A Word for the Wise
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 (Moo 34).
What makes a book wisdom literature? In biblical studies the word
wisdom can refer to texts that mention the figure of the
divine (Schussler Fiorenza 23), 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
(Schussler Fiorenza 23). 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.
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 (Moo 33). 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 (Witherington 247). Jewish wisdom material often
includes examples of the virtuous life (Wall18)—James 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 (Witherington 237). While Paul’s letters are
developing theological arguments, we can see that James is simply
laying down the rules for wise living.
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 (Johnson 179-180) and condemns the wealthy as oppressors
of the community.
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 (Witherington 245). Wisdom
is behavior (Moo 33), right behavior, and clearly the Letter of
James is about right behavior.
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 world (Witherington 245-6). 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 (Witherington 241). His audience is wavering in their
faith in the face of persecution, he is reminding them of the tradition
that will support them (Witherington 237). That tradition is one
of developing insight into God’s way. Spiritual maturity develops
as we know God more fully (Moo 3).
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.
Quick to Hear 1:22-2:26
Slow to Speak 3:1-8
Slow to Anger 4:1-5:6
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.
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 Company, 2000).
Robert W. Wall, Community of the Wise: The Letter of James
(Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997).
Ben Witherington III, Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom
(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994).