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An Introduction to the New Testament



Occasion. We so commonly think of religion as expressed in sermons that it would be strange if there were not one sermon among the books of the New Testament. Of course there are sermons in the Gospel of Matthew and in Luke-Acts. Some would say that. Hebrews is a sermon made into a letter. But we have seen that it is better described as a letter cast in the form of a public address, for the very good reason that the writer knew that it was in that way that it would be read, that is, in public before the Christian congregations of his day. In the Letter of James, however, we have a genuine sermon, afterward published as a letter to Christians everywhere.

The ancient world was full of preachers. Some of them were Stoics—men in rough cloaks who would stand on street corners and gather a little audience, half curious, out of the passing crowd, holding them as best they could with their easy familiar conversational style as they spoke of piety, sincerity, and duty. We find something like this in the Discourses of Epictetus, whose lectures were often really sermons. Here is an example of his preaching:

Have you not God? Do you seek any other while you have him? Or will he tell you any other than these things?


If you were a statue of Phidias, either Zeus or Athena you would remember both yourself and the artist, and if you had any sense you would endeavor to do nothing unworthy of him who formed you or of yourself, nor to appear in an unbecoming manner to spectators. And are you now careless how you appear, because you are the workmanship of Zeus? And yet what comparison is there either between the artists or the things they have formed? ....

Being then the creation of such an artist, will you dishonor him, especially when he has not only formed you, but intrusted and given to you the guardianship of yourself? Will you not only be forgetful of this but actually dishonor the trust? If God had committed some orphan to your charge, would you have been so careless of him? He has committed yourself to your care, and says, "I had no one fitter to be trusted than you. Preserve this person for me such as he is by nature; modest, faithful, sublime, unterrified, dispassionate, tranquil." And will you not preserve him? [1]

These vigorous and searching rhetorical questions remind us of I Corinthians, chapter 9, where there are sixteen of them in the first thirteen verses. Indeed, there is no doubt that Paul's style was much influenced by his habit of extempore preaching. This is what gives such rapidity and vigor to his writing. In the public square at Athens, Paul engaged in this kind of conversational preaching; [2] in fact, the Greek word for sermon is homilia, which means "conversation" and hence "instruction." It was there that Paul came into conflict with some of these Stoic preachers. A later student of Stoicism, Justin Martyr, became a

[1] Discourses ii. 8. [2] Acts 17:17, 18.


Christian and tells in the Dialogue with Trypho how he continued to practice this way of preaching on the promenade at Ephesus. [1] These informal Stoic discussions were called "diatribes."

Vivid bits of dialogue with imagined questioners (I Cor. 15:35, 36) and fondness for paradox (I Cor. 1:25) are marked characteristics of Paul as they are of the diatribe, and the Epistle of James abounds in them.

The ancient epistle and the modern sermon usually deal with a single theme, which gives them some degree, at least, of unity. But the ancient sermon sought the exact opposite. It aimed at variety, as though to make sure that, if one line of thought did not move the hearer, another might, and so everybody in the audience would gain something from the discourse. This is strikingly true of the Epistle of James.

A somewhat developed Christianity underlies James. There had been a time when Christian interest was absorbed in Jesus—his life, teaching, and sacrifice. But a time came when the Christian emphasis shifted more and more to the Christian's duties and responsibilities, his weaknesses and failings. Christian preaching had always strongly emphasized moral conduct and life, but now this almost engrossed the preacher.

Like the Stoic diatribe James mingles scorn and humor in its appeals. The rich man cordially welcomed to church while the poor man is coldly neglected is an inimitable picture, never out of date. The calm dismissal of the needy, with a heartless "Goodbye, keep warm and have plenty to eat," is exposed

[1] Dialogue i. f.


with unsparing humor. The misunderstanding that had grown up of Paul's doctrine of faith, evidently derived from his letters, is covered with ridicule, 2: 14-26. The boundless possibilities of the tongue for evil are set forth in unforgettable terms, 3:1-12.

Religion is an eminently practical matter in James yet it never becomes wholly concrete and external. Its basis is still clearly seen to be in the inner life. God yearns jealously over the spirit he has put in our hearts. There must be no bitter feelings in them 3:14-4:10.

James is full of gems of religious thought. The question is: How are these related? The work has been compared to a chain, each link related to the one before it and the one after it. Others have compared its contents to beads on a string. Of course, the thought of the Christian life runs through it all, but that is too general a subject to give much coherence to contents so varied as these. Perhaps James is not so much a chain of thought, or beads on a string, as it is just a handful of pearls, dropped one by one into the hearer's mind.

James reflects no definite situation, so it is not a letter. It does not deal with any single theme or group of themes, so it is not an epistle. It is simply an ancient sermon, of the varied and conversational kind popular in the early church. The appeal in 1:22, "Obey the message; do not merely listen to it," confirms this impression. The people are listening to a sermon in church.


Contents. The trials of life should be received with joy, for they develop character, 1:2-4. A steadfast faith is essential to effectual prayer, 1:5-8. Poverty is no misfortune, 1:9-11. Trial really comes from our desires, not from God; all his gifts are good ones, 1:12-18.

We must open our hearts to the message and not only listen to it but obey it, 1:19-27. There must be no partiality shown to the rich and great, 2:1-13. Faith without works is dead, 2:14-26. What harm the tongue can do! 3:1-12. There must be no bitterness or jealousy in our hearts, 3:13-18. We must have pure hearts and motives, 4:1-10. We must not judge others, 4:11, 12. Pride and self-confidence must be avoided, 4:13-17.

The wicked rich are denounced, 5:1-6. We must have patience like the prophets, 5:7-11. There must be no swearing, 5:12. The power of prayer is great, 5:13-20.

Problems. James occasionally reminds us of Matthew, especially the Sermon on the Mount: 1:13 reads almost like a discussion of Matt. 6:13, "Do not subject us to temptation"; 4:12 reminds us of Matt. 7:1; and 5:12 of Matt. 5:33-37, on avoiding oaths. It may be that James knew the Gospel of Matthew. A whole series of parallels with Luke has also been developed. His acquaintance with the letters of Paul is clear from his discussion of a current abuse of their doctrine of faith, 2:14-26. He shows use of Romans, I Corinthians, and Galatians and probably used Ephesians and Philippians. He knows Hebrews, too, for


his representation of Rahab as made upright for her good deeds, not simply her faith, 2:25, seems to be intended to modify the view taken of her in Heb 11:31.

But the most interesting of James's literary contacts are those with I Peter. There are a dozen points of contact between them, and it is clear that James is using I Peter.

The address of the letter, "Greeting to the twelve tribes that are scattered over the world," strongly resembles that of I Peter, "To those who are scattered as foreigners over Pontus, Galatia, etc." The expression of greeting is better Greek, however, than the salutation in any other New Testament letter, except the two in the Acts, 15:23; 23:26, where the same infinitive construction, [1] regularly found in Greek papyrus letters, is used.

Of course, this is simply a way of addressing Christians everywhere. The church is the new Israel, and the scattered believers form a new Diaspora—Dispersion—like that of the Jews. The only way to deliver the "letter" would be to publish it and circulate it just as widely as possible. It is this that makes it probable that the salutation was added to the sermon when it was published as an encyclical. Such an act of course implies the existence of previous encyclicals, for there must have been some precedent for going about the publication of the sermon in this way. Ephesians was such an encyclical—the only one known to us from this early date. So whether



Ephesians was known to the composer of the sermon or not (and it probably was), it was known to those who put the sermon into circulation by publishing it with this address.

The name of James may have been suggested by the apparent opposition to Paul in 2:14-26, taken in conjunction with Paul's own reference to James in Gal. 2:12, where the identification of James with the anti- Pauline group in Jerusalem is suggested. In any case the reference is, of course, to the brother of Jesus, Matt. 13:55, not to the apostle James, who had been put to death long before Galarians was written, Acts 12:2. The mention of the elders of the church, 5:14, and the warning against letting too many of the brothers become teachers, 3:1, also point to a developed church life. The writer is himself a "teacher" ("we who teach," 3:1). Luke-Acts speaks of elders and teachers, 11:30; 13:1; 14:23, etc.

The apparent use of a considerable Christian literature in James (Matthew, Luke, the Pauline corpus, Hebrews, I Peter) points to a date probably early in the second century. [1] The absence of the homily from

[1] The supposed dependence of Hermas upon James (the parallels may be found in Moffatt, Introduction to the Literature of the New Testament, p. 467) would help very much toward fixing a definite date between 95 and 100 for James, if it could be established, for Wilson's recent studies have shown that The Shepherd was written at the very beginning of the second century, not thirty to forty years later. But these resemblances are for the most part so slight and loose that they are probably due to the common forms of popular preaching—the paraenesis—of the day. Jas. 4:7= Mandates xii. 2. 4, xii. 4. 7, xii. 5. 2 (the devil will flee from you) is probably the closest; but the idea is nor unusual (cf. Tob. 8:3). Yet it is not impossible that such literary dependence as there is may have been the other way as Pfleiderer thought, and James may have made some slight use of Hermas. On the whole, nothing can be built on the trifling coincidences between James and Hermas.


early Christian canons (Origen, A.D. 185-254, is the first writer to show acquaintance with it) confirms the impression that it is a work of the second century, though probably of its early years.

Its resemblance to Greek literary forms (the diatribe), together with the excellence of its Greek and the ease with which the author uses a somewhat elaborate vocabulary, shows that it was a work of some Greek Christian "teacher," addressing Greek Christians rather than Hellenistic Christians of Palestine, as some have argued. [1] Its writer was indeed familiar with the Septuagint Greek version of the Jewish scriptures, like most Christians of his day—such as the writer of I Clement before him, or Justin Martyr perhaps a generation afterward (cf. Apology 37-40, 50, 51). The apparent transposition of the Sixth and Seventh commandments (2:11) probably reflects the use of the Septuagint, since the Vatican Codex reads in that way in Exod. 20:13, 15. The only express quotation, however—"Do you suppose the Scripture means nothing when it says, 'He yearns jealously over the Spirit he has put in our hearts'?" 4:5—cannot be found in either the Greek or the Hebrew Old Testament, and comes probably from one of the lost books which was included in the Greek version of the Jewish scriptures.

It is difficult to say where James was written,

[1] J. H. Ropes, Epistle of St. James (New York, 1916), p. 48.


though it can hardly have been, as Ropes supposed, for Greek-speaking Jewish Christians of Palestine; its Greek is too elaborately good for that, and such groups had probably disappeared by the time it was written. But its emphasis upon Christianity as primarily moral behavior aligns it with Matthew and with the primitive form of the Didache—"The Teaching of the Lord through the Twelve Apostles to the Heathen." The primitive Didache is reflected in the brief Latin Doctrina apostolorum, in Didache, chapters 1-6, and in the Epistle of Barnabas, chapters 18-21. There seems to have been a strong impulse in the Antioch circle to promote the new Christian ethic as evidenced by Matthew, the primitive Didache, Barnabas, and the expanded Didache—all probably of Syrian origin. These affinities, therefore, point rather in the direction of Antioch as the probable place of origin for James.


Ropes, J. H. The Epistle of St. James (New York, 1916).

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