The Rich and the Poor in James

Rich and PoorA central aspect of the ethical teaching in the book of James is proper treatment of the poor. James 1:27 commands the care of widows and orphans, in 5:15 he commands the elders to care for the sick in their churches. James warns his readers that the wealthy ought not treat the poor with contempt or insist on special privileges (2:1-9). In fact, James 5:1-6 is a stunning condemnation of the wealthy who store up treasure on earth and abuse those who work for them.

James’ concern for the poor accords well with the situation in Judea just prior to the Jewish revolt, John Painter points put that in the years leading up to the revolt there were increasing tensions between the wealthy Aristocratic Priests and the poor priests and Levites who served in the Temple (Just James, 250). Since the aristocratic priests were likely Sadducean, few (if any) from this level of society joined the Jesus movement. The poor Pharisees, however, may have been attracted to Jesus as a messiah, teacher of the law, and had no problem with the idea of resurrection.

This concern also resonates with the book of Acts and the letters of Paul. Paul’s concern for the “poor saints in Jerusalem” is well known, from the earliest mention of Paul in Acts he is delivering a gift to Jerusalem because of a famine. In the letters of Paul there are several references to the collection from the Gentile churches to help support the Jerusalem church. There were some wealthy members of the Jerusalem church, such as Barnabas, who sold property to help the community survive. But the wealthy did not make up a large percentage of the Jerusalem church and potentially exhausted their wealth supporting the community.

Jan and PaulThis may mean that the church in Jerusalem was living in a kind of self-imposed poverty, perhaps because they were modeling their lives after Jesus. Just as Jesus had no home or possessions to speak of, the members of the Jerusalem church shared their possessions and lived in anticipation of the return of their Lord. If this is the case, they may have been despised by the aristocracy, who understood wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. This somewhat perverse misunderstanding of the Blessings of the Law would have led to the assumption that the ones living in poverty were under God’s curse.

The letter of James therefore gives us a bit of insight into the social conditions of the Jerusalem church in the middle of the first century. Just as care for the widow and poor is typical of the prophetic message of Hosea or Amos, James takes up the cause of these undefended members of the community.  Karen Jobes points out that James 5:1-6 is a “prophetic denouncement” of the rich, people who accumulate wealth by abusing the poor (Letters to the Church, 170).   She sees James’ attack on the rich as an attack on an “evil arrogance which is incompatible with spiritual maturity.”

To what extent is the danger about which James is concerned a problem in modern churches?  Is there favoritism in the church? Is there an “evil arrogance” which is evidence of our spiritual immaturity?  I think that perhaps there is….

Bibliography: John Painter, Just James. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999; Karen Jobes, Letters to the Church.  Grand Rapids, Mich. Zondervan, 2011.

James and Paul

The relationship of James and Paul has generated a great deal of literature since Martin Luther made his famous declaration that the letter of James as an “epistle of straw.” Luther’s objection to James was his belief that Paul’s doctrine of “justification by faith” was in opposition to the “dead legalism” of the Pharisees. For Luther, James represents Judaism, Paul “real Christianity.” As is well-known in the post-New Perspective world, Luther read Paul in the light of his own struggle against the Catholic theology and to a large extent understood the legalists and Pharisees as Proto-Pelagians, and Paul was a good Protestant against that legalism.

james-and-paulThere are a number of problems with this, not the least of which is that Luther misunderstood the Judaism of the first century as a “works for salvation” religion. It is not that Luther was misguided, but the study of the Second Temple period only developed in the second half of the twentieth century. The discovery of the DSS and the collection of Second Temple period documents into convenient collections made access to this vast literature possible for New Testament scholars.

Luther’s view was strengthened by protestant liberal readings of Paul in the nineteenth century. F. C. Bauer understood the early church as a division between a Pauline (Gentile) Christianity and Peterine (Jewish) Christianity. Bauer only accepted Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Galatians as authentically Pauline, skewing Paul’s theology and over-emphasizing the problem of Gentile salvation. He also dismissed Acts as an accurate source for history, considering it to be written quite late, yet accepting the Pseudo-Clementines as having considerable value. This served to make the divide between Paul and James even greater, since the Pseudo-Clementines record a violent disagreement between the two men which is not recorded in Acts. For Bauer, James is a late pseudonymous letter attempting to find common ground between Paul Gentile Christianity and Peter’s Jewish wing of the church. It is almost axiomatic that Bauer’s views were extreme and are almost universally rejected in modern New Testament studies.

“Loosening the Pauline Connection.” Perhaps Luke Timothy Johnson is correct in his Anchor Bible Commentary on James, where he recommends scholars “loosen the Pauline connection.”  He points out that only 12 of the 108 verse in James have anything to do with Paul. By over exaggerating the importance of those verses, both James and Paul are distorted.

James and Paul Making Up

The reason for this is the natural attraction of simplicity – two theologies in dialogue are much easier to integrate into a systematic theology than the broader, wide ranging early church and the many varieties of Second Temple Judaism. Christian theology has developed almost entirely as a result of the study of Paul’s writings. Johnson argues that we ought to therefore take the Pauline debate out of our discussion of James and let James stand on his own as a representative of Jewish Christianity which may (or may not) be in dialogue with Paul. “What is it that James says?” should be the question.

Johnson also argues that “conflict models” need to be rejected. This begins by recognizing that the legendary elements which are found in the Pseudo-Clemetines are in fact legendary and have no basis in fact. Johnson also advocates a more realistic assessment of the book of Acts, regarding it as generally historical in most details.

Once these two basic decisions are made, then Galatians, Acts and James are not to be seen in great conflict with one another, but generally in agreement. The Jerusalem church (as represented by James) agrees with Paul’s theology of “no law for the gentile.” There is no reason to assume a violent conflict between the two. Diversity does not require conflict – although this too needs to be tempered since there is eventually a degree to which diversity can no longer be tolerated. Within the New Testament, no writer goes beyond what is required to be faithful.

Johnson is correct that we must avoid “anachronistic readings” of James and Paul based on later theological structures. Keep Calvinism out of the discussion and present James, Paul and the Pharisees along a continuum of Second Temple period Judaism!

Proper Treatment of the Poor in James

A central aspect of the ethical teaching in the book of James is proper treatment of the poor. James 1:27 commands the care of widows and orphans, in 5:15 he commands the elders to care for the sick in their churches. James warns his readers that the wealthy ought not treat the poor with contempt or insist on special privileges (2:1-9). In fact, James 5:1-6 is a stunning condemnation of the wealthy who store up treasure on earth and abuse those who work for them.

Begging in ChurchJames’ concern for the poor accords well with the situation in Judea just prior to the Jewish revolt, John Painter points put that in the years leading up to the revolt there were increasing tensions between the wealthy Aristocratic Priests and the poor priests and Levites who served in the Temple (Just James, 250). Since the aristocratic priests were likely Sadducean, few (if any) from this level of society joined the Jesus movement. The poor Pharisees, however, may have been attracted to Jesus as a messiah, teacher of the law, and had no problem with the idea of resurrection.

This concern also resonates with the book of Acts and the letters of Paul. Paul’s concern for the “poor saints in Jerusalem” is well known, from the earliest mention of Paul in Acts he is delivering a gift to Jerusalem because of a famine. In the letters of Paul there are several references to the collection from the Gentile churches to help support the Jerusalem church. There were some wealthy members of the Jerusalem church, such as Barnabas, who sold property to help the community survive. But the wealthy did not make up a large percentage of the Jerusalem church and potentially exhausted their wealth supporting the community.

This may mean that the church in Jerusalem was living in a kind of self-imposed poverty, perhaps because they were modeling their lives after Jesus. Just as Jesus had no home or possessions to speak of, the members of the Jerusalem church shared their possessions and lived in anticipation of the return of their Lord. If this is the case, they may have been despised by the aristocracy, who understood wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. This somewhat perverse misunderstanding of the Blessings of the Law would have led to the assumption that the ones living in poverty were under God’s curse.

The letter of James therefore gives us a bit of insight into the social conditions of the Jerusalem church in the middle of the first century. Just as care for the widow and poor is typical of the prophetic message of Hosea or Amos, James takes up the cause of these undefended members of the community.  Karen Jobes points out that James 5:1-6 is a “prophetic denouncement” of the rich, people who accumulate wealth by abusing the poor (Letters to the Church, 170).   She sees James’ attack on the rich as an attack on an “evil arrogance which is incompatible with spiritual maturity.”

To what extent is the danger about which James is concerned a problem in modern churches?  Is there favoritism in the church? Is there an “evil arrogance” which is evidence of our spiritual immaturity?  I think that perhaps there is….

Bibliography: John Painter, Just James. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999; Karen Jobes, Letters to the Church.  Grand Rapids, Mich. Zondervan, 2011.