Sefar Ya’akov, written by Ya’akov Ben-Zavdai, was addressed to Messianic Jews residing in the Diaspora, outside of Eretz Yis-rael. This small epistle, only five chapters long, has a distinct Jewish flavor based on the teachings of Yeshua ha-Mashiach.
I believe that James, the son of Zebedee, wrote this epistle soon after AD 30, as a follow-up letter, in order to encourage Jewish believers in the Lord Jesus who had come to faith during the annual pilgrimage of Shavuot (Pentecost) in
In the First Century AD, there was a Jewish community living on the
This article will give a brief overview of the history of the island, and will discuss the Jewish and Samaritan communities that resided on the island, as well as the synagogue that was discovered during the archaeological excavations in 1912-13. The setting of the epistle of James is a synagogue in the Diaspora. I will use the
A BRIEF GEOGRAPHY AND HISTORY OF THE
ISLAND OF DELOS
Delos is a small island in the center of the
If one climbs to the top of
The island is 5 km long in a north-south direction. At its widest, it is 1.3 km in an east-west direction. The highest mountain is
The first settlement on the
It was colonized by the Ionians about 750 BC. At this point in history, the island takes on its sacred status. Homer’s Odyssey (Book 6, line 162; LCL 1: 233) and the Homeric Hymns, written about 700 BC, said that
Athenian influence was exerted over the island in the 6th century BC. They “purified” the island by removing all the burials from the area around the
The Persian Wars broke out about 490 BC. An alliance of Greek city-states was formed, called the Delian League, against the Persians in 478/7 BC.
In the winter of 426/5 BC the second “purification” of the island occurred. This time all the burials from the island were removed and reburied in what the archaeologists call the “Purification Trench” on the
From 314-166 BC,
In 166 BC the Romans gained control of the island. They put
In 88 BC, Menophanes, an officer of Mithradates VI, “razed
However, in 58 BC, the Roman Senate confirmed privileges on the people of
In the second century AD, during the reign of Hadrian, the Athenians put the island up for sale, but there were no takers! In fact, Pausanias states, “Delos, once the common market of
At the end of the 3rd century AD, there was a small Christian community on the island. Toward the end of the 7th century AD the island becomes abandoned.
For a detailed history of the island, see Laidlaw 1933.
THE JEWISH AND SAMARITAN COMMUNITIES ON THE
ISLAND OF DELOS
Jewish and Samaritan communities on the
The first mention in the literature to a Jewish community on the
During the reign of Julius Caesar, two edicts were given that protected the rights of the Jews on the island of Delos, both are recorded by Josephus ( Antiq. 14: 213-216; LCL 8: 561-563 and 14: 231-232; LCL 8: 571-573).
Two funerary stela of Jewish women who were murdered on Delos were found on the
Recently, two Samaritan inscriptions were found 90 meters to the north of the synagogue building. One read, “The Israelites on Delos who make offerings to hallowed Argarizein crown with a gold crown Sarapion, son of Jason, of
One can assume that both communities were engaged in the trade and commerce on the island.
THE SYNAGOGUE ON THE
ISLAND OF DELOS
Excavations on the
The structure is located in a residential area in the northeast part of the island. It consists of several rooms. The main room, the hall of assembly, measures 16.9 meters north-south by 15.04 meters east-west, with a triportal entrance. The assembly hall was divided into two rooms, probably after the War of Mithridates in 88 BC. In the northern room, there are marble benches that line the wall. In the center of the west wall is a kathedra (throne) with a footstool. The entrance to a cistern is located In the southern room.
Four inscriptions were found in the excavations. Each contained the words, Theos Hypsistos (“God, the Most High”) or Hypsistos (“the Most High”). The former is translated El Elyon in the LXX (cf. Gen. 14: 19,20,22; Goodenough 1957). This name of God also appears on the “Vengeance Inscription” from the
The excavator concluded that the synagogue was in use from the First Century BC into the Second Century AD. Recently, Monika Trumper published a comprehensive article advocating that this structure is the oldest original synagogue building in the Diaspora (2004). She contents that there were five phases of occupation from the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD. This, however, is not the final excavation report.
The identification of this structure has been hotly debated. The original excavator, Andre Passart, identified it as a Jewish house of worship (1913). E. L. Sukenik, in his Ancient Synagogues in Palestine and Greece, followed this identification (1934). In 1935, Belle D. Mazur came out with a study, Studies of Jewry in Ancient Greece disputing this identification. As a result of this study, Sukenik reversed his position on the structure (1949). Edwin R. Goodenough, in his monumental work, Jewish Symbols of the Graeco-Roman Period (1965:2: 71-75) anaylized Mazur’s work and offered counter arguments. However, he concluded that the structure “might almost certainly … be taken, without any protest, to be probably a synagogue” (2: 74). So much for archaeological dogmatism!
Hershel Shanks concluded that the structure was actually a temple to Zeus (1979: 43-45). There have been other studies by L. Michael White (1987) and A. T. Kraabel that reaffirm the synagogue interpretation. For the purpose of this paper, the synagogue interpretation will be accepted and followed.
THE SETTING OF THE EPISTLE OF JAMES
It is not the intent of this article to imply or suggest that the epistle of James reached the
The setting of the epistle of James is a synagogue in the Diaspora. The Diaspora is a technical Jewish term, in Greek, for the Jewish people living outside of the
The early church met in synagogues before there was the split between the Church and the Synagogue (Acts 26:11). The
The kathedra, or seat of Moses, illustrates the second passage. James 3:1 says, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” The teacher of the Word of God, like the rabbis, scribes and Pharisees, would sit in the “seat of Moses” and expound the Scriptures. James warns the teacher about living a life that is contrary to what he is teaching. James still has the words of the Lord Jesus that he heard only a short while before ringing in his mind. “The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat, therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works, for they say, and do not do” (Matt. 23:2,3).
Most English Bibles translate the Greek word “synagogue” as either “assembly,” “congregation,” “meeting,” “place of worship,” or even “church”! If we see the epistle of James in its Jewish Diaspora context it should be translated, as the New Jerusalem Bible translates it, “synagogue.” For a full discussion and debate of the word “synagogue,” see Kee 1990; Oster 1993; Kee 1994.
THE WORD PICTURES FROM THE EPISTLE OF JAMES
Permit me to use my “sanctified imagination” for a moment. Let’s assume that the epistle of James did reach the
Perhaps the believers were meeting on the Lord’s Day in the synagogue of
James goes on to say, “To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (1:1b). The Jews who had come to faith were descendents of the tribe of
They continued to read, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials.” James wrote this epistle to encourage the people as they go through trials and testings in their walk with the Lord. He recounts the words he heard the Lord Jesus say on the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:11,12). He then writes about testings from without (1:2-12) and temptation from within (1:12-18).
The believer who doubts the wisdom of God in testings is described as “a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind” (1:6). James had in mind the eastern windstorms that he had experienced while fishing on the
When he describes temptation he uses a word from fishing terminology, “enticed” (1:14;
James gives an outline for the rest of the book in verse 19 (Hodges 1994: 15,16). “Therefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” James expands on the theme, “be swift to hear” in James 1:21-2:26. The believer is not just to hear the Word of God, but is also to do it (1:22). The second section, “be slow to speak” is expanded on in chapter 3. The third section, “be slow to wrath” is expanded on in James 4:1-5:6. The final section of the book gives the key for going through trials and temptation. James says the believer is to have patience (waiting for the Lord’s return) and pray (5:7-20).
The first section, “be swift to hear” is set in the synagogue, with its “seat of Moses” and footstool. James admonishes the believers to be swift to hear the Word of God and apply it to ones life. The setting of the synagogue has already been discussed. However, within the context of the synagogue in James 2, James quotes the Hebrew Scriptures in verse 8 (cf. Lev. 19:18) and verse 11 (Ex. 19:13,14). Passages that would be found in the Torah scrolls of the synagogue. In his discourse on “faith and works” he says, “You believe that there is one God, you do well” (2:19). The statement “one God” comes from the Shema (Deut. 6:4) that was recited in the synagogue as well as the Scriptures contained within the tefillin (Ex. 13:1-10; Deut. 6:4-9; Ex. 13:11-16). Tefillin were used in the First Century as attested to by the ones discovered at
The theme of “slow to speak” is addressed in James 3. James admonishes the teacher who would sit in the “seat of Moses” and expound the Scriptures. James uses seven illustrations from the
The first illustration is the bit in the horses’ mouth that turns his body (3:2b,3). On the walls of one of the houses was found a painting of a man riding a horse with the bit in the horses mouth. The Delians would understand this because of the hippodrome on the island. As previously mentioned, Callimachus mentions the course for horses. Few archaeological remains of a hippodrome were discovered to the east of the sacred lake.
The second illustration is that of a small rudder on a large ship (3:4). James the son of Zebedee, being a fisherman, knew the power of the rudder to turn a ship in the wind. The Delians understood the workings of the rudder from watching the ships maneuver as they came and went from this maritime trading center in the midst of the
The third illustration is that of a forest fire (3:5,6). James the son of Zebedee painted this word picture from the summer fires that were in the forests of
The fourth illustration is of the animals (3:7). The “creatures of the sea” would be understood by James as the fish in the
The fifth illustration is that of a spring (3:11,12). James would have understood the contrast between the fresh water and bitter water from the time he spent at Tabgha, the fishing grounds for
The sixth illustration James uses is of fruit trees, figs, olives and grapes. These trees were local to the Sea of Galilee as well as most of the
In the final word-picture, James describes the “wisdom that is from above” as being “without hypocrisy” (3:17). The word “hypocrisy” is a Greek theatric term for an actor that performs for the applause of the audience. James was well aware of at least three theaters in the area of the
The third section, “be slow to wrath,” begins in chapter 4. James asks, “Where do wars and fights come from among you?” The implication of that verse is that the believers were fighting in the church meeting. Whenever I speak on this passage in a church I ask, tongue in cheek, “Christians don’t fight, do we?” I usually hear snickering from the audience. Of course we always justify our fighting and bickering by saying, “We fight in Christian love!” James also states that some believers murder and covet (4:2). A sword found in the excavations reminds us of potential weapons that could be used to carry out this gross and sinful deed. A wall painting of two boxers fighting each other from one of the houses would illustrate the fighting.
In this context as well, James says that some believers are adulterers and adulteresses (4:4). Most commentaries say this is spiritual adultery, but in the context of the Greco-Roman world, it could be both physical as well as spiritual. On the
In the section on “slow to wrath”, James addresses the source of the problem, which is pride (4:6,10). James goes on to describe the arrogant merchants as saying, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit’” (4:13). James reminds them that they don’t even know what tomorrow brings because life it like a vapor. Most of the Jewish community on the
After the tragedy of September 11, 2001, I was watching an interview with several
James goes on to address the rich in James 5:1-6. During the Hellenistic period,
In the final section of the book, James returns to the opening theme, trials and suffering (5:7-20). He encourages the believers to have patience and look for the Lord’s return (5:7-12) and to be persistent in prayer (5:13-20). In each of these sections, the believer on
In the first section, James encourages them to look for the Lord’s return and follow the example of the prophets.
James asks the question, “Is anyone among you sick?” (5:14). Most of the people on the island would go to the Asclepion at the headlands of the
THE IMPLICATIONS FOR THE DATING OF THE EPISTLE OF JAMES
The epistle of James was written by James the son of Zebedee (Bassett 1876), and not the half-brother of the Lord as most commentators suggest (Davids 1982: 2-7; Hiebert 1992: 24-32). The view that James the son of Zebedee wrote the book is based on the internal content of the book and well as the word pictures. Many of the statements in the epistle are based on the teachings of the Lord Jesus, primarily the Sermon on the Mount and parables given in
It is also believed that the epistle was written soon (one or two years) after Pentecost ( Shavuot) of AD 30 to encourage those believers in their new found faith in the Lord Jesus as they return to their family and friends in the Diaspora (Acts 2:8-11,41; James 1:1). These early Hebrew-Christians (or Messianic Jews) met in the synagogue buildings until the break with their Jewish brethren (Acts 26:11).
Archaeology and geography can add a third dimension to Biblical studies. The black and white (and sometimes red!) letters on the pages of Scripture can be placed in a historical and geographical context that can be visualized. The reader can say, “Now I see what the inspired writer is talking about.” Just as the readers on
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1 This article is dedicated to my fellow travelers: Richard, Donna,