THE EPISTLE OF JAMES: APPLYING FAITH IN DIFFICULT TIMES
By R. Herbert
The historical setting for the Book of James is extremely important as it helps us understand a great deal of what the apostle writes. But all too often we approach this epistle as though it existed in a vacuum, and we miss much of its thrust. By looking at its original setting, we can gain a far deeper appreciation of what James wrote – and why he wrote it.
The Seeds of Disaster
The Epistle of James is not easy to read as a letter because it appears to be disjointed and to consist of almost random thoughts and statements. Some scholars have even characterized the epistle as a collection of early Christian proverbs or wisdom sayings rather than an actual letter. But the introduction to James shows that it is a letter (1:1), and when we understand its historical setting, its purpose as a letter becomes clear.
The fact that the author of the Epistle of James does not need to tell his audience which James he is establishes, just as early Christian tradition affirms, that he was James the brother of Jesus who became the chief apostle of the New Testament Church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15: 13-21; 21:17-19; etc.). We know from the Jewish historian Josephus that James was martyred about AD 62, and the situation we find reflected in his letter fits well with the years immediately leading up to the Jewish rebellion against Rome in AD 66.
It is vital that we understand that the Jewish rebellion was not just about religious or political independence. Over the course of the century before that war Judea had come under Roman control and increasing change. Roman policy had left many Jews landless, and the exorbitant taxes of the puppet king Herod the Great had driven much of the country into decline, with many formerly independent families being reduced to near poverty. The only people who profited under these conditions were the rich landlords of the aristocratic and priestly families who helped keep the nation subservient to Rome and who often ruled over the masses with unchecked brutality – to the point of sometimes hiring thugs and assassins to soften up or even eliminate those who owed them money or who were not compliant.
Even within the priesthood the aristocratic ranks began to withhold tithes from the lower levels of the priests, and widespread corruption further widened the gap between the rich and the poor at every level. Poverty became widespread and massive amounts of resentment and hatred of the rich began to build within Jewish society. But these conditions were not limited to Judea – many of them were common throughout large areas of the Roman Empire through which many Christians had spread (Acts 11:19). But in Judea, where the resentment against Rome and those who grew rich under its rule became most intense, these conditions would soon lead to war. When the revolt finally broke in a rebellion of the poor, it was the priests and the Roman soldiers on the Temple mount who were massacred first.
Seeing History on the Page
This was the developing situation that James, as “Senior Pastor” of the Jerusalem Church, addresses in his letter. When he begins his epistle with the statement: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2), it is easy to think of spiritual “trials” and temptations, but the Greek word upon which this is based, peirasmos, can mean any kind of adversity or temptation, and the trials James actually addresses in his letter are primarily those of poverty, oppression and the natural human temptation to strike back in some way at the oppressor.
As a result, the rich are mentioned more in James than in any other New Testament epistle, and there is more about them – and responding to their misdeeds – than almost any other subject he addresses. The apostle speaks out strongly against the pride of the rich, making a point which is hammered home repeatedly and in every chapter of his letter (1:9-11; 2:1-9; 3:13-18, 4:13-16, 5:1-6). He speaks specifically of the oppression of the poor by the rich (2:6-7; 5:4-6) and the dozens of verses that focus on the rich are clearly a major theme of this epistle. Not surprisingly, it was the rich and powerful high priest Ananias II who had James executed – doubtless as much for his vocal criticism of the abuses of the rich as for any perceived religious threat against Roman stability.
But James’ letter does not stop with a critique of those who misuse riches and abuse the power they hold. He focuses just as much on the reaction of those oppressed and affected by the rich. James discusses many of the ways we might respond to such mistreatment, and these interjected counsels are the cause of much of the apparent disjointedness of the epistle. But when we understand the underlying theme with which James is working, we are able to see the clear connection between the problems and the reactions they cause.
For example, directly after his words on the evils perpetrated by the rich, James addresses the temptation to retaliate to economic and social oppression with violence (2:11; 3:14, 4:2). Interestingly, the zelos of which James warns in 3:14 is the “zeal” from which the name of the Zealots, who called for a violent end to Judea’s problems, was based. He also warns against responding with judgmental words and curses (1:19-20, 26; 3:1-12; 4:11-12; 5:9), with anger (1:20) or envy (3:14), or conversely with favoritism to gain the favor of the rich (2:1-13). But James calls upon the oppressed not to respond according to these ways of the flesh, but to respond spiritually, with faith in God’s power over the apparent supremacy of the rich (1:6-8; 2:14-26) with trusting patience and endurance (1:9-11; 5:7-11), and with care and support for those even poorer than themselves (2:14-16).
The Application of Faith
As we read James with this understanding, we see that rather than simply stringing together unrelated “proverbs” or words of “wisdom,” he alternates between what the rich are doing and how the poor must react, between social and economic problems and Christian responses. Although the overarching theme of the book is certainly one of faith, it is not abstract faith or belief, but living, working examples of everyday faith in response to the physical difficulties of life.
In this sense, the message of James’ letter reaches far beyond the situation in first century Judea to every society where there is oppression, poverty, injustice and inequality. And James addresses any and every kind of adversity that may come upon us, from social injustice to sickness, from problems we may experience at work to difficulties we may face in making rent or mortgage payments. James speaks directly to every Christian who experiences the fact that in this life we may suffer at the hands of the world.
But James does not simply critique. He names the problems for what they are and holds up a better way of response – the way of faith and trust in God’s unmovable purposes. James stressed the way of restraint in a time of escalating hatred that led to eventual violence and ultimately to the destruction of Judea in AD 70. His message is one that is just as meaningful today: despite the evils of the world and the corruption of society, do not become embittered, but be patient and have faith. Tradition tells us that James was greatly loved by many of the people of Jerusalem, and especially by the poor. There is every reason to believe that. James offered – and still offers – all of us, and especially the weak and vulnerable, guidance and encouragement in difficult times.