James and the Diaspora

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.

Elephantine, Egypt

Elephantine, Egypt

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.

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.

How might this understanding of Diaspora help us to read the Letter of James? How can this Letter be understood as addressing the needs of Diaspora Jews?

7 thoughts on “James and the Diaspora

  1. Reading the book of James thinking about Diaspora Jews helps me think through what this book is actually saying. I think that James is trying to get the Jews to focus back of living a Christian life. From reading the book of James I find that much of what the author has said is pleading with the people to act like Christians. Sounds like from the reading the people have been getting into arguments, accepting rich people over the poor, pride, favoritism and things like that.

    Reading this in light of the Diaspora Jews helps me realize who exactly James is writing to. These people are going through things that they normally would not have had to worry about. They were in a new time and may have forgotten a lot of the basic things it meant to be a follower of Jesus. James is trying to get them to realize what it means to follow Jesus.

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  2. Important background info here, Phillip. Your points about exile and 2nd Temple Judaism could lead to a lot of interesting discussion points. But less extensively for now: I’d add to (for the lightly educated) your implication about forms of belief/practice. Indeed, Judaism was complicated all along (cf. the Prophets of the OT, e.g.)… hard to ID the “faithful” and what they really believed and did, changing over time. But we know of at least 4 distinct major sects at the time of Jesus, and there were probably many other variations (with implications for how most tend to understand the situation and use of “the Jews” in the Gospels). Indeed, at least the higher priests were quite compromised via collaboration with Roman rulers, for just one issue.

    But to get to James (the letter): several q’s come to mind (which are often not even asked but certainly SHOULD BE).

    1. Who really wrote James, and when? (To me, it doesn’t make sense without a LOT of straining of the little we know, that it was the brother of Jesus/head of the Jeru. “church”.)

    2. How/why did it even make it into the canon? (Probably a wise move for the long term, to give Christianity additional flexibility and/or credibility, but at the time??)

    3. If indeed written AFTER the destr. of Jeru., what does it imply about the rift between this much more Jewish-religious approach and the radical new propositions of Paul? (If it was by “James”, we can be almost sure it had to have been pre-62, the likely date of James’ death, and this presents real problems.)

    4. Related to #3, Pauline theology, if not Paul himself (unlikely he was still alive), certainly seems to be in mind in much of its demonstrate-faith-by-works emphasis. But supposedly (per Acts) this all got amiably settled and agreed upon via the “Jerusalem Council” and/or the later visit by Paul to Jerusalem, during which he was arrested and taken to Rome. At least this is the typical Evangelical/conservative reading of Acts (whereas Acts is actually pretty evasive on important details and slanted to present such a picture, contrary to much of what Paul himself says).

    James is an inspiring book as to ethical, compassionate behavior (whether Jewish, Christian or humanistic). It is “Christian” in the broad sense at least, while compatible with Judaism as well, it seems to me. But it is also a fascinating and important book historically in any attempt to understand the real processes of the formation of Christianity and its early relations with its parent, Judaism (i.e., issues of Christian origins)…. Helps to illustrate that our knowledge is very incomplete and our easy assumptions are not well founded, including critical ones like who was considered authoritative and on what basis (for ideas of a “revealed, authoritative” New Testament, for example).

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  3. I agree with Dan that understanding who the recipients were helps us to see that things were changing at that time, which is why James writes. The Diaspora Jews were struggling with what laws to follow because they were of the mindset of the Pharisees in which the Law was everything. But when they came to know the Gospel, they had a hard time figuring out what to do with their beliefs and practices that they’ve held for so long. So James addresses this problem. “James, following Jesus’ teaching, completely transposes the ethical basis of Christian faith from any form of legalism to the more demanding law of loving one’s neighbor as oneself” (Jobes 175).

    James followed many of Jesus’ teachings, as there are so many different parallels between the book of James and Matthew’s Gospel. For example, James 2:14-16 is similar to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 7:21-13 that speaks on faith without works being worthless. It seems that James is connecting for the Diaspora Jews that the Law and it’s practices are not to be totally forgotten but instead understood with a different light, as Jesus taught it. So James used some of the elements of the Law, such as loving your neighbor as yourself, and tried to expand their understanding of what Jesus taught. Perhaps that would have been something James could easily do because he himself did not understand Jesus’ ministry for a while. So reading the book of James in this light might help us understand why it is so focused on faith with works, among other things that would connect with Law following Jews.

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  4. I agree with Dan and Josh in that “…understanding who the recipients were helps us to see that things were changing at that time…” Gaining a better grasp of the context of a book always helps to illuminate the purpose of a text by putting ourselves into the shoes of the original audience. However, I am not sure how the differentiation between diaspora Jews and the Jews in the land makes much an impact on the interpretation and understanding of the text. It seems that the major themes discussed in James would apply to both types of Jews, unless I am vastly missing the separation between these two groups. James is definitely directed toward a Jewish audience because of its use of the law as central in God’s dealings with people, allusions to Old Testament metaphors, assumptions of Old Testament beliefs and knowledge of key Old Testament people such as Abraham and Rahab (Jobes 165). Keeping in mind that the audience is Jewish definitely gives clarity to the book, but the specification of diaspora Jews does not seem as vital.

    Another thing I find interesting about this is that Paul’s letters would technically be written to an audience of diaspora Jews and Gentiles that are now Christian. So could the same implications that apply to James be given to all or most of Paul’s letters?

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  5. Reading through the book of James with a different mindset, and thinking about the Diaspora Jews helps me to reflect on the true meaning of the book. Jobes says in Letters to the Church “James is not teaching about Jesus, but is applying the teaching of Jesus as normative for the Christian life” (pg 198). I like to agree with Jobes with this that the book of James was written for people (Jews) to focus on the Christian life, and get on the right track. Having an understanding of the Diaspora Jews helps me to understand why it was written the way it is. They needed extra guidance getting back on track with being a follower of Jesus, and throughout the book James is trying to get the Diaspora Jews to understand what it means to follow Jesus and live life for him.

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  6. As always, it is important to interpret scripture in the context that it was written. Many times Christians today forget that scripture or the letters were written to a specific group of people that had a specific issue. Understanding the cultural context that these letters were written helps to reduce misinterpretations. Therefore, understanding the Diaspora will help readers to interpret James. There was a great persecution that happened which scattered Christians in Jerusalem. Karen Jobes writes, in her textbook, “Letters to the Church,” that there was a major famine during this time in the 50s of the first century (Jobes 157). “The issues of social justice concerning the needs fellow Christians had for food and clothing and the oppression of the poor by the rich would have been especially relevant given the circumstances in the last decade of James’s life as leader of the impoverished Jerusalem church” (Jobes 157). All of this knowledge will help a reader interpret the book of James. There is so much insight from the historical context that should be considered.
    -McKenzie McCord-

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