Chapter OneA Survey of the History
of Interpretation of James
Just as the origins of the letter of James are obscure, so also is the history
of its early reception. Was the author an apostle and identified as the
"brother of the Lord" (Gal 1:19)? Did he write for Jewish Christians? Was
the "diaspora" of 1:1 literal or symbolic? Did he write early or late? These
questions puzzle us as much as they may have puzzled James's first readers.
How and when the church first appropriated James is, in fact, unclear.
No official canonical list (such as the Muratorian canon) contained the
letter until the late fourth century. Eusebius listed James among the "disputed
books," although it was "recognized by most" (Hist. eccl. 3.25.3). The
Paschal Letter of Athanasius (367) and the Council of Carthage (397),
however, included James without any hint of indecision.
Substantive objections to James were not made, and its neglect - if
such it was - seems to have been benign. The apparent silence between
the letter's composition and canonization is difficult to evaluate. The authors
of 1 Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas may have known and used it
(cf. 1 Clem. 10 with Jas 2:23; 1 Clem. 12 with Jas 2:25; 1 Clem. 30 with Jas 4:6;Mand. 9:11 with Jas 3:15; Mand. 3:1 with Jas 4:5). But perhaps all three Christian
moralists used common paraenetic traditions. Allusions to James in
other extant writings of the second and third centuries are even more difficult
to decide. None is sufficiently definite to demand James as the
The Alexandrian School under Clement and Origen gave the letter its
first explicit literary attention. Clement named James among the founders
of Christian Gnosis (Hist. eccl. 2.1.3-4) in his Hypotyposes, a commentary
on "all the canonical scriptures," including the disputed ones (Hist. eccl.
6.14.1). According to Cassiodorus's De Institutione Divinarum Litterarum 8
(PL 70:1120), Clement's commentary included James, even though the extant
Latin translation does not contain it. Origen called James an apostle
and explicitly quoted fromand designated the letter as Scripture (see, e.g.,
Commentary on John xix, 6, PG 14: 569; Homilies on Leviticus 2, 4, PG 12: 41;
and the Commentary on Romans iv, 8, PG 14: 989). After Origen, the letter
came into wider use and gained authority, as Jerome put it, "little by little"
(De Viris Illustribus 2, PL 23: 639).
The precritical commentary tradition is sparse. Didymus the Blind,
who was also head of the catechetical school, wrote - if we except Clement
- the first Greek commentary on James (see PG 33). Fragments from
Didymus and Chrysostom (see PG 64) are also found in the Catena
Graecorum Patrum (ed. J. Cramer ), together with short scholia from
Cyril, Apollinaris (fourth cent.), and others. The Catena probably dates
from the seventh or eighth century; there is some overlap between it and
the full commentaries of the tenth century by Oecumenius of Tricca (PG
119) and by the eleventh-century Bulgarian bishop Theophylact (PG 125).
Cassiodorus made an eleven-paragraph summary of James in Latin in hisComplexiones Canonicarum in Epistolas Apostolarum (PL 70), and the Venerable
Bede (673-735) produced a full-length commentary in which he, like
his predecessors, placed the letter first among the catholic epistles (PL 93).
Martin of Legio (d. 1021), Nicholas of Lyra, and Dionysius the Carthusian
(1402-1471) continued the Latin commentary tradition. Also extant are
two Syriac commentaries. The commentary of the ninth-century
Nestorian bishop of Hadatha, Isho'dad of Merv (M. Gibson ), is
noteworthy for its brevity, its skepticism concerning the letter's apostolic
origin, and the note that Theodore of Mopsuestia (whom Isho'dad calls
"the Interpreter") knew nothing of the catholic epistles. More extensive
and intelligent is the twelfth-century commentary by Dionysius Bar Salibi
(I. Sedlacek ), who also complained of the lack of full commentaries
The precritical commentary tradition, resolutely non-allegorical,
treated James very much as moral exhortation. Doctrinal preoccupations
occasionally surfaced (see, e.g., Oecumenius [6th cent.] on the Trinity in
Jas 1:1, PG 119: 456). Particular concern was shown for harmonizing James
and Paul in the matter of faith and works (Jas 2:14-26), either by distinguishing
the condition of the believer before and after baptism (so
Oecumenius and Bar Salibi [twelfth cent.]) or by distinguishing kinds of
faith (so Theophylact [c. 1150-1225]). One also finds acute linguistic observations,
as when Chrysostom noted the apposite use of makrothymia in Jas
5:10 rather than the expected hypomone (see PG 64: 1049) or when Bar
Salibi commented on the various kinds of "zeal" in Jas 3:14.
The patristic and medieval commentary tradition, therefore, is sparse,
interdependent, and remarkably uniform. It is also uninformative concerning
the role the letter of James may have played in liturgical,
homiletical, or didactic settings. Such uses of the text are particularly important
for the history of precritical interpretation, since each explicit application
of a text to life involves also an implicit understanding of the
text itself (cf., e.g., the citation of Jas 2:13 in the Rule of Benedict 64, or the
discussion of Jas 2:10 in Augustine, Letter 167, PL 33: 733). Research into
such usage has scarcely begun (see L. T. Johnson, 1995), so our knowledge
of the letter's pre-critical reception remains partial.
In the fourteenth through the sixteenth centuries, first the Renaissance,
then the Reformation stimulated a transition to a more critical
reading of James. Three figures established lines of interpretation that
have continued to the present: Erasmus, Luther, and Calvin.
Erasmus provided short comments on the verses of James in hisAnnotationes of 1516. In contrast to earlier commentators, he treated James
as he would any other ancient author, raising questions concerning attribution,
providing alternative manuscript readings, clarifying linguistic
obscurities on the basis of parallel usage, and even suggesting textual
emendations (reading phthoneite for the difficult phoneuete in Jas 4:2). The
letter's moral or religious teaching was scarcely dealt with.
Luther wrote no commentary on James but exercised considerable influence
over subsequent scholarly interpretation. In the preface to his 1522
German Bible, he dismissed the letter as an "epistle of straw" compared to
the writings that "show thee Christ." Luther would therefore not include
James among the "chief books" of the Canon, although he admired "the
otherwise many fine sayings in him." What was the reason for Luther's rejection?
James "does nothing more than drive to the law and its works,"
which Luther found "flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture."
This is the clearest application of Luther's sachkritik (content criticism)
within the canon; the disagreement between James and Paul on one point
removes James from further consideration. The fact that Jas 5:14 was cited
in support of the sacrament of extreme unction did not soften Luther's
hostility. In this light, the commentary by the Roman Catholic T. Cajetan
in 1532 is all the more fascinating. Cajetan also questioned the apostolicity
of James and denied that 5:14 could be used as a proof text for extreme
unction. But concerning Paul and James on faith, he diplomatically concluded,
"They both taught truly."
In contrast to Luther, Calvin wrote a sympathetic commentary on
James in 1551. He found the reasons for rejecting the letter unconvincing
and saw nothing in its teaching unworthy of an apostle. Although ready
to accept Erasmus's emendation at 4:2, he scoffed at those who found a
fundamental conflict between Paul and James on faith and works. As in
all of his commentaries Calvin brought great exegetical skill to the text,
anticipating contemporary sensitivity to the rhetorical skill of James as
well as systematically reflecting over its religious significance.
With the obvious modifications caused by the ever-growing knowledge
of the first-century world and the cumulative weight of scholarship
itself, the basic approaches established by the Reformation continued to
dominate scholarship on the letter. The legacy of Calvin continued in
those commentaries that, however learned, focused primarily on James as
teacher of the church. An outstanding example is the 1640 commentary
by the Puritan divine T. Manton. Fully conversant with past and contemporary
scholarship (much of it no longer available to us), Manton's approach
remains essentially pious and edifying. The German commentary
of A. Gebser (1828) is similar in character. He cited many ancient sources
to illuminate the text, but above all he gave such extensive citations from
patristic commentaries and discussions that his commentary virtually
provided a history of interpretation. This tradition can be said to have
continued in the commentaries of J. Mayor (1910) and F. Vouga (1984). In
a real sense these commentaries continued the patristic tradition; the
meaningful context for understanding James is the Bible. The strength of
this approach is its accommodation to the writing's religious purposes.
The weakness is its narrowness and scholastic tendency.
The heritage of Luther continued in the historical approach associated
with the Tübingen School, in which James was studied primarily as a
witness to conflict and development in the early Christian movement.
When such scholars as F. Kern (1838) viewed James as written by Paul's
contemporary, they saw it as representing a Jewish Christian outlook in
tension with Paul's teaching. When such scholars as F. C. Baur (1853-62,
1875) regarded James as a pseudonymous composition, they understood it
as a second-century mediation of the conflict between Peter and Paul. In
either case James's discussion of faith in 2:14-26 and its apparent disagreement
with Paul became the central point for interpretation.
L. Massebieau (1895) and F. Spitta (1896), however, maintained that James
represented an entirely Jewish outlook; they considered the Christian elements
in the letter the result of interpolation into a pre-Christian writing.
This approach continued in those (often "rehabilitating") studies that
used Paul as the essential key to understanding James (see J. Jeremias
; D. Via ; J. Lodge ). The strength of this approach is its
historical sensibility. The weakness is its tendency to reduce James to a few
verses and earliest Christianity to the figure of Paul.
The Erasmian tradition sought to place James explicitly within the
language and literature of the Hellenistic world. The pioneering monument
was the two-volume Novum Testamentum Graecum (1752) of J. Wettstein,
who brought together a storehouse of parallel illustrative material
from both Greek and Jewish sources, a collection all the more tempting because
unsorted. The Jewish side of this approach was developed in the
commentary of A. Schlatter (1900), who especially emphasized rabbinic
parallels. Mayor (1910) also brought together a rich collection of Hellenistic
and Christian material. The commentary by J. Ropes (1916) paid particular
attention to the letter's diatribal element and singled out the striking resemblances
between it and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. The
Erasmian approach found its greatest modern exemplar in the commentary
by M. Dibelius (1976). Dibelius combined the best of previous scholarship
and brought to the text an acute sense of the appropriate illustrative
material, bringing to bear pagan, Jewish, and Christian parallels that
placed James squarely in the tradition of paraenetic literature. Most late-twentieth-century
scholarship on the letter either derives from or reacts to
this magisterial study (cf. L. Perdue ; Johnson ), although studies
have also used more Semiotic (see T. Cargal ) and Rhetorical approaches
(see D. Watson ). The strength of the Erasmian approach is
its textual focus and comparative scope. Its weakness is its ability to miss
James's religious dimension entirely.
These assertions would meet with fairly general consent among scholars:
James is a moral exhortation (protrepsis) of rare passion whose instructions
have general applicability more than specific reference. Although
not tightly organized, the letter is more than a loose collection of sayings;
the aphorisms in chap. 1 establish themes that are developed in the essays
in chaps. 2-5. James's Christianity is neither Pauline nor anti-Pauline but
another version altogether. It appropriates Torah as the "law of liberty" as
mediated through the words of Jesus. James opposes empty posturing
and advocates active faith and love. He contrasts "friendship with the
world" (living by a measure contrary to God's) and "friendship with God"
(living by faith's measure). He wants Christians to live by the measure
they profess, and his persuasion has a prophet's power.
Chapter TwoThe Reception of James in the Early Church
The history of the interpretation of James properly begins with its first
use in the Church. Unfortunately, the determination of James's first reception
is as obscure as the circumstances of its composition. There is no
extant evidence for its early liturgical use. We must therefore rely on the
appropriation of James by other early Christian writers. So far as we can
tell, Origen was the first to cite James explicitly and as Scripture, although
Clement, his predecessor in the Alexandrian Catechetical school,
may have devoted a commentary to the letter.
Since both Clement and Origen were sensitive to the differences between
what was traditionally received and what was not, the Alexandrian
sponsorship of James would seem to argue for some prior period of acceptance,
at least in their church. The search for positive evidence of James's
having been used, however, runs through the briarpatch of post-apostolic
literature. Although there are good reasons for thinking that James was
known and used by some of these writings, the problems in reaching certainty
are severe. The evidence is obscure. Everything depends on its evaluation.
The proper procedure for the evaluation, however, is not itself
The first difficulty comes from the way these writings generally appropriate
and use earlier sources. For the most part, only Old Testament citations
are formally introduced, although other "scripture" is alluded to,
more or less explicitly. New Testament writings are not usually cited as