Who is the author of the book of James? Like other general epistles, except Hebrews, it is named after its author. It begins with “From James, a slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). Since James was a very common name, it is clear that this person must have been very well-known. There are four different people named James in the New Testament: (1) James the father of Judas the apostle (not Iscariot, Lk 6:16), (2) James the son of Alphaeus, who is one of the twelve apostles (Mk 3:18), (3) James the brother of John, another apostle (Mk 1:19), and (4) James the half-brother of Jesus (Gal 1:19). Since the first two are rather obscure, only James the brother of John and James the half-brother of Jesus have really been considered. However, James the brother of John was martyred around AD 44, which probably happened before the writing of the epistle.1 Therefore, the general consensus is that James, the brother of Jesus, wrote the letter.
James, the brother of Jesus, being the author of the epistle is further confirmed by external and internal evidence. Externally, James’ authorship is confirmed by Origen (AD 185-253), Eusebius (AD 265-340), and Jerome (AD 340-420).2 It is also confirmed internally by the Jewish flavor of the epistle. There are over forty allusions to the Old Testament in the book3, such as the “first fruits” (1:18), repeated references to the “law” (2:8-12, 4:11), the “synagogue” (2:2), a reference to “Abraham,” “Rahab,” and “Job” (2:21, 25, 5:11), and the “early and latter rains” (5:4-7). Since James oversaw the Jerusalem church, which was primarily Jewish, Jewish allusions are to be expected. Further internal evidence is the fact that James continually alludes to the Sermon on the Mount, his brother’s most famous sermon. There are twenty-one parallel statements to the Lord’s sermon.4 Others have also pointed to the similarities between the vocabulary in the epistle and James’ address at the Jerusalem council in Acts 15:13-29.5
James originally doubted his brother’s claim of being the messiah, but after Jesus resurrected and appeared to James (1 Cor 15:7), James soon became the leader of the Jerusalem church and an apostle (Acts 12:17, 15:13, 21:18, 1 Cor 15:7)—an official witness of the resurrection. Paul called James a pillar of the church along with the original apostles, Peter, James, and John (Gal 2:9). Because of his righteous character and ascetic practices, James became known as James the Just. Reportedly his knees became hard like a camel’s knees because of his constant worship and time in prayer.6 James was stoned to death by Jewish religious leaders because of his faith in AD 62.7 Because of the date of his death and since the Jerusalem church council (AD 48 or 49) that James presided over is never mentioned within the epistle, which one would expect if the book was written after it, the book of James is estimated to have been written around AD 44-49.8 This would make it the earliest book written in the NT canon.9 Further support for this early dating is the fact that James referred to the Jewish Christians meeting in an “assembly,” which can also be translated “synagogue” (ASV), in James 2:2. Gathering in Jewish places of worship was normal in the early years of the church, which was primarily Jewish, as they saw themselves as a continuation, or fulfillment, of Judaism (Acts 2:46).
James 1:1 says the audience of this letter is “the twelve tribes dispersed abroad.” Most likely, this refers to Jewish Christians who were scattered from Jerusalem because of persecution. In Acts 8, the church began to scatter after Stephen was martyred. Acts 8:1 says, “Now on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were forced to scatter throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria.” Acts 11:19 describes this further, “Now those who had been scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one but Jews.” No doubt, more Christians scattered when King Herod began to persecute the church including killing James the brother of John and imprisoning Peter (Acts 12). James probably knew many of the Jewish believers he wrote to, as they were perhaps members of his church in Jerusalem. Therefore, he writes with great pastoral care, as demonstrated in the use of the familial term “brothers” fifteen times.10 This term not only confirms that these Jews were believers, but it also demonstrates his great love and concern for the audience—many probably being his former congregants. In addition, since James refers to “teachers” and “elders” in the epistle (Jam 3:1, 5:14), his audience was probably scattered Jewish believers who had formed local congregations.
What was James’ purpose in writing the epistle? Unlike other epistles, which commonly have a large section on doctrine and then a section on application, James’ epistle is largely practical in nature. This is demonstrated in the fact that over half the verses are commands (59 out of 108). James is clearly concerned with the Jewish believers living righteously despite the trials and temptations they were encountering (Jam 1:1-18). Because of its practical nature and short, pithy statements, the book is often compared to Proverbs.11 It is also commonly called a practical commentary on the Sermon on the Mount because of its similarities.12
In the epistle, James writes both to encourage suffering believers and to correct their behavior. While doing so, several themes emerge: (1) One theme is being faithful in trials (Jam 1:1-18). This would have been extremely important since believers throughout the ancient world were experiencing persecution. Most likely, Jewish Christians experienced this more than Gentile believers since Jews treated them as a sect or cult. Also, it is clear from James 5:1-6, that many Christian workers were being oppressed by their wealthy bosses. Therefore, James calls them to faithfully and patiently endure as they wait for Christ’s return (Jam 5:7-12).
(2) Another theme is the need for believers to grow in spiritual maturity. James uses the word “perfect” several times (cf. Jam 1:4, 17, 25; 2:22; 3:2). James 1:4 says, “And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything.” “Perfect” can also be translated as “mature” or “complete.”13 God desires for his people to grow in spiritual maturity, especially through their trials, so James challenges them to do so throughout the book.
(3) Furthermore, James writes to address conflict happening in these scattered congregations. Trials often reveal sinful desires in our hearts (cf. Dt 8:2), and it is clear that the suffering was causing them to fight with one another. In James 3:15-16, he talks about a worldly, demonic wisdom that leads to “disorder and every evil practice.” In James 4:1-2, he says,
Where do the conflicts and where do the quarrels among you come from? Is it not from this, from your passions that battle inside you? You desire and you do not have; you murder and envy and you cannot obtain; you quarrel and fight…
As part of these conflicts, they were speaking evil of each other, as James focuses on the misuse of the tongue throughout the letter. He calls them to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (1:19). In James 1:26, he says, “If someone thinks he is religious yet does not bridle his tongue, and so deceives his heart, his religion is futile.” In James 3:1-12, he warns them about the power of the tongue to destroy. In James 4:11, he warns them to “not speak against one another.” In James 5:9, James calls for them to “not grumble against one another.” For them to have peace instead of conflict, they needed to learn how to control their tongues.
(4) Throughout the book, James also challenges these believers to treat the poor fairly and care for them. In James 1:27, he says, “Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” In James 2:1-13, he warns them against showing partiality to the rich and prejudice to the poor. They are to love their neighbor as themselves (2:8) and to act as people who will be judged by God’s law (2:9-13). Then, in the final chapter, he rebukes the rich for mistreating their poor workers and declares that God will judge them (5:1-6). As believers, they were commanded to treat the poor fairly and, in fulfillment of God’s law, to love their neighbor by caring for them.
(5) Finally, James challenges these believers to produce godly works that correspond with their faith in Christ. The word “faith” is used fourteen times within the book, which shows James’ emphasis on it.14 For James, a faith that doesn’t produce good works is a dead, demonic faith (2:15, 19)—as even demons believe in God but don’t obey him. Therefore, throughout the letter, he provides a series of tests of genuine faith.15 For instance, James 1:22 says, “But be sure you live out the message and do not merely listen to it and so deceive yourselves.” To be deceived means for one to be deceived about the reality of his faith. Christ said the same thing, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven—only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 7:21, cf. 24-27). Also, James 1:26 says, “If someone thinks he is religious yet does not bridle his tongue, and so deceives his heart, his religion is futile.” Since our tongues reveal what is in our hearts (Lk 6:45), a consistently ungodly tongue proves that one’s heart has never been changed.
Martin Luther struggled with James’ theme of the necessity of works so much that he called it a “book of straw” and claimed the apostle did not write it.16 Of course, Martin Luther misunderstood how James focused on works as a proof of salvation, not the root of salvation, as in the Catholic church. Because of James’ strong emphasis on faith producing godly works, many have called this the epistle’s primary theme, which all the other themes fall under. James is challenging these believers to develop a faith that works. Lord, help our faith produce godly works as well!
Copyright © 2021 Gregory Brown
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12 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (p. 2). Chicago: Moody Press.
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14 Platt, David. Exalting Jesus In James (Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary) (Kindle Locations 90-97). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
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