Is James a Christian Letter?

Ever since Luther’s famous disdain for the letter of James, Christian readers have wondered about the Jewishness of the Letter of James.  Some scholars argued that James is not a Christian letter at all.  There are only two clear references to Jesus in the letter (1:1 and 2:1), although there are a few other verses which might refer to Jesus or God (5:8-9, for example).  Most Christian readers will labor hard to show that James is a Christian letter, although the recognize that they book lacks much of what can be called a Christian theology.

Karen Jobes devotes a chapter of Letters to the Church to the question of Christology in the letter of James.  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.

Her second line of evidence is the use of the Sermon on the Mount in James. That James knew the teaching of Jesus seems obvious, Jobes provides a great deal of evidence that James new and used Matthew 5-7 in his letter. There are at least 24 clear parallels between James and the Sermon on the Mount, too many to be a coincidence. Since he uses this material as authoritative and parallel to Scripture, Jobes argues that he sees Jesus’ teaching as just as authoritative as the Hebrew Bible. A related bit of evidence is the “royal law” in James.  This is essentially the greatest commandment according to Jesus in Matthew 27:37-40.  Jobes concludes that “the way Jesus uses the teaching of Jesus as a moral reference point reveals another aspect of his assumed Christology.”

I agree with Jobes, but I also have some questions.  Is there anything in the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5-7 that is uniquely Christian?  Jesus is interacting with the Law and does not “cancel” the Law or contradict it at all.  In fact, Jesus seems to be arguing for a more strict interpretation of the Law than was popular in the first-century.  Even the “greatest commandment” is not uniquely Christian, the rabbi Hillel is well-known for saying virtually the same thing.

I think the question “Is James a Christian Letter?” might set the problem in the wrong light.  When asked that way, the Christian scholar feels the need to find Jesus lurking behind every line of James, as if a letter which did not mention Jesus is not a Christian letter. It is possible for a Jewish believer with James’ reputation to write a letter admonishing his readers to good morals would sound very much like Proverbs or Sirach.  Where he does allude to Jesus’ teaching, it is not uniquely Christian because Jesus was not creating a Christian theology and ethic in the same sense that Paul was, or later in the first century, Clement or Didache. To expect that James is going to have a high Christology is to assume that he will have a Pauline Christology.  That is simply not the case, and we should not force James into the Pauline Grid.  He simply does not fit.

If we understand that there was a distinct Jewish-oriented form of Christianity in the first century,  then we will not have to struggle so much to bring James into the “Christian” fold.  James is a Christian letter, but it s a distinctly Jewish one, and definitely not a Pauline Christian letter!

18 thoughts on “Is James a Christian Letter?

  1. Nice, indeed the emphasis of the Letter of James is the Jewish-Christian. And if this letter was written early (47-50 A.D.), then there is really no Pauline connection at all, not even in James 2:14-26. This faith-works paradigm is a conjugation for Jewish Christians like James, but will later provide the great theological issue, and “revelation” for St. Paul. In some real sense this Letter is seen later in Paul and the Pauline, as a “transitional”, from the Old Covenant to the New! And seen in this place of the Pauline theology, James is not “strawy”, but certainly a piece torwards seeing Paul’s fulfillment of the Law ‘In Christ’. (Romans and Galatians) So here in Paul is a progressive revelation, that is also Covenantal! (1 Cor. 9:16-23, etc. / Rom. 14)

  2. The most interesting fact for me dealing with the question concerning whether or not James is a Christian letter is the 24 parallels to the Sermon on the Mount. Jobes says, “So much of what he (James) teaches sounds very similar to what Jesus taught” (139). She goes on to list a number of allusions to Jesus’ teachings that range from topics like anger all the way to judgment. It’s clear that they probably have a connection somehow but one of the biggest reasons James stands out to me as a Christian letter is because of how it stresses having a pure heart. When Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount he seems like He is always attacking the religious people of His day. They would obey the Old Testament law but their hearts weren’t in the right place all the time. Jesus says lusting is committing adultery. He says anger is committing murder. It seems to me that James does the same thing. He might not actually say the same words as Jesus did but I really believe the concepts are there. I think James is condemning the religious people of his day in the same way Jesus did the Pharisees. James 2:26 says, “faith without deeds is dead.” That sounds pretty Jewish right? Well if the recipients of James claim to have faith but aren’t doing anything about it, then they don’t really believe. Their hearts aren’t truly all for God. It sounds like neither the audience of James or the Pharisees that Jesus always bashed had their hearts fully devoted to God. That sounds a lot like Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount to me.

    • And indeed as Paul will later stress, to both the Jews and Gentiles, the Law of God itself simply cannot be kept, in its purity! So later Paul’s “Galatians” will press this issue of “Law & Gospel’, (Gal. 2). Surely the Letter of James is part of this “provisional” (Heb. 10: 1), but James does see the great spiritual and moral essence of the Law! No antinomian here, or in St. Paul either. And Jesus is also the personal and active obedience to the Law of God in Himself! (Matt. 5:17-18, etc.)

  3. I believe that Jobes has a valid point, but the book of James was written to newly, converted Jewish Christians. Therefore, they are will be a lot of Jewish references throughout the book of James because they are directed to the Jewish Christians. But, it is interesting because James does teach some of the same things as Christ did, and the Jewish beliefs do not believe that Christ has even come back yet. So in order for the letter of James to be a full Jewish book, there would be no talk of Christ at all. Plus, because the book of James was written well after the Old Testament, there has to be a reason why James is in the New Testament and has some kind of response about Jesus and what he has done. But, I guess there will be no full understanding on which this letter is really addressed too. But, readers who read it and take in whatever God may be showing them is a great way to get something out of it, whether it is addressed to a converted Jewish Christian or not.

  4. Is James a Christian Letter? I agree with P. Long’s answer, with a question as well, “Is Matthew a Christian book”? I think you can take almost any part of scripture and ask if it is Christian or not. The real question is, “Does this teaching apply to me as a 21st century Christian”. The book of James has some interesting concepts, but most would apply just as well as the commandments in the Law, or the teachings of Jesus. I don’t want to find myself trying to make a book “Christian” so that I can justify some sort of teaching, or make the book any more important than the rest of scripture. We don’t need to be reminded that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). There are some things about James that makes it distinct from other “Jewish-Christian” letters and books, however it is definitely the most “Jewish” of them all and we should take it as it is!

  5. I am going to go ahead and agree with many on the fact that James was written to Jewish Christians. A given factor in this is that the reference to Jesus Christ is limited, but maybe James references Jesus by using “Lord” which is mentioned fourteen times within the book of James not including the first two from 1:1 and 2:1 where he says “The Lord Jesus Christ”. According to Jobes this proves the Christology of James. Also James “alludes” or teaches parallel to that of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, which to me seems like more proof for the Christology of James. I honestly feel horrible admitting this but I have a hard time finding the distinction between writing a letter to Christians and the letter being written to Jews, and so then there is the letter being written to newly converted Jewish Christians. But I do believe that out of this book you can gain understanding of it no matter who you are, so I guess to me it doesn’t really matter who this letter is directed to. After reading through James several times I can say that much of it should be taken into account for today. It is in the New Testament for a reason and James does say much relating to Christ even though talk of Christ is limited.

    • If all we had was the Letter of James, we would surely have enough!

      “James, a servant (“slave”) of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.” (James 1:1)

      “Twelve tribes, the followers of Jesus, appropriating imagery from Israelite history, pictured the messianic ideal of the return of the exiled tribes as refering to the Christian present (Acts 15: 15-21), as opposed to (unredeemed) Israel whose tribes remain in captivity.” (The Jewish Annotated N.T.)

      There is in reality so much in this Letter! “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” (James 1: 17-18) Indeed the ‘Father of lights’, like Mal. 3:6, speaks of God’s unchanging faithfulness and character. Indeed the God of Israel, the Jewish God! And the God who Himself redeems His people, by His own hand.

  6. I am one to agree that James is a Jewish Christian letter. But, so is 1 Peter, Jude and Hebrews. Are there things we as 21st century Christians can extract from these books to apply to our lives today? Would we be able to apply what is written in the Didache? James speaks of moral issues, social issues, equality between rich and poor. Can we extract from this application for today without making a letter relegated to the 1st century only? I believe the whole New Testament speaks to us today. We do need to be careful in our exegesis and hermaneutic of scripture but, yes, we can use the whole of the New Testament for our faith today. No need to slice-n-hack the Bible.

  7. I thought that the last two paragraphs of the blog really bring the heart of the issue to the light. Christians have an unfortunate tendency to try and force James to fit Paul. Instead we should let James be James. His two explicit references to Jesus (James 1:1, 2:1) I think is enough to put James in the “Christian” category. He shows subservience to a man who claimed to be the Son of God and the Messiah. I think that that shows great courage for a devout Jew to do since this man was killed for His claims. The need to categorize James as “Christian” is one that does not need to be fulfilled at the expense of James independence from Paul. James and Paul are not trying to say the things. They are speaking of their own things. And we as Christians today need to hear both of them for what they have to say independent of each other.

  8. I think that P.Long’s last statement makes complete sense. A book does not have to be Pauline to be considered Christian.”James is a Christian letter, but it is a distinctly Jewish one, and definitely not a Pauline Christian letter!” James is very knowledgeable of Jesus’ teachings and of Jewish wisdom from the OT.Jobes mentions that Paul’s aim was more geared to build up a theology, while James deals Jesus’ teachings as basis for true Christian, ethical living, and as one person put, it ” to listen to James…is to listen to Jesus!” And what Jesus taught sounded very much like first century judaism,which was based, “on the law as God’s wisdom for living”. As Jewish as they are, James and books in the OT are still God’s truth that is living and can be applicable and active in our lives now…

  9. Looking at James in a Christian light brings up many conflicts as have been already mentioned. Looking at what is proposed by Jobes brings many good things to light. The most interesting thing that I think I see as a connection is the parallel presented between James and the Sermon on the Mount. Jobes reminds us that what Jesus taught was not completely new and innovative, but based in the wisdom of the Torah. Based upon the amount of parallels that are in existence between James and the sermon, James must certainly have been aware of the sermon on the mount and the significance that it had in the life of one wishing to follow the rules of the lord. “The way James uses the teachings of Jesus as his moral reference point reveals another aspect of his assumed Christology, that what Jesus taught supersedes the traditional teaching of the religious leaders of first century Judaism.” (Jobes) The bigger thing that gets me most is what is mentioned next: “James perceived Jesus as a new Lawgiver.” (Jobes) If Jesus is a new Lawgiver, then it would make sense that though there is still a law presented here says to me that there is some direction here towards the letter being written to a Jewish audience. If it was written to a Christian audience then there would not have been such a large emphasis on the importance of the law, whether new or old.

  10. Yes, I believe the book of James is a Christian letter. However, I believe the book of James was written to newly converted Jewish Christians which would therefore suggest that the book of James contains many aspects that are distinctly Jewish. Some distinct Jewish elements are the many references to God and the law. Jews followed the one God of Israel. James makes several references to God, the Father, and hardly any references to Jesus Christ. James states that we must ask God for wisdom (James 1:5). The book to James also states the God does not tempt nor is He tempted. God does not know evil. We are tempted by the evil one, Satan (James 1:13-14). Jews also practiced following the law of the Old Testament. James makes several references to the law. This would have been a natural Jewish element. James states in Chapter 1:22, “But be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” Being doers of the Word could relate to the Jewish ideal of following the law. Furthermore, James states in 1:25, “But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does.” James makes a connection here between following the law and being doers of the Word. In chapter two, James spends a good portion of the chapter talking about obeying the law. James states in 2:10, “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all”. James also claims that faith without works is dead (James 2:17). James gives a couple of examples of this in his book; referencing both Abraham and Rahab. He gives the example of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac on the alter as an outward expression of his faith (James 2:23). James also gives the example of Rahab who was justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way (James 2:25). Both of these Jewish elements are prevelant throughout the book of James.

  11. Hello Phillip,
    You wrote, “To expect that James is going to have a high Christology is to assume that he will have a Pauline Christology. That is simply not the case, and we should not force James into the Pauline Grid. He simply does not fit.”

    James does have a high Christology. This is seen right from the get-go of his epistle.
    James 1:1
    James, a bond-servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad: Greetings. (NASB)
    Murray Harris: The very existence of the phrase ‘slave of Christ’ alongside ‘slave of God’ in New Testament usage testifies to the early Christian belief in Christ’s deity. Knowing the expression ‘slave of the Lord’ from the Septuagint, several New Testament writers – John, Peter, Paul, James and Jude – quietly substitute ‘Christ’ for ‘the Lord’, a substitution that would have been unthinkable for a Jew unless Christ was seen as having parity of status with Yahweh (Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ, page 134). Indeed, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia of the Bible (1901), “devoted worshipers of the Deity were commonly designated as God’s servants…” (Servant of God)

    James also refers to the Lord Jesus as the divine “Name” (2:7), and I also agree that he (James) is purposefully ambiguous in his use of “Lord,” particularly in James 5 where the theme of prayer is discussed (I believe 5:13-16 is in reference to Jesus). In addition to the ambiguity in 5:7-8, it is also seen in 5:9 (cf. 4:12). Quite noteworthy is the fact that the supreme will of the Lord (4:15) is also spoken of elsewhere by Paul (and Luke) in reference to Jesus (Acts 21:14; 1 Corinthians 4:19; 16:7 and Ephesians 5:17). Notice also that speaking “in the name of the Lord” (YHWH) in 5:10 corresponds with anointing a sick person with oil “in the name of the Lord” (Jesus) in 5:14.

    • I rather like the way I wrote that line after reading it again after some time.

      I think James has a christology, but it is certainly not a Pauline one Compare what little James has to say about Jesus with Philippians 2:5-11, or both Ephesians 1 and Colossians 1 (and many more).

      I do not want to say James has no Christology (that has been said and I disagree), but the real problem is the ambiguous “Lord” sayings in the letter. I am not disturbed personally by a difference in the two writers in terms of christology, James does not have the same view on the Holy Spirit or the Return of the Lord as Paul (as far as we can determine from the single, brief letter of James).

      Your example there at the end of your comment is a case in point. James 5:10 probably does refer to the God of the OT, “the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” But does 5:14 (“anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord”) unambiguously refer to Jesus? The word is still ὁ κύριος, and although I am not sure I can prove it conclusively.

      In another post I said: “The elders anoint the sick person “in the name of the Lord.” This could refer to Jesus, or could refer to the father. For the most part Jews would have referred to God as “the name,” so this implies the Lord is Jesus. Although this seems academic, there are so few references to Jesus in James scholars hope to find them wherever they can!”

      Thanks again for your careful and stimulating comments.

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