Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett

in The Bible: Authorized King James Version

Published in print February 1998 | ISBN: 9780192835253
Published online April 2009 |

Series: Oxford World's Classics


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Who is this James? The New Testament mentions James, the brother of Jesus (Mark 6: 3), and two disciples of Jesus called James: James the son of Zebedee and brother of John, and James the son of Alphaeus (Mark 3: 17–18). Nothing in the letter ascribes it to a specific James, and we have no other evidence as to who this author was. In the fourth century Eusebius noted that some Christians doubted its place in the New Testament. For Martin Luther, its anti-Pauline emphasis on good works made it the ‘epistle of straw’. The style of Greek in James, unlike much of the New Testament, is good, and the book's content suggests a Jewish-Christian focus. The well-known section in 2: 14–26 looks very much as if it might have been composed to combat Paul's denigration of works in favour of faith as the grounds of salvation. The claim in 2: 25 that ‘Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?’, makes an interesting contrast with the claim for faith made by Heb. 11: 31: ‘By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace.’ Whether ‘faith’ or ‘works’ is a better description of this prostitute's activities must remain moot, but the New Testament use of the same example (Rahab or Abraham) to make opposite points illustrates the dangers of this kind of argument from proof-texts. Yet the debate between faith and works, Paul versus James, has continued to simmer—boiling over most notably at the Reformation—and the same texts from scripture continue to do duty on both sides. For James faith is the equivalent of belief: ‘Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble’ (2: 19), but works justify because ‘faith without works is dead’ (2: 20). ‘By works a man is justified, and not by faith only’ (2: 24). It is difficult to resist reading James as a critique of Paul's ideology of justification by faith. It is certainly a corrective to the Pauline doctrine which dominates so much of the New Testament. He consistently focuses on the practical: ‘Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep himself unspotted from the world’ (1: 27). Omitting such abstract words like ‘justice’ or ‘righteousness’, this echoes the prophets. ‘But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peacable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace’ (3: 17–18). James, like Paul and the gospels, also cites the same summary text of the Jewish law ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ (2: 8; Lev. 19: 18; cf. Rom. 13: 8–10; Gal. 5: 14; Matt. 22: 34–40; Mark 12: 28–31; Luke 10: 25–8). Whatever the early Christian variations to Jewish thought, no New Testament writer ever supposes that the teaching of Jesus did other than reinforce the fundamental core of the Mosaic law about love of God and love of neighbour.

Chapter.  909 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Biblical Studies

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