Sunday, February 4, 2018

Bible in a Year: James, 1 and 2 Peter

In 2017 and into Lent 2018, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

Somewhere on my bookshelves is a notebook that has my word-by-word translation of the Epistle of James. This was my project for third-semester-Koine Greek, which was my final college class, spring 1979. There were only two of us and the professor, but it was a fun class!

In the Harper's Bible Commentary, my seminary prof, Luke T. Johnson, discusses traditions about the epistle's authorship. Traditionally, James is identified as the brother of Jesus. The author doesn't identify himself as such. We don't know the letter's time period because it speaks to no obvious historical circumstance.

The author portrays himself as a wise teacher, and his advice has to do with practical religious living. The epistle is very much in the tradition of Old Testament Wisdom Literature, but not only that. Johnson writes: “James is remarkable for its positive appropriation of Torah, whose separate aspects it mediates to the messianic community… The short exhortations concerned with practical behavior resemble and incorporation elements of the wisdom tradition. Since wisdom is by nature cosmopolitan, James shows traces of Hellenistic moral philosophy as well as of the biblical books of Proverbs and Ecclesiasties. James also conemporizes the voice of the prophets. His attack on oppression echoes the accents of Isaiah and Amos (5:1-6). James also affirms the Law, calling it the ‘Law of Liberty’ (2:12). He does not mean ritual observances but the moral teaching of Torah, summarized by the Decalogue and the ‘law of love’ (Lev. 19:18; cf. 2:8-11) (p. 1272). Short as it is, James provides us with rich connections to Old Testament traditions.

The letter also provides an interesting contrast to the very christocentric Hebrews (and to Paul’s letters), because James only mentions Jesus twice (1:1 and 2:1) and contains helpful teaching about religion, faith, and wisdom that could be universally applied. He does reflect some of Jesus’ sayings (1:6, 2:8, 5:12), as Johnson notes.

Here is a brief outline: James teaches that true religion is evidenced by perseverance and patience during temptation and difficult times. But true wisdom and faith are from above, and God will grant our prayers for wisdom (1:2-27).

True and pure religion is evidenced in an ability to keep one’s tongue, to control one’s anger, to visit orphans and widows, to keep oneself “unstained” from the world (1:19-27).

If you truly hear God’s word, you will be a doer and not just a hearer (1:22). Several years ago, my daughter participated in her choir’s performance during the noon Mass at the St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stefansdom) in Vienna. I noticed on the lectern a banner, containing the words: Seid aber Täter des Worts und nicht Hörer allein. My German was rusty so I needed two or three seconds to recognize James 1:22. The combination of several things—the stunning sanctuary, the music of the choir, the wonders of Vienna itself, and the fact that in translating I had to mentally engage the verse—gave me a deep sense of peace and assurance. Having faith in Christ is a very good thing, but faith isn't just intellectual assent or even simply trust in God, it is also an active, loving, service-oriented thing.

True faith is evidenced by impartiality toward persons: don’t defer to and praise the rich person while refusing also to honor the poor person. Those who are merciful and impartial do God’s will (2:1-13).

Famously, James asserts that faith without works is dead faith. Faith cannot save unless expressed in deeds of service to others (2:14-26).

Just as famously, James asserts that we need to control our mouths, because “the tongue is a fire” with great destructive power. He connects this kind of self-control and carefulness not only to being a general believer but also to being a teacher (3:1-12).

True wisdom is peaceful, gentle, merciful, sincere, peace-making, and other positive qualities from and commended by God, while false wisdom is bitter, jealous, and selfish (3:13-4:18). Friendship with the world is expressed in fighting and wars, but that makes one an enemy of God (4:1-10). Similarly slander (4:11-2) and false confidence (4:13-17). I've always loved the perspective on our lives expressed in 4:13-15.

James continues to criticize friendship with the world by despising worldly fortune (5:1-6) and by the careless swearing of oaths (5:12). But those with true faith and wisdom are patient and steadfast; they avoid grumbling; they pray for the sick and confess their sins to one another (5:7-11, 13-18). 5:16 is another favorite verse: “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” or in the old KJV, “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous [person] availeth much.”

The final verse, 5:20, is still another favorite: “you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.”

Although I've not read the Qur'an extensively, James' emphasis on faith and works reminds me of verse 177, sura 2 of the Qur'an, found here in different translations. There, too, God approves of our faith when expressed in kindness, service, patience in times of trouble, and trust.


According to the Harper Bible Commentary, 1 Peter addresses concerns of Asia Minor Christians during the latter part of the first century. Because of this, and because persons named in the letter like Silvanus and Mark (5:12-14) were more Paul’s friends than Peter’s, the letter is likely pseudonymous (p. 1279). But pseudonymous authorship was common in those days and needn’t detract from the letter.

1:3-9 is a lovely opening blessing, encouraging the audience of the glories of Christ, and though they are being persecuted, their pain is like the refinement of gold. The author continues to encourage them by reminding them that they have experienced Christ’s Spirit, something that the prophets predicted (1:10-12). Thus, they can be focused upon living holy lives (1:13-2:3). Quoting passages from Isaiah, Hosea, and the Psalms, the author praises Christ and reminds the congregation of their own holiness, using images from the Old Testament about God’s people (2:9).

In 2:11-4:11, the author reminds the congregation of various ways to show themselves as faithful: to have good conduct (2:11-12), to be good citizens of the state and honor others (2:13-17), to be respectful to a master if one is a servant (2:18-20), reflecting the example of Christ himself (2:21-25); to have a domestic home life reflecting of the times (3:1-7); to bless those who persecute you and to have a tender heart and humble mind (3:8-12); to endure persecution mindful of Christ’s own sufferings (3:13-22), and to generally do one’s duty, to love one another and practice hospitality, and practice other virtues according to God’s will (4:1-11). The last section, 4:12-5:11, is another exhortation to remain steadfast and faithful.


2 Peter is written in the testament style, that is, the author--"Simeon Peter"---gives instructions in light of his impending death. It is a fictional genre used to convey true teachings but under pseudonymous authorship (HRC, 1286). My seminary notes in my old Bible indicate there are apocryphal writings of the 100s CE that are also under the name of Peter, who was killed in the 60s. My notes also indicate that the letter takes for granted canonical writings like the Synoptic Gospels and Paul’s letters, which were likely gathered long after the historical Peter's death. Many verses in chapter 2 are echoed in the epistle of Jude.

The letter focuses first on true knowledge, which his readers must seek and treasure for they around founded in Jesus Christ himself (1:3-21). There are, after all, many false teachers around, but their fate is scary—God did not spare even the angels who sinned (2:1-10a), and will not spare the deceivers. One can know the false teachers by their bad character, though, and they will come to a bad end (2:10b-22).

In chapter 3, the author assures his people of the comfort of Christ’s coming, which he connects to the Old Testament “Day of the Lord.” But for God a thousand years is as one day (3:8), and God’s seeming slowness is for the sake of people’s repentance.

The letter ends with a recommendation to read Paul’s letters, though they’re not always easy to understand—but the unstable Christians will twist them, and so Peter’s readers should be mindful to stay steady and steadfast, and stay faithful to Christ.

Expectation of the end is a theme among these letters. Until Christ returns, there will always be some folks who expect him to return in their lifetime. Thus, New Testament teachings and warnings about the end times will seem to them contemporary. To me, James 4:13-15 is a reminder that's always applicable: we just don't know what's ahead in life, ever, and so it's better to trust God and acknowledge God in all our life and work.

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