Here is the cartoon that accompanies this essay.
No peace in first-century Palestine
Eyewitnesses of the war the Jews conducted against the Romans from 67 to 73 CE say that it was one of the most agonizing conflicts the world had ever known. Great suffering and great carnage was commonplace, ultimately ending in the deaths of 1.1 million, the vast majority of whom were Jews, as well as the capture and enslavement of 97,000 more, as well as the mass suicide at Masada of fighters with their families numbering 960.
The end of a man of peace
One cause of the war was thought to be the martyrdom of James the Lord’s brother. In about 62, in the power vacuum after the sudden death of the procurator Festus and before his replacement Albinus arrived, the Jewish high priest brought James before the Sanhedrin, which condemned him to be stoned. The man who for a generation had sought to reconcile Christians and Jews, had earned the respect of both sides because of his piety. Someone nicknamed him “Old Camel Knees” due to the calluses from his constant kneeling in prayer.
The causes of war
Probably shortly before his death, James penned these words:
What causes fights and quarrels are you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. 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.
You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God (4:1-4).
The old Sage was well aware that self-interested, self-absorbed men, men who were asking with wrong motives, adulterous men who had made themselves enemies of God, were the ones clamoring for a war with Rome. There could be no peace on earth when such men were setting the tone and driving the agenda of the nation. Yet there was still hope, for a different kind of men had the potential of steering the nation in a positive direction.
In an earlier paragraph James asks, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” He goes on to contrast such men with their counterparts: “but if you harbor 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, of the devil. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (3:13-16).
James could hardly have composed a better word picture of the rebels that brought about the great desolation of Galilee, Judea, and Jerusalem. In Antiquities of the Jews, book 20, Josephus describes the self-appointed assassins called Sicarii:
…[T]hey grew bold and were a great affliction to the whole country…. They used violence with the people, and were very ready to plunder those that were weaker than themselves. And from that time it principally came to pass that our city was gravely disordered, and that all things grew worse and worse among us.
What makes for peace?
Turning his attention once again to the positive, James concludes, “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 raise a harvest of righteousness” (3:17-18).
James was speaking from experience: the lifelong peacemaker had sown seeds possessing the potential of yielding a harvest of righteousness, and he called on others to do the same. But for peacemakers to sow such seeds, they must first begin by preparing their own hearts. They must make room for peace-seeds by rooting out any selfish ambition that they find there, replacing it with humility and purity of heart. Drawing near to God, they must offer themselves as his willing servants, ready to serve the needy, showing them kindness, mercy, impartiality, and sincere concern.
No one can force the growth of righteousness. All we can do is sow the seeds and trust the Lord of the harvest to multiply them. Will it be war or will it be peace? According to God’s long-standing reproductive principle, whatever it is that we sow, that is what we will also reap.
Want to dive deeper?
For more on the life of James, see Eusebius of Caesarea, Church History 2.23.
Read over several times this section of the Letter of James: James 3:13-4:10. Do you think it is proper to apply this to the Jewish war? In the context, is James speaking of the attitude of Christians, or of the wayward course of the nation of Israel that led inexorably to the 70 CE destruction of Jerusalem? See also James 5:1-6 for a similarly ambiguous passage. Consult Plumptre’s commentary (1890) on chapter 4 and chapter 5.
For further reading:
F. F. Bruce – Peter, Stephen, James and John: Studies in Non-Pauline Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1979.
The section on James is pp. 86-119.
Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington, III – The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperCollins, 2003.
Witherington’s account of the life of James is pp. 91-175, with three additional chapters:
- James the Legend
- Brother, Cousin, or Kin? and
- Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus.