What does the book of James have to do with wisdom?

We are studying James 1:1-11 for Sunday, August 2, as the first of five lessons on James in this quarter devoted to Biblical wisdom literature, so it looks like we will be finding out. [Here are some questions on the text.] Here are some notes on the text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We had some lessons from James a couple years ago, so we might remember a few things about the book.

It opens with a greeting in standard ancient Greek letter form [from: the name and identity of the sender; to: the identity of the recipient(s); a greeting]. After that, it doesn’t behave much like a “typical New Testament letter.” No response to the specific concerns of an identifiable congregation; no letter-like conclusion. Our trusty Access Bible (NRSV) points out that

the author reflects the world of the Greco-Roman philosophical tradition which composed both ‘moral epistles’ (see Seneca) and “exhortatory letters’ (see 1 Thess.). Such letters, while addressed to a specific person, discussed various virtues and encouraged their performance. [1]

The text also has several features in common with wisdom literature more generally, including themes (two ways, controlling one’s speech and temper, money – although James’s aim is clearly not how to make the listener prosperous in the conventional sense), and form, which is almost like extended proverbs. And our text this week will take up the desirability of “wisdom” explicitly (verse 5).

Tradition holds that the author is “James, the brother of the Lord.” If so, the text must pre-date 62 CE, when that James dies. Scholars who doubt that tradition point to the text’s elegant rhetorical style, knowledge of Greek and Hebrew literature and literary convention, etc., and question whether “a Galilean peasant” could pull all that off; a different author could well be a later author, maybe 2nd century. I doubt that reasoning, personally; I understand about probabilities, but why couldn’t James the brother of the Lord have been exceptional? Happily, I am not alone.

Readings from James – but not this one – show up in the lectionary as one of the options for the dog days of ordinary time in Year B (14th – 18th Sundays after Pentecost). Or, we might have studied the book in youth group, if we’re young enough. Protestants of my generation may have learned that, even though we technically believed “faith without works is dead,” James was for Catholics. In other words: we could have some prejudices about this text.
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CLOSER READING: I always notice that the name “James” (v1) is what has become of Greek Iakobus, Hebrew Ya’akov, Jacob [my dad’s and my brother’s name]. The word translated “servant” could as easily be translated “slave.” The addressee, “the twelve tribes in the diaspora,” may mean the envisioned audience is Jewish Christians, or that James already thinks of the entire church as Israel, maybe particularly as the [long-ago] exiled tribes.

The text seems to divide into three shorter teachings, vv2-4 (enduring trials), 5-8 (asking God for wisdom in faith), and 9-11 (riches are perishable).

In v2, the word “trials” is elsewhere (as in the Lord’s Prayer) translated “temptations.” These are trials the reader might “fall into.” Still, we could think of them as “tests,” like “experiments.” [Like the way we talk about clinical trials – or time trials.] The “testing” in v3 is more intentional, oriented toward assessment, “proving” or “approving.” Reading this makes me think of my swim mom days, watching the team swim laps, trying to beat the giant clock on the deck: the kind of testing or trying that “produces endurance.”

In v3 “faith” is being tested – the fall into “trials” is reframed as opportunity, maybe. In v4, the phrase “full effect” and the word “mature” are both translations of the Greek adjective “perfect,” from telos, which is an “end,” a final result being aimed at or moved toward. The word “complete” is a rarely-used word that literally means something like “whole with all its parts” – all the parts are there, and each of them is all there.

In v5, the verb “lack” picks up the “nothing lacking” from v4, and specifically mentions “wisdom.” [Why? Why is that the key lack? We might want to compare Proverbs 4:5-7]

The word translated “doubt,” repeated twice in v6, has several senses. Here it seems to mean something like wavering or hesitating or second guessing oneself. The image of the wave on the sea reinforces that sense. “Doubt” in this context seems to involve indecision – as in not being able to choose between two commitments or courses of action. So: someone not committed to Christ can’t expect to receive much from Christ.

The word comes up again in James 2:4, as the clearly negative “making distinctions” between rich and poor. That connection may be a clue to what’s in the author’s mind when he follow up this comment on doubting with one on poor and rich (vv9-11).

The comparison of the rich to a “flower of the field,” literally grass, that withers or fades (v10), seems to me to draw on Hebrew Bible imagery: Psalm 103 – where mortals’ impermanence is a contrast with God’s justice and steadfast love; Isaiah 40 – where people’s impermanence is a contrast with God’s word; and especially Psalm 49, which emphasizes the mortality of the rich, in the context of wisdom, albeit without the “flower” image.

Maybe the author is trying to remind readers here that rich people are as impermanent as any other mortals, and the lasting treasure is what comes from God.

If we read ahead a bit, we might find this impression strengthened.

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

James 1:17-18

On that reading, the trials people need to consider all joy could include losing one’s job or wealth or social position. [For a rich first-century audience, maybe because of hanging out with low-born Christians.] The temptations people face would include the one to give up the Christian madness and go back to a more conventional way of life. Against that kind of double-mindedness, the author seems to be defending the ultimate wisdom of that Christian folly.
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[1] Jerome H. Neyrey, S.J. “The Letter of James: Introduction,” in The Access Bible: An Ecumenical Learning Resource for People of Faith, Gail R. O’Day and David Peterson, General Editors. Oxford University Press, 1999. New Testament 355.
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Apostles Philip and James the Less