We’ve been talking about the book of James and how it compares to the Sermon on the Mount. Let’s continue below…
James & Jesus
The Book (letter) of James is greatly influenced by the teachings of Jesus. There are a couple of theories about the ways the teachings of Jesus influenced the writing. We mentioned earlier how James may not have been a follower of Jesus prior to his resurrection. Obviously, this means we can’t take for granted that James heard all the teachings of Jesus firsthand. This also means we can’t be certain James even heard the Sermon on the Mount firsthand, especially if we accept the sermon as happened earlier in the ministry of Jesus rather than later. So the question becomes, how was James so influenced by teachings he did not follow?
There are a couple possibilities. Some scholars rely on the rich, Oral tradition of the first century Jews. As a largely illiterate community, where books could neither be read nor afforded, teachings and traditions were passed on orally from generation to generation. Peter Davids offers this on the subject.
“Behind this phenomenon lies a feature of the early church. Before the Gospels were produced, there were probably some written records of Jesus’ teaching (Luke refers to some source in Luke 1:1-4), but the basic tradition was oral… Early Christians memorized [Jesus’] teaching much as Jews memorized that of their teachers. Further evidence of this lies in the Gospel of Matthew, where the teaching of Jesus is divided into five blocks (Chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25), each of which has a single theme. These are designed for easy memory (since most Christians could neither read nor afford books), with numerical sequences and link-words being used to aid memory.” (Davids 1989)
So then, James could simply have learned Jesus’s teachings through the Oral tradition. Remember, the Gospels were not yet written, so James did not have them as a resource.
A second possibility brings up the Q source. Q is a hypothetical source believed to be shared by Matthew and Luke (but not Mark). Some scholars identify the Q source as an oral tradition received by Matthew and Luke. Others suggest it is a written document from which they reference. In either case, this possibility suggests James had access to the Q source as well as Matthew and Luke, and from it could have come the influence of Jesus’ teachings. Many attribute this common source to the similarities we will later discuss between Jesus and James. Particularly the Sermon on the Mount as recorded by Matthew.
The author of the book of James never quotes Jesus, but the language, examples and wording he uses sounds very much like the words of Jesus. Scholars have been hooking the sayings of James with the sayings of Jesus for decades. Some of them have come up with as many as sixty-five points of convergence (Batten 2011). Others only find a few. In his paper about James and the Sermon on the Mount, Virgil Porter diagrams forty-five statements in James that are hooked to Jesus’ sermon on the mount.
What we find in James is a parallel of imagery and wording unlike many other books in the Bible outside the Synoptic Gospels. Below are a few scriptural comparisons of sayings from James and sayings found in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount.
|1:2 Joy in Tribulation||5:11-12 You are blessed when you suffer for Christ’s sake.|
|1:5 Asking/Receiving from God||7:7-8 Ask, and it will be given to you.|
|1:22 Be hearers, and doers of the word||7:24 Obedience builds a house on rock, not sand|
|5:2-3 Moth-eaten riches, rusted gold||6:19-20 Don’t store treasure where moth/rust can destroy it.|
|5:12 Don’t swear by heaven or earth. Let your yes be yes, and your no be no||5:34-37 Make no oath, and let your yes be yes, and your no be no.|
|4:13-14 You do not know what tomorrow will be like.||6:34 Don’t worry about tomorrow, each day is its own trouble.|
|2:13 Judgment will be merciless to the one who shows no mercy||7:1-2 Do not judge. You’ll be judged by the way you judge.|
Other examples of shared imagery include trees, bearing fruit, and light.
Clearly, the writer was either influenced in a more nuanced way than would show up in quotes, or he decided to paraphrase much of the Sermon on the Mount’s content using similar beats and language for some other reason. One could argue that the writer was so influenced by the teachings of Jesus that it had become quite natural for him to express those teachings in his own voice. And yet another might argue that infusing Jesus’ teaching in such a reminiscent manner was a mechanic employed to subconsciously add credence and authority to the material, which would be needed when the writing begins to address more difficult themes.
To deduce that the letter was influenced by Jesus’s teaching in the nuanced way we describe above feels natural and viable. But we must be careful. Enjoying such a nuanced form of influence would likely come from years of hearing Jesus speak on subjects firsthand. We have already mentioned that this may not be the case with James the Just.
Too, we must also be careful not to exaggerate the Sermon on the Mount’s effect on this letter. I mentioned earlier that Virgil Porter lays out forty-five connections. Of those connections, I only agree with thirteen. Porter makes the common mistake of matching words rather than matching ideas. For instance, Porter matches Matthew 5:3 about the “poor in spirit” with James 1:9 which mentions how “the brother of low circumstance” should glory in his high position. While the passages share the idea of some sort of poverty, the authors are using them in different ways to serve different points. The same could be said for the connection Porter draws with Matthew 5:4 and James 4:9. We should be leery of this as we study the scope and meaning of James’ letter.
Preview of Part Three: Theological Comparisons
The theological implications in the Letter of James are perhaps the most interesting aspects of the book. James has been scrutinized for his Soteriology concerning the relationship of works and faith. That is, his statements regarding the role of faith and works in the salvation experience require extra attention. What does the Sermon on the Mount have to say to this? How does the Sermon on the Mount inform James’ soteriological position? Though the teaching appears out of step with Paul’s teaching, is it in step with the teachings of Jesus?
Have you ever noticed how similar James is to the Sermon on the Mount? What similarities can you find?
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