This is a partial draft version of an article I am writing on James. It is not yet finished, but has enough information in it so far that it can be valuable as is until I can finish it.
I have been thinking about the book of James for a long time. Specifically I attended a translation workshop on the book, helped Mixtec speakers translate it into Tezoatlán Mixtec and Ayutla Mixtec of Mexico and have checked the book as a consultant in several other Mexican languages. All the preparation, exegesis, study, translating, checking, etc. brought about having a number of questions about the book and its purpose. The most basic issue, and a key to resolving many of the other questions and translating the book accurately, is trying to determine who James’ intended audience is.
Some of the answers to this question of the target audience, and the ways this has affected how I understand the rest of the book is significantly different than many commentaries I studied, and very different than most sermons people have heard.
Some of the things I discovered, deducted, are so different that some may say, “What? That is not right! That is not how I understand the book, or that portion of the book!” I only ask that you keep an open mind as I set forth the things I have discovered as a result of helping to translate James into a different language, seeking to understand the logic and purpose of the book, and also what I have gleaned from further studies and several different authors. If in the end you do not agree with my conclusions, that is of course fine, I just ask that you consider the book from this unique perspective.
Who is James writing to?
As mentioned, a key to understanding the book of James is trying to determine who he is writing to. Who is his audience? After much study, it was determined that most likely his principle audience is Jews, as he states from the very beginning in 1:1: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” Literally he says he is speaking to Jewish people.
However, some have taken this phrase as his way of speaking of the “new” Israel, with Christians as the people God has now chosen as His special people. Adding to this interpretation, they say, is that at James’ time, there were not twelve tribes of Israel. Ten had been carried away to Assyria around 720 BC, and only two confirmed tribes are left. However, the fact that James adds, “scattered among the nations” could cover even some people from the “lost” tribes, some of which, though living far away, may retain some of the Jewishness, and who are still heirs in a special way of the promise God made to Abraham. To dismiss the possibility that James is actually focusing on other Jewish people, and changing his words so that his words are directed to the new spiritual Israel seems to be a stretch. So let us see what significance James’ words have if we assume that he is speaking to his fellow Jewish people, and focusing his letter on their Jewishness, and not necessarily aiming everything at Christians, specially Christian gentiles.
James can be viewed as a transition primer, or a bridge from being a “good” Jew to leading them to faith in Jesus. He treats the most basic parts of faith in God, obeying God and living as God taught. James is taking on the misguided idea that just because they are Jews, they are God’s people and saved, without regard to how they live. Like Jesus said in John: “Don’t think that since you are descendants of Abraham, that you will escape.” He wants the listeners to live like God wants, like their ancestors had taught them, without overly focusing on Jesus. Yet!
To get their lives right according to what their Jewish faith teaches, he wants to start with the right foundation. James sets the firm foundation: to follow the two greatest commandments, just as Jesus taught them: “To love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.” It would be nice to see James, part 2, where one might expect that he would get to the main point, writing more directly so that they will realize that Jesus is the fulfillment of all that is in the Old Testament, and guide them to give their lives to Him. Then they would understand, as Hebrews explains, and as Paul shows with many OT prophesies, that Jesus is the only way to become right with God. In fact, if would be more logical if James came before Hebrews in the New Testament. James prepares them to have a closer relationship with God, to obey Him and to love Him and others, then Hebrews goes “straight to the chase” about how Jesus is the whole point of the Old Testament. James essentially wants them to be like the Bereans, to search the Scriptures and find that Jesus is the truth, the fulfillment of the Old Testament.
James focuses on their Jewishness like Jesus did
To help understand the form in which James presents his advice and teaching in this book, and to reinforce the idea that it is directed primarily to Jews, consider how Jesus taught his Jewish audience, what things he focused on and said, several which have been already mentioned. Consider especially how Jesus spoke to the Pharisees, people who were sometimes proud, hypocritical and did not always show love to others, issues James is dealing with in this book. Or how John the Baptist spoke to his Jewish audience, or even Peter in Acts, talking to the Jewish people. In James, while some or even many are Christians, he is not focusing on this, he is focusing on their Jewishness, just a Jesus did with the people He spoke to. James is rebuking the people for actions and attitudes which are very similar to the ones Jesus was concerned with.
Hypocrisy: Say you believe in God but no follow His commands
Mat. 23:23: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.” (Examples in James and/or Proverbs)
Mark 7:6-8: He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “ ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.
Mat. 23:6: “they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues”;
Luke 14:8-10: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.”
Luke 14:12-14: “When you put on a luncheon or a banquet,” he said, “don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you.”
Add a few corresponding examples of verses from James.
Related to this question of who James is directing his letter to is the concept of “brothers”, a word he uses at least fifteen times in this short book. (1:2a: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers,”) As a translation consultant, I check what are known as backtranslations, where someone from a minority language translates the text of the revised and checked translation of a Scripture book “back” into Spanish. For example, a translation in Mixtec may say, “Kúꞌu̱ nda̱ꞌo ini Ndios saꞌa̱ ña̱yuu ndéi ña̱yuú yóꞌo”, and the backtranslation would be: “God loves very much the people of this world.” I have seen a number of backtranslation of “brothers” which say, “brothers and sisters who believe in Jesus.” Now this would be okay if it was a letter written by Paul to Gentile Christians, but, is it okay for the book of James which I posit was written to Jewish people, many of whom where not Christians, or at the very least, immature Christians with extremely limited knowledge of Jesus?
It was very common for letters written from a Jewish writer to other Jews to use the term “brothers.” In the New Testament, when one of the apostles is speaking to a group of fellow Jews, it is common to use brothers. In Acts, Peter uses this kind of relational vocative a number of times, for example: Acts 2:14: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem”, 2:22: “Men of Israel”, 2:29: “Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried”, in 3:12 “People of Israel….” 3:17: “Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders.” 4:8: “Rulers and elders of the people!”
While it is true that brothers is also used in Acts to refer as “Christian” brothers, fellow believers, in the context of James, it seems more appropriate to assume that he is writing mainly to fellow Jews, his people, his brothers (and sisters). James, in Acts 15:13 addresses the Jewish assembly with the following way: “Brothers, listen to me.”
Paul is an interesting case in Acts, for many times he knows that he has a mixed audience, speaking to both Jews and Gentiles. In 14:16, in the synagogue, he starts out saying: “Men of Israel and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me!” Then in vs. 26: “Brothers, children of Abraham, and you God-fearing Gentiles,”. Then as he comes to his “climax” he combines them all by saying, “Therefore, my brothers,”. In Acts 22:1, as he is about to share his testimony in Jerusalem to mainly Jews, he starts out saying: “Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defense.” And in 23:1, defending himself before the Jewish council: “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” Finally in 28:17: Three days later he called together the leaders of the Jews. When they had assembled, Paul said to them: “My brothers,”.
Paul speaks mainly to the Gentiles in the majority of his letters, with a focus on confronting false teachings, many which come from the Judiazers, and trying to build up the church to maturity. Romans is usually the book many point to where Paul seems to have a mixed audience in mind, trying to explain what God did through Jesus to both Jews and Gentiles, with some sections an obvious message to the Jews, and others to the Gentiles.
At least three of the non-Pauline books also focus their message in on the Jews. Hebrews speaks directly to Jews, but more directly than James, explaining, like Paul, that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the Jewish laws and prophecies. 1 and 2 Peter is similar, speaking encouragement to Jewish Christians who are suffering.
Paul compared to James
In considering how the audience and themes James is focusing on is very different than the issues Paul was addressing, it is valuable to discuss Paul’s message to the Gentiles, since James, as has been noted, is not focusing on the Gentiles, but the Jews. Paul has a two part program when speaking to the Gentiles. First and foremost is to present Jesus as the only way to God, God’s way to become right with Him, the perfect sacrifice for sin who died in our place. While we were yet sinners He died for us. He reconciles us to God, He is our righteousness, the fulfillment of all the OT prophecies. He is the foundation, the most basic part of the message. The only faith that leads us to God and eternal life is in Jesus. Trust in Him!
However, Paul is dealing mostly with Gentiles whose whole life have been the complete opposite of doing God’s will, a lifestyle of abandonment to sin and mostly ignorance or disdain for what God commands. Paul knows they need a transformation of the heart and mind, not only to put their trust and faith in Jesus but also the power to live a life pleasing to God. He knows and teaches that this is only possible through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Because of the radical change needed from their old life to their new life, they also are in desperate need of solid teaching on how to live. Throughout Paul’s letters he has at least twelve lists of three or more sins that his experience with the Gentile people he has ministered to need the most correction. Every such list except for one includes at least three sexual sins (deals with sex in James?) , and they all also include many relational sins, how to get along, especially when you have new immature congregations that include both Jews and Gentiles, a significant clash of cultures and backgrounds.
This all is complicated by the Judiaizers, who, also knowing how “pagan” the Gentiles are, thinking that Jesus is not enough, are trying to change their “religion”, from pagan to Jewish proselytes, which include a lot of outward rules and laws like circumcision, food regulations, celebrating the Jewish festivals, etc. They are basically treating Jesus as an add-on to making the Gentiles into Jews. Paul rejects this, of course, proclaiming that Jesus is the one and only way to God, and instead of trying to change their lives by changing their religion, he sets out intensely teaching them, “Now that we have faith in Jesus, how then shall we live via the power of the Holy Spirit?” Thus the 12+ lists of the predominate sins he sees them dealing with as he goes from place to place and new church to new church.
James is coming at this from a different perspective. The main people he is writing to, Jews, are the heirs of God’s promises. They have the background of God’s laws and for the most part know how He wants them to live. However, because of some of the factors mentioned earlier, they have drifted away from His perfect law and instructions, be it because of the flesh or Gentile, worldly influence. So he is asking the people to come back to God, to rebuild that foundation that their people have had since Abraham, and as they do this, they will see the need of Jesus. Not Jesus as an add-on to the law, but as the fulfillment of the law, the One the law has been pointing to the whole time. They of course will also need the Holy Spirit to make them new creatures like everyone else, but James writes as though they do have an excellent foundation from which to start from, and if they understand it correctly, it will help lead them to Jesus, both for salvation, and also for a transformed life.
James is very different than other New Testament books
To show even more some of the differences between James, Paul and other (Gentile-directed) letters in the New Testament, below is a chart of some key words used in a number of NT books of similar size, specifically the keyterms Jesus, Christ and Gospel. The number count is based on the occurrences in the more literal King James version:
As noted in the chart, the Jesus and Christ are only found twice in the book of James, and both times together. 1:1: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations.” And 2:1: “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.”
Note that many other words Paul regularly uses are not in this book. As mentioned, Hebrews is different in that there is little dispute it is written primarily to Jews, as is the case with 1-2 Peter. But even in these writings, the primary audience is obviously Christians who are suffering, not Jews and their particular issues.
What are the causes of the problems James addresses?
We can theorize of what influences are affecting the people James is speaking to. If they are living where there are synagogues and significant influences of legalism and the type of issues that Jesus faced with the Pharisees and Sadducees, the people may be going “through the motions” of obeying the law and traditions outwardly, but not living for God in their daily lives, their hearts being far from him. The more likely scenario would be that these Jewish people are living among the Gentiles and are drifting away and being corrupted by the Gentiles just as had happened to their ancestors. Could they be falling into idol worship and many of the sins that the Gentiles revel in?
In contrast to Paul, who is speaking to Gentiles who grew up doing these types of sins, and who see nothing wrong in doing them, James is speaking to people who theoretically know how God wants them to live, whose law, assuming most know more or less what it says, prohibit all these sins. But quite possibly, because of Gentile influence and sinful natures, they are dabbling in these pagan sins. The Jews are mostly aware that they are breaking God’s laws when they sin like this, while the Gentiles think it is all normal to live such a life.
As a result, James purpose in writing the book is to lead them back to even the most basic teachings of how God wants them to live and to relate to Him. Every single verse in James is directly related to his purpose. With the overall goal of eventually bridging this to faith in Jesus.
References from the Old Testament
Like Paul, James also uses references from the Old Testament in his teaching and correction. James, in Acts 15 and writing the letters to the Gentiles, states that: “For these laws of Moses have been preached in Jewish synagogues in every city on every Sabbath for many generations.” The idea being that at least some of the Gentiles who are converts and God-fearers (i.e. Cornelius) know a fair amount of the Old Testament and so it can be used to teach certain truths about God to them as well as to Jews. I have mentioned all the similarities to Proverbs, James covering similar themes as Proverbs. James also lists a number of Old Testament heroes:
Abraham, someone Paul talks about a lot, in 2:21-23: “Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called Godʼs friend.”
Job in 5:11: “You have heard of Jobʼs perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.”
Elijah in 5:17-18: “Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.”
Rahab in 2:25: “Rahab the prostitute is another example. She was shown to be right with God by her actions when she hid those messengers and sent them safely away by a different road.”
Add here a discussion of Proverbs and how it compares to James, or add this info earlier or tie it to the theme section.
Key words: God (20), Lord (14), faith (16), brothers (15), law (10), Wisdom/wise (7) (3:13-18) Tongue, humble/humility pride/proud, Scripture (4), Religion-Paul does not talk this way. Believe (5), truth: (3) Proverbs (7), bless (3) Proverbs (23), Proverbs fear (25), Proverbs wicked(91), knowledge(40) and James know(6), anger 27:4, 30:33 and James 1:19-20,
Sex, lots in Paul, lots in Proverbs, not in James?
The tongue is mentioned a lot in Proverbs and James. Besides talking a lot about lying, Proverbs 13:3 says, “Those who control their tongue will have a long life; opening your mouth can ruin everything.” 15:2: “The tongue of the wise makes knowledge appealing, but the mouth of a fool belches out foolishness.” 15:4: “Gentle words are a tree of life; a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.” 18:21: “The tongue can bring death or life; those who love to talk will reap the consequences.” 21:23: “Watch your tongue and keep your mouth shut, and you will stay out of trouble.” 25:23: “As surely as a north wind brings rain, so a gossiping tongue causes anger!”
Gossip: 11:13, 16:28, 18:8, 20:19, 26:20, 26:22
Lots of verses for: Speak, lips, words, answer
Speak: 1:19, 2:12, 4:11
God, Lord(95 times in Proverbs, 14 times in Proverbs)
Faith 16X in James, 17X faithful, unfaithful in Proverbs
Love lots in Proverbs, in James, 2X those who love God, 1 love others.
Sin James 9, Prov. 23
Relational problems: i.e. anger, favortism
4:1-2: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God.” They Humiliate the poor, (“But you have insulted the poor.”) rich mistreat the poor and their workers, condemned and murdered innocent men, Favoritism: ““Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged.“
4:11 “Brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against his brother or judges him speaks against the law and judges it.”
1:19-20: “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.”
2:1-4: “My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?“
3:9: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.”
3:14-18 “No bitterness and envy in wisdom, peacemakers, impartial, don’t be angry.“
Add Proverbs relational problems
Anger in P: (15X) 5:17, 14:4, 15:1, 20:2, 20:16, 21:14, 22:3, 22:24, 27:4, 27:12, 27:13, 29:8, 29:11, 30:33
James 3:2: “To say something stupid is the easiest sin to commit, with the least amount of steps to bring it to fruition, it is almost instant. Every other sin needs a few more steps to bring it to fruition. So that is why if a person can top this almost instant sin, they should be able to stop a sin which takes more steps to complete.”
Law 1:25: “But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.“
2:8-9: “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.”
2:10-12: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom,”
Judge James (5X should not judge, 5X God is judge) 213 (X2), 4: 11 judgment
Prov. King should judge fairly (3X), Judgment (=discernment) 15X
Boast Pro. (3), James (4X)
Patience/patient both 4-5X
Evil James 10X, Proverbs 45X
Mercy about 4 each
Tomorrow James 4:13 and Prov. 27:1
Prayer Jms. 5:16, Prov. 15:8, 29
Vocatives:: 2:20: “You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?”, 4:4: “You adulterous people“, 4:8: “Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” 4:13: “Now listen, you who say,” 4:14: “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” 5:1: “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you.”
Proverbs: My son(s), others? 1:22, 8:5 you simple ones, 8:4 To you, O men,
Listen… Both have a number of these!
Works vs. Faith in the eyes of legalistic Jews. True faith is shown by good works, and also (3:13) true wisdom is shown by good works. James is pulling ideas from Proverbs. Could the Pharisees who became Christians feel proud because of their superior knowledge over the normal Israeli Christians? (3:14). This refers to faith in God, and is very different from Paul’s teaching about saving faith in Jesus.
Shema is a Jewish term for believing in God, this may be the “faith” that he is focusing on, or possibly the faith/trust in God like Abraham had, but not focusing in on faith in Jesus as Savior.
Riches: Proverbs 11:28: “Whoever trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf.” 18:23 “A poor man pleads for mercy, but a rich man answers harshly.” 22:1: “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” 23:4: “Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint.” 23:5: “Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.” 27:24: “riches do not endure forever, and a crown is not secure for all generations.” 28:6: “Better a poor man whose walk is blameless than a rich man whose ways are perverse.” 28:11: “A rich man may be wise in his own eyes, but a poor man who has discernment sees through him.” 28:20: “A faithful man will be richly blessed, but one eager to get rich will not go unpunished.” 30:8: “Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.“
Verses of loving God, then verses of loving others
Keith Green wrote a pamphlet called “What so great about the Gospel,” saying that until people realize how sinful they are, they will not see their need of Jesus. Maybe that is part of what James is doing. We need to see how far we have gotten from God and His law. Once we do that (and this is what he shows in James), then we will realize our great need for Jesus.