The Chiastic Structure of James

James’ epistle is often viewed as a somewhat haphazard collection of fragmented thoughts, with no apparent structure or order. He moves from one topic to another, and we know not why.

Admittedly, James does not write in the form of an argumentative discourse. His letter is more like a collection of wisdom sayings. It even more closely resembles a series of teachings like one encounters in the Sermon on the Mount (which James draws from pervasively). But this does not mean that the book has no structure. James is a chiasm. At least, I think so.

I first saw it when I noticed how the themes of suffering and perseverance in chapter 1 resurface again in chapter 5. This was my first, very basic chiasm:

  • Suffering and Endurance (1:1–18)
    • Doing the Word (1:19–4:17)
  • A’ Suffering and Endurance (5:1–20)

This structure seems valid insofar as it goes, but on further reflection I thought section “B” could be broken down even further. This led to my second, more developed chiasm:

  • A Suffering and Endurance (1:1–18)
    • B Quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; receive implanted word with meekness (1:19–25)
      • C Bridling the tongue (1:26)
        • D Caring for the poor and afflicted (1:27)
        • D’ No partiality toward the rich; duty of caring for the poor (2:1–26)
      • C’ Taming the tongue (3:1–12)
    • B’ Meekness of wisdom, being peaceable; against quarrels, against prideful boasting (3:13–4:17)
  • A’ Suffering and Endurance (5:1–20)

Chapter 1, then, introduces all of the main themes of the book in condensed form (1:26–27 is especially compact). James takes these themes in reverse order, expanding on them in chapters 2–5.

This chiasm could perhaps be broken down still further. After making my chiasm above, I found this one from Cristina Conti that goes into even more detail. She makes a couple different decisions in dividing the sections, but her chiasm is by and large harmonious with the basic structure proposed above. For instance, she divides up 2:1–26 into two sections, but I think they ought to be viewed together. James is not concerned here with “faith in works” in the abstract, but appeals to it mainly to reinforce the necessity of caring for the poor (cf. 2:15–16).

Regardless of how you sort out some of the particulars, I think James is a chiasm and that it follows this basic movement. This chiastic arrangement highlights a couple things, and I’m sure there are others:

  1. The duty of caring for the poor and not being partial to the rich is central. This emphasis makes sense—after all, James says that true religion consists in caring for the poor and afflicted, the orphan and the widow (1:27). Another indication that this section is rightly viewed as central to the book is that it is also his most theologically developed section. Here James employs an extended argument regarding justification by works and not by faith alone.

  2. James begins with an exhortation to remain steadfast under trial (1:2–4) and ends with someone wandering from the truth—i.e., not remaining steadfast—and yet being brought back by a brother (5:19–20). We are called to remain steadfast under trial, but there is still grace for us when we falter, should a brother pursue us in love. From another angle: if someone does not remain steadfast but wanders away, the church must not write him off as a lost cause: “Oh, I guess he’s not the blessed one who perseveres” (cf. 1:12). The church is to pursue him and bring him back, saving his soul from death and covering a multitude of sins (5:20).

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