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Background of the letter of James (2)

James tells us upfront that he is writing "to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations," (1:1). But what does this mean? Some are convinced it is figurative speech for Christian Jews living outside Palestine. Others have a slightly different take and see him as addressing Christians (regardless of their ethnicity). But there is a third possibility. That is that we simply take what James says literally and understand him to be addressing the Jewish communities outside of Palestine. These communities would include both people who had embraced Jesus as the Messiah as well as those who had not (but more on this in a bit).

The history of the Jewish scattering/dispersion (diaspora) is well documented. The Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans all had a part in removing the Jewish people from their homeland. 2 Kings 25:26 tells of some who left for Egypt in fear of the Babylonians. And then a great many simply left voluntarily in an attempt to better their situation in life. Regardless of the cause, by the first century there were far more Jewish people living outside of Palestine than inside.

The idea that James addresses both believers and unbelievers goes against the grain in that most, if not all, of the other books and letters in the New Testament were written exclusively to Christians. But if James wrote his letter early (earlier than any other NT book) this makes sense. It certainly fits in well with the transition period we see in Acts where the apostles are regularly in the temple among believers and unbelievers (2:463:1ff, 5:12,21, and later in synagogues outside Palestine (13:14ff, 14:1ff). Stephen’s death and the persecution that follow (8:1ff), disrupt the Jerusalem aspect of this temporarily, but not permanently. In fact, in 9:26ff, just a few years after the persecution and scattering, Luke tells us of a group of believers in Jerusalem so it didn’t take long for the church to reconstitute itself. Despite the apostle James’ death at the hands of Herod (12:2), the number of believers in Jerusalem grows (12:24), and the church continues to function as a center of Jewish influence as the events of Acts 15 and 21:17ff indicate. 

All of this is to impress upon us that Jewish Christians were still significantly attached to the Jewish community both inside and outside Palestine. When Paul arrives in Rome, he contacts the local Jewish leaders (28:17ff). Many in the dispersion would participate in the annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem (as they did in Acts 2:9-11), where they would meet with Jewish leaders, like James, and inform them of their situations back home. What would be more natural than for him to send a letter back to them --- much as he helped compose the one that was sent with Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:22ff)? Since James mentions nothing of the monumental meeting in his letter (something all Jewish communities would be interested in), it seems probable that his letter was written prior to the events of Acts 15.

All of this means that we have to adjust our thinking a little bit. Instead of James writing to an exclusively Christian group meeting in church buildings like ours today, he is addressing communities of Jewish people who were still meeting in the synagogues (James 2:1ff). That he is writing to Christians is clear from his numerous references to them as "brothers" in a way that must be understood as Christian (1:16-18,2:1,2:5-7). That his audience includes unbelievers as well seems apparent from 5:1-6. And why shouldn’t he be addressing them? He is known and respected by them.

So what have I said in this little piece? I’ve suggested that there’s no reason why we can’t take James’ words at face value when he tells us he is writing "to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations," and there are plenty of reasons to believe he is. 
 
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