April 26, 2009

James' Seeker Friendly Epistle

My brain has a hair trigger when James' Epistle comes up. After some good interaction at Pat McCullough's blog, I decided to post these thoughts. As preface, let me first say I assume James' epistle was written by James the Just, brother of Jesus, chief cook and bottle washer of the latter "early" church in Jerusalem, who died in 62 AD. I further assume the Just one was writing largely in response to Paul's Galatian letter. As I've argued recently, Jimmy-J and Paulie G were "talking past" one another, much like certain scholars continue to do today. Bottom line, the fact that they seem to be arguing doesn't mean either man said anything inaccurate or untrue. All of this should be assumed when I make my first point, any moment now...

The big question to me is, "Who was James writing to?" Like a lot of believers, Pat seems to assume James' listeners were "followers of the Jesus movement". I am not at all convinced that they were. Pat also says "Jesus ('the Lord') obviously plays an important role in the letter." Funny, I have the exact opposite impression.

By my reading, Jesus only gets two brief mentions, just long enough for James to establish his credentials as a member of the new movement. Everything else in the letter suggests he was writing to non-christian Jews, especially this - James was writing to the twelve tribes who were meeting in Synagogues (2:2) with chief seats for offering to visitors. The vast bulk of the letter would seem to read the same to a Jewish audience even without the two references to Jesus. ("Lord", it is well established, can be a reference to the God of the Hebrews.)

So why mention Jesus? In my view, James was trying to show his diaspora brethren that not all the followers of the new Jesus movement were rejecting tradition as violently as Paul of Tarsus was doing. In other words, James claimed christianity just long enough to show how acceptable christianity could be, and how very, very Jewish some Jewish-christians still were. It's also possible James had an ulterior motive, that this could make Jesus more appealing to his nonbelieving brethren. The unstated message - it was possible to accept Jesus without altering their current faith or religion in any way. Perhaps even more, James wanted to give the impression that Jesus' followers were renewing true Judaism! (For more, see my post of last June.)

This view seems to fit with the James we see in Acts, who did everything he could to keep the new movement acceptable to those who were most firmly entrenched in the old ways. At the very least, I don't see any reason to assume James' listeners were already believers. To sum up my view with a comparison to recent trends, I'm suggesting that James' epistle was essentially "Seeker Friendly", a combination of P.R. and outreach to the Hebrew nation scattered abroad. Again, that's pretty much how James lived his life in Judea, and why he was famous there, well respected even among Jews who were not believers in Christ.

This may or may not be an original idea, but I'd love some feedback. Anyone intrigued?


Anonymous said...

Does your position on the letter of James might imply that Christianity has more than one origin? Should we use the term "christian origins" instead of "christian origin"? Or even christianities not christianity?

By the way, were James' audience former followers of Jesus or just new converts in the Jesus movement?

Just some thoughts?

Bill Heroman said...

Love the questions, Lou.

Depending on your definition, "christianity" has many origins. People are making up new versions every year. However, if by "christianity" we mean the corporate experience (and expression) of a spiritual union with an indwelling Christ in the spirit, well, that began in the upper room on Easter Sunday night. :)

So, to be academic: yes, I think "origins" plural is fair. But I don't have a high opinion of the pseudo-christianities that emerged - "false brethren" and so forth.

To your second question, I've suggested neither. I'm suggesting James' epistle was written to non-christian Synagogues, few of whose members would have been believers in Jesus. In your terms, I'm suggesting James saw them partly as potential future converts, but primarily as brethren to be reconciled with in any event.

Does that make it more clear?

Anonymous said...

An interesting point, Bill. I appreciate your comments. I would like to clarify my own. That Jesus plays "an important role" in the letter goes beyond the two explicit references to the name "Jesus." I believe there is some tension in his use of kurios, though. Clearly, it often refers to the "God of the Hebrews." But both instances of Jesus' name are accompanied by kurios as well. The reference in 2:1 uses the phrase "our glorious Lord"--perhaps an implicit reference to the resurrection?

It is difficult for me to see the "coming of the Lord" (5:7-8) as meaning something other than the second coming of Jesus. His reference to the "word of truth" may have some relationship to Jesus or at least Christian practices (difficult to say).

But beyond the direct references, James also appears to be quite consistent with the Jesus tradition... Prohibition of oaths, "love your neighbor as yourself" (though Jesus wasn't the only Jew to single this out), "ask and it will be given to you", etc.

For these reasons and others, I still think Jesus plays an "important role" in the letter.

That said, I agree with many of your points here and you've given me some things to consider. My primary objective with the post you link to was to show that arguments from silence are often not useful and sometimes illogical. You have helpfully pointed out that my very brief argument was not as strong as it could have been!

Bill Heroman said...

Hey, Pat. Thanks for the friendly push back. You're sharp and I like what you're saying. On "Lord", I can definitely see James having it both ways, perhaps expecting the spirit to speak to those whose ears would hear which "Lord" he meant. I'm not sure what 5:7-8 would mean to a 1st century Jew, but it still seems deliberately vague.

As far as the traditions, you're right that it's inconclusive. Obviously Jesus & James grew up in the same town. If the Sermon on the Mt and the epistle of James had a common source, such as a Nazareth Rabbi perhaps, that would explain the difference between them. Personally, I find the SOTM takes its points higher each time, whereas I think James is pretty straightforward all thru. Just throwing out another idea to consider. :)

I will agree that Jesus can play an important role in the letter *if* you read Him into the points where you do. Again, that may be exactly what James was going for, if he was soft-selling while fishing for seekers.

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