Some words accompany us throughout our lives. For some, a song, a poem or a book. For me, a short text, found in the Christian bible. In the anglophone world, it is known as the Epistle of James; to the rest of the world, the Book of Jacob. I first encountered it as a searching agnostic, twenty-five years ago. At the time I annotated my own copy of the New Testament with the inscription, “The most beautiful book in the bible.” Book is an exaggeration, for it is but a letter, long enough only to fill a few sides of paper. In any case, it is a text I treasure, returning to often as the years pass by, its parables frequently springing to mind in the midst of periods of trial, or as I ponder a community’s response to affliction.
Alas, this epistle if not well-enough appreciated amongst Christians, at least in the Protestant tradition. Martin Luther famously derided it as an Epistle of Straw, while over a thousand years earlier, Eusebius of Caesarea declared it a disputed text of doubtful authenticity. My own view is that it is best appreciated by those outside the Christian milieu, who are capable of seeing it in its own right, without viewing it through the prism of Pauline theology. Perhaps that is why I embraced it as an agnostic and still hold onto it as a Muslim today.
To be sure, the text certainly seems to hark back to the Jewish Christian ancestry of early Christianity, a period more recognisable to Muslims than the post-reformation era. The presumed author, Jacob — Ya’akov in Hebrew, Yaqub in Arabic — was clearly Jewish. In ancient Palestine, the name Jacob was common, shared as it was with that great old testament patriarch, who according to biblical tradition wrestled with faith in pursuit of blessing, until he was conferred the title Israel. According to the new testament, Jacob was the brother of Jesus, though academics differ amongst themselves as to whether this was a biological brother or a spiritual brother in the sense of a disciple. In English literature, he is often referred to as James the Just, leader of the early Jerusalem Church. Robert Eisenman argued that he was the the Righteous Teacher referred to in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
For me, he is just the author of words that I recall from time to time, when faced with events unfolding around me. In the past week, witnessing untruths cascading across social media, I recalled once more: “What a vast forest can be set alight by the tiniest spark!” When encountering men setting themselves up as scholars, I remembered: “Not many of you should become teachers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” Though nearly two thousand years may separate us, I find his words so pertinent even for today. An ancient Book of Assistance, perhaps, or a letter from a trusted friend. Words addressed to believers two millennia ago still speak to me today.
Consider it pure joy, my brethren, when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces patience. Let patience finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.
Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.
On practising what you preach
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
If any among you considers himself to be religious but does not bridle his tongue, he is fooling his own heart. Such religion is worthless. Pure religion before God our father is this: to look after the orphan and the widow during their hard times, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
On aiding the poor
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
On practical faith
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
On controlling the tongue
Consider what a great forest is set on fire by the tiniest spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by Gehinnom.
On good living
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
On inner desires
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
On submitting to God
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
On judging others
Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbour?
On making plans
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will [inshallah], we will live and do this or that.”
On helping others
My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.
I am grateful to recall this ancient wisdom which descends on me whenever I have the blues. Though some gentile Christian Fathers chose to doubt the authenticity of this short letter, it is clear to me that it derives its authority from the path of truth — the way of the prophets for thousands of years. For the believer, it is clearly a ray of light from the same lamp, connecting us to people who lived long before us and to the wisdom they had been given. Perhaps the text itself is suspect, perhaps the true author was someone else, perhaps it is a compilation of older narrations — even so, it contains certain truth. Pauline theology never spoke to me, but I expect this ancient semitic epistle to accompany me until the end, if the Most Merciful wills.