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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Appendix on the Task of Biblical Interpretation: How Can We Identify the Rich in the Epistle of James?
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Appendix on the Task of Biblical Interpretation: How Can We Identify the Rich in the Epistle of James?

There is a fundamental difference between any word and that which is signified by the word. The complexity of the difference is multiplied when whole sentences are involved, and then multiplied many times over with paragraphs, letters, essays or entire books. There is additional difference, and therefore an automatic communication gap, between the writers themselves and even their most immediate readers. The gap is widened still more when there are years or centuries between writers and readers.

Both phenomenology and deconstruction have so founded their modern theories of interpretation on this rupture between word and meaning, between writer and reader, that meaning in a given message has become viewed as indeterminate. This results in a contemporary skepticism regarding the possibility of knowing the true meaning of any text; and it makes the task of biblical hermeneutics all the more urgent for Christians today. If our discussions of interpretive problems in the biblical text are, in the end, nothing more than assertions of personal opinion ("Well, I think the passage means this . . ."), then we are conceding the crucial arguments of interpretive skepticism. We may as well agree: truth is relative; communication is subjective; the establishment of meaning is hopelessly lost in the gap between the biblical writer and the modern reader.

It is not that we have to be able to resolve every interpretive difficulty with an absolutely clear solution. Some aspects of certain biblical texts may remain obscure. Yet we need to be prepared to demonstrate by careful procedure whether we have hermeneutical principles and tools by which we can bridge the gap and arrive at sound conclusions about the original, intended meaning of a biblical text. Do our hermeneutical tools yield results?

The Problem

My intention in this appendix is to put these tools to a modest test by focusing on one interpretive problem in the biblical text—a problem sufficiently confined and specific that we may look for definite results. The problem to be addressed is the meaning of one word (plousios, "rich") in one verse (Jas 1:10). Were the rich in this verse believers in Christ included in the address "brother" in 1:9—that is, people within the Christian community and part of the actual, intended audience for the letter? Or were they outside the Christian family, non-Christians being addressed only rhetorically in James's letter?

The importance of this question is seen in two respects. First, if hermeneutics properly includes both exegesis and application of the text, the latter portion of the task is seriously affected by whether the message in James is directed to rich Christians about themselves or to poor Christians about rich non-Christians. Second, this issue is not minor or tangential in James. The relational dynamic between rich and poor and the role of material wealth or need in Christians' lives are significant and repeated themes in the letter. Our understanding of several passages in James will be affected, including (1) passages that make explicit reference to plousios (1:9-11; 2:5-7; 5:1-6) and (2) passages that discuss wealthy people without making explicit mention of plousios (2:1-4; 4:13-17).

Our hermeneutical goal now is to identify as accurately as we can what was signified by James's use of the signifier plousios, to understand the discourse meaning of the term plousios in the letter and at least to point to some directions to be taken for contemporary applications.

Analysis of Past Approaches

The more common approach among biblical commentators has been to argue primarily from straightforward grammatical structure that James 1:10 speaks to rich Christians. The verb kauchaomai ("take pride in") at the beginning of 1:9 is understood as the verb for 1:10 as well; likewise, ho adelphos ("the brother") in 1:9 is understood as the subject to be supplied for 1:10. The contrast then would be between the brother who is ho tapeinos ("in humble circumstances") and the brother who is ho plousios ("rich"). Examples of this approach can be found in Joseph B. Mayor 1897, J. H. Ropes 1916 and James B. Adamson 1976.

An alternative approach has been to argue primarily from the content of the message that James 1:10 must be speaking about rich non-Christians. The exultation of the poor brother is seen as too dissimilar to that of the rich person to be parallel. The absence of any hope or commendation given to the plousios here or elsewhere in the letter seems to indicate a non-Christian identity for the rich. Not just their riches but they themselves "will pass away like a wild flower." Examples of this approach can be found in the work of the German Martin Dibelius (1964), the British Sophie Laws (1980) and the American Peter H. Davids (1982).

The difference between these two approaches leads to significant differences in understanding and application. Taking Mayor as a spokesman for the first view, James 1:10 is rendered "Let the rich brother glory in his humiliation as a Christian." The meaning of the verse then has to do with "the intrinsic effect of Christianity in changing our view of life." And the application of 1:10 is for the proud rich to learn "self-abasement," even as the application of 1:9 was for the despised poor to learn self-respect (Mayor 1897:43). Working from this understanding, preaching that captures the intent of James 1:10 should be directed to Christians who have wealth, should urge them to take pride in their abasement and should instruct them in practices of self-abasement.

On the other hand, taking Davids as representative of the second view, it is argued that the text about the rich never says "humiliation as a Christian." What the letter does do is uniformly condemn "the rich" in all three passages that refer explicitly to plousios (1:9-11; 2:5-7; 5:1-6). They are seen as persecutors and blasphemers. "Some wealthy individuals" were coming into the church as inquirers or new converts; these are the ones James would have in mind in 2:2 and 4:13. But James avoids calling them "the rich" and reserves the term plousios for pejorative use. "These rich are not Christians, but rather the enemies of the church" (Davids 1982:46). Application of the text must be made with understanding that James is writing with "great sympathy for the poor and that the term is virtually identical in his mind with `Christian' " (Davids 1982:45). Proceeding with this view, preaching that is faithful to the biblical writer's intention in 1:10 should be directed to Christians who are poor, assuring them of the ultimate futility of material riches as a goal in life and encouraging them to be faithful to Christ even in their poverty.

How can this hermeneutical problem be addressed? We will examine in turn the text's linguistic and lexical context, historical context, literary context and canonical context.

Linguistic and Lexical Context

Though the hermeneutical value of etymology has been exaggerated in many biblical studies, we can still begin with the linguistic and lexical data as the starting point for contextualizing James's term plousios. Friedrich Hauck and Wilhelm Kasch describe the basic sense of the term as "fullness of goods" (Hauck and Kasch 1968:319). Arndt and Gingrich list two senses of plousios: a literal sense ("rich man") and a figurative sense ("rich in something") (1957:679). Both of these senses can be carried in the related words plouteo ("be rich, become rich"), ploutizo ("make rich") and ploutos ("wealth, riches"). The adverb plousios ("richly, abundantly") completes the list of related terms of similar lexical form. Other terms of different lexical form include

agathos good thing, possession, treasure

euporeo, euporeomai have plenty, be well off

euporia means, prosperity

mamonas wealth, property

timiotes abundance of costly things

chrema property, wealth, money

All of these terms, both similar and dissimilar to plousios, should be included as relevant terms in a search for passages about wealth in the canonical context. For now, no definitely Christian or non-Christian meaning appears for plousios.

Historical Context

Determining the historical context for the writing of the biblical text is important because it reveals some of the "Presupposition Pool" (T. Venneman's phrase used in Cotterell and Turner 1989:90) shared between the writer and the original intended readers. A thorough presentation of the evidence and arguments is not possible in the framework of this study, but a summary of the major points will indicate the basis for my conclusions.

First, the scant references to James's epistle by early church fathers is best explained by an early dating of the letter, before the church became more predominantly Gentile and before the Pauline writings overshadowed James's letter in church usage. Second, the very minimal introduction of James's identity in the letter suggests James the Just, brother of Jesus, as the author. Only one James was well known enough after the death of James the brother of John to have written this letter to the scattered Christians without needing further identification. Third, although the letter puts particular emphasis on the law ("the royal law" and "the law that gives freedom"), there is no reference to controversies over Gentiles, circumcision or ceremonial law. None of this was yet an issue prior to the events of Acts 15, which indicates that this letter was likely written prior to that time.

Fourth, the approach to faith and deeds in James has been seen by some as a response to Pauline writings. This assumed context has made James's teaching confusing and troubling to many. However, it can be shown that James is using his terms deeds and righteous in 2:14-26 with a purpose different from Paul's. James is writing about how one is shown to be righteous; Paul writes about how one is declared righteous. James's teaching on this matter becomes far less confusing and more consistent even with the rest of his own letter when it is seen to be not anti-Pauline but pre-Pauline in origin. The conclusion we reach is that the epistle of James was written by James the Just, brother of Jesus, between A.D. 40 and 50, during the early diaspora described in Acts 8:1-4 rather than the later diaspora of A.D. 70.

This conclusion provides us with a narrative setting in Acts 8 by which to discern some of James's purposes in writing. His audience would be primarily people of Jewish upbringing with a fairly recently acquired Christian faith who were experiencing a severe persecution at the hands of their erstwhile leaders in Judaism. They were mourning deeply because of the death of a loved and respected leader, Stephen (Acts 7). Almost all the Christians (except for the apostles such as James) had been driven from their homes in Jerusalem and scattered to other places. Almost all of them had likely lost homes or possessions or normal means of income; they had been separated from relatives and friends. There were abundant circumstances to cause them confusion, fear, loneliness, anger, sorrow, poverty, hardship—in fact, "trials of many kinds" as James acknowledges in 1:2. James's probable purpose in this context is confirmed in the letter: to encourage suffering Christians in the face of hardship and to strengthen them for faithful Christian living.

It would fit this historical setting that James would be writing primarily to poor Christians and that one of his goals would be to instruct and encourage them in the face of hardship at the hands of rich unbelievers. In speaking of "the rich," James would likely have in mind the unbelievers who were using their wealth as power to oppress the very vulnerable Christians.

Literary Context

The literary context comprises evidence from within the epistle of James itself. It is worth enumerating the various aspects of this context.

1. Genre

We are dealing with writing that is certainly more didactic than narrative, but we can qualify this classification in two respects. First, the instruction makes frequent reference to the readers' historical circumstances ("scattered among the nations . . . you face trials of many kinds . . . fights and quarrels among you"), showing the writer to be consciously addressing particular events and situations. The historical narrative behind the writing of the letter will therefore be relevant. Second, the instruction displays a definite rhetorical flavor. Second-person address is prevalent throughout the letter. That James would employ the second person rhetorically toward people not actually receiving the letter is most clearly confirmed in 5:1-6. Both Mayor and Adamson, while wanting to allow for some possible address of professing Christians even in this vehement passage, do admit that 5:1-6 seems to be referring primarily to unbelievers (Mayor 1897:148; Adamson 1976:183-84). Adamson even compares it quite appropriately to Churchill's wartime speeches, which were formally directed at the enemy but intended to encourage his own people.

2. Syntax

Understanding adelphos in 1:9 to be the referent for both tapeinos in 1:9 and plousios in 1:10 does seem to be a natural way to read these verses. The important caution in using this argument of "natural" reading is that it may simply be making the ancient text fit with what seems natural to our modern ears. The difference between the ancient text and our modern thinking is precisely the gap we are trying to cross. The fact is that the grammar in 1:9-10 does not require this reading of adelphos as a common referent. Another very possible way to read the passage would be to see ho adelphos ho tapeinos standing together as a unit and ho plousios as the contrasting subject, with adelphos not repeated because the rich here are not "brothers," and with kauchastho the verb for both subjects.

3. Style of Writing

The writer of the epistle typically employs contrasts in successive clauses, sentences or groups of sentences. Examples are found within 1:19, 2:5 and 4:7-8. This stylistic device is used at times to make emphatic contrast between the "rich" and "brothers," as in 2:5-6 and 5:1, 7.

There is a frequent use of diverse similes and metaphors, as in the hunting and fishing imagery of 1:14 followed immediately by the childbearing imagery in 1:15. This manner of description is definitely applied to the rich in 1:10-11 (with the wild flower image) and in 5:1-6 (with the images of destruction) for vivid emphasis. This use of imagery is part of the pattern of strong, intense language throughout the letter. Douglas Moo captures the tone of James's letter as "profound moral earnestness" (Moo 1985:9). In the case of 5:1-6, Adamson describes James's writing as "sarcastic," "dramatic" and "forceful" (Adamson 1976:183).

4. Associated Terms and Messages for the Rich

Whenever James speaks of the rich as plousios there is a consistently negative message without any hope offered. In 1:10-11, the rich will pass away like a wild flower. In 2:6-7, the rich are seen as persecuting Christians and slandering the name of Christ. In 5:1-6, the rich are guilty of greed, injustice, self-indulgence and murder. They are promised only misery. The only other use of plousios, in 2:5, is not a contradiction to this rule, since plousios is used here in its figurative sense: those who are poor in material wealth are said to be "rich in faith." The fact that James's other descriptions of people with wealth (in 2:2 and 4:13) do not employ the term plousios does leave the term with a uniformly negative connotation in this letter. This, of course, is the heart of the case made by Davids and others in viewing "the rich" in 1:10 as non-Christians. Their argument is quite plausible and consistent with the entirety of James's message.

5. The Author's Use of Narrative

The narratives authors employ can reveal intended meaning that may be unclear from their didactic statements alone. James's narratives about the rich and the poor become additional evidence of his meaning.

1:2. The prevalent situation of James's readers is the suffering of diverse trials. Though this does not mention poverty explicitly, the "humble circumstances" in 1:9 seem to be brought up as a prime example of the trials.

1:27. The example chosen to illustrate pure religion is action on behalf of needy people.

2:2-4. Rich people may attend a Christian meeting, but they are not to be shown favoritism above the poor.

2:6-7. The rich typically exploit Christians and blaspheme the name of Christ.

2:15. The example of proper deeds accompanying genuine faith is to help a "brother or sister" who is poor.

4:13-17. Those who have any money are warned to know their complete dependence on the Lord.

5:1-6. The rich are seen as people who arrogantly abuse the power that their wealth brings.

The picture derived from this narrative material in the letter is that James wrote with a particularly intense concern for the poor, and that this was probably because his Christian readers were predominantly poor or at least suffering some significant economic hardship. There would have been exceptions—some rich people would be turning to Christ, and these would have been the referents of 2:2 (Davids 1982:108). However, in general adelphos and tapeinos became almost synonymous.

6. Conclusions from Literary Context

Adamson dismisses the view that the rich of 1:10 are non-Christians as having "little to commend it" (1976:61). He lists the weaknesses of that view as being that it is unnatural not to supply the term brother to complete rich in this context, that it requires an excessively ironical sense for 1:10 and that it makes the verse only loosely connected to the context of trials begun in 1:2. These arguments now appear rather surprising since, on the contrary, so far the view that the rich are unbelievers seems to be very possible from the syntax, quite appropriate to James's intense, imaginative, rhetorical style of writing and thoroughly in keeping with the historical context of Christians suffering trials.

Gathering together the connotations with which James uses the term, we can say that the discourse meaning of plousios is one who has material wealth and typically displays arrogance in abusing its power.

Canonical Context

We can look for confirmation or contradiction of this conclusion from other biblical writings that have a demonstrated background or affinity to James.

First, a survey of Old Testament references to the rich and wealth shows that riches are judged favorably in the Law as a blessing from God. The Writings have the largest volume of Old Testament references, especially concentrated in the Wisdom literature, where riches are generally valued and approved. It is in the Prophets that we find a significant amount of criticism of the rich as a class of people.

Perhaps the most important prophetic reference is Jeremiah 9:23-24, because of its use of both kauchastho and plousios in the Septuagint. James certainly knew the Jeremiah passage and could have applied it as Paul did in 1 Corinthians 1:31—"Let him who boasts boast in the Lord." Instead, James's emphasis is on the destruction of the rich. He seems to expect the rich to continue in their materialism only to find themselves brought low in the end, as in the common prophetical denunciations of the rich. It is a description of the rich as unbelievers.

Second, it can be shown that James's letter is saturated with a knowledge of Jesus' teachings, especially his sermons in Matthew 5—7 and Luke 6 (well documented by Mayor, Davids and Kistemaker). This gives us reason to examine the references to rich people and wealth in the teachings of Jesus to get a very important picture of what was informing James's thinking.

1. Matthew 6:19-24. Treasures on earth are not of lasting value. "You cannot serve both God and Money."

2. Matthew 13:22. Wealth has a harmful influence on people in the parable of the sower.

3. Matthew 19:23-24. It is very hard for the rich to enter the kingdom.

4. Matthew 27:57. Joseph of Arimathea is a rich man who is a friend to Jesus.

5. Mark 12:41. The rich are compared unfavorably to the poor widow who could give only a little.

6. Luke 1:53. Mary thanks God for caring for the poor and sending the rich away empty.

7. Luke 6:20, 24. "Blessed are you who are poor. . . . But woe to you who are rich."

8. Luke 12:16-21. The rich man in the parable is declared a fool.

9. Luke 14:12-14. Jesus tells his host to invite not his rich neighbors but the poor.

10. Luke 16:1-15. Jesus warns against love of money, and the Pharisees are characterized as ones "who loved money."

11. Luke 16:19-31. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man is in torment in hell, while the poor man Lazarus is blessed to be at Abraham's side.

In these references (and their Synoptic parallels, which are not listed) there is a consistently negative picture of wealth and of the rich. The one exception is the loyalty of Joseph of Arimathea. The demonstrated saturation of James's mind with the teachings of Jesus makes still more likely the conclusion that James is thinking of the rich primarily as non-Christians.

Conclusions from All the Contexts

The various contexts for trying to understand James's intent give us abundant reason to conclude that he was speaking in 1:10 with rich non-Christians in mind. Therefore he was speaking rhetorically, formally addressing non-Christians in 1:10 as well as later in 5:1-6, but saying this really for the benefit of his Christian readers, who were suffering at the hands of rich persecutors. He wrote 1:9-11 to encourage these Christians to rejoice nevertheless in their real exaltation in Christ.

Areas for Contemporary Application

When the observation and interpretation of a text are carefully done, the proper areas of application become more readily apparent. In this case, the obvious common thread between the original readers of James's letter and today's readers is the spiritual significance of material wealth. Poor individuals today know full well that the wealth of the rich is power. Poorer nations know the same reality in regard to rich nations. On both the individual and international level, then, James's earnest encouragement for "the brother in humble circumstances" has very contemporary applications.

Jacques Ellul is one cultural analyst who gives expression to modern thinking about the dehumanizing function of money. He observes that in both socialism and capitalism money has the function of measuring value, and that it therefore leads people to pursue the goal of having something instead of being something (Ellul 1984:22). He writes about Jesus' statement in Luke 16:13,

What Jesus is revealing is that money is a power. This term should be understood not in its vague meaning, "force," but in the specific sense in which it is used in the New Testament. Power is something that acts by itself, is capable of moving other things, is autonomous (or claims to be), is a law unto itself, and presents itself as an active agent. This is its first characteristic. Its second is that power has a spiritual value. It is not only of the material world, although this is where it acts. It has spiritual meaning and direction. Power is never neutral. It is oriented; it also orients people. Finally, power is more or less personal. (Ellul 1984:75-76)

This contemporary wrestling with the spiritual power of wealth suggests ready areas for current application of James's teaching.

From what we have found in James's meaning, we can define some errors to avoid in making these applications. Careful hermeneutical work shows that it would be going beyond James's teaching to make a doctrinal classification of rich people as automatically evil or to reject all that wealthy people do. This would be the error of systematizing and absolutizing what is rhetorical language. On the other hand, we are not to ignore or reduce the powerful force of James's meaning. He brings a vehement condemnation of the unjust use of materialistic power.

Three specific areas of application do suit the intention of James 1:9-11.

1. Our beliefs about wealth. The verses are a warning that material wealth is spiritually dangerous. We must believe that in our minds if we are going to act with our wills to avoid becoming like the rich in this passage.

2. Our attitudes about wealth. The verses are encouragement for Christians in hardship not to envy the rich, and certainly not to think their wealth is worth pursuing, but instead to take pride in exaltation in Christ, which is of real value.

3. Our actions related to wealth. The verses instruct Christians in the theological context for actions such as those prescribed elsewhere in the letter. We are especially to care for the needy (1:27; 2:15-17); we are not to show favoritism to the rich (2:1-4); we are not to hoard wealth or treat others unjustly or live in self-indulgence (5:1-6).

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