Sunday, 22 April 2012

James and the Law of Moses

     Does James affirm the current relevance of the entire Mosaic law for New Testament Christians (2:8-13; 4:11)? It is important to keep the epistle of James in its proper setting. The letter appears to have been written early in the church’s history, while Christianity was still within the general circle of Judaism. It is addressed "to the twelve tribes in the dispersion (diaspora)" (1:1, author’s own translation), with no hint of any conflict between Jewish and non-Jewish believers (i.e. prior to the discord of the early 50s). Around the year 33, Jewish Christians were "scattered" (diaspeirō) from Jerusalem by persecution (Acts 8:1, 4) and traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, "speaking the word to no one except Jews only" (Acts 11:19).
     The readers’ place of meeting is described as a sunagōgē ("synagogue") (James 2:2), Abraham is referred to as "our father" (2:21), and there is extensive use of the Old Testament and Jewish metaphors. Since no other New Testament document had been written at this time, casual reference to "the law" is understandable, with much emphasis on the outward workings of faith (1:22-27; 2:14-16; 3:13; 4:11). Remember that the ministry of James appears to have been primarily among Jewish communities, in contrast to Paul who labored predominantly among the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7-9)
     When James writes, "For [the one] who keeps all the law, yet stumbles in one thing, he has become guilty of all" (James 2:10), he is addressing the issue of certain ones claiming to be faithful to the law yet inconsistently violating the law by discriminating against the poor. James is simply calling for consistency. However, to construe these words to broadly affirm that the law of Moses in its entirety is permanently binding on all Christians of all time is to remove the argument from its original context. The allusions to "the perfect law of liberty" and the "royal law" (1:25; 2:8, 12) show that even these early Jewish disciples were living by a new standard.
     What about the apparent disharmony between the teachings of James and Paul on justification, faith, and works (e.g. James 2:21-24 vs. Romans 4:1-5)? This question led the 16th-century reformer Martin Luther (a strong advocate of the concept of justification by faith "alone") to regard James as "an epistle of straw" (see C. M. Jacobs, trans., Works of Martin Luther 6:444). But the discrepancy that Luther perceived is more apparent than real. The "works" in Romans relate to the meritorious observance of the Mosaic law, while the "works" in James pertain to non-meritorious demonstrations of faith. With the right perspective, these teachings are not at variance and readily harmonize.
--Kevin L. Moore

Related Posts: Is the Law of Moses Still Binding?Was Paul Anti-Law?

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