February 20, 2012

The Intentional Ambiguity of James' Epistle

Phillip J. Long has the scoop, in his review of a chapter from Karen Jobes' book Letters to the Church. I've not read the book, but I'm very intrigued by Phillip's summary of her position:
She refers to an implicit Christology in the letter, recognizing the fact that James only refers to Jesus unambiguously twice, although she thinks the “Lord’s coming” in 5:7-8 refers to Jesus.  Her strategy is interesting.  She gathers all the references to the Lord in James and shows that these all could refer to either Jesus or God.  This ambiguity was intentional, so that James is speaking of Jesus or the God of the Old Testament in the same breath. James considers Jesus the same as God.   Given the serious nature of blasphemy in the first century, she argues that this is a high Christology after all.
This seems to fit perfectly to my reading of James and provides a third option besides either criticizing James for being insufficiently christian or defending him by assertive reinterpretation of all the "Lord" references.

In short, we might say James' Christology is both "high" and "low", or at least both high and "low-key".

Jobes' position is brilliant and happens to illustrate at least one part of what I was reaching at in 2009 when I suggested that James' Epistle could possibly be described as a first century version of "seeker-sensitive" outreach. Then again, from reading Phillip, Karen's research seems to be focused on James for the sake of the writer's position, whereas I tend to be somewhat more interested in the composition (ie, makeup) of James' audience. Still, I wonder who else would agree that intentional ambiguity does suggest a mixed audience? Or, while we're at it, that  συναγωγὴν should be translated Synagogue in James 2:2, instead of being unjustly homogenized into a multicultural but "assembly".

If James was genuinely writing to the full Hebrew Diaspora, who were meeting in Synagogues, then the deliberate ambiguity makes complete sense, because some had become sympathetic to the Gospel of Jesus, and others had not.

Karen's point seems to be that we shouldn't treat James' thought as Pauline. I agree. But would she argue the same for James' audience? I might presume so. Maybe someone who's read the rest of her chapter can enlighten me soon? I would love to know more...

While you're here, what do you think?

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