James and the Wisdom of Sirach

Along with the Jewishness of Jesus and of Paul, let’s take a look at another New Testament writer, James 1Technically, if we transliterate directly from Hebrew, the appropriate English equivalent is Jacob, not James. Starting in chapter one of his epistle:

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. James 1:12-15 (ESV)

Do we find any parallels with what James writes here, particularly in other Jewish literature? Yes – in the apocryphal book of Sirach (~ 175 B.C.E.), we find a passage that is strikingly similar:

Do not say, “It was the Lord’s doing that I fell away”;
    for he does not do what he hates.
Do not say, “It was he who led me astray”;
    for he has no need of the sinful.
The Lord hates all abominations;
    such things are not loved by those who fear him.
It was he who created humankind in the beginning,
    and he left them in the power of their own free choice.
Sirach 15:11-14 (NRSV)

Setting aside the controversies surrounding the inspiration of Sirach and its place within the Biblical canon, what we can see here is a conceptual overlap between the two regarding sin and human freedom. Is James actually referencing Sirach in his own writing, or are they both drawing on a common source? Are James and the writer of Sirach referencing the idea that the rabbinic writers later called the yetzer ha’ra and the yetzer ha’tov? Given that James’ view of sin approaches the personification of sin we see in Genesis 4, this is an idea we must consider to be at least in the palette of theological concepts at James’ disposal.

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1. Technically, if we transliterate directly from Hebrew, the appropriate English equivalent is Jacob, not James

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