I am in the process of writing a largish commentary on Hebrews and James, two important works addressed to Jewish Christians. I thought I would provide a taste of what's going on (and in the commentary) with the excerpt that follows about early Jewish sages like Jesus and James, without the footnotes of course.
JAMES—SAPIENTIAL SCRIBE OR CREATIVE SAGE?
In early Judaism of the time of Jesus and James there had already long since been a cross-fertilization of the wisdom and prophetic traditions, including the apocalyptic traditions in Judaism. This is hardly a surprise since there was such Biblical precedent. Daniel for example is a sage and court counselor who also has apocalyptic visions and foresees eschatological scenarios. In other studies I have shown that there were differences between scribes and sages and prophetic figures in early Judaism. Any of these figures could be teachers, including teachers of the law, but in Lk. 5.17-21 it is interesting that there is an equation between scribes and teachers of the law, a combination also seen in the person of Gamaliel (Acts 5.34). But in Matthew’s Gospel we have a clear distinction between scribes, sages or wise men, and prophets (Mt. 23.34). This is not surprising because the First Evangelist is himself a sapiential scribe, carefully recording and editing his source material in a sapiential and eschatological manner. Our discussion of what James was can be honed and refined by thinking about how the First Evangelist, another Jewish Christian writer deeply influenced by the Wisdom tradition should be characterized. What especially prompts this discussion is that in first person verbs are quite rare in James, and apart from hypothetical questions (1.13; 2.18; 4.13,15) occur only here in this homily and once at James 5.11. What stands out about that latter reference is it involves a beatitude—one of the most familiar forms of sapiential speech which Jesus used. But here James self-identifies as a teacher, and since he does not refer to himself as an apostle or prophet this seems quite significant. Apostles are missionaries, and James stayed put in Jerusalem. Prophets are oracles, quoting God, but James does not do this. But sages are another matter altogether, and they seem to have made up the bulk of teachers in Jesus’ and James’ era. Brosend helpfully reminds “teachers are known by the content of their teaching. This may be exactly what James intended, claiming a significant role that nonetheless turned attention away from himself to his message while accepting the responsibility that comes with presuming to instruct others.” But some distinctions are necessary to understand James’ role and the ethos and nature of his teaching.
The term grammateus itself has a range of meanings, but all of them presuppose a person who is literate, one who can read and write, and so a person who, educationally, is in the upper echelons of society, since only 10% of all ancients could read and write. There was considerable power in being a scribe in those sorts of social circumstances. But was a Jewish scribe simply a copier of documents? But was James a sapiential scribe like the First Evangelist, or would it be better to call him a creative sage in his own right?
James’ homily is written in Greek, not in Hebrew or Aramaic, and it reflects the traditions of Jewish writers who wrote in Greek, and not only so, he reflects Jewish writers who knew rhetoric as well. As we have already had occasion to note, James reflects the Jewish sapiential tradition in that era, and so we need to look more closely at sapiential scribes and sages such as Qohelet and later Ben Sira and even the author of Wisdom of Solomon. Fortunately, in Sirach we have some quite clear evidence about the way Jewish scribes worked in the intertestamental period and continuing on into the NT era.
Sirach 39.1-11 speaks of the ideal Jewish sapiential scribe:
He who devotes himself to the study of the Law of the Most High
Will seek out the wisdom of all the ancients,
And will be concerned with prophecies,
He will preserve the discourse of notable men
And penetrate the subtleties of parables;
He will seek out the hidden meanings of proverbs,
And be at home with the obscurities of parables.
He will serve among great men and appear before rulers...
If the great Lord is willing, he will be filled with the spirit of understanding;
He will pour forth words of wisdom
And give thanks to the Lord in prayer.
He will direct his counsel and knowledge aright,
And meditate on his secrets,
He will reveal instruction in his teaching,
And will glory in the Law of the Lord’s covenant,
Many will praise his understanding,
And it will never be blotted out;
His memory will not disappear,
and his name will live through all generations,
Nations will declare his wisdom,
And the congregation will proclaim his praise...
There are many things that could be remarked on in this passage but most importantly note that the Law is talked about in a context in which Law, prophecy, parable, proverbs and the like are all viewed from a sapiential point of view, which is to say as one or another sort of divine wisdom meant to give guidance to God’s people. It is after all Ben Sira who first clearly identifies Torah with Wisdom, indeed suggests that Wisdom became incarnate, so to speak in Torah. I would submit that the First Evangelist sees himself in the light of this sort of description of a Jewish scribe, and so sees his task as interpreting and presenting the life and teachings of Jesus as revelatory wisdom from God. Indeed he will argue that Jesus himself, rather than Torah, is the incarnation of God’s wisdom, and that it is therefore Jesus’ own wise teaching which provides the hermeneutical key to understanding Law, proverb, prophecy, parable and other things. But is this the agenda and modus operandi of James? My answer to this question must be no. He is more like the person whom the First Evangelist writes about--- Jesus who was indeed a sage, a creator of parables, aphorisms, riddles and the like.
Of course it must be remembered that the First Evangelist, who ought more appropriately to be called the First (Christian) Scribe, saw Jesus as an eschatological and royal sage, not just another wise man. But the issue here is not the content of Jesus’ teaching but its form. In form, Jesus’ teaching is overwhelmingly sapiential in character, even when the content may involve eschatology, and we must remind ourselves again that at least from the time of Daniel, if not before there had been this sort of cross-fertilization of wisdom, prophecy, and apocalyptic. Furthermore, such literature which reflected this cross-fertilization had become enormously popular and influential, and may even have helped spawn or at least spur on a whole series of ‘wise men’ or sages in the era just prior to and contemporaneous with Jesus (cf. e,g, Hanina ben Dosa, Honi the circle drawer), including that unique figure--- the visionary sage, which both Jesus and James fit into the mold of.
In a revealing comment in his recent study on sages in Hellenistic-Roman Judaism J.J. Collins makes these telling remarks: “Comparison of Enoch and Daniel, on the one hand and 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch on the other shows there are significant variations in the ideal of the visionary sage in the apocalyptic literature….There are some consistent features of apocalyptic wisdom that distinguish it from traditional Hebrew wisdom. Most fundamental of these is the claim to have, and reliance upon, a supernatural revelation. Even a sage like Ezra who disavows heavenly ascents, still relies on dreams and visions…the apocalyptic sage is not at a loss, as Qoheleth was, to know what God had done from beginning to end (Qoh. 3.11), because he claims to have access to the recesses of wisdom in the heavens….One finds then in the sages of the apocalypses a denial of earthly wisdom, but also a claim to a higher, superior wisdom.” Several things about this quote are interesting for our purposes. While James does not at all renounce wisdom derived from the analysis of nature and human nature, nevertheless his most crucial insights about life he attributes to the wisdom that comes down from above, revelatory wisdom. In this respect he is very much like Jesus who was an apocalyptic sage who drew on both sorts of wisdom traditions.
I have differed with D. E. Orton’s characterization of the First Evangelist as being an apocalyptic scribe more in the line of the authors of some of the Enochian literature than in line with Ben Sira. To the contrary, the description we find in Mt. 13.52, which most scholars think provides a clue to help us understand the First Evangelist points us in the direction of Ben Sira not Enoch, It states: “Therefore every teacher of the Torah who has been instructed about the Kingdom of Heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” Notice that the person in question is: 1) a teacher; 2) knows the Law and teaches it; and 3) has been instructed about the Kingdom of heaven (a, if not the major subject of Jesus’ parables and other teachings). I would submit that the ‘new’ has to do with what the teacher has recently been instructed about (the Kingdom), whereas the old refers to Torah. This teacher in other words does not limit himself to the Torah, but also deals in new treasures as well, namely the various teachings of Jesus. In this regard it is understandable why the author of this Gospel is such a strong critic of Pharisees and their scribes. It is not the noble task of a scribe that he objects to, he is one. It is the Pharisaic scribes who dwell on Torah and its amplification and refuse to recognize the teaching of Jesus and his perspectives on earlier Jewish wisdom including the Law that our author has issues with. Our author is operating in a profoundly Jewish milieu where the teachings of the Pharisees rival the teachings that the First Evangelist seeks to offer.
Another helpful clue to the modus operandi of the First Evangelist is found in Eccles. 12.9-10. The sapiential scribe is one who is weigh or assess, study, and arrange or set in order the meshalim, the parables, proverbs, aphorisms, riddles of the wisdom tradition. This description reflects the three stages of literary composition—experimenting with, refining and shaping, and then arranging in a collection. The scribe is not merely to record but to enhance the wisdom examined by arrangement and elegance of expression, though always expressing himself with care. Wisdom is meant to be both a guide and goad in life, both a handhold and something which helps one get a grip on life (Ec.12.11). The scribe is an inspired interpreter and editor of his sources, but he is self-effacing and points to others as the sages or teachers whose material he is refining, restoring and presenting. If we were to characterize the First Evangelist we would have to say that he is remarkably like the description of the sapiential scribe we find in Sirach. And of course we have seen in James how very indebted he is to the same sort of Jewish wisdom sources--- Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach. But James operates quite differently than the First Evangelist in various respects. In the first place James is offering his own wisdom, not merely redacting the wisdom of the past. Nowhere is this clearer than in the way he handles the Jesus tradition as opposed to the way the First Evangelist handles it. The latter quotes Jesus and attributes the material to Jesus. James on the other hand draws on the Jesus tradition without attribution and modifies it to suit his own purposes, melding it together with his own wisdom—sometimes revelatory and counter-order wisdom, sometimes conventional wisdom. There is a reason James, like Paul, calls himself a servant of Jesus Christ, and not his secretary or scribe ( grammateus). He too has received revelation, and he too has insights to share, and new perspectives on previous wisdom teaching including that of his brother. Notice that James does not feel it necessary to quote Torah often to give authority to his discourse, and notice as well that unlike what his brother manifested he is perfectly at home with using Greco-Roman rhetorical techniques to address with maximum possible impact Jewish Christians in the Diaspora, which is to say living in a rhetoric saturated Greco-Roman environment.
Of course we will never know whether Jesus was capable of wielding rhetoric in the way James does, and since he never really addresses foreigners in any lengthy Greek discourse we cannot guess. But whatever else we may say, James proves to be a multi-faceted and multi-talented sage in his own right, able to address audiences outside of his own setting in persuasive ways, while still manifesting the same Jewish Gestalt with that mixture of wisdom and eschatological fervor and content that we find in the teachings of Jesus. Like his brother he is a creative generator of new traditions, new wisdom as well as a reframer of old wisdom, and so he certainly does not merely fall into the category of creative scribe like the First Evangelist, which is to say a person whose skill is just in editing and assembling data whether old or new. In fact, if we may call the First Evangelist the first Christian scribe in the Christian era, we may call James the first Jewish Christian sage in that era. And like his brother, James is prepared to offer a new law, a royal and eschatological and perfect law which combines some elements from the Mosaic covenant (“like love thy neighbor…..”) with other things. Law is seen as but one form of wise teaching and it is handled in a sapiential way. It is truly unfortunate that James was ever caricatured as someone who had not really captured Jesus’ vision of things, but rather merely rehearsed older Jewish wisdom teachings.
But there is a problem seldom noticed here. Jesus in Mt. 23.8-10 warned his disciples that they were not to be called rabbis or teachers, because they had one teacher—Jesus himself. Now James caution about not many becoming teachers may fall in line with Jesus’ warning, and Jesus’ warning may be said to be against the honorific side of things as in involved early Jewish teachers—in other words whoever was a teacher was not to seek the status and praise for doing so. Rather they were to follow Jesus own more humble example. Probably, this is how James will have understood this saying of Jesus.
Furthermore, as we see in James 3, while James follows the Jewish practice of identifying the proper teacher with the sage he models for these teachers something that goes well beyond scribal activities or job descriptions. In other words, while he does not want many to follow in his footsteps and become teachers/sages (cf. Heb. 5.12), he is certainly assuming and hoping a few will do so to guide the Jewish Christians in the Diaspora, some who are perhaps already the elders in those places. The criteria for being such a teacher involves of course criteria of character which is emphasized in James 3, but also criteria of knowing earlier wisdom and being open to new revelatory wisdom as well, and having the ability to articulate it persuasively. One need not be a scribe to be a sage, nor become a scribe in preparation for being a sage. Good character, knowledge of the Word, and openness to new insight from God would suffice. One need not necessarily even be literate to do this, though James certainly was. To judge from the subsequent history of Christianity after the apostolic age, both prophetic and sapiential figures who claimed independent authority and revelation gradually came under an increasing cloud of suspicion, as we already see in the Didache 11-13. The church tended to marginalize such figures, and of course has continued to do so throughout church history. Thus we may be thankful that the writing of a figure like James the sage became enshrined in the canon of the NT, despite the bumpy ride it took to get there. It reminds us that our roots look rather different than most of the current limbs we could inspect which now grow from the tree. It reminds us that early Christianity was a movement not just of the faithful reiteration of older traditions but of fresh revelation, fresh wisdom from and about Christ, who came to be called the very Wisdom of God, the ultimate revelation of the mind and character of God.