The Jewish Christian tradition

Daily Reading for October 23 • St. James of Jerusalem, Brother of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and Martyr, c. 62

A study of James is indeed a study of the growth of the early Christian church as seen from the perspective of Jewish Christianity. James was the historical link between “his brother” Jesus and the emerging Christian church. Just as the Jesus of Matthew’s gospel saw himself as being sent solely to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” so James restricted his concern to the people of Israel. While he acknowledged the acceptance of a further mission to the Gentiles and the fact that Gentile converts were to be free from circumcision and the stipulations of the Mosaic Law (apart from those prescriptions in the Apostolic Decree), James did not consider that this decision had any effect on his community and mission to Jewish Christians. For him Jewish Christians were still members of the house of Israel. Belief in and acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah did not change the reality that they were still part of the house of Israel whose traditions and purity regulations still applied. For, after all, the purity rules identified the group in contrast to the world around them. James saw his task as leader of the Jerusalem community and ensured that the fulfillment of the eschatological age that had begun with Jesus would endure through fidelity to the heritage of Judaism. . . .

The greatest contribution the letter of James makes to the figure of James and his interface with the leaders and thought of early Christianity lies in its witness to its Jewish heritage. The letter shows a strong and vibrant Jewish Christian tradition that flourished side by side with other traditions in earliest Christianity, such as those of Paul and the Synoptic Gospels that make up almost two-thirds of the entire New Testament. James is the only complete writing within the New Testament that witnesses to another thriving tradition that would later disappear. Just as the Sermon on the Mount captures the essence of Jesus’ teaching, so too does the letter of James continue a similar message and teaching. The voice of the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount and the voice of James are very close in reproducing the authentic concerns of Jesus’ teaching.

From James of Jerusalem: Heir to Jesus of Nazareth by Patrick J. Hartin (Collegeville, Minn.: Michael Glazier, 2004).

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