more or less applies to pseudo-scripture written later than the first century or so) apocryphal forgeries (that claimed to have been written by one of the Apostles) that were floating around at the time that these clerics were attempting to determine which books were authentic. This particular type of scriptural forgery is called pseudepigrapha. Obviously they eventually accepted the book into the canon, but there has been some question over precise authorship, and especially the precise time period in which James was written. I should probably note that subsequent scholarship has unearthed ancient references to James (to which the clerics of the 4th century apparently did not have access).

3. There is some minor dispute over the precise dating of the authorship of these Catholic epistles. This is partly because many modern scholars cannot bring themselves to believe that the church was organized enough, early enough (in other words, prior to Peter’s death, or the Neronian persecution), for these letters to have an early authorship date. They believe (erroneously, in my opinion) that the church began as a group of loosely affiliated communities (that shared a common belief in Christ but differed in doctrine and/or the performance of ordinances) that eventually (over decades) coalesced into one monolithic church. If you believe this, then the Catholic epistles are confusing to you, unless you arbitrarily assign them a later date. This creates controversy largely because some of the authors were dead before these scholars would like to believe that these epistles were written. So it essentially comes down to a question of authorship. I therefore support the notion that these letters are indeed authentic writings of the apostles and not forgeries, and that would suggest an earlier date. An early date for these letters, which are addressed to a distinctly organized church apparatus, serves as proof that the church began as a uniform, and well-organized entity, and subsequently fractured due to apostasy. I think that I established this particular fact rather authoritatively (using proofs from the New Testament itself) during our two previous Bible studies. Therefore, I support an early date for the authorship of the Catholic epistles, and that’s one of the reasons why I made a point to study James first (even though Galatians (a Pauline epistle) may have been written first). An early date places the authorship of James at around 50 AD or a little earlier.

4. James, the author of this epistle, was the brother of Jesus Christ (see Galatians 1:19). Traditionally he has been referred to as “James the Just”, and in some cases, he has also been identified with "James the Less” although I am of the opinion that these were two separate individuals. He is also referred to in Galatians 1:19 as an Apostle (one of the twelve that was ordained after Christ’s ascension, presumably to replace one who had died). His role as an actual member of THE Twelve apostles is illustrated by both his presence at, and his contributions to the Jerusalem Conference (in Acts 15) from which was issued the proclamation deciding what was lawfully necessary to observe for Gentile converts to Christianity. His role as an actual apostle is also emphasized by the fact that he held the authority to write a letter of doctrine addressed to the entire church. Richard Lloyd Anderson (a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University) goes so far as to assert, in an article in the August 1988 edition of The Ensign magazine, that James The Just actually succeeded James the son of Zebedee as a member of the first presidency, and cites Galatians 1:19 and 2:9 to support this claim. James is also definitely referred to as the first bishop of Jerusalem by several early (but Non-Biblical) sources. These historians (such as Eusebius) lived in an age without apostolic authority, and it’s possible that they had no context for an authority higher than that of a Bishop, and therefore were confused as to James true role within the organization of the primitive church. It is also possible that he held both callings simultaneously (possibly due to a scarcity of worthy High Priests in the Church). I have theorized (this is pure speculation on my part) that James may have held a position similar to that of the presiding bishop today while simultaneously serving as an Apostle.

5. Josephus (A.D. 37- 100…Josephus was a Jewish historian that was a contemporary of many of the apostles.) tells us (and I believe him) that James was dragged before the Sanhedrin (during a gap in local Roman power created by the death of the local procurator (Roman Governor) Festus, and the necessary delay before Albinus replaced him) on a flimsy and vague charge of “breaking the law”, and that James was subsequently sentenced to death by stoning. Josephus places this event at around 60 AD, which is given credibility by the book of Acts because any or all mention of James ceases after 60 AD. Hegesippus claims additionally that James was first thrown off of the temple roof or wall, and then stoned to death when the fall didn’t kill him, but I find this account to be somewhat dubious at best. According to early Christian historians, James the Just was apparently succeeded by Simeon of Jerusalem. Eusebius tells us that Simeon was, in fact, called and ordained by the Apostles, and he explains the precise familial relationship between Simeon and the Savior. If you recall, I couldn’t find any evidence to support the idea that Simeon was called by the proper authority when I talked about this two weeks ago, but in my subsequent research I discovered this quote from Eusebius:

“After the martyrdom of James and the conquest of Jerusalem which immediately followed, it is said that those of the apostles and disciples of the Lord that were still living came together from all directions with those that were related to the Lord according to the flesh (for the majority of them also were still alive) to take counsel as to who was worthy to succeed James. They all with one consent pronounced Symeon, the son of Clopas, of whom the Gospel also makes mention; to be worthy of the episcopal throne of that parish. He was a cousin, as they say, of the Saviour. For Hegesippus records that Clopas was a brother of Joseph”.

6. James ch. 1 is concerned with demonstrating to the reader the necessity for a vital, active Christianity in each of us, as stated in verse 22:

But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.

James is also concerned with helping the saints become true followers of Jesus Christ, and so a theme of individual perfection and “pure Christianity” is central to this chapter.

Even verse 5 has much to do with individual perfection: Please be sure to read verses 4 and 6 together with 5, so that people can appreciate the context of this famous verse. James exhorts us to withstand temptation, and trials of our faith in order that we might become more like Christ (by developing aspects of his personality-namely faith and patience) to the end that we might become perfect and whole. (Peter has more to say about this in 1 Peter 1: 6-9)

It is also important to note that James is asking us (in v. 5) to ask God for a particular attribute of Christ that may be lacking in our lives, in this case wisdom, but I would argue that this advice applies to any instance in which we might seek to overcome our faults and become more like Christ.

Emphasize that “God is not a wishing well” by pointing out that in vs. 6-7 James makes it clear that one cannot simply make an idle request for an answer/blessing from God and hope to be magically granted a solution. Instead one must develop the faith necessary to receive an answer to one’s prayers, and God will reward that faith.

Verse 13 is doctrinally significant: God doesn’t tempt anyone, nor can God be tempted.

Verse 18: “God begat us with the word of truth.” WHO is the word of truth?

Verse 22: I wanted to teach you about a biblical preoccupation of protestant Christianity today, namely faith (or grace) VS. works. The writings of Paul and James are often seen as being at odds over this doctrine. In fact Martin Luther himself (who preferred Paul’s writings) called the epistle of James a “ right strawy epistle” or basically an “epistle of straw”. Luther felt that James contradicted his own particular interpretation of Paul’s writings- namely that one is saved by faith alone, and that works don’t enter into it. For this reason, Martin Luther felt that the epistle of James lacked “Gospel character”. Other scholars have imagined a philosophical/doctrinal/political power struggle between the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem under James, and the gentile Christian community under the leadership of Paul. These scholars speculate that James was eventually edged out by Paul (as far as determining the course of the church goes) as a result of this power struggle. The idea that James and Paul themselves were at odds is a silly notion, because the epistle of James was almost certainly written before all or nearly all of Paul’s letters, and there is no evidence the either man was aware of the writings of the other. Also, James is mainly talking about “good works” or acts of Christian kindness motivated by genuine charity (or the pure love of Christ) as opposed to respect for persons. (see James 2:1-8) Paul, in turn, is generally referring to the “works of the Law” or the observances attendant to the Law of Moses. My point is that James is talking about apples when he talks about faith without works being dead, and Paul is generally talking about oranges when he says that works are NOT necessary for salvation. Thus there really is no argument here, and I would argue that the two men (James and Paul) support each other.

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