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Bible Commentaries

Dummelow's Commentary on the BibleDummelow on the Bible

- James

by John Dummelow


1. The Author. In the New Testament we meet with four persons named James (Jacob): (1) the father, or, possibly, brother of Jude; (2) the son of Alphæus; (3) the brother of John; (4) the brother of the Lord and head of the Church at Jerusalem (Acts 1:14; Acts 12:2-17; Acts 15:13-21; Acts 21:18-25; Galatians 1:19; Galatians 2:12), Of these four, we know nothing but the names about (1) and (2); (3) was put to death by Herod Agrippa I in 44 a.d., some time before the earliest date usually assigned to our Epistle. We are, therefore, almost driven to the conclusion that the author is (4), James the Lord’s brother, whom we meet in the Acts as head of the Church at Jerusalem. And this conclusion, reasonable in itself, is confirmed by all the evidence at our disposal. Besides the positive statement of St. Jerome (’Vir. Ill.’ 2) that ’James called the brother of the Lord’ wrote it, we have the striking correspondence in the thoughts and language of the Epistle to what we know of the character of the head of the Jerusalem Church. In the first place, there is the tone of authority which we find in the Epistle, natural to one in the position of St. James. Then there are the frequent references to the Old Testament, and to books like the Wisdom of Solomon and the Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach (called in our version ’Ecclesiasticus’), which to a devout Jew like St. James would be very familiar. [Observe the allusions to Genesis 1 (James 1:18), Abraham (James 2:21), Rahab (James 2:25), Deuteronomy 6:4; (cp. James 2:19), Job (Job 5:11), Elijah (James 5:17), and compare James 1:2-4, James 1:5-8, James 1:12-17, James 1:23-25 with Sirach 1:26; Sirach 2:1-15; Sirach 7:10; Sirach 12:11; Sirach 14:23; Sirach 15:11; Wisdom of Solomon 7:18, etc. See also Job 28:12; (James 3:13), Proverbs 3:34; (James 4:7-11), Proverbs 10:12; (James 5:20), Isaiah 40:7; (James 1:11).] Then, again, the language of the Epistle is similar to that found in the speech of St. James, and in his circular letter (Acts 15). We conclude, therefore, that the well-nigh unanimous opinion, which assigns the Epistle to the brother of the Lord, is the only reasonable one. For the relationship implied by ’brother’ see on Matthew 12:46.

Of the personality of this great man we can form a tolerably clear idea from the New Testament and early Church tradition. Re-fusing to accept Christ as Messiah during His earthly life, he was converted by a special appearance to him of the Risen Lord (1 Corinthians 15:7). We can well believe that in the Nazareth home he was carefully trained in all the precepts and practices of the Jewish faith, and to that faith he clung with deep devotion all through his life. We must picture him to ourselves, not as one of those false Jews whose observances were merely formal and external, but as one of those true and earnest Jews whose obedience to the Law was a joy and an inspiration—whose life was lived in the spirit of Psalms 119. His sincere and spiritual Judaism would be a guide to lead him to Christ, the ’fulfiller’ of the Law (Matthew 5:17). The good Jew would make a good Christian. And in those early days it was possible to combine observance of the Law with obedience to the ’Royal Law’ of Christ. To St. James Christianity presents itself primarily as a Law (James 1:25; James 2:12; James 4:11-12). This idea is found elsewhere in the New Testament (Romans 8:2; Hebrews 8:7-13). The time had not yet come when (as in the crisis which called forth the Epistle to the Hebrews) it was necessary to choose between Judaism and Christianity. And so, even as ’bishop’ of Jerusalem, St. James went on keeping the whole Law, although he was ready to grant the fullest liberty to those Gentile converts who had never been Jews by religion (Acts 15). He combined strong personal convictions with the widest sympathy with the views of others. Hence, although himself a strict Jew, he could act cordially with St. Paul, the champion of Gentile liberty. At the end of each of his three missionary journeys the Apostle of the Gentiles went up to Jerusalem to report progress to St. James (Acts 15, Acts 18:22; Acts 21:18), and it was at his suggestion that St. Paul undertook the Nazirite vow in the Temple which led to the attack on him of the unbelieving Jews. At this point the narrative of the Acts leaves St. James; but from the Jewish historian Josephus, and the converted Jew Hegesippus, we get accounts of his death which, though they differ in details, agree in their main facts. From them we learn that he was held in great esteem by his fellow-countrymen, and even permitted to enter the Temple. A Sadducean high priest, Ananus, brought him before the Sanhedrin, and caused him to be put to death by stoning, spite of the remonstrances of all the better sort of Jews. James ’the Just’ (as he was called by his fellow-countrymen) died praying, like St. Stephen, for his murderers, a few years before the final overthrow of Judaism by the Romans. In very truth he was taken away from the evil to come. Some have seen in St. James the Restrainer of 2 Thessalonians 2:7, after whose removal the Jewish apostasy would stand revealed, and receive its due reward in the overthrow of the nation and the religion of the Jews.

2. The Readers. The Epistle is addressed ’to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad,’ not exclusively to Christian Jews, nor even to the Jews of Jerusalem or Palestine only, but to all Jews scattered throughout the world. It is important to realise this at the outset, since it will help to explain what might otherwise be a difficulty—the absence from the Epistle of any distinctively Christian doctrine. Christianity is there indeed. St, James is ’the servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.’ His faith is ’the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ But all through the Epistle his appeal is chiefly to that which was common to unconverted Jews and Christian Jews alike—the belief in one God, and reverence for the Old Testament Scriptures. No doubt there are special messages of consolation and encouragement to the devout remnant who had accepted Christ as their Saviour and Messiah; but he evidently hoped that his letter would be read by a wider circle, and that it would appeal to all earnest souls among his fellow-countrymen. The sins he denounces are those to which Jews were specially tempted—love of money, oppression of the poor, profession without practice, and the like. The tone and atmosphere of the Epistle are Jewish. Even the allusions to natural phenomena are drawn from those of Palestine.

3. Date. This Jewish tone, and the absence of any allusion to the controversies which afterwards distracted the Church, combined with the simplicity of thought and the absence of any discussion of exclusively Christian topics, points to an early date, somewhere between 45 a.d. and 49 a.d. If that conclusion be correct we shall see in the Epistle a ’golden bridge connecting the Old and New Testaments.’ Some scholars, however, have assigned it to a later date in the life of St. James, i.e. about 60 a.d. or a little later, chiefly on the ground that in certain passages he appears to be correcting an exaggerated view of the teaching of St. Paul contained in Romans 4 and Galatians 3. Certainly there does appear to be a resemblance between these chapters and James 2, but it must be remembered, (1) that the questions discussed were common subjects of debate among the Jews, and might therefore be dealt with by the two writers quite independently of one another; and (2) that the resemblance may be explained on the theory that St. Paul was acquainted with our Epistle. Professor J. B. Mayer, indeed, considers that in passages like Romans 5:3-5; Romans 7:23; St. Paul has borrowed from St. James. On the whole, therefore, the earlier date seems the more probable.

4. Reception in the Church. In the first ages of the Church our Epistle does not seem to have been widely known. St. Clement of Rome (about 95 a.d.) appears to have been acquainted with it, and Hermas (130-160 a.d.) has various allusions to it. The ancient Jew-Christian tract known as the ’Didache’. (? 100 a.d.) has two or three passages which may refer to it. But it was not included in the list of books of the New Testament known as the Muratorian Canon (? 180 a.d.), and Eusebius of Caesarea (4th cent.) says that, although it was generally received, there were doubts about its genuineness. In the East it was (as we should expect) well known. It is found in the ancient Peshitta Syriac version as well as in the oldest Egyptian versions. St. Jerome had no doubts about it, and eventually it was universally accepted. Any hesitation there may have been about admitting it into the Canon of the New Testament is easily understood when we remember that it was a short letter addressed to Jews, and that there was in some quarters an idea, plausible but false, that there was antagonism between St. Paul and St. James. There is, therefore, no valid reason, either in the character of the Epistle or in its reception by the Church, for doubting the opinion of the vast majority of Christians that it is the genuine work of the brother of the Lord, and, probably, the earliest of the writings of the New Testament. Even those who assign to it a somewhat later date would agree with Dean Stanley in his remark that it is ’the earliest in spirit’ if not in time.

5. Character and Contents. Allusion has already been made to the Jewish tone and undeveloped theology of the Epistle, as well as to the numerous references to the Old Testament and the Apocrypha which meet us at every turn. The question may therefore be asked, “What is the special value to us Christians of today of this brief Judaic Epistle with its somewhat narrow range and limited outlook? If we approach the study of it from the right point of view, not regarding it as a treatise on Christian theology, but rather as a practical letter on Christian ethics treated from the standpoint of a devout Jew, we shall find it both interesting and deeply instructive. It occupies somewhat the same position in regard to the other Epistles as the teaching of St. John Baptist does in the gospel narrative: cp. James 1:22-27; James 2:15-16; James 5:1-6 with Matthew 3:8-12; Luke 3:11. It is a call to repentance, and whole-heartedness and reality in religion. But it goes further than this. Everywhere we find the teaching of Christ reproduced, often in almost the very words of the Master: cp., for instance, Matthew 5:34-37; Matthew 6:19; Matthew 7:2, Matthew 7:16; Matthew 10:22; Matthew 12:36; Matthew 18:4 with James 5:12; James 5:2-3; James 2:13; James 3:12; James 1:12; James 3:1-2; James 1:9-10. Notice also the resemblance between the Magnificat (Luke 1:50-53) and James 4:6. No doubt the sins rebuked are those to which outwardly respectable Jews were very prone, but they are sins which in this age of the Church’s history also seem specially prevalent. The dangers of the possession of wealth, and the temptations which easily beset the rich man, the perils of half-heartedness and of the attempt to combine the service of God with the service of the world, the undue respect for mere rank and wealth, the anxiety to teach instead of to learn, sins of speech, and harsh and hasty judgments of others—all these things confront us today in other, but not less dangerous, forms than those which St. James attacked. So that we shall find that the Epistle is in many respects singularly modern in tone, and specially helpful to us in dealing with modern problems, which after all are only the old problems in a new guise.

6. Analysis. It is not easy to give an analysis of an Epistle which, at first sight, seems to be rather a collection of ethical precepts than a connected whole. But, if we look closer, we shall find one great leading thought underlying the whole and binding together its various sections. And that thought is the central doctrine of the Old Testament, ’Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord’ (Deuteronomy 6:4). That was the creed of every devout Jew, and that is the text of St. James’s homily. If God is one—one in Himself as well as the one true God—then His children, made in His image (Genesis 1:26), must strive to be like Him. In God there is no change (James 1:17). He is ’the same yesterday and today and for ever’ (Hebrews 13:8). He is wholly good. He demands from His children complete sincerity and whole-hearted love and obedience; hence the heinousness of sins like want of faith (James 1:6), hearing without doing (James 1:22), inconsistency in religious observances (James 1:26; James 2:1), partial obedience (James 2:10), using the tongue for cursing as well as blessing (James 3:9), the attempt to combine the service of God with the service of the world (James 4:2). With this clue in our hands we can proceed to an analysis of the Epistle.

(Probably the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews alludes here and elsewhere to St. James: cp. Hebrews 11:31; Hebrews 12:11 with James 3:18; James 2:26. Possibly Hebrews 11 starts with a definition of faith because of the difficulties raised by James 2:14-26, Hebrews 13:7 is supposed by many to contain an allusion to the death of St. James.)

James 1:1. Salutation. 2-8. Trial from without, a source of joy to the man of prayer and faith. 9-12. Poverty is an example of those trials which may become joys. The reward of patient endurance. 13-18. Trial from within (= temptation); not from God, but from a man’s own sinful inclinations. God, our Maker, the author of good and never of evil. 19-25. We must be ready to listen and to receive the Word. But we must not be mere listeners; we must be doers. 26, 27. Our religious service must be real and practical. We must carry our worship into life by showing love and sympathy to others.

James 2:1-7. An instance of that inconsistency of life which is unworthy of a child of God—undue respect for wealth and position.

James 2:8-13. As God is one, so is His Law one. You cannot break a part without violating the whole Law. 14-26. Another instance of inconsistency—’faith’ without practice, which is really no faith at all.

James 3:1-2. Warning against the excessive desire to become teachers of others. The teacher’s work is one of great responsibility.

James 3:3-12. All are liable to err, especially in speech. The tongue is a terrible power for mischief, and often leads to inconsistency. With the same tongue we bless God and curse men. 13-18. The true wisdom contrasted with the false.

James 4:1-4. Stem denunciation of those who pursue worldly pleasure. Such pursuit leads to crime and marks a man as the enemy of God. He is a jealous God. 5-10. God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. Therefore surrender your wills to Him, and in His strength fight the devil. Repent of your sins and inconsistency of life, and then God will exalt you. 11, 12. Show humility by refraining from speaking evil of your brethren. By so speaking you sit in judgment upon and condemn the Law of God, and even the Lawgiver Himself.

James 4:13-17. Stem prophetic denunciation of those who form schemes of money-getting without any thought of God.

James 5:1-6. Denunciation of the tyranny and injustice of the rich. 7-11. Exhortation to the Christian Jews to be patient and uncomplaining. The Judge who will right all wrong is at hand. 12-20. Postscript. Warning against swearing. The right use of sorrow and joy. The sick man is to confess to the ’elders of the Church,’ who will intercede for him with God. The value of intercessory prayer, especially for the diseases of the soul. The man who saves a soul from death brings a blessing to himself as well as to others.

[The changes of tone from stem denunciation to tenderness in the last chapters are most likely due to the fact that St. James is sometimes addressing non-Christian Jews and sometimes his ’beloved brethren’ in Christ. It is to be observed that the sections of greatest severity (James 4:1-4, James 4:13-17; James 5:1-6) never employ the words ’brethren’ ’my brethren,’ which are characteristic of the rest of the Epistle. In the little Christian communities of the East there would not be many rich men. Indeed, the Church of Jerusalem was notoriously poor (Acts 11:29; Romans 15:26; 1 Corinthians 16:1-3). Probably many of the Jew-Christians were in the employment of their rich fellow-countrymen, who would cheat them of their wages and oppress them (James 2:6; James 5:4.)]

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