writing things down…

The Irony of James 5:1–6: Preliminary Concerns

Nearly 10 years ago I took a seminar in New Testament Exegetical Methods with David Scholer (God rest his soul).  I’ve never been particularly pleased with the term paper itself, but I have not forgotten my basic argument about the structure of James 5:1–6. I’ve decided to start picking around at the paper a decade later and see what I can make out of it. Time, energy, and interest may keep me from going anywhere, but I thought I would use a few blog posts to get the argument out on the table and start playing with it.

Sandra Wheeler writes, “Almost everything about the historical background of this epistle has been disputed.” So, I will not spend much time on those things here, other than to highlight some of the issues that have bearing on the passage at hand. In this first post, I look briefly at some preliminary issues. The posts following this one will begin to look at the structural and exegetical issues where my argument for an Accusation-Irony-Folly structure to James 5:1–6 come into focus.


Several exegetes maintain a traditional stance and contend that the author of this epistle is the ecclesiastically revered James, the brother of Jesus.[1] The date of composition would then have to be before 62 C.E., the year of James’s execution (cf. Josephus, Ant. 20.197-203).  A large number of scholars, however, contend that the Epistle of James is pseudonymous and place its composition at a later date (c. 75-125 C.E.).[2] Recently, a handful of scholars have proposed a layered composition, in which James (or his amanuensis) composed a group of writings or homilies, which were later edited and compiled into an epistle.[3] The date of the original material would of course be prior to James’s death.  The date of the final redaction is supposed soon after his death, prior to 70 C.E.  For the most part scholars agree that the epistle was composed somewhere in the broad geographic location of Syro-Palestine, but past this general vicinity opinions vary, with specific locations ranging from Caesarea[4] to Antioch.[5]

Despite the continuing debate surrounding the origin of James, we may draw a few conclusions that will help put some perspective on the interpretation of our passage.  First, no matter who wrote, redacted, or compiled the epistle, the readers are being directed toward the authority of James, the brother of Jesus.[6] Second, the author/editor of the letter apparently was a Hellenized (or at least Greek-speaking) Jewish Christian.[7] Third, a rural Palestinian location seems to not only follow the majority view but also coheres with the agricultural images found in the epistle (1:9-11; 3:3, 11-12, 17-18; 5:4, 7).

The one historical aspect that plays a critical role in the exposition of  5:1-6 is the question of audience.  It is a question not so much concerned with geographic location of the audience; for that, we have stated, can only be assessed in generalities.  The passage at hand leads us to consider the socio-economic composition of the Jacobean community.  And, as Wheeler has explained, the various views regarding the audience are intertwined with the views regarding style and structure of the epistle.[8] We will, therefore, consider audience and style as one complex concern.

The classic view of Martin Dibelius has reigned supreme in scholarship for some time.  Dibelius is well known for having made popular the idea that James was a part of a rich tradition of paraenetic literature.[9] Eclecticism, discontinuity, use of catchwords, repetition of identical motifs, and general moral application characterize paraenesis, according to Dibelius.[10] The paraenetic nature of James, with its hodge-podge of sources and universal appeal does not allow Dibelius to ask about the particular addressees.  Rather, he can only deal with “what sort of Christian James expected and wished to read his letter.”[11] Dibelius claims James understood that to be a Christian who was to be poor.[12] Therefore, the paraenetic material was directed to all poor, oppressed, and ill-treated Christians who were in danger of secularization.[13] In this characterization of James’s intended audience, we find the traditional view of the socio-economic level of the early Christians.  That is, the early Christians were, by in large, homogeneously restricted to the lower social levels.[14] However, scholarship since Dibelius has begun to question both the sweeping paraenetic characterization of the epistle and the comprehensive description of Christianity as uniformly lower class.

Response to Dibelius has not been completely oppositional.  For the most part recent scholarship has only modified Dibelius’s original hypotheses.  An interest in epistolary coherency and more precise historical setting has prompted most modifications.  Many scholars agree that James contains paraenetic material.[15] But despite the lack of structure associated with paraenetic material, very few exegetes would claim that our passage is without or not itself a part of a definite and coherent structure.  A search for structure has led to an abandonment of a strictly paraenetic form as defined by Dibelius.  The Epistle of James has been seen more recently as an oral construction,[16] a published literary letter,[17] a piece of Wisdom literature,[18] and/or a diatribal production.[19] This renewed interest in structural unity and coherence has been brought about in large part by an emphasis on purpose and direction.  Whereas Dibelius saw no other purpose in the epistle than to further a traditional, universal ethic, most scholars are now proclaiming the writer/editor did indeed have a purpose for the epistle’s production.  As well, the writer/editor also had a particular setting from which he was working.  Therefore, one may begin to probe deeper into the socio-economic composition of James’s community.

Studies since the time of Dibelius have shown more texture and variety in earliest Christianity than the homogenous group of poor people suggested by Dibelius’s reflection.  Christian communities were to be found in several parts of the Roman Empire.  It would be difficult to conclude that all primitive Christian communities were socially stratified in the same ways.[20] In fact, E. A. Judge states that membership of the early communities was “drawn from a surprising variety of stations.”[21] He goes so far as to say that early Christianity left the peasantry and slaves “largely untouched.”[22] Though Judge may be swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction, it must be noted that any statement about the social level of James’s addressees must be assessed within a spectrum of early Christianity.

This variety has opened the door for several Jacobean scholars to reconsider the epistle’s audience.  Charlie Boggan has concluded that the community of James was comprised of “large portions of working lower if not the higher middle class.”[23] Similarly, Paul Jurkowitz determined that James was calling his community to become “lower middle-class team players.”[24] However, a majority of scholars has maintained a community of predominant poverty.  The major difference between the current guild which views an impoverished Jacobean community and the pious-poor community posited by Dibelius is the focus on wealth as an actual problem of concern and not merely a traditional religious association.[25]

Our reading of the epistle in these posts is in line with the view of a generally impoverished Christian community.  I agree that not every Christian community was comprised of “the poor,” and therefore I cannot state that piety and poverty are to be equated as a universal early Christian formula (contra Dibelius).  However, as we explore 5:1-6, we will see that James has in mind a community that was struggling with both oppression by the upper strata and a desire to become a part of the upper strata.[26]

[1] cf. Joseph B. Mayor, The Epistle of St. James, Classic Commentary Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Macmillan, 1913; Zondervan, 1954), vii; Alexander Ross, The Epistles of James and John, New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Ned B. Stonehouse (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1954), 13-14; Pedrito U. Maynard-Reid, Poverty and Wealth in James (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987), 6-7; James B. Adamson, James: The Man and His Message (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1989), xiv.  For early Christian references to James see Origen, Contra Celsum 1.47; Eusebius Ecclesiastical History, 1.1.2; 2.1.2-3; 2.23.4-7; Epiphanius, Haer. 3.2.

[2] cf. James Hardy Ropes, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle of St. James, International Critical Commentary, vol. 59 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1916; 1948), 50; Martin Dibelius, James: A Commentary on the Epistle of James, Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, rev. Heinrich Greeven, trans. Michael A. Williams, ed. Helmut Koester (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 21; Sophie Laws, A Commentary on the Epistle of James, Harper’s New Testament Commentaries, v. 17 (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980), 41; Massey H. Shepherd, Jr., “The Epistle of James and the Gospel of Matthew,” Journal of Biblical Literature 75 (1956), 49; Charlie W. Boggan, “Wealth in the Epistle of James,” (Ph.D. diss., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1982), 169; Pheme Perkins, First and Second Peter, James, and Jude, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, eds. James Luther Mays and Paul J. Achtemeier (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1995), 85; Robert W. Wall, Community of the Wise: The Letter of James, The New Testament in Context, eds. Howard Clark Kee and J. Andrew Overman (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997), 11;

[3] This description is a distillation of more complex proposals.  cf. Savas C. Agourides, “The Origin of the Epistle of St. James: Suggestion for a Fresh Approach,” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review 9, 1 (1963), 72; Peter H. Davids, The Epistle of James: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1982), 12-13; Ralph P. Martin, James, Word Biblical Commentary, v. 48 (Waco, TX: Word, 1988), lxi-lxxvii.

[4] Ropes, Epistle of St. James, 49.

[5] Perkins, First and Second Peter, James, and Jude, 84.  Two notable scholars place the letter in or around Rome: Bo Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter, and Jude: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, The Anchor Bible, 37 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 6; Laws, A Commentary on the Epistle of James, 26.  An additional noted work places James outside of Syro-Palestine by setting its composition in Egypt: Francis Xavier Kelly, “Poor and Rich in the Epistle of James,” (Ph.D. diss., Temple University, 1973), 254.

[6] cf. Perkins, First and Second Peter, James, and Jude, 85.

[7] For a helpful discussion see Ropes, Epistle of St. James, 48-49.

[8] Wheeler, Wealth as Peril and Obligation, 92-93.

[9] Dibelius, James, 3-5.  cf. John B. Polhill, “The Life-Situation of the Book of James,” Review and Expositor 66 (1969), 372; Harold S. Songer, “The Literary Character of the Book of James,” Review and Expositor 66 (1969), 382-383; Jean-Luc Blondel, “Theology and Paraenesis in James,” Theology Digest 28, 3 (Fall, 1980), 253; Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Moral Teaching of the New Testament, trans. J. Holland-Smith and W. J. O’Hara (New York: Herder and Herder, 1965), 348.

[10] Dibelius, James, 5-11.

[11] Dibelius, James, 46.

[12] Dibelius, James, 44.

[13] Dibelius, James, 46.

[14] cf. Bengt Holmberg, Sociology and the New Testament: An Appraisal (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), 28; Boggan, “Wealth in the Epistle of James,” 209.

[15] A majority of scholars incorporate paraenesis into their description.  J. H. Ropes is one notable exception.  He finds paraenesis “far removed from the Epistle of James.”  See Ropes, Epistle of St. James, 7.

[16] cf. P. B. R. Forbes, “The Structure of the Epistle of James,” The Evangelical Quarterly, 44 (1972),148; D. Edmond Hiebert, “The Unifying Theme of the Epistle of James,” Bibliotheca Sacra 135, 539 (July-Sept. 1978), 222.  Those who posit a two-staged composition support a homiletical or oral discourse structure for the first stage.  cf. Peter H. Davids, James, New International Biblical Commentary, 15, ed. W. Ward Gasque (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1983), 7; Agourides, “The Origin of the Epistle of St. James,” 76.

[17] cf. Boggan, “Wealth in the Epistle of James,” 188; Davids, James, 7; Adamson, The Epistle of James, 20.

[18] Paul Jurkowitz, “The Epistle of James: A New Testament Wallflower,” The Bible Today 94 (February 1978), 1479-1483; Wall, Community of the Wise, 20.

[19] The nature of the diatribe varies.  “prophetic and diatribal” in Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible, v. 37a (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 9.  “Hellenistic diatribe” in Ropes, Epistle of St. James, 3.  “Therapeutae/Essene inspired indictment of social justice” in Kelly, “Poor and Rich in the Epistle of James,” 254.

[20] cf. Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), 52; Joseph B. Tyson, A Study of Early Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 285; L. William Countryman, The Rich Christian in the Church of the Early Empire: Contradictions and Accomodations, Texts and Studies in Religion (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1980), 33.

[21] Edwin Arthur Judge, The Social Pattern of the Christian Groups in the First Century: Some Prolegomena to the Study of New Testament Ideas of Social Obligation (London: The Tyndale Press, 1960), 54.

[22] Judge, The Social Pattern of the Christian Groups, 60.

[23] Boggan, “Wealth in the Epistle of James,” 128.  Contra Holmberg, Sociology and the New Testament, 22.  Holmberg finds no clearly definable middle class in the first century Roman Empire.

[24] Jurkowitz, “The Epistle of James,” 1483.

[25] Wheeler, Wealth as Peril and Obligation, 93-95; cf. Peter H. Davids, “Theological Perspectives on the Epistle of James,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 23, 2 (June 1980), 100-101; George Peck, “James 5:1-6,” Interpretation 42 (July 1988), 294; Ropes, Epistle of St. James, 40; Robert W. Wall, “James, Letter of,” Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Development: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, eds. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 550.

[26] “poor-but-wanna-be-rich” Wall, Community of the Wise, 215.


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