Introduction to James

The document known as the Epistle of James has a unique voice in the NT. Its orientation to practical theology, its interest in true godly wisdom and consistent Christian behavior, and its large supply of memorable phrases and aphorisms that encapsulate many aspects of the practical Christian life have made it useful for purposes of moral exhortation. However, it has been a lesser influence on the development of the church’s theology, and until recently it has been somewhat neglected.

Further, the second half of James 2 appears at first glance to clash with certain statements by Paul on justification by faith. This, along with the less-developed Christology of James, led Martin Luther to question its validity as an expression of the gospel of Jesus, even calling it “an epistle of straw.” Most of the Reformers, however, even Luther’s protégé Melancthon (Loci Communes 9.5.12), along with most of the church throughout its history, took a more sober view and argued that James, when understood better, is not in conflict with Paul. The issue of James’s relationship to Paul’s theology will be examined in more detail both in the introduction and in the commentary on James 2. Indeed, a careful study of the letter leads to the conclusion that James’s insistence on works is precisely because faith is important. A faith devoid of works is a faith devoid of life; a living, saving faith is one that has an effect on behavior, and therefore it is essential that a person’s faith be a working faith.

It is in fact the thesis of this commentary that James should be seen as a book about true faith as opposed to a false one. Far from minimizing faith, the author of James regards faith as supremely important, and it is for this very reason that it is crucial that a person’s faith be genuine. People often deceive themselves, and it is quite possible for people to think that they have faith when in fact they are hypocrites. James, in the first chapter alone, uses three different words to describe this capacity for self-deceit: πλανάω (planaō, lead astray) in 1:16, παραλογίζομαι (paralogizomai, deceive) in 1:22, and ἀπατάω (apataō, deceive) in 1:26. Indeed, the issue runs all the way through James: the doubter’s double-mindedness in 1:6-8, empty religiosity in 1:26, the pretense of loving neighbor while showing favoritism in 2:8-9, the empty, dead faith of 2:20, the contradiction of blessing God and cursing his image-bearers in 3:9 and of boasting while being false to the truth in 3:14, and the pretense of the merchant in 4:13 are essentially all referring to forms of self-deception. But James wants those who profess to believe in Christ to be real disciples and manifest living faith, and he wants to awaken people who complacently think that they are believers but do not act like believers—in other words, those who have deceived themselves. Further, the threats to faith that can come by way of persecution, illness, and the delay of the coming of the Lord are met with exhortations to persevere, which is the stance of faith. Truly, James as a whole is a book about genuine faith. Surely, there are few times more in need of James’s insistence that faith be genuine than our own.

Controversy has continued to swirl about the book, however. Almost every aspect of interpretation, its author, its date, its original audience, its theological substructure, its organization (or lack of organization), its overall purpose (especially whether it is in any way a reaction to some form of Paulinism), its unity, and even the meaning of several of its words, phrases, and sentences have been heavily debated, and many matters remain without anything close to a scholarly consensus.

All these questions of introduction, authorship, dating, original audience, text, genre, and canonical acceptance are tangled together, and even the meaning of the text and the questions of introduction are interlinked. As a result, no obvious starting point presents itself. The question of authorship, for example, depends on when we date the letter and on the history of its use in the church, but dating is heavily dependent on identifying the original audience as well as the author, and the identity of the original audience is tied up with the author, date, and genre as well as the meaning of certain of James’s statements. Change any piece, and the whole puzzle must be assembled differently.

Nevertheless, the book gives us some clues about these things, and if we listen sympathetically to its message and pay close attention to the world in which it was written, we can, with some measure of confidence, answer many of those questions. Fortunately, the book’s central message is comprehensible regardless of its origins.


Following the lead of Johnson (1995: 3-4), we will begin with a preliminary and brief attempt to listen to the “voice” of the letter and ascertain how it might fit in the story of the earliest church. This will give us a means of tentatively dating the letter. We can also determine how well it fits with what can be known of its putative author, whom the letter itself identifies as simply “James, servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” As we will note shortly, this must refer to the James who appears in Acts as the leader of the Jerusalem church, whom Paul identifies as “the brother of the Lord” (Gal. 1:19).

1. James is interested primarily in practical Christianity. He assumes the content and saving power of the Christian gospel (1:21; see “Theology” below), but his interest is on how that is worked out in life, and he denounces a kind of faith that does not act accordingly. James also packs the letter with aphorisms that encapsulate godliness and thus has contributed many pithy and memorable phrases to the Christian’s wisdom vocabulary. The letter is also heavily imperatival, containing some fifty-four imperative verbs (plus a few negative aorist subjunctives that serve as prohibitions), and it displays an exhortational tone throughout.

Our Western Christian heritage has vigorously stressed the importance of doctrine, focusing on propositional truth as crucial for Christian identity, because ideas and thoughts make a difference in actions and relationships, particularly our relationship to God. But James reminds us that the ultimate purpose of Christian instruction, the goal of doctrine, is a godly character and righteous behavior. This purpose is also found in Jesus’s teaching and even in that of Paul (see, e.g., Rom. 8:29, “conformed to his image”; see also Phil. 2:12-13), but it has tended to become lost in our battles over precise doctrinal formulation. James reminds us that genuine faith is more than a matter of simply acknowledging the right concepts; it is right living in accordance with those concepts.

2. James exhibits throughout, both in vocabulary and in concept, a Jewish flavor. Many scholars have noticed the similarities between James and Jewish wisdom literature, especially Sirach (see excursus 3, “James and Wisdom”). And several scholars have pointed out that despite the distinctively literary quality of James’s Greek in several passages, many of its expressions have a pronounced Semitic cast (see MHT 4:116-20; see also “Jewish Literary Background” below). Also, James exhibits in its use of the OT a common Jewish exegetical procedure of interpreting one text by reference to another (James 2 interprets Gen. 15:6 by referring to Gen. 22). It uses features indicative of a Semitic rather than normal Greek style—for example, attributive genitives such as “hearer of forgetfulness” (= “forgetful hearer”) in 1:25, and attributed genitives such as “abundance of wickedness” (= “abundant malice”) in 1:21 and “beauty of its face” (= “its lovely appearance”) in 1:11. Even among ancient interpreters James’s use of parataxis (using “and” to join two sentences where literary Greek would use a subordinate clause) was noted (Theophylact, Commentary on James [PG 125:1152]). Further, the law of God is termed “royal” (or better, “kingdom-related”) and “liberating.” James’s concerns are reflective of OT ethical interests, particularly as seen in the prophets and wisdom literature. Its view of the law, like that seen in the Gospel of Matthew, is entirely positive; there is no development or even hint here of the Pauline experience of the law as an “enemy.” On the other hand, James’s focus is not at all on the Jewish distinctives of circumcision, food laws, or Sabbath observance, but on things such as showing no favoritism, loving neighbor, acting mercifully, caring for widows and orphans, being unselfish and honest, and persevering in prayer. Hence, the Jewishness that James exhibits is not an exclusionary kind that sees covenant in terms of ethnicity or ritual, but one that consists in godly behavior.

3. Although James only twice explicitly refers to Jesus Christ, this book is decidedly Christian. The Christian framework is implicit in several places, and the book as a whole expresses a Christian outlook (Cranfield 1965: 182-93). Particularly, James shares the Christian eschatological orientation, evident in that the motivation for ethics is chiefly the knowledge of the imminent coming of the Lord in judgment (1:9-10; 5:7-8; see “Eschatology” and “Ethics” below). Further, although perhaps some of the numerous echoes of Jesus’s teaching (see “James and the Wisdom of Jesus” below) can be explained as a common Jewish heritage, the sheer number of correspondences is so great and at times so distinctive that few scholars any longer doubt a substantial link between the Synoptic tradition and James, although that link probably is an indirect one. In only one instance does the similarity approach quotation of a Gospel text (the vocabulary of James 5:12 closely resembles that of Matt. 5:34-37, which also has an echo in 2 Cor. 1:17). But the content correspondence with the didactic material found mostly in Matthew and Luke is pronounced (see Hartin 1991).

4. James is multithematic in character. The letter does not evince a linear discussion of a single theme, but appears to be a collection of admonitions on faithful life, on what a life full of faith looks like. Nor is this collection linearly organized; instead, it interweaves several themes that are introduced in James 1 and then ties them together and examines the issues from various sides (see “Structure” below).

5. The Epistle of James, though clearly Christian, exhibits almost no christological development. James has no trace of the “union with Christ” theme seen in Paul’s letters. James also exhibits little redemptive-historical reflection and, although the fact of God’s mercy is central (2:13), shows hardly any interest in how the mercy of God is possible or how the death and resurrection of Jesus are related to God’s mercy. Likewise, James makes no mention of the Holy Spirit. Even the alleged reaction to something sounding vaguely like Paul in James 2 seems to be dealing not with the theological concerns of Paul, but with a lack of ethical consistency on the part of confessing believers, a problem often seen in Israel in the OT and one endemic to every age.

6. James exhibits a good command of Greek. Hellenistic literary imagery abounds, such as forest fires, ship rudders, horses and bits, astronomical phenomena (perhaps, but see the commentary on 1:17), mirrors, and life cycles. On the other hand, some of James’s imagery is narrowly Palestinian (saltwater springs, early and late rains) and unlikely to have been well understood outside Palestine.

Several scholars have noted that the language of James is “relatively polished Greek” (Dibelius 1975: 34-38) of an almost literary character (Mayor 1897: ccxx-ccxxix; Ropes 1916: 25-27; Schlatter 1956: 77-84; Mussner 1975: 26-30; Baasland 1988: 3650-62). The author appears to be quite at home in Greek, using extensive alliteration (e.g., the alliterative π [p] in 1:2, 11, 17, 22) and wordplay (e.g., ἔργα [erga, works] versus ἀργή [argē, vain, ineffectual] = α-εργη [not-working] in 2:20; or the play on the double meaning of ἰός [ios, rust, poison] in 5:3). Further, he demonstrates a good vocabulary, using several words that are well known in classical literature but found nowhere else in either the NT or the LXX (e.g., ἐνάλιος [enalios, sea creature] in 3:7; κατήφεια [katēpheia, gloominess] in 4:9; see Mayor 1897: ccxviii), and he seems somewhat familiar with Greek popular imagery (Ropes 1916: 231). James also tends toward classical syntax in contrast to other NT writers (e.g., 5:12 preserves the classical accusative of oath with ὄμνυμι [omnymi, swear] as opposed to the more Semitic ἐν + dative in Matt. 5:34-35 or κατά + genitive in Heb. 6:13; see BDF §149).

It was therefore supposed by many scholars that the literary Greek style is prima facie evidence that the author is unlikely to have been a Galilean Jewish peasant. Presumably, a fairly highly educated Hellenistic Jew or perhaps even a Gentile convert with literary training could more easily write such a letter. However, some curious facts suggest a more complicated picture:

1. All but thirteen of James’s words are found in the LXX. Even some of James’s unique words seem to have Semitic roots. The word δίψυχος (dipsychos, double-minded), for example, which is not found in any extant literature prior to James, including the LXX, appears to be a reflection of a Semitic idiom such as that found in Ps. 119:113, where the psalmist declares his hatred for the sēʿăpîm [those of “divided” loyalties, i.e., the double-minded). Similarly, Ps. 12:2 condemns the “double-hearted” (lēb wālēb) Whatever the author’s background, he was well grounded in the Jewish Scriptures.

2. James sometimes uses idioms very unlike Greek and very like Semitic style. Particularly, James’s use of the genitive noun as an equivalent of an adjective (e.g., in 1:17 “shadow of turning” [= shifting shadow], or in 1:25 “hearer of forgetfulness” [= forgetful hearer], or in 2:4 “judges of evil opinions” [= judges who make bad decisions], or in 3:6 “world of unrighteousness” [= unrighteous world]) is difficult to attribute to anyone other than a person whose first language was Semitic (see BDF §165). Likewise, the omission of the article in certain phrases with a possessive pronoun (e.g., “his tongue” and “his heart” in 1:26; “his way” in 5:20) echoes Semitic style (BDF §259.3). James 5:17 evinces imitation of the Septuagintal style of rendering of the Hebrew infinitive absolute via a verb with the dative of its cognate noun, and in 5:18 the circumlocution “heaven gave rain” for “God sent rain” also suggests a Jewish author (like Matthew, which uses “kingdom of heaven” for “kingdom of God”).

3. James uses some words of Jewish background that were either unknown outside Jewish circles (e.g., “gehenna” in 3:6) or had special meanings (e.g., “synagogue” in 2:2). Further, James 5:20 alludes to Prov. 10:12 in a form not evident in the LXX translation but only in the Hebrew, suggesting familiarity with the content of the proverb apart from the common Greek translation.

4. Although James frequently uses phrases that at first seem to evoke Greek rather than Jewish literature (such as “cycle of generations” in 3:6, or astronomical terms such as “parallax” and “turning shadow” in 1:17 [see the commentary on 1:17], or the illustrations of ships being steered by rudders and horses by bits), often the author either has failed to understand the original meaning of such phrases or has ignored that meaning and developed his own in a way that fits more with Semitic background than Greek. For example, much ink has been spilled over the alleged origins of “cycle of generations,” which the tongue sets afire, as being in the Orphic mysteries, but the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth (reincarnation) seem totally irrelevant to James’s use. It is more likely that the author is using terminology borrowed from Greek culture for his own ends rather than importing the full connotations of that terminology into his own exhortations. Likewise, the reference to God being without the “shifting shadow,” such as is apparent in the movement of the sun or the phases of the moon, probably has nothing to do with the astronomical phenomena or their astrological connotations. It is instead simply an example to contrast the unchanging constancy of the God of the Bible with the constant changes of everything worldly, including the astronomical entities that the Greco-Roman world perceived as gods. Such use has more the appearance of an “outsider” to a culture borrowing the terms but ignoring their “insider” connotations. This is exactly what we would expect of a Palestinian Jewish Christian who was competent in Greek and who was familiar with the Hellenistic cultic milieu while also being critical of it.