The language of the first verse indicates that James is a letter, though there is little in the remainder of the text to lead one to think of James as a letter. Letters in the first-century Jewish and Christian worlds varied in substance (Romans, 2 Corinthians, 1-2 Timothy) and style (Romans, 1 Thessalonians, Hebrews), so one should not infer from James’s substance, which is largely hortatory, homiletical, and even sapiential, to its form (letter). There was no prescribed format, especially in the cauldron of a new movement like messianism, that one had to follow for one’s writing to be classified as a “letter” or “epistle.” Unlike the Pauline and Petrine epistolary form, which have both typical salutations and some kind of introductory thanksgivings, James has only the salutation and from that point on launches into his letter. We should perhaps be careful not to compare this letter to the form of the Pauline and Petrine letter, since those apostolic letters and their substantive form were probably only in the infancy of their own developments.
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:
1 Standard Hellenistic letters included the writer and the addressee (A to B) as well as a greeting (“greetings”), while the evidence that survives suggests that Jewish letters modified the greeting by wishing “peace” (shalom, eirēnē) and other blessings (berakot). A typical Greek letter, dated to 29 August 58 ce, begins as follows:
Chairas to his dearest Dionysios many greetings and continual good health.
From a Jewish letter, we read:
Thus speaks Baruch, the son of Neriah, to the brothers who were carried away in captivity: Grace and peace be with you (2 Baruch 78:2, OTP).
James’s salutation is Hellenistic:
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.
James’s letter conforms in part to reflections on the nature of letter writing as seen now in Seneca’s Moral Epistles (75.1-2): “You have been complaining,” he writes, “that my letters to you are rather carelessly written.” And it is here that he ventures a reflection that articulates how James functions: it is the personal presence of James. Seneca begins with the question of why his letters are as they are:
Now who talks carefully unless he also desires to talk affectedly? I prefer that my letters should be just what my conversation would be if you and I were sitting in one another’s company or taking walks together,—spontaneous and easy; for my letters have nothing strained or artificial about them. If it were possible, I should prefer to show, rather than speak, my feelings.
This is the sort of letter James has composed: he is speaking, sometimes forthrightly and prophetically and other times more didactically, as if he were in the recipients’ presence speaking to them. The letter is not an abstract “epistle” designed for posterity or intellectual reputation. It is a gritty in-your-face pastoral letter zippered up at times with some heated rhetoric.
The letter says it is from James. But who is “James”? There are no fewer than, to reduce our discussion from the Introduction, three serious candidates for this “James” (Hebrew Yakov or Jacob; cf. Gen 25; 27:36). James, son of Zebedee and one of the twelve original apostles (Mark 3:17; Acts 12:2), was put to death by Herod Agrippa I (c. 44 ad). James, son of Alphaeus and otherwise unknown (Mark 3:18), was also an original apostle. As we concluded in the Introduction, James, the brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3) and leader of Jerusalem-based messianic Judaism, is most likely the figure intended here, whether or not “James” is a pseudonym.
That James emerges from the same family as Jesus is not without significance for him, for his socio-religious background, and for the message of this letter. In particular, as will become clear, the Magnificat of Mary has manifold parallels with both the teachings of Jesus and the letter of James. Mary, Jesus, and James speak from the world of the Anawim (the “pious poor”) and we will mention this socio-economic community and faith tradition at times in this commentary.
That James, brother of Jesus, was an established leader in Jerusalem—Paul calls him a “pillar” (Gal 2:9)—gave this letter the authority that was needed to keep it afloat through the canonical process in spite of the tragic neglect and sometimes biased dismissal of Christian Judaism. Forgotten in the rise of both Peter and Paul is the fact that James cast a shadow over them in Jerusalem’s earliest messianic community (see Gal 2:12; Acts 15:13-21; 21:18; 1 Cor 15:7). In the Lukan portrayal of James at the Jerusalem Conference, James is depicted as a wise man, a theologically-astute leader, open to Gentile inclusion in the messianic community with conditions, and desirous of reconciling split parties. It was James who delivered the most effective speech at that conference (Acts 15:13-21), and in the literary tradition final speeches are reserved for the most influential leader.
James calls himself a “servant of God,” and thereby both evokes his own personal vocation and places himself in a deep and potent Jewish tradition. Elsewhere in the New Testament, letter writers call themselves “servant,” “apostle,” or “prisoner” and, with others, “servants.” Only James and Jude call themselves “servant” with no other designation, thereby possibly indicating their self-awareness that they are not part of the original twelve apostles. What “servant” also indicates is that neither James nor Jude, both traditionally “brothers” of Jesus, used their family status to leverage power. “Servant,” however, is not to be understood as some term of extreme humility, as in “not an apostle, but just a servant,” or as “simply a believer,” but instead points toward two features of James, first, that he sees himself as one who serves the Lord Jesus Christ (confirmed a few words later with the word “Lord”) and, second, that he stands in line with some illustrious forbears. Others called “servant” are Moses, David, Amos, Jeremiah, and Daniel. Therefore, using this term of oneself is paradoxical: it is both a claim to subordination to Christ and a claim to privilege and honor in the Jewish messianic community that carries forward the work of Moses, David, and the great prophets of Israel’s history. By placing “God and the Lord Jesus Christ” between “James” and “servant,” James intentionally sets “servant” in a messianic/Christian context. James is a servant of both (the one) God and the Lord Jesus Christ.James, brother of Jesus, sees himself as a servant “of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Herein is an early Jacobean glimmer of what was destined to become trinitarian thought. Jesus Christ is defined by “Lord,” or better yet, “Lord” is defined by Jesus Christ. As mentioned in the Introduction, that we cannot always be sure whether “Lord” refers to Father/God or to Jesus Christ puts us on the threshold of a profound shift at work in the messianic community’s theology. Larry Hurtado’s magnum opus has demonstrated with full documentation that “Lord” belongs to and emerges from the earliest stratum of Christian worship and theological reflection. We can surmise that ascribing lordship to Jesus Christ is shaped by liturgical practice in the messianic community to which James writes.
But James’s line is not to be understood simply as theological reflection. Indeed, James makes a personal confession here that he is one who serves God and the Lord Jesus Christ, thereby making it clear that his allegiance within Judaism has been reshaped by the messianic community and its hermeneutic of reading a messianically-shaped Tanakh. It cannot be forgotten that earliest Christianity was driven to the Scriptures for a variety of reasons, not the least of which were (1) Jesus’ own use of Scripture, (2) the necessity of following and worshiping and comprehending a crucified and risen Lord, (3) the inevitable discussions around their new understanding of Israel’s history and the work of God through Jesus Christ, and (4) the need for explanations of their own experiences and persecution. The formative shape of the messianic community was derived from its hermeneutic of Scripture. For James (see 2:1-12), for instance, the entire Torah is to be read through the lens of Leviticus 19:18, the second half of what I have elsewhere called the Jesus Creed, and the figures of the Old Testament are exemplary for the messianic community (see 2:21-23, 25; 5:10, 11, 17). The hermeneutic of James is that of Jesus.
James, then, is a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ as he has come to know both through experience and Scripture interpretation. This confession may well put James in jeopardy on two separate fronts: because he “serves” the Lord Jesus Christ, he sets himself apart from other Jews who do not serve Jesus and from all those Gentiles who serve neither the God of Israel nor Jesus as Messiah. In light of exegesis of the meaning of “poor” in James, this confession by James places him among the “poor” who find themselves dominated by the “rich.” To confess Jesus as Lord could be a confession of solidarity with the economic condition of the messianic community of James.
James addresses his letter “to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion,” an address that has led to great consternation and little consensus among exegetes. Does this pregnant expression describe
an ethnic body (Jews or messianic Jews) or
a metaphorical body (anyone Jewish or messianic or Christian)?
And does “Dispersion” refer to
physical distance from the Land (in the physical Dispersion) or
the metaphorical sojourn life on this earth the Christian is called to endure (in the spiritual Dispersion)?
The principles for detection of a metaphor are critical here. For a term to be metaphorical, there need to be some clues: the presence of a metaphor or of a simile signifier, “as” or “like”; the impossibility of rendering something literally, as in the rich man “withering away” in 1:11; low correspondence between metaphor and analogue, as would be the case if we knew that James was addressing the messianic community in Jerusalem as the “Dispersion”; and an expression so clearly developed that one must conclude it is metaphorical, as when James describes temptation in 1:13-15.
Do any of these apply to either “twelve tribes” or to “Dispersion”? First, this language is typical for Jews when referring to themselves as an ethnic body in the Dispersion—in other words, this is ethnically- and geographically-oriented language, and there is nothing that indicates it is a highly developed metaphor. It is customary for Jews to see themselves as the twelve-tribe-people, and Dispersion nearly always refers to the land outside the Land of Israel. The verbal form of this word can be used for those who were scattered from Jerusalem into other parts of Judea and Samaria (Acts 8:1). Second, this language is dropped from this point on, foreclosing any chance of peering into the mind of the author through other evidence.
Third, the expression “twelve tribes” could be seen as almost per definitionem metaphorical: ten of those tribes have been lost since the Assyrian captivity. But it is not that easy: Jews with plausible connections back to the eighth-century deportation were present in the Diaspora in the first century, and the hope of their return was a routine feature of Jewish eschatology. So, since that return is expected but has not yet occurred in the ethnic sense, “twelve tribes” must be a reference to all of Israel, and this expression probably also included the eschatological hope of reunion. This is how Jesus used “twelve” (Mark 3:13-19; Matt 19:28), and for Jesus there is a reconstitution of that twelve-tribe group for those who follow him and his apostles. Which means, in light of our comments about James stemming from a messianic community shaped by a messianic hermeneutic, it is highly likely that he is writing to the “twelve tribes” in the sense of those ethnic Jews who are part of the apostolically-led messianic community. The single text that should clinch this for understanding James is found in Acts 15:13-21, where James addresses the Apostolic Conference in these words from Amos 9:11-12:
After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;
from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up,
so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—
even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.
Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from
long ago. (Acts 15:16-18a)
Clearly, James sees the work of Jesus to be one of restoring Israel, and the specific shape of that restoring work is the messianic community of Jerusalem.
Fourth, a slight clarification of the Christian emphasis given in the previous point: the border between this messianic community and the rest of the Jewish community is amorphous. James 2:1-13 unveils a community that still meets in a “synagogue” (2:2), and the rest of James uses “church” only once (5:14). This means that “twelve tribes” is both messianic and still ethno-religiously inseparable from the Jewish community. Finally, there is very little evidence, outside Hebrews, that early Christians, especially the early messianic community, had begun to use the language of pilgrimage for life on this earth.
We conclude then that on balance it is more likely that James writes his letter to the messianic Jewish community or communities, which remain attached to the non-messianic Jewish community, which are residing in the Dispersion, and which James understands to be the foretaste of the kingdom of God. James sees such a community as part of Israel in the ethnic and covenant senses of that term. Thus, Patrick J. Hartin: “the recipients of James’s letter are those from the house of Israel who have embraced Jesus’ message.”
A final point, hardly demonstrable, deserves consideration: Why were the messianists scattered into the Dispersion? It is not impossible that James refers here to the dispersed Jerusalem-based messianists who fled persecution in the Holy City. One thinks here of Acts 8:1 (see 9:31; 11:19, 29). In fact, if one presumes James is in Jerusalem writing to dispersed messianists, a text like Acts 8:1 is remarkably like the situation found in James.
“Greetings to you!” James says after all this. The use of the cognate for “grace” reflects customary rather than early Christian, especially Pauline, theology. This is the same greeting we find in Acts 15:23, which may mean nothing for authorship, but which is (at least) attributed to James as well.