The epistle of James demands that Christian faith must be functional. A living faith is a working faith. The authors central aim is to challenge the readers to test the validity of their faith. Their acceptance of the faith is assumed, and the epistle does not elaborate the doctrinal content of that faith, but they must realize that the gospel makes strong demands for resultant transformed living in daily conduct.
This epistle sternly insists upon Christian practice consistent with Christian belief, heaps scathing contempt upon all empty profession, and administers a stinging rebuke to the readers' worldliness. Its stress upon the gospel's ethical imperative makes the epistle as relevant today as when it was first written. The presence of this practical epistle in the New Testament canon is a magnificent monument to the moral sensitivity and concern of the Christian church.
The opening salutation declares that it was written by James, more properly Jacob, but the author's self-identification, which relates only to his spiritual relations, leaves open his exact identity. Traditionally, he has been identified with "James the Lord's brother" (Gal. 1:19), who became the leader of the early church in Jerusalem. Modern critical scholars who reject the traditional view have proposed varied alternatives and commonly date the epistle after the lifetime of the Lord's brother. Maurice Jones remarks, "The gulf which separates the conservative standpoint from that of the more advanced critic is wider in the case of the Epistle of St. James than of any other book in the New Testament."
The earliest known writer to quote by name the epistle of James is Origen (c. A.D. 185-c. 254). He often cited the epistle as "Scripture" and drew freely from its teaching. He was aware that it was not universally acknowledged (Commentary on John 19.6) but expressed no personal doubts as to its canonicity. Occasionally he named James the apostle as the author. In his Commentary on Matthew (1355), in discussing the four brothers of Jesus, Origen treated at some length the righteousness and reputation of James, whom Paul mentioned in Galatians 1:19, and then referred to Jude, who in the preface of his letter spoke of himself as the brother of James (Jude 1). Although not stated, the whole discussion leaves the impression that Origen connected the epistle of James with the Lord's brother.
The epistle of James is quoted as "Scripture" in Two Letters Concerning Virginity (1.11), a work falsely ascribed to Clement of Rome that was apparently written in Palestine or Syria in the first half of the third century.
Eusebius, in his famous Ecclesiastical History (A.D. 325), placed the epistle of James among the antilegomena, books being disputed by some section of the church (3.25). Eusebius sharply distinguished the antilegomena from spurious works that were categorically rejected. He acknowledged that the books he listed as disputed "are well known and approved by many" (3.25). Elsewhere in speaking about James the Lord's brother, "who is said to have written the first of the epistles general," he remarked that it was considered spurious by some and that "not many of the ancient have mentioned it," but he concluded, "nevertheless we know that these [the catholic epistles] are publicly used in most of the churches" (2.23).
Eusebius implies that Clement of Alexandria (c. A.D. 155-c. 220) accepted James and the other general epistles as authentic (Eccles. Hist. 6. 14). Wikenhauser notes that "the copious writings of Clement of Alexandria do not contain a single citation from James" and holds that "despite the evidence of Eusebius, it is doubtful whether Clement accepted this Epistle as canonical."Salmon reaches the same conclusion on the basis of the Latin translations of the works of Clement.
Athanasius, in his thirty-ninth festal letter in A.D. 367, recorded the official list of the sacred books. He cited "in the order we now observe, the Seven Catholic Epistles, which he puts as a group between the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of St. Paul."
No quotations from James are in the known writings of Tertullian (c. a.d. 160-215), Irenaeus (c. 140-203), Cyprian (c. 200-258), or Hippolytus (d. 236). It is not mentioned in the Muratorian Canon (c. 180), which is held to represent the accepted view concerning the canon in the church at Rome. It is not mentioned in the "Cheltenham List" of the canonical books that was apparently written in Africa in 359. It is also missing in the chief witnesses of the Old Latin Version.
The epistle of James was late in being accepted in the Syrian church, but this delay was also true of 1 Peter and 1 John. It was included in the Peshitta Version, dating from the early fifth century. The epistle was rejected by Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. A.D. 350-428), but Epiphanius (c. 315-403), bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, listed it in his canon of the New Testament. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 310-86) included all the books of our canon except the Apocalypse in his catalogue and urgently warned against using any other books.
In the West, the earliest clear reference to the epistle of James dates from the middle of the fourth century. The writings of Hilary of Poitiers (c. a.d. 315-404) and Ambrosiaster (c. 339-397) each have a quotation from the epistle. Under the influence of Jerome (345-419) and Augustine (354-430), the epistle gained general acceptance in the West. It was defined as canonical at the synods of Rome (382) and Carthage (397). Jerome, although admitting it to the Vulgate, recorded some uncertainty concerning it. In his Lives of Illustrous men (chap. 2) he suggested that it was published by another in the name of James the Lord's brother. The epistle was accepted by Gregory of Nazianzus (330-89), Chrysostom (c. 344-407), and others, but as Harmon observes, "even those fathers who accepted it made but little use of it." Yet as Moo aptly remarks, "It is important to stress that James was not rejected, but neglected."
Indirect evidence indicating knowledge of the epistle of James goes back to the second century. Striking echoes of the epistle are in Clement's Epistle to the Corinthians (c. A.D. 90-100) and especially in The Shepherd, by Hermas (c. 90-140). Both Moffatt and Laws accept that the dependence of Hermas on James is clear enough to establish a terminal date for James.Wikenhauser notes that on the basis of the evidence for Clement and Hermas, "Many scholars infer that James was known and esteemed in Rome at an early date, but was later forgotten."
Mitton suggests that the accepted position of this epistle among the general epistles is indirect evidence for the traditional view of authorship. He contends that its position of priority to the epistles by Peter and John, who were among the first apostles of Jesus, "can only be explained on the assumption that its author was regarded as the brother of the Lord, who later became the very influential head of the church at Jerusalem."
External evidence establishes that the epistle of James came slowly into general circulation and was late in winning firm acceptance as canonical. Moffatt concludes that this evidence "is more intelligible upon the hypothesis that James was of late origin than on the view that it was a product of the primitive church." While allowing the possibility of such an explanation, Davids points out that "a theory of limited interest in and circulation of the epistle would also explain the evidence." Conservative scholars believe that the evidence does not conclusively establish a late date, and insist that more weight than usual should be given to the second-century evidence that implies its early existence and influence. Guthrie contends that "the real crux lies in the treatment of this second-century evidence." There seem to be plausible explanations for the obscurity that early surrounded the letter.
With the development of Gentile Christianity with its own distinctive concerns, a letter addressed specifically to Jewish Christian churches would appear to have little appeal to the church as a whole. Its brevity and very practical nature would make the epistle seem to be of minor importance to those whose main interests were doctrinal. Mitton observes,
Writings which came from the missionary apostles, with a special emphasis on the evangelical doctrines of the Faith, would be more readily valued than an epistle from one whose task in the Church was not primarily evangelical or missionary.
This practical letter could easily be neglected by those concerned with defending the doctrinal realities of Christianity.
Further, a letter addressed to a specific church, and especially one from the founder of that church, would be more likely to be treasured and disseminated than a general letter for which no specific Christian community felt a direct responsibility.
A cause for the neglect of this epistle may have been the fact that the author makes no claim to apostolic authority. Since its author identified himself only as "James," a common name in the ancient world, those unfamiliar with its history would naturally have questions about its true authority or canonicity. Thus the letter was not aggressively promoted by those who had personal questions concerning its authorship and authority The circulation of the epistle accordingly "was extremely narrow, confined to a tiny segment of the surviving Christian church." The real reason for this was the crash of Jewish Christianity in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem. It marked the termination of the power of Jewish Christianity as exercised by the mother church in Jerusalem under the leadership of James the Lord's brother. Thus Heard remarks that "the original prestige of James, so potent in the earliest days of the church, soon waned when the church of Jerusalem lost its position of leadership, and James became a shadowy figure, known only from a few references in the Pauline epistles."
When the epistle of James became more widely known, it was clear that the work did have spiritual value for the church as a whole. Its discovery by Origen and other church leaders gave it a new lease on life. When the epistle did come to be generally known, questions concerning the identity and authority of the designated author naturally caused reluctance to receive it as canonical. The neglect it had suffered naturally proved to be fertile soil for the future doubts, especially at a time when the church was alert to the need of detecting spurious writings.
The evidence concerning authorship drawn from the epistle itself has received widely different evaluations.
Arguments for traditional view. The opening designation, "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ," is ambiguous and might have been used for any of several men named James in the New Testament. The fact that the author felt no need to identify himself, either by his ecclesiastical position or his human relations (cf. Jude 1), suggests that he was so prominent that his readers would know at once who he was. The only James who was such a well-known leader in the early Christian community was James the Lord's brother. The fact that tradition passed over two apostles named James, and ascribed it to the Lord's brother, "suggests that this identification must have had some support in fact and not merely be the outcome of a pious wish to add prestige to the epistle by ascribing it to a person of importance."
If the epistle is not authentic, it appears certain that "a fictitious writer would scarcely have chosen the modest title which commences this Epistle in the endeavor to recommend his exhortations." A spurious letter of James reads, "James, bishop of Jerusalem, to Quadratus." Later, stress was laid on James's relationship to Jesus as "the Lord's brother," but Davids notes that this relationship was "stressed after and only after his death." Elsewhere in the New Testament, Harrison points out, James the Lord's brother (Gal. 1:19) is uniformly mentioned "by his personal name alone (Gal. 2:9, 13; Jude 1; Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18)." The authoritative tone of the epistle is consistent with the known position of the Lord's brother in the early Jewish church.
The author's Jewish background, as reflected in the epistle, is consistent with the traditional view. The author is thoroughly familiar with Old Testament and Jewish forms of thought and expression. The address, "to the twelve tribes which are of the Dispersion" (ASV) is characteristically Jewish. He mentions Abraham as "our ancestor" (2:21) and is the only New Testament writer who employs the Old Testament designation "the Lord of Sabaoth" (5:4 kuriou sabaōth) in speaking of God. (In Romans 9:29, the only other New Testament occurrence, it is a direct quotation from the Old Testament.) He freely draws his illustrations from the Old Testament (2:21, 25; 5:11, 17-18) and mentions the unity of God as the central fact of the faith (2:19). He is acquainted with Jewish formulas in the use of oaths (5:12). These glimpses of the author are consistent with the picture of the Lord's brother in the rest of the New Testament.
There are remarkable similarities between this epistle and the speech of James at the Jerusalem conference (Acts 15:13-21) and the letter, probably drawn up by James, embodying the conference decision (15:23-29) The epithet "beloved" (agapētoi, James 1:16, 19; 2:5; Acts 15:25), as well as the exhortation "Listen, my dear brothers" (James 2:5; Acts 15:13), appears in both the epistle and Acts. The infinitive form of the greeting (chairein) in this epistle also is used in the conference letter (James 1:1; Acts 15:17). "To turn" (epistrephō) as denoting conversion (James 5:19-20; Acts 15:19) and "to visit" (episkeptomai) (James 1:27; Acts 15:14) occur in both James and Acts. The Hebraic expression "your souls" in Acts 15:24 occurs in James 1:21 (cf. 5:20). Some verbal similarities between this epistle and the words of James in Acts 21:20-23 also have been noted.
Numerous similarities exist between this epistle and the teachings of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount. Compare the following:
Mayor further lists a number of parallels for the rest of Matthew as well as Mark and Luke. Nowhere does James say he is quoting Jesus. In fact, he does not give the impression of quoting at all. Rather, his parallels with Jesus' teachings seem to represent the Lord's teachings as they were remembered in the earliest days of the church, before they were enshrined in the gospel accounts. Guthrie further notes that "these parallels are not produced in any mechanical way, but with a real understanding of the point of view from which our Lord proclaimed His teaching." Davids concludes that "collectively, these allusions argue that the author was someone saturated with the teaching of Jesus, and that the work was written before its author contacted written gospel traditions." This situation is fully consistent with the traditional view of authorship, but difficult to conceive if the epistle was written after our gospels were in circulation.
Conditions among the readers as reflected in the epistle are consistent with the traditional view of authorship. The social and economic conditions reflected imply a date some time before the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70. The conflict resulting in the fall of Jerusalem greatly altered conditions for the Jewish people. The simplicity of the ecclesiastical organization suggested in the epistle favors an early date, as does the vivid hope of Christ's second coming. No anachronisms are created by placing the epistle into the lifetime of James the Lord's brother.
Arguments against traditional view. Strenuous objections have been voiced against the traditional view of authorship.
Excellent Greek. The known language milieu of first-century Palestinemakes it very probable that James knew Greek from boyhood. Easton recognizes that since "Nazareth lay on a thronged trade route, it may be assumed that most Nazarenes would pick up more or less Greek of some sort or other," but he insists that we cannot "by the wildest stretch of the imagination" accept that James wrote the good Greek of this epistle. But this fails to recognize that the Jews were the most literary of all Mediterranean nations. "The LXX marks the Jewish adoption of Hellenism and it rapidly became the manual of the synagogues and the whole Dispersion west of the Jordan." Sevenster concludes his elaborate investigation of this matter with the words
In view of all the data made available in the past decades, the possibility can no longer be precluded that a Palestinian Jewish Christian of the first century a.d. wrote an epistle in good Greek.
And Moulton asserts,
There is not the slightest presumption against the use of Greek in writings purporting to emanate from the circle of the first believers. They would write as men who had used the language from boyhood, not as foreigners painfully expressing themselves in an imperfectly known idiom.
The epistle is written in good Greek, but to speak of its "excellent Greek" is to overestimate its literary quality. Robertson asserts, "The author of Hebrews, Luke and Paul far surpass him [James] in formal rhetoric." Zahn points out that the forcibleness of the epistle is "the eloquence that comes from the heart and goes to the conscience, a kind which was never learned in a school of rhetoric."
Although written in accurate Koine Greek, the language of the epistle has a definite Hebrew tinge. "The Greek form of the expression of thought," says Oesterley, "seems to be moulded from a Hebrew pattern, i.e., that the mind of the writer was accustomed to express itself after the manner of one to whom Hebrew ways of thinking were very familiar, and who in writing Greek, therefore, almost unconsciously reverted to the Hebrew mode." Yet Easton, well aware of this Jewish coloring, holds that its literary form points to a non-Palestinian Jew "whose rhetorical training was Hellenistic, but whose religious background was firmly Hebraic." The literary phenomena present a remarkable situation. Liberal students commonly conclude that the phenomena rule out traditional authorship. Advocates of the traditional view advance two different explanations.
One view is that James did acquire the needed familiarity with the Greek to write the epistle as we have it. Acquainted with Greek from boyhood, his position of leadership in the Jerusalem church would make it necessary for him to develop proficiency in its use. There were Hellenists, people completely at home in the Greek, in the Jerusalem church from its very beginning. Daily contact with these Hellenists, as well as frequent practice in public speaking and debate, would give James ample opportunity to develop proficiency in the use of the language. Formal study of the language right in Jerusalem was also a possibility open to James. And James may well have possessed special linguistic aptitudes. Mitton remarks, "James must have been a man of quite extraordinary intelligence and ability to have risen so quickly to the position he achieved. What might have been improbable for a more ordinary person is not so improbable for one of his unusual calibre."
An alternative suggestion is that James used an educated scribe to whom he outlined "what he wanted to say and then left him comparative freedom of expression." Beasley-Murray supports this suggestion with the assertion that "in the Hellenistic age, in which the New Testament was written, scarcely an author gave even his letters their final form in language and style; the dependence of authors on the art of the scribes was well-nigh universal." Sevenster questions this assertion, maintaining that it "probably seldom occurred," and concludes that there is "not one single irrefutably clear example of such" in the New Testament. He points out that the use of key words, wordplays, alliterations, and the arrangement of its contents in short pericopes "make it almost impossible to imagine how a secretary could have composed and written such an epistle at the indication of James." Further, Adamson remarks, "To say that he expected his secretary to create the text from a few notes presumes a secretary more brilliant than the author, a most unlikely presumption."
Either explanation would relieve the problem raised by the language of the epistle. The former is the most natural in view of the known language milieu in the day of James the Lord's brother and the obvious abilities of the leader of the church in Jerusalem. The latter is not conducive to a high view of inspiration.
Scant Christian Content. Oesterley holds that the absence of any reference to the great events in the life of Jesus makes it "almost impossible to believe that one who had known Christ, and had been an eyewitness of His doings and a hearer of His teaching, should maintain such absolute silence on these things when addressing a letter to fellow-believers." Ropes finds it difficult to understand how the Lord's brother could fail to mention the death of Jesus Christ as the means of men's salvation. And Oesterley finds the absence of any mention of Christ's resurrection difficult to account for in view of its importance in the preaching of the early church. Since James himself saw the risen Christ (1 Cor. 15:7), and this event must have made a deep impression on him, it is held to be highly improbable that the writer of this epistle was our Lord's brother. Admittedly, the argument has force, but Heard well replies,
The very absence of theological interpretation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus tells against any theory that the epistle is the work of a later anonymous Christian, and it is better to take the silence of James, like that of Jude, as an indication of the way in which the brethren of Jesus proclaimed their faith.
The absence of any reference to these basic Christian doctrines cannot be due to ignorance of them. In writing to fellow believers, the author could assume that his readers were cognizant of them. His ethical purpose did not require him to discuss them. He would feel a natural reticence about discussing these marvelous matters because of his own close personal relations to the Lord. Tasker has well pointed to the capaciousness of this sort of argument by noting that 2 Peter is often considered pseudonymous because its author emphasizes his relationship to Jesus.
Author's claims. Objection to the traditional view of authorship is drawn from the fact that the writer makes no claim to apostleship, nor does he claim to be the Lord's brother. Oesterley thinks that if James the Lord's brother wrote the letter, we should expect mention of his authoritative position to make his letter more effective for his readers in the Dispersion.
James, like Paul, must have realized that a knowledge of Jesus according to the flesh was not spiritually significant (2 Cor. 5:16). After the resurrection appearance of Jesus to James (1 Cor. 15:7), when the true nature of his brother became clear to James, the importance of his human ties with Jesus receded; what was now important to him was the spiritual relationship. While others might give recognition to his human relationship with Jesus, James felt it more appropriate to call himself "a servant... of the Lord Jesus Christ" (1:1). The fact that the noted leader of the Jerusalem church was "the Lord's brother" (Gal. 1:19) was not stressed in Christian circles until after the death of James. It was recognized that the physical relationship did not guarantee any higher spiritual insights.
Hellenistic features. The Hellenistic literary features of the epistle have been appealed to as evidence against the traditional authorship. Easton asserts, "The fact that the Epistle of James is written throughout as a paraenesis, with frequent employment of the diatribe, shows that its author must be sought among those whose literary associations were with the Greek rather than with the Hebrew world," but these features do not establish that conclusion. Harrison well points out that "Paul, the Hebrew of the Hebrews, used the same Hellenistic literary devices, diatribe and all."
Conditions among readers. The distressing conditions among the readers are held to point to a time after the death of James. It is asserted that the sins rebuked require a long period of development; hence, the letter cannot be directed to Christian communities during the early years of the church.
The claim is questionable. Paul found much to rebuke in the Corinthian church a short time after its founding. The opening chapters of Acts (5:1-11; 6:1) show that the Jewish Christians constituting the church in its earliest days were not exempt from some of the sins rebuked. Knowling notes that "the sins and weaknesses which the writer describes are exactly those faults and weaknesses which our Lord blames on His countrymen, and especially in the party of the Pharisees." Davids believes that the moral problems dealt with "might even be the faults of recently converted Jews who needed to realize the implications of their new faith."
Dibelius dismisses this argument as irrelevant. He contends that as paraenetic literature, no firm information concerning the actual condition among the readers can be drawn from its contents.
Literary dependence. Attempts to establish authorship on the basis of assumed literary dependence are precarious. Moffatt asserts, "The dependence of the epistle upon not only 1 Peter, but some of Paul's epistles (especially Romans) is plain."
Actual literary dependence between James and 1 Peter or Romans is by no means certain. Ropes remarks, "Even if literary dependence were admitted to exist, it would be wholly impossible to decide on which side it lay."He holds that the similarities are due to a common stock of thought upon which both writers drew independently. Concerning these claims for literary dependence, Guthrie aptly remarks, "The most that could be supposed with certainty is that the author possessed a mind receptive of common Christian ideas."
Scholars who conclude that the traditional view concerning authorship must be rejected have advanced varied alternative views.
One suggestion is that some unknown teacher published it under the guise of being James the Lord's brother. This view of pseudonymity is beset with great difficulties. Moffatt rightly notes that "the lack of any emphasis upon the apostle's personality and authority tells against the theory." The absence of any heretical views in the epistle affords no plausible motive for a pseudonymous origin. Proponents may decry stamping such a production a forgery, but that does not relieve the view of the moral issue involved.
A variant hypothesis is that it was written by an unknown teacher named James who later was mistakenly identified with James the Lord's brother. This view is advanced to relieve the difficulties of the traditional view, but it is beset with its own difficulties. "An unknown writer, whose name was James, would surely have realized that his readers would confuse him with the well-known James, and unless he intended such confusion, would have given more specific description of his own identity." Under this view, it is difficult to account for the epistle's authoritative tone and encyclical nature. It faces the moral issue of having gained admission to the canon on the basis of false identification of its author. It is founded on an unproven assumption.
In 1896, F. Spitta advanced the novel hypothesis that the epistle was originally a collection of moral instructions written by a Palestinian Jew to the Jews in the Dispersion, and later given a Christian flavor by the addition of a few Christian touches, such as including the name of Jesus Christ in 1:1 and 2:1. The conjecture is highly improbable. "A Christian interpolator would scarcely have contented himself with inserting so little and would probably have left 2:1 clearer." Kümmel points out that this hypothesis ignores "a series of features which are comprehensible only in view of a Christian origin" and refers to 1:18, 21, 25; 2:7; 5:8, 12 as containing teaching which could not have had a non-Christian Jewish origin. McNeile asserts, "The Christianity of the writer gleams behind his words with a subdued light that no redaction could produce." This theory overemphasizes the epistles Jewish element and neglects its distinctly Christian elements, but it did contribute to the realization that it is not necessary to assume a Hellenistic origin for the epistle.
In 1930, Arnold Meyer in Das Rätsel des Jakobusbriefes advanced the fantastic theory that behind our epistle of James lay a Jewish allegorical work based on Jacob's farewell address to his twelve sons, which depicted the traditional vice and virtue of each tribe; our epistle is a revision of this work for Christian purposes. He held that the patriarchal names were interpreted allegorically, and that this ethical allegorical treatment offers the key to the order of the material in our epistle. It is the basis for Easton's interpretation, although he reduces the Jewish document and increases the Christian editing.Meyer's theory is highly ingenious; the proposed connections of thought often are far from apparent. The whole approach is extremely subtle and far from convincing. Tasker justly remarks:
It is one of the surprising features of contemporary biblical criticism that such a method of exegesis should be regarded as a serious contribution to the problem of the origin of the Epistle of James, or of any other document in the New Testament.
A further theory postulates that the epistle incorporates genuine material from James, probably sermonic in origin, and that an editor translated, adapted, and enlarged on the original material to give the work its present form. Thus Barclay suggests that our epistle is "in substance a sermon preached by James, and taken down by someone else, translated into Greek, added to and decorated a little, and then issued to the Church at large so that all men should possess it and benefit from it." If it is assumed that this process was carried out under the knowledge and approval of James, it is not far different from the view that James employed a scholarly scribe; it simply adds a hypothetical link between the real author and our present epistle.
Davids envisions a more definite, two-stage origin for the present epistle. He suggests, "The editor may have been quite unknown to the author, simply a reviser and compiler of his material, either before or after the author's death. In such a case, the ascription to James the Just is certainly warranted, even though James may never have known the epistle was sent." We may ask, why should such an editor-reviser at a later time issue his own product as the work of James without the knowledge of James, or later when the majority of his intended readers would know that James was already dead? This view raises questions concerning the epistles inspiration. It provides no better explanation than the traditional view as to why the epistle was so tardy in receiving recognition as rightfully belonging among the church's authentic writings.
The author's self-identification as "a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ" (1:1) relates only to his spiritual position. For him, this citation of his servant-relation to God conveyed nothing servile, but rather implied a personal sense of homage and intimacy with the God whose servant he was. It was the central reality in his self-identification. Unlike Jude (1:1), he obviously felt no need to indicate his family relations. He apparently was so well-known that his readers would need no further identification.
Aside from the oblique reference to his position as a teacher in 3:1, the author makes no further direct reference to himself. Yet few writings in the same space reveal more of the person of its author than this epistle. He reveals himself as a vigorous personality, strong and assured in his position. His crisp, concise, authoritative tone commands attention. His brief, pointed sentences, like piercing arrows, invariably hit their mark. He uses "language for which forcibleness is without parallel in early Christian literature, excepting the discourses of Jesus."
A keen observer, he was alert to the operations of nature and repeatedly drew lessons from that area. He was also an attentive observer of human nature. "He knows the fashions of the world, and he notes with unerring clearness and humorous shrewdness the characters of men; he sees their superficial goodness, their indolent selfishness, their vulgarity and the mischief of their untamed thoughtlessness."
He was a man of strong moral convictions whose deep sense of right compelled him to speak out sharply against wrong wherever he encountered it. His words of rebuke are sharp and incisive, yet he is essentially kindly in disposition. He was openly sympathetic with the poor (2:5); his indignation was aroused when they were mistreated (5:4) or scorned and slighted in the Christian assembly (2:2-4). He held that a living faith must manifest itself in a good life (2:17) and in social concern (1:27).
He held deep Christian convictions. He accepted monotheism as a cardinal principle of the faith (2:19). "He regards God as the 'eternal changeless One' from whom come all good gifts (1:17), and under whose providence is every detail of life (4:15)." He had strong convictions concerning the power and importance of prayer (1:5; 5:14-18) and the indwelling Word (1:18, 21). He was fully aware of the deep roots of sin in human nature (1:13-15), and saw an uncontrolled tongue as a manifestation of indwelling evil (3:6-8). He had a deep, if reticent, love for Christ, whom he called "our glorious Lord Jesus Christ" (2:1). He awaited the return of Christ (5:7).
As a devout Christian, the author's thinking is rooted in a Jewish background. Christian ideas are clothed in Jewish forms. Love for the world is condemned in Old Testament terms as adultery against God (4:4). He never uses the word "gospel," but its place is apparently taken by what he calls "the royal law" or "the law that gives freedom" (2:8, 12). He condemns evil speaking as putting a slight on the law (4:11). He naturally reverts to the Old Testament for illustrations, yet the epistle makes no reference to the observance of Jewish rituals and sacrifices.
The Greek name Iakōbos, rendered "James" in our English versions, occurs forty-two times in the New Testament. Several different men bear the name.
The James most frequently mentioned in the gospels is James the son of Zebedee (Matt. 4:21; 10:2; 17:1; Mark 1:19, 29; 3:17; 5:37; 9:2; 10:35, 41; 13:3; 14:33; Luke 5:10; 6:14; 8:51; 9:28, 54). He is named twice in Acts (1:13; 12:2). With his brother, John, he was among the earliest disciples of Jesus. He was the first of the twelve apostles to meet martyrdom (Acts 12:2).
Another one of the twelve was James the son of Alphaeus (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6.15; Acts 1:13). He was apparently also known as "James the younger" (Mark 15:40) and as the son of Mary (Matt. 27:56; Mark 16:1; Luke 24:10). He had a brother named Joses (Mark 15:40). His name is not connected with any incident in the gospels.
Another member of the twelve is identified as "Judas, the son of James" (Luke 6:16 and Acts 1:13), more literally, "Judas of James." The parallel expression, "James of Alphaeus," in the lists strongly supports the view that here also "son of," rather than "brother of" (KJV), is the intended rendering. This James is thus simply mentioned as the father of one of the twelve, whom the fourth gospel further identifies as "Judas, not the Iscariot" (John 14:22, Rotherham).
Another James, along with his three brothers, is twice named in the gospels as the "brother" of Jesus (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3). These brothers as a group also appear in John 7:3-8 and Acts 1:14. In Galatians 1:19, Paul refers to "James the Lord's brother" as an important individual in the church at Jerusalem, whom he met upon his return to that city three years after his conversion. He further mentions James as the first of three reputed pillars in the Jerusalem church (Gal. 2:9), a leader whose name carried strong influence even in the church at Antioch (Gal. 2:12). Three more references to James in Acts, without any further identification, depict an important leader in the Jerusalem church (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18). His identification with the Lord's brother seems assured on the basis of 1 Corinthians 15:7 and Acts 1:14. He also seems to be the James intended in Jude 1.
Of these four men, James the father of the apostle Jude may at once be eliminated as the possible author of the epistle of James. Nothing further is known of him.
The view that James the son of Zebedee was the author has had few advocates. The scant manuscript evidence in its support is of late origin.Internal evidence in its favor is meager and unconvincing. This James was beheaded under Herod Agrippa I in A.D. 44 (Acts 12:2). There is no evidence that by that date he had attained a special position of leadership among Jewish Christians that would justify this letter. He is not prominent in the first twelve chapters of Acts and is always identified in terms of his father or his famous brother, John. That he was the author of this epistle is very improbable.
This choice between James the son of Alphaeus and James the Lord's brother immediately confronts the preliminary question of their possible identity. The identification, proposed by Jerome in the fourth century, has been the traditional position of Roman Catholic exegetes. Thus, Steinmueller rejects any distinction between James the son of Alphaeus and James the brother of the Lord, maintaining that early ecclesiastical tradition confirms this identification. But Wikenhauser, himself a Catholic, notes that "the Protestants and a growing minority among modern Catholics distinguish the brother of the Lord from the son of Alphaeus" and concludes that the distinction is preferable.
This identification assumes that the Clopas in John 19:25 is to be equated with Alphaeus the father of James (Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). Linguistically, the two names could be derived from the same Aramaic term, yet it is unlikely that the same man would be known by both names in the same company of disciples. In the Syriac versions, made by men who doubtless were acquainted with Aramaic names and their renderings, different forms are used for Alphaeus and Clopas.
This view also assumes that in John 19:25 only three women are named, holding that "his mother's sister" is "Mary the wife of Clopas." Although common, the view is highly improbable. Then there would have been two living sisters bearing the name of Mary in the same family. In light of Matthew 27:56 and Mark 15:40, it is far more probable that John refers to four women, naming them in pairs, and that the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is really Salome, the mother of the sons of Zebedee. The Peshitto Syriac Version inserted a conjunction, showing that the translators understood John to speak of four women.
The gospel references to the brothers of Jesus do not harmonize with the view that one or more of them were among the twelve. Jesus' brothers always are represented as a different set of men than the apostles (Matt. 12:46; Mark 3:31; Luke 8:19; John 2:12; 7:3; Acts 1:14). Their attempt with His mother to check the intensive ministry of Jesus (Matt. 12:46; Mark 3:21, 31) does not agree with the view that they (or some of them) were among His disciples. The people of Nazareth spoke of Jesus' brothers as distinct from His disciples (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3). About six months before the crucifixion, just before the Feast of Tabernacles, "even his own brothers did not believe in him" (John 7:5).
Advocates of the identification hold that in Galatians 1:18-19, Paul refers to James the Lord's brother as one of the apostles, but this interpretation of Paul's language is by no means certain. Paul's expression "only [ei mē] James" is best understood as having an adversative meaning, "but only"; his addition "if not James's" (Greek) simply seems to mean that he saw no other person important enough to mention along with Peter except James. Even if we allow that Paul here called James an apostle, the term may be used in a wider sense to include other men of prominence in the work of the church (cf. Acts 14:4, 14; Rom. 16:7). The conclusion that James the Lord's brother was not one of the twelve, hence not to be identified with James the son of Alphaeus, is consistent with the fact that, in his introductory greeting, James makes no claim to apostolic authority.
Among those who accept the distinction between James the son of Alphaeus and James the Lord's brother, only comparatively few have attributed the authorship of the epistle to the son of Alphaeus. Calvin regarded this view as not improbable and held that the James mentioned in Galatians 2:9, whom Paul called a "pillar" of the church, was the son of Alphaeus. He did not, however, firmly decide which of the two men wrote the epistle. Apparently Calvin "hesitated about assigning the same degree of authority to an apostle other than Paul, if he was outside the number of the original twelve."
Baxter, a modern advocate of the view that the author was James the son of Alphaeus, insists that to identify the James of Acts 12:17; 15:13-21, and 21:18-25 with James the Lord's brother makes Luke guilty of dropping an apostle without an explanation and putting in his place another leader who was not an apostle. After the list of the twelve in Acts 1, only three of the original twelve are named again in the book. The son of Alphaeus is not named in connection with a single incident in any of the gospels; his name is known to us only from the lists of the twelve. A man who made so little impression on the gospel narratives does not seem to be the strong and forceful personality reflected in our epistle of James. That James the Lord's brother, although not one of the original apostles, should in a short time step into prominence in the early church is understandable in view of his close relationship to the Lord and Jesus' postresurrection appearance to him, as well as his abilities and devout character. The risen Christ's personal appearance to James (1 Cor. 15:7) gave him the fundamental qualification of an apostle (Acts 1:22).
We conclude that of the four men named "James" in the New Testament, only James the Lord's brother fits the picture. Our findings are in harmony with the traditional view concerning the authorship of the epistle of James.
The identification of the author as "the Lord's brother" raises the thorny question of the exact nature of that relationship. The question has been debated through the centuries, and no unanimity has been reached. Three main views have been advocated.
The Epiphanian theory holds that these brothers were the sons of Joseph by a former marriage, hence all older than Jesus. Epiphanius (c. a.d. 315-403), bishop of Salamis, strongly endorsed this view in a pastoral letter around 375. The view, current in the second century, received strong expression in the apocryphal gospels. The theory in itself is not intrinsically improbable. It had great appeal in the early church because it safeguarded the virginity of Mary.
In support of this theory, it is held that it explains why on the cross Jesus committed His mother to the care of John (John 19:27). In that tragic hour, the disciple would be more sympathetic toward Mary than her older stepsons. The behavior of these brothers toward Jesus is felt to be more consistent with Jewish custom if they were older than Jesus. In their attempt to interfere with Jesus' ministry (Mark 3:21, 31-34), as well as in their open criticism of Him (John 7:2-9), they did not act like younger brothers. C. Harris further argues that if Mary had other children after the birth of Jesus, "the (practically) unanimous tradition of her perpetual virginity could never have arisen." Keylock replies that the argument is "weak in that it is repeatedly contradicted by the past which is replete with just such developments."
This theory is open to the objection that if these brothers were His seniors, Jesus could not have been the heir to Davids throne: His older brothers would have ranked before Him. If these brothers were older than Jesus, their continued presence with His mother is difficult to explain; at the time of Jesus' ministry, we would have expected them to be married and have homes of their own, but the impression left by Scripture is that they constituted one household. Later, they were widely known as Christian workers who were married (1 Cor. 9:5).
The Helvidian theory, so named from an obscure advocate in the latter part of the fourth century, holds that these brothers were the sons of Joseph and Mary, hence all younger than Jesus. The treatise of Helvidius, written in Rome, made a deep impression on the Roman church.
In support of this view, it is held that a reader of the New Testament, uninfluenced by historical or doctrinal considerations, would naturally conclude that these brothers were the sons of Joseph and Mary. Except in John 7:3, they appear in connection with Mary, as though they were members of her household. The statement in Matthew 1:24-25 that Joseph "took Mary home as his wife, but had no union with her until she gave birth to a son" naturally means that they lived as husband and wife after the birth of Jesus. Luke's statement (Luke 2:7), that Jesus was Mary's "firstborn" son (prōtokos), in light of the gospel records may be construed to imply the existence of children born subsequently. If Luke had meant to teach that Mary had no other children, the word monogenēs (used in Luke 7:12 and 8:42 of an "only" child) was available. When Luke wrote, the matter already had been resolved. The reference to Jesus by the people of Nazareth as "the carpenter" (Mark 6:3) naturally suggests that upon the death of Joseph, Jesus, as the oldest son, had taken over the father's occupation as the head of the family.
Tertullian (c. A.D. 160-220) is the first known writer who expressly asserted that the "brethren" were the uterine brothers of Jesus. His statement gives no indication that he was controverting an established tradition favoring the perpetual virginity. On the basis of Origen's statement that the opposite opinion was held by "some," Ropes concludes that this view was held by most persons in the Christian church during the second century.
Opponents of the Helvidian view point out that the majority of ancient writers who discuss the question hold that Mary had no other children. By the time the question came under full discussion, the theory of Mary's perpetual virginity already had begun to project itself into the theology of the church. Ascetic feelings shrank from the thought that the virgin womb of Mary, in which the eternal Word was made flesh, also had been the habitation of other babes. Keylock notes that influential Roman Christian women, committed to the superiority of virginity over marriage, appealed to Jerome to refute the teaching of Helvidius.
It is asserted that the way in which these brothers attempted to interfere with Jesus' ministry is (according to Jewish custom) inconsistent with the view that they were younger. Jacobs tersely replies, "Those who pursue an unjustifiable course are not models of consistency." The fact that Jesus at His death committed His mother to the care of John (John 19:25-27) is held to confirm the view that Mary had no other sons. In that dark hour, none of her sons understood Jesus and could not sympathize with Mary as could John, the beloved disciple. As the son of her sister, Salome, John had closer spiritual ties with Mary than did her unbelieving sons.
The Hieronymian theory, originated by Jerome to refute the position of Helvidius, holds that the "brethren" of Jesus were really His cousins, the children of Clopas and Mary, the sister of the mother of Jesus.
This view rests upon the questionable assumption that Clopas and Alphaeus are the same man and that Mary, the wife of Clopas, was the sister of the virgin Mary. If they were the sons of Mary and Clopas, it is inexplicable that they should always be associated with Mary the mother of Jesus rather than their own mother. If they were the cousins of Jesus, we would expect the use of the word anepsios, which properly means "cousin." This view assumes that some of these "brothers" were among Jesus' disciples, but John 7:3-8 constitutes a crowning difficulty to that view. Jerome could produce no earlier ecclesiastical support for his novel theory.
This thorny problem will probably never be settled to everyone's satisfaction. We fully concur with Mombert's conclusion:
The view that Jesus had actual brothers and sisters is as old as any of the other theories, and we believe with Neander, Winder, Meyer, Stier, Alford and Farrar, that it accords best with the evangelical record, and barring dogmatical prejudices or feeling, is at once the simplest, most natural and logical solution of this otherwise hopelessly confused question.
Apparently James was the oldest of the brothers of Jesus, since his name stands first in the two lists of their names (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3). During Jesus' ministry, His brothers did not understand His true nature and could not associate Him with their messianic views (John 7:2-8), but the appearance of the risen Christ to James (1 Cor. 15:7) dissolved all doubts, and with his brothers he threw in his lot with Christ's followers (Acts 1:14). The appearance of the risen Christ gave James a distinctive position among the larger group of believers (Acts 1:22), no doubt contributing to his rise to prominence in the early church. The further references to James in Acts (12:17; 15:12-29; 21:18-25) and Galatians (1:18-19; 2:6-9) establish his acknowledged importance at different points in the Jerusalem church. James's prominence is evident from Jude's reference to his famous brother in the salutation of his letter (Jude 1); he knew it would clearly establish his own identity.
Our glimpses of James as the leader of the church of the circumcision in Jerusalem indicate his Jewishness. At the Jerusalem conference it was James's speech that conciliated the Jewish brethren (Acts 15:13-21). James explicitly negated the demand of the Judaizers that Gentile believers be required to be circumcised, basing his decision on the divine act narrated by Peter. He also suggested the restrictive clause to the decision of the conference to avoid scandalizing Jewish believers and to remove obstacles to the evangelization of Jews everywhere. He also reminded his hearers that the prophecy concerning Israel's future was relevant for its own time (vv. 15-18).
James's spiritual sensitivity and openness led him, with Peter and John, to recognize Paul's apostolic credentials and his mission to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:6-9). James approved wholeheartedly the division agreed on in the field of labor, and devoted himself to his ministry to those of the circumcision. Apparently, he spent most of his time in Jerusalem, giving guidance to the work of the mother church. Whether James, like his brothers, also undertook preaching missions beyond Jerusalem is not certain (1 Cor. 9:5). That James sought to keep his hand upon the pulse of the spiritual life of Jewish believers beyond Palestine is clear from the salutation of his letter (James 1:1), as well as his words to Paul in Acts 21:21.
When Paul returned to Jerusalem with the collection for the Judean saints, he reported to James and the elders the progress of missionary work among the Gentiles (Acts 21:17-26). In reply, Paul was reminded of the myriads of Jewish believers who were "all zealous for the law" (v. 20). Paul was urged to conciliate their Jewish feelings, aroused by adverse reports, by adopting a plan that would show that he was not opposed to the observance of Jewish rituals. James assured Paul of his adherence to the decision of the Jerusalem conference concerning the Gentiles (v. 25), but his suggestion was motivated by his tender sympathies for the Jewish believers. It seems clear from Galatians 2:11-21 that James personally continued to observe the Jewish dietary regulations. When certain men, upon coming to Antioch, represented themselves as coming "from James" and refused to eat with the Gentile believers, their position produced a strong impact upon the Jewish believers in Antioch. It is not asserted that James sent them, but it seems clear that Peter recognized the correctness of their claim to have the support of James concerning their dietary practices. In the official letter of the Jerusalem conference, apparently largely drafted by James, it was explicitly denied that the men who caused the disturbance in the church at Antioch had been commissioned to make their demands upon the predominantly Gentile church there (Acts 15:24).
James, as a leader of the Judaic church, continued adherence to the Mosaic law, not as a means of salvation but as an accustomed way of life. The Jerusalem conference had settled the question of the relationship of Gentile believers to the law, but it said nothing about Jewish believers. They continued to live as Jews because of their loyalty to their Jewish heritage.
James was no narrow-minded Judaizer. He sided with Paul against the Judaizers at the Jerusalem conference. In the letter embodying the conference decision, he explicitly repudiated the claims of the Judaizers that they represented the position of the Jerusalem church.
James reveals himself as a "man of large influence, impressive character, and intense piety." His life and character inspired deep respect, and men felt that they could lean upon him as a pillar of strength amid conflicting views. Mitton observes that "temperamentally he was cautious and conservative, and reluctant to jeopardize proved values by taking unjustified risks. But once he could see the wisdom of a radical change in policy, he could take it firmly and resolutely. Even then he felt it his duty to carry all sides in the dispute along with him, and in the interests of peace and harmony asked concessions from both sides."
Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews gives a simple and apparently authentic account of James's death. He reports that upon the death of the procurator, Festus, and before his successor Albinus had arrived in A.D. 62, the newly appointed young high priest Ananus II "assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned." His murder was openly condemned by the masses of the Jews.
An account of James by Hegesippus, a second-century Christian writer, places special emphasis upon his Jewish character and prominence within Judaism. He recounts that his life of piety gained for James the title "James the Just" and that he spent so much time in the Temple praying that his knees became as hard as a camel's. When James publicly refused to repudiate the claims of Jesus as the Messiah, the infuriated priests forced him to the Temple roof and threw him over, and since he was not killed, beat him to death with clubs. The account apparently contains legendary elements and exaggerates James's ascetic practices and the scope of his influence among the unbelieving Jews.
The salutatory designation of the readers as "the twelve tribes scattered among the nations" (tais dōdeka phulais tais en tō diaspora, literally, "To the twelve tribes, those in the dispersion") has received three different interpretations.
One view is that the epistle was directed to all the Jews living outside Palestine. "The twelve tribes" was a comprehensive designation for the Jews to express the ideal unity of the covenant nation (Matt. 19:28; Acts 26:7), whereas "the Dispersion" was a technical expression for those Jews who lived outside of Palestine (John 7:35). Thus it is held that this comprehensive Jewish designation was intended to include both Christian and non-Christian Jews. Macknight asserts that "this epistle was designated in part for the unbelieving Jews," and appeals to 4:1-10 and 5:1-6 in support, insisting that "these things could not be said of the believing Jews." Also, "brethren" as a Jewish form of address would readily apply to all Jews.
Such a mixed readership for the epistle is improbable. James at once approaches his readers as "a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ"; for unbelieving Jews, this would at once create an obstacle between the writer and his readers. Rather, "the whole letter assumes a community of faith between the writer and his readers." James thinks of his readers as having been born again by the Word of God (1:18) and "as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ" (2:1). "The noble name of him to whom you belong" (2:7) is almost certainly a reference to the name of Christ. "The Lord's coming" (5:7) as designating their hope is certainly a distinctly Christian formulation. If the writer intentionally included non-Christian Jews, it is strange that the epistle contains no missionary element intended to lead to faith in Christ.
Another view is that the opening designation must be taken figuratively to denote "Christendom in general conceived under the oecumenical symbol of ancient Israel." It is held that James must be interpreted in light of 1 Peter 1:1 where the Christian readers are described as "sojourners of the Dispersion" (ASV). The parallel with 1 Peter is not exact. Peter makes no reference to the "twelve tribes" and, unlike James, uses "Dispersion" without an article (Greek) to characterize his readers as minority groups in their communities in the Roman provinces named. This proposed identification of the readers seems improbable in view of the Jewishness of the epistle of James.
The most probable view is that the epistle is addressed to Jewish Christians living outside of Palestine. The recipients are Christians whose assemblies are designated as a "synagogue" (sunagōgēn, 2:2) as well as a "church" (5:14). As Moo notes, "James's use of the feminine 'adultresses' (moichalides) in 4:4 would make no sense to anyone who was not well acquainted with the Old Testament tradition likening the Lord's covenant with his people to a marriage relationship."
Monotheism, rather than polytheism, is accepted as the unquestioned basic postulate of the faith (2:19). Machen further observes:
The faults against which the Epistle is directed—faith without works, words without deeds, censoriousness, ambition, inordinate love of teaching, toadying to wealth and position, contemptuous treatment of the poor, covetousness under the cloak of religion—are typically Pharisaic, and peculiarly Gentile faults like idolatry and impurity, which are so prominent in such an Epistle as First Corinthians, are conspicuous by their absence.
We accept this view as fully harmonious with the entire picture in the epistle.
Beyond their residence in the Dispersion, the epistle gives no indication as to where the readers were located. Since the epistle was written in Greek, and reveals no firm evidence of having been translated from the Aramaic, it seems clear that the readers were Jewish Christians residing in the Greek, or Western, Dispersion. Gloag held that the readers "in all probability were chiefly congregated in the countries in closest proximity to Judea, namely Phoenicia, Syria, Cilicia, and Proconsular Asia." It seems probable that the epistle was addressed to "the Jewish Christians who were driven from Jerusalem because of the persecution that resulted from the death of Stephen."
The early spread of Christianity into the regions north of Palestine is evident from Acts 9:2; 11:19; 13:1. That they also went as far as Proconsular Asia is not indicated. Thus Dana concluded that "the epistle was written to Jewish Christian congregations in Syria." Following Peter's departure from Jerusalem (Acts 12:23), James became the natural leader of the church in Jerusalem; he naturally would have a deep personal interest in the spiritual welfare of these scattered Jewish believers.
As Jews, the readers had been accustomed to look to Jerusalem for religious leadership. This background conditioned them to look for and accept doctrinal instruction and practical guidance from James, the recognized leader of the Jewish Christians at Jerusalem. The spiritual care of these Jewish Christian congregations would, in a special way, fall to James. Various members of these congregations may have been members of the Jerusalem church before persecution scattered them.
James would come into contact with representatives of these congregations as different members came to Jerusalem for business or to attend Jewish national feasts. His concern for their spiritual welfare soon disclosed disturbing conditions. Those conditions prompted James to use the epistolary method to meet those needs, a method also proposed by him at the Jerusalem conference.
Those who reject the view that the epistle is the work of James the Lord's brother place it somewhere in the Gentile world. Different places are suggested. Brandon names Alexandria, Henshaw and Laws point to Rome,whereas Goodspeed believes that Antioch is most probable. These suggestions are grounded in the view that the thought and expressions of the epistle reflect a Hellenistic rather than a Palestinian Judaism.
Acceptance of the traditional view concerning authorship carries with it the conclusion that the place of composition was Jerusalem, James's fixed place of residence. This view is consistent with the allusions to nature in the epistle. The reference to "the early and latter rain" (5:7) "is a climatic peculiarity, familiar to dwellers in Palestine, but not characteristic of areas further to the West." The references to the hot winds (1:11), sweet and bitter springs (3:11), the cultivation of figs and olives (3:12), and the imagery of the nearby sea (1:6; 3:4) are all reminiscent of conditions in Palestine. Furthermore, as Moo notes, "the social conditions of first-century Palestine and Syria certainly provide an appropriate backdrop for the letter of James."
The dates assigned to the epistle by those who reject the traditional view vary greatly. They range between the last quarter of the first century and the middle of the second century.
The dates suggested by those who accept the Lord's brother as the author divide into two groups. Some place it near the end of his life, shortly before his martyrdom in A.D. 62; others place it early, even before the Jerusalem conference. Moffatt, who rejects the traditional view, holds that of these two dates during the life of James, the late date "presents more psychological and historical difficulties than even the earlier date."
Evidence advanced for an early date is the "very slight line which appears to exist between Judaism and Christianity." Aside from the lordship of Christ and the hope of His early return (1:1; 2:1; 5:8), which characterized Christianity from the very beginning, no Christian distinctives appear. Even the word "gospel," to denote the saving message of Christianity, is not used.
The primitive church order is favorable to an early dating. The reference to "the elders of the church" (5:14) is consistent with the view that they were Jewish Christian congregations organized after the pattern of the Jewish synagogues. The warning against many being teachers (3:1) seems to point to an early free type of organization.
The total absence of any reference to Gentiles and their relation to Christanity points to a time before Gentile believers constituted a prominent element in the church. The absence of any reference to circumcision is best understood as pointing to a time before this burning question arose in the church. As the result of Paul's first missionary journey, this became a critical problem and led to the Jerusalem conference (Acts 14:27-15:5). The epistle is silent concerning the social relation between Jewish and Gentile believers, a problem that was acute after the Jerusalem conference (Gal. 2:11-14). The absence of any direct mention of the "faith versus works" controversy is also best understood as pointing to a time before the outbreak of that struggle. Thus, as Moo asserts, "it is difficult to think that James could have written to Jewish Christians, some of whom probably lived in or near Antioch, without any allusion to the problem or the decision of the council."
Proponents of a date just before the death of James insist that the faith-works controversy is implied in James's teaching in 2:14-26 when seen in the light of the corresponding passages in Romans and Galatians. They assume that the epistle of James is a polemic against Paul's teaching or a perversion of his teaching. If James wrote in reaction to Paul's teaching concerning justification by faith, it is replied, he surely would have expressed himself more explicitly concerning his relation to Paul. Dods insists that the discussion in James 2 "does not prove the writer's acquaintance with Paul's position. Rather, it must be accepted as evidence against such acquaintance, for it is incredible that with a knowledge of the Pauline letters he could have said just so much and no more."
The teachings of James and Paul run parallel; they stand back to back, fighting error on both sides of the truth. Paul refuted the need for good works as necessary for justification before God (Rom. 4:4-5; Eph. 2:8-9); James insisted upon the need for good works by the justified as proof of the living nature of saving faith. Paul agreed with James that saving faith manifests itself in a life of good works (Gal. 5:6; Eph. 2:10).
It is more probable that Paul's opponents used the words of James, taken out of context, as a weapon against Paul's teaching of justification by faith. The epistle of James seems rather to belong to a time before the finer distinctions between "works," "good works," and "works of the law" were developed.
Advocates of a date just before the death of James insist that this date is required by "the spread of Christianity through the entire Jewish diaspora."The argument has force only if the designation of the readers in 1:1 is understood as demanding such a widespread location of the readers. If a fairly restricted location for the readers is accepted, an early date for the epistle is not ruled out.
We conclude that the preponderance of the evidence points to an early date for the epistle, some time before the Jerusalem conference. The epistle may thus be dated about A.D. 46, at least not later than 49. This view makes James the earliest book in the New Testament.
The epistle of James is notoriously difficult to outline. This is confirmed by the great diversity of proposed outlines, which range all the way from two to twenty-five major divisions. The epistle obviously does not set forth a clear structural plan heralding the logical organization of its contents. "A superficial glance at this epistle," says Hendriksen, "may easily leave the impression that every attempt to outline it must fail." Its disjointed character is stressed by scholars who simply view it as a paraenesis (from the Greek parainesis, meaning "exhortation, advice"), a hortatory composition devoted to ethical instruction. "It was characteristic of paranesis," says Songer, "to place together in loose organization a series of exhortations without any concern to develop one theme or line of thought in the entire writing." Thus, Goodspeed describes this book as "just a handful of pearls, dropped one by one into the hearer's mind." Hunter asserts that "it is so disconnected, as it stands, that it is the despair of the analyst."
Others, not yielding to despair, discern a measure of organization in the epistle in that James is seen as discussing a varying number of independent themes. Scroggie finds more than a dozen sermonic themes "being treated almost disconnectedly." Shepherd traces "a series of eight homilet-ic-didactic discourses" in the book, while Barker, Lane, and Michaels regard the book as consisting of "four brief homilies or messages [which] have been merged into one." Some, like Martin, find three major divisions in the body of the letter.
Still others hold that a unity is conferred upon the whole epistle by a single underlying theme that is ethical rather than doctrinal. Kee, Young, and Froehlich state this overall thrust as follows: "The whole epistle is concerned with one simple truth: It is not enough to 'be' a Christian, if this fact does not show in one's conduct." McNeile finds the unifying thread of the epistle in "the obvious but important truth that a man's faith, his attitude toward God, is unreal and worthless if it is not effective, if it does not work practically in life." Lenski well asserts, "This entire epistle deals with Christian faith and shows how this faith should be genuine, true, active, living, fruitful."
James has much to say about faith, but he is not concerned with developing a theological exposition of the nature of faith. His concern is rather that believers manifest an active faith in daily life. He assumes that a saving faith accepts Jesus Christ as the all-sufficient Savior (1:1; 2:1), but his purpose is to goad his readers effectively to realize that a saving faith is a living, active faith, for "faith without works is dead" (2:20, KJV).
The root difficulty of the readers lies in a distorted conception of the nature of salvation by faith and its relation to daily life as the proving ground for the development of Christian character. Perhaps as an extreme reaction to the legalism to which they had been subjected before their acceptance of Christ, many of them acted as though knowledge of the truth was sufficient. "They conceived faith not as a living contact of the soul with God, effecting a radical change in man's life and producing deeds as its natural fruits (2:17, 18), but simply as a formal consent to certain doctrines (2:19)."James recognized that his readers seriously needed to test themselves to see if their faith was a living faith or a mere lifeless profession. Accordingly, the epistle develops a basic theme: "Tests of a Living Faith." James is not interested in works apart from faith, but he is vitally concerned to show that a living faith must demonstrate its life by what it does.
Following the brief salutation (1:1), James at once plunges into his theme: "the testing of your faith" (1:3). "The problem of testing," Davids observes, "forms the thread which ties the epistle together, although like the thread in any necklace, the pattern of the specific ornaments is more often seen than the thread itself." In 1:2-18, James elaborates on the theme of tests and temptations from different angles. He admonishes his oppressed and tested readers to let their tests produce their intended results as they steadfastly endure. Due to man's fallen nature, such testing may become a temptation, but such temptations are not the work of God and are contrary to God's beneficent activities in human affairs.
James sets forth a series of six basic tests whereby his readers are to test their own faith. In 1:19-27, he notes that faith must be tested by its response to the Word of God. In 2:1-13, he develops the test that faith reveals its nature by its reaction to social distinctions. Faith also must be tested by its production of works (2:14-26). Faith must further be tested by its development of self-control (3:1-18). Their manifestations of a spirit of worldliness led James to devote a long section to the matter of faith's reaction to the world and the various ways whereby worldly-mindedness manifests itself in the lives of believers (4:1-5:12). The concluding test of faith is its resort to prayer under all circumstances of life (5:13-18).
Instead of the usual epistolary conclusion, James ends abruptly with an appeal to restore those who have strayed (5:19-20). This will be an effective manifestation of the beneficial activity of a living faith in their lives.
This epistle is distinctive for its omissions. Christ is mentioned as the object of faith and called "our glorious Lord Jesus Christ" (2:1), but no further development concerning His Person and work is found. No mention is made of His incarnation, sufferings, death, and resurrection. Doctrines such as the atonement or the future life are not developed.
The epistle contains no reference to circumcision, the Sabbath, the Temple ritual, and the Jewish feasts, and no warning is made against pagan idolatry with its attendant evils. No indication is given of the presence of Gentile believers in their churches or the impact of Gentile institutions on their lives.
No reference is made to any personal contacts between the author and his readers. Nor does he add any thanksgiving for or commendation of them. Beyond the indirect mention of his work as a teacher (3:1), no autobiographical touches, such as those characterizing the Pauline epistles, are found. Nor does he mention any contemporary historical events or individuals.
The writer was not devoid of doctrinal convictions, but his pungent, practical letter did not call for their elaboration. His concern was the consistent manifestation of Christian faith in daily life. His insistence upon being "doers of the word, and not hearers only" (1:22, ASV) clearly indicates acquaintance with, and acceptance of, the doctrinal content of that "word." The epistle embodies a great deal of "compressed theology." Expressions such as "He chose to give us birth through the word of truth" (1:18); "the word planted in you" (1:21); "the perfect law that gives freedom" (1:25); "to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him" (2:5); and "the spirit he caused to live in us" (4:5) are rich in doctrinal implications. However, these expressions underline an ethical rather than a doctrinal emphasis.
The epistle has rich indications concerning God's nature and activity. James affirms the unity of God (2:19; 4:12) but nowhere indicates the trinitarian nature of God. God is the Creator of the universe (1:17; 5:4) and of men (3:9). He is unchangeably good (1:17) and the author of all good (1.17), the source of wisdom (1:5) and prophetic revelation (5:10). He does not tempt men to evil (1:13-14), but gives them His grace (4:6-8), hears their sincere prayers (1:5-7; 5:15-16), and forgives their sins (5:15), but He will judge without mercy those who show no mercy (2:13).
The author reveals a deep if reticent faith in Christ. He was the center and foundation of the author's religious life, as is evident from the full confessional title "our Lord Jesus Christ," the mention of His glory (2:1, ASV), and his acknowledged position as His servant (1:1). His anticipation of Christ's speedy return (5:7-9) forms the basis for a call to present faithfulness and stability. Moo notes that in attributing to the returning Christ "the function of eschatological judge, James plainly implies that Jesus is God." He does so "in asserting within the same letter that 'there is one lawgiver and judge,' and that Jesus Christ, at His return, will act as the judge." In doing so, Davids notes that James reflects "the usual ambivalence of the early church in that lines are not clearly defined; what is attributed to God in one case may be a function of his Christ in another."
The psychological analysis of temptation and sin in 1:12-15 is a distinctive contribution of this epistle. The passage in 5:14-16 is of abiding value for the life of the churches.
The strong ethical emphasis of the epistle is noteworthy. Distinctive is the fact that "its ethical teaching occupies the whole Epistle and is not, as in the other cases, linked with doctrinal passages." James makes no special effort to ground his ethical injunctions in doctrinal revelation. His denunciations of social injustices have about them the vehemence of the Old Testament prophets. Not without cause has James been called the Amos of the New Testament.
The epistle of James finds its place in the early days of historic Christianity when as yet the distinction between Judaism and Christianity had not been fully brought to view It offers us a glimpse of the Christian faith as held by Jewish believers during the early chapters of Acts.
Christianity is not thought of as an antithesis to Judaism, but rather as its true consummation. Judaism was the flower, whereas Christianity was the fruit. Christianity was the consummation of the hopes of Judaism—the final manifestation of what was latent in the Jewish revelations. Viewed in this light, the characteristics of the epistle become instructive. Thus, the epistle makes its own distinctive contribution to the New Testament canon, a contribution which we could ill afford to lose.
The author speaks as one conscious of his official authority and resultant responsibility (3:1). Entirely convinced of the truth and importance of his message, his tone is not defensive, and he gives no indication of any feelings that his views are under attack. His authoritative tone is reflected in his use of some 54 imperatives in the epistle's 108 verses, but his spirit is not autocratic.
His language is clear and incisive, energetic and vivid, conveying weighty thoughts in well-chosen words. His sentences are short, simple, and direct. The author reveals a touch of poetic imagination. He has a taste for similes and comparisons and prefers concrete to abstract thoughts, presenting his teaching in picturesque and dramatic form. Obviously he was a lover and keen observer of nature. Howson remarks, "There is more imagery from mere natural phenomena in the one short Epistle of St. James than in all St. Paul's Epistles put together."
A singular feature of the epistle is the use of paronomasia, the practice of linking together clauses and sentences by the repetition of a leading word or one of its cognates. In illustration, note 1:3-6: "perseverance" (v. 3) and "perseverance" (v. 4); "not lacking anything" (v. 4) and "if any of you lacks" (v. 5); "he should ask" (v. 5) and "but when he asks" (v. 6); "not doubt" (v. 6) and "he who doubts" (v. 6). See also 1:12, 15, 21-25; 3:2-8; 4:1-3.
In keeping with the opening epistolary salutation, the book has traditionally been referred to as an "epistle," but it lacks the usual thanksgiving for the readers as well as the customary epistolary conclusion. It does not reveal the usual relations between writer and readers. The material may well have originally been developed by James for his didactic ministry in the church. Obviously, the material was put into its present form as destined for public reading in the congregations addressed.
Its contents connect the book with the genre of hortatory literature. It has close affinities with the Old Testament Wisdom Literature, especially Proverbs, Psalms, and other hortatory sections, as well as some Old Testament Apocrypha. It exhibits close analogies with the Sermon on the Mount and the hortatory portions of Paul's letters. Its hortatory features connect this book with the literary category known as paraenesis. Songer lists three common features of this type of literature: (1) ethical maxims were placed side by side without emphasis on their mutual relationship; (2) its basic unit was the imperative sentence; (3) its material was selected to serve the ethical purpose of the writer. This feature of the material has led some to claim that the contents of James consists of an unstructured stringing together of moral exhortations. Davids rightly holds that "the sayings and proverbs are not as unrelated or jumbled together as Dibelius believes." Kistemaker asserts, "Even though these exhortations seem to be loosely connected, James shows progress and development in his presentation."
It has also been pointed out that the literary features of the epistle of James show affinities with the Hellenistic diatribe. Used by the Greek popular moralists, the diatribe was characterized by its use of abbreviated debate with an assumed opponent, the question-and-answer method, and frequent use of the imperative. Its use was widespread, especially in the Jewish synagogues. Although this hortatory style was well-suited to the purpose of James, the epistle cannot be justly characterized as Hellenistic diatribe. In the words of Adamson, "Whereas the diatribe is an entirely Hellenistic product, the Epistle of James is fundamentally and perpetually Semitic and biblical; the stylistic similarities between James and the diatribes are obvious enough, but like those between the synagogue sermons, they are mainly superficial. It is even more obvious that the Epistle as a whole is not a diatribe."
The distinctiveness of the book of James from other New Testament books is a witness to the manysidedness of Christianity. Its contribution is needed to convey the full revelation of the truth in Christ.
The ethical emphasis of James conveys a vital and needed message for today. Salmon underlines the timeliness of this emphasis with the reminder of "how much of the success of Christianity was due to the pains which its teachers took in inculcating lessons which seem to us commonplace." The fuller revelation of the later New Testament epistle does not invalidate James's practical message. "The combination of St. James with St. Paul is a safeguard against much error." As long as there are professed Christians who are prone to separate profession and practice, the message of James will continue to be relevant.
PART 1: The Theme: The Testings of Personal Faith
PART 2: The Test Marks of a living Faith
PART 3: The Reactions of Living Faith to Worldliness
PART 4: The Reliance of Living Faith on God