From: A Torah Commentary on James 1-2 Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2014
Counting it “joy” when we face times of difficulty.
In its textual setting, [t]he Greek word for joy (charan) constitutes a wordplay on the preceding ‘greeting’ (chairein).” From the practical standpoint, though, the use of the term “joy” to describe our difficulties seems rather odd. We rightfully look upon our earthly difficulties as hindrances and obstacles.
James insists that we rise above this limited perspective—true as it is—but look for the broader context that can change its ultimate significance. Notice the conditionality: “count it all joy” or “consider it all joy” (NASB). The need to encourage the mind frame argues strongly that this is not the normal way we would treat it. The way we would express the concept today would probably be along the line of the CEV’s rendering, “My friends, be glad, even if you have a lot of trouble.”
[Page 325] Of course James has no intention of being blind to reality—there is pain and sorrow in adversity. James does not deny that the process is either uncomfortable or difficult; that would be to deny the reality.
But there is also the paradoxical reason to take a certain pride (“joy”) in it as well—if it is because of one’s faithfulness to God in what one believes and in how one acts. Or if one is singled out unjustly as a target by others and there is simply no justification for it. This latter situation is the aspect James chooses to stress. He speaks of those who will treat us with snobbery because we are poorer (2:1-13) and those who will go so far as cheat us of our wages and do physical harm (5:1-6).
James insists that we should at least equally look upon these as psychological and moral opportunities. He promptly spells out the reason for this seemingly improbable attitude: they provide opportunities for growth (1:3-4). He is not a psychological masochist; instead, he looks beyond the pain and sees the potential virtues and possibilities that grow out of short term difficulties. Instead of destroying our faith, it can deepen our faith and make it more well grounded.
Hence it is not the suffering itself that is joyful but the consequences that can grow out of it. We have pain now because of persecution, for example, but we have the reward for it in heaven. Not to mention respect and encouragement from other believers as we undergo it and for having successfully endured it. The “Cowardly Lion” (cf. the Wizard of Oz) suddenly discovers he now has a heart of steel, that he is brave and can survive whatever happens. What was intended to break you has actually strengthened you.
[Page 326] A fine commentary on what James is driving at can be found in the writings of the apostle Paul, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to [His] purpose” (Romans 8:28). That doesn’t mean they will “feel” good or be enjoyable, but that the end result will be a desirable one. He stresses “the silver lining” in the dark and tumultuous clouds of trial that we encounter.
Indeed, when we consider James’ remark in light of the following verses a somewhat similar sentiment is clearly in his mind as well: “2 My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. 4 But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.”
There is an alternative interpretive way to look at the difficulties of life James is describing. It isn’t fashionable at the moment, but it once was—and since bad ideas never stay dead but for so long, it will surely come into favor once again. This shifts the joy from adversity being derived from the assured outcome to the pain itself being the cause for joy. As John Painter wisely puts it,
We must not mistake this [joy] for some form of masochism. James is neither asking the reader to enjoy painful situations nor is he instructing the reader to rejoice that “brother Ass” (St. Francis’s description of the human body) is [Page 327] being humbled or destroyed. James is not against the body nor for pain. Difficult situations just happen (therefore one “falls” into various trials in 1:2). It is the response that James is concerned with.
Another misguided approach is that we enter trials and temptations willingly and on our own initiative and regard it as particularly virtuous to do so—to throw ourselves into unneeded trials. Think those Christians in the second or third century who volunteered themselves for mistreatment and potential death in the arena. Although they were under no delusion as to what the outcome would be, weren’t they actually involved in needless voluntary suicide?
The more modern mindframe is that when we throw ourselves voluntarily into a situation that is faith or life threatening—rather than having them imposed upon us by outside forces—that God is going to specially protect us. To give an extremely mild example: I once knew a young man who was determined to share the gospel with all he knew at “Christian coffee houses.” Unfortunately for him he did not yet have the kind of knowledge level that would make him more likely to benefit them rather than have their bent understandings of Christianity lead him astray. And so it happened. A tragedy caused by good intentions triumphing over wisdom and prudence.
A lesson here: Before going into serious battle, make sure your weapons are well polished and you are more than skilled in using them. For sooner or later—you will need them. Even when dealing with folk who seem quite nice but, unfortunately, are far better versed at defending their particular “twists” on faith than you may be on untangling their arguments.
[Page 328] None of us is Superman or Superwoman. That is mere pleasant phantasy. Nor are we likely to be such on a spiritual level either.
also this possibility being behind the text’s language: “Joyful” for the same reason a warrior
will take a certain pleasure in battle--because that battle embodies what all
the preparation has been for.
Strangely enough, the first acknowledgement of the
Reginald St. John Parry makes this kind of point and applies it on a spiritual level. Intellectually I can understand and appreciate it. On an emotional level, however, I can far better appreciate the “joy” of physical combat than that of spiritual. One only endangers my body; the other my very soul if things go wrong. So his analysis I pass on without any further comment for your consideration,
It is a “hard saying” [here in James]. The anxious prayer “lead us not into temptation,” contrasts strangely with the abrupt and bold command to “count it all joy when ye meet manifold temptations.” Yet there is a true joy for the warrior when he meets face to face the foe whom he has been directed to subjugate, in a warfare that trains hand and eye and steels the nerve and tempers the will. There [Page 329] is a joy for the servant when he is engaged on the hardest task his master claims from him.
And for both, in warfare and service, moral quality and effectiveness depend largely on the power of rejoicing in the effort demanded. In fact this exhortation is another instance of the singular penetration and truthfulness of St. James’ treatment of the things of the human spirit, of psychological facts and conditions. He always cuts deep, not often perhaps deeper than in this demand.
Two final points to briefly consider.
First, the matter of disease as a trial. We should note that the kind of trials mentioned in the epistle do not primarily include disease or physical ailments / handicaps. Physical disease comes in for a two verse passing mention (James -15) while specific types of discrimination based on lack of wealth (chapters 2 and 5) are detailed and discussed at length.
Surviving and learning from these are tests of our character while disease and ongoing ailments are far more in the line of tests of our physical body. The former is not totally eliminated, especially when they become long term. Those, unquestionably, can try our faith. Indeed, it may become a greater test because it is harder to picture many forms of disease or illnesses as ever ending—at least that is the situation for far too many sufferers.
[Page 330] Second, is it “trial” or “temptation” that is involved? The Greek word that we have been discussing as conveying the issue of “trials” is one that means “test”--hence the reasonableness of “trial(s)” as a synonym--or “temptation.” The KJV and older translations used “temptations” in 1:2, while more recent renditions nearly always go for “trials” or, occasionally, a synonym such as “troubles” (New Living Translation) or “tested” (God’s Word).
Although facing adversity does
“tempt” us to despair and to give up, the more modern connotation of the term
is to tempt us to despair, give up, and do that very evil ourselves. Obviously imitation is not normally going to
be an option for either the poor man at church services (chapter 2) or the poor
abused farm worker (chapter 5).
Therefore “trial” seems the clear cut proper selection of terms.
The social and agricultural context of James’ teaching
on treatment of the poor:
the first century Palestinian economy and how it encouraged poverty.
Centralization of agriculture and the reduction of medium and small scale independent farmers. At estimated 90% plus of the population were agricultural workers. These ran the gauntlet of potential types: farmers who worked their own land, to those who rented space from others, to those who provided the paid labor needed by the property owners. Some modest size owners farmed the segment of their property they could handle and leased the remainder out to one or more tenant farmers.
[Page 331] There is a general scholarly consensus that before and during the first century A.D., the number and size of large estates grew, a process that would have forced a growing number of people into the most vulnerable category of farming personnel—landless and dependent upon the willingness of others to hire them. Resident farmers who had property to rent out might be harsh, but they at least had personal experience of what was happening agriculturally and could distinguish between hard luck tales and excuse giving.
In contrast, the economic elite commonly had farms in the countryside while they themselves lived—and made their religious, social, and political reputations—inside the cities. Those of more modest levels did the same, though you were far more likely to see a son in charge of the farm rather than the hiring of a contractor or the appointed of a specific slave to the task. Luke 15:11-32 (cf. verse 25 in particular) has been cited as the example of a prosperous town dwelling farmer using his son to manage the work. Luke 20:9-16 appears to be a case of sharecroppers with the actual owner living at a considerable distance.
The larger the ownership, the less likely for more than a minimum of exposure to actual conditions. Not to mention a maximum concern with the “bottom line” regardless of how real life problems and growing difficulties affected production. To such hands-off individuals, contempt for the poor agricultural classes and the willingness to abuse them were natural results. Under these conditions, it was easy for those lowest on the agricultural totem pole to be treated as nothing better than any slaves being used.
Agreements to work for another might be for as little as a day and a small land owner might even do that himself for supplementary income. Landless individuals would hire themselves out for extended periods of time, the maximum permitted under traditionally understood Jewish custom being for six years.
[Page 332] The individual hired for the day got their cash immediately. The person hired for a lengthier period of time might well have to wait considerably longer because of the nature of the job. In that case the economic impact would be even more savage if cheated out of part or all of what was due. Hamel Gildas provides a concise summary of the different job opportunities that were available according to talent, opportunity, and social/physical relationship to the owner:
There were great differences between laborers hired by the day or even the hour, and workers needed in year-round occupations—for instance, hoeing, the care of trees, guarding the crops—who were hired by the season or even the year. Poor relatives and neighbors allowed by custom to glean in the fields after the harvest had perhaps the least secure form of work, whereas workers having long term arrangements with landowners were in a situation not very different from that of sharecroppers. Among the more stable kinds of workers were the diggers, measurers, and guards, whose salary in kind, paid on the threshing-floor at harvest time, was shared by owner and sharecropper. Some of these workers could be sharecroppers and petty landowners who needed to supplement their income or whose contract included services on their landowner’s estate.
[Page 333] There would be times when not
as much labor was needed as at other times during the farm year and other times
when as much could be used as could be hired.
The latter situation is described in the parable in Matthew 20 about how
“a landowner went out early in the morning to hire laborers” (verse 1) and
returned to the spot several times during the day to see who else had become
available. This story argues that all
decent size communities had certain places where day laborers would gather to
be hired. (A not uncommon situation in
the late twentieth century in many places in the
The wage level of one denarius a day appears to have been the fairly standard rate of pay for the period. Talmudic references mention a laborer and a dovecatcher, however, who earned only half that—a victoriatus. With only a modest wage level, receiving it when promised was a matter of the greatest concern.
Of course wages could come in more than cash. Indeed, for some jobs such probably constituted the bulk of it. Matthew 10:10 and Jesus’ instruction to those going out under the Limited Commission have been pointed to as reasonable evidence for this (“a worker is worthy of his food”). Likewise the prodigal son’s remark in Luke about the “many of my father’s hired servants [who] have bread enough and to spare and I perish with hunger.”
In harvest season, this portion may well have included grain from the new crop itself. The Mishnah—the early part of the Talmud--refers to how some workers would be provided a place to stay as well, presumably because of the distance they had traveled.
The way agricultural production was centralized marginalized many who, at an earlier time, would not have been under anywhere near as much financial strain. That the proportion of such individuals was so high makes James’ stress on their treatment quite natural: they were everywhere and, outside the cities, they represented the vast bulk of the population. Surviving but by a treacherously narrow margin.
[Page 334] To add to the strain, in much
of the land there was no question of bringing new acreage into production. Virtually everything potentially cultivatable
was already so, eliminating the option of opening up new land. Josephus (supported by archaeological
Crops. The crops were those usable either on a personal basis or practical for sale to others:
The principal products included grain (wheat, barley, millet and rice), vegetables (onions, garlic, leeks, squashes, cabbages, radishes and beets), fruits (olives, grapes, figs and dates), legumes (lentils and beans), spices (salt, pepper and ginger), and meat (fish, cows, oxen, lambs, goats . . .). The peasant's diet consisted mainly of bread and salt, along with olives, oil, onions and perhaps some grapes. . . .
The Mishnah and Talmud mention “164 different types of irrigated and non-irrigated crops in the Jewish farmstead” of the era.
Naturally, planting and harvest times varied according to the particular product and where within the land the property was located,
Generally speaking wheat grew from late
October or early November till harvest in May or June (Shavuot). Barley was planted at [the] same time as
wheat but harvested a month earlier
(Passover, Feast of the First Fruits).
The grape harvest began toward the end of August or in September and the
olive harvest from September to December (both of which are incorporated in
Succoth). The Shephelah and
From the economic foundation of the
countryside, its revenues in the form of produce, tithes, taxes (of a wide
variety), and any rents poured into the cities, especially
International trade. How much long distance trade existed has been the topic of considerable debate. Josephus insisted that such was essentially alien to the land, “As for ourselves . . . we neither inhabit a maritime country, nor do we delight in merchandise, nor in such a mixture with other men as arises from it; but the cities we dwell in are remote from the sea, and having a fruitful country for our habitation, we take pains in cultivating that only.”
Although there was much truth to this, it should be noted that ancient authors chronically stressed the importance of agriculture and downplayed the role of regional [Page 336] and international trade. That had become the accepted societal self-portrait. The social snobbery of advanced Roman rank—senators and equestrians in particular—demanded that one publicly dismiss trade as beneath their dignity, even if actual practice shows that they had some degree of connection in spite of their professions of disgruntlement and social pretentiousness.
Josephus speaks of grain imports from Egypt in times of local shortages, showing that his remarks concerning trade carry the connotation that it was normally minimal or modest rather than non-existent. And there is, of course, a major difference between such emergencies and the normal movement of freight that would be expected. Archaeological discoveries and references in rabbinic literature argue for a wide variety of first century imports and exports, though that is a far different statement than insisting than the volume was on the scale of various other regions, especially Italy.
The Letter of Aristeas (theoretically describing the situation as of c. 250 B.C. or before but typically dated as actually written 100-200 B.C.) insists, “A great quantity of spices and precious stones and gold is brought into the country by the Arabs. For the country is well adapted not only for agriculture but also for commerce, and the city is rich in the arts and lacks none of the merchandise which is brought across the sea.”
Trade goes to where the money is.
As to exports from geographic
In the normal sense of “exports,” however, was the large scale exportation of fish. These were shipped either pickled or salted, not to mention drawing large scale sales from within the land. As Elizabeth McNamer explains,
Much of the catch was taken to Magdala. Salting of fish for
preservation had been in vogue since the time of the Ptolemies. The center of
this industry was Magdala, where fish was dried and exported to various
parts of the
There, the fish would be packed in baskets for export and the
fishermen would take it on wagons pulled by mules to shops in
to a seaport where they would be loaded on ships and taken to
We know, too, that fish from
protein, and the market for fish extensive. . . . The ordinary masses depended
on fish along with bread as a staple food. Satisfying the epicurean appetites
of the upper classes at home and abroad with dried fish was a profitable
Taxes. Between obligatory Jewish religious obligations, customs charges, and official taxes of various and varying sorts, one could anticipate paying 40% of one’s income. Whether farmer, merchant, or small scale manufacturer, it would be safe to say that whenever your product moved, it was taxed—time and time again: in harbors, at bridges, at town entrances, at any and all types of boundaries. Pliny rightly described the situation: “At every stopping place by land or sea, some tax was levied.”
As to the percentage that was paid out in these various forms, scholars often cite that 40% figure but rarely make an effort to explain how it is derived. One dissenter notes how estimates may vary downward from it, however, “In Sanders' (1992:146-69) calculation, which seems reasonable, the estimated total burden on the average peasant (assuming a 12.5% yearly land tax including taxes and tithes) was no more than 28% in most years and, in the worst case scenario, a total of about 33%, considerably less than Horsley's calculation of well over 40% for the average peasant each year.”
It would be an exaggeration to go so far as say that if it existed
it was taxed—but it would not be a massive exaggeration either. Speaking of
In Roman times the government seems to have claimed the fishing
rights in the rivers and lakes, and to have gained revenue from this source.
Customs were also collected on the trade routes. Levi was such a collector in
tolls. . . .
No doubt in Antipas’ administration, as in his father’s, there were
other taxes such as purchase and sales taxes. During the first and second
centuries there was a sales tax on slaves, oil, clothes, hides, furs, and other
valuable commodities in
workshops, on butchery, on prostitution, on the use of water in the city, and
a pasturing tax on the beasts of foreigners in that city. “It is probable, if not
almost certain, that similar taxes were levied throughout the whole Roman
Near East.” Since this was an independent city not under direct Roman
taxation, a similar system may have existed in Antipas’ cities and lands.
In fact can one imagine an alert tax official not successfully invoking any tax that it was practical to collect? Governments in all ages have rarely thought that they were bringing in “enough.” The urge for either tax rate increases or taxation on yet more items is inevitable it seems.
The Roman tax component. We know that Judaea garnered 600 talents a year (for 6-41 and 44-66 A.D. at least), but there is no certainty whether that was the entire amount or constituted only the Roman land taxes imposed upon the province. Whichever way, they wanted a specific amount and the locals were expected to provide it in good year and bad; the Jewish system was proportional, relieving at least some pressure.
[Page 340] The Jewish tax component. Every male had to provide annually a temple tax of one Tyrian didrachma. We think of the tithe (10%) being given voluntarily; in the first century, where practical, the priesthood intervened to extract it under their direct supervision or that of agents working for them. Hence the priesthood had its own functional tax system in place at the same time as the Romans and both sides had to operate in a manner that did not unduly upset the other.
This was purely utilitarian, of course; within that Standard Operating Procedure of minimum aggravation they both operated with the goal of revenue maximization. Furthermore both sides, realistically, needed each other. For example, the religious establishment needed protection for their new and accumulated wealth if things got too much out of hand. The Romans, for the other’s knowledge of the peculiarities of local custom such as property size measurement. (Acreage per se was not used; measurement was in terms of how much seed could/should be utilized on a piece of property.)
Roman tax farming. The government itself did not collect the taxes, a system that was maintained when the Romans took direct control. Customarily the government would get the money “up front” and the tax collectors (= publicans) would do the work of getting the money out of the citizenry. There was no IRS to burden, annoy, and harass the citizenry. Instead there was “tax farming” in which wealthy individuals would combine to buy the right to collect taxes.
[Page 341] Perhaps the closest 21st century parallel would be a bill collection agency—one of those which are not particularly scrupulous in what they say or do to get the money out of you and which governments often seem unable or unwilling to control.
Harold W. Hoehner provides this summary of conditions in the first century in Galilee and Judaea,
So numerous were they that it is improbable that they were all very
rich. In fact Luke has to specify that Zacchaeus was not only an [publican]
but also very rich (Luke 19:2). They seem for the most part to have been
contractors or small farmers, collecting one form of tax in a town or small
district. From the example of Levi it would seem that each had his own tax
office where he collected his particular tax.
By law they were permitted to collect a certain duty, but in many
instances they illegally collected more than the proper amount. Though not
permitted to exact arrears, they could denounce and accuse defaulters before
the officers of the state, and sometimes they gained money illegally by false
accusations. . . . This is why they were so often classified with sinners,
harlots, robbers, and Gentiles. They were hated because they used
unscrupulous means for extorting more money than allowed, and pocketing
the excess amount.
If the tax collecting techniques and amounts were not bad enough, it
added a kind of insult to injury that wealthy Sadducees played a major role in
the tax collecting syndicates of
[Page 342] To maintain their status
required maintaining good ties with the Romans, who were responsible for so
much of the tax load. Yet this
cooperation (co-opting?) assured a degree of ambiguity in popular attitudes
toward the religious faction that was in control of the
Publicans were also used to collect
Why would the rich person take pride “in his humiliation” of passing away
like “a flower of the field?”
Taking this as a reference to after death: It is easy to see why the “lowly brother” in verse 9 would take pride in his or her ultimate “exaltation” by God when ultimate rewards are given for faithfulness. It is harder to understand why the well-to-do believer would find much to be happy about in the reality of his passing away at death (verse 11).
Whatever blessings heaven will unquestionably add, he already has a pleasant and comfortable life. One whose joys and pleasures he knows first hand and by experience. What comes next he knows only by faith and would not there be at least a minor degree of trepidation because they have not seen it themselves?
Some have answered this by noting that the text does not explicitly label this rich person a “brother.” If one interprets it as the unrighteous individual (= who is a non-believer) then irony is clearly intended. The meaning would then be something along the line of, “the rich may boast in his humiliation, if he can!” The problem is there is no “if he can” involved: The unbelieving rich won’t even be considering his death and status loss as a possible good thing. It is simply too far beyond his way of thinking.
Another way is to work from the assumption that he will actually be horrified at the loss and James, in no way, expects—or anticipates—anything else. It is totally ironic; the wealthy person will find nothing of value in it and the words are to be taken as blatant (though justified) cynicism about the future.
To take this one step further and with a more positive spin to it, the difference might well be between the worldly rich who will lose all and have their pride annihilated and the Christian wealthy who will lose all but still find an exaltation or praise—not because of wealth, but due to their loyalty to Christ. Loyalty in spite of their wealth which could easily have steered them in a very different direction.
[Page 344] In more immediate terms, even the person who is a wealthy Christian might well find a certain comfort even in death. Not all, but a surprising number. When a wealthy person became converted he would be particularly vulnerable--because of his or her public status--to economic loss. Why should one’s friends pass on business opportunities to such a person? There would be a degree of “social stigma” attached as well.
Poor people were expected to act like “fools;” wealthier individuals were expected to know better. Hence death could, paradoxically, be a loss of his earthly standing while simultaneously removing more than a few ongoing pressures from his back.
Taking this as a reference to what happens on this earth: Yet another approach is to argue that the poor person is to take pride when he comes into earthly abundance and remains faithful. There is no reason for him to be ashamed if it has been honorably obtained.
But the pride comes in the successful transition from one status to something dramatically different for many simply can’t handle it successfully. The poor individual is to glory (take pride) because he has been able to maintain Christian faith in spite of the special temptations that come with his new earthly importance.
The wealthy Christian is to glory in his future plummeting into (comparative) poverty—he is no longer of the elite but simply one of the multitude--because he has been able to maintain his faith not only in the days when riches shielded him from many of the turmoils in life, but even afterwards--when these were lacking and he had to face the worst of life knowing that the only person he could count on was God.
[Page 345] Admittedly, this approach is intriguing. The probability of a dramatic increase in one’s earthly status was minimal, however; the possibility of a dramatic decrease more possible but not a major danger. Not impossible, but improbable enough that it seems an unlikely point to be making.
James seems to have in mind something that is inevitable and that will happen to all. Hence a death context seems far preferable to this approach.
Does God never tempt mankind?
If God is of an uncompromisable nature Himself (see Old Testament precedent section in the previous chapter), why in the world would He set out to injure those trying to follow Him by putting them in situations where His hope and intention is that they fail—rather than vindicate His trust in them by showing themselves steadfast? Perhaps based on such passages as noted in the preceding chapter, Sirach had the same conviction as James, “Say not: ‘It was God’s doing that I fell away;’ for what He hates He does not do. Say not: ‘It was He who set me astray;’ for He has no need of wicked man” (Sirach / Ecclesiasticus -12; New American Bible). Or as the New Jerusalem Bible perhaps more effective conveys, the point, “Do not say, ‘The Lord was responsible for my sinning,’ for He does not do what He hates. Do not say, ‘It was He who led me astray,’ for He has no use for a sinner.”
[Page 346] Yet there are passages in the Old Testament that seem to point, at least partly, in a different direction. Hence one might argue that the scriptures are of two minds as to the relationship of God to temptation: on the one hand repudiating His being behind it, while in other cases indicating that His hand could be very definitely present—in particular in Genesis 22:1-2 where we read that “God did tempt Abraham” (KJV).
Assuming that God really does “tempt” a person there are several approaches that would minimize or eliminate any contradiction with our James passage.
Generalization versus specific. Though a thing may be true in a hundred cases, in the hundred-and-first it may not be. Likewise God may not normally or usually tempt a human being--as in our James text--yet there might be situations in which He chooses to act differently. The generalization would remain non-tempting, but generalizations--by their very nature--leave room for exceptions. As in Genesis 22:1-2 and Matthew 6:13. This is not empty “harmonizing” of texts; it reflects a basic reality of existence.
There is also a profound difference between God “causing” temptation by putting us in the place or situation it occurs and being the individual or event that actually tempts us. In the former case, God is still not the direct agent of temptation and to say He “causes” it is only technically true rather than using “cause” in its usual sense of direct cause.
That God may indeed put a person in a situation that at least potentially tempts the individual to transgression seems to be clearly stated: Matthew is an allusion to that possibility when disciples are reminded to pray “do not lead us into temptation.” But here it is not God that does the tempting, but the One who has caused us to be where it occurs.
[Page 347] What is likely alluded to in Matthew is that life is inherently full of temptations, but there is a profound difference between wrestling with the “easier” ones than facing the worst that we, personally, could face—which might easily vary from that of someone else. Provoking God to the point that He believes we should be “thrown to the wolves” is never a good idea.
That still does not mean that He personally tempts us except in this very limited sense of putting us in a place where it will occur. Even then He leaves the temptation to someone/something else. And it is very questionable whether the term “tempts” applies even here since God’s nature is such that He always wishes us to triumph over the situation. In contrast, Satan always wishes us to fail and it is for that reason the negative freighted word “temptation” is used in his connection.
The Forty Days of Temptation in the wilderness has been cited as an example of dual usage events. It was designed—by its prolonged length of time alone—to be a testing of Jesus. We are specifically told that God used the Spirit to bring Jesus into the wilderness (Matthew 4:1). But the Devil is pictured as the one turning it into a time of temptation (in its usual, negative sense) as well.
Hence we may face a trial from God or a temptation from Satan (or our own inner moral weaknesses). Indeed, Ray Pritchard uses the Forty Days to illustrate that an event can be both a “trial” and a “temptation” at the same time:
God uses it to accomplish one thing in your life and Satan at the very same time is working through that event to try to accomplish something diametrically opposite. Very often God allows a trial to come for a positive purpose, but Satan tries to co-opt it for his own evil reasons. . . . Was God tempting his own Son? No, He wasn’t. Was God putting His son in a place where his Son could be tempted by the Devil? The answer to that must be yes.
(Others prefer to argue that what we have in Matthew 6 is not really a plea that God not do this, but that He prevent it from occurring. “The literal meaning of the phrase "lead us not into" is "don't permit us to be lead into (i.e. keep us from being lead into).”)
It should also be stressed that there is a difference between the outward source of temptation and the inward: Perhaps God places us in a situation where we will be exposed to the former, but God never is the source of our inward weakness itself. If the inward aspect is intended, then God is never the source of our temptation; if the former and very different sense, then God is a causative element in what happens. But “cause” would clearly be used in two drastically different senses between “God causing” the opportunity to be tempted and whatever weakness that is exploited by the temptation.
When God instructed Abraham to sacrifice the child, God was, indeed, in a sense, doing the “tempting”—but directly and aboveboard, unequivocally. But that isn’t how temptation normally worked even in Abraham’s life. Hence a difference in the usual meaning of “tempt” and “temptation” must be made between this event and normal lifestyle temptations.
[Page 349] At the most, the inward temptation is not created because God has somehow entered our hearts and pushed us toward sin. It is, rather, that at the most He has provided the opportunity for it and left us to our own decision whether to go one inch further. The decision to do that is the result of a weakness we have permitted within us or even allowed to grow and prosper rather than being eliminated; that is what makes us vulnerable. What turns potential into reality.
The inward impetus comes strictly from our own limitations, preferences, and lack of spiritual development. Without those being present the external temptation would have little or no power or be of danger to us. Since the answer of what we decide to do is from within ourselves and not imposed upon us, it makes more sense to say that God only “tests”--for He wishes us to do the right thing. In contrast the Devil always wants us to do the wrong thing; from him the very same testing would be designed as a “temptation,” for He wishes us to fail the test.
(Even if we believe that all our moral weaknesses partially derive from a genetic basis, this basic point remains true—it is we ourselves who transform a “nuisance” into a major problem by repeatedly indulging that weakness. [All makes a whole lot better inherent sense than to just latch on one or two or three and claim that these are unique cases.] God designed them to keep us humble and all too aware of our limitations. Instead we subvert that purpose into an excuse for indulgence. What causes us to sin is our yielding to our own inflamed pattern of indulgence.
(The distinction between what God does and wants and our unwisely invoking our inherent “freedom to choose to sin” remains a grim reality. External temptations tap into that reservoir in this approach as well--rather than reflecting any preference by God for us to act in that manner.)
Even if God were to “lead us into temptation,” He has also promised a way out of it as well. In other words, He does not leave us trapped with no way to avoid the sin. 1 Corinthians 10:13 puts it this way, “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”
Hence, if God were to put us into a situation where we will be tempted to do evil, He will also provide us a way to avoid it. If God “leads us” into a sin but also provides us a way out of it, is what God does best and most accurately described as a “tempting” or a “testing” of us? Has He not left which it will be up to our decision and ours alone?
If our evaluation of God’s character is that, in such cases, He really
wants us to fail, then “tempting” would be the obvious description. If our evaluation, on the basis of 1
Corinthians 10:13, for example, is that He really wants us to make our way out
as well--then “testing” would be the most accurate label for what has happened.
Assuming that God really never “tempts” a person there are several approaches that would minimize or eliminate any contradiction with our James text. (There will be overlap between what we present here and what we have already covered, since the points are relevant in both contexts.)
[Page 351] The important distinction between “tempting” and “testing.” “Test” is a value neutral term; it stresses the fact that one is undergoing an experience that will reveal what is our true or ultimate nature or of what are our higher priorities—it does not, inherently, impose a required outcome. A “test” of a certain type, for example, will show whether we have a higher priority on obeying God or having promiscuous sex: “If it moves have sex with it” (a mild exaggeration that still seems as accurate today as back in the late 1960s when this lifestyle began to break into public acceptability).
In contrast “tempt” implies that the desired result is our failure, of our doing the wrong thing in God’s sight. The difference between the two lies in motive. God “tests” to assure that we meet His standards and to assure our spiritual growth; in contrast Satan ‘tempts” in the hope to do us injury. Even when the external objective means are the same, the underlying intent is far different. Hence applying “tempt,” with its negative implications, is surely inappropriate in such a context as this.
Even if the word “tempt” is used, the actual meaning of the Hebrew term in Genesis 22 argues against that translation and the usage in other texts proves it is not the exclusive meaning. Eric Lyons has written this concise but detailed analysis in responding to the arguments of Dan Barker,
Barker formulated his argument based upon the King James Version and only one meaning of the Hebrew word (nissâ) found in Genesis 22:1. Although the word can mean “to tempt,” the first two meanings that Brown, Driver, and Briggs give for nissâ in their Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament is “to test, to try” (1993).
[Page 352] Likewise, the Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament (1997) defines the word simply “to test” (Jenni and Westermann, 1997, 2:741-742). The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament agrees that nissâ is best translated, whether in secular or theological contexts, as “testing” (Botterweck, et al., 1998, 9:443-455).
For this reason, virtually all major translations in recent times, including the NKJV, NASB, ESV, NIV, and RSV, translate Genesis 22:1 using the term “tested,” not tempted.
When David put on the armor of King Saul prior to battling Goliath, the shepherd realized: “I cannot walk with these, for I have not tested (nissâ) them” (1 Samuel , emphasis added). Obviously, this testing had nothing to do with David “tempting” his armor; he simply had not tested or tried on Saul’s armor previously.
Notice also the contrast in Exodus between (1) God testing man and (2) trying
to cause man to sin. After giving
Laying aside the critical issue of proper word usage in Genesis 22, even without that decisive solution being available, would the text require the tempting to sin scenario be the right interpretation, the one skeptics wish? Some have argued that when God instructed Abraham to offer his son, it was such a severe and demanding order that it has to take the connotation of “temptation to do evil.” Now if Abraham had, say, three sons and the command had been given to sacrifice one of them the argument would make more sense: there would have been the element of having to personally choose who should die rather than making the “simple” decision of whether to obey or not.
Here, however, there was only one son. Balanced against that was the pledge that his descendants would possess the Promised Land. Without that son there would be no descendants! How could God do both: have him offer his son and still give the Promised Land?
Logically those are incompatible concepts. Hence what happened was a test of Abraham—to see whether he believed God could do the impossible.
And, of course, God did. By stopping the sacrifice at the last minute. Of course, He could have done it by permitting the sacrifice and then literally raising the son from the dead. (Hebrews 11:17-19 argues that Abraham recognized that God had the power to do so.) Either way, it was about the most extreme test that could be given to the patriarch. To test his faith that God could and would carry out all His promises. Even when His instructions seemed to make it impossible!
We would also note that “temptation” normally has the connotation of yielding to human weakness. One could argue that Abraham was tempted by the human desire to preserve his son. We concede that as far as it goes, that is true.
[Page 354] On the other hand, as we’ve just shown, far more than this was involved. The danger of death was a distant secondary factor to this one: It was a test of how much He believed God, whether He was able to make the land promise come through in spite of the son’s death. If God truly could accomplish that, then death was merely a temporary, if shocking diversion. Abraham clearly concluded God would somehow make it work--and acted accordingly.
The difference between a temptation and a test is that if we yield to the temptation we have capitulated to our worst instincts, not our best. If we pass a Divine test, however, it shows that we have yielded to our best instincts, that of the human obligation of obedience to God—inherently a positive trait (when carried out) rather than a negative one as found in yielding to temptation. For this reason also it seems inappropriate to label the motive out of which God acted—and what faced Abraham--as a “temptation” rather than a “test.”
Word usage bends according to
context and historical setting. In this
one, “testing” clearly fits best even if we did not have the impressive
evidence of original word meaning.
Others retain the sense of “test” by putting on the text an interpretive gloss on James 1:13. Although “tempt” and “testing” are two well recognized alternate meanings of the same Greek term, this question is not involved in certain other approaches one might take. One commentator, for example, puts this gloss on the text, “When a person is testing himself, he must not say, ‘I am being tested by God’ etc.”
[Page 355] The commentator’s belief seems to be that Christians were intentionally exposing themselves to temptation as a test of their faithfulness. Perhaps my hesitancy here arises from the fact that there is nothing in the passage to suggest that this form of testing is specifically in mind. It would certainly be one thing covered by the text—but all of it?
Even so he does raise a legitimate point that we might wish to gloss over: we can tempt ourselves. That certainly fits well with the following two verses: “14 But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. 15 Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.”
When we put ourselves in a situation we know will tempt our worst instincts, aren’t we really guilty of tempting ourselves? Others will tempt us to do the wrong thing, that is certainly true. But aren’t the ones closest to guaranteed success those we voluntarily expose ourselves to?
If we have a problem with alcohol, isn’t our inner debate of whether to stop at the nearest bar on the way home simply another way to “accidentally” cause ourselves to over-indulge? Or if we have a problem with sexual loyalty to our spouse, when we debate with ourselves about making an “innocent” phone call to a good looking co-worker, what are we really encouraging ourselves to do?
Did James reject the concept of Satan leading us into sin? John Painter seems assured that this was the case, “Not only does James reject the notion that God is responsible for this testing, no suggestion is made that the devil is the source of this testing.” Instead he puts the blame wholly on us humans.
[Page 356] If James wishes to put our own responsibility front and center, what better way is there to do it than with the verbal formulation he chooses? This is in no way either an embracing or a rejection of the idea that Satan will use our own weaknesses against us. But in the final analysis it is simply the assertion that it is we ourselves who make the actual decision. Satan may tempt, but we decide.
In my preaching days I sometimes made the observation, “Satan doesn’t buy any person’s soul. They give it—voluntarily.” James is doing the same thing I did: putting individual responsibility front and center. Whatever role Satan has, doesn’t remove one iota how we react to that temptation.
In the real world, we do so much of his work for him that we can’t usually blame the problem on anything but our own, personal weakness. Is he not far more often our cheerleader in evil rather than our actual tempter? (Perhaps you would prefer a different verbal formulation, but I have no doubt that most readers grasp that this is not a denigration of Satan’s power—how foolhardy that would be!—but simply putting our own responsibility front and center as James does.)
What is the “perfect law of liberty”?
(“Perfect law of freedom,” Holman, ISV;
“perfect law that gives freedom,” NIV;
“the perfect law that sets people free,” TEV;
“the true law which makes him free,” BBE.)
The expression “law of liberty” is found in both James and . In the first passage the word “perfect” is added to the description.
Interpreted as a reference to the Old Testament—at least its core moral tradition. A traditionalist Jew might well take these as references to the Old Testament (consider the texts examined in the Old Testament roots chapter). Although we look back upon the ceremonies and rituals as constituting a kind of “bondage,” it was recognized that heeding the Torah--at least over all--did produce a vital degree of liberty that would not otherwise be enjoyed. Psalms 119:45 expresses the concept, “And I will walk at liberty, for I seek Your precepts.” The ceremonial aspect might burden and be impossible of perfect obedience; yet the law itself provided blessings promised to none who followed the polytheistic alternatives of antiquity.
On the basis of such Torah and prophetic teaching, it is not surprising to find one talmudic source insisting, “No man is free but he who labors in the Torah.” Another such source proclaims, “He that takes upon himself the yoke of the law, from him shall be taken away the yoke of the kingdom and the yoke of worldly care.”
The Old Testament describes the Torah in terms of perfection or completeness as well. “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul,” praised the Psalmist (19:7).
Some understand the reference as equivalent to the moral code of the Old Testament in particular: “the Jewish scriptures understood as instruction in wisdom for living a godly life.” Another commentator sums up the idea more concisely as “the moral teaching of the Torah.”
Yet another implies that James specifically has in mind the Ten Commandments. One commentator points to the next chapter as proof, “In chapter 2 James equates ‘law’ with the Decalogue (verses 10, 11) and apparently refers to that code here also.”
[Page 358] His argument would be even stronger by bringing in verse 12 as well:
10 For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. 11 For He who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty.
Hence we have “law” as referring to elements of the Ten Commandments and immediately after those references one to “the law of liberty,” the subject of our discussion.
In behalf of this we must also include the fact that the explicitly Christian elements of the epistle are rarely front and center; they form the atmosphere and background for a book that, by and large, could be accepted as valid counsel even by a very traditionalist Jew of the first century. If what is omitted from the Christian side of the ledger would make the Torah-prophetic moral code a reasonable frame of reference, the same conclusion is reached when we notice what is omitted from the traditionalist Jewish side of the ledger: “there is no reference to institutional or ceremonial Judaism, or to cardinal obligations of circumcision, the Sabbath, and the whole regimen of ritual observance.”
Interpreted as a reference to obedience to the Old Testament ritual system or to a combination of it and the moral system. John Painter insists that both the “pure and undefiled” language and that of “unspotted from the world” is language inherently applicable to keeping the required rituals and constitutes a powerful argument for ritual purity being under discussion. At the least, it includes such even if it is not exclusively what is in the author’s mind.
The inherent problem, as noted in the previous section, is the total absence of any clearly identifiable ritual aspect being discussed as obligatory. If one concedes his assertion that the language is ritual language, would not the more natural conclusion be that one is ritually pure because of moral purity and integrity and how one’s life is positively manifested in the world?
Painter reinforces his approach by arguing that, “Indeed there was no characteristic linguistic distinction to describe ritual and moral elements of the law.” Yet did they not recognize a real life difference between offering an animal and getting one out of a pit it had fallen into (cf. Luke 14:3-5)? Did they not recognize the difference between ceremonial impurity and the need to help a dying man? Whether they developed a “theology of difference” or not, surely they would have readily understood the distinction.
More meaningful is the appeal to James 2:10, “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all.” Which leads to the natural argument, “The assertion of the necessity to keep the whole law does not suggest exemption from certain aspects of it.” Absolutely.
[Page 360] But is that law the Old Testament? Or, in light of the actual examples James chooses to cite in the next verse, is it the moral legislation of the Old Testament? Or the Old Testament in light of the use of it established by the teaching and example of Jesus—in effect, the Jesus altered (“Christianized”) system they were expected to embrace as His followers? (Which edges us up to it being what we today would call the New Testament.)
Or is simply an argument from Divine law and the consequences of its existence? Define it in any of these senses and the conclusion would be the same: violating any part violated all of the system.
Whether taken in the sense of the moral core of the Old Testament (either the Ten Commandments or its moral teachings regardless of where found) . . . or of the entire Old Testament considered as a collective unit . . . the Psalms clearly refers to obedience to the then existing Torah system as producing liberty (which would, in effect, equate to it being a law of liberty),
41 Let Your mercies come also to me, O Lord—Your salvation according to Your word. 42 So shall I have an answer for him who reproaches me, for I trust in Your word. 43 And take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth, for I have hoped in Your ordinances. 44 So shall I keep Your law continually, forever and ever. 45 And I will walk at liberty, for I seek Your precepts. 46 I will speak of Your testimonies also before kings, and will not be ashamed. 47 And I will delight myself in Your commandments, which I love. 48 My hands also I will lift up to Your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on Your statutes (Psalms 119).
What is particularly fascinating is that though the text is written broad enough to be a reference to even the ritual texts of the Torah, there is absolutely nothing in it to suggest that those particular aspects are in mind. At least as far as how we would express meanings, the wording cries out for a moral and behavioral based framework being in mind.
Interpreting the phrase as a reference to New Testament teaching. There is much to be said for a Jesus’ teaching and apostolic frame of reference (since they preserved and spread that teaching). In James 2, the expression “law of liberty” comes immediately before a rebuke of merciless judging (). Since the latter is “an obvious reproduction” of the doctrine of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1-5), this has been taken as proof that James has Jesus’ teaching in mind when he speaks of “the law of liberty.”
Others simply note the limiting/restrictive nature of the Old Testament as described in other passages (such as Galatians 4:25 and Romans 8:2) and conclude that the phrase must refer to “the teaching of Jesus” due to the inappropriateness of the Old Testament being the intended framework.
In this connection it has been pointed out that there are explicit and implicit New Testament teachings concerning there being a distinctive law of Christ—a law that makes salvation not a mere promise but an accomplished reality. While also freeing us from what are commonly called the “ceremonial” burdens of the older religious system.
[Page 362] One writer argues this concisely in what originally appeared as a newspaper ad:
Actually, we are under law (not "the law," Mosaic Code), [but] "law to Christ" (1 Corinthians ). Therefore, we read of "the law of Christ" (Gal. 6: 2). Reflective of law, Jesus asked the question, "And why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?" (Luke 6: 46). Also, "If ye love me, keep my commandments" (John ; cf. 1 John 5: 3).
Beloved, Christ's law is a perfect law of liberty. It is perfect or complete in that it is a system which contains laws and commandments which are not grievous, and yet, it is a system of grace and liberty (1 John 5: 3; Galatians 5: 1-13). We have liberty from sin when we obey it (Acts ; Romans 6: 1-12). Christ's system is the ideal combination of law and liberty. Also, Christ's law does not contain the onerous requirements as did Moses' law (Gal. 4: 5).
In this commentator’s judgement, James’ reference is to what we today call the New Testament (and is called the “gospel” within that volume).
The prophets before Jesus had been known to repeatedly demand that the masses return to the faithful practice of the Torah. Yet Jeremiah 31:31-34 spoke in terms of the day when a new covenant would be instituted between God and the human race. Having been raised in a Torah heritage, it was the assumption of the apostles and other early Christians that the gospel of and about Jesus that they taught was this new covenant. Hence they would have found no difficulty in referring to their system of beliefs as either a new “law” or “covenant.”
Alternatively--since James is preoccupied with moral behavior--he could have in mind the moral demands of the Torah that are continued in the gospel. Assuming (1) that the epistle comes from an extremely early date (within say a decade of the resurrection) and (2) that the thrust is so clearly ethical rather than doctrinal . . . then the lack of specificity as to what “law” is under consideration makes a great deal of sense.
Whether traditionalist or a “Jesus Jew,” he might well regard it as vital to make readers of both persuasions recognize that evil is evil regardless of one’s theology. The pious traditionalist might become a Christian tomorrow, but unless he took his religion seriously enough to live it, the odds were against his becoming any more interested in the new faith than he had been in the old one. Because of the lack of commitment neither was of any real “relevance” to his or her true spirituality.
If the “law of liberty” is, effectively, the New Testament how do we explain such rhetoric as in Psalms 19 and 119?
Psalms 19:7: “The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul.” It is perfectly / completely able to change one’s nature or life—“converting” one from recklessness and rebellion to constructive service. But there were things it could not or did not do.
For one thing one was born into it; the proverbial “accident of birth”—who were your parents—determined whether you would be a Jew or not and whether you would be subject to that law or not. So whatever “perfection” it had was inherently limited to one part of the human race.
[Page 364] In contrast, the law of Christ was never imposed by the accident of birth; it was designed as one you voluntarily accepted and embraced and was designed to be open to the entire species (cf. the world wide Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20). This was something the law of Moses was never set up to do.
True, it was “perfect” to do everything it was set up to do, but the gospel is described as having been established to do even more. Although the Old Testament sacrifices are described as if giving forgiveness for sin, the Hebrews writer depicts it as inherently impossible to obtain until there was the offering of the body of Christ as well (Hebrews 10:1-17)—hence the image sometimes used of Old Testament sins being “rolled forward.”
Whether that particular image is embraced or not, the Hebrews author’s reasoning is surely sound: if the animal sacrifices could accomplish complete, permanent forgiveness there would have been an ending to sacrifice (10:2). With Jesus there was—it was the only one time sacrifice that could do it all, that never needed to be repeated again ()
Psalms 119:45: “And I will walk at liberty, for I seek Your precepts.” The way the text is worded shows that he has in mind his personal benefits from the law, “And I will walk at liberty, for I seek Your precepts.” He is not giving an over all description of what the entire law is, but of one specific aspect, of its personal impact.
In contrast, the New Testament repeatedly goes to the confining and limiting nature of that same law and stresses that with it the old limitations have vanished. [Page 365] Hebrews 8 goes so far as to teach that “if that first covenant had been faultless, then no place would have been sought for a second” (verse 7) and proceeds to quote the promise of a new covenant in Jeremiah 31 as being fulfilled in the New Testament age.
When faced with a strict Judaizing faction in the church that wanted to bring over the old regulations, Paul rebuked them by contending, “Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?” (Acts ).
Hence, from the perspective of first generation Christians who accepted that Pauline teaching, the application of Psalms 119:45 as an over-all description of the Mosaical Law would surely have been regarded as incongruous and out of place. Hence the use of Psalms type language does not provide adequate evidence that James is using it in reference to the entity of the Old Testament system.
It is hardly “hitting below the belt” to point out that many interpreters who wish to make it such a reference seriously hedge their remarks to make it apply only to the moral code or even the Ten Commandments in particular. (See our earlier discussion.)
Although defining what the “law of freedom” is is important, the stress of the text is on what it does—provide us freedom--and we must not let our discussion blot out that greater question, which can easily “get forgotten” in our natural preoccupation with answering the first one. Reginald St. John Parry provides a lengthy, howbeit effective explanation that seems to provide the explanation quite well,
This law is described further as “the law of our freedom.” The phrase is difficult. The ideas of law and of freedom are not naturally connected with each other: and the difficulty of establishing a connexion is exhibited by the obscure interpretations which commentators hazard. “A law not enforced by compulsion from without but freely accepted”—“the freedom of the law of Christ is contrasted with the bondage of minute precepts”—such paraphrases clearly do not explain.
The willing acceptance of a law does not differentiate the law as such: the absence of sanctions is not characteristic of the law which St. James is describing, a law which has a Lawgiver and a Judge: nor does it seem quite appropriate to speak of the law itself as conferring freedom: nor finally can any of these meanings be properly derived from the Greek.
The genitive after law must be either
purely definitive, as the law of
It is “our freedom,” that freedom from the power of sin which we owe to the gift of life. The new life, given by the implanted Word, is essentially the power of overcoming sin and temptation and of fulfilling righteousness. . . . The distinguishing mark of the Christian standard is that it is perfect, a complete and final expression of God’s righteousness, and that it is imposed upon men who are free, not from the duty of obeying, but from all unconquerable obstacles to obedience.
The Divine law gives us freedom from sin; hence it has to have the New Testament in particular in mind—at the very least, primarily: “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). The very same author spoke in the preceding chapter of how the Old Testament had a role in all this by referring to “the purifying of the flesh” produced by the offering of animals (9:13).
Yet that very context that stresses what the Old Testament could do in gaining us freedom, stresses that the New can do even more, “13 For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, 14 how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”
The societal situation of “the fatherlesss”—
the Roman context.
Properly speaking, an “orphan” is one lacking both parents, but our language has broadened the usage to include cases where only one parent has died. This has resulted in even Bible translations commonly using the term for both situations.
The Roman precedent: Care for a child who had a father who was reasonably well off economically. Assuming the father had a substantial amount of property or funds to justify actually writing a will, it would typically have arranged for a male relative or trusted friend to serve as guardian for the youth. In this he had extreme latitude; the trust the parent had was the operative factor and virtually any male was acceptable in the role. Roman law even permitted a non-Roman to serve in such as such.
Another system of guardianship was
developed for those who had not taken such precautions. The praetor urbanus of
Any system can be abused and this one was as well. By the second century A.D. the right to sell the property or to give it away was drastically curbed; neither could be done except under the most extraordinary circumstances. Nor could the property to be used as collateral for loans.
By Marcus Aurelius (160-180 A.D.) the praetor tutelarius was appointed as magistrate to handle cases of alleged abuse of guardianship rights and privileges. In the 200s the rules were so tightened that guardians (tutores) were extremely encouraged to prepare a detailed listing of all the youth’s possessions when they began their guardianship so they could more easily protect themselves against later accusations of misuse of their position.
[Page 369] All of this, of course, concerns property—but what of the child him/herself? If the mother was alive it is inherently probable that in the vast bulk of cases she maintained her control of the child with the guardian only handling the property matters. In other cases, both parents could be dead or the father could have explicitly stated that the property guardian was to be the personal guardian of the child as well—which would have made them the heir if the child were to die before becoming of age! Roman officials appear to have harbored a deep ambivalence and concern about how such a relationship could be abused by the “inadvertent” death of the minor.
The Romans were not above ignoring legal procedures when such a relationship had manifestly been abused,
When the future emperor Galba (68-69 A.D.)
was serving as governor in southern
[Page 370] Originally a male was under his guardian until he turned fourteen and then gained the rights of an adult to handle his own property. Recognizing the profound inability of certain fourteen year olds to manage that role and even their obstinate refusal to appoint a curator to handle particularly difficult responsibilities for them, around 200 B.C. the Romans formally required the mandatory appointment of a curator. This ran from age 14 (when the guardianship ended) to age 25.
Although the “orphans’ had the right to request a different individual to serve as curator, the dominant pattern was for the guardian to immediately move into the curator role. The two positions continued to be regarded as legally distinct and two separate offices; they were never fully merged into one in legal practice. Probably this was due to the fact that as a child reached his twenties, for example, he was clearly due far more consideration in economic decisions than might have been appropriate at a mere fourteen.
surviving wife’s position in a guardianship situation. Roman law
originally not only forbid the mother from serving as guardian for her male or
female offspring, it also demanded that such an individual be appointed for her
as well. By c. 100 B.C., the typical Roman matron had
secured the right to manage her own property, but the law retained the
necessity of male tutores (guardians) as well for certain legal
purposes. It may have been as late as
The movement to permit women
themselves to serve as legal guardians (not mere de facto ones) encountered
deep opposition in
[Page 371] Another of that time appoints
a grandmother in charge of the juvenile grandchildren and a second century one
gives an aunt similar responsibilities over her juvenile nephews and nieces. This resulted in a new legal nomenclature in
The official legal position in
In “real life” the legal niceties on the topic could be and often were subverted in the capital. Although the wife could not be given de jure control over her children, that result could still be obtained and in the 200s we read of how a father would disinherit the offspring and have the wife receive everything in the estate herself. However the will would also give have the responsibility of passing along certain specified parts of the inheritance to each child at age twenty-five. This way she was not technically legal guardian over the children’s property but over her own, while protecting the children’s right to ultimately receive it.
And then there were those who fell outside of Roman structures governing surviving children. Appointment of someone to be in charge of a juvenile made complete sense when significant funds or resources were available. Unless the child were to die or be killed, he would still grow up and be around to “haunt” the consciences of others of [Page 372] the upper classes if blatant abuse had occurred. It was also a matter of continuing the power / class structure from one generation to another: Continuity encouraged stability and without stability the entire system’s existence was grieviously endangered.
And on the personal level it envolved practical family economics. Which goes far to explain why those further down the socio-economic totem pole were typically not provided such legal protections by their fathers: It cost money that most could not afford. Hence they relied on more informal and unofficial methods—such as the sense of familial responsibility from brothers, sisters, and cousins.
The government did not encourage official intervention to help the vulnerable. In fairness to them, there was the simple fact there were so many children, aged, disabled, widows, etc.. Handling a problem that seems “doable” would be great enough a challenge; facing one that seemed inherently and permanently overwhelming, is it any great surprise that there would be a temptation not to make the effort? To “solve” the problem by ignoring it? “Out of (official) sight, out of mind?”
Add to this the fact that governmental revenue was limited even
though they were extremely creative at enlarging it. Even the
Then there were the inherent biases of how they thought and looked at the world. It was a class dominated society with a vengeance and it engaged in social snobbery at a premium. The needy you saw by the hundred in every significant town of the empire—rare would they include the Roman citizen or even one with local civic citizenship. The latter was not as prestigious as the former but it still gave you considerable regional “bragging rights.”
Everyone else? These were the “riff raff” of their day. Embarrassing “clutter” on the urban landscape. Sad, perhaps, but still inevitable.
Not can this be simply dismissed as hard-hearted male foolishness, for
the female of the species shared the same biases. Clement of
But those who are more refined than these keep Indian birds and Median pea-fowls, and recline with peak-headed creatures; playing with satyrs, delighting in monsters. They laugh when they hear Thersites; and these women, purchasing Thersiteses highly valued, pride themselves not in their husbands, but in those wretches which are a burden on the earth, and overlook the chaste widow, who is of far higher value than a Melitćan pup, and look askance at a just old man, who is lovelier in my estimation than a monster purchased for money.
[Page 374] And though maintaining parrots and curlews, they do not receive the orphan child; but they expose children that are born at home, and take up the young of birds, and prefer irrational to rational creatures; although they ought to undertake the maintenance of old people with a character for sobriety, who are fairer in my mind than apes, and capable of uttering something better than nightingales; and to set before them that saying, He that pities the poor lends to the Lord (Proverbs 19:17) and this, Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these My brethren, you have done it to Me (Matthew 25:40).
But these, on the other hand, prefer ignorance to wisdom, turning their wealth into stone, that is, into pearls and Indian emeralds. And they squander and throw away their wealth on fading dyes, and bought slaves; like crammed fowls scraping the dung of life. Poverty, it is said, humbles a man (Proverbs 10:4). By poverty is meant that niggardliness by which the rich are poor, having nothing to give away.
It wasn’t that such folk “hated” the unfortunate. That would at least exhibit an emotional response to the situation. Rather, they weren’t even worth thinking about. They are non-entities and how can non-entities matter—even when, as in the example Clement cites, when contrasted with a puppy which is ours and, therefore, does “count.”
The societal situation of “the fatherless”
—the Jewish context.
The Old Testament, as we have seen in the precedents chapter, has a great deal to say about support for both the fatherless and widow. From our perspective it is oddly silent about what happened in those cases when the widow died before the child was officially regarded as an adult. Or, perhaps, not so strangely: Most mothers don’t die before the children and even when they do, usually the father is still alive. (This is one of the practical advantages of a two parent family.)
Furthermore the phrase is typically “fatherless and widows,” broad enough language to cover both situations—survival of mother and child or either of them alone.
The common linkage of fatherless and widow together was a natural one since both had normally lost the only source of direct financial support. The orphan would grow into an adult at least theoretically capable of earning his own income and being of help to the mother if she were still alive. In the case of the widow, her main options were prompt remarriage or kin, who might or might not be able to assist her. (Never forget how often economic survival was by a painfully narrow margin. “Giving till it hurt” wasn’t just a preacher’s slogan in such cases.)
Old Testament precedent. In addition to generalized demands for sympathetic treatment of widows and orphans three texts we haven’t examined touch upon specific rights that they enjoyed. The first might be called self-help: they had the right to glean what was left in the field. The harvesters were not to go out of the way to make a 100% collection of all that was available,
19 When you reap your harvest in your field,
and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be
for the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your
hands. 20 When you beat your olive trees, you
shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, the
fatherless, and the widow. 21 When you
gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the stranger, the fatherless,
and the widow. 22 And you shall remember
that you were a slave in the
The connection of this generosity with the past history of Israel as Egyptian slaves in verse 22, could be taken in either (or both) of two ways: If they wished to complain about the pseudo-hardship of the restriction, they should remember that as slaves rather than free they had had to endure far worse. Alternatively, they owed Yahweh their freedom; how then could one begrudge this simple humanitarian request?
The world was a harsher world for the poor than it is in “advanced” technological countries today and these were laws that fit the needs and abilities of the society. As Carl S. Milsted, Jr., writes,
How do you provide food for the poor when food is expensive, when
growing food means walking behind a pair of cantankerous oxen instead of
riding in an air conditioned tractor? . . . The gleaner laws implicitly
recognize these difficult realities. They . . . forbade farmers to do the low
margin efforts, leaving that work for the poor. Farmers were forbidden from
reaping the corners of their fields (where the weeds concentrate) or picking
up dropped sheaves of grain. Farmers were also to make only one pass
through their trees and vineyards. Late ripening fruit was left for the poor to
While the well off were forbidden to do the last bits of work, this work
was still done – by the poor. The poor had to work to get their “free” food.
But it was work that the poor could do. Gleaning requires no capital.
Gleaning requires no specialized skills or education. Gleaning requires no
long term planning or deferred gratification. Gleaning requires no social
skills or willingness to follow orders. This is work [within the capacity of
And what of when it wasn’t harvest time? However much might be gleaned, it would certainly not be likely provide enough for more than a few weeks or months under the best of conditions. When the crops were still growing there was also a right to eat of the crops when passing through the fields, “24 When you come into your neighbor's vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes at your pleasure, but you shall not put any in your container. 25 When you come into your neighbor's standing grain, you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not use a sickle on your neighbor's standing grain” (Deuteronomy 23).
[Page 378] This last right was not limited to just the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, but was available to anyone. Jesus’ disciples could justify doing such (Luke 6:1) by this right of innocent passage.
The fatherless and widows also had the right to receive an invitation to the Pentecost feast, being included as if they were family members or, at least, members of the household,
9 “You shall count seven weeks for yourself;
begin to count the seven weeks from the
time you begin to put
the sickle to the grain. 10 Then you shall keep
the Feast of Weeks to the Lord your God with the
tribute of a freewill offering from your hand, which you shall give as the Lord your God blesses you. 11 You
shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you and
your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the
Levite who is within your
gates, the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are among you, at the place where
the Lord your God chooses to make His name abide.
12 And you shall remember that you were a slave
Again we have the implicit
admonition not to begrudge the assistance (verse 12). Slaves were far more often destitute than having
any significant resources—much less being prosperous. Hence calling your ancestors in
[Page 379] Furthermore, the implication in verse 11 seems to be that it was not the responsibility of “the fatherless and the widow” to ask for permission to join you, but your obligation to make the offer. Any one with the finances to afford such assistance would surely have known of those who could benefit by such generosity. Some would be those encountered on a semi-regular basis and have loosely defined friendships with one or more family members. What better way to show good will than to offer them the opportunity to join in a Feast that would normally be beyond their resources?
Finally such folk had a right to assistance
from the tithe every third year. Although
the tithe (or its cash value if the distance to travel was too great,
Deuteronomy ) was normally
taken to the
28 At the end of every third year you shall bring out the tithe of your produce of that year and store it up within your gates. 29 And the Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with you, and the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do (Deuteronomy 14).
[Page 380] The storage aspect () argues that it was to be distributed over a period of time rather than all in one fell swoop. That, in turn, would require that the locals arrange some local distribution schedule to share out the product so long as it lasted. Being intended for local distribution, they would be in the best position to determine who was in need and to what degree and to determine whether any recent local arrival actually fell into the prescribed categories.
Although some insist that this tithe
was in addition to that to be sent to
The specifying of every third year is fascinating due to its limitation—surely there would have been such needy individuals around every year. Since the tithe was primarily for a spiritual rather than a welfare purpose, however, this approach constituted an ongoing reminder of how important it was to meet obligations in both areas.
If one regards this as an additional tithe, then one seems required to assume that this was simply the maximum deemed practical: Make the obligation too heavy / often and there would surely have been a serious temptation to try to “nickel and dime” the way around its general practice. A third year obligation minimized this danger. It also constituted a reminder to the prosperous that the poorest deserved help since even the priestly tithe was openly shared with them upon that occasion.
Jewish custom in the post Old Testament era. Since “widows and orphans” are so linked in the Hebrew literature, it seems that there was an inherent assumption that the widow would take personal and direct charge of the child. Since the vast bulk of the [Page 381] population was not all that greatly well off, there would seldom be the temptation to alter custom except when both parents had perished or when prying the child away might be of significant economic advantage to the other party.
If the mother died, then there were, presumably, relatives who would take upon themselves the raising responsibility. And, hard as it is for an urbanized society to sometimes realize it, an agricultural, non-industrialized society needs all the hands it can get—even young ones come in handy. Hence there would likely be either family or non-family neighbors willing to undertake the responsibility if worse came to worse.
Such situations inevitably arise in any society and we saw that Roman and Greek ones had established procedures for the oversight of the child of the prosperous whether the wife was dead or not. In Jewish tradition no such provisions are spelled out until the Mishnah (c. 200 A.D.): when the concept of guardianship is finally broached it conspicuously does not use a Hebrew term but the Greek word epitropos. This has been used to conclude that the Jews did not have formal law but rather customary (and presumably de facto binding) procedures, with leading figures in the local community making the decision.
That there were some type of generally assumed procedures has been deduced from the deuterocanonical book of Tobit where we read that “I would give to those to whom it was my duty, as Deborah my father’s mother had commanded me, for I was left an orphan by my father” (Tobit 1:8, RSV). This sounds as if he went directly under her guardianship—unlike in the Roman tradition where a woman was excluded from such a role.
[Page 382] But the text actually is only talking about where he received his moral instruction and in many households that was (and is) from the dominant female of the family. Hence the roles of guardian and teacher may be interlocked or confused. In such a context it should be remembered that a grandmother was inherently more likely to have “time on her hands” in a reasonably prosperous family than any one else. The odds were that her son and daughter-in-law would be just as happy to allow her to assume the responsibility without protest.
Part or all of a young person’s
inheritance in the days of Seleucus IV (187-175 B.C.) are known to have been
converted into silver or gold and retained, for safe keeping, in the
The societal situation of “widows.”
In James they are described as suffering “trouble” (“distress,” NIV, NRSV; “affliction,” NAB). The term could refer to any hardship that came their way. The primary cause of such hardships, however, would most likely “be that of poverty, and the lack of protection and legal status that came with the death of the head of the family.” Now if she were fortunate enough to come into a large inheritance, her future might be as stable as in the past: In all ages, “money talks.”
The widow as target. Even
assuming she was at least modestly well off, she was still like the aged of
both genders in early 21st century
If a widow were fortune enough to have even a half-way decent inheritance, there would be those quite willing to separate her from the money or property, even supposedly devout and pious individuals. Jesus passionately rebuked those scribes and Pharisees who “devour widows’ houses” for doing exactly that (Matthew ). (Although lacking in adequate documentation for “critical” texts of the New Testament, such language is unquestionably documented of the scribes in particular in Mark and Luke .)
This abuse might be done, for example, by funding them in their life or having the property pass to them upon death. Alternatively one could imagine them “getting themselves named as executors of their estates. Once in that position, they not only took an ordinary fee for their services but embezzled funds far beyond that.” There were varied ways to produce the same evil result.
[Page 384] Abuse was true of widows in Roman society as well, especially if they were young and unused to the exercise of household authority and were fortunate enough to carry with them a decent inheritance. Jerome gave the hypothetical words that were easily found in such a youthful widow, “My little property is shrinking day by day, my inheritance from my ancestors is being scattered, a slave was rude to me, my maid took no notice of my orders. Who will appear for me in court? Who will answer for my land-tax? Who will educate my little children? Who will train my slaves.”
John Chrysostom spoke of how a widows’ problems were much the same where he lived. He provides this summary of the lament one was likely to hear,
A multitude of troubles rushes in upon me. I am exposed to all who are willing to injure me. Those of my servants who formerly feared me now despise me and trample upon me. If anyone has been benefited, he has forgotten the benefit he received from [my spouse]; if anyone was ill-treated by the departed, to return the grudge against him, he lets loose his anger upon me.
Of course youthful fortune hunters—or the parents who saw a way to economically benefit their son—would easily be on the prowl as well. With just as sugar coated words as the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus denounced.
The remarriage option. This need for either remarriage or family assistance would be pervasive among the less well off elements of society—which were dominant. Those with better economic conditions often had greater flexibility,
The dowry provided a woman with a measure of security both while
married and in the event of her husband’s death. Dowry laws permitted
the Jewish wife to “share in her own property during marriage.” In the
event of a husband’s death, the laws provided that the widow and her
children could continue living in her deceased husband’s house. She had the
option, though, if she preferred, to return to her parents’ home. As an
additional measure of security, the widow could keep part of her dowry,
although the amount was limited to about one year’s livelihood. Someone in
the household became “the lord of the dowry” and assumed responsibility for
a widow’s support.
Evidence indicates some women, especially those from wealthier
families, managed the family’s financial affairs in the husband’s absence. In
such cases, the wife would continue those responsibilities if her husband died.
Some widows thus fared quite well. Widows who enjoyed a degree of
financial independence were able to provide for themselves. . . .
If they lacked experience in economic matters they were still potential targets of the type of men we were just discussing. If they lacked sufficient personal “gravity” they were still likely targets for the servants who wondered whether she could maintain control in the household. The recognition of such personal limitations or old fashioned loneliness would prompt many widows to wish to continue in a family relationship with a new husband.
In fact, remarriage might not only be possible but strongly desired--though it is likely they often had the same problem as today—too few desirable choices (see the next section). On the other hand, Paul clearly considered remarriage a viable option so long as you were under sixty (1 Timothy 5:9; cf. verses 11-12). There was no arbitrary cut-off point in his mind.
From a Christian standpoint, societal conditions might be so severe that it would be outright unwise to begin a new relationship in a period that was tumultuous and fraught with danger. Hence Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7:8: “I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am” (note the context in the surrounding verses).
The same words of caution would have been obvious to many traditional Jews when the Great Revolt erupted in the mid-60s. Triumphant at first, even the most optimistic surely recognized that it was going to be a long struggle. When the tide started to turn, prudence would surely have made many hesitant to remarry until all was settled.
During the horrible Year of Four Emperors (68-69 A.D.), it is most unlikely that many Roman widows were thrilled with the possibility of entering a new relationship. And many would be suitors were surely plagued with doubts as to personal survival in such a tumultuous period. Not the environment that would encourage prompt marriage!
The problem of finding a new mate. In Roman society older men, who had outlived a spouse, tended to avoid remarriage though taking a woman as his ongoing “official” concubine was commonly considered a reasonable alternative. A surprising number of younger men, however, passed over the opportunity of remarriage as well.
[Page 387] The
widow’s best hope lay in a male who was without children or who needed a wife
to oversee the raising of a young child whose mother had died. Assuming a male was of reasonable economic
standing, one would have expected similar individuals to have been a primary
source of second husbands in Roman controlled
Even so a significant percentage of widows found a new spouse in both Roman and Jewish cultures, especially in the latter. Rabbinic endorsement of her right to remarry—because her spouse was dead—was required. Normally two adult Jewish males were required to verify it in order to obtain this, though rabbis were known to permit as few as one and even permit confirmation by Gentiles or women.
In Jewish society, a widow theoretically should have been married by the husband’s brother—but this only applied if there were no children to carry on the husband’s name and if the male was willing. A precise procedure was established for public rebuke if he wasn’t (Deuteronomy 25:5-10), which itself shows that it was anticipated that there would be a sufficiently large number of cases to require that such an option be available.
Alternatives for the economically marginal and destitute. Most widows, whether Jewish or Gentile, were unlikely to have anything of real substance at all. Today we use the expression “living paycheck to paycheck.” Although they did not have paychecks back then, the practical reality was similar—just enough money to get by on—that earned by hired labor, paid (typically) on a daily basis. Death obviously cut off the pay. If an artisan, the widow was left with his unsold products and then nothing revenue producing.
[Page 388] How immediately desperate she is depends upon her husband’s success in life, his level of unpaid debt, and how he has arranged the disbursement of whatever is left at the time of death—after these expenses, how much will she really have? Even for some very prosperous individuals, the amount of income “in hand” or not otherwise obligated, could quickly throw her life into uncertainty and turmoil. This was the situation among Gentiles and since males know no ethnic line in their wisdom, success, and good or bad planning, such things would affect the Palestinian widow as well.
If she is fortunate she has a paid for roof over her head. If it’s provided as part of the pay for working for someone else, she doesn’t even have that.
And depending on how young she is she may have small children.
Without a new mate, she was facing a world in which the opportunities for self-support were minimal and would be even smaller as she aged. Her own family might be willing to take her in, but if her husband’s affairs had led them to move somewhere significantly far away, that option could easily be close to non-existent. If the betrothed lived far away at the time of marriage, the option was also far less likely to be available.
If they had offspring (children or grandchildren) available who could help, though, Paul insisted that they do so (1 Timothy ) and made plain it was a moral insult not to do it (1 Timothy 5:4). The “harshness” of his words may hint at an unwillingness in the society of the day to undertake such additional obligations.
But since the words are aimed at the families of Christian widows the natural assumption would seem to be that “Christian” children were trying to escape their obligations as well; some have suggested that they were passing it off on to the church. Hence if the parents weren’t assisted, it would be “the church’s” fault and not that of the children—at least in their own self-centered minds.
“Orphans and widows” to be assisted by individual Christians:
So what is the intended role for the church?
A textual overview. Three words in this verse deserve brief analysis because they are central to the writer’s point and it is easy to miss their true significance. The first is “religion” and the Greek term refers to “the external acts of religion” rather than to what is in our hearts (or which we claim is there). The point is made more powerful by designating the specific nature of the religion of the listener: In effect, “If a person believes that he is a good Christian” he or she must manifest this behavior pattern to be truely religious.
The second is the kind or quality of religion under discussion, one that is not only “pure” but also “undefiled,” i.e., “unstained” or uncorrupted (the flip side of the same idea). One expresses the idea from a positive direction and the other from the negative. Both must be present if either is to be there.
The third key word is “visit.” In English that suggests a casual drop in to say hello, smile, and exchange a few words. In Greek the term requires a far more active involvement, to “look after” or “to care for” their needs. It means a personal role far beyond mere rhetoric. You are there, but it’s to do far more than talk, it is to help with or provide what is needed.
of the church. With no other viable options the woman sixty
or older was to be assisted and the rules for accepting them and how they were
to act are laid out in 1 Timothy 5:3-10.
From its earliest days in
Why the age of sixty? From the practical standpoint, that is surely the practical time when physical difficulties begin to get the most severe and the opportunities for work of any kind is the least. (It is claimed that we are now getting beyond that and this is part of why the standard retirement age has climbed from 65 to 67 and may go higher.) As noted earlier, Paul considered a woman as potentially marriageable up until then (1 Timothy 5:9; cf. verses 11-12).
James stresses that “pure and undefiled religion” for individual Christians includes “visit[ing] orphans and widows in their trouble.” James seems to have widows with still dependent children in mind since many youthful widows would be in such a situation, putting even more pressure upon them. If a distinction were made between the two categories of widow and fatherless here (rather than both being lumped together because of a parent-child relationship), we would expect the wording to be “visit both orphans and widows in their trouble.”
In vivid contrast, the church as a collectivity or organization is never referred to as providing assistance specifically targeting orphans as a distinct category or as subsumed within the category of widow (= widow’s dependent). Which makes total [Page 391] sense when working within the Pauline framework: if to be an official long-term church supported widow required an age of sixty, how likely was there to be a young child? Indeed such younger women were not regarded as qualifying for such indefinite assistance as even a quick reading of 1 Timothy 5:3-8 surely shows! (That did not remove the responsibility of individuals in such cases, in accord with what James was urging.)
Of course when regarded as grown, there was the concept of adult relief for needy believers—a concept found both in texts describing it being done (Acts 2:45) and in passages describing funds being contributed from other places to help the local congregation provide such aid (Romans 15:25-27; 1 Corinthians 9:1-5, 12).
There is, of course, superficial tension between the two ideas of general adult relief and widows not being enrolled until sixty. But there is clearly no contradiction because adult relief programs were never intended to be permanent, while assistance for aged widows was clearly designed to be exactly that.
We seem to have that kind of situation in Acts 6 as well, where the
needs of widows being neglected in the distribution became a troublesome issue
Of adult relief in general, Paul wrote, “Even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat” (2 Thessalonians ). Hence when work was available those being helped were to take advantage of the opportunity. Male or female. Limited though the opportunities might be.
No provision for direct church care of the fatherless. To us this may sound quite weird indeed. For the silence to make sense surely requires us to assume that the New Testament is working on some unstated but pervasive assumption. The most likely is that orphans will not exist as a distinct class separate and apart from their mothers and that any care for the mothers would, simultaneously, be care for the child. Hand-in-hand with this is that true orphans that are from Christian homes (i.e., no father or mother surviving) will always find solace and refuge in the homes of kin or, at worst, other believers. (Like Origen was adopted after his father had been martyred.)
How did the church finance its benevolent obligation in regard to widows? Since the Corinthian congregation and others were instructed to take up a weekly contribution for the benefit of Christians back in Palestine when they were going through a particularly bad period (1 Corinthians 16:1-4), this was clearly a time limited contribution, a “special needs contribution” if you will. Although we are not informed of how they were to gain the funds for their local widows’ support, the most natural assumption would be that it was part of a weekly contribution take up for their own, local needs. (This assumes, of course, that the number were such that an organized program for them was already needed,)
That it would be set up, initially, as a special offering for a limited time seems inherently unlikely if the number were more than one or two or three elder individuals since certain of them were likely to live on for a much longer period. Since it would be an ongoing need, the precedent of a weekly contribution including benevolent purposes would seem to be all but guaranteed.
Church treatment of widows and orphans in the second and subsequent early centuries. Three questions immediately arise.
First is how was it financed by the church?
Carolyn Osick and David L. Blach concisely describe what is known of the later shift in how the funds were gathered,
Justin [c. 165 A.D.] describes a collection taken up at the weekly Eucharist to help orphans, widows, the sick, and others in need.
Tertullian speaks of a monthly voluntary collection that goes to the relief of those in need, including orphans and old abandoned slaves.
By the middle of the third century, the church of Rome was reputed to be supporting fifteen hundred widows and other needy dependents.
The second question is how it was organized. What we conspicuously do not have is the modern day sponsoring church or independent organization. What we do have is the expansion of the church’s area of responsibility as a group—rather than individual behavior as in James 1:27.
We do not know why this was done. It would be reasonable to speculate that it was based on an expansive reading of Acts 6:
1 Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was
multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists,
because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. 2 Then the
twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable
that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. 3 Therefore,
brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the
Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; 4 but we
will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
In James 1 the subject is the fatherless and the widow; in 1Timothy 5 it is widows alone; in Acts 6 it is widows alone. In 1 Timothy 5 widows were not to be enrolled unless they were at least sixty, making it extremely improbable that there were any fatherless dependent upon them. Since it was the apostle Paul who set that minimum age and since it was the original group of apostles that set up the procedure in Acts 6, should we not assume—for consistency of the texts and apostolic custom as well—that this aid was specifically for the aged alone, i.e., those who were at least sixty?
In other words, that assistance for widows with minor age children was to be still handled by individuals. Or, even better, their own offspring or extended families (cf. 1 Timothy 5:4).
Whether one agrees with this deduction or not, it is easy to see that as numbers increased the temptation would be great to consolidate all assistance that would be available on an ongoing basis. Whether good or bad, the motives here were surely strictly benevolent rather than religio-bureaucratic empire building.
In the Rome of the days of the Shepherd of Hermas we read of the woman apparently in charge of at least the teaching of widows and orphans, “You will write [Page 395] therefore two books, and you will send the one to Clemens and the other to Grapte. And Clemens will send his to foreign countries, for permission has been granted to him to do so. And Grapte will admonish the widows and the orphans. But you will read the words in this city, along with the presbyters who preside over the Church” (Vision 2, Chapter 4).
From this description it has been deduced that she was also in charge of them and their welfare—a mild interpretive reach and, at the minimum, a reasonable one since the person in charge of teaching the group we would most naturally assume to be the appointed leader of it as well. And a mixed widow-orphan audience would not normally connote a “Bible class” situation since they are way different age brackets.
Would something more not have to be implied, a context in which both would be involved, i.e., a welfare one? Now, if the reasoning is sound, note also that the expression is “the widows and the orphans,” as if younger widows were now encompassed within the church’s collective welfare role. Not just those sixty years of age or older.
No other ancient “Christian” text speaks of a women performing such a
function. Not until we leap forward,
literally, over a thousand years (to the twelfth century) do we find women
functioning in such a role. This occurs
at a monastery in
[Page 396] Since similar perceived needs tend to be met in a similar manner, it would not be surprising if a comparable procedure (if not terminology) did not spring up at least periodically in different locations at earlier dates as needs and circumstances seemed to merit.
A significantly different approach, broadly reminiscent of the twentieth century’s orphanages can be found, however, in the early 300s—as we will examine in the next section.
The final question we need to answer is the authority in charge of the fatherless. As congregations evolved in the direction of having a presiding elder and then a bishop in distinction from the presbyters, at least titular authority would inevitably pass into his hands as well. This situation can be documented in the Syrian Didascalia Apostolorum from the early 300s, where a detailed outline is presented of what should be done for such youths and the bishop’s pivotal, central role in it.
Although he is the ultimately “answerable” one, the bulk of work was apparently done through the rough equivalent of a boarding school financed by the local Christians. It provided help to both girls and boys. Boys were given training in a trade and both genders were provided basic education.
Not surprisingly, as the document itself urges, well off Christians were to willingly share in carrying the financial burdens for the effort and stressed that their marrying age sons should be steered toward choosing a spouse from the school. The bishop was to intervene personally, as needed, to assure this was done.
 Leahy, 370.
 Colson, 19.
 Morris, 79.
 Scott Devor, “Count It All Joy.” Part of the Ligonier Ministries website. At: http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/counting-it-all-joy-1787/. [June 2012.]
 McKnight, James, 72.
Painter, “James’ Message: The Literary
Record,” in The Brothers of Jesus:
James the Just and His Mission, edited by Bruce Chilton and Jacob
 Reginald St. John Parry, A Discussion of the General Epistles of St. James (London: C. J. Clay, 1903) 33-34.
 McCartney, 85.
 Adamson, James: The Man, n. 70, page 240.
 Harland, 520.
 Harland, 515.
Hamel, Poverty and Charity in Roman Palestine. Slightly revised version of the 1990 book of
the same name, issued by
 Ibid., n. 41, 138.
 Adamson, James: The Man, 241.
 Ibid. 242.
 Hamel, 139.
 Adamson, James: The Man, 243.
 Adamson, James: The Man, 243.
 Hamel, n. 48, 139.
 Ibid., n. 49, 139.
 As quoted by Hamel, 84.
 Harland, 515 (scholarly citations omitted).
 Center for the Study of Early Christianity, 31.
 Ibid., 50-51.
 Harland, 515.
 See the citations in Harland, 518.
 Josephus, Antiquities, 15.299-316 (of 25 BC) and 20.51-52 (of 46-47 AD), as cited by Ibid.
 For a fine, concise summary see Ibid., 518-519.
 Aristeas, Letter of Aristeas (R. H. Charles translation), 114-115. Part of the Early Jewish Writings website. At: http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/letteraristeas. html. [August 2012.]
 Hamel, n. 14, 85, citing AJ 14.206.
 Ibid., n. 14, 85.
 Adamson, James: The Man, 249.
 Ibid., 235.
 Harland, 521; another scholar cited estimates 20%-35% (521).
 Harold W. Hoehner, Herod Antipas: A Contemporary of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Academie Books / Zondervan Publishing House, 1980; original edition copyright 1972), 76.
 Hamel, 133.
 Ibid., 136.
 Ibid., 135.
 Ibid., 136.
 Hoehner, 78.
 Adamson, James: The Man, 233.
 For the grammatical argument that the rich person has to be a believer see Nystrom, 55.
 Songer, 109.
 Guy N. Woods, A Commentary on the Epistle of James (Nashville, Tennessee: Gospel Advocate Company, 1964; 1976 reprint), 46.
 Laws, 63.
 Guy N. Woods, 46.
 This wording establishes the best parallel with the situation of the poor just discussion. Ibid., 48, which presents the explanation about the poor given in our text, gives four alleged advantages the humbled rich individual has but only hints at this one.
 Eric Vestrup and JPH, “Does God Tempt?” Part of the Tekton Education And Apologetics Ministry website. At: http://www.tektonics.org/gk/godtempt.html. [June 2012.]
[Page 403]  Ray Pritchard. “Does God Lead His Children into Temptation (Matthew )?” A October 2009 sermon. Part of the Keep Believing website. At: http://www.keep believing. com/sermon/2009-10-09-Does-God-Lead-His-Children-Into-Temptation/. [January 2012.]
 von Wolfgang Schneider, “Can God Lead Into Temptation?” Copyright 2009. At: http://www.biblecenter.de/bibel/widerspruch/e-wds19.php. [June 2012.]
 Sidebottom, 22.
 Eric Lyons, “Does God Tempt People?” Part of the Apologetics Press website. Copyright 2009. At: http://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category= 6&article=2679. [June 2012.]
 Yoder, 1176.
 Painter, “The Power of Words,” 263.
 As quoted by Sidebottom, 36.
 As quoted by Laws, 87.
 Gench, 29.
 Jerome H. Neyrey, “James,” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, ed. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1989), 1222.
Clever, “A Brief Study on ‘The Law of
66-67. Cf. the remarks on this theme by
 Painter, “The Power of Words,” 250, 251.
 Ibid., 251.
 Plumptre, 69.
 Williams, 107.
 Cf. on , Bratcher, 17-18.
 For reminding me of Acts 15 and Romans 8, thanks to Cecil Willis, Truth Magazine (November 18, 1971) as reproduced on the Truth Magazine website. At: http://www.truthmagazine.com/the-perfect-law-of-liberty. [June 2012.]
 Parry, 27-28.
 Timothy S. Miller, The Orphans of
 Ibid., 34.
 Ibid., 34-35.
 Ibid., 35.
 Ibid., 35.
 Miller, 36.
 Ibid., 36-37.
 Ibid., 37-38
 Ibid., 38.
 Ibid., 39.
 Ibid., 39-40.
 Ibid., 39.
 Ibid., 40.
 Carl S. Milsted, Jr. “The Gleaner Laws” (2004). At: http://www.holisticpolitics. org/GodsWelfareSystem/Gleaner.php. 2004. [January 2014.] I have edited out some of the politically charged language, though the reader may wish to consult the original to see Milsted’s effort to apply the gleaning principle in a more modern social context.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 43.
 Laws, 89.
 Charles Harris, “The Life of the Widow: Part 6, Church Responsibility to Her.” Part of the
 Jerome, Epistle 54.15, as quoted by Susan Treggiari, Roman Marriage: Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 498.
 Quoted by Efthalia M. Walsh, “Wealthy and
Impoverished Widows in the Writings of St. John Chrysostom,” in Wealth and
Poverty in Early Church and Society, edited by Susan R. Holman (
 Treggiari, 489, citing Horace, Epp. 1.1.78 and Matt. 2.32.6, 4.56.1.
 Batson, Jerry W. “Widowhood in Jesus’ Day.” Biblical Illustrator, Winter 2010-2011, 26-29. At: http://www.lovebaptistchurch.com/1210_WidowhoodJesusDay.pdf. [January 2014.]
 Jerry W. Batson, “Widowhood in Jesus’ Day,” Biblical Illustrator (Winter 2010-2011), 29. At: http://www.lovebaptistchurch.com/1210_WidowhoodJesusDay.pdf. [January 2014.].
 Treggiari, 501.
 Carolyn Osick and David L. Blach, Families in the
New Testament World: Households and
 Ibid., 176.
 Bratcher, 18.
 Plumptre, 62. Cf. Bratcher, 9; Burdick, 161; Colson, 25.
 Blomberg and Kamell, 115-116.
 Osick and Blach, 167.
 Timothy S. Miller, 44.
 Ibid., 44-45.
 A conclusion that Timothy S. Miller, 45, adopts though with considerably different language.
 Ibid., 45-46.
 Ibid., 46.
 Ibid., 45.