The Book of James: simply right and simply wrong

The Book of James: simply right and simply wrong.

I haven’t spent much time on this blog going through particular books of the Bible.  But sometimes it’s fun (do I have a strange sense of fun?), and it’s almost always worthwhile.

The Letter of James is one of the shorter books in the New Testament, 5 chapters, none very long.  It doesn’t have any great stories.  It doesn’t have any stories period.  Yet, it’s popular, many readers seeming to regard it as a “sayings” source, like Proverbs.  Yet, it’s not so simple.  James has a thesis: good deeds are the substance of faith.  He also makes a big mistake.  Every horror is not a test of human faith.  God should respect human limits in the tests he imposes.  He explained himself to Job, but no more.

Who wrote it?

James, brother of Christ, probably wrote it, though some disagree.  When it was written is equally contentious.  Probably around 47-50 CE, but some set it as much as 150 years later.  Why was it written?  Probably to help Jewish Christians get through a losing struggle with Rome, one that would destroy Jerusalem, from where the letter was probably written.  I don’t think I’ve ever written a paragraph using the term “probably” so many times, but that’s the way it is.

What James does and doesn’t say

Not one reference does James make to the death, resurrection, or the divine sonship of Jesus.  Nevertheless, the book is conventional in its belief structure, referring to “the Lord Jesus Christ,” and “our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” (1:1, 2:1)  Whatever it is, the book is not a challenge to doctrine.

While it barely mentions Jesus, there are lots of unattributed references to the Sermon on the Mount, and particularly to the “Q source,” as it is called. 

The content of James is directly parallel, in many instances, to sayings of Jesus found in the gospels of Luke and Matthew, i.e. those attributed to the hypothetical Q. source.* (Wikipedia)

Ethics and Deeds

“No other book of the New Testament concentrates so exclusively on ethical questions.” (Moo, p 67)  By ethics the author means doing good deeds.  James puts it this way.

Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (2:14-17)

The issue is as relevant today.  How can anyone call himself a Christian if he or she doesn’t contribute enough to charity until it hurts?  Not so much that you go bankrupt, or your children unfed, but enough so that it makes a real difference in your lifestyle, your standard of living.  Nine hundred million people in the world today lack the food to lead an active healthy life (  Forty-one million of these are in the United States.

Here is the appeal of James.  The book takes us directly to practical issues like these, mostly avoiding arcane theological disputes

Works and faith

Speaking of arcane theological disputes, a distinction is often made between James’ focus on deeds, and Paul’s focus on faith.  Luther at first rejected James for this reason.  But the distinction is false.  Paul says, it is “faith expressing itself through love” that counts in God’s eyes (Galatians, 5:6).  James says “faith without deeds is dead.” (2:17).  Once one recognizes that Pauline love, all love, is about doing good things for the beloved, the contradiction disappears. 

At the theological level, then, we think that Paul and James are complementary rather than contradictory. Faith alone brings one into relationship with God in Christ–but true faith inevitably generates the works that God will take into account in his final decision about the fate of men and women–that is, good works in the world.  (Moo, p 64) 

The differences between Paul and James do not disappear.  For Paul (and Kierkegaard), Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is based on his faith in the Lord.  For James, the sacrifice is about doing the work (deed) of offering up his son. (2:21-26) But these are the disputes that occupy theologians. 

Testing faith

Remember that James is writing to a Jewish-Christian diaspora that is suffering under the rule of Rome.  Testing faith refers to how to think about hard times: they test our character, and our faith.

Figuring out why God allows life to be so difficult is important, but how much testing do you need?  Furthermore, wouldn’t an omniscient God know how deep your faith is in advance?  He knows everything.

The only argument for testing people’s faith is in order to strengthen it. 

This is probably the meaning intended by James: suffering is a means by which faith, tested in the fires of adversity, can be purified of any dross and thereby strengthened. (Moo, p 81)

Believers are expected to embrace hardship and loss, because they know it works to produce a deeper, stronger faith.  This is the same view held by Epictetus, the Roman Stoic, who wrote about the same time as James.  Don’t complain if circumstances have set before you a terrible trial.  The trial is like a wrestler.  If he is strong, and you take him on, you will become stronger (Discourses, 1:24.1-2)

            The great mistake

Such a view, whether held by a Christian or a Stoic, is seriously mistaken.  Even people with a strong faith can be broken by a stronger adversity.  I’ve witnessed interviews with about 150 Holocaust survivors.  Many lost their faith, and why not?  The Holocaust was not a test; it was obliteration of family, home, and any remaining belief in humanity. 

Whether a test weaken or destroys you depends.  Were you a victim of years-long sexual abuse by your father as a child?  Or did you struggle against an adult cancer?  The latter may make you stronger; the former rarely.  Sweet Hereafter is a story about a small town that loses almost all its children in a catastrophic school bus accident.  Many families never recovered, some lost their religion.  A naked man facing a steamroller is not David against Goliath.  It is man versus a machine of remorseless obliteration.  Sometimes life is like that steamroller. 


Simone Weil, who knew a thing or two about adversity, wrote that the great mystery of human life is not suffering but affliction (Weil, p 441).  Affliction is not just suffering that persists over time.  Affliction is pointless, meaningless suffering that overwhelms our ability to cope, which means our ability to make sense of the experience.  Including religious sense.  Why would God allow a young child to be tormented by a terrible disease before dying a painful death?  Some people can find a reason, usually of the “God has his ways” variety.  Many can’t find a reason.  Some are strengthened, some not.  But those who are strengthened are no better than those who are not. 

If the purpose of God’s testing is to strengthen our faith, then the ordeal must be within the ability of humans to cope.  Humans are just humans after all.  That too is the lesson of James.  


* Q source is a hypothetical written collection of Jesus’ sayings found in Matthew and Luke, but not Mark.  Most people think it represents the earliest written collection of Jesus’ sayings; it would be without interpretation or commentary.  It is called Q for the German Quelle, or source.


C. Fred Alford, After the Holocaust.  Cambridge UP, 2009.

Russell Banks, The Sweet Hereafter.  Harper, 2011.

Epictetus, Discourses. 

Douglas Moo, James: Introduction and Commentary.  Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, 2015.

Simone Weil, “The love of God and affliction,” in The Simone Weil Reader, ed. George Panichas.  Moyer Bell, 1977.

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