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James and Jesus

Author: Scot McKnight
Published: August 2011

MD 2.2

Article Type: Conference Article

For James, Jesus is the Sage. Jesus’ teachings echo throughout the Book of James, because James has absorbed them and, in the tradition of the Jewish sages, re-embodied them for the communities of messianists to whom he writes. His writing therefore exemplifies a neglected but important dimension of missional theology: wisdom.

James may be an anomaly for many in the Christian church, not the least of whom was Luther, but that has not stopped many from scrutinizing this letter from cover to cover. Besides the relation of James to Paul, there is the relation of James to Jesus or to the Gospels. Patrick Hartin, one of the leading lights today on the book of James, said this: “There is nothing in the Letter of James that does not conform to the vision, teaching, and mission of Jesus.”2 Scholars have narrowed their focus and have argued that James is dependent on the Sermon on the Mount—some on Luke’s version while more on Matthew’s version—and others say James is dependent upon Q. If there is a consensus, it is with the view that James is connected more to Matthew than to any of the other Jesus traditions.

Plotting New Testament figures, authors, and books is a game scholars play, and it is also a game pastors play if they have the time. There is something intoxicating for many to explore how things moved, changed, shifted, developed and evolved. Some like to take the plot from the New Testament to Nicea, while others like the Reformation, and still others like to talk about Karl Barth and his influence in theology today. Often this game is nothing but the game of history with results being little more than the resolution of intellectual curiosity. Questions about truth are often not even asked. Questions about mission, then, are also not asked.

I want to suggest today that there’s something in this game of connections with the James debate for missional theology, but to get to that missional theology we have to dig around in James and the Gospels first. Once we’ve done that, I will draw the threads together before making a few suggestions for missional praxis.

James “Quotes” Jesus

James quotes Jesus only one time and, when James does quote Jesus, what James says strikes the reader as unusual. Out of nowhere, in 5:12, James says, “Above all. . . .” We are led to expect a summarizing word for the whole letter, something that ties together the Torah, the rich and poor problem, the persecution problem, and the tongue problem. Something like the Great Commission, or a summarizing doxology from the end of one of Paul’s letters, or at least some “Great so-and-so;” but not James. “Above all,” James says, “Do no swear, either by heaven or by earth or by any other oath, but let your ‘Yes’ be yes and your ‘No’ be no, so that you may not fall under condemnation.”3 How in the world legal oaths can be of such paramount significance to be the “above all” final exhortation is beyond us, since James hasn’t mentioned oaths once. Franz Mussner, to translate his German, translated the Greek into this: “Above all, before I forget.”4 We can drop this “above all” conversation for the new heavens and the new earth when love is winning over everyone and everything. Or is it? I’m not concerned today about the “above all” but about what follows.

James more or less quotes Matt 5:33–37:

Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

There is no need to dabble in the details here, except to note that this is the only direct quotation of Jesus in James and it illustrates the game of connections we need to play today.

I suggest another connection of James to Jesus, but this time it is indirect. In Jas 2:8–9 James quotes Lev 19:18. He is quoting from the Old Testament here, but what is noteworthy is that from the time of this text, Moses or otherwise, no one quotes this text explicitly until Jesus, and then it starts showing up in the apostolic writings. Thus, Paul quotes Lev 19:18 three times in ways that it appears he believes just what James does: the entire Torah can be reduced to loving your neighbor as yourself (Gal 5:14; Rom 12:19; 13:9). Paul is quoting a text that was given new life by Jesus and which the early apostles found to be so pastorally, missionally, and ethically useful. It appears to me that James learned the power and pervasiveness of neighbor-love from his older brother, which leads me to see an indirect quotation of Jesus in Jas 2:8–9. That is, while James is quoting the Old Testament, he learned the value—as did Paul—from Jesus celebrating the hermeneutical cruciality of neighbor-love for understanding the entire Torah and Prophets. I see, then, another connection to Jesus, an indirect one, in James’s appeal to neighbor-love.

But James slightly morphs this use of Lev 19:18 in 2:8–11, and this morphing both shows another connection to Jesus and at the same time opens up doors for us to explore a kind of missional theology on the part of James. I shall try to explain this in as few words as possible. A rich man comes to Jesus and asks what he needs to do to get into The Age to Come (Matt 19:16–22). Jesus’ response is not what the typical evangelical or Luther would like to hear. Instead of laying out the plan of salvation, Jesus lays out the Ten Commandments, with a twist. Here’s what Jesus says:

If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus reminds the rich man of commandments six (murder), seven (adultery), eight (theft), nine (false witness), goes back to commandment five (Sabbath); and then, from nowhere, a twist: Jesus adds Lev 19:18—love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus uses this commandment, not one of the Ten, to drill deeper into the rich man’s heart and says, in effect, If you love your neighbor as yourself, which is the fundamental idea at work in the second table of the commandments, you will sell your possessions and give to the poor. The story did not turn out well for those hoping for the conversion of a celebrity figure, but that’s not of interest to us now.

James seems to know of this exchange. In Jas 2:8–13 he begins with Lev 19:18 because he’s concerned with partiality toward the rich and against the poor, and sees partiality as breaking the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. Only then does James press the matter home by saying, If you are a transgressor it really doesn’t matter which of the Ten Commandments you break—whether it be murder or adultery. Yes, there’s some slight morphing of what Jesus said to the rich man, but we’ve got the same interest in the second table of the commandments, two of which Jesus mentioned in his exchange with the rich man, and an addition of Lev 19:18: love of neighbor means caring for the poor and not caving in to the rich. From a different angle it is the same thing Jesus taught. In addition, it is how James begins this discussion that ought also to concern us: He speaks of the “royal law,” which means this is the preeminent command of the entire Torah—and again he sounds like Paul, but even more like Jesus, who reduced the Torah to love of God and love of neighbors.

And now an observation for missional theology, one I want to develop in our time together. Like Paul, James has done all of this without quoting or mentioning Jesus once. Herein lies, I suggest, a fundamental feature of genuine missional praxis. Our task and our mission is to re-embody the teachings of Jesus. In the rest of our time I want to illustrate how James consistently, one might say relentlessly, re-embodies the moral vision of Jesus for his messianic community.

James Embodying the Teachings of Jesus

To make this easier to follow, there will be four separable dimensions of the teachings of Jesus that I will contend are embodied in the pastoral and missional theology of James. I begin with the theme of “perfection.”


Surely one of the more interesting words in James is “perfection,” which in Greek is teleios. Doug Moo’s second commentary on James is shaped by this term, which he translates into “spiritual wholeness.”5 Thus, his outline: the pursuit of spiritual wholeness (1:2-18), the evidence of spiritual wholeness (1:19–2:26), the community dimension of spiritual wholeness (3:1–4:3), a summons to spiritual wholeness (4:4–10), a second part on the community dimension of spiritual wholeness (4:11–12), and the worldview of spiritual wholeness (4:13–5:11). Moo is a Lutheran-nurtured evangelical, whereas Patrick Hartin is a Catholic, but Hartin’s book on the Christian life according to James is entitled A Spirituality of Perfection.6 For him perfection refers to wholeheartedness in dedication to God. In other words, wholehearted in that faith leads to works, wholehearted in that the follower of Jesus is characterized by integrity, and wholehearted in showing compassion for the poor. Getting evangelicals and Catholics to agree on “perfection” is not an easy task, so let’s take their agreement seriously.

All of this to show how important the idea of teleios is to James. Where did James get this emphasis? First, a brief sketch of the term in James:

And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. (1:4)

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (1:17)

But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. (1:25)

You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. (2:22)

For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. (3:2)

The apostle Paul uses this term in significant places, as well. For instance, “Yet among the mature [or perfect] we do speak wisdom” (1 Cor 2:6). Paul also uses perfection eschatologically, for when love wins—“but when the complete [perfection] comes, the partial will come to an end” (13:10; see Eph 4:13; Col 1:28; 4:12). Paul urges his followers to become “mature” (or perfect) in 1 Cor 14:20 (see Phil 3:15). Paul’s emphasis is eschatological. But Paul’s focus is not James’, and it leads us to ask if James’ understanding of “perfection” is to be connected to Jesus’ own teachings.

Once again we are back to Matthew, and Matthew alone. Twice Jesus uses this term in the First Gospel. I quote both:

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:48)

Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Matt 19:21)

God is perfect; the followers are to be perfect. Too many moral theories have been spun from this term, not the least of which was John Wesley’s, but we can leave those to another discussion for now. Closer inspection of Matthew reveals that perfection means a life of loving others by extending compassion to the poor. The most accurate way to read “perfection” in Matt 5:48 has a noble history, and I was struck by the number of scholars who argue this while recently working on a commentary on this passage. What view might that be? Many scholars have understood “perfection” in 5:48 as nothing more than a summary term for enemy-love in the verses preceding it, namely 5:43-47. Fittingly enough, this is more or less the way Luke saw it when he either edited or translated the original into the word “merciful” at Luke 6:36. He said, “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.” Mercy and enemy-love are two clear indications of what “perfection” means for Jesus. It is not without importance that the rich young ruler was told to be perfect and the very thing he was told to do was to love the poor by selling what he had to help them. It’s not quite enemy-love, but it is love, and it is the concrete love of helping others that Jesus had in mind.

As Hartin observes, James breathes the same air that Jesus breathes—which is, by the way, Jewish air. To be “perfect” means to be whole or complete, and that means to be all you were designed to be. Perfection connotes giving oneself to God and to others. When it comes to perfection in the book of James, then, James is not only Jewish, he sounds like the Jesus-kind of Jewishness. He wants the messianists to be perfect (1:2), and God is perfect (1:17), and perfection means obeying the Torah, now understood to be the “law of liberty” and the “royal law” or love of neighbor, and it means using one’s tongue properly—for that is the instrument with which one often treats one’s neighbor. The connection is not without importance for history. Like brother, like brother. Perfection and love of neighbor are one and the same for both the Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel and James.

But in seeing this missionally we have to observe: James does not quote or cite Jesus or use Jesus as the one who has said all things infallibly. He simply re-embodies the “perfection” theme of Jesus in his day, where it means to imitate God by doing God’s will in loving one’s neighbor, especially the poor.

Hearing and Doing

A second example touches on the heart of James’ theology. I will quote Jas 1:22–27, and when you “click” on these verses to find resonances elsewhere, the entire letter begins to buzz like an iPhone:

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

Immediately the close reader of James begins to hear resonances throughout the letter. Thus, we think of 2:1–7 (abusing the poor, shabby man in the synagogue and kowtowing to the fancy dresser) and 2:8–11 (the Jesus Creed in James) and 2:14–17 (taking care of the poor and naked) and 2:18-26 (the famous text on justification) and the use of the tongue in 3:1–12 (which was used to abuse) and the inappropriateness of zeal in 4:1–10 (where the community is at one another’s throats in destructive ways). It’s a theme in James, perhaps his most famous one: hearing the Logos or the Torah is not enough; one must do them.

Those who are familiar with the teachings of Jesus, as James and probably his audience were, think of texts like Matt 7:24–27.

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!

In Greek, we are in the same lexicon: both use akouō, or its variant akroatēs, and poieō and poiētēs.7 What is also notable is the parabolic form of both: Jesus tells a story of wise and foolish builders while James tells a story of the one who stares at a mirror. While James does not give the twin in going to extend the positive, as Jesus did with the good builder, James does in effect do this by providing the positive teaching in both 1:25 and in 1:26–27. And James’ morphing is typical: doing the Torah means caring for widows and orphans and keeping oneself unspotted from the world’s violent systems.

Once again, James both doesn’t cite Jesus and at the same time morphs the teaching. The teaching is clear, it is Jewish, and it is characteristic of Jesus—hearing is to lead to doing. Jesus sees this as the invitation of the Sermon on the Mount, but James morphs this into caring for orphans and widows. James takes the teachings of Jesus and extends them to the particular issues in his community, a community riddled with the poor and the abuse of the poor and a bundle of messianists who evidently say they follow Jesus but don’t live out his teachings.

Beatitudinal Perspective

A third example: Beatitudes played an important role in the Jewish world, and one could say living before God in order to be blessed is a beatitudinal perspective. A brief set of statements will sketch that context. (1) Beatitudes go back into the Mosaic Torah, to Deut 28 and Lev 26, but they were often formed in the Jewish world with an accompanying curse (say, Deut 27:15). (2) To be blessed is to have God’s blessings—a theology is at work here. (3) Blessings partake in the conditionality dimensions of God’s covenant obligations: if you do this, you will be blessed, and if you don’t, you won’t be blessed (e.g., Tob 13:12, 14; b. Ber. 61b). (4) At times the Jewish beatitude expressed a stunning reversal of conditions: those who suffer now but who are observing Torah will be blessed while those who are wealthy now but who are not observing Torah will be judged, and this is a theme Jesus taps into in Luke 6:20–26 and Matt 5:3–12. In other words, the term “blessed” entails an eschatology. (5) This eschatology has already been inaugurated in the present time: those who are blessed are already beginning to experience those blessings, which means that to be blessed emerges from a willingness to see beyond circumstances to The Age to Come; that is, it is a life of faith. Yes, there are some subtle differences between the Hebrew ⁾ āšrê and bārûk, but those aren’t nearly as important for our study since both Jesus’ and James’ words are now in Greek (makarios).8 Now on to the game of connections and how this helps missional theology.

Jesus’ beatitudes, found once again in Matt 5 and Luke 6, express this set of factors on a rather unique set of people groups: the poor (or “in spirit”), those who mourn, the meek, the hungry (for righteousness), the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. There are others—those who are not scandalized by him and his lowly ways (Matt 11:6), those with eyes to see and ears to hear (13:16), Peter for perceiving that Jesus was Messiah (16:17), the faithful servant in the parable (24:46); and the woman who blessed Jesus was told by Jesus that the blessed are those who do the will of God, thus joining a list of others who were told something similar by Jesus (Luke 11:27–28; cf. 12:37–38, 43; 14:14; John 13:17). And the Gospels close off with John 20:29, where Jesus promises blessing to those who believe without having seen Jesus.

It’s a fool’s game to think that because James has the word makarios that he’s borrowing from or adapting Jesus, but it is worth our effort to observe what James does say, because it yields some suggestions. Twice James uses the term: in Jas 1:12 those who endure temptation are blessed, and they get the crown of life because they have loved God (surely an allusion to the Shema). And in 1:25 James says “But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.” This lands James in the middle of the Jewish world and only a Jesus fanatic would say this term comes from Jesus. But we are not done.

What is suggestive is the presence of the beatitudes of Jesus in the teachings of James, present enough that I think we can say James may well be breathing Jesus’ makaristic air. The posture of taking delight, or some kind of exultant joy, in the testing of faith, which in Jas 1:2–4 very likely refers to the suffering by the poor, is found in Matthew’s beatitudes at 5:10–12. The paramount significance of being merciful comes seemingly out of nowhere in Jas 2:13—“for judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy [which itself evokes the Sermon at 7:1–5]; mercy triumphs over judgment.” And the listing of the “fruit of wisdom” in Jas 3:17 is very beatitude-like: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield”—and now to our word—“full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” [yet another Sermon word].” In this last verse is yet another beatitude: peaceable and peacemakers are connected (Jas 3:18 and Matt 5:9). But James’ letter often returns to the need for peace, even if the word is not used. I think of the statement that anger doesn’t produce the righteousness of God (Jas 1:20), which also evokes the Sermon on the Mount at 5:21–26, and James’ seeming nervousness about actual murder (Jas 2:11; 4:2), along with the obvious need to show mercy to the poor in both 2:1–7 as well as in 2:14–17. Back to the beatitudes again: the connection of humility/meekness to final exaltation in James 1:9–11 (poor and rich are reversed) and 4:10 (quoted below) to Matthew 5:5’s blessing of the meek, which blessing concerns the land, provides yet another plausible echo of the Beatitudes of Jesus.

Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away. (Jas 1:9–11)

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (Jas 4:10)

And, finally, it is not outside of reason to think the patience of the prophets in James who were blessed for their endurance in 5:10–11 (“As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance.”) has some kind of echo to the last beatitude in Matt 5:10–12.

Five of the nine beatitudes are found in James, the themes of those beatitudes are significant in James, and those themes are the very ones that James urges as the ethics of his followers—well, it is not a fool-proof case but one would be hard-pressed to deny that James’ concern with blessing is not an echo of Jesus’ understanding of who is blessed by God. The connection, once we factor in all the resonances of the specific beatitudes, is plausible.

Missionally-speaking, yet again we find the same pattern: James knows and follows Jesus, and Jesus is his Lord and Messiah, and that means what Jesus valued is what James values. It is not surprising, then, to see him urging blessings from God on those whom Jesus blessed. For James, the way to extend Jesus into this world is to value the same values and to critique the same problems when they veer from those morals. Inherent to James’ missional vision is the extension of the ethical vision into living embodiment in his community, and it involves especially how they treat one another. Which leads to this missional observation: at work in James’ missional theology is a communal embodiment of the moral vision of Jesus. Jesus’ followers, the true twelve tribes, are those who live out the teachings of Jesus. Those who live out that moral vision are the followers of Jesus.

Speech Ethics

A fourth example of James embodying Jesus joins the dimensions of perfection, hearing/doing, and beatitudes. James is particularly nervous about judgmentalism and his concern is how the tongue is used by the messianists against one another. There is a long history in the wisdom tradition of Israel that warns about how the tongue is used. Thus, Prov 17:27: “One who spares words is knowledgeable
[dā⁽ at]; one who is cool in spirit has understanding [tĕbûnāh].” The wise person is counseled to be a good listener and to do what has been heard—this receptive reverence is the essence of wisdom. At work in all of this is the belief in the power of words, and while it is easy here to wander into some theory about the Hebrew belief in released words, I have no interest in that in this context. We are talking about the power of words that we utter to do damage to others.9

Jesus, too, stood in this tradition, and I wish to call our attention to two texts. In Mark 7:14–15, Jesus redefines purity and in so doing shifts it from what goes into a person through the mouth to what comes out of person through the mouth. Here’s how it is recorded by Mark:

Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. (Mark 7:18–20)

What we perhaps ought to explore are the radical implications of this saying in a purity culture, but that is not our purpose. Instead, we need to observe that Jesus thought words were at the essence of spirituality. He has ratcheted up what one finds in most Jewish traditions and what he says lands him in the middle, and perhaps rising above, the Israelite wisdom tradition. And then Jesus utters very strong words about judging others in Matt 7:1–2, which is concretized in 7:3–5, but we can ignore that for this context:

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. (Matt 7:1–2)

We are driven by Jesus’ own rather harsh words, say in Matt 23, to interpret these words as a reference to sitting in God’s seat and judging the final destiny of others or to judge the ultimate worth of someone else. So let me use the common distinction that we are expected to discern the true from the false or the good from the bad, but we are not to usurp the role of God in thinking we can sit in judgment on someone else. There’s much to be said here but that would consume another paper, one for which I’m not prepared.

James is obsessed with words and a good case can be made, and I made it (!) in my commentary, for seeing James 3:1–4:12 as one section concerned with teachers and their posture over against others. They will be measured by their words (and this sounds like Jesus). They are to see that “perfection” is control of the tongue, which shoots us back to its sudden appearance in 1:26, and this too sounds like Jesus in Mark 7:14–15. The tongue is omni-powerful, an almost uncontrollable little bit of the body (3:1-8), and we use it both for God and against those made in God’s image (3:9). We are called to be wise, and surely this is about the use of the tongue as well (3:13–18). The problem in the messianic community is warfare between one another, and the tongue once again is involved (4:1–10). James closes off this section in words that draw us back to Matt 7:1–2:

Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor? (Jas 4:11–12)

You can disagree with Rob Bell on hell but don’t send the man to hell, and the reason is not because it breaches civility—don’t do this because it’s not what we are called to do. God is the judge, we aren’t. James teaches this and so does Jesus, and the connection is once again clear.

If we begin to add our examples together and not just treat them separately, we see a compelling case that James is dependent in significant ways on Jesus. What I find most striking about the letter of James is how James uses Jesus. He doesn’t quote him, which is one way of demonstrating that Jesus is Lord and his authoritative source for truth and wisdom. But there’s another way, the way of wisdom: James has so absorbed Jesus, his moral vision, and his teachings that he thinks and talks like Jesus every time he puts quill to papyrus.

A Missional Theology

From this we can draw together a few dimensions of a missional theology. To begin with, I want to contend in light of my first essay10 that James’ embodiment of the moral vision of Jesus is gospel embodiment. If the gospel is the declaration that Jesus is Messiah and Lord, then listening to Jesus and doing what Jesus says and then urging others to do the same thing is what it means to live under Jesus as King and Lord. Second, at the core of missional work is the endeavor to extend the mission of Jesus, the presence of Jesus, the kingship, lordship, kingdom, and lordly realm of Jesus into new frontiers. One gets the impression from reading this letter of James that this was a struggle—there are indications of verbal fisticuffs if not overt violence. There is indication of rich man versus poor man injustices, and there are indications that teachers were using their positions to domineer and overwhelm. James extends the kingship of Jesus by re-embodying the moral vision of Jesus into those realms of life. Third, missional theology is about creating a community under Jesus where his moral vision flourishes. While I have benefited from, participate in, and written about things commonly connected with the spiritual formation movement, led by such notables as Richard Foster and Dallas Willard, at times that movement concerns me with its overemphasis on personal spiritual formation at the expense of corporate formation. James does not seem as concerned about individuals growing up spiritually as he is with a community embodying the moral vision of Jesus. I want to say this clearly: he does care about individuals but only insofar as they are part of the twelve tribes who are seeking to live out the moral vision of Jesus.

But how can we characterize this missional theology of James, this use-of-Jesus-in-a-newcontext theology of James? The question can be asked in a slightly different manner: Is James’ missional theology Mosaic, prophetic, or sapiential (wisdom-related)? Assuming a more literary perspective now on the Pentateuch, and not getting too nuanced on our capacity to delineate the redactor’s theological overlay, I believe the Mosaic tradition can be characterized as narratival, liberationist, cultic, and legal. That is, the Mosaic tradition is the story from creation to the Jordan River, is about Israel being liberated from Pharaoh, is about a Temple cultus being formed as the meeting place with God and as the place of atonement, and is about laws that both reveal God’s will for Israel and that govern Israel’s behavior. One can pull and stretch the skin of the fox over James to make him sound Mosaic, and he is definitely into the imperative mode, and he definitely believes in the Torah as God’s will, but what needs to be observed is this: James does not treat Jesus as a Moses figure. James’ relation to Jesus is not one in which he says, “Jesus said it, we must do it.”

Does James see Jesus as a prophet? If the fundamental posture of a priest was to represent Israel and Judah to God, the fundamental posture of a prophet was to represent God to Israel, and in the word “posture” I’d include both revelatory words as well what Abraham Heschel called the divine “pathos.” James himself can sound nearly prophetic at times, even if he doesn’t have the “thus saith the Lord” kind of claim. Thus, James 1:9–11 partakes in the prophetic critique of materialism, and I quote verse 11: “For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away.” And James 4:13–17 and 5:1–6 are powerful prophetic-like warnings. But that’s James. You can examine James cover to cover and his Jesus is not a prophet-like figure, his Jesus is not quoted saying anything prophet-like, and it leads us to the conclusion that James’ relation is not of a student to his master prophet. Don’t get me wrong, Jesus himself did have a Moses-like status and a prophetic stance, but that is not how James depicts Jesus.

I suggest that Richard Bauckham and others are right here. James’ Jesus is a wisdom figure. Wisdom traditions were not quotations of other wisdom traditions, and the chasid 11 of a Jewish community didn’t stand up and quote legal rulings or the previous sages. Instead, wisdom was marked by the brief, pointed aphorism that speaks out of experience and into a specific and even general circumstance. One of the distinctive marks of the Israelite wisdom tradition was to add in a creative manner to the wisdom tradition by re-expressing and re-embodying the wisdom of the wise for a new day and in new ways. Thus, Ben Sirach doesn’t so much quote Proverbs or Solomon but instead he perceives and articulates for his community the wisdom tradition of Israel. James’ relation to Jesus then is that Jesus is the Sage. To quote Bauckham, James’ “wisdom is the Jewish wisdom of a faithful disciple of Jesus the Jewish sage.”12 But Bauckham articulates this again in another way:

James, as a disciple of Jesus the sage, is a wisdom teacher who has made the wisdom of Jesus his own, and who seeks to appropriate and to develop the resources of the Jewish wisdom tradition in a way that is guided and controlled by the teaching of Jesus.13

It is right here that I think we can gain insight into missional theology. Without denying the wonderful vistas we have been given into missional and pastoral theology by the missio Dei movement, without setting to the side the holistic perspective on redemption that missional theology presses on us, and without suggesting that missional theology’s emphasis on justice in the church and in the community are at the forefront of God’s mission in this world, I want merely to suggest that a neglected and valuable dimension of missional theology is wisdom. That is, the experientially-derived, circumstance-focused value of aphoristic teaching in a way that makes Jesus’ teachings potent, disarming, deconstructing, and valuable in local churches in our world.

Scot McKnight is the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University (Chicago, Illinois). He is the author of acclaimed works such as The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others (Paraclete, 2004) and The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Zondervan, 2008), as well as various New Testament commentaries, the most recent of which is The Letter of James (New International Commentary on the New Testament; Eerdmans, 2011). His award-winning blog, Jesus Creed, is found at


Baker, Willian R. Personal Speech-Ethics in the Epistle of James. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2.68. Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1995.

Bauckham, Richard. James. New Testament Readings. London: Routledge, 1999.

Bickerman, Elias J. The God of the Maccabees: Studies on the Meaning and Origin of the Maccabean Revolt. Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity 32. Leiden: Brill, 1979.

Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Sage, Priest, Prophet: Religious and Intellectual Leadership in Ancient Israel. 1st ed. Library of Ancient Israel. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995.

Hartin, Patrick J. A Spirituality of Perfection: Faith in Action in the Letter of James.Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1999.

Hartin, Patrick. “The Religious Context of the Letter of James.” In Jewish Christianity Reconsidered, edited by Matt Jackson-McCabe, 203–232. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007.

Meriam-Webster Online, s.v. “hasid.” Accessed August 3, 2011.

Moo, Douglas J. The Letter of James. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000.

Mussner, Franz. Der Jakobusbrief. 5th ed. Herders theologischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament 13.1 (Freiburg: Herder, 1987.

1 This essay is an adaptation of the lecture presented at the Rochester College conference, “Streaming: Biblical Conversations for the Missional Frontier,” May 16–18, 2011.

2 Patrick Hartin, “The Religious Context of the Letter of James,” in Jewish Christianity Reconsidered, ed. Matt Jackson-McCabe (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007), 229.

3 Scripture quotations are taken from the New International Version.

4 Franz Mussner, Der Jakobusbrief, 5th ed., Herders theologischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament 13.1 (Freiburg: Herder, 1987), 211. His German: “Vor allem darf ich nicht vergessen. . . .”

5 Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 46 and passim.

6 Patrick J. Hartin, A Spirituality of Perfection: Faith in Action in the Letter of James (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1999).

7Akouō and akroatēs mean “to hear” and “hearer” respectively; poieō and poiētēs, “to do/make” and “doer/maker” respectively.

8 All of these words mean “blessed.”

9 On this topic, see Willian R. Baker, Personal Speech-Ethics in the Epistle of James, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2.68 (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1995), 23–83.

10 “James and the Gospel,” also published in this issue of Missio Dei.

11 A chasid “was member of a Jewish sect of the second century BC opposed to Hellenism and devoted to the strict observance of the ritual law.” Meriam-Webster Online, s.v. “hasid,” accessed August 3, 2011, For more information, see Elias J. Bickerman, The God of the Maccabees: Studies on the Meaning and Origin of the Maccabean Revolt, Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity 32 (Leiden: Brill, 1979) and Joseph Blenkinsopp, Sage, Priest, Prophet: Religious and Intellectual Leadership in Ancient Israel, 1st ed., Library of Ancient Israel (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995).

12 Richard Bauckham, James, New Testament Readings (London: Routledge, 1999), 108. This summarizes his extensive discussions from pp. 29–111.

13 Ibid., 30.

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