Verse 20. "Let him know" - Let him duly consider, for his encouragement, that he who is the instrument of converting a sinner shall save a soul from eternal death, and a body from ruin, and shall hide a multitude of sins; for in being the means of his conversion we bring him back to God, who, in his infinite mercy, hides or blots out the numerous sins which he had committed during the time of his backsliding. It is not the man's sins who is the means of his conversion, but the sins of the backslider, which are here said to be hidden. See more below.
1. MANY are of opinion that the hiding a multitude of sins is here to be understood of the person who converts the backslider: this is a dangerous doctrine, and what the Holy Spirit never taught to man. Were this true it would lead many a sinner to endeavour the reformation of his neighbour, that himself might continue under the influence of his own beloved sins and conversion to a particular creed would be put in the place of conversion to God, and thus the substance be lost in the shadow. Bishop Atterbury, (Ser. vol. i. p. 46,) and Scott, (Christian Life, vol. i. p. 368,) contend "that the covering a multitude of sins includes also, that the pious action of which the apostle speaks engages God to look with greater indulgence on the character of the person that performs it, and to be less severe in marking what he has done amiss." See Macknight. This from such authorities may be considered doubly dangerous; it argues however great ignorance of God, of the nature of Divine justice, and of the sinfulness of sin. It is besides completely antievangelical; it teaches in effect that something besides the blood of the covenant will render God propitious to man, and that the performance of a pious action will induce God's justice to show greater indulgence to the person who performs it, and to be less severe in marking what he has done amiss. On the ground of this doctrine we might confide that, had he a certain quantum of pious acts, we might have all the sins of our lives forgiven, independently of the sacrifice of Christ; for if one pious act can procure pardon for a multitude of sins, what may not be expected from many? 2. The Jewish doctrine, to which it is possible St. James may allude, was certainly more sound than that taught by these Christian divines. They allowed that the man who was the means of converting another had done a work highly pleasing to God, and which should be rewarded; but they never insinuate that this would atone for sin. I shall produce a few examples:-
In Synopsis Sohzar, p. 47, n. 17, it is said: Great is his excellence who persuades a sick person to turn from his sins. Ibid, p. 92, n. 18: Great is his reward who brings back the pious into the way of the blessed Lord.
Yoma, fol. 87, 1: By his hands iniquity is not committed, who turns many to righteousness; i.e. God does not permit him to fall into sin. What is the reason? Ans. Lest those should be found in paradise, while their instructer is found in hell.
This doctrine is both innocent and godly in comparison of the other. It holds out a motive to diligence and zeal, but nothing farther. In short, if we allow any thing to cover our sins beside the mercy of God in Christ Jesus, WE shall err most dangerously from the truth, and add this moreover to the multitude of OUR sins, that we maintained that the gift of God could be purchased by our puny acts of comparative righteousness.
3. As one immortal soul is of more worth than all the material creation of God, every man who knows the worth of his own should labour for the salvation of others. To be the means of depriving hell of her expectation, and adding even one soul to the Church triumphant, is a matter of infinite moment; and he who is such an instrument has much reason to thank God that ever he was born. He who lays out his accounts to do good to the souls of men, will ever have the blessing of God in his own. Besides, God will not suffer him to labour in vain, or spend his strength for naught. At first he may see little fruit; but the bread cast upon the waters shall be found after many days: and if he should never see it in this life, he may take for granted that whatsoever he has done for God, in simplicity and godly sincerity, has been less or more effectual.
After the last word of this epistle amartiwn, of sins, some versions add his, others theirs; and one MS. and the later Syriac have Amen. But these additions are of no authority.
The subscriptions to this epistle, in the VERSIONS, are the following: The end of the Epistle of James the apostle.
- SYRIAC. The catholic Epistle of James the apostle is ended.
- SYRIAC PHILOXENIAN. The end.
- AETHIOPIC. Praise be to God for ever and ever; and may his mercy be upon us. Amen.
- ARABIC. The Epistle of James the son of Zebedee, is ended.- ITALA, one copy. Nothing.
- COPTIC. Nothing.
- Printed VULGATE.
The Epistle of James is ended.
- Bib. VULG. Edit. Eggestein. The Epistle of St. James the apostle is ended.
In the MANUSCRIPTS: Of James.
- Codex Vaticanus, B. The Epistle of James.
- Codex Alexandrinus. The end of the catholic Epistle of James.- Codex Vaticanus, 1210. The catholic Epistle of James the apostle.
- A Vienna MS. The catholic Epistle of the holy Apostle James.
- An ancient MS. in the library of the Augustins, at Rome. The end of the Epistle of the holy Apostle James, the brother of God.
- One of Petavius's MSS., written in the thirteenth century. The same is found in a Vatican MS. of the eleventh century. The most ancient MSS. have little or no subscription.
Two opinions relative to the author are expressed in these MSS. One copy of the Itala, the Codex Corbejensis, at Paris, which contains this epistle only, attributes it to James, the son of Zebedee; and two, comparatively recent, attribute it to James, our Lord's brother. The former testimony, taken in conjunction with some internal evidences, led Michaelis, and some others, to suppose it probable that James the elder, or the son of Zebedee, was the author. I should give it to this apostle, in preference to the other, had I not reason to believe that a James, different from either; was the author. But who or what he was, at this distance of time, it is impossible to say. Having now done with all comments on the text, I shall conclude with some particulars relative to James, our Lord's brother, and some general observations on the structure and importance of this epistle.
I have entered but little into the history of this James, because I was not satisfied that he is the author of this epistle: however, observing that the current of modern authors are decided in their opinion that he was the author, I perceive I may be blamed unless I be more particular concerning his life; as some of the ancients have related several circumstances relative to him that are very remarkable, and, indeed, singular. Dr. Lardner has collected the whole; and, although the same authors from whom he has taken his accounts are before me, yet, not supposing that I can at all mend either his selections or arrangement, I shall take the accounts as he states them.
"I should now proceed," says this learned man, "to write the history of this person (James) from ancient authors; but that is a difficult task, as I have found, after trying more than once, and at distant spaces of time. I shall therefore take DIVERS passages of Eusebius and others, and make such reflections as offer for finding out as much truth as we can.
"Eusebius, in his chapter concerning our Saviour's disciples, (Eccl. Hist. lib. i., cap. 12,) speaks of James, to whom our Lord showed himself after his resurrection, 1 Cor. xv. 7, as being one of the seventy disciples.
"The same author has another chapter, (Hist. Eccl., lib. ii., cap. 1,) entitled, Of Things constituted by the Apostles after our Saviour's Ascension, which is to this purpose:- "The first is the choice of Matthias, one of Christ's disciples, into the apostleship, in the room of Judas; then the appointment of the seven deacons, one of whom was Stephen, who, soon after his being ordained, was stoned by those who had killed the Lord, and was the first martyr for Christ; then James, called the Lord's brother, because he was the son of Joseph, to whom the Virgin Mary was espoused. This James, called by the ancients the just, on account of his eminent virtue, is said to have been appointed the first bishop of Jerusalem; and Clement, in the sixth book of his Institutions, writes after this manner: That after our Lord's ascension, Peter, and James, and John, though they had been favoured by the Lord above the rest, did not contend for honour, but chose James the just to be bishop of Jerusalem; and in the seventh book of the same work he says, that after his resurrection the Lord gave to James the just, and Peter, and John, the gift of knowledge; and they gave it to the other apostles, and the other apostles gave it to the seventy, one of whom was Barnabas: for there were two named James, one the just, who was thrown down from the battlement of the temple and killed by a fuller's staff; the other is he who was beheaded. Of him who was called the just, Paul also makes mention, saying, Other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord's brother.
"I would now take a passage from Origen, in the tenth vol. of his Commentaries upon Matt. xiii. 55, l6: Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us? They thought, says Origen, that he was the son of Joseph and Mary. The brethren of Jesus, some say, upon the ground of tradition, and particularly of what is said in the gospel according to Peter, or the book of James, were the sons of Joseph by a former wife, who cohabited with him before Mary. They who say this are desirous of maintaining the honour of Mary's virginity to the last, (or her perpetual virginity,) that the body chosen to fulfill what is said, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee, Luke i. 35, might not know man after that: and I think it very reasonable that, as Jesus was the first fruits of virginity among men, Mary should be the same among women; for it would be very improper to give that honour to any besides her. This James is he whom Paul mentions in his Epistle to the Galatians, saying, Other of the apostles, saw I none, save James the Lord's brother. This James was in so great repute with the people for his virtue, that Josephus, who wrote twenty books of the Jewish antiquities, desirous to assign the reason of their suffering such things, so that even their temple was destroyed, says that those things were owing to the anger of God for what they did to James, the brother of Jesus, who is called Christ. And it is wonderful that he, who did not believe our Jesus to be the Christ, should bear such a testimony to James. He also says that the people thought they suffered those things on account of James. Jude, who wrote an epistle, of a few lines indeed, but filled with the powerful word of the heavenly grace, says, at the beginning, Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James. Of Joses and Simon we know nothing.
"Origen, in his books against Celsus, quotes Josephus again as speaking of James; to the like purpose; but there are not now any such passages in Josephus, though they are quoted as from him by Eusebius also. As the death of James has been mentioned, I shall now immediately take the accounts of it which are in Eusebius, and I will transcribe a large part of the twenty-third chapter of the second book of his Ecclesiastical History: 'But when Paul had appealed to Caesar, and Festus had sent him to Rome, the Jews being disappointed in their design against him, turned their rage against James, the Lord's brother, to whom the apostles had consigned the episcopal chair of Jerusalem, and in this manner they proceeded against him: having laid hold of him, they required him, in the presence of all the people, to renounce his faith in Christ; but he, with freedom and boldness beyond expectation, before all the multitude declared our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ to be the Son of God. They, not enduring the testimony of a man who was in high esteem for his piety, laid hold of the opportunity when the country was without a governor to put him to death; for Festus having died about that time in Judea, the province had in it no procurator.
The manner of the death of James was shown before in the words of Clement, who said that he was thrown off the battlement of the temple, and then beat to death with a club. But no one has so accurately related this transaction as Hegesippus, a man in the first succession of the apostles, in the fifth book of his Commentaries, whose words are to this purpose: James, the brother of our Lord, undertook together with the apostles, the government of the Church. He has been called the just by all, from the time of our saviour to ours: for many have been named James; but he was holy from his mother's womb. He drank neither wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat any animal food; there never came a razor upon his head; he neither anointed himself with oil, nor did he use a bath. To him alone was it lawful to enter the holy place. He wore no woollen, but only linen garments. He entered into the temple alone, where he prayed upon his knees; insomuch that his knees were become like the knees of a camel by means of his being continually upon them, worshipping God, and praying for the forgiveness of the people. Upon account of his virtue he was called the just, and Oblias, that is, the defense of the people, and righteousness. Some, therefore, of the seven sects which were among the Jews, of whom I spoke in the former part of these Commentaries, asked him, Which is the gate of Jesus? or, What is the gate of salvation? and he said, Jesus is the saviour, or the way of salvation. Some of them therefore believed that Jesus is the Christ. And many of the chief men also believing, there was a disturbance among the Jews and among the scribes and Pharisees, who said there was danger lest all the people should think Jesus to be the Christ. Coming therefore to James they said, We beseech thee to restrain the error of this people; we entreat thee to persuade all who come hither at the time of passover to think rightly concerning Jesus, for all the people and all of us put confidence in thee. Stand therefore on the battlement of the temple, that being placed on high thou mayest be conspicuous, and thy words may be easily heard by all the people; for because of the passover all the tribes are come hither, and many Gentiles.
Therefore the scribes and Pharisees before named placed James upon the battlement of the temple, and cried out to him and said, O Justus, whom we ought all to believe, since the people are in an error, following Jesus, who was crucified, tell us what is the gate of Jesus. And he answered with a loud voice, Why do you ask me concerning the Son of man? He even sitteth in the heaven, at the right hand of the great Power, and will come in the clouds of heaven. And many were fully satisfied and well pleased with the testimony of James, saying, Hosanna to the Son of David! But the same scribes and Pharisees said one to another, We have done wrong in procuring such a testimony to Jesus. Let us go up and throw him down, that the people may be terrified from giving credit to him. And they went up presently, and cast him down, and said, Let us stone James the just: and they began to stone him because he was not killed by the fall. But he turning himself, kneeled, saying, I entreat thee, O Lord God the Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. As they were stoning him, one said, Give over. What do ye? The just man prays for you. And one of them, a fuller, took a pole, which was used to beat clothes with, and struck him on the head. Thus his martyrdom was completed. And they buried him in that place; and his monument still remains near the temple. This James was a true witness, both to Jews and Gentiles, that Jesus is the Christ. Soon after Judea was invaded by Vespasian, and the people were carried captive.' So writes Hegesippus at large, agreeably to Clement. For certain, James was an excellent man, and much esteemed by many for his virtue; insomuch that the most thoughtful men among the Jews were of opinion that his death was the cause of the siege of Jerusalem, which followed soon after his martyrdom: and that it was owing to nothing else but the wickedness committed against him. And Josephus says the same in these words: 'These things befell the Jews in vindication of James the just, who was brother of Jesus, called the Christ. For the Jews killed him; who was a most righteous man.' "The time of the death of James may be determined without much difficulty; he was alive when Paul came to Jerusalem at the pentecost, in the year of Christ 58, and it is likely that he was dead when St. Paul wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews at the beginning of the year 63. Theodouret, upon Heb. xiii. 7 supposes the apostle there to refer to the martyrdoms of Stephen, James the brother of John, and James the just. According to Hegesippus, the death of James happened about the time of passover, which might be that of the year 62; and if Festus was then dead, and Albinus not arrived, the province was without a governor. Such a season left the Jews at liberty to gratify their licentious and turbulent disposition, and they were very likely to embrace it." I have said but little relative to the controversy concerning the apostleship of James, our Lord's brother; for, as I am still in doubt whether he was the author of this epistle, I do not judge it necessary to enter into the question.
I proceed now to some general observations on the epistle itself, and the evidence it affords of the learning and science of its author.
1. I have already conjectured that this epistle ranks among the most ancient of the Christian writings; its total want of reference to the great facts which distinguish the early history of the Church, viz., the calling of the Gentiles, the disputes between them and the Jews, the questions concerning circumcision, and the obligation of the law in connection with the Gospel &c., &c., shows that it must have been written before those things took place, or that they must have been wholly unknown to the author; which is incredible, allowing him to have been a Christian writer.
2. The style of this epistle is much more elevated than most other parts of the New Testament. It abounds with figures and metaphors, at once bold, dignified, just, and impressive. Many parts of it are in the genuine prophetic style, and much after the manner of the Prophet Zephaniah, to whom there is a near resemblance in several passages.
3. An attentive reader of this epistle will perceive the author to be a man of deep thought and considerable learning. He had studied the Jewish prophets closely, and imitated their style; but he appears also to have read the Greek poets: his language is such as we might expect from one who had made them his study, but who avoided to quote them. We find a perfect Greek hexameter in chap. i. 17, and another may be perceived in chap. iv. 4; but these are probably not borrowed, but are the spontaneous, undesigned effort of his own well cultivated mind. His science may be noted in several places, but particularly in chap. i. 17, on which see the note and the diagram, and its explanation at the end of the chapter. Images from natural history are not unfrequent; and that in chap. i. 14, 15 is exceedingly correct and appropriate, but will not bear a closely literal translation.
4. His constant attention and reference to the writings and maxims of his own countrymen is peculiarly observable. Several of his remarks tend to confirm the antiquity of the Talmud; and the parallel passages in the different tracts of that work cast much light on the allusions of St. James.
Without constant reference to the ancient Jewish rabbins, we should have sought for the meaning of several passages in vain.
5. St. James is in many places obscure; this may arise partly from his own deep and strong conceptions, and partly from allusions to arts or maxims which are not come down to us, or which lie yet undiscovered in the Mishna or Talmud. To elucidate this writer I have taken more than common pains, but dare not say that I have been always successful, though I have availed myself of all the help within my reach. To Schoettgen's Horae Hebraicae I am considerably indebted, as also to Dr. Macknight, Kypke, Rosenmuller, &c., but in many cases I have departed from all these, and others of the same class, and followed my own light.
6. On the controversy relative to the doctrine of justification, as taught by Paul and James, I have not entered deeply; I have produced in the proper places what appeared to me to be the most natural method of reconciling those writers. I believe St. James not to be in opposition to St. Paul, but to a corrupt doctrine taught among his own countrymen relative to this important subject. The doctrine of justification by faith in Christ Jesus, as taught by St. Paul, is both rational and true. St. James shows that a bare belief in the God of Israel justifies no man; and that the genuine faith that justifies works by love, and produces obedience to all the precepts contained in the moral law; and that this obedience is the evidence of the sincerity of that faith which professes to have put its possessor in the enjoyment of the peace and favour of God.
7. This epistle ends abruptly, and scarcely appears to be a finished work.
The author probably intended to have added more, but may have been prevented by death. James, our Lord's brother, was murdered by the Jews, as we have already seen. James, the son Zebedee, had probably a short race; but whether either of these were its author we know not. The work was probably posthumous, not appearing till after the author's death; and this may have been one reason why it was so little known in the earliest ages of the primitive Church.
8. The spirit of Antinomianism is as dangerous in the Church as the spirit of Pharisaism; to the former the Epistle of James is a most powerful antidote; and the Christian minister who wishes to improve and guard the morals of his flock will bring its important doctrines, in due proportion, into his public ministry. It is no proof of the improved state of public morals that many, who call themselves evangelical teachers, scarcely ever attempt to instruct the public by texts selected from this epistle.
For other particulars, relative to the time of writing this epistle, the author, his inspiration, apostleship, &c., I must refer to Michaelis and Lardner, and to the preface.
Millbrook, Dec. 9, 1816 Finished correcting this epistle for a new edition, Dec. 31, 1831.