Would the original recipients of the book of James have read it through out loud?

Q.  In our small group we’re using your guide to biblical wisdom literature to PEJstudy the book of James.  We have a question about the first session for the book [Session 21 in the guide], in which you have us read all the way through James out loud.  Is this really what the early communities of Jesus’ followers who were sent the book would have done when they received it?  As you say, “it’s not really a letter at all” and “it doesn’t develop like one.”  So would these communities have treated it like the other actual letters they received, which we know they read out loud in their gatherings?

Of course I can’t say for certain what these early communities would have done, but I believe that they would have read the book of James out loud in one of their worship gatherings, just as they would have done for a normal letter, even though, as I explain, James is actually “a collection of sayings and observations about life, written in the same stream of wisdom teaching that flows through Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.”

I suspect these communities would have done this in order to give everyone an overview of what was in the letter, so that they could later return to particular parts of it when questions or issues arose that specific teachings addressed.

I try to highlight the character of the book as a collection of wisdom sayings and teachings (which I say are probably “summaries of, or excerpts from, messages that James gave in the synagogues of Palestine”) by instructing groups like yours, when they do this read-through, to “have people take turns reading the individual teachings that make up the book.” (I explain how to recognize them.)  By hearing these various sections read by different voices, group members are enabled and encouraged to see them as distinct teachings that nevertheless, when taken as a whole, present a coherent view of what it means in practical terms to live as a person of “faith” (James’s equivalent of the “fear of the Lord” in Proverbs).

It sounds as if your group is off to a great start, and I’m sure you’ll be getting a lot out of the rich and profound wisdom of the book of James!

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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