The Epistle of James
- Recipients, Author and Time of Writing
- Subject and purpose of writing
- Contents (overview)
The epistles of James, Peter, John and Jude have been called Catholic Epistles since the time of the church father Origines (around 185 to 254 AC). This expression is to express that these epistles are not addressed to a certain assembly, nor to certain Christians neither to individuals but to the Christians in general (catholic meaning general). This expression however is partially correct only. The Epistle of James specifically mentions addressees, and so does the First Epistle of Peter as well as Second and Third of John.
The salutation of James reads: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting.” There has been a lot of speculation over the expression “twelve tribes”. Some think James speaks of the whole people of Israel whereas others think of the whole Christianity as spiritual Israel. On the one hand a pure Jewish-Israelite document would have no room in the NT; on the other hand the relations to Judaism in this epistle are so strong that it cannot be an epistle seeking to address the Christians as a whole as most of them, by the end of the apostolic time already, came out of heathenism. Chapter 2:2 mentions the synagogue as place of gathering (New Translation) and the Law is mentioned several times (chapter 2:9; 4:11). Also Abraham is called “our father” (chapter 2:21). How do we explain this?
The first chapters of Acts describe the early time of the church which to start with consisted of Jews only (Acts 2 – 8; 11:19). Obviously the Jewish Christians did not separate at once from their unbelieving compatriots. They also gathered in the synagogues and continued to keep the Law (Acts 15:1.5; 21:20). The Epistle of James is addressed to this mixed party of Jewish Christians and Jews. When James speaks about “brethren” (e.g. 1:2; 2:1; 3:1; 4:11; 5:7) he thinks of the believers amongst them who own the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ the Lord of glory. Is he speaking of “sinners” (chapter 4:8) and of “rich” (chapter 2:5.6; 5:1) he means unbelieving Jews.
The writer sees all Israelites, be they believers or non-believers, when addressing the “twelve tribes which are scattered abroad”. A large part of the people of Israel did not return to Palestine from the Babylonian captivity with Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah, but were dispersed across the whole earth. But the thought of the unity of the twelve tribes of the people of Israel always remained alive among the God-fearing Israelites even after the division under Rehoboam. Elijah the prophet built an altar with twelve stones “according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob” (1 Kings 18:31). Daniel prayed for all Israel and not for Judah only (Dan. 9:7). Ezra offered twelve he goats for a sin offering for all Israel according to the number of the tribes of Israel (Ezra 6:17). Finally Paul calls Israel “our twelve tribes” before the king Agrippa (Acts 26:7). James also sees the people of God as God sees them. He therefore goes further than the author of Hebrews and Peter in his first epistle. For they only addressed those Jews who had accepted the Lord Jesus in believing and who now belong to the believing “remnant according to the election of grace” (Rom. 11:5) in the present age.
In the course of time many a suggestion has been made regarding the author of the Epistle of James. Some have thought of James being a pseudonym of an author who lived later on. Others have thought James to be an allegoric hint to Jacob the progenitor of Israel who wrote to his twelve sons, that is to the twelve tribes. Others again want to see James the apostle, brother of John and son of Zebedee who was killed as a martyr by the sword (Acts 12:2). Some even thought of James son of Alphaeus. But James son of Alphaeus is mentioned for the last time in Acts 1:13. James mentioned in Luke 6:15 and Acts 1:13 and father or brother of Jude is not known otherwise.
Of the four different James in the NT most researchers consider the brother of our Lord Jesus to have been the author of the epistle (compare Mark 6:3). James, Joses, Jude and Simon, although initially not believing, later belonged to those believing in the Lord Jesus after his resurrection (Matt. 13:55; John 7:3-5; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 15:7). When Paul came to Jerusalem for the first time he saw no apostle but James the Lord's brother (Gal. 1:19). After the death of James the apostle this very James had a special position among the believers in Jerusalem. This we see by Peter's words in Acts 12:17. Paul is calling James together with Peter pillars of the assembly (Gal. 2:9). Acts 15:13 and 21:18 also confirm the leader position of James.
As does his brother Jude (author of the epistle of Jude) James calls himself very humbly servant and not brother of the Lord Jesus Christ (James 1:1).
Time of Writing
According to Josephus (around 37 to 100 AD) James is thought to have died as a martyr in 62/63 AC (according to Hegesippus who lived in the second century AD it was in 66 AD). This determines the latest time at which the Epistle could have been written. On the other hand the epistle shows a state of things as we find it especially in the early time of Acts among the gatherings in Judea and Jerusalem. There is no mention of either the great Christian teachings, the believers' position in Christ, the blessings and duties of the church nor the wonderful future in eternity as Paul especially had announced. Thus it is well possible that the epistle of James may have been written at a very early time. Several researchers would tend to date the epistle as early as the year 45 AC. An exact time of writing however cannot be fixed. It might well be though that the epistle is the oldest writing of the NT.
Martin Luther's negative judgment on the epistle is known. Luther called it an “epistle of straw”. Erasmus the great humanist also disapproved of the epistle. The main reason for Luther's objection was James' teaching of justification. James' teaching seemed to contradict Paul's teaching on the subject. And Paul's teaching was so very decisive for Luther. Compare James 2:21 with Rom. 3:28.
Already in the Antiquity James' epistle needed quite some time to be generally accepted. The main reasons for this are probably that the epistle was not written by an apostle and does still bear partially Jewish marks.
The first certain traces of the epistle are found around 200 AC in the east of the Roman Empire in Egypt and Palestine. Both the church fathers Origines (around 185 to 254 AC) as well as Eusebius (around 263 to 339 AC) mention the epistle. The epistle does not yet appear in the Muratori Canon which is a partially preserved enumeration of the NT writings from the end of the 2 nd century.
The Eastern Church confirmed that the epistle of James belonged to the canon of Holy Scriptures at the synod of Laodicea (around 360 AC). The west accepted the epistle in the known synods in Rome (382 AC), Hippo (393 AC) and Cartago (397 AC). This is also where the writings of the NT (inspired by the Holy Spirit) found final acceptance for the protection from false doctrines being propagated at the time.
The epistle is addressed to Jews believing in the Lord Jesus and to Jews who had not yet accepted this faith. This special condition could only exist at the very beginning of the Christian church and mainly so in Palestine. As the prophet Jonah in the OT is an exception because he addressed the heathen so is the epistle of James a speciality in the NT because God in His grace addresses His earthly people.
In contrast to many epistles of the NT James' epistle does not have a logical structure. The epistle contains many diverse admonitions. Of total 108 verses 54 contain an imperative. These admonitions refer to the correct behaviour in trials of faith, in speaking, in respect to our neighbour and the world and in sufferings. Faith (which appears 16 times) and works (15 times) are the main thought going through the whole epistle.
As the subject changes constantly the epistle reminds us a little of Ecclesiastes or the Proverbs in the OT and also of the so called Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 – 7.
The epistle is also lacking an underlining teaching structure as most epistles do have and especially so the ones by the apostle Paul. Neither the teaching of Christ's redemption work, nor the Christian's position towards God, nor God's assembly as body of Christ are treated.
And yet the epistle teaches the following Christian truths:
- the triune God has revealed Himself (chap. 1:1.27; 2:19; 4:5);
- man can be born again by the Word of God (chap. 1:18);
- Jesus Christ is our Lord (chap. 1:1)
- ...in whom we believe (chap. 2:1)
- His return is imminent (chap. 5:7-8).
- The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is also known (chap. 4:5).
James speaks little of the Lord Jesus. The Lord's name is mentioned twice only (chap. 1:1; 2:1). But one can say that James often speaks like the Lord Jesus. We already alluded to the Sermon on the Mount. The Lord Jesus in his discourses often spoke to a mixed audience of believing and unbelieving Jews telling them what practical faith must consist of. Thus James' epistle is a very practical one also admonishing to a life of faith in the spirit of Christ. Such a life is marked by good works. So far the epistle is not in contradiction to Paul but is even an addition to his epistles.
a) Justification in James
James' teaching of justification is only apparently in contraction to Paul's teaching in the epistles to the Romans and Galatians. With this however Martin Luther especially had a problem. But as Paul in Rom. 3:28; 5:1 and Gal. 2:16 speaks of justification by faith he speaks of the relationship between man and God . No man can be justified by good works or by works of the Law before God. As sinner man is not able to fulfil one single good work before God. Faith in the Lord Jesus only can be the way to justification before God. This justification is of God .
Against that James sees a totally different side of justification by works (chap. 2:21.24). He does not look at the sinner but at the believer . Works are not works of the Law but works of faith . Justification is not given before God but before men. These works are the fruit of faith. As there cannot be truly good works without faith so there cannot be true faith without works. Paul looks at our position whereas James at our practice .
b.) Reminiscences of Words of the Lord Jesus
(A comparison of James' epistle with the gospel by Matthew)
James vs. Matthew
James. 1:2 - Matthew 5:10-12
James1:4 - Matthew 5:48
James1:5 - Matthew 7:7
James1:6 - Matthew 21:21
James 1:9 - Matthew 5:3
James 1:20 - Matthew 5:22
James 1:22 - Matthew 7:21+24
James 2:8 - Matthew 22:39
James 2:10 - Matthew 5:19
James 2:13 5:7 - Matthew 6:14+15
James 2:14 - Matthew 7:21-23
James 3:17 - Matthew 18 5:9
James 4:4 - Matthew 6:24
James 4:10 - Matthew 5:5
James 4:11 - Matthew 7:1-5
James 5:2-3 - Matthew 6:19
James 5:8 - Matthew 24:33
James 5:10 - Matthew 5:12
James 5:12 - Matthew 5:33-37
• James 1:1 Greetings
• James 1:2-18 Faith and Trials
• James 1:19 – 2:26 Faith and Works
• James 3:1-18 Faith and Words
• James 4:1 – 5:6 A Heart Divided
• James 5:7-20 Perseverance and Hope
Translation by Veronique Vries