James: Law in the Letter of James

Use of Nomos in James

James uses the word “law” (nomos) in the following passages.

Overall, he uses the word ten times.

Law and Cognate Terms in Jas 1:18–25 

The central passage for understanding James’ conception of nomos is Jas 1:18–25, where James uses three synonymous expressions:

  • Jas 1:18: “word of truth” (logos alêtheias); 
  • Jas 1:21: “implanted word” (emphutos logos);
  • Jas 1:25: “perfect law of freedom” (nomos teleios tês eleutherias).

James, in harmony with Hellenistic Jewish thinkers such as Philo (who are themselves influenced by Stoic conceptions of natural law) understands the Torah as a written expression of a natural law that orders the universe and is found innate in humans (Jas 1:21: “implanted word”; see Jackson-McCabe 2001). The Torah, in turn, is fulfilled in the teaching and person of the Lord Jesus.

Thus one may distinguish three distinct but interrelated aspects of “law” in James.

Law is the Natural Law of Conscience

  • James’ discussion at Jas 2:18–25 illustrates James’ understanding of nomos as a natural law. God created human beings through his “word of truth” (Jas 1:18), placing the “implanted word” (Jas 1:21) in each one. 

Law is the Written Torah given by Moses

  • In Jas 2:10–11, nomos refers clearly to the commandments of the Decalogue. 

Jesus’ Interpretation of the Law

  • James frequently paraphrases and elaborates Jesus’ teaching, especially Jesus’ interpretation of the Law as preserved in the Sermon on the Mount traditions (cf. →James: Jesus' Traditions in James). Regarding Jesus as Lord and Messiah (Jas 1:1; 2:1) and the eschatological judge (Jas 5:8), James understands Jesus as the giver of the eschatological Torah, the “royal law” (Jas 2:8), i.e., the law of the messianic kingdom—the Torah as given its definitive interpretation by Jesus. The term “law of freedom” (Jas 1:25; 2:12) also refers to this fulfilled Torah.