James Offers A Word for the Wise
James opens like a letter, but much of the text reads more like
Old Testament wisdom literature. The genre wisdom includes
such familiar books as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs,
along with many Psalms. Job is also considered wisdom, along with
apocryphal books such as the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, and Baruch.
Modern scholars label a number of New Testament writings as wisdom
literature, including Philippians 2:6-11, Colossians 1:15-20 and
John 1. Others would include all of Matthew and John’s Gospels.
Many identify James as a wisdom text. Robert Wall argues that
wisdom is the orienting theme of the James (Wall19),
Douglas Moo, on the other hand, says it is not really a wisdom
text at all (M34).
James and the Beatitudes
| Word Studies: Blessing
What makes a book wisdom literature? In biblical studies the
word wisdom can refer to texts that mention the figure
of the divine (SF23),
or texts that intend to teach us wise living. Wisdom is the most
democratic of ways of knowing—it is not so much a function
of education as of having learned life’s lessons; it is
the work of sages, but also of folk sayings and wit (SF23).
Growing in wisdom is also connected to human wholeness, and thus
the study of James as wisdom and James as a search for spiritual
perfection are intimately linked.
What makes a book wisdom? James uses the word wisdom
only in verses
1:5 and 3:13-18, yet the entire letter has a style similar to
that of Proverbs (M33).
More than half the verses of James are moral exhortations (Johnson
179); they declare how we should behave. Beatitudes and
woes are common to wisdom literature (Hartin
43-44), as are sayings that seem to have grown out of anonymous
experience, passed down for the ages (W247).
Jewish wisdom material often includes examples of the virtuous
uses Rahab, Abraham, Elijah and Job. The letter relies on traditional
materials, makes general statements to the community as a whole,
and presumes the audience is familiar with the rules, all traits
of wisdom texts (W237).
While Paul’s letters are developing theological arguments,
we can see that James is simply laying down the rules for wise
Yet James guidance for wise living is also different from traditional
wisdom texts. He focuses only on morals, not on manners or polite
society. Addressed to a community rather than to individuals,
James’ rules are for building a congregation, not a household.
Traditional wisdom literature considers wealth a sign of God’s
favor and encourages wise people to pay attention to status. James,
however, is strongly egalitarian (J179-180)
and condemns the wealthy as oppressors of the community.
Outside of James’ condemnation of the wealthy much of James
can be found in Sirach. (Sirach is in the apocrypha; also called
Ecclesiasticus or Ben Sira.) The letter alludes to Proverbs and
Psalms throughout. Wisdom of Solomon 7:7-8 sounds just like James
1:5. Supporters of James as a wisdom text note that James overarching
concern is that we seek wisdom to know how to live well. And Wisdom
comes not from nature, nor from the world, but from God (W245).
Wisdom is behavior (M33),
right behavior, and clearly the Letter of James is about right
When viewed as a wisdom text, we see that James’ goal is
to create a strong community in 4:11 and 5:9. The call is to good
works, and the resulting good life in 2:14 and 3:13-18. James
is not telling the story of Jesus life, death, or resurrection,
nor calling us to proclaim the good news. Rather, he is calling
us to wise community, separate from the defiled
James knows the tradition of Jesus, and indeed, assumes the readers
know that tradition. But he uses that tradition to call us to
become a wise community, living out the Law (W241).
His audience is wavering in their faith in the face of persecution,
he is reminding them of the tradition that will support them (W237).
That tradition is one of developing insight into God’s way.
Spiritual maturity develops as we know God more fully (M33).
When we use wisdom as the lens for reading James we find that
it is in seeking wisdom that we find spiritual wholeness, patience,
endurance, and eventually, the crown of life. The fruit of God’s
wisdom is peaceable, gentle, and full of mercy (James 3:17). The
point of the Letter of James is that we must seek that wisdom:
we must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.
OUTLINE OF JAMES
- Introduction 1:1-11, 12-21
- Wisdom: Quick to Hear 1:22-2:26
- Wisdom: Slow to Speak 3:1-8
- Wisdom: Slow to Anger 4:1-5:6
- Conclusion 5:7-12, 13-20
James’ letter is to a congregation that is being persecuted.
The external forces are leading to internal strife; double-mindedness
and conflict are tearing the congregation apart. The solution
is to seek the single-minded wisdom of God. The letter of James
exhorts all Christians to search for that wisdom.
James and the Beatitudes
| Word Studies: Blessing
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James
in The New Interpreter's Bible Volume XII, Leander E. Keck
et al, editors. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000).
Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James
in The Pillar New Testament Commentary, DA Carson, general
editor. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing
Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Wisdom
Ways Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation. (Maryknoll,
NY: Orbis Books, 1970).
Robert W. Wall, Community of the Wise:
The Letter of James (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International,
Ben Witherington III, Jesus the
Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom (Minneapolis: Fortress Press,