This letter of James is placed within the category of “catholic epistles,” designated as such because they were written to the children of God without mentioning a specific church. They are, in this sense, universal-catholic. The author was burdened by the threat of dead orthodoxy in the churches, so he challenged them, “Show me thy faith without thy works and I will show thee my faith by my works.” We do well to heed this warning in our day.
The author identifies himself simply as, “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1). There are three New Testament men of note by that name: There was James the son of Zebedee, one of the twelve apostles and brother of John. Both were fishermen in Galilee and called by Jesus to become disciples. In the course of Jesus’ ministry he became one of the intimate three, the others being his brother John and Simon Peter. Subsequent to the crucifixion of Jesus, James became the first martyr when Herod put him to death by the sword (Acts 12:12). The second James was the son of Alphaeus, also one of the twelve apostles (Matt. 10:3). The third one was James, the brother of our Lord (Matt. 13:55). The question we have to face is, which of these three is the author?
The best argument for choosing James, the brother of our Lord, lies in the fact that he does not identify himself as son of Zebedee or son of Alphaeus as was commonly done in the gospel narratives for the other two. Besides this, James, the Lord’s brother, had attained a certain notoriety by the time that he wrote this letter, so that a simple description as “servant of God and of the Lord Jesus” was sufficient.
Let’s consider some of the background that led James, the brother of our Lord to write this letter.
When Jesus toured Galilee, the leaders of the Jews in Nazareth referred to James as one of the Lord’s brothers (Matt. 13:55). This was to belittle the ministry of Jesus, since in the estimation of the Jews He came from a lowly family. He was also referred to in Matthew 12:46 as one who wanted to talk to Jesus when He was in Galilee. He went with Jesus to Capernaum and tried to persuade Him to go to the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:3). He was present with Jesus at this feast in Jerusalem (John 7:10). At this point in his life he did not believe in Jesus (John 7:5).
What a change came over James! He progressed from unbeliever to leader of the Jerusalem church. The change began with a personal appearance of Jesus to James after the resurrection (I Cor. 15:7). He then became active in the early New Testament church. He was present in the upper room with the disciples (Acts 1:14). When Paul went to Jerusalem after his conversion on the way to Damascus, he had an interview with James (Gal. 1:19). When Peter escaped from prison, he requested that those in the house of John Mark inform James and the brethren of his escape (Acts 12:17). By the time that the Jewish council met, the one which considered the question of the circumcision of Gentile converts, James was the presiding officer (Acts 15:13). At this council, James gave to Paul and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, an indication that his approval was significant (Gal. 2:9), and James gave a moving speech that summarized the significance of this decision (Acts 15:13-29). Later, when Paul returned from his missionary journey, James was still leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 21:17ff.). Such a man was in a position to write a letter to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (James 1:1).
For further verification of authorship, we can cite the following. The letter is filled with brief and pointed exhortations, typical of one who is in a position of leadership and authority. A comparative study of the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), with the words of this letter (see Hendriksen, Bible Survey, pp. 326-327) indicate that the Lord’s brother did much reflecting upon the teaching of the Lord Jesus. There is a striking similarity in the use of words between the speech in James recorded in Acts 15 and the ones used in this epistle (see Harrison,Introduction to the New Testament, page 388).
Tradition adds two interesting details that cannot be substantiated by the Bible; but the Bible does not contradict them either. Eusebius, the historian, quotes from a Jewish historian, Hegesippius, who describes James, the Lord’s brother, as drinking no wine nor strong drink, eating no flesh, and spending so much time on his knees praying that they were calloused and looked like a camel’s knees. He was called James the Just because of his piety. He also claimed that his piety led to his martyrdom. Jewish tradition tells us that James was taken to the balcony of the temple and ordered to shout to the Jews below that Jesus was not the Messiah. Instead, James cried that Jesus was the Son of God and the Judge of the world. In anger the Jews threw him down and he fell to the ground below. Before he died, they stoned him and he was finally clubbed to death. The year was A.D. 62.
TO WHOM IT WAS WRITTEN
The designation is simply given, “to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (James 1:1). The question arises, who is intended with such a description. A similar reference is recorded in I Peter 1:1 where the definite article is lacking and interpretation allows for Christians, Jewish and Gentile, that were scattered throughout the world. Here we are limited by “the twelve tribes.” We may certainly say that James intended that this letter should be for Jewish Christians who were scattered by the dispersion. It would hardly do to say that he wrote it for all Jews, whether Christian or not (see James 2:1). The twelve tribes never returned from captivity, though representatives of the tribes did. Such a reference to the twelve tribes was common among the early church, indicating their spiritual unity (see Acts 26:7, when Paul was before Agrippa).
The problem that arises in this connection is whether those Jews scattered by the dispersion, upon the invasion of Palestine by foreign nations such as Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, Syria, could have been converted to Christianity at this early date. To answer this, one need but recall the Feast of Pentecost recorded in Acts 2. Already then, representatives of all nations were present in Jerusalem for the feast and were converted to the Christian faith by the Holy Spirit. From then on the Christian faith spread among the Jews and Gentiles.
James, the Lord’s brother, as leader of the Jerusalem church and caring in a special way for the Christian Jews that were scattered throughout the world, felt the need to write this letter to them. We should next examine what circumstances led to the need for this letter.
A number of things are indicated in the letter itself. It was a time of oppression, many rich land owners, both Jew and Gentile, were using their wealth to work hardship upon the Jewish converts (James 1:2-11, 2:6ff.,James 5:1-6). Still more, some Jewish Christians were over-reacting against the Phariseeism which had been prevalent in the church. Rejecting work righteousness, they went to the other extreme, they insisted that all one needed was faith, and that works were not significant. This led them headlong into dead orthodoxy: one need only accept certain truths, without living a Christian life. To counter this evil, James spells out the true idea of faith, and that one finds the evidence of such faith in good works (James 2:10-26). There is no contradiction between Paul, who emphasized justification by faith without works, and James, who taught the need for a working faith. Martin Luther failed to see the difference and consequently labeled the epistle of James an epistle of straw, and relegated it to the back of his Bible. One more thing that concerned James was the factious spirit among some of the Jews. They showed favoritism (James 2:1-7), they were guilty of evil speech (James 3), there was strife in the church (James 4), they neglected to care for the sick and pray for one another (James 5).
This letter deals with the spiritual-ethical principles of Christian faith. James is rightly called the Amos of the New Testament. As such, this epistle is very important for us today. We too must know the important place of good works in our lives and how this affects our relationship to one another in the church.
DATE AND DISTINCTIVE FEATURES
Accepting the authorship as James, the brother of our Lord, the date usually given is A.D. 45-50. The things that enter into consideration for this date are the following. It seems to have been written before the gospels, for the doctrinal basis set forth in the gospels is lacking in James. The economic conditions referred to in the letter ceased to exist with the outbreak of the war with Rome, around the mid 60s. The church life presented here is simple, e.g., reference only to elders (James 5:14). It contains reference to the expectation of Christ’s return which was common to this period. If this is true, then James was the first New Testament book written.
Some of the distinctive features of this epistle, pointed out by Harrison in his Introduction to the New Testament, are the following.
1. The work has an authoritative tone. Nearly every other verse contains an imperative. Yet there is no autocratic spirit; the writer addresses his readers as brethren.
2. There is a lack of Christian doctrine. There is no teaching on redemption through the death and resurrection of Christ. These doctrines are more assumed than expressed.
3. The epistle is eminently practical in its approach. From start to finish the writer accents the practical outworking of true religion.
4. The letter is notably impersonal. There is no particular personal relation between him and those whom he addresses. The picture of readers and the figure of the writer are equally colorless and indistinct.
5. There is a fine appreciation of nature in this book. It has been said there is more of this in James than in all of Paul’s letters combined.
6. The teaching bears marked similarity to that of Christ, especially to what is contained in the Sermon on the Mount. Two examples: on judging (James 4:11, 12;Matt. 7:1) and on swearing (James 5:12, Matt. 5:34-37).
7. James belongs to the wisdom literature, revealing kinship with the wisdom books of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha.
8. The Greek of the epistle is of a high quality, comparing favorably with that of Hebrews and I Peter. It has a rather high percentage of words peculiar to itself among the New Testament writers.
Well may we read and study this letter so that we may benefit from such a true faith as the Holy Spirit describes it.