To the Twelve Tribes in the Dispersion – James 1:1

James 1:1 indicates that he is writing to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” Assuming that this line is to be read literally, we need to understand what a Jewish writer would have meant when he said “twelve tribes” and Diaspora. Simply put, a Jew “living in the Diaspora” was a Jew living outside of “the land.” But things are a bit more complicated than that.

The Judaism of the first century developed the way it did because of the exile. The exile could begin as early as 722 B.C. when Samaria fell to Assyria, but the fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. is the usually beginning point for most scholars. The fall of Jerusalem was the event that shaped Jewish religion as we know it in the Second Temple Period because it stripped the Jews of all things which constituted ethnicity. They no longer had land, their language began to shift from Hebrew to Aramaic, and there was a significant threat from intermarriage. The Jews, as a people, were at risk of losing their ethnicity.

Ancient Synagogue in Dura-Europos, Syria

How did the Jews survive the exile? All other peoples of the ancient world integrated and disappeared from history. How many people claim to be Moabites these days? The primary factor is Jewish Religious tradition centered on the Torah. These traditions kept them from assimilating into a host culture. The story of Daniel is only one example of Jews working within a culture yet remaining distinct from it. Centers of Jewish cultures developed in Alexandria and Elephantine in Egypt and in Babylon. These places continued to develop well into the current era. It is likely that Babylon and Alexandria were superior centers of Judaism to Jerusalem for much of the Second Temple period.

Those who chose to live outside of the land rather than return to Jerusalem always face problems in living in accordance with their traditional customs. The main three which are typically identified: monotheism, Sabbath, circumcision, and dietary laws. It is not a surprise to find these as the main points of controversy in the New Testament. While Paul does not shift on monotheism, he does not require gentiles to conform to the other three boundary markers and it is at least possible he may have been open to Jews not practicing food laws or worshiping on a day other than Sabbath.

The important thing to remember when discuss the Diaspora is that it was not as much geographical as cultural. Paul might encounter strongly traditional Jews in Ephesus or Rome, and relatively “liberal” Jews in Jerusalem. In fact, I suggest that the Jews who ran the Temple in the first century were far less traditional than the Jews who worshiped in the Greek-speaking synagogues in and around Jerusalem. The fact that the first violent persecution of the followers of Jesus came out of the Greek-speaking synagogue (Acts 7) is an indication that at least those Diaspora Jews were “conservative” with respect to the Temple.

So back to James. I think that he is certainly writing to Jews who are Christians, but they are people who may very well represent the more conservative form of Judaism before accepting Jesus as Lord. If this is true, it may explain James’ insistence on good works, for example, as a sign of true faith.

If this is the case, how should the “Jewishness” of the letter change the way we read James?

10 thoughts on “To the Twelve Tribes in the Dispersion – James 1:1

  1. I believe that the Jewishness of the letter should definitely be taken into account when we are reading James. Take for example Pepsi and Coke, without breaking any copy right or other silly laws, lets say that we are an avid Coke drinker, but in recent days, news breaks that Pepsi and Coke are actually the same drink. We just want to stay drinking the same thing we always have just because we’ve always done it. Someone convinces us to try the opposite drink, but we need convincing evidence of this new truth. This is the way a Jew would have been thinking. They want to do what they always have, and thus, someone has to convince them of the truth by talking to them about what they already know. James uses many references back to the OT and Jesus’ teaching about the Law. The Jews knew the law, and I am sure would at least agree with Jesus when he said that he greatest commandment is love because it encompasses all things. As Christians today, we should see this from their perspective, they knew the stories, and knew of Jesus, but had to be pushed over the edge to truly believe.


    • This is a fair analogy, as long as we don’t start thinking the heretics are like Mountain Dew. I think that you’re right a Jewish person who excepts Christ as Savior probably continue to keep the law because that was how they had always lived in there really isn’t anything sinful about keeping the law. Looking back it Galatians, Paul says that it’s wrong for Gentiles to start keeping the law, but I don’t see anything that implies he would encourage Jews to stop keeping the law. I think that’s a fairly controversial point, something that may not be answered by the letter of James.


  2. James is an interesting and useful book precisely because of its Jewishness. We need to understand that Christianity did not come out of nothing, but it was formed from the ultimate fulfillment of Jewish Messianic prophecies. Since that is the case, the Old testament enlightens us on some of the thoughts of God on specific subjects, for instance social injustice. It would be foolish to try and understand what James 5:1-6 means without first understanding the traditions of social injustice that Judaism has. This can also be said about James exhortations on wisdom (James 3:13-18), for if we don’t have an understanding on what the Jews perceive as wisdom than those exhortations why we should pursue it can become lost on us. I think the Jewishness of the letter should change on how we view the theology and the analogies. We should look at it in the light of the Old Testament and the transition to a new covenant. From the light of the Old Testament it would be obvious that works would reveal your faith, just the works are now focused on things other than the traditional sacrifices. From a Jewish mindset it is obvious that a person’s faith in God is proved by the works that he does, and it is a warning that it is impossible to determine if a person has faith without the outworking of that faith, which will always result in good works. So I think that an understanding of the Jewishness of this book is of vital importance to understanding on what the author is talking about.


  3. I really like what Anthony said about Pepsi and Coke. Helpful, and funny! I think that the “Jewishness” of James is very important to the understanding of the book. Jobes points out that James is similar to some of the wisdom literature of the old testament like Psalms and Proverbs. I could not agree more, as it seems to contrast the ways of the just and the wicked in a similar fashion to that of Psalm 1. Reading it in a more conservative light gives the reading the impression that the Jews who were scattered across the land were very interested in preserving their culture. I love that James uses the analogy of the ship and the rudder in chapter 3. This is strikingly similar to the way Jesus taught, which stands out as internal evidence that he was his brother. In my opinion the book reads very similarly to the Psalms of David in certain parts, and it shifts gears from the heavy theology of Paul.


  4. James is really a great letter. It has very practical theology, for instance, 1.27 tells use that religion is caring for widows and orphans. Literally it’s telling us to love everyone the way we want to be loved, just as Jesus taught. I find this same verse to also be very Jewish in nature. The law has very specific rules to help protect the widows and orphans and now James really is alluding back to the idea of the law. I believe he’s less concerned with the, make yourself look Jewish by following food and Sabbath laws, and rather is focus on religion that shows a growing relationship with God. The Jewishness of this letter is really telling us to obey the spirit of the law, you show me you’re religious based on following a bunch of rules, but I show you my “religion” by living it out.


  5. I think that some of these comments have helped clear up this situation of “Jewishness” of the letter. I really like the analogy of Coke and Pepsi. The Jews want to stay with what they know and not what is foreign to them. It reminds me of the fact that people can know everything in the Bible, every story, metaphor, and verse, but if they don’t believe it, it doesn’t do any good for them. Having faith is essential to knowing God’s Word and acting upon it (Hebrews 11:1). James is similar to Proverbs and Psalms regarding the wisdom aspect. James 4:4 clearly states to not be of the world but rather to be a light to the people who are living worldly lives as opposed to godly lives.


  6. I would say that while the “Jewishness” of James may lead to a different interpretation then what is at face value, I would still argue that many of the teachings still apply to modern Protestant or even Catholic Christianity. For example mentions the following of the “perfect law” will lead to the follower being blessed. Because James is written with a Jewish Christian audience in mind it would make sense that whoever the author is mentions the Law and the fact that Jesus and His perfect Law are superior to the Law of their forefathers. Even in James 2:14-25 makes the point that faith without works is dead, and while that statement can be controversial and even be used to make people feel that they need to earn or prove their salvation. I would argue that it’s a important passage to remember. If the body of Christ is not active in the world then how are we supposed to be a correct representation of Christ. Jesus was always out taking care of others through healing, praying, or feeding them. Jesus’ actions proved that he was the real deal, and the same can be said of us.


  7. The Jewishness is a lovely thing that lets us peek into the past and see what the new believers were struggling with. It could be applied to us as well. Seeing how the book addresses the issues that they were facing we could apply it to modern day jews as well; if we were to be ministering to them. We could also see how he reacts to them. They are simply used to one thing and are concerned about changing how they live their lives. There are many people today who also fit that category. People who are unsure of changing the way they live; James gives a good way to know how to talk to these people.
    It also should be studied more. Because this book was written to a crowd who as focused on the old, we may have to study some parts more intricately to get the full meaning for us today. All the Bible is good for teaching, meaning that there is no reason it shouldn’t be picked apart for a modern perspective of it.

    TL;DR version: It gives a perspective on early Christian issues; it should also be studied more to get a modern day perspective of how we are to read the book.



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