“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). So affirms the brother of Jesus, James, in the letter attributed to him; so we hear in this week’s lectionary. And passages from this letter will appear as the epistle offering for the next month.
So what is the nature of this letter? It begins with the standard opening address expected in a letter: “James … to the twelve tribes … greetings” (1:1). However, it lacks every other common feature of a letter written during the hellenistic period: there is no thanksgiving, no sharing of news, no travel plans, no emissaries, no closing greetings or benediction.
Instead, the work plunges immediately into a series of general exhortations: “consider it all joy … if any of you lack wisdom, ask God … ask in faith … let the lowly one boast in being raised up … blessed is the person who endures temptation … do not be deceived … be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger … rid yourselves of all sordidness … welcome the implanted word … be doers of the word” (excerpts from 1:2–22).
Moral instruction—known as “paraenesis”—is the major thrust throughout the work; it ends in a loosely-connected string of commands and instructions (5:7–20) with no concluding summation. This is not so much a letter, as a moral treatise designed to provide instruction and training in religious and ethical matters. So I prefer to refer to this book as the treatise of James.
In this regard, this work is like other New Testament books that we describe as letters which don’t, in fact, exhibit many characteristics of a letter. 1 John lacks both the address and the conclusion of a letter. Hebrews likewise lacks a letter opening, and it describes itself as “a word of exhortation” (Heb 13:22). Some of the letters appear to be very situation-specific, as regularly letters usually are; others, by contrast, are generic and seem not to be grounded in any particular life setting.
The structure of the treatise of James appears relatively unsystematic, with a string of exhortations, dealing with somewhat related matters, yet without an integrated arrangement. The central concern is to persuade the audience that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (4:4) and thus “to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:27).
Accordingly, a number of moral qualities are urged on the readers, and pointers for practical action are given in many of the sections of the treatise. The treatise thus stands in the tradition of generalised moral exhortation, as practised throughout the Hellenistic world.
There is nothing that provides any clue as to the specific situation that might be addressed by the author of the treatise; it is, rather, a general work for a widespread audience. In this regard, it may be compared with sections of some New Testament letters (Rom 12:9–21; 13:8–14; Gal 5:13–6:10; Phil 4:4–9; 1 Thess 5:12–22; Col 3:5–17; Eph 4:17–5:20; 1 Pet 2:11–3:12; 4:7–11; and parts of Hebrews) as well as the book of Proverbs. This technique was also employed by numerous pagan teachers in the Hellenistic world (for instance, Plutarch).
The description of the author of this treatise is short and to the point: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). James was a well-known figure; he is named amongst the brothers of Jesus (Mark 6:3; Matt 13:55; Gal 1:19) and seems to have been the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:20; 21:20).
Was the treatise written before James was put to death in 62CE? (Josephus reports his death in book 20 of his Jewish Antiquities—not to be confused with James, the son of Zebedee, whose death in the year 44CE is noted at Acts 12:2.) The knowledge of Jewish scripture and traditions shown in this work, as well as its extensive set of allusions to the teachings of Jesus, support the possibility that James himself wrote it —or, more likely, preached it, with someone else writing it down.
There are many features to support the view that this treatise originated within the early Palestinian (even Jerusalem) part of the Jesus movement. For instance, the way that religion is defined, as we noted above, as being “the care of orphans and widows” (1:27), draws on a central motif in Hebrew scripture. Care for the vulnerable, such as widows and orphans, was a central element in ancient Israelite society.
In the Hebrew scriptures, God is described as “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows” (Ps 68:5), who “executes justice for the fatherless and the widow” (Deut 10:18).
As a result, the Law is clear about what this means for Israel, directing that “you shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child” (Exod 22:22), and instructing that the widow and the fatherless child are to included along with the sojourner in celebratory moments in Israel—when tithing (Deut 14:28–29), at the Feast of Weeks (16:9–12) and the Feast of Booths (16:13–15), when gleaning (24:19–22), and when tithing once more (26:12–13).
The curses of Deuteronomy 27 include the declaration, “Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deut 27:19). Isaiah proclaims God’s judgement on those who “turn aside the needy from justice … and rob the poor of my people”, including the way that they exploit the fatherless and widows (Isa 10:1–2). Likewise, Ezekiel includes those who “have made many widows” in Israel amongst those who will experience the full force of God’s vengeance (Ezek 22, see verse 25). He observes that “the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you” (Ezek 22:7).
Jeremiah assures the people of Edom, to the south of Israel, of God’s care for them: “leave your fatherless children; I will keep them alive; and let your widows trust in me” (Jer 49:11). He encourages the people of Jerusalem with a promise that God will allow them to continue to dwell in their land if they “do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place … or go after other gods” (Jer 7:5–7).
In a later chapter, Jeremiah is instructed to tell the King of Judah, “do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place” (Jer 22:1–3). The prophet Zechariah speaks similarly: “do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart” (Zech 7:10).
The book of Psalms includes a prayer for God to rise up against the wicked, who “kill the widow and the sojourner, and murder the fatherless” (Ps 94:6). That psalm ends with an assurance that “the Lord … wipe them out for their wickedness; the Lord our God will wipe them out” (Ps 94:23). The prophet Malachi includes this in his vision of the coming day of the Lord: “I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness … against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me” (Mal 3:4).
What is wished for the wicked who persecute the faithful is expressed with vitriol in Psalm 109: “May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow” (Ps 109:9). Another psalm expresses similar hopes, but in a less aggressive manner: “The Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Ps 146:9).
So in this key phrase, referring to children with no parents and women with no husband, which the treatise includes in the definition of “true religion”, the Jewish origins and ethos of the document is clearly signalled. It clearly reflects the motif of “the fatherless and the widow” that we have seen throughout Hebrew scripture. It also resonates strongly with the emphasis that Jesus offers in his care and concern for “the little ones” (Mark 9:42; Matt 10:52; Luke 17:2; Matt 18:6, 10, 14), “the least of these” (Matt 25:40, 45) who are those most disadvantaged in society (Matt 25:35– 36). Whoever “is least among you all is the one who is great”, he teaches (Luke 9:48).
So true religion is “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27)”. The second aspect of this definition, to remain “in stained by the world”, relates to the sense of purity that was central to the priestly conception of Israelite society (Lev 10:3, 8–11; 11:44–45; 19:1–2; 20:26; 22:31–33). The people of Israel were to be holy, set apart, pure.
This purity was integral to the teachings of Jesus (Matt 5:8; 8:1–4; 10:1, 8; 11:4–5; 12:22–45; 15:1–2, 10–20; 23:25–26). This purity is the nature of true wisdom (James 3:7) and is what believers should strive for (4:8).
Nevertheless, the refined style and extensive vocabulary of the Greek employed throughout the treatise of James suggest it may have been written by one schooled in Greek rhetoric and literature. It is unlikely to have been a Jewish person like the brother of Jesus, largely unschooled in the ways of hellenistic rhetoric. So, could it be that the book might have been written in the form we have it after the death of James? If so, perhaps it functioned as a statement of the authority of James and a compilation of his teaching within the Jerusalem church, written in order to encourage other congregations with Jewish members.
One verse describes these congregations as “your synagogues” (2:2), suggesting an origin in the time when Jewish synagogues were still permitted and active in Israel, before the war of 66–74 CE and the consequent dispersion of Jews from the land of Israel by the Romans. Some scholars have claimed that it must have been written much later, even in the second century, by a person writing in the name of James, as a way of claiming his authority for the teachings proposed in this letter. This view seems less persuasive these days. Its origins and dominant ethos are clearly Jewish.
And the key definition of religion, in its best form, as being “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world”, is thoroughly Jewish.