David Armitage unpacks how recent research by Craig Blomberg challenges the perceived incompatibility between the perspectives of Paul and James on wealth and poverty.
It has often been argued that James and Paul depict the Christian life in ways that are fundamentally incompatible, most obviously in relation to the roles of faith and works in salvation. In Romans 3:28, Paul states that ‘a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.’ On the other hand, according to James 2:17, ‘faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.’ On closer examination, though, it becomes apparent that Paul and James are actually responding to different challenges, and thus they use the terminology of faith and works in quite different ways, which are in fact compatible.
There is another area, however, in which the perspectives of Paul and James seem to be radically different: their attitudes to the rich and the poor. The letter of James is centrally characterised by sharp denunciations of the rich for their mistreatment of the poor, and strongly worded warnings against injustice, against favouring the wealthy, and against hypocritically expressing sympathy for poor people whilst actually failing to help them. Paul’s concerns, on the other hand, appear to lie elsewhere, and harsh rhetoric of the sort found in the letter of James is largely absent.
In a recent Tyndale Bulletin article (based on his 2022 Tyndale New Testament lecture at the Tyndale Fellowship conference), Craig Blomberg compares in detail the approaches of Paul and James to wealth and poverty. He surveys the main texts in James that bear on these issues, emphasising the vital importance James gives to caring for widows and orphans, and to impartiality in dealing with poor and rich people, and his excoriating critique of wealthy oppressors. Blomberg then examines Paul’s writings, adopting a distinctive approach in that he takes the letters in reverse chronological order. (There is of course some debate about the precise sequence in which the Pauline epistles were written; Blomberg’s arrangement would be accepted by many scholars, and he has defended it in detail elsewhere.) What he concludes from this is that almost all the ideas found in James relating to wealth and poverty can, in fact, be found in Paul’s letters—even his earliest ones.
For example, in the Pastoral Epistles we find challenges to value systems which prioritise wealth, and warnings against greed. Ephesians 5:5 likewise confronts greed. Concern for the poor is reflected in various ways in the Corinthian correspondence, and in Galatians 2:10 Paul makes explicit his own personal commitment to care for the poor. Indeed, the profile of these ideas about wealth and poverty in Paul’s letters is remarkably similar to what is found in James, to the extent that Blomberg suggests that it is actually plausible—albeit by no means provable—that Paul ‘learned the details about early Christian commitment to the poor . . . at his first post-conversion visit to Jerusalem when he met with Peter, John, and James.’
Far from the approaches of Paul and James with regard to wealth and poverty being at odds, Blomberg thus proposes that they are similar enough that Paul’s thinking could even have derived from James—a proposal that is eminently plausible given that they were, according to Acts and Galatians, personally acquainted.
The full article is freely available on the Tyndale Bulletin website: The Perfect Law of Liberty on Poverty and Wealth: A Precursor to Paul? | Published in Tyndale Bulletin.