Chapter 15:<B> </B>The Epistle of James

The Story of the New Testament
by Edgar J. Goodspeed

Chapter 15:<B> </B>The Epistle of James

The ancient world was full of preachers. Dressed in a rough cloak, one would take his stand at some street corner and amuse and instruct, with his easy, animated talk, the chance crowd that gathered about him. He would mingle question and answer, apostrophe, dialogue, invective, and anecdote, urging his little congregation to fortitude and self-control, the great ideals of the Stoic teachers. For these street preachers of ancient times were Stoics, and their sermons were called diatribes.

Christian preachers had to compete with these men for the attention of the people they were trying to convert to Christianity, and they naturally adopted some of their methods. In the marketplace at Athens Paul did this informal open-air preaching every day, and in doing so came into conflict with some of these Stoic preachers. A later Stoic, Justin, became a Christian, and tells us in his Dialogue with Trypho how he continued to practice this way of preaching on the promenade at Ephesus.

We cannot help wishing that one of these street sermons had been preserved to us just as its author gave it, and of course we have in the Book of Acts reports of several sermons of Stephen, Peter, and Paul. It is true that Luke was not present when most of these were uttered, and probably had to fill out somewhat any outline or report which had come to him; but this only means that the sermon, if not exactly what Paul or Peter said, is what another early Christian preacher, Luke, would have said, and supposes Paul would have said, in those circumstances. But we have in the New Testament at least one ancient sermon preserved for its own sake and not as an incidental part of a historical narrative. It is the book we know as the Epistle of James.

In James the Christian preacher tells his hearers that life’s trials, vicissitudes, and temptations will perfect character, if they are met in dependence upon God. But his hearers must not merely profess religion, but really practice purity and humanity. They must be doers that work, not hearers that forget. They must learn to respect the poor, and to feed and clothe the needy. Their faith must show itself in works. They must not be too eager to teach and direct one another. The tongue is the hardest thing in the world to tame. If they wish to show their wisdom, let them do it by a life of good works. They must give up their greed, indulgence, and worldliness, their censoriousness and self-confidence. Their rich oppressors are doomed to punishment; only they must be patient, like Job and the prophets. Above all things, they must refrain from oaths. In trouble and sickness they must pray for one another. The prayer of a righteous man avails much. And they must seek to convert sinners, for God especially blesses such work.

These are the teachings of this ancient sermon. What is the connection between them? Do they constitute a chain of thought? Are they beads on a string, or simply a handful of pearls? As an example of Christian preaching this sermon is not at all doctrinal or intellectual. Little is said even of Christ. The whole emphasis is practical. The preacher’s interest is in conduct, in the words and acts of his hearers. He does not care especially about their theological views. For him the only real faith is that which shows itself in good deeds. Honest, upright, and helpful living is what the preacher demands, and he does so with a directness and a frankness never since surpassed. It is this that has given this fifteen-minute sermon its abiding place in Christian Literature.

Where this sermon was first preached it is impossible to say. It would have been appropriate almost anywhere. That is the beauty of it. But we may be sure that it was as a sermon and not as a letter that it first appeared. It contains none of those unmistakable epistolary touches that we find for example in Galatians and Second and Third John. It does not end with a farewell or benediction as so many New Testament letters do. Only the salutation contained in the first verse suggests a letter: "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are of the Dispersion, greeting."

But a moment’s reflection will show that this does not prove the Epistle of James to be a letter. How would one go about delivering it "to the twelve tribes which are of the Dispersion," that is, to the Jews scattered about through the Greco-Roman world from Babylon to Spain? Or, if the Dispersion is meant in a figurative sense, to all the Christians outside of Palestine? It is clear at once that these words are not the salutation of a letter but a kind of dedication for a published work. That the Epistle of James was written to be thus published, however, that is, that it is an "epistle" in the literary sense of the word, is very improbable in view of its contents, which relate to no single subject or situation.

It can surely be no cause for surprise or incredulity that we possess among the twenty-seven books of the New Testament one representative of the commonest type of Christian literature, the sermon. It would be a wonder if this were not the case. Like thousands of other sermons, it was not only preached but published, with a dedication, boldly figurative, to Christians everywhere. The unidentified James whose name is prefixed to it may have been its author or its publisher, or simply one in whose name it was put forth. The early church sought to recognize in him Jesus’ brother, who, though not an apostle, became the head of the church at Jerusalem. But if he was the preacher, the sermon’s reticence about Jesus would be doubly hard to understand.

There is something very modern about this so-called Epistle of James. Its interest in democracy, philanthropy, and social justice strikes a responsive chord in our time. The preacher’s simplicity and directness, his impatience with cant and sham and his satirical skill in exposing them, his noble advocacy of the rights of labor and his clear perception of the sterling Christian virtues that were to win the world, justify the place of honor his sermon has in the New Testament.