The Epistle of James

By E. H. Plumptre

From the Book The General Epistle of St. James

The Date of the Epistle.

1. I have assumed so far that the Epistle was written at a comparatively early date, probably prior to the earliest of St Paul's Epistles, or even to the Council at Jerusalem of Acts XV. It remains, however, to give a more distinct view of the facts that lead to that conclusion.

2. First, then, we note the absence of any reference to the controversy as to the necessity of circumcision, which that Council was summoned to decide. It is scarcely conceivable that one writing after such a controversy had arisen, would, in addressing himself to Jews and Jewish Christians throughout the world, have refrained from any reference to it. Writing before, it would be perfectly natural that he should assume that the position which had been assigned by the more liberal Rabbis to the Proselytes of the Gate would be conceded to those also who added faith in Jesus as the Christ to their acceptance of the creed of Israel, and had been baptized in His Name and had received the gift of the Spirit. The case of Cornelius (Acts x. 47) might well seem to have ruled the question once and for all in the sense in which St James afterwards ruled it. Here then we get probable limits for the date of the Epistle, in that conversion on the one hand, in the Council of Jerusalem on the other.

3. It may be noted that on this view the Epistle itself supplies a probable clue to the origin of the controversy, and explains the language in which St James and the Apostles and Elders repudiate the action of those who had originated it. " Forasmuch as we have heard that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying. Ye must be circumcised and keep the Law; to whom we gave no such commandment'' (Acts xv. 24). It lies on the surface that there was one passage in the Epistle, which, though written with no such purpose, might easily, interpreted as the Pharisees would interpret it, seem to give a countenance to the position which they maintained. St James had written, " Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all" (ch. ii. 10). How easy it would be for the Judaisers to lay hold of such words, and ignoring the fact that he was speaking of the Law, new and yet eternal, the Law of the King, and yet the Law of freedom, to represent him as insisting on the observance of the whole Mosaic Code, as urging that the neglect of circumcision and new moons and sabbaths stood on the same footing as the violation of the great Laws of duty which were not of to-day or yesterday!

4. The reference to the persecutions to which the brethren were exposed in ch. ii. 6, is, it will be noted, in the present tense. It indicates a stage of suffering which has not yet receded into the past of history. The two persecutions to which the Churches of Judaea were exposed prior to the Council of Jerusalem were, (1) that in which Saul, the Pharisee, made himself the tool of the Sadducean priesthood, and in which deeds of violence were done precisely corresponding to St James's description (Acts ix. 2), and (2) that in which Herod Agrippa, seeking probably to gain the support of that priesthood as well as of the people, took a leading part (Acts xii. i, 2). It is on the death of James the son of Zebedee in that persecution that the brother of the Lord, as we have seen, first comes into a new prominence, and it is not an improbable supposition that it was in face of the new responsibilities thus imposed upon him, that he wrote the Epistle that bears his name.

5. Another coincidence will help us, it is believed, to approximate yet more closely to the date as to which we are enquiring. If we believe, as is shewn in the notes on ch. ii. 15 — 18 to be probable, that the words which speak of the contrast between the works of one who feeds the hungry and clothes the naked, and the dead faith of one who rests in an orthodox belief, refer, more or less directly, to the generous help that had been given by the disciples at Antioch to the suffering poor at Jerusalem, we find fresh grounds for the conclusion already arrived at; and accepting the dates commonly received for the chronology of the Acts, we have the years between A.D. 44, the date of the help so given, and A. D. 51, the year of the Council, as the limits within which we may place the composition of the Epistle. In all probability, i.e. it was written while Paul and Barnabas were absent from Antioch on their first missionary journey (Acts xiii.), and it was when they returned from their labours that they found their work thwarted and threatened by the false interpretation which had been put upon its teaching. The probable reference to the name of Christian in ch. ii. 7 is, it is obvious, in agreement with this conclusion. It may be mentioned that the view here taken agrees in the main with that maintained by Alford (Commentary), by Neander (Pflanzung und Leitung, II. p. 576), and most recent Commentators, and is accepted, as far as the date of the Epistle is concerned, by Mr Bassett (Introduction to Commentary). Bishop Wordsworth (Introduction to St James), following Lardner and De Wette and the school of Commentators who see in St James's teaching that which was intended to correct inferences drawn from St Paul's, places it naturally after the Epistles to the Galatians and Romans, circ. A.D. 61. It may be questioned, however, in addition to the positive arguments for the earlier date and against the presence of any such purpose in St James's thoughts, whether copies of those Epistles were likely to have found their way to Jerusalem during St James's life-time. Apostolical epistles were not likely to be transcribed by the hundred and circulated broadcast in that early age, and the burden of proof lies on those who assume that copies of what was written for Rome or Galatia would be at once despatched by a special courier to the Bishop of Jerusalem. The date of A.D. 61 or 62, shortly before the martyrdom of James in the latter year, must therefore be rejected, as supported by no adequate proof, and as being against the balance of the circumstantial evidence which has been here adduced.

6. As to the place of composition, there is not even the shadow of a doubt. Even if there were not, as has been said above, an unbroken consent of all historical, traditional, and legendary notices as to the continued residence of the Bishop of Jerusalem in the city which was, in modern language, his see, the local colouring of the Epistle would indicate with sufficient clearness where the writer lived. He speaks, as the prophets of Israel had done, of the early and the latter rain (ch. v. 7); the hot blast of the Kaus˘n or Simoom of the desert (ch. i. 11), the brackish springs of the hills of Judah and Benjamin (ch. iii. 11), the figs, the olives, and the vines with which those hills were clothed (ch. iii. 12), — all these form part of the surroundings of the writer. Storms and tempests, such as might have been seen on the sea of Galilee or in visits to Caesarea or Joppa, and the power of man to guide the great ships safely through them, have at some time or other been familiar to him (ch. iii. 4).