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James offers practical wisdom mirroring the Sermon on the Mount
Author traditionally believed to be a brother of Jesus
The author of the Epistle of James is often thought to be James the brother of Jesus, also a leader of the early Christian church in Jerusalem1. But since he doesn’t mention his relationship with Jesus in his introduction, he may have been one of the other Jameses mentioned in the New Testament, or even someone not otherwise known to us.
In any case, the epistle gives plenty of hints that the author at least knew Jesus personally because of his extensive knowledge of Jesus’ teachings, particularly those from the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to suggest that the Epistle of James is a lesson on how to apply the Sermon on the Mount to everyday life.
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James’s allusions to the Sermon on the Mount aren’t always worded in the same way that the sermon was recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. This suggests that the author of James may have learned from these teachings not from reading the gospels of Matthew and Luke (nor their source documents, such as the one known as Q) but from Jesus himself. The parallels between what we know of Jesus’ teachings and the Epistle of James also suggest that James may include teachings of Jesus that would otherwise be lost to us.
Some scholars hypothesize that James was one of the earliest New Testament books, perhaps being written in the late 40s CE; if it was written by James the brother of Jesus, the book would have been authored before the year 62, when it is believed he was martyred. Lack of a developed theology in the letter also points to an early date of composition.
Here are some of the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount that James puts in different words or expands on:
Mercy for the merciful
Jesus: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)
James: “For judgment is without mercy to him who has shown no mercy.” (James 2:13)
Jesus: “Be perfect, just as your father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)
James: “Let endurance have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:4)
The word “perfect” in both verses translates a Greek word sometimes translated as “mature“ or “completed.” The “complete” here in James refers to “complete” in the sense of having nothing missing.
The context in James addresses the result of facing trials or having faith tested. While we may not enjoy facing challenges or tests of our faith, James says we should count those occurrences as joy.
Fruits of goodness
Jesus: “By their fruits you will know them. Do you gather grapes from thorns or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 5:17)
James: “Does a spring send out from the same opening fresh and bitter water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, yield olives, or a vine figs? (James 3:11)
James uses an adaptation of Jesus’ saying as he explains that what a person says reflects what that person is on the inside.
Be doers, not just hearers
Jesus: “Everyone therefore who hears these words of mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on a rock. ... Everyone who hears these words of mine and doesn’t do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.” (Matthew 5:24-26)
James: “But be doers of the word, and not only hearers, deluding your own selves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man looking at his natural face in a mirror; for he sees himself, and goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was.” (James 1:22)
Using different metaphors, Jesus and James refer to a type of impermanence for those who hear but don’t heed.
Just ‘yes’ and ‘no’
Jesus: “I tell you, don’t swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is the throne of God. nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet ... But let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no.’ Whatever is more than these is of the evil one. (Matthew 5:34-37)
James: But above all things, my brothers and sisters, don’t swear — not by heaven, or by the earth, or by any other oath; but let your “yes” be “yes”, and your “no”, “no”, so that you don’t fall into hypocrisy. (James 5:12)
The value of treasures
Jesus: “Don’t lay up treasures for yourselves on the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume, and where thieves don’t break through and steal.” (Matthew 6:19-20)
James: “Your riches are corrupted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and your silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be for a testimony against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up your treasure in the last days.” (James 5:2-3)
James addresses these words to the wealthy, telling them that miseries will come upon them.
Do not judge
Jesus: “Don’t judge, so that you won’t be judged.” (Matthew 7:1)
James: “Don’t grumble, brothers, against one another, so that you won’t be judged.” (James 5:9)
This commentary on James is part of our Bible for Modern-day Saints series, published to roughly coincide with the schedule of the Come, Follow Me curriculum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Views expressed are solely those of the author. Biblical quotations are adapted from the World English Bible, which is in the public domain.
See Matthew 13:55 and Acts 15:31ff. His name in Greek, Iakōbos, is sometimes translated as Jacob. In the Roman Catholic tradition, James was not a biological brother of Jesus, although he may have been a cousin.