Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

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25. James


This chapter should enable the student to

  • summarize what modern scholarship has to say regarding historical background for the letter of James, including proposals regarding this letter’s author, audience, date of composition, and the purposes for which it was intended.
  • explain how the letter of James is similar to other writings in the Bible, including Old Testament Wisdom literature and Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.
  • explicate what James has to say regarding trials and temptations and why these might be viewed positively by Christians.
  • compare what James has to say about “faith and works” with what is said in Paul’s letters and indicate whether those two perspectives are compatible.
  • describe what the letter of James says about the rich and the poor and about how they are to be regarded within the church of God.

Pedagogical Suggestions

1. Wisdom in James

The letter of James contains a lot of wisdom material. Compare the letter of James with other Jewish wisdom literature. Choose a passage from Ecclesiastes (3:9–15 or 4:1–16) or Proverbs (chs. 15 or 19) or Sirach (ch. 32 “Etiquette at a Banquet”) or read alongside Matthew 6:1–18. What do the passages have in common? How do they convey truth or advice? What do you think the function of these sayings is in a social context? What are some wisdom sayings (or proverbs) we use today? What literary elements characterize these sayings (details, analogy, comparison, metaphor, etc.)?


By comparing James and another piece of wisdom literature, students begin to see the literary and thematic elements that characterize Jewish wisdom traditions (as well as other ancient wisdom traditions, see text p. 453). At the same time, students may hear echoes of Jesus’s teachings in the wisdom literature, demonstrating that neither James nor Jesus can be understood apart from the culture and thinking of their times. The teachings of both men fit neatly (although certainly not completely) into Jewish wisdom traditions.

2. Friendship with the World

In addition to wisdom traditions, James also contains prophetic material. A key phrase from the Jewish prophetic tradition occurs in James and requires special attention to the ancient prophetic context to make sense of the passage. James 4:4 literally reads “Adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” The NRSV translates the feminine noun “adulterers.” Why does James use this word, and why the plural feminine form?

After posing this question and entertaining guesses, have students read Hosea chapters 3–4. In these chapters, God commands the prophet Hosea to live out a divine judgment against Israel. Hosea is to marry an “adulteress” to demonstrate to Israel how God’s people have committed adultery against God through their unfaithfulness and turning to idols and false gods (understood as lovers) and by “swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery” (Hosea 4:2). In other words, unfaithfulness to God (idolatry as adultery) is not only about the people’s relationship to God, it is also about the ways in which they treat one another.

How does this more complete understanding of the prophetic accusation “Adulteresses!” help us to understand James’s point about faith and works in the letter?


Biblical material, like all ancient writing, is difficult to comprehend because it assumes a different sociocultural and historical context than we, or our students, live in. This passage in James confronts students with their assumptions and challenges them to look carefully into a writing’s own world for deeper, more correct understanding. Because the passage is short, it also quickly yields the rewards of contextualizing an ancient phrase.

3. Sim City

Have students (in small groups) write “An ethic according to James.” They could use the form of a civic constitution (the rules of Sim City) or the Ten Commandments (“thou shalt not . . .”). Is this ethic applicable outside of a Christian community? Why or why not? Could James’s ethic be used to form the basis of a utopian society? Why or why not?


One purpose of ancient letters, particularly those written to communities, was to foster a particular identity among the hearers. This exercise invites students to move from reading the letter as advice to imagining what kind of community, and in what kinds of situations, this advice would create.

Discussion Prompts

  1. Compare James to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7 or Luke’s Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:17–49. Do Jesus and James seem to be “brothers” in their wisdom teachings?
  2. How does the ideal community that James imagines reflect the character of God he describes?
  3. How does James’s attitude toward the rich and the poor reflect the historical situation in Jerusalem and Palestine from 60–70 CE?
  4. Latin American Liberation Theology, a movement of catholic priests, lay leaders, and poor farmers in the 1970s and 1980s, embraced James’s letter. (To illustrate this point, you could show a 15-minute clip from the film Romero, the story of Archbishop Romero’s work among the poor in El Salvador and his consequent assassination.) What kind of “liberation” or “salvation” does this letter depict or encourage?