In a previous post I mentioned that understanding James’ writing well requires that we see the influences that the Old Testament and the teachings of Jesus had on him. Previously we saw how the Law (especially Leviticus 19), the Prophets, and the Wisdom literature all influenced and shaped his views of faith and the Christian life. As a follower of the Christ, however, James did not merely repeat the content of the Old Covenant. He read it all through the lens of Jesus’ teachings. The teachings of Jesus most evidently shape James’ theology.
James writes as a “servant of…the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). Jesus may have been his half-brother, but more significantly He was James’ Lord! This changed everything about His life and about how he read the Old Testament. New Testament Scholar Doug Moo notes, “No New Testament document is more influenced by the teaching of Jesus than James” (The Letter of James, 27). Another scholar says that there are 175 different allusions to Jesus’ teachings in this epistle (Dean Deppe, “The Sayings of Jesus in the Epistle of James”)! Of particular influence on the author is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
The Sermon on the Mount reflects the most comprehensive statements of Jesus on the ethics of the Kingdom. While many theologians throughout history have debated the symmetry of James’ epistle with the Pauline corpus, they have ignored the tight connection between Christ’s own teaching and the work of this letter. In fact, Christopher Morgan boldly claims that there “is not one section of the Sermon on the Mount that James does not reflect, and there is not one section of James that does not reflect the teachings of Jesus” (A Theology of James, 36). He provides a very thorough outline of those parallels:
- The poor as recipients of the kingdom (Matt. 5:3; Luke 6:20; James 2:5)
- A call for mourning (Matt. 5:4; Luke 6:25; Janies 4:9)
- Praise of meekness (Matt. 5:5; James 3:13-18)
- Mercy given to the merciful (Matt. 5:7; James 2:13)
- Purity of heart (Matt. 5:8; James 4:8)
- Praise of peacemaking (Matt. 5:9; James 3:18)
- Joy in trials and persecution (Matt. 5:10-12; James 1:2)
- Prophets as examples of perseverance through trials (Matt. 5:12; James 5:10-11)
- God as Father (Matt. 5:16, etc.; James 1:17)
- Perfection and unity of the law (Matt. 5:17-19; James 1:25; 2:8-11)
- The seriousness of a seemingly small infraction of the law (Matt. 5:19; James 2:10)
- The unrighteousness of anger (Matt. 5:22; James 1:20)
- Lust and the course of sin (Matt. 5:27-30; James 1:13-15)
- The prohibition of oaths (Matt. 5:34-37; James 5:12)
- The expectation of nonresistance (Matt. 5:39; James 5:1-6)
- The demand for perfection (Matt. 5:48; James 1:4; 3:2)
- Condemnation of religious hypocrisy (Matt. 6:1-18; James 1:26-27; 2:14-26; a central theme throughout both)
- The decay (by moths and rust or corrosion) of stored-up wealth (Matt, 6:19-20; James 5:2-4)
- The rejection of dual eyes, two masters, and double-mindedness (Matt. 6:22-24;
James 1:8; 4:8)
- The transitory nature of life (Matt. 6:34; James 4:13-16)
- The command against judging (Matt. 7:1; James 4:11-12)
- Our judging of others affecting how God judges us (Matt. 7:1-2; James 2:13)
- Asking God in prayer and receiving; overall theology of prayer (Matt. 7:7-8; James 1:5; 4:2-3)
- God as good and the giver of good gifts (Matt. -7:9-11; James 1:17)
- Character depicted as fruit (Matt. 7:16-20; James 3:10-18)
- Fruit (figs and grapes) as consistent with type of tree or root (Matt. 7:16-19; James 3:12)
- Severe future judgment of the wicked (Matt. 7:16-27; James 5:1-6)
- The danger of mere profession (Matt. 7:21-23; James 1:26-27; 2:14-26)
- True followers of Christ hearing and doing (Matt. 7:24-27; James 1:22-25; 2:14-26; a central theme throughout both)
- True followers of Christ persevering through trials (Matt. 7;24-27; James 1:2-8; 5:7-11)
As you can see there are extensive parallels between James’ and Jesus’ words. Sometimes James words are so similar in structure to those of Jesus that it is suggested he must have been present for Jesus’ original teaching.
Of particular interest is the way in which James filters the Old Testament through the teachings of Jesus. This is certainly the case with his use of Leviticus 19. Much of James interaction with Leviticus 19 takes on the flavor of Jesus’ interaction with that chapter. So, Dan McCartney notes that the warning against swearing falsely in James 5:12 is in line with how Jesus gives the warning in Matthew 5:34-37 – it’s broad and intense. This is different from Leviticus 19:12 which gives the warning against swearing as a concise and direct statement. Jesus denounces oaths of all kind, as opposed to Leviticus 19, which is how James speaks too (James, 45).
It is not that James directly quotes the words of the gospels. It is likely that James was written before they were, but even still his quotations do seem to reflect the exact same source as the gospel writers. His words are so similar in structure that most scholars have concluded he reflects the ethical teaching that we find in the Synoptic tradition. It’s likely that James was either present for much of Jesus’ ethical teaching or he was familiar with the supposed collection of Jesus’ sayings which many other authors utilized in their own writing (perhaps the theorized source Q). The parallels between James, Matthew 5-7, and Luke 6 are particularly strong.
James use of Jesus is important for us as readers. He is not merely offering quotations of a few of Jesus’ thoughts, nor is he interested in His words merely as a commentator on the Torah. There could be some similarities simply because both James and Jesus grew up in the same religious tradition and were both students of the Law. The similarities, however, go beyond phrasing. James is similar to Christ in overall tenor and thematic development. This leads us to conclude that James “has absorbed not just several of Jesus’ sayings, but indeed the very ethos of Jesus’ ethical vision” (McCartney, 52). We too should become absorbed by that vision, as we read the Epistle of James.