other epistle it is filled with reminders of the Sermon on the Mount. (Was it written to accompany St. Matthew?) It was written to be circulated among Christian Jews addressed as the Twelve Tribes of the Dispersion. Never does it even suggest any non-Jewish presence, let alone any of the tensions with ex-pagan Christians which arose after St. Paul completed his first Mission to the Gentiles in 48. The dangers which St. James warns against come not from heretics or pagans or Jews or the government but from the rich. 13
Yet even in these earliest years St. James took it for granted that even faraway Christian Jews could resort, if sick, to elders of the Church. These are able to ‘anoint him with oil and pray over him so that if he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.’ An oil for forgiving sins? Clearly these ‘elders’ have power from God. These elders are priests administering a sacrament. In the first centuries the Church’s sacraments were mainly known as the ‘sacred mysteries’ (Greek: mysterion, Latin: mysterium, plural: mysteria). As the sacraments derive their powers from the solemn pledge given by Jesus to His apostles as His priests, and are backed by His power as God, the Greek mysterium was also known in Latin as a sacramentum. In pagan Latin a ‘sacramentum’ was a solemn oath or pledge of loyalty taken and annually renewed by the army’s legionaries to their commander, the Emperor. Similarly every Easter Christians solemnly took or renewed their sacramentum to Christ. Thus the sacramentum to His Church given by Christ on his Cross on Good Friday (and indeed as re-presented every Sunday) receives in return the sacramentum of His followers to Christ on Easter Sunday (and indeed every Sunday). 14
With its teaching that ‘faith without works is dead’, the Epistle of St. James has long been a vital counterweight against misuse of St. Paul’s teaching on the primacy of faith over ‘works’ (observances). This however had not been St. James’ original purpose in writing. The works spoken of by St. James were not the compulsory Jewish observances guarded against by St. Paul but the practical Christian virtues. St. James and St. Paul viewed the virtue of faith as vital to two quite distinct critical transitions in a Christian’s life: his first conversion and his death. While St. Paul looked to the faith needed for the transition from the death of sin to the life of grace, St. James looked to that faith which is proved by the good works it produces. St. Paul addressed every man; St. James addressed the Christian. 15
One should also note St. James’ use of the word synagogue (‘meeting’) for the church assembly. Note also the liturgical context of his concern: the rich should not be permitted to divide the Christian synagogue with their privileges. Nowhere in St. James is there any suggestion of a Gentile presence. In fact there is nothing in this epistle which goes beyond the first fifteen chapters of Acts (i.e. the period between 30 and 50). St. James seems to be addressing the Jewish Christians dispersed by and suffering from the persecutions which followed the martyrdom of St. Stephen in 36. This epistle seems therefore to have been written in the late 30’s or the early 40’s.
Published on Nov 29, 2011
This survey of how the New Testament came to be written is also a chronicle of the first 40 years of the history of the Christian Church. It...