James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the dispersion: Greetings. James 1:1 ESV
James – If we’re going to study the work of someone, it might be useful to know the author’s name. It might be useful to know the author’s heritage and past influences and culture. Those kinds of things might tell us a lot about the author’s thinking and help us understand what he says (it’s too bad so few paid attention to this when Barak Obama wrote his books). Unfortunately, when it comes to the work called “The Letter of James,” most of these useful insights are either ignored or lost in translation. So let’s correct some of these and see what we can learn.
First, his name isn’t “James.” In fact, the “J” sound, as distinguished from the Latin and the Greek “i,” didn’t appear until 1524 in Middle High German. Our English sound for the letter J was acquired from the French. Obviously, “James” didn’t exist as a name when this man wrote. His name was Ya’aqov (Hebrew). It has a meaning, supplied by the story of the Patriarch by the same name – the “heel catcher”, the one who supplants, who seizes. Our author, Ya’aqov, carries a very famous Hebrew name that has a very long history. And just like Ya’aqov (“Jacob”) of old, this author was at first someone who opposed God’s direction, found himself wrestling with the Lord and became a great pillar of the faith. If we think his name is “James,” we are likely to miss the historical significance of his name.
Ya’aqov (sometimes spelled Ya’akov) is the brother of Yeshua (cf. Matthew 13:55 and Acts 12:17). He does not introduce himself with this prestigious relationship. Rather than claiming authority based on sibling connection, Ya’aqov calls himself “a servant of God and of the Lord Yeshua HaMashiach.” The word he uses is doulos, technically not “servant” but rather “slave.” That alone is significant. The man with the name “supplanter” describes himself as “slave.” There could hardly be a more contradictory appellation. But even this isn’t all that we find. The order of words in Greek and Hebrew often reveal the emphasis of the thought and here the order is literally “God and the Lord Yeshua HaMashiach slave.” Even in word order, a slave does not come first!
This man had every opportunity to take advantage of his unique status. He had a distinguished name and an impressive relationship. He was a leader in the assembly. Yet he makes nothing of this. In the first few words of his letter, we encounter complete humility. The letter of “James” is often viewed as the most practical letter of the New Testament. In fact, its emphasis on actions (“works”) seemed so opposed to “grace” that Luther and others wanted it removed from the Canon. But the very first thing we discover about this man is his meekness, his submissiveness. We who are struggling to be the hands and feet of the Messiah might take a lesson from the man who was his brother. Perhaps before the first action step is taken we must find the place of humility.
Topical Index: James, Ya’aqov, name, doulos, slave, servant, James 1:1