writing things down…

James 5:1 – Come now, you rich…

James 5:1 is an introductory pronouncement that contains or alludes to the major themes of the rest of the passage.  It does not adhere to the triadic formula I will propose for 5:2-6, but it does acquaint the reader to the elements that are to be found within the suggested framework.  I view the verse as an opening summation in which we may find reasoned connections with the primary argument of James 5:2-6.  The verse will alert the reader to the literary audience of the indictment and to the certainty of their guilt.  But more importantly, the opening verse will prepare the reader by making textual allusions and suggesting various motifs.

Age nun hoi plousioi – The prohet-like summons, Age nun hoi plousioi, readily calls to mind the similar opening James utilizes in the previous section of his indictment (4:13 – Age nun hoi legontes).  The verbal parallel begs to question whether “the rich men” (hoi plousioi) are to be equated with “the ones who say” (hoi legontes), and whether and to what extent the two pericope (4:13-17 and 5:1-6) should be considered as part of one unit of thought.  One option is to view the indictment on “the rich” introduced in 5:1 as the continuation of the indictment on the eager merchants in 4:13-17,[1] and “that one and the same group of persons is addressed on repeated occasions.”[2] If one assumes a Christian audience is addressed in 4:13-17, then “the rich” of 5:1 would also be classified as such.[3] Aside from the identical beginnings, the argument is made that James would appear “blundering and ineffective” had he addressed unbelievers to whom the letter was not intended.[4] It is quite possible that James’ community did include some rich adelphoi (1:9-11).  However, this too is a disputed point.[5] In fact, of the three times plousios is used with the definite article (1:11; 2:6; 5:1) it is never clear whether “the rich” represents a definable group.  In chapter 2 it may be presumed that “the rich man” is a visitor to the community, but one cannot be sure whether he is or is not a Christian.[6]

The argument for equating the rich with the merchants has not been conclusive.  Instead the evidence for separating them into two groups — one inside the community of believers, the other outside — is the most convincing.  The denunciation of the rich merchants (4:13-17) is essentially an “exhortation concerning pride,” that is inhered with a call to repentance.[7] Conversely, in 5:1-6 James paints a picture of the rich that makes it difficult to believe that they are members of the Christian community and offers no sign of hope for their deliverance.[8] In addition, the very language of economics might recall for the audience the Jewish (Psalm 86; Tobit 2:2; 1QH 13.20) and Christian (Luke 4:18; 7:22; Matt. 11:5) notion of the pious poor, which would immediately set “the rich” outside of the community.[9] What matters most for our purposes is that James does not continue an original denunciation that began at 4:13; he rather begins a new accusation that is directed toward a group outside the community of (poor?) believers.

In addition to the intratextual elements evoked by the passage’s opening summons, we find the call to the rich recalling similar invocations in the Prophets (Amos 4:1; Micah 3:1-4), Jewish apocalyptic literature (1 Enoch 94:6-100:13; esp. 94:8), and Jesus traditions (Luke 6:24-26; esp. 6:24).[10] It is not uncommon to address groups of people (especially “the rich”!) in a rhetorical manner.  The actual presence of the addressee(s) is not required for the message to have effect.  With his rhetorical use of the vocative and his address moving to those outside the community, this is the case in James 5:1-6.

klausate ololuzontes – The tone introduced in the opening summons is heightened somewhat by the use of the imperative and participle.  Whether ololuzein is defining klaio[11] or simply serves as an attendant circumstance is irrelevant to the command’s overall force.  Though a hapax legomenon in the New Testament, the onomatopoeic ololuzein (cp. “howl” in English) is used over 20 times in the LXX.  Interestingly all LXX uses are found in the Prophets with a striking majority in Isaiah (10:10; 13:6; 14:31; 15:3; 23:1, 14; see also Zech. 11:2; Amos 8:3; Jer. 31:20).  It should be noted, in analyzing James 5:1-6, that many of these prophetic uses have inanimate objects or nations as references (“howl you idols”, Isa. 10:10; “Howl you ships of Carthage,” Isa. 23:1, 14; “Let the pine howl,” Zech. 11:2; “ceilings howl,” Amos 8:3; Isa. 15:3 is part of oracle against Moab), who are directed to howl because of foreboding destruction (see especially Isa. 13:6, “Howl, for the day of the Lord is near.”).

epi tais talaiporiais humon tais eperchomanais – James draws his brief introduction to a close with a general explanation of why the rich should begin to weep and howl.  This opening summation further creates a tone that resonates with the prophetic and apocalyptic manner of condemnation and may insinuate a legal motif within his argument.  Along with klaio, talaiporiais surely recalls the imperatives in 4:9 (klausate and talaiporesate) with a certain ironic effect in that “there the wretchedness, with weeping, is self-imposed as an expression of repentance in the hope of divine forgiveness; here the weeping of the rich can only be an expression of their horror at the disaster inflicted upon them.”[12] Talaiporia is found in the LXX mainly within the prophetic books, where they are describing the miseries suffered by those, or because of those, who have resisted God (Isa. 47:11; 59:7; 60:18; Jer. 4:20; 6:7; Hos. 9:6; Joel 1:15; Amos 3:10; 5:9; Hab. 1:3; Zeph. 1:15). The only other NT occurrence, apart from James 5:1, is in Romans 3:16, and even there Paul quotes Isaiah 59:7.  However, we find words delivered in a similar vein when John the Baptist issues a vituperative declaration to the multitudes seeking baptism: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7).  C. Boggan explains the general idea when he states, “the miseries are the sufferings which, for sinners, follow judgment.”[13] When seen in conjunction with the attributive participle (eperchomenais) the approaching miseries culminate a very threatening introduction that contains elements that are to be developed as the accusations ensue.

Though the introduction of v.1 is not properly contained within the main body of our tripartite structure, it serves to introduce briefly many of the contributing themes.  First, the very language of this opening resounds with ancient Jewish tones, primarily those with prophetic and apocalyptic overtures.  Second, for those familiar with the tradition of Jesus, the tone of the prelude to this passage would begin to point them once more to his teachings.[14] Third, the idiomatic beginning Age nun hoi plousioi directs the interpreter to look within the entire book of James for full understanding of certain concepts.  Fourth, by performing the intratextual exercise with regard to “weeping” and “miseries”, and the intertextual exercise with regard to prophetic censures, we can draw out the themes of irony and folly.[15] Lastly, I would like to propose that even here in the introductory declaration James is recalling legal images.  Just as the prophetic images and the approaching miseries evoke thoughts of a divine judgment, so here James intends to imagine a similar justice.  Though not a direct analogy, James acts in a way similar to a lawyer who is certain of the guilt of those charged.  The rich may as well begin to weep and howl even now, for it is true that they have committed the crimes that have yet to be described.

[1] cf. Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter, and Jude, 50.

[2] Bent Noack, “Jakobus wider die Reichen,” Studia Theologica 18, 1 (1964), 12.

[3] In addition to Reicke, 37 and Noack, 12, see also, Boggan, “Wealth in the Epistle of James,” 213, and Kelly, “Poor and Rich in the Epistle of James,” 219.  Also, see David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, Fifth (New York: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1996), 740, whose primary reason for identifying “the rich” with members of the community is to avoid feeding antisemitic caricatures. As far as I can tell Todd C. Penner, The Epistle of James and Eschatology: Re-Reading an Ancient Christian Letter, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series, 121 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 172-77, is the only recent work to maintain 4:13ff. and 5:1ff. as a “unified condemnation,” (173) to “people outside the community,” (177, n.2).

[4] Boggan, “Wealth in the Epistle of James,” 213.  cf. R. J. Knowling, The Epistle of St. James with an Introduction and Notes, third edition, Westminster Commentaries, ed. Walter Lock (London: Metheun & Co., 1922), 116.

[5] Ralph P. Martin, James, Word Biblical Commentary, v. 48 (Waco, TX: Word, 1988), 25-26.

[6] Adamson, The Epistle of James, 30.

[7] Martin, James, 175; cf. Pedrito U. Maynard-Reid, Poverty and Wealth in James (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987), 81.

[8] Robert G. Bratcher, “Exegetical Themes in James 3-5,” Review and Expositor 66 (1969), 409; cf. Dibelius, James, 230, 235; Elsa Tamez, “James,” chap. 22 in Searching the Scriptures, Volume Two, A Feminist Commentary, ed. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (New York: Crossroad, 1997), 97; Maynard-Reid, Poverty and Wealth in James, 82; James B. Adamson, The Epistle of James, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. F. F. Bruce (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1976), 184; and Martin, James, 175.  Timothy B. Cargal, Restoring the Diaspora: Discursive Structure and Purpose in the Epistle of James, SBL Dissertation Series, 144, edited by Pheme Perkins (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993), agrees with the characterization of “the rich” as outsiders (172), but, in support of his overall thesis and in conjunction with his semiotic approach, he finds the possibility that the indictment “may…lead the rich to repentance,” (182).

[9] See Dibelius, James, 39-45, for further explication of the pious-poor motif.

[10] This style of address to the rich is continued even in early Christian literature.  See for example Herm. Vis. 3.9.6

[11] Davids, The Epistle of James, 175.

[12] Laws, A Commentary on the Epistle of James, 197-198.

[13] Boggan, “Wealth in the Epistle of James,” 216.

[14] For two examples of scholarship in the past decade that has analyzed the whole of the Epistle of James and its relationship to the Gospels see Dean B. Deppe, The Sayings of Jesus in the Epistle of James (Chelsea, MI: Bookcrafters, 1989), and Patrick J. Hartin, James and the Q Sayings of Jesus, Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Supplemental Series, 47, ed. David Hill (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991).

[15] As we will see, it is the ironic twist provided in James’ declarations of accusation and punishment that contributes to the illustration of folly.


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