James as “Wisdom Literature”

While our book of James is written in a letter form, there are no personal messages contained in it, for it is actually another literary form popular in the ancient world, a paracnesis or moral instruction. Proverbs in the Old Testament is also a moral instruction, and although other books have sections of such instruction, these are the two best examples in Scripture of this form. James does borrow from other writers in his letter, however. He has several quotations from the “Holiness Chapter” of Leviticus 19, he takes from two Apocryphal books, and he also relates freely from the Sermon on the Mount.

In the chart below, you can see the Leviticus references:

James Leviticus Quotations
2:1 19:15
2:8 19:18
2:9 19:15
4:11 19:16
5:4 19:13
5:9 19:18
5:12 19:12
5:20 19:17

The two Apocryphal books that influenced James’ thinking are the books Ecclesiasticus, written c. 180 B.C. (sometimes called Sirach) and the Wisdom of Solomon, written c. 30 B.C. The Apocrypha is a collection of books not accepted as Canon by either Jews or Protestants, but which must have been familiar to James. In the chart below is a list of James verses that bear strong resemblance to these two works:

Topic James Ecclesiasticus Wisdom
Patience 1:2-4 1:23  
Wisdom 1:5 1:26  
Doubt 1:6-8 2:28  
Trials 1:12 2:1-5  
Temptation 1:13 15:11-12  
Hearing 1:19 5:11  
Rich and Poor 2:6 13:19 2:10
Mercy 2:13   6:6
Brevity of Life 4:13-16   5:8-14
Money 5:3 29:10  
Righteous Killed 5:6   2:12, 20
Pray for the Sick 5:14 38:9  

James’ use of these references is interesting in that he doesn’t formally quote any of them as inspired Scripture, but instead uses them more as time honored traditions of wisdom within a very loose structure. As a consequence, it is very difficult to identify any real theme or outline as we might expect to do in other New Testament writings.

About Don Merritt

A long time teacher and writer, Don hopes to share his varied life's experiences in a different way with a Christian perspective.
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3 Responses to James as “Wisdom Literature”

  1. daylerogers says:

    Never knew any of this. Thanks for sharing–really fascinating.

  2. Don, thanx for the chart. It is extremely helpful. I printed it out for inclusion in my own material for James. Don

  3. Pingback: James as “Wisdom Literature” | A disciple's study

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