Come Follow Me: James

I assume James gets his own Gospel Doctrine lesson because… Joseph Smith and James 1:5? Not sure, really.  But James is “the most socially conscious writing in the New Testament” (Brown, Introduction to the New Testament, 725), so it has that going for it.

Like Timothy and Titus, this epistle lacks a Big Picture woven throughout. Like Timothy and Titus, it contains very practical advice. Like Timothy and Titus, it doesn’t get a lot of attention.

The Letter of James is among the most neglected books of the NT canon. Many believers and their (especially Protestant) faith traditions still agree with Luther’s negative verdict of its usefulness for Christian formation, pointing out its lack of reference to Christ and its apparent disagreement with Paul as good reasons for its marginal status within the church. During the modern period of biblical studies, some have even viewed the book’s more practical bent as inherently inferior when compared to the theological profundity of Paul’s correspondence. At the same time, others have come to depend upon the book’s wise solutions to everyday situations, which insist that a fully biblical religion requires more than mere confessions of orthodox faith. In this sense James offers a complementary “check and balance” to the accents of the Pauline letters, helping to form a biblical witness that commends a firm trust in the saving work of the Lord Jesus (Pauline) and a practical wisdom patterned after his life (James).- Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments

However, unlike previous letters, this one is named for its author, not its recipients, who are simply described in Jam 1:1 as “the twelve tribes in the dispersion” i.e. outside of Israel.

Also unlike Paul’s letters, “Most of what James is saying is clear even on the first reading”- Brown, Introduction to the New Testament

Who is James?

First, a note on names. “James” is a reflex (a linguistic descendant) of “Jacob.” In the KJV, everywhere you see “James” the Greek says iakōbos or Jacob, as you can see in the picture of my Reader’s Edition of the Greek New Testament, both the title iakōbou “Of Jacob” and first word iakōbos. (Contrary to rumor, “James” was not inserted in the text to appease King James.)

Thanks to his polyglot bible with parallel columns in Latin, Greek, German, and Hebrew, Joseph Smith could see that the English said James but the Greek and German Jacob, which is why he declared the German translation the “most correct.”

 “It tells about Jacobus the son of Zebedee. [It] means Jacob. The New Testament says James. Now if Jacob had the keys, you might talk about James through all eternity and never get the keys. Matthew 4:21 gives the word Jacob instead of James. . . . Read from the Hebrew: Ya’aqob, Jacob; Greek Iakobos, Jacob; Latin Iacobus, Jacob too.” –Joseph Smith’s Commentary on the Bible, 80.

However, he didn’t know why Jacob was replaced by James and thought it was a case of translation and confusion of people. Similarly, there’s sometimes a story that circulates about the KJV translators replacing Jacob with James to appeal to the king. However, Iames, shows up in translations prior to the KJV, like the Bishop’s Bible, the anti-royalty Geneva Bible, and Tyndale’s New Testament. Something else is at work here, and that is linguistic change. In Latin, the Bible for centuries after the New Testament period, Iacobus underwent sound shifts to Iacomus, which became Iamus, which isn’t too far from James. (In Latin-that-became-Spanish, however, Saint Jacob went in a different direction. Iacobus somehow lost the last syllable, becoming Iaco. Then the hard k sound was voiced, becoming g, and you have Iago. Remember that he’s a saint, and that’s why Jacob is Sant-iago in Spanish.)  Among other sources, see The Economist (!), and Kevin  Barney (with useful comments from J. Stapley.)

So, James is Jacob. But this raises the question, which Jacob? There are at least six in the New Testament, including two apostles (James son of Zebedee, brother of John, James brother of Jesus, James son of Alphaeus). Is this James one of those six? Or yet a seventh James? We don’t know, and the letter doesn’t really give us any definitive signs, just hints.

James vs. Paul

James and Paul seem at odds with each other about grace and works, leading Martin Luther to call James “an epistle of straw.” (Nevertheless, Luther continued to quote James, and indeed, said “if there be no works, there is something amiss with faith.”) On Paul vs. James, and faith vs. works, I suggest reading my long post here.

But since we’re analyzing James this week, I found this quite interesting. When you compare James 2:24 to Gal 2:16 and Romans 3:28, you find similar language, and both James and Paul citing Genesis 15:6 and Abraham in their favor.

Thus it is very difficult to think that the similarity is accidental; one of the views is a reaction to the other…. [James] is correcting a Pauline formula. Or, to be more precise, he is correcting a misunderstanding of a Pauline formula. Paul was arguing that observance of ritual works prescribed by the Mosaic Law, particularly circumcision, would not justify the Gentiles; faith in what God had done in Christ was required– a faith that involved a commitment of life. The writer of James is thinking of people who are already Christian and intellectually believe in Jesus (even as the devil can belive: Jam 2:19) but have not translated that belief into life practice; and he is insisting that their works (not ritual works prescribed by the Law but behavior that reflects love) must correspond to their faith– something with which Paul would agree, as can be seen from the “imperative” sections of his letters insisting on behavior [such as 1Th 5:13, Rom 13:3, Eph 2:10, Rom 2:13, 6:17-19, 2Co 10:6, etc.] If the writer of James had read Romans, he should have been able to see that Paul and he were not dealing with the same issue: Paul was not proclaiming justification through a faith that did not involve living as Christ would have his followers live. For that reason, it seems more logical to think that… a Pauline formula had beeen repeated out of context and given a misinterpretation that needed to be corrected.

Paul probably repeated the faith/works formula often in his preaching, and so we cannot tell where and when the writer of James encountered the misuse of it. (Of course, the writer of James may not have known that it was Paul’s formula that was being misrepresented or misunderstood.)-  Raymond Brown, Introduction to the New Testament, 733.

 James and Practicality

One of my favorite bits of James is this practical advice, illustrating the need for faith to be lived and practiced, not just discussed, talked about, and prayed, with advice given.

 Ja 2:15-16  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?

It reminds me of a story about Brigham Young (I’ll find the reference and quote later.) One Sunday when they heard wagon trains were approaching Salt Lake in bitter cold and snow, he said something to the effect of “prayer is great. So pray. But then load up your wagons with supplies and we’ll go meet them, because praying without helping won’t do much.”

Edit: here’s the quote, not quite as I remember. (Further edit: see the comments!)

I shall call upon the Bishops this day, I shall not wait until tomorrow, nor until [the] next day, for sixty good mule teams and twelve or fifteen wagons.  I do not want to send oxen, I want good horses and mules.

  They are in this Territory, and we must have them; also twelve tons of flour and forty good teamsters…sixty or sixty-five good spans of mules, or horses with harness…

I will tell you all that your faith, religion, and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you in the celestial kingdom of our God, unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching you.  Go and bring in those people now on the Plains, and attend strictly to those things which we call temporal, or temporal duties, otherwise your faith will be in vain; the preaching you have heard will be in vain to you, and you will sink to hell, unless you attend to the things we tell you. – Journal of Discourses

Very practical, that Brigham. Now often times, we don’t know what to do but pray. How do we best help, for example, Syrian refugees?


  • One thing that’s interesting is that James, with all his practicality and love, seems to be drawing on something that people find neither practical nor particularly loving. That is, he seems to draw strongly on Leviticus  19. I’ve got a brief handout on this, here. (This is suggestive, since earlier in Act 15:13-21, James had applied bits of Lev 17-18 to “strangers living within Israel.” Brown, Introduction to the New Testament.) Moreover, in that famous phrase in James 1:27, he invokes caring for widows and orphans as true religion. In doing so, he draws on a frequent Old Testament tradition about the widow and orphan (sometimes accompanied by “the foreigner” or “the poor”.) Lacking family support structure, the primary and sometimes sole support in society, they were the most vulnerable people, e.g. Exo 22:22-24, Deu 10:18, Deu 24:17-21, 26:12-13, Psa 68:5, 146:19, Isa 1:17, etc.
  • James 4:13-15 struck me for how his words are echoed in certain Islamic mindsets today. James 4:15 in particular is redolent of being mindful that every breath we take, decisions, plans, etc. are contingent on God in some sense. In some Muslim countries, you  always must follow declarations of your plans and intents with ‘in sha’allah“if God wills it.” (This actually becomes ojalá in Spanish and oxalá in Portuguese, thanks to Muslim influence in Spain.) “I’m going to the beach tomorrow, ‘in sha’allah.” It strikes me as a little fatalistic; I don’t think God micromanages our lives. On the other hand, if God wants something to happen or to prevent something from happening, He can certainly do that. I’m not sure where to draw the line, but I strongly suspect the way we view this kind of question is quite different from how Christians did in the New Testament period. Perhaps, rather, it expresses a desire to make sure we are acting as God wants us to, that we are “in tune” as LDS might say.

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2 thoughts on “Come Follow Me: James

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