Is James a Christian Letter?

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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!