The Scandal of partiality in the Epistle of James

Part 6: Occasion of writing

Audience: the twelve tribes in Dispersion

At first glance, it seems that James is writing to Jews. After all, to translate literally, James addresses his epistle “to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” The twelve tribes traditionally represent Israel, and the dispersion signifies the Jews scattered throughout the pagan world. But there are reasons to think James is writing for Jewish Christians, not Jews in general. As “dispersion” can serve as a metaphor to indicate that believers are never fully at home in this world. So there is reason to believe that James, like other New Testament writers, envisions a wide audience[1].

The addressee, “the twelve tribes in dispersion,” seems to indicate metaphorically to Christians that are scattered throughout the world.  Since the phrase “twelve tribes” was continued to be used as a metaphor for the Israel as the people of God, long after twelve distinctly identifiable tribes were more of a memory and ideal than a visible reality.

Although the letter’s address alone does not settle the question of its reader’s identity when taken with other evidence they were not all Jewish. To be sure, they are messianists, as the identification of Jesus as “”Lord and Christ” has already made clear and, so they are an “Israel” whose hopes have been fulfilled in the coming of the Messiah. The use of “twelve tribes” as a self-designation by an avowedly messianic sect would clearly indicate that the group believed that the restoration of Israel has already begun[2].

The place of composition eludes us but wherever his audience lives, James assumes they are familiar with life in Israel, for he often describes life from the perspective of a commoner in the towns of Judea and Galilee. For example, he mentions two rainy seasons, one early and late; two rainy seasons are a distinct trait of the weather in of Israel and the eastern Mediterranean. James also calls his meeting place a synagogue (2:2), he assumes that his audience takes pride in its monotheism, and he prods them to live their faith rather than resting in doctrinal servitude. [3]

I tend to align myself to the stance that designates James’ audience as a predominantly Jewish community of Christians that, is made up of a varied set of peoples that are made distinct by their racial and class status. As James writes to the “twelve tribes in dispersion,” that is either Jewish Christians “disperse” throughout the Greco-Roman world, or all Christians, the new people of God exiles from their own fatherland[4]. Thus the epistle is perhaps actually a homily to a community or to scattered communities of faith that are in the midst of trials of various kinds (1:2).

Occasion of writing: the hanging spectre of dissension

It has been said the as in all class uprisings it begins with the impending threat of polarization that are marred with what Jose Lacaba calls as “days of disquiet and nights of rage”[5].

Internal evidence in the epistle states that the addresses are undergoing trials which James makes no explicit mention of. However his wording seems to imply that trials does not come from outside the community but from within as he makes mention of things that ought to be present in the community of believers which are necessary for them to persevere in the midst of trials such as: joy (1:2), steadfastness (1:3), wisdom (1:5), faith (1:6) and humility (1:9-10).

With the epistle being addressed to a milieu in which social differences are marked[6]. As his audience is a mixture of both poor/lowly (1: 9) and rich (1:10-11) to which James seems to be speaking with a bit of reproach in their lifestyle as verse 11 closes with an emphasis on the rich person’s vain pursuits because among their assembly there are rich, who expect, and receive differential treatment even in the liturgical assemblies (2:1-3), men who are prodigal of generous words that cost them nothing (2:16). Entirely absorbed in their business affairs (4:13-17), they do not hesitate to cheat their workers and to squeeze the poor (5:1-6). These same poor receive scant attention even from those who are supposed to be their shepherds and ought to be their servants (2:2-6). Such conduct cannot but give rise to dissension: jealousy (3:14; 4:2); anger (1:19); murmuring (5:9); and cursing (4:11). The exasperated poor maybe driven to rebel against their lot (4:2), or they may enviously be seized by the desire for worldly possessions[7].

[1] Doriani, Daniel. James, Reformed Expository Commentary (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007) p.12
[2] Achtemeier, Paul et al. Introducing the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology p.497
[3] Doriani, Daniel. James, Reformed Expository Commentary. p.12
[4] Harrington, Wilfrid. Keys to the Bible Vol. 3 pp. 140-41
[5] Here I borrowed the title of Jose Lacaba’s book, Days of disquiet, Nights of Rage: the First Quarter Storm & Related Events which is a compilation of articles that were originally published in the Philippines Free Press and the Asia Philippines Leader, by Lacaba who was among the many Filipino youth and student activists who joined the heavy demonstrations, protests, and marches against the Marcos government from January to March 1970, or the first quarter of 1970. It was one of the factors leading to the declaration of Martial Law in 1972, and eventually led to the polarization of Filipinos to ‘Pro’ and ‘Anti’ Marcos forces with the latter being successful in overthrowing the Marcos dictatorship via a non-violent uprising in 1986.
[6] Harrington, Wilfrid. Keys to the Bible Vol. 3 p. 140
[7] Ibid

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