Read the Epistle of James here.
Scholars cannot even seem to agree on who wrote the Epistle of James, let alone exactly when it might have been written. A complicating factor is that first century Judea had far too many people walking around named Jim – a problem all modern English-speaking countries share. There was James, son of Alphaeus, whose name is listed in all three synoptic gospels as one of the original disciples, then never really mentioned again. There was James, son of Zebedee who quite prominently figured into the New Testament narrative as one of Jesus’ first and most beloved disciples. Unfortunately, he was also among the earliest martyred, in 44 AD, when Christ’s followers hadn’t yet seen the need to do much – if any – writing. Finally, as the letter appears to be written to Jewish Christians only, many attribute the writing to James the brother of the Lord, who, although not listed as a disciple in the gospels, appears to have been the pastor of the church in Jerusalem soon after Jesus’ death.
As a kid growing up in the American South, I am familiar with the dilemma of having too many kids running around bearing the same given name – not too many Jacksons, Aidens, or Liams christened in the hills of Appalachia back in those days. Looking back at my father’s generation and earlier, it seems every male in my family had some variation of only about five names – George, James, Earl, Andrew, or Donald – two of which they happily passed on to me. The only way to know whom you’re talking about at any given time in this situation is to assign a distinctive nickname or moniker to pretty much everyone you know. Thus, most of your friends end up with names like Junior, Little Billy, Fatboy, and Jimmy the Jew. Once you are stuck with a nickname – even if you eventually become bigger, slimmer, or less careful with money – you are stuck with it for life.
First century believers solved the ‘too many Jims’ problem in exactly the same way, albeit their nicknames were kinder, if not any more imaginative. So Alphaeus is known as James the Less, Zebedee as James the Greater, and Jesus’ brother as James the Just. Historians think the appellation ‘less’ had something to do with Alphaeus’ youth or stature, not an indication of his rank among the disciples. In the perverse naming process of the South, James the Less would weigh in at 300 pounds, while James the Greater would stand about five foot five. And James the Just would be either someone truly above reproach – or the town crook. Southerners can’t resist this kind of cruel yet mirthful irony. So, if you live in West Virginia and you’ve just met a guy online whose nickname is ‘Tiny’, you might want to think twice before going out on that date.
I am dwelling on a trivial bit of detail – nicknames – because as I study the New Testament, I am constantly fascinated by the cultural parallels between the group of people who created the Bible a couple thousand years ago and those who most fervently believe in it today. I am currently reading two insightful books that relate some of the history of my antebellum ancestors, the forefathers of those who inhabit America’s Bible belt.
Night Comes to the Cumberlands, by Harry M. Caudill, tells a tale not often heard in high school history classes, the story of the many Scots-Irish immigrants of the early to mid-18th century who came to these shores less than willingly. Orphans cleared from the streets, petty thieves or debtors pulled from jails, even poor working men simply kidnapped from their homes, this human surplus of England’s cities and larger towns were sold into indentured servitude to the plantation owners of Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Many of these arrivals cast their eyes to the mountains that made the western frontier, and ran off into the Blue Ridge or Shenandoahs at the first opportunity; those unable to do so often joined them when their term of service finally expired.
In Deer Hunting with Jesus, Joe Bageant refers to these frontiersmen as Borderers. For centuries, their Scottish ancestors eked out a miserable, often violent existence along the ever-changing boundary between Scotland and England, with fierce Scandinavian raiders arriving from time to time to make things all the more pleasant. Hardened in both body and spirit by centuries of violent clan war and privation, they so threatened the social order that James II (another Jim!) rounded up as many as he could and sent them to Northern Ireland, hoping they might direct their energies into pacifying the Catholic Irish. When that worked out as well as might be expected, they began to arrive on colonial American shores.
These Borderers had little to offer in the way of knowledge or skill, good for only labor – and securing frontiers. In fact the landed gentry of colonies like Pennsylvania were all too happy to send these barbarians out to the edges of their territories. If they could scratch out a living while enduring the raids of the French and the feathered native, great. If they couldn’t, perhaps they might at least wipe out enough of them that the job would be easier for the next guy.
Judea is located in one of the world’s first natural battlefields, unfortunately situated halfway between two incredibly fertile river valleys, the Nile to the west, the Tigris and Euphrates to the east. The hardscrabble mountains, deserts, and wilderness areas of the land we call Israel today were no match for the well-watered agricultural lands that surrounded them when it came to raising up empires. The ancient armies that rolled through on their way to somewhere else are well-documented in the Biblical record – Egyptians, Philistines, Phoenicians, Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans – to name a few.
Because we look at history from the point of view of the writers of the OT, we tend to think of Israel as being in the center of what was really happening in the world; in truth, it lay at the periphery. Other cultures were building massive cities and monuments as early as 3000 BC; two thousand years later, Jacob’s progeny had only managed to build a tiny fort on a scrubby hill – the City of David – the crowning achievement of which was a temple so small Joel Osteen couldn’t manage a staff meeting inside.
No, Israel wasn’t at the center of things – the Judeans were the Borderers of antiquity. They had been smashed on every side for centuries. They were slaves in Egypt. They saw the finest of their people carted off by the Babylonians. The Romans burnt their holy city nearly to the ground. Their scrubby patch of land never allowed them to produce the sheer number of soldiers needed to fight off the armies of the great empires. They were a tiny cog in the great machinations of international schemes.
What’s a Borderer to do? Both groups grabbed hold of their religion and held fast. They rankled at the thought of any authority other than God himself. They dreamt of apocalypse, when those who had oppressed them would get what was coming to them. After hundreds of years, they continue to name their children after heroes, men who may have existed, or are perhaps no more than ancient fairy tales.
The men at the forefront of Christianity in the first century were the religious rednecks of their day. They were uneducated, blue-collar workers, carpenters, fishermen. For nearly two decades after Jesus’ death, they didn’t even bother writing anything down. They weren’t theologians, they were preachers; the Holy Ghost wasn’t something you explained, it was something you felt.
I’ve heard uneducated, uncouth backwoods preachers claim that they know more about the New Testament than any Harvard-educated professor ever could. In a sense, there is some validity to this claim. Today’s Bible belt believer is the natural heir to the first century Christian, like it or not.
So, who wrote the Epistle of James? Well, it was either James, or someone named James, as the old joke goes. We could call him Just, or Lesser, or even Bubba if we wanted. What we should truly concern ourselves with is how its message is playing out today in American churches – and American society.
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