Letter of James by Scott Hahn

JAMES, LETTER OF The first of the seven Catholic Epistles of the New Testament (the others are 1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2, and 3 John; and Jude), so called because they appear to be addressed to the whole Church. An exhortation to practical Christian living, the letter is noteworthy for it stress on the value of good works and its reference to the anointing of the sick.

i. authorship and date

The author of the epistle is identified simply as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Jas 1:1). The identity of this James is technically uncertain, but many scholars agree that he was James, the brother of the Lord (Gal 1:19) who governed the Jerusalem community of Christians after Peter (Acts 12:17; 15:13–21) and who was martyred in Jerusalem in a.d. 62 by order of the Jewish high priest. A few modern scholars suggest that the author wrote pseudonymously—that is, in the name of James. The arguments for that assertion are not strong, and, regardless, the author clearly was a Jewish Christian and wrote with authority.

Determining the date of the letter’s composition is difficult, as it depends in large measure on the assumed authorship. If the epistle was written by James, the brother of the Lord, then it had to be composed before his death in a.d. 62. The exact date is impossible to know, but a tentative time period might extend from around a.d. 49 to the early sixties. Some scholars who maintain that the letter was written by an anonymous Christian suggest a later date, between a.d. 80 and 100.

ii. contents

I. Opening Address (1:1)

II. Statement of Themes (1:2–27)

A. The Value of Suffering and Trials (1:2–18)

B. Hearing and Doing the Word (1:19–27)

III. Partiality and Charity (2:1–13)

IV. Faith and Works (2:14–26)

V. Control of the Tongue (3:1–12)

VI. Genuine Wisdom (3:13–18)

VII. Strife and Disagreement (4:1–12)

VIII. Divine Providence (4:13–17)

IX. The Coming of the Lord (5:1–12)

X. Anointing of the Sick (5:13–18)

XI. Conclusion (5:19–20)

iii. purpose and themes

James wrote his epistle to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (Jas 1:1), which may indicate an audience of Christian converts from Israel spread out across the Mediterranean world. The letter uses a variety of literary forms, and in particular it models itself after the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. It is written in excellent Greek, but also uses Jewish terms and OT allusions that give it a Semitic flavor (2:21–26; 5:10, 11, 17).

James shows himself familiar with the Synoptic Gospel traditions (especially Matthew) when he alludes to many elements of the Lord’s teachings, such as joy in suffering (1:2), the place of the Father (1:17), the poor and the kingdom (2:5), love of neighbor (2:8), the tree and its fruit (3:12), humility and exaltation (4:10), the prohibition against oath swearing (5:12), and confidence in our prayer life (5:17).

The letter is an elegant teaching on Christian spirituality, justification by faith and works, confession, and anointing of the sick. James focuses on the pressures and challenges faced by Christians as they spend their lives in a pagan world, and so writes as a spiritual father giving direction and encouragement in the faith. The discourse is concerned, then, with practical Christian living, admonitions, and encouragement and is less preoccupied with matters of doctrine. Echoing the Sermon on the Mount, James urges Christians to find joy in suffering (1:2–12). God, James reminds his readers, is not the cause of temptations—they spring from our wounded nature: “but each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (1:14). God is the source only of good, and he “brought us forth by the word of truth that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures” (1:18).

Exhorting Christians to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (1:22), James urges them to be impartial in viewing rich and poor equally (2:1–3) and exhibiting charity toward others (2:14–26) because “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24). James goes on to command control of the tongue (3:1–12), which must be trained to serve and bless the Father. Authentic Christian wisdom pursues peace and humility: “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity” (3:17).

Against this wisdom is discord, which must be avoided (4:1–12). Rather, all Christians should readily submit themselves to God’s care and providence (4:13–17) and live in awareness of God’s coming judgment (5:1–12). Prayer is the means of overcoming suffering and the mark of the true Christian: “The prayer of a righteous man has great power” (5:16).

Finally, James writes, “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (5:14–15). This passage is a witness to the sacrament of the anointing of the sick as it was administered in the earliest days of the Church; according to the Council of Trent (Session 14, November 25, 1551), Catholic teaching on that sacrament is grounded on this passage. (See also Anointing of the Sick; Repentance.)

Hahn, S. (Ed.). (2009). In Catholic Bible Dictionary (pp. 415–417). New York; London; Toronto; Sydney; Auckland: Doubleday.

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