Authorship

In the opening of this epistle (letter) the author refers to himself simply as James.  The fact that he does not offer any other information about himself most likely means he was a well-known figure in the Christian church at the time of writing.  However, it is not entirely clear who this James was.  If it is a James mentioned in other books of the New Testament, then we are left with four options.

The first option would be James, the son of Zebedee and brother of John, who with his brother was an apostle and was in Jesus’ “inner circle” of disciples (along with Peter; for example, see Matthew 17:1-9).  As such a prominent disciple of Jesus, this James certainly was well-known enough to refer to himself simply as “James.”  However, the book of Acts tells us that this James was martyred quite early in the history of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:1-2), which might be a bit too early for him to write a letter meant for widespread distribution like this one (Jm 1:1).

The second option would be James, son of Alphaeus, also known throughout church history as “James the Less” because he is not featured as prominently in Scripture as James the brother of John.  This James was also one of Jesus’ Twelve Disciples but is mentioned only four times in Scripture and always in the midst of a list of all of Jesus’ disciples (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13; perhaps also Acts 12:17).

The third option is the least likely, that this James is the father of Judas, one of Jesus’ disciples (not Judas Iscariot).  However, this James is mentioned by name—and in only one of the Gospels—to help distinguish his son from the other Judas who was also a disciple of Jesus (Luke 6:16), and therefore it is highly unlikely that such a James could write a widespread letter and refer to himself simply by name.

The fourth and perhaps most convincing option would be James the brother of Jesus, known throughout church history as “James the Just” because of his well-respected way of living.1“Old historians tell us that he was surnamed “the Just,” even among unbelieving Jews, because of his righteous life or because of his strict observance of Jewish ritualistic laws. But when the vengeful schemes of the Jews against Paul had been frustrated—so the story continues—their ire turned against James. They demanded that he testify against Jesus during the Easter festival, from the roof of the temple, before the multitudes there assembled. But when he fearlessly proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, they cast him down from the pinnacle. While he lay on the ground, sorely wounded but still alive, the mob began to stone him. Finally, a tanner killed the martyr with a club while his lips still moved in an intercession for his murderers. According to this story, James achieved the crown of martyrdom about A.D. 69.” Schaller, John, Loren A. Schaller, and Gary P. Baumler. The Book of Books: A Brief Introduction to the Bible. The People’s Bible. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 1990. 278.  Since Jesus was born of the virgin Mary and did not have a biological father, this James would have been the son of Mary and Joseph and therefore Jesus’ biological half-brother (Matthew 13:55; 27:56; Mark 6:3; Luke 24:10).  After possibly initially denying Jesus as Savior (John 7:5), James not only became a believer but also a prominent leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21; 21:17-19; Galatians 1:19; 2:19,12; seemingly also mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:7).  This James certainly appears to be a prominent enough figure in the early church to be able to refer to himself simply by name, and the fact that the recipients of this letter are most likely Jewish Christians also fits well with the church in Jerusalem where this James would have lived and served.  However, it should be noted that a number of scholars over the years have made the case that James the Just and James the son of Alphaeus were the same person.2“The unsettled question is whether James the Just is the same person as James the son of Alphaeus. Though the epistle of James furnishes no clue, the dispute would most probably never have arisen had not Paul called James the Just a brother of the Lord (Galatians 1:19). This instantly reminds us of John’s remark that the brothers of Jesus did not believe in him (John 7:3, 5), which seems to make it certain that no brother of the Lord was chosen as an apostle, even though he may have turned to Christ later.  A complete presentation of the problem would lead us too far in this connection. Here we present (according to a theologian named Guericke) the reasons for identifying James the son of Alphaeus with James the Just, the author of this epistle: (1) Acts does not mention an early death of James the son of Alphaeus, whereas, being an apostle and a person of no little importance, his death would not have been passed over in silence. (2) It is not easy to understand how any man not an apostle could have risen at such an early date to a position of such authority in the church of Jerusalem. Also, it would then have been very peculiar that Paul should have placed his name before the names of two apostles (Galatians 2:9). (3) According to the only natural understanding of Galatians 1:19, Paul means to say that James, the brother of the Lord, was also an apostle. The same is probably true of 1 Corinthians 15:7. (4) This view has been adopted by several cautious writers of the early church, such as Clement of Alexandria, Jerome, and Chrysostom, as a result of their investigations. In reference to the objections based upon John 7:3, 5, Guericke says: ‘It is not here said in so many words that not one of the four brethren of the Lord believed in him at the time. But even if John had meant to include the younger James, he does not say that all four brothers remained unbelievers until the death of Jesus. James may have been persuaded to believe before Christ had definitely designated his apostles.’” Schaller, John, Loren A. Schaller, and Gary P. Baumler. The Book of Books: A Brief Introduction to the Bible. The People’s Bible. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 1990. 279-280.,3“Whether this James is identical with James the son of Alphaeus is one of the most difficult questions in the biographical history of the gospels…For full discussion of the subject the reader is referred to commentaries and biographical works. Swanson, James, and Orville Nave. New Nave’s Topical Bible. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1994.

Because of the uncertainty surrounding the author of this letter and whether or not he was an apostle, the letter’s inclusion in the Bible has been opposed by some throughout church history, especially in the first few centuries of the church.4Eusebius, approximately AD 325, lists James among the “disputed books which are nevertheless familiar to most writers”; another quote: “The first of the Epistles styled Catholic is said to be by James the Lord’s brother; but it ought to be known that it is held by some to be spurious” (though Eusebius himself seems to have considered it canonical).,5Jerome included it in the Latin Vulgate, approximately AD 385, but said this about it: “James who is called the Lord’s brother wrote one Epistle only, which is one of the seven catholic Epistles, which it is asserted, was published under his name by another, although little by little as time went on it obtained authority.”  It is alluded to in The Shepherd by Hermas (approximately AD 110-140) and was quoted by Origen (AD 185-253), who attributed it to James the brother of the Lord, but it was not included in the Muratorian Canon (approximately AD 175), which reflects the attitude of the Roman church to the canon at the end of the second century AD.  However, it was universally recognized as part of the New Testament by the Third Council of Carthage in AD 397.

Recipients

The letter is addressed to “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (Jm 1:1).  This could be a reference to the New Testament church as a whole (for example, Galatians 6:6; Philippians 3:3; 1 Peter 1:1).  However, it is more likely a reference to a primarily Jewish audience because of the use of Old Testament references and examples, the admonition of Pharisee-like sins much like Jesus confronted in his ministry, and even the absence of any admonition against sexual immorality common in letters addressed to predominantly Gentile congregations.  There are also references to the recipients facing persecution, which could be connected to the scattering of Jewish Christians following the death of Stephen (Acts 8:1ff).  To a certain degree the letter also seems to be addressing the Jewish nation as a whole, not just Jewish Christians, because of the strong denouncement in James 4:13-5:6.

Place and Date of Writing

The letter was most likely written at an early date in relation to the other books of the New Testament.  The recipients were poor, most likely Jewish Christians, which fit the characteristics of the early church in and around Jerusalem.  There is no mention of tension between Jews and Gentiles, which became a significant issue after Paul’s First Missionary Journey, eventually requiring a council in Jerusalem (Acts 15; approximately AD 49).  James also only mentions “elders” as part of church leadership (Jm 5:14) and not “overseers” or “deacons”, which were mentioned as part of church organization even in Paul’s ministry (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3).  There are also allusions to aspects of Palestinian vegetation and climate (Jm 3:12; 5:7), which would lead one to believe the letter’s recipients lived in or were from Jerusalem and its surrounding area.  Therefore, it is likely that the letter was written at some point within the events recorded in Acts 1-12, perhaps between 45 and 49 AD, and most likely written from Jerusalem where James the Just lived and served.

See also the Chronology of the New Testament.

Purpose and Content

There does not seem to be a specific occasion that caused James to write this letter, but he apparently does so because the recipients were burdened by persecution (Jm 1:2) and poverty (Jm 2:6).  Because of these burdens, these Christians were being tempted to stop living Christian lives and to conform to the sinful world around them.  Therefore James sends them this letter to admonish them for having any false ideas concerning Christian living and to encourage them to continue living their faith with visible fruits of repentance.

There are some characteristics of the book of James that make it very unique for a New Testament book.  First of all, there is no specific mention of the incarnation, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus that are so central to the other books of the New Testament.  There are also 54 exhortations (imperatives) used by James within the 108 verses of the letter, which has led some to refer to it as the “Wisdom Literature of the New Testament” (for example, Proverbs is considered Old Testament Wisdom Literature).  James also shares many similarities in thought to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7:29).

When discussing the content of James it is also important to address his comments in chapter 2, specifically where he says, “You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone” (Jm 2:24), which appears to directly contradict the apostle Paul’s teaching on justification by faith alone (Romans 3:21-28; Romans 5:1; Philippians 3:9; Galatians 3:11-14).  Because of this, in both his 1522 and 1546 prefaces to James, Martin Luther calls James “a right strawy epistle” in comparison with John, Romans, Galatians, and 1 Peter, “for it has no gospel character to it.”  However, James’ and Paul’s comments on justification can be reconciled when considering who James is speaking about and what he is speaking about.  First of all, James is speaking about those who call themselves “Christians” but refuse to do good works (Jm 2:14-19).  James teaches his readers that such a faith is not really faith at all; in fact, it is “dead” (Jm 2:17,26).  Then using the example of Abraham, he shows how faith will naturally lead a believer to exercise that faith (Jm 2:20-23).  True faith like that is what brings justification, not hypocritical, dead “faith” (Jm 2:24,26).  So while Paul spoke of faith’s role in conversion, James spoke of faith’s role in a person already claiming to be converted.  While Paul was presenting the gospel of God to all, James was confronting sin against God by some (for more information, see Law and Gospel).

Notable Passages

  • James 1:2-8
  • James 1:12-18
  • James 2:10
  • James 2:17
  • James 2:26
  • James 4:7
  • James 5:7-11
  • James 5:16

Outline

  1. Facing Trials and Temptations (Jm 1:1-18)
  2. Faith and Works (Jm 1:18-2:26)
  3. Controlling the Tongue (Jm 3:1-18)
  4. Submitting to God (Jm 4:1-17)
  5. Warning and Encouragements (Jm 5:1-20)

References   [ + ]

1. “Old historians tell us that he was surnamed “the Just,” even among unbelieving Jews, because of his righteous life or because of his strict observance of Jewish ritualistic laws. But when the vengeful schemes of the Jews against Paul had been frustrated—so the story continues—their ire turned against James. They demanded that he testify against Jesus during the Easter festival, from the roof of the temple, before the multitudes there assembled. But when he fearlessly proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, they cast him down from the pinnacle. While he lay on the ground, sorely wounded but still alive, the mob began to stone him. Finally, a tanner killed the martyr with a club while his lips still moved in an intercession for his murderers. According to this story, James achieved the crown of martyrdom about A.D. 69.” Schaller, John, Loren A. Schaller, and Gary P. Baumler. The Book of Books: A Brief Introduction to the Bible. The People’s Bible. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 1990. 278.
2. “The unsettled question is whether James the Just is the same person as James the son of Alphaeus. Though the epistle of James furnishes no clue, the dispute would most probably never have arisen had not Paul called James the Just a brother of the Lord (Galatians 1:19). This instantly reminds us of John’s remark that the brothers of Jesus did not believe in him (John 7:3, 5), which seems to make it certain that no brother of the Lord was chosen as an apostle, even though he may have turned to Christ later.  A complete presentation of the problem would lead us too far in this connection. Here we present (according to a theologian named Guericke) the reasons for identifying James the son of Alphaeus with James the Just, the author of this epistle: (1) Acts does not mention an early death of James the son of Alphaeus, whereas, being an apostle and a person of no little importance, his death would not have been passed over in silence. (2) It is not easy to understand how any man not an apostle could have risen at such an early date to a position of such authority in the church of Jerusalem. Also, it would then have been very peculiar that Paul should have placed his name before the names of two apostles (Galatians 2:9). (3) According to the only natural understanding of Galatians 1:19, Paul means to say that James, the brother of the Lord, was also an apostle. The same is probably true of 1 Corinthians 15:7. (4) This view has been adopted by several cautious writers of the early church, such as Clement of Alexandria, Jerome, and Chrysostom, as a result of their investigations. In reference to the objections based upon John 7:3, 5, Guericke says: ‘It is not here said in so many words that not one of the four brethren of the Lord believed in him at the time. But even if John had meant to include the younger James, he does not say that all four brothers remained unbelievers until the death of Jesus. James may have been persuaded to believe before Christ had definitely designated his apostles.’” Schaller, John, Loren A. Schaller, and Gary P. Baumler. The Book of Books: A Brief Introduction to the Bible. The People’s Bible. Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Pub. House, 1990. 279-280.
3. “Whether this James is identical with James the son of Alphaeus is one of the most difficult questions in the biographical history of the gospels…For full discussion of the subject the reader is referred to commentaries and biographical works. Swanson, James, and Orville Nave. New Nave’s Topical Bible. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1994.
4. Eusebius, approximately AD 325, lists James among the “disputed books which are nevertheless familiar to most writers”; another quote: “The first of the Epistles styled Catholic is said to be by James the Lord’s brother; but it ought to be known that it is held by some to be spurious” (though Eusebius himself seems to have considered it canonical).
5. Jerome included it in the Latin Vulgate, approximately AD 385, but said this about it: “James who is called the Lord’s brother wrote one Epistle only, which is one of the seven catholic Epistles, which it is asserted, was published under his name by another, although little by little as time went on it obtained authority.”