The Working Wisdom of James
Many of the literary features particular to James, such as the imperatival tone, the prophetic imagery, the use of metaphor and illustrative parable, and the tendency towards aphorism, far from being problems to be solved, are in fact guideposts for modern readers to better appropriate and appreciate this book. They are indicators of the literary character and genre of the book. What type of book is the “Epistle of James” and why might that help us?
Part of the challenge in reading James Christologically is that we are set up from the beginning to misunderstand the kind of book that James is. Your Bible likely titles James as an “Epistle.” That’s not entirely mistaken, but determining the genre of James–that is, the “type” of discourse that we are engaged in–is more complicated than that. What is more, orienting ourselves to the genre of any particular work is key to understanding it. While James has some “letter-like” qualities, it has more in common with Jewish wisdom literature and prophetic homily than the letters of Paul. Appreciating the wisdom character of this book will help us better understand James’ goals and purpose.1
James is an Epistle, Sort of
On the one hand, James begins exactly like we would expect an epistle to begin. An ancient Greek or Roman epistle only requires three words to get going: (1) the name of the person writing (“James”), (2) the names of those to whom it was written (“the twelve tribes”), and a greeting (in the case of James, “greetings”). James uses more than three words, but you really only need three. James has all that, so James is obviously a letter. However, skipping to the end, notice that James doesn’t end like a letter. Furthermore, the contents of this letter, as we have already noted, don’t line up with what we are expecting from other letters that we have read, such as those of Paul and Peter.
It is worth noting, then, that there are different kinds of letters. Some letters are very specific and concrete. If you get a thank you note for a Christmas present, you are reading an “occasional letter”—it’s about a specific thing that you did at a specific time, and it addresses that thing concretely and for a particular purpose (to offer thanks). If, by contrast, you got a Christmas card in the mail, you know that the picture and the “Christmas letter” included are not for you in particular, but are chosen as appropriate for a more general audience. This was written to everyone and you are therefore only relatively special. Perhaps the Christmas letter also includes a few handwritten sentences to you specifically, but the bulk of it is “general” and therefore less occasional that the thank you note.
So which kind of letter is James? There is a big clue in the first sentence of the epistle. It is addressed “to the twelve tribes of the diaspora” (1:1). That’s a very broad audience. It’s addressed to all Jews throughout the Roman world. Even if we limit that to Jewish Christians (which might be a good idea), it’s still a very broad audience. That tells you something important about how to read the book. It’s very unlikely that it is going to deal with specific issues that this or that church is struggling with. If it deals with an issue, it’s going to be one with which all the churches are likely struggling. It’s going to address money, for example, but not a building campaign. It’s going to deal with suffering, but not the persecution happening in Palestine.
So James is an epistle, but as an epistle it lacks “situational immediacy.”2 It’s not like Galatians or Philemon. Those epistles are driven by very specific and particular concerns that their author wants to address. This one is more general, which means we need to look closer at the content in order to determine its genre and purpose.
James is Wisdom Literature
In truth, an author can take the conventions of a letter and bundle anything they want to inside it. Just the other day I received a letter in the mail from a friend; it consisted of a post-it note with some personal remarks (“appreciated our discussion, thought this might be of interest to you”) attached to an article. How do I read such a letter? The letter convention is simply being used to pass along something other than a letter, in this case an article.
This is similar to what is going on in James. James is using the letter convention to pass along something that is not really (or not just) a letter. It is a letter in form, but something else in content. So what kind of literature do we find in James?
Read through James 1 again, this time asking the question “what does it sound like?” Are there any other biblical (or non-biblical) books this reminds you of? Any other biblical writers that sound like this? Is there one central idea in the chapter, or is it multiple things strewn together? How do these ideas flow, and how are they connected?
When I read James 1 I don’t hear the kind of tight logical flow of Romans. I also don’t hear the careful and structured theological development of Hebrews or 1 Peter. Nor is it the impassioned polemic of Galatians. The style and content feels less occasional. And when it comes to what the book is about, I would be hard-pressed to isolate any one verse as the “thesis statement.” On the contrary, the author seems to be jumping from topic to topic without a lot of predictability. The ideas seem to connect, to be sure, but the connection is more literary than logical. For example, the author concludes 1:4 with the promise that the one who remains steadfast will be “lacking in nothing,” and then he immediately picks up the language in 1:5 with “if any lacks wisdom.” The two are connected, but there is no logical reason to move from “lacking nothing” to “lacking wisdom.” The connection is more artistic and stylistic than it is discursive and didactic.
So what does all this sound like? It sounds like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. It sounds like the teaching of Jesus, particularly in his Sermon on the Mount (and Jesus in turn seems to be guided by the wisdom and prophetic books of the Old Testament). In short, it sounds like Jewish Wisdom literature. We actually have a number of examples of such literature, both in the Bible and from other sources in the ancient world, and James seems to be doing something similar. He is taking up the task of instructing his audience in wisdom. 3
How to Read Wisdom
So how does one read ancient wisdom literature? We need to be attentive to the rules and conventions by which wisdom imparts truth. On the one hand, wisdom is not “case law.” It does not attempt to envision every possible scenario and tell you what to do in that scenario. Rather, it is more principial, and leaves it to you to work out the details of when and how to apply the insight. Wisdom tells you both “look before you leap” and “he who hesitates is lost,” and then leaves it to you to figure out how to respond in any given situation.
For this reason, ancient wisdom literature tends to be provocative and probative. It wants you to think differently about everything, even the most fundamental aspects of our lives. James, for example, tells us is 3:6 that “the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.” Our words are poison, and our tongue cannot be tamed. It does not go on to qualify these remarks. It leaves us with a naked truth: everything we say does harm. So what am I supposed to do with that!? How am I supposed to apply that? James doesn’t go on to spell it out for you. Should I remain silent for the rest of my life? Should I repent and pray that the Lord will transform my tongue? Can the tongue be redeemed? James delights in leaving you unsettled about such questions. He wants to unsettle you because you need to be unsettled, lest you too quickly justify yourself and your words. Jesus does this all the time; “if your right eye causes you to stumble” then cut it out, he says (Matt. 5:29). How do I apply that? That’s unsettling. Most of us immediately jump to “Jesus doesn’t really mean it, not literally,” and maybe he doesn’t, but he does want to leave me unsettled. He wants me to ponder the truth that it would be better to go through life without eyes and arms than to sin.
That’s what wisdom does. It is true and good, but it is true and good in a slightly less straightforward way than, say, case law. The law tells me what to do if my ox hurts itself in a neighbor’s field on the sabbath, but wisdom probes deeper, exposing how I think about possessions, about worship, about my neighbor, all the while calling me to do good.
James and Jesus
These characteristic of James actually helps approach our original question: where do we find the Gospel of Jesus Christ in this book? It is true that James does not contain a lot of explicit Christological reflection. It favors the imperative over the indicative, we might say. And yet Jesus is not so far away as we might think. Perhaps in James the emphasis is not on what Jesus did, as important as that might be, but on what he taught (and why he taught it). It is wisdom for the work of living as a follower of Christ; it is the working wisdom by which, through Christ, we are being made “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jas. 1:3).
We will turn to that in Part 3 this series.
- While this approach to James seems increasingly congenial popular, I’m particularly indebted to the work of R. Bauckham, James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage (London: Routledge, 1999); L. L. Cheung, The Genre, Composition and Hermeneutics of the Epistle of James (Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster, 2003); D. McCartney, James (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009); D. G. McCartney, “The Wisdom of James the Just,” Southern Babtist Journal of Theology 4, no. 3 (2000): 52–64.
- F. Francis, “The Form and Function of the Opening and Closing Paragraphs of James and 1 John,” Zeitschrift Für Die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 61 (1970): 117
- Bauckham, James