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THE CATHOLIC EPISTLES
THERE are seven epistles which from the fourth century have gone under the name of the Catholic (or General) Epistles, viz. James ; 1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2, 3 John; and Jude. They were so called in contradistinction to Paul's epistles, which, with the exception of the Pastoral Epistles and Philemon, are addressed to individual Churches, also seven in number. In most of the Greek MSS. the Catholic Epistles stand next to the Book of Acts, although they were much later than the epistles of Paul in obtaining general recognition in the Church.
1. Authorship.—In common with four other of the Catholic Epistles, viz. 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude, this epistle is described by Eusebius (about 325 A.D.) as a disputed book of the New Testament, in the sense of not being universally acknowledged by the Church.
In the fourth century the claims of these and other writings to a place in the New Testament Canon were carefully sifted, the result being to vindicate the character of each of the disputed epistles (as appears from the Decrees of the Council of Laodicea, 364 A.D., and of Carthage, 397 A.D.), while a number of other books which, although not in the New Testament, had been read in church along with them were finally disallowed.
1 The Hebrew original of this name is Jacob.
With regard to the Epistle of James in particular the rarity of allusions to it in the early Christian writers 1 may be accounted for by its circulation being confined to Jewish Christians, as well as by the narrow sphere of labour in which the writer himself moved, his life apparently having been entirely spent in Jerusalem.
The internal evidence of the book is strongly in its favour, and it is now generally admitted to be a genuine work of “James, the Lord's brother” (Gal. i. 19), who presided for many years over the Church at Jerusalem. (1) The writer's modest designation of himself—“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,” is against the idea of forgery. (2) The epistle was evidently written for Jewish Christians by one of themselves. It speaks of Abraham as our father” (ii. 21); it calls the readers' place of worship "your synagogue” (ii. 2, R.V.), it calls God “the Lord of Sabaoth" (v. 4); it takes for granted an acquaintance with Old Testament characters (ii. 25; v. 10, 17); it alludes to Jewish forms of oath (v. 12); it refers to “the law” as still binding (ii. 8-11; iv. 11); and it contains no allusions to those sins of the flesh which figure so prominently in epistles designed for Gentile readers. (3) It bears traces of having been
1 The earliest express quotation from this epistle is found in the writings of Origen ; but the language of Clement of Rome, and still more clearly of Hermas, would lead us to believe that it was known to these writers. Still more significant is the fact that it has a place in the ancient Syriac Version (the Peschito).
2 Although written in comparatively pure Greek (owing, it may be, to our epistle being the translation of an Aramaic original by a competent Greek scholar acting under the direction of James), its literary character as a whole is essentially Hebrew, reminding us of the Book of Proverbs and other Jewish writings.
written by a native of Palestine-in its allusions te “the scorching wind” (i. 11), the sea (i. 6; iii. 4), "sweet water and bitter” (the latter referring to the brackish springs of the country, iii. 11, 12); the vine, olive, and fig (iii. 12); "the early and latter rain ” (v. 7). (4) It shows a familiar acquaintance with Christ's teaching, although its language is not such as to betray an imitation of our Gospels.1 (5) It reflects a state of Jewish society-the rich oppressing the poor--which is described by Josephus and other Jewish writers as prevailing in the period succeeding the death of our Lord, but which in a great manner ceased to exist after the rebellion that terminated in the destruction of Jerusalem.
With regard to the author's, personal history the following points may be noted. He and his brothers Joses, Simon, and Jude (Matt. xiii. 55; Mark vi. 3) were either the children of Joseph and Mary, and younger brothers of our Lord, or else they were the children of Joseph by a former marriage. The latter supposition seems the more probable, both because it is in harmony with the earliest traditions of antiquity, and because it helps to explain the attitude of James and his brothers towards Jesus during His lifetime (Matt. xii. 46 and John vii. 3-5), and the committal of Mary to the keeping, not of her stepsons, but of the Apostle John (John xix. 26). We find that at an advanced period in our Lord's ministry His brethren did not believe in Him (John vii. 5); but immediately after the Ascension they are associated with the disciples in the upper room (Acts i. 14).
According to a tradition, which we have no reason to disbelieve, their conversion was due to the appearance of the risen Lord to James, which is mentioned 1 Cor. xv. 7. Among the Christians at Jerusalem James soon took a prominent place, being, indeed, the recognised head of the Church there after the death of James, the brother of John (44 A.D.), and the dispersion of the other apostles. This commanding position he owed partly to the special relation in which he stood to Jesus, and partly to his own high character, which procured for him the name of the Just (or Righteous) and Oblias (“the bulwark of the people”). He is said to have been a Nazarite, and so much given to prayer in the Temple that his knees had grown hard like those of a camel. He was essentially a Hebrew of the Hebrews, who clung to the law and the prophets, and valued the Gospel as their fulfilment. Hence his name was sometimes used by the Judaising party in opposition to Paul (Gal. ii. 12; cf. Acts xv. 24)— as indeed it continued to be long after his death 1 although he himself recognised Paul as the apostle of the Gentiles, and did not insist on a full observance of the law by Gentile converts (Gal. ii. 9 ; Acts xv. 19-21, 25, 26). He died a death of martyrdom, stoned by the Jews—as Josephus and Hegesippus relate—shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem, for his testimony to Jesus as the Messiah.
1 Cf. i. 5, 6 and Mark xi. 23 ; i. 25 and John xiii. 17 ; ii. 5 and Luke vi. 20 ; iv. 9 and Luke vi. 25 ; iv. 10 and Matt. xxiii. 12; v. 12 and Matt. v. 37.
2. The Readers. 6 To the twelve tribes which are of the Dispersion" (i. 1). In view of the Jewish traits in the epistle, which have been already pointed out, and having regard to the migratory habits of the readers (iv. 13), there is no reason to take these opening words in any other than a literal sense. Jews of the Dispersion were to be found in almost every part of the world, as appears from the narrative of the events which took place on the first Christian Pentecost (Acts ii. 5-11). The expression there used to describe the pilgrims who came up to Jerusalem, “devout men from every nation under
1 In the (so-called) Clementine Homilies and Recognitions.
heaven," is supported by the evidence of many independent witnesses, such as Philo and Josephus. These exiled Jews were chiefly located in Babylon, Syria, and Egypt; and it was probably to those resident in Syria that copies of this epistle would be first sent. The epistle is addressed to Christian Jews (ii. 1, 7; v. 7, 8), of whom there were many in Syria liable to persecution and violence similar to that which Saul was inflicting on the Christians previous to his conversion; cf. ii. 6, 7 and Acts ix. 1, 2. While addressing himself mainly to Christian readers the writer seems also to have occasionally in view his unbelieving countrymen. The denunciations in v. 1-6 may be regarded as an apostrophe to the wealthy unbelievers, chiefly of the sect of the Sadducees, who truckled to the Romans and oppressed their poorer brethren, especially those who professed Christianity. James would have many opportunities of hearing of the trials which beset his believing countrymen in their distant homes; and, as he seems never to have left Jerusalem, it was natural that under a sense of the high responsibility attaching to his position he should wish to address them in writing as he does in this epistle.
3. Date and Place of Composition.—As both Scripture and tradition concur in representing James as having constantly resided at Jerusalem, there is no reason to doubt that the letter emanated from that city. With regard to the date of its composition there is less certainty. That it was written before the outbreak of the war, 66 A.D., which put an end to the Sadducean ascendency, is generally admitted. We may also infer, from the absence of any allusions to the sharp controversy regarding the obligations of the Jewish law on Gentile converts which gave rise to the Council of Jerusalem (50 A.D.), that it was either written before that event or not for some years afterwards.