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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on James

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Prescript ( 1:1 )

The prescript uses the common short form of the Hellenistic letter (cf. Acts 15:23; 23:26 ). The sender is introduced as ‘James a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ’. As in the prescripts of Paul's (Gal 1:3; 1 Cor 1:3 , etc.) and other NT letters (2 Pet 1:2 ) God and Jesus are put on the same level. In a Jewish environment this could cause the accusation of ditheism. In the first sentence of the letter the writer does not hide his faith in Jesus as the ‘Christ’. The Greek christos translates the Hebrew masiaḥ, ‘the anointed’, the Jewish king of the end-time promised by the OT. The addressees are ‘the twelve tribes in the Dispersion (diaspora)’, referring either generally to the Christians as the wandering people of God (cf. 1 Pet 1:1 ) or, as is more probable, to scattered Jewish-Christian communities outside Palestine. The prescript ends with the typical Greek formula of greeting (chairein).

Joy in Temptations ( 1:2–18 )

( 1:2–4 ) From Trials to Completion

The unusual imperative to enjoy ‘trials’ (peirasmoi, v. 2 ) is explained by the fact that ‘the testing of faith’ can ‘produce endurance’ (v. 3 ). This idea with close parallels in Rom 5:2b–5 and 1 Pet 1:6–7 might have been part of early Christian baptismal instruction, ultimately going back to the teaching of Jesus (Mt 5:11–12; Lk 6:22–3 ). From endurance results, as ‘full effect, that you may be complete [teleios, RSV perfect]’ (v. 4 ), a goal that connects James with the Dead Sea scrolls (tāmîm, 1QS), Paul (1 Cor 2:6; Phil 3:15; Col 4:12 ) and Matthew's Gospel (Mt 5:48; 19:21 ). In James as in Qumran and the rest of the NT completion is understood to be eschatological.

( 1:5–8 ) Prayer for Wisdom

That completion is still in the future is illustrated by the admonition to ask for more wisdom (v. 5 ). The phrasing reminds one of Jesus' logion about asking and receiving (Mt 7:7; Lk 11:9–10 ) and his promise of wisdom in times of trial (Lk 21:15 ). That God gives ‘simply (haplōs) and without grudging’ (own tr.) has its background in the Q-saying, Mt 7:7–8; Lk 11:13 . In contrast to God human beings can be ‘double-minded’ (dipsychos) even in prayer (v. 8 ). At this point James apparently coined a new Greek word for a Palestinian-Jewish anthropological idea. That such a person is ‘unstable in all his ways’ (RSV) reminds one of the two-ways tradition (cf. Mt 7:13–14 ) that is already attested in Qumran (1QS 1:8 etc.) and became prominent in early Christian ethical teaching (Did. 1:1 ). That one should ask ‘in faith never doubting’ ( 1:6–7 ) is also inspired by Jesus' teaching (Mt 21:21–2; Mk 11:23–4 ).

( 1:9–11 ) The Lowly and the Rich

The raising up of the lowly and the bringing low of the rich and mighty (vv. 9–10 ) is an important motif of the Lukan special tradition (Lk 1:48, 52; 14:11; cf. Mt 23:12 ). That (rich) men ‘disappear like a flower’ (vv. 10–11 ) is already proverbial in the OT (Isa 40:6–7; Ps 103:15 ; cf. 4Q185; Mt 6:30; Lk 12:28 and Mt 13:6; Mk 4:6 ) and here expressed in a quite Semitic way.

( 1:12–15 ) God and Temptation

Beatitudes on those who ‘endure temptations’ are frequent in Jewish apocalyptic (Dan 12:12 Theod.; Ex. Rab. 31:3 ) and the Jesus tradition (Mt 5:3–11; Lk 20:22 ), v. 12 being possibly an unknown beatitude of Jesus (Adamson 1976: 68). The denial that God is the author of temptation (v. 13a ) may correct a certain interpretation of the Lord's Prayer (Mt 6:13; Lk 11:4; cf. 1 Cor 10:13 ). Tempting someone to do evil is against the character of God (v. 13b ; cf. Sir 15:11–12 ). Like Augustine (PL 38.453), the author seems to see in the testing of the faith of Abraham and Job something different. Although James believes in the involvement of demonic powers in temptation ( 3:15; 4:7 ) here he stresses human responsibility (v. 14 ; cf. 1 Enoch 98:4 ). The use of the term ‘desire’ (epithumia) is near to the psychological-ethical discussion in Qumran and the Rabbis (Kirk 1969–70; Marcus 1982 ) about the ‘evil inclination’ (yēser hā-ra῾) and not to Gnostic speculation about the evil of materiality. The personification of human desire giving birth to sin and death has its background either in Gen 3 (cf. Rom 7:7–12 ) or Prov 7:22–3 . The triad ‘desire, sin, death’ (v. 15 ) forms a strong contrast to ‘temptation, endurance, life’ (v. 12 ).

( 1:16–18 ) God's Perfect Gift

The admonition in vv. 16–17 recapitulates some motives of the ‘epitome of exhortation’ in 1:2–15 . The first part of v. 17 may be the quotation of a pagan proverb in hexameter form, but an allusion to a word of Jesus (Mt 7:11; Lk 11:13 ) is also possible. The ‘perfect gift’ (v. 17a ) should not be restricted to wisdom (cf. 1:5 ), but characterizes all that God is doing. The designation of God as ‘Father of lights’ (v. 17b ), that is the creator of the stars, is only found in a document from a wider Essenism (As. Mos. 36, 38, cf. T. Abr. 7:6 ; CD 5:17–18 ; 1QS 3:20 ). In contrast to human beings God does not waver and this is shown (as in Qumran) with an allusion to the majestic, regular movements of the stars. What kind of celestial phenomenon could be meant by the changeable shadow (v. 17c ) is unclear, but comparable language is found in 4:14 . In sharp contrast to human behaviour in 1:15 , God performs a new creation by spiritual birth from his ‘free will’ (v. 18 , own tr.). This idea has an antecedent in the apocalyptic preaching of John the Baptist (Mt 3:9; Lk 3:8 ), is clearly attested in the Jesus tradition (Mt 18:3; Jn 3:3, 5 ), and is common to all important strata of NT Christianity (1 Cor 4:15; Rom 12:2; Eph 1:5; Titus 3:5; 1 Pet 1:3; Jn 3:3–8; 1 Jn 3:9; 4:7 ). The idea appears often in baptismal texts, very close to James are the Petrine (1 Pet 1:23 ) and the pre-Johannine traditions (Jn 1:12–13 ). The ‘word of truth’ (v. 18 ) should not be restricted to the OT (cf. Ps 119:43 ) or OT law. The idiom has no real Jewish parallels but is attested in NT texts about conversion (2 Cor 6:7; Eph 1:13; Col 1:5; cf. 2 Tim 2:15 ). Possibly, in letters arguing with Christians under a certain Essene influence ‘word of truth’ is a designation for mission preaching (including elementary ethical instruction). Already Philo and the romance Joseph and Asenath, both in contact with Egyptian Essenic-Therapeutic circles, describe conversion as a coming from death to life and truth, implying the forgiveness of sins. When believers are called ‘first fruits’, this is the cultic language of offering (Ex 23:16; Lev 27:26; Deut 14:23 , etc.) and may be a hint at Jesus' vicarious death and resurrection (cf. 1 Cor 15:20 ).

Hearing, Speaking, Doing ( 1:19–27 )

( 1:19–21 ) Quick to Hear, Slow to Speak

‘You must understand this, my beloved’ (v. 19a ) marks a new section. The Semitic formulated proverb (v. 19b ) has many parallels in wisdom literature (Sir 5:11; Eccl 5:1 , etc.) as has the following theme ‘slow to anger’ (Eccl 7:9 ). Anger does not produce the divine standard of ‘righteousness’ (v. 20 ). Speech ethics has the negative aspect of getting rid of all false speech (v. 21a ) and the positive one ‘to receive [RSV] with meekness the implanted word (logos emphutos)’ (v. 21b ), an idiom reminding one of the explanation of the parable of the sower in its Lukan form (Lk 8:13; cf. 1 Pet 1:23 ). This enhances the possibility that as with ‘the word of truth’ ( 1:18 ) we have here an abbreviated term for the early Christian paradosis including the words of Jesus. Similar language is used in connection with mission preaching (Acts 1:14 ) and baptism (Col 3:8 ). A pre-Qumranic prayer (4Q504) earlier expressed the hope that God would ‘sow’ his word inwardly into man. The seed metaphor stresses the life-giving power of God's word. That the ‘implanted word’ has ‘the power to save your souls’ (v. 21c ) may allude to Jesus' teaching about his words as the criterion of eschatological salvation (Mk 8:35–8; Lk 9:24–6 ).

( 1:22–5 ) Doers, not Merely Hearers of the Word

This admonition (vv. 22–3b ) resembles Jesus' parable of the building of a house, stressing the importance of not only hearing but doing his word (Mt 7:24–7; Lk 6:47–9 ; cf. Origen, Hom. in Gen. 2.16). The use of mirrors as illustration (vv. 23b–4 ) was common in the religious and philosophical teaching of the ancient world. The idiom ‘the perfect law…of liberty’ (v. 25; cf. 2:15 ) is crucial for every general understanding of James. The strongly Semitic expression ‘hearer of forgetfulness’ (own tr.) argues against a Stoic background. As ‘the royal law’ in 2:8 , ‘the perfect law’ should be understood as the OT law as interpreted and completed by Jesus (cf. Mt 5:17, 48 ). There might be a traditio-historical connection (Riesner 1997: 362–4) between Jas 1:21 (‘meekness’, ‘saving the souls’) and v. 25 (‘law of freedom’), Jesus' invitation to bear his ‘yoke’ (i.e. law) as ‘rest for your souls’ (Mt 11:28–30 ), Paul's ‘law of Christ’ (Gal 6:1–2 ) that makes free (cf. Gal 5:1 ) and the pre-Johannine Amen-saying about the freedom from sin (Jn 8:34–6 ). Mention of the ‘law of freedom’ in Qumran (1QS 10:6, 8, 11 ) is disputed (cf. Ex 32:16 ), but similar language is found in Philo (Omn. Prob. 45).

( 1:26–7 ) Pure Religion

‘Religion’ (thrēskeia) is defined primarily in ethical and not in ritual terms (v. 26 ). The quality of speech is the criterion for what is in the human heart (cf. Mt 12:34; Lk 6:45 ). To remain ‘unstained by the world’ (v. 27c ) here means an ethical dualism (cf. 1 Enoch 48:7; 108:8 ; Apoc. Abr. 29:8 ; T. Iss. 4:6 ) and not a material one as in Gnosticism. To ‘care for orphans and widows’ (v. 27b ) is a common command in the OT (Deut 14:28; Jer 5:28; Sir 4:10 , etc.) and was practised with great care in the primitive community of Jerusalem (Acts 6:1–6 ). The ‘pure and undefiled’ religion (v. 27a ; cf. Philo, Leg. All. 1.50) is addressed to ‘God, the Father’. To call God three times ‘Father’ ( 1:17, 27; 3:9 ) is unusually often in a Jewish writing and might echo Jesus' regular address to God.

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