Let’s take a fresh look at James and Paul…specifically, the difference between James chapter two and Paul’s writings in Galatians. To set up background information, it is important to point out that historical scholars have placed Galatians as the first written letter in the New Testament and that James was the second written shortly after Galatians. Before you jump to an erroneous conclusion about where we are headed with this, we do not see James as an epistle of straw as Luther once did. However, we hope to show over the next few posts that the current evangelical interpretation of the phrase “faith without works is dead” is not a good interpretation of what James and Paul meant.
To begin with, realizing that audience relevance is important, let’s first take a look at the two audiences of the respective epistles. Galatians was written to the church in Galatia which was composed of mostly Gentile believers and, James wrote his epistle strictly to the Jewish believers. We can see this by merely looking at the introduction of each epistle. Jas 1:1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings. Notice that James’ epistle is written solely to the Jews in the dispersion. We can never truly understand a message until we see the cultural and historical context in which it was written and, here is an example of the importance of the Jew – Gentile distinction in this covenantal transition that takes place in the pages of the New Testament. While there is dispute about the exact location of the churches in Galatia, the letter is authentically Paul’s and it is widely thought that the bulk of the church was made up of Celts that lived in the area and so was primarily Gentile.
Here is where the Jew – Gentile distinction comes into play. The temple had not been destroyed and there was a reasonable question about whether the Jews were correct or the Christians were correct. In fact, the writer to the Hebrews letter stated the following: Heb 9:7-8 But into the second part the high priest went alone once a year, not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people's sins committed in ignorance; (8) the Holy Spirit indicating this, that the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest while the first tabernacle was still standing.
Therefore, it is our belief that James was afraid that the letter to the Galatians would influence the believing Jews to reject the Torah. He therefore wrote the letter to the Jews in the dispersion to combat this problem. Now, there is a lot more to looking at what James really meant by the phrase “faith without works is dead” and we will take it up in subsequent posts.