By E. H. Plumptre
From the Book The General Epistle of St. James
To Whom Was the Epistle Addressed?
1. The letter which bears the name of James purports to be addressed to the "twelve tribes that are scattered abroad" (literally in the dispersion. See note on ch. i, 1). No other Epistle takes so wide a range. St Peter's, which comes nearest to it, does not extend beyond the section of the "dispersion" that was to be found in the northern and central provinces of Asia Minor. This contemplates nothing less than all the families of Israel, and, as far as they are concerned, is, in the fullest sense of the word, a Catholic or Universal Epistle.
On the other hand, there seems, at times, to be an implied limitation. He writes to those who " hold the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ" (ch. ii. i), who have His worthy (or noble) Name called upon them (ch. ii. 7), who Uve in the expectation of His coming (ch. v. 7). Seen from one point of view, the Epistle seems a call to the outward Israel, such as the preaching of the Baptist had been, to be true to their calling, to live by the light they had, to conquer the besetting sins of their race. Seen from another, it is an earnest appeal to the Israelites who had accepted Jesus as the Christ, to be on their guard, lest those sins should reappear in the new society of the Church of God. From yet a third stand-point it seems to be addressed specially to the Churches of Judaea. It speaks of forms of persecution and oppression (ch. ii, 6, 7, v. 4), which obviously refer directly to the acts of violence that followed on the death of Stephen (Acts ix. 2), and were renewed under Herod Agrippa I. (Acts xii. 1, 2).
2. We shall perhaps be better able to understand the features which the Epistle thus presents to us, if we endeavour to realise the position of the writer. The Church of Jerusalem was committed to his special charge. All the notices of his life, historical, traditional, legendary, represent him as confining himself to that special work, as never leaving the Holy City, as being a constant worshipper in the Temple. But every feast in every year brought to Jerusalem representatives of the "dispersion" from "every nation under heaven" (Acts ii. 5). Taking the list of those who were present on the day of Pentecost, we find among them those of Parthia and Media and Elam (Persia), who were descendants of the Ten Tribes that had been carried into exile by the river of Gozan and in the cities of the Medes by Shalmaneser (2 Kings xvii. 6); the dwellers of Mesopotamia, who were of the children of the Babylonian captivity (2 Kings xxiv. 14 - 16, xxv. 11); those of Egypt, who traced their settlement in Alexandria to the invasion of Ptolemy-Lagus (Joseph. Ant. xii. 1); others, as in the case of the eunuch of Acts viii. 27, who, in the reign of Manasseh, had been carried off by Psammetichus (as in the history of the Septuagint that bears the name of Aristeas), and were known, even in the time of the prophet Zephaniah, as the people "of the daughter of my dispersed beyond the rivers of Ethiopia" (Zeph. iii. 10). Lastly, there were those whom the war with Pompeius had scattered over every province of the Roman Empire and had planted in large numbers in Rome itself, those who had made their way from Alexandria to the parts of Libya about Cyrene, the more isolated settlements of Arabia and of Crete. With some of these, at least, St James would come into contact. In those who came from Egypt he might find thoughts in some measure in harmony with his own. The Therapeutas ( = "healers of the soul," or, perhaps, "followers of the devout life"), who were leading a devout ascetic life on the shores of the Lake Mareotis in the Delta of the Nile, never tasting animal food nor wine, praising God in solemn chants and antiphonal hymns (Euseb. Hist. II. 17); the disciples of Philo, dwelling much on the attainment of a true philosophy as the highest aim of man, and identifying the Divine Word or Logos with the Giver of all wisdom and knowledge; those who brought with them the sapiential books which were studied among the Alexandrian Jews, the Wisdom of the Son of Sirach, and the more recent work known as the Wisdom of Solomon, probably by a contemporary, possibly, as some have inferred from numerous coincidences of thought and language, by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews prior to his acceptance of the faith of Christ1. These he would welcome as manifesting in their various forms the search after the life of heavenly wisdom to which he himself was devoted. But in most of those who came he would note, with shame and sorrow, the same defects as those which he found among his own countrymen, the same greed of gain (ch. iv. i, 2), the same respect of persons (ch. ii. 1 - 7), the same wrangling and bitterness in debate (ch. iii. 1 - 12). They relied upon their faith in the dogma of Monotheism as a substitute for holiness of life (ch. ii. 19). They abhorred idols, and yet robbed their temples (Rom. ii. 22). They pleased not God, and were contrary to all men (1 Thess. ii. 15). The name of God was blasphemed among the Gentiles through their lamentable and shameful inconsistencies (Rom. ii. 24). In view of these evils, we may believe, St James was led to write to the Twelve Tribes of the Dispersion, to call them at least to live up to the ideal of the faith of Israel. It lay in the nature of the case, however, that those with whom he came most into contact were those who held the faith which he held, that Jesus was the Christ, and that being so, He was none other than the Lord of Glory (ch. ii. 1). Only in such as these could he find those who would be the bearers of his letter to the several centres of the Dispersion. Only among these could he feel any assurance that his letter would, in the first instance, gain a hearing. In these he saw those who were to be, in the Divine purpose, a purpose which they might forward or frustrate, the first-fruits of humanity (ch. i. 18). And therefore he writes, not as a prophet or moralist only, but as "the servant of the Lord Jesus Christ" (ch. i. 1). He is above all anxious that they, in their life as individuals and as a community, should not hold the faith in the Lord Jesus as a mere barren dogma, but should shew the fruits of their higher knowledge in "the meekness of wisdom," in a nobler and purer life (ch. iii. 13). Because he is writing to the Twelve Tribes at large, he does not dwell with any fulness on the higher mysteries of the Kingdom, but is content to call on them to live by the light they have, in the conviction that in so doing they would be led to know of the doctrine whether it were of God (John vii. 17). Because he is writing to those who shared his faith and hope, he does not shrink from the confession of his belief in Jesus as the Christ, or from pressing on the minds of those who were to read his letter the solemn thought that He was the Judge, and that His coming was not far off (ch. v. 7). But one who lived as St James, in one spot, the horizon of whose view was consequently within comparatively narrow limits, was certain to be impressed mainly with what he himself heard and saw. He would dwell on the scenes which he witnessed, or knew of as practised in the Christian synagogues of Judaea (ch. ii. 1 - 3), to the persecutions of which it had been the scene, and in which the wealthy aristocracy of the Sadducean priest-party — always, as he himself experienced and as Josephus testifies (Ant. xiii. 10. § 6; XX. 9. § 1; Wars, II. 8. § 14), conspicuous for their judicial cruelties — had taken the most prominent part (ch. ii. 6). He would point to the indifference which the richer Jews shewed towards the sufferings of the poor of Jerusalem at the time of the famine, and contrast it with the liberality of the Gentile converts whom they despised as outside the pale of the covenant of Israel (ch. ii. 15—18).
Such, it is believed, is the conclusion to which the phænomena of the Epistle lead. It will be seen that it takes in whatever element of truth is to be found in the less complete theories which look on it as addressed only to Jews as such or only to Jewish Christians, or only to the Churches of Judaea. We need not wonder, if we remember even the outlines of the history of the Apostolic Church, that it should be comparatively slow in finding its way into general acceptance, that though in one sense Catholic in its aim, and in due time recognised by that title, it did not occupy, in the history of the Canon of the New Testament, a position like that of the Gospels or the Epistles of St Paul. Read in the first instance in the Churches of the Circumcision only, bearing the name of the Teacher whom the party of the Judaisers, developed afterwards into the sect of the Ebionites, claimed as theirs, and whom they put forward, as in the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies and Recognition, as the antagonist of St Paul, it was inevitable that its course should be more or less retarded. We may, perhaps, trace some indirect reference to its teaching in the Epistle to the Romans (ch. ii. 24; Rom. iii. 28), yet more clearly in the Epistle to the Hebrews (ch. ii. 21, 25; Heb. xi. 17, 31), and in that of Clement to the Church of Corinth, as in his use of St James's word for "double-minded" (c. 11), his quotation of the question, "Whence come wars and fightings among you?" (c. 46), and of the maxim that love "covers a multitude of sins" (c. 49), in his reference to the sacrifice of Isaac (c. 31), in his citation of the same words from Prov. iii. 34, that are quoted by St James (c. 30), in the prominence which he gives to the history of Rahab (c. 12), in his naming Abraham the friend of God (c. 68). Irenaeus (iv. 16) reproduces the passage about Abraham (ch. ii. 21), and there are many parallelisms between its teaching and that of the Shepherd of Hennas. Comp.
In the time of Origen it was known and read. The Peschito Syriac version included it, and recognized the writer as an Apostle. Eusebius, as we have seen, classed it among the books that some looked on as spurious, nor was it included in the Canon of the Muratorian fragment, though that list takes in, as has been said above, such books as the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Shepherd of Hermas. Finally, however, with the other Antilegomena, it won its way, as already stated, to a general acceptance, was received into the Canon by the Council of Laodicea, A.D. 320, and the third Council of Carthage, A.D. 397, and is not now likely to be displaced, except by those who, led by dogmatic prejudices, think lightly, as Luther once did2, of its merits, or by whom the whole idea of an authoritative Canon of inspired writings is more or less rejected.
1) See Note, p. 33.
2) The famous " Epistle of straw" appeared in a German New Testament in A.D. 1522, and though not formally retracted, was never reproduced in any later edition.