The Epistle of James does not arise out of a vacuum. Its author was raised in a religious world, and under the influence of Judaism and its sacred writings. This author was also the brother of Jesus and was a convinced follower that Jesus, believing him to be the promised Messiah. All of this shapes the way he writes and what he writes about. In order to rightly interpret and understand James we need to see his thought as rooted in both the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus.
The Influence of the Old Testament
James is no doubt a student of the Old Testament. The law is of particular importance and appears throughout his writing. He references the Law in a number of places, including the books of Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus. These references are often structurally close to the original, practically quotations; at other times they are clear allusions to specific passages. “That James’s teachings are rooted in the Law is clear, not only from his quotations,” says Christopher Morgan, “but also from his allusions, echoes, references, and convictions” (A Theology of James, 26). The influence of Leviticus 19 is particularly profound throughout the book. He gives verbal allusion to nearly every verse of Leviticus 19:12-18 (verse 14 being the only exception). It was Leviticus 19 which shaped James’ understanding of the “Royal law” (2:8). As Luke Timothy Johnson explains:
But the clear thematic connections, together with the formal characteristics involving law, judgment, and prohibition shared by many of these passages, point this way: that James regarded the “Royal Law” by which Christians were to live, and the “Law of Liberty” by which they were to be judged, as explicated concretely and specifically not only in by the Decalogue (2:11), but by the immediate context of the Law of Love, the commands found in Lev 19:12-18.(Brother of Jesus, Friend of God, 133)
James was a good student of the Torah and it dramatically shaped his understanding of even the Christian life. While many modern Christians tend to isolate the New Testament from the Old, James saw the Old Testament as his Scripture! He interpreted the Christian life through the lens of the principles derived from the Old Testament.
James also echoes the tone, style, and themes of the Old Testament prophets. He has several prophetic-sounding addresses in 1:22-27; 4:1-10; and 5:1-6. He is very prophetic in his warnings, his commands to hear and obey the Word, and in his references to spiritual adultery and God’s jealousy. Many Scholars see parallels to the prophetic ministries of Ezekiel, Amos, and Isaiah in his short letter. One scholar calls James the “Amos of the New Testament” (quoted in Morgan, 27). Christopher Morgan notes how James 5:1-6 in particular parallels Amos 8:4-6 in its denunciation of the “proud and wealthy landowners who exploit and oppress the poor” (28).
Finally, we may also note the influence of the wisdom literature on James. James has sometimes been called the Proverbs of the New Testament. This is in part due to the didactic nature and seemingly random instructions provided throughout the book. It would be erroneous, however, to conclude that James merely parallels wisdom literature in appearance. He quotes directly Proverbs 3:34 (James 4:6), and makes use of several common proverbial sayings, illustrations, and linkages. In fact, more pointedly, wisdom is a major theme within the letter itself. “James has a primary concern to teach about wisdom and its practical results” (Morgan, 30). James is a very practical book with a strong emphasis on living a faithful life of integrity before the Lord. “And wisdom is for James that gift of God that enables one to live a virtuous life” (Peter Davids, A Theology of James, Peter, and Jude, 76). Wisdom, then, plays a major role in the theology of the book and its practical application to life.
It is so important for readers of the New Testament to recognize that our faith is built off of and incorporates the faith of Israel in the Old Testament. While Jesus no doubt changes how we interact with the Old Testament (a point we will see in James too), our faith is nonetheless shaped by the Old Testament. Seeing how the Law, Prophets, and Wisdom literature of the Old Testament influenced James allows us to better understand, appreciate, and respond to His writings. It also encourages us to value the Bible that he read.
Next we will explore the influence of Jesus’ teachings on James’ writings.