The Epistle of James,  applying the Sermon on the Mount?

1. Relevance to the Sermon

Davies (1964, 402-3) notes the frequency of parallels between the thinking in James and that of Jesus in the synoptic gospels and observes: “the cumulative effect of the parallels is impressive” (Davies 1964, 402-3). These parallels are significant for any debate concerning the history of the Sermon on the Mount, for even a quick glance at the list given by Davies reveals the frequency with which they relate to the Sermon on the Mount. As James is thought to be one of the earliest of the canonical epistles, the significance of it containing significant parallels to the Sermon on the Mount cannot be ignored. An early date for James, if accepted, would suggest that the author of James had a body of Jesus’ sayings available to him that included a substantial number from the Sermon on the Mount and a considerable amount of other Matthean material. The distribution and nature of the similarities may then provide additional information on the scope and nature of that body of material.

2. Dating the Epistle of James

Evidence for an early date

Wessel (2002, 265), having reviewed the evidence for the date of James, concludes that dating it is not easy, but that “A date ca A.D. 44, during or immediately following the Herodian persecution, would best fit all the known factors.” The evidence for this early dating includes (Wessel 2002, 965):

To these may be added the point that this is consistent with the traditional attribution of the book to James the Just, leader of the church in Jerusalem (cf Acts 21:18), whom Josephus says was stoned to death under the high-priest Ananus (Ant. 20.9.1), i.e. in C.E. 62.

Evidence for a late date

Wessel (2002, 965) finds that the inference that the letter contains signs of apathy within the church is the most serious objection against such an early date, for it generally takes time for apathy to set in.

3. Summary of the parallels between James and the Sermon on the Mount

The following summary of thematic and textual parallels is based upon a list given by Davies (Davies 1964, 402-3), complemented by a review of the voluminous cross references from James given in the Treasury of Scripture Knowledge (Canne et al. 2009), and enhanced with a few additional observations of my own.

This initial section provides a visual summary of the information given elsewhere on this page. Readers with non-visual browsers may wish to skip it.

Visual Summary of parallels with Matt 5:1-7:27.

Matthew Chapter 5: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, Chapter 6: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, Chapter 7: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27.

In the above, the emboldened verses are those which Davies (1964, 402-3) suggests represent the most striking parallels, underlined verses are those that form part of the suggested content of the hypothetical Q source. The verses are colour coded according to the range of alternate gospel sources for a possible parallel, as follows:

Density of suspected parallels with Matthew

As the following table demonstrates, the parallels between Matthew and James are densest in the Sermon on the Mount.

Chapter of Matthew 01 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14
No. of related passages in James - - - - 17 8 10 - 1 2 1 1 2 1

Chapter of Matthew 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27
No. of related passages in James 1 - - - - - 1 2 2 1 2 - -

Weighing similarities is a very subjective art, but, of those 40 passages in James where a thematic, or textual, similarity with the synoptic gospels was noted:

Even allowing for the imprecision introduced by subjectivity, the material in James appears considerably more closely related to that in Matthew than to that in Luke or Mark.

Of the 40 passages in James with synoptic similarities, 30 relate to one, or more, part of the Sermon on the Mount, touching upon some 45% of its verses. These are spread throughout all the main sections of the Sermon, with over 40% being amongst the uniquely Matthean material, and they include a range of the closest parallels.

Apart from the conspicuous density of suggested parallels with the Sermon on the Mount, the remaining passages in Matthew with possible links to James are not evenly distributed across the chapters of that Gospel. There are conspicuous gaps in verses 1-4 (i.e. prior to the Sermon on the Mount), 16-20 (i.e. Jesus later ministry before he leaves for Jerusalem), and 26-28 (Jesus’ passion and resurrection).

Of the suggested precursor passages, relatively few would be assigned to the hypothetical Q tradition by its advocates (Davies 1964, 403).

Davies (1964, 403) concludes that “James has clearly drawn upon a tradition of sayings of Jesus for his paraenetic purposes,” yet he feels that “there is no proof that James drew upon our Gospels.” Whilst the text of James does not lend itself to seeking such a forensic proof, the simplest way to explain James’ high density of similarities to the Sermon on the Mount must surely be to assume that the author’s primary sources included a block of teaching, the contents and layout of which were, if not identical, at least very close to those of the Sermon as we know it today. Indeed, one might speculate that the Epistle of James was an attempt to apply the Sermon’s principles to a specific set of problems.

4. The Sermon on the Mount parallels in detail

James 1:2, Matt 5:11-12, Luke 6:23

The passages in question are as follows:

James’ saying has thematic similarity to a passage found in both the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain. However the reference to joy suggests the Matthew version was more probably the inspiration. There is a similar sentiment to Jas 1:2 expressed in 1 Pet 4:12-13, where 1 Pet 4:13-14 goes on to express the sentiments of Matt 5:11-12.

James 1:4, Matt 5:48

The passages in question are as follows:

The description of being perfect is associated, through the Septuagint use of τέλειος (teleios), with Noah who was blameless (Gen 6:9, cf Sir 44:17) and with 2 Sam 22:26 where God shows himself perfect to the perfect man. The word is used relatively rarely, but translates a much more widely used Hebrew word for “blameless”. The Sermon on the Mount provides the only Gospel reference to believers being expected to attaining such perfection (τέλειος), at Matt 5:48, and moreover both Jas 1:4 and Matt 5:48 fall in passages that speak about the correct response in a time of trial (see Jas 1:2 and Matt 5:48).

James 1:5, Matt 7:7, Luke 11:9

The passages in question are as follows:

All the three passages suggested as thematic parallels are rooted in David’s promise to Solomon in 1 Chr 28:9. Solomon being the king who sought God and found him, but he was also a man who asked for wisdom and received it liberally. There seems no stronger association with the material in either passage.

James 1:9-10a, Matt 5:5, Luke 1:52

The passages in question are as follows:

James 1:9 forms part of a contrast with the initial part of Jas 1:10, a passage that clearly shares its themes with Matt 6:28-30. The contrasted fates of the humble and the rich is a familiar theme in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Ps 107:40-41, 147:6, Ezek 21:26) and provides a strong undertone in the Sermon on the Mount’s address concerning the feast for the birds of the air that accompanied the end of the mighty (Matt 6:25-27). Luke 1:52 and Jas 1:9 both use the Greek word ταπεινός (tapeinos=humble, lowly), whilst Matthew doesn’t. However, it should be noted that Matt 5:5 has close connection with the concepts of Matt 11:29, a passage that does uses ταπεινός.

James 1:10-11, Matt 6:28-30, 13:5-6, Mark 4:6

The passages in question are as follows:

James could simply be drawing upon Isa 40:7-8 (cf. Ps 37:1-4, 103:15-17), but the mention of the agent of scorching is alien to those passages. Amongst the gospels, the main themes occurs only in the Sermon on the Mount, however the sun is portrayed as an agent of scorching elsewhere in Matthew with a parallel passage in Mark. The mention of the rich man ties in well with Matt 6:29’s reference to Solomon.

James 1:14-15, Matt 5:28, Mark 7:21-22

The passages in question are as follows:

The teaching of James 1:14-15 rests upon the Jewish idea that sin was first conceived in the heart and then subsequently outworked. The same progression is apparent in Matt 5:27-28, where the original crime is a wrong disposition of the heart, which then prompts the lust that finds its fullness in sin. James uses ἐπιθυμία (epithumia, lust or desire), whilst in Matthew we find the closely related word ἐπιθυμέω (epithumeo, strongly desire or lust). The parallel with Mark is the looser of the two, as it is focuses on sin in general and the word used is ἀσέλγεια (aslgeia, lasciviousness or sensuality).

James 1:17, Matt 7:11, Matt 5:14a, 16, Luke 11:13

The passages in question are as follows:

Both the Sermon on the Mount and Luke contain similar affirmations that God is a giver of good gifts. In the case of Luke the emphasis is on the gift of the Holy Spirit. However, the reference to “Father of lights” makes for a closer thematic tie with Matthew. The Sermon on the Mount emphasises that the disciples, as God’s children, should imitate their heavenly Father (cf. Matt 5:45, 48). Like their Heavenly father they are lights that are not to be hidden (Matt 5:16), therefore the Sermon on the Mount effectively introduces God as the Father of lights.

James 1:18, Matt 5:13, Luke 14:34-35, Mark 9:50

This connection is far from immediately obvious, for the passages in question are as follows:

James alludes to God’s foundational calling out of Israel to be his holy portion (Deut 7:6-8), for Jer 2:3 says of those people “Israel was holiness to the LORD, the first fruits of his increase” (Jer 2:3 HNV). However, Moses goes on to remind these people “Know therefore that the LORD your God, he is God, the faithful God, who keeps covenant and loving kindness with them who love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations” (Deut 7:9 HNV). The focus in Deuteronomy is on Israel as God’s covenant people. In Matt 5:13-14, Jesus, speaking of the need for wise salt, harks back to Israel’s special role and to the priest’s responsibility for ensuring that covenant endured. In itself this would be an extremely tenuous link, however Jas 1:17-18 juxtaposes two themes that also fall adjacent to one another (albeit in the opposite order) in Matt 5:14-16. In neither Luke nor Mark is the context of the passage the preservation of the covenant and nor is there in James an adjacent reference to a related passage in Mark or Luke.

James 1:19-20, Matt 5:20, 22

The passages in question are as follows:

It is particularly notable how James sees dealing with anger as an issue pertinent to achieving God-like righteousness. The teaching on anger in Matt 5:21-22 follows directly from Jesus exhortation concerning the need to exceed the righteousness of the pharisees (Matt 5:20). Moreover, when the Sermon returns to the topic of animosity toward brothers in Matt 5:43-4, it explains that love for enemies is required if the disciple is to be like their Father in heaven, i.e. to have the righteousness of God.

James 1:22, 25, Matt 7:24, 26, Luke 6:46-49

The passages in question are as follows:

Though the need to be doers rather than just hearers is found in both Matthew and Luke, James goes on to tie this obedience to “the perfect law of freedom” (Jas 1:25 WEB). There is a far closer parallel with Matthew than with Luke. The word James uses for freedom, ἐλευθερία (eleutheria), is not a common one and its use in the Septuagint is always in connection with the freedom of a slave or slaves (Lev 19:20, Sir 7:21, 33:26) or freedom from the yoke of a foreign power (1 Esd 4:49, 53, 1 Macc 14:26, 3 Macc 3:28). That Christ indeed set his followers free is a central tenant of the New Testament (Gal 5:1, 13). However, when Moses set Israel free, the newly freed people required a legal system. They received their law of liberty at Sinai, in the form of the ten commandments. It was those same commandments on which Jesus was teaching (see main outline) when he delivered the the Sermon on the Mount, the legal judgements concerning which he said “Everyone therefore who hears these words of mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man, who built his house on a rock” (Matt 7:24 WEB).

James 1:27, Matt 6:1-4, 25:34-36, 40

The passages in question are as follows:

Matt 25:34-40 confirms that Jesus saw charity as a vital element of discipleship, but he was doing no more than re-stating the standard position of Judaism. James harks back to a striking passage in Isaiah, that identifies charity as a facet of acceptable piety: “Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen: to release the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Isn’t it to distribute your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor who are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you not hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isa 58:6-7 WEB). Orphans and widows was a generic way of describing those genuinely unable to support themselves, so James’ instruction to visit such folk can be assumed to be for the provision of charity (cf. Jas 2:15-16). However, he sees the need to qualify his instruction. Pure religion is not just a matter of supporting the poor, but of doing so whilst remaining “unstained.” It would be easy to see in this an echo of the early cleanliness debates within the church. However, elsewhere to be unstained implies free from defect (1 Peter 1:19), rather than unclean. Indeed, Paul uses the same word in a similar way to James when he charges Timothy to “keep the commandment without spot, blameless” (1 Tim 6:14 WEB). Matt 6:1-4 is significant for it suggests that the acceptable worship envisage in Isaiah can be rendered unacceptable to God if motivated by a desire to please the world. In other words, it can receive a stain from the world.

James 2:5, Matt 5:3, Luke 6:20

The passages in question are as follows:

James identification of the poor as being heirs of the Kingdom immediately calls to mind the beatitudes and, on the face of it, the unqualified reference to the poor is more in keeping with Luke’s version than Matthew’s. However, James seems to identify that being an heir to the kingdom was a promise. If the author was indeed basing this passage on a beatitude, then it is the Sermon on the Mount, rather than the Sermon on the Plain, in which the beatitudes are most deliberately linked to the promises within the Hebrew Bible. In Matthew the addition of the phrase “in spirit” helps the reader to understand that this is the case (see the notes on Matt 5:3).

James 2:11-12, Matt 5:21, 27

The passages in question are as follows:

Davies (1964, 403) notes that this is a somewhat tenuous link, but in its flow of argument the passage in James picks on the only two commandments quoted, as opposed to implied, within the Sermon.

James 2:13, Matt 5:7, 6:15, 7:1-2

The passages in question are as follows:

This passage needs little interpretation as the basis for postulating a link is obvious.

James 2:14, Matt 7:21, Luke 6:46

The passages in question are as follows:

The argument, that the disciple will be judged by their actions and not their confession of faith alone, is developed through Jas 2:14-26. “Lord, Lord” represented an emphatic statement of commitment to Jesus. However it is not those who make such strong statements, even accompanying them with all the signs of great faith (through prophecy, exorcism, and mighty exploits), as in Matthew, who are saved, but those whose works are consistently in tune with God’s will. It is also in Matthew that ones finds the story of the sheep and the goats, with its strong emphasis that works are important at the last judgement (Matt 25:31-46). The version in the Sermon on the Plain lacks such a strong emphasis that entry into the kingdom is conditional upon obedience.

James 3:12, Matt 7:16-18, Luke 6:43-44

The passages in question are as follows:

James’ picture of plants yielding fruit according to their kind is clearly similar to that used in both the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain. Within Judaism there was a distinction between bodies of water with living water and salt water (known as smitten water) being the most efficacious (bMiqw. 1.1-8). Both fresh and salt springs could be used for ritual cleansing, though some held that the latter could not be used for any purpose that required living water (bMiqw. 1.8, 5.4). Whilst there seemed to be many ways in which a freshwater source could become unclean, the same did not appear true of a salt water source (bMiqw. 1.1-8). Such linking of cleansing to the spoken word and to bearing fruit is a feature of Jesus’ teaching in John 15:3-4.

The association of this picture with the flow of water from a spring is in keeping with the version in Luke where the saying is associated with the outflow from a person’s heart (Luke 6:45). Matt 7:15’s link with prophets, together with the actions of Elisha in applying salt to heal a spring (2 Kgs 2:21), might naturally suggest James’ analogy based on a salty spring.

James 3:16-17, Matt 7:17. Luke 6:43

The passages in question are as follows:

Following on from James 3:12, which used similar imagery to Matt 7:16 and Luke 6:44, the flow of thought into a contrast of evil fruit with good fruit reflects the progression found in both Matthew and Luke. That the eight characteristics listed in James 3:17 show distinct similarities to those in the Beatitudes (see notes on Matt 5:3-10), serves to suggest a stronger link with Matthew.

James 3:18, Matt 5:9

The passages in question are as follows:

The link here is the identification of those who make peace as a group, in the same way found in Matthew.

James 4:2, Matt 6:25

The passages in question are as follows:

Davies (1964, 403) notes that this is a tenuous connection. However, when considered alongside Jas 4:3 and its mention of seeking pleasure, these people’s covetousness is certainly the antithesis of the lifestyle advocated in Matt 6:25-30. Matt 6:26 speaks strongly of the downfall of the powerful through their warfare.

James 4:2-3, Matt 7:7-8, Luke 11:9-10

The passages in question are as follows:

James 4:4-5, Matt 6:24, 12:39

The passages in question are as follows:

Though the reference is to “the world” rather than “Mamon”, the two were symbolically equivalent, and the Sermon goes on to infer that such things are typical of the world outside Judaism (Matt 6:32). In the Hebrew Bible the service of another god was often thought of as adultery (e.g. Jer 3:9, Ezek 16:32, Hos 4:15).

James 4:9, Matt 5:4, Luke 6:25

The passages in question are as follows:

The passage shows clear similarities to Luke 6:25. Though it should be recalled that, through the parallelism of the blessings and woes in the Sermon on the Plain, that statement is the logical inversion of Luke 6:21b, and therefore of Matt 5:4, the phrase is certainly suggestive of a knowledge the woe in Luke.

James 4:10, Matt 6:17-18, Matt 23:12, Luke 14:11, 18:14

The passages in question are as follows:

The theme of God exalting the humble is present in both Matt 6:17-18 or Luke 14:11, with no reason to prefer either. However, fasting, as in Matt 6:17-18, was a recognised way to humble yourself (cf. Isa 58:5) and in that passage the emphasis is on humbling yourself specifically in the sight of God, rather than in the sight of men. An association with Matthew is therefore to be preferred.

James 4:11, Matt 5:22, 7:1, Luke 6:37

The passages in question are as follows:

Through Matt 7:1 the instruction not to judge becomes part of the law (by Jesus tying it to the tenth commandment). By choosing to go against the Sermon on the Mount’s instruction a person renders judgement on the law (declaring it irrelevant). The Sermon on the Plain is far less obviously an application of the law and so breaking its commands would be less likely to convey the sense of judging the law.

James 5:1, Matt 5:3, Luke 6:24

The passages in question are as follows:

This passage, whilst it superficially echoes the woe of Luke 6:24, uses substantially different language, and can equally be arrived at by inverting the anticipated blessing of Matt 5:3. Given the clear reference to the themes of Matt 6:19-20 in the verses that follow (Jas 5:2-3), this is more likely a simple introduction that draws on Jer 25:34, when God speaks of what will happen on the day of slaughter that Jeremiah longed for (Jer 12:3).

James 5:2-3, Matt 6:19-20, Luke 12:20-21, 33

The passages in question are as follows:

The association of the moth that consumes with flesh eaten by fire may come from Isa 50:9,11, but has a distinctly apocalyptic tone. The references to laying up treasure in the last days and the thief breaking in are reminiscent of Luke, where the passage is part of a block of apocalyptic teaching (cf. Luke 12:36, 43) that includes a warning against stockpiling wealth (Luke 12:20-21). However, the combination of moth and corrosion with laying up treasure closely reflects the form found in Matthew, where the apocalyptic context is more subtly implied (e.g. by Matt 6:26, 30).

James 5:5, Matt 6:21, Luke 12:34

The passages in question are as follows:

Of itself the connection might seem tenuous, but this continues the thought of James 5:2-3, which shares its imagery with Matt 6:19-20 and Luke 12:33-34. Therefore, moving on to refer to a wrong focus of the heart follows the flow of the argument in both Matthew and Luke. The reference to a day of slaughter may reflect Jer 50:26-27, especially given Jas 5:1 apparent reference to the day anticipated by Jeremiah.

James 5:6, Matt 5:21-22, 39

The passages in question are as follows:

Having dealt with anger under the heading of murder, the Sermon on the Mount next touches it in Matt 5:38-39, where one finds the non-resistance mentioned by James. The Lukan version of this teaching (Luke 6:29) contains no reference to non-resistance.

James 5:9, Matt 5:22, 7:1, 24:33, Luke 6:37, Mark 13:29

The passages in question are as follows:

Of the three synoptics, Matthew is the one that contains both a statement on judging suggestive of the James passage and language similar to that used in the latter part of that verse.

James 5:10-11b, Matt 5:11-12, Luke 6:22-23

The passages in question are as follows:

The correspondence in thought is clear, but there seems nothing here to prefer any link with one synoptic over the other.

James 5:12, Matt 5:34-37

The passages in question are as follows:

The wording here is effectively an abbreviation of the same passage as found in the Sermon on the Mount. Neither Luke nor Mark have anything to correspond.

5. Matthean parallels outside the Sermon

James 1:6-7, Matt 14:29-31, 21:21-22, , Mark 11:23-24.

The passages in question are as follows:

The similarities to Matt 14:29-31, in particular the references to becoming like a wave, tossed and driven by the wind, would seem to prefer an association with Matthew over one with Mark.

James 2:1, Matt 22:16, Luke 20:21

The passages in question are as follows:

The proposed link is a fairly tenuous one and there is nothing to prefer an association with one gospel over that with the other.

James 2:8, Matt 22:39, Luke 10:27, Mark 12:31

The passages in question are as follows:

Here the form agrees with Matthew and Mark over Luke. Only in Matthew is this saying set in the context of identifying that Jesus derives his royal authority from the line of David and therefore that his pronouncements are royal law (Matt 22:42).

James 2:15-16, Matt 25:35-40

The passages in question are as follows:

Davies (1964, 403) attempts to link this passage to the trust in God’s provision of Matt 6:25, whilst admitting that this is rather tenuous. However, there would seem to be a far stronger connection to Matt 25:35-40 which Davies fails to mention. There seems nothing equivalent in Luke or Mark.

James 4:1, Matt 15:19, Luke 6:45, Mark 7:21-23

The passages in question are as follows:

The parallel is a weak one, and there seems little to prefer one possible association over another.

James 4:6-7, Matt 11:29, 23:12, Luke 14:11

The passages in question are as follows:

In James, humble translates ταπεινός (tapeinos), as does gentle. In the Matthew passage Jesus speaks of God hiding things from the wise, whilst graciously revealing them to little children (Matt 11:25-26), before portraying himself as the lead animal in God’s team by inviting his followers to accept his yoke and learn from him. The picture here is of a standard technique for training a draught-animal to submit to its owner, whereby an inexperienced animal was yoked to trained animal and learnt submission from it. The Luke passage fails to tie into the instruction to submit or the focus on grace. The injunction to resist the devil could possibly be an idea arising from Jesus temptation in the wilderness, which is found in both Matthew and Luke.

James 4:12, Matt 10:28, Luke 12:5

The passages in question are as follows:

The parallel is a loose one and there seems nothing to choose between in the two suggested associations.

James 5:4, Matt 9:37-38, 10:10, Luke 10:2,7

The passages in question are as follows:

The prohibition on retaining the wages of a worker, lest they cry out, is found in Deut 24:14-15. The parallel is a fairly weak one and there seems little to favor one association over another.

James 5:7, Luke 8:15, Matt 13:3-9, 24-30

The passages in question are as follows:

The link with the themes of the parable of the sower is clearly the picture of the farmer waiting patiently for fruit. The reference to rains harks back to Deut 13:14 and would nevertheless have been general knowledge in Judea. The Lukan version might seem preferable to the Matthean one because of the mention of patience, though it should be noted that James’ word for patience, μακροθυμέω (makrothumeo), is not the one used in Luke, which is ὑπομονή (hupomone). However, the Matthew passage is followed by the parable of the wheat and the tares, which not only speaks of waiting with patience, but contains the same apocalyptic edge as James. On balance the Matthean similarities seem the stronger.