Introducing the Book of James

J. W. MacGorman  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 12 - Fall 1969

Nearly four decades ago E. F. Scott wrote regarding the book of James: “There is no writing in the New Testament on which critical opinion has varied so widely as on this Epistle.”[1]Ernest Findlay Scott, The Literature of the New Testament (New York: Columbia University Press, 1932), p. 210. The verdict still holds.

Some have regarded it as the earliest document of the New Testament, written by James, the brother of Jesus; whereas others have affirmed that it is among the latest, the work of one who wrote in the name of James late in the first or early in the second century.

Some have claimed that it is nearer than any other writing to the teaching of Jesus; whereas others have doubted that it is a Christian work at all, being rather a Jewish writing with minor Christian interpolations. A modification of this view posits a Jewish document which was reworked more or less extensively by an unknown Christian editor.

Some have described it as a work of Jewish Christianity; whereas others have insisted that it is the work of a Greek ethical teacher who was writing to Greeks, revealing much acquaintance with the literary forms and thoughts of the Hellenistic world.

To some it is a letter, though lacking many of the features of one; to others it is a sermon to which an epistolary introduction was added later; to others it is a tract; and still others maintain that it is a collection of paraenetic (ethical exhortations) fragments.

Such widely divergent critical opinions scarcely obtain with regard to any other document of the New Testament, and they compound the difficulty of introducing the book of James.

In the following discussion attention will be given to the usual concerns of historical introduction: authorship, readers, date, and purpose. You will observe that one’s view regarding the authorship of James largely determines his conclusions at all other points. For this reason a greater space is assigned to this particular investigation than to any other. Some overlapping of material is inevitable.



Who is the author of this document? At the outset of this writing, in keeping with the ancient letter form, he gives his name. He identifies himself simply as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1a).[2]There are at least four who bear this name, a Hellenized form of Jacob, in the New Testament: (1) James, the son of Zebedee (Mark 1:19; 3:17; Matt. 10:2; Luke 6:14); (2) James, the son of Alphaeus (Mark 3:18; Matt. 10:3; Luke 6:15); (3) James, the father or brother of Judas (Luke 6:16); (4) James, the brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3; Matt. 13:55). Of these four only the last merits serious consideration as the author of this work.

Traditionally this has been understood as a self-effacing designation of James, the brother of Jesus. There are several references to him in the New Testament. In Mark 6:3 and Matt. 13:55 he is listed first among four brothers of Jesus and unnamed sisters. This may indicate that he was the oldest of them. In Mark 3:31-35, Matt. 12:46-50, and Luke 8:19-21 it is evident that he was not a follower of Jesus during his ministry. Indeed, John 7:5 states: “For even his brothers did not believe in him.” However, in I Cor. 15:7 Paul describes a resurrection appearance to James, following which he advances eventually to a place of leadership in the church at Jerusalem. He is mentioned in Gal. 1:18-19 as one of the “apostles” whom Paul saw along with Cephas during the first visit to Jerusalem following his conversion. Later in the same letter he is described during a crisis precipitated by the Gentile mission as one of the pillars of the mother church (Gal. 2:9). A subsequent fiasco in Antioch occurred when “certain men came from James,” whether by assignment or presumption (cf. Acts 15:24), and provoked a schism between Jewish and Gentile converts (Gal. 2:12).

This position of prominence, even pre-eminence, is corroborated by certain passages in the book of Acts. After Peter had told those who came to the door about his miraculous escape from prison, he instructed them: “Tell this to James and to the brethren” (12: 17). During the critical deliberations of the Jerusalem Council it was James who had the final word and who proposed the compromise measure which eventually earned the approbation of all (15:13-21). Later when Paul made his final visit to Jerusalem, it was James presumably who prevailed upon him to sponsor four men under a vow as a means of allaying the apprehension of Jewish believers regarding his work (21: 17-26). A study of such passages and the later traditions which exaggerated their thrust has given substance to W. A. Beardslee’s conclusion “that James was the most respected and authoritative leader in Jerusalem for most of the first Christian generation.”[3]W. A. Beardslee, “James,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), II, 793.

This is the James whom tradition has designated as the author of the book of James. No recent author has argued this position with greater tenacity than Donald Guthrie. Here is a summation of the main arguments he has advanced in support of his view: (1) It is obvious that a well-known James is in­ tended, because of the minimal self-identification in the salutation; yet he writes with authority and expects to be heard. (2) There are many evidences of the Jewish background of the writer, e.g. his dependence upon the Old Testament, the traces of Hebrew idioms behind the Greek forms of language, and the description of his readers in terms of the Jewish Diaspora (1:1b ). (3) A comparison of the speech and letter attributed to James in Acts 15:13-21, 23-29 with this letter shows remarkable parallels. (4) There are more parallels in this writing to the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels than in any other New Testament writing. (5) The contents of James fit the portrayal of him in the rest of the New Testament, namely, his prevailing devotion to the law and its ritual requirements. (6) Even the social conditions described in the letter, notably in 5:1-6, are singularly appropriate to a period during the life­ time of James.[4]Donald Guthrie, Hebrews to Revelation: New Testament Introduction 2nd ed.; Chicago: InterVarsity Press, 1964), pp. 63-71. Cf. C. Leslie Mit­ton, The Epistle of James (Edinburgh: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1966), pp. 222-26.

However, the traditional view must reckon with several major difficulties. Scholars are not wanting who will either deny such claims or who will place quite a different interpretation upon the phenomena observed. Here we will give brief attention to but four of these difficulties.

First, we encounter the stubborn historical fact that no Christian writer before Origen in the third century mentions this letter as the work of James, and even he seems somewhat uncertain about it. It was omitted from the Muratorian Canon and is missing from the chief witnesses of the Old Latin version. It is never quoted by Tertullian, Cyprian, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus. Eusebius in the fourth century classes it among the disputed works (Antilegomena), though acknowledging its public use in most churches. Jerome says that James, the brother of the Lord, wrote one of the catholic epistles but reports that some felt that it was written by someone else under the name of James. Augustine is the first African father to make use of it. Furthermore, in the Syrian Church the reluctance to accept James continued even after it was included in the Peshitta. Theodore of Mopsuestia in the fifth century rejected it. The objections of Martin Luther to its canonicity over a thousand years later are well known.

Now then, if James, the brother of the Lord, is the author of this letter, how can one explain the reluctance of the early church, whether Eastern, Western, or African, to accept it as such and to afford it a place in the canon? Can one really believe that the early church knew itself to be in possession of a document written by the great James of Jerusalem but that it was reluctant to grant it a place in the canon because it was not written by one of the Twelve-a qualification fulfilled admirably by Bartholomew, Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean? Or is it much more probable that this reluctance derived from the fact that so many doubted that it was actually the work of James? A. H. McNeile writes: “The lack of early evidence and the slowness with which the epistle was received as canonical are unfavourable to the idea that it was written by the head of the mother-Church of Christendom.”[5]A. H. McNeile, An Introduction to the Study of the New Testament (2nd ed. rev. by C. S. C. Williams; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953), p. 203.

Second, many scholars find it difficult to accept James as the author ·of this document on linguistic and literary grounds. They point to the excellence of its Greek, which is some of the best in the New Testament, and claim that it exceeds that which is likely for one whose native language was Aramaic.[6]Martin Dibelius, A Fresh Approach to the New Testament and Early Christian Literature (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1936), pp. 229-30, states that “the style is frequently cultured, the Greek vocabulary large, the entire diction not that of a man whose real language was Aramaic.” For instance, the author is so much at home in the Greek language that he sometimes resorts to plays on words, e.g. chairein-charan (1:1-2), apeirastos-peirazei (1:13), adiakritos­anupokritos (3:17), and phainomene-a phanizomene (4:14). Also, he uses alliteration, e.g. peirasmois peri pesete poikilois (1:2) and mikron melos megala (3:5). He has a remarkable facility for choosing expressive words in metaphorical passages. His vocabulary numbers approximately 560 words, over sixty of which are not found elsewhere in the New Testament. In fact, James Hardy Ropes has shown that James reveals a literary dependence upon the Hellenistic diatribe, though almost all of his ideas have their root in Jewish thought, e.g. the Jewish Wisdom literature.[7]James Hardy Ropes, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle of St. James (“The International Critical Commentary”; Edinburgh: T. & T. Chuk, 1916), pp. 1, 10-18.

Third, the contents of the letter pose difficulties for the traditional view. As a brother, James grew up in the same home with Jesus, sharing the intimacies and strong ties characteristic of Jewish family life. When disturbing reports regarding Jesus reached home, he shared the family’s apprehension and sought to bring some restraint to bear upon him (Mark 3:31-35). With the family he endured the agonizing crisis which culminated in the shameful execution of Jesus on the cross. And then there was the appearance of the risen Lord to him (I Cor. 15:7) and the rise to leadership in the Jerusalem church in the momentous days that followed. Now then, if this were the experience of the writer of this letter, why are there no hints of the intimate relationship with Jesus in it? Why is there no reference to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? In his paraenesis why doesn’t he point to Jesus as an example rather than to the Old Testament prophets and Job (5:10-11, 17; cf. I Pet. 2:21-25; 4:1-2)? Thus Burton Scott Easton protests: “There is no book in the New Testament that tells us less about Christ. . . . For the teaching in this epistle, this assumed ‘brother of the Lord’ has all but utterly disregarded the wealth of knowledge he must have had of what his greater Brother taught-and for his authorities has turned instead to the Old Testament, Jewish tradition, and Hellenistic Stoic-Cynic ethics.”[8]Burton Scott Easton, The Epistle of James (“The Interpreter’s Bible”; New York: Abingdon Press, 1957), XII, 6.

Finally, some find in the controversial passage on faith and works in James 2: 14-26 further evidence against the traditional view. In Rom. 3:28 Paul wrote: “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.” In James 2:24 the passage reads: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Both appealed to Gen. 15:6 in support of their arguments (cf. Rom. 4:3 and James 2:23). Such phenomena have led to very different critical conclusions. Some have maintained the priority of James; thus Guthrie states that “probability favours rather more the view that Paul is acquainted with a perversion of the kind of teaching proposed by James than that James is safeguarding against a perversion of Paul.”[9]Guthrie, p. 76. Others have stressed the essential agreement in the teaching of both passages and have insisted that neither writer is dependent upon the other. Thus Gottfried Quell and Gottlob Schrenk in their study on “righteousness” write: “The problem of faith and works, and the terminology of the discussion, reminds us of Paul, but there is no need to think that they come from him, or that this is a polemic against pseudo-paulinism or a misunderstanding of Paul. The similarity is due to the fact that both writers were familiar with the Rabbinical tradition.”[10]Gottfried Quell and Gottlob Shrenk, “Righteousness,” Vol. IV, Bible Key Words from Gerhard Kittel’s Theologisches Worterbuch zum Neuen Testament. trans. and ed. by J. R. Coates (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951 ), p. 66. However, there are many scholars who insist that there is a relationship between the two writings and who affirm the priority of Paul. For example, Feine-Behm-Kummel write that “there can be no doubt that James 2:14ff. is inconceivable without the preceding activity of Paul.”[11]Paul Feine, Johannes Behm, and Werner George Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament, trans. by A. J. Mattill, Jr. (New York: Abingdon Press, 1965), p. 288. The teaching that faith alone can justify is not found prior to Paul. It is the misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching as it became formalized later which is controverted by James in this passage.

Difficulties such as these have led many scholars to reject the traditional authorship of James and to propose widely divergent solutions to the problem. Here are some of the views regarding the letter: (1) It is a free translation of an original document which James wrote in Aramaic.[12]F. C. Burkitt, Christian Beginnings (London: University of London Press, Ltd., 1924), pp. 69-71. (2) It is actually a collection of fragments which reflect the Jewish Christian tradition of Jerusalem both before and after the destruction of the temple. The name of James was attached to it because of his prominence in the Jerusalem church and possibly because some of the materials in it actually derived from him.[13]Robert M. Grant, A Historical Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 222. (3) It is a pseudonymous document, the work of an unknown person who at some later time sought to write in the name and spirit of the revered James of Jerusalem.[14]Ropes, pp. 49-52; Beardslee, p. 792; A. E. Barnett “Letter of James” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1962), II, 795; James L. Price, Interpreting the New Testament (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961), p. 505; Feine-Behm-Kummel, p. 290; Morton Scott Enslin, The Literature of the Christian Movement, Part III of Christian Beginnings (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956), p. 333. (4) It is an anonymous work which later was attributed to James. One form of this view says that this was done in Jewish Christian and Ebionite quarters in order to exalt James at the expense of Peter.[15]L. E. Elliott-Binns, Galilean Christianity (“Studies in Biblical Theology”; Chicago: Alec R. Allenson, 1956), p. 48. (5) It is the work of an unknown James, who later was mistakenly identified as James of Jerusalem.[16]A. M. Hunter, Introducing the New Testament (Philadelphia: West­minster Press, 1946), p. 95 writes: “It is probably better to find the writer in some other James, a Jewish Christian, occupying a position of authority in the branch of the Church to which he belonged.” Cf. Scott, p. 211; Frank Bertram Clogg, An Introduction to the New Testament (3d ed.; London; University of London Press, Ltd., 1948), p. 150; Floyd V. Filson, Opening the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1952), p. 190. (6) It is a Christian edition of a pre-Christian or Jewish document.[17]An interesting odyssey of this view can be traced from Massebieau (1895) and Spitta (1896) through Arnold Meyer (1930) and Hans Windisch (1930) to our own day. For recent modifications of this view see Easton, pp. 9-15 and W. Marxsen, Introduction to the New Testament, trans. by G. Bus­well (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), pp. 227-28.

What shall we conclude from such a baffling disarray of scholarly opinion? Though there are several scholars who continue to describe it as the direct work of James, the brother of the Lord,[18]Samuel E. Cartledge, A Conservative Introduction to the New Testament (3d ed.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1941), pp. 156-59; Rich­ard Heard, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York:   Harper & Brothers, 1950), pp. 164-66; R. V. G. Tasker, The General Epistle of James (“The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries”; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957), pp. 20-30; Merrill C. Tenney, New Testa­ment Survey (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1961), pp. 262-63; Everett F. Harrison, Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964), pp. 363-67; Guthrie, pp. 60-82. the cumulative force of the arguments noted above makes it exceedingly difficult to accept it as such. No solution to the question of authorship is free from problems; yet it seems that the best alternative to the traditional view is that the author was one who wrote in the name and spirit of James.

What can be known of him? Upon the basis of internal evidences alone we may derive the following: (1) It is likely that his native language was Greek. (2) Though well-versed in Hellenistic rhetorical forms, he was deeply indebted to his Jewish background in thought. For example, a study of his teachings reveals a remarkable affinity with the traditional themes of the Jewish Wisdom literature. More will be said of this below under the discussion of purpose. (3) He designated himself as “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1a) and as a teacher (3:1). (4) He speaks or writes with authority. There are fifty-four imperatives in the 108 verses of this document. In fact, in 4:7-10 there are less than fifty words in the original text, and ten of them are imperatives. No passage in the New Testament has a heavier concentration of command than this one. Evidently this ancient teacher knew little about the subtleties of indirect counseling! Though these characteristics do not suffice to enable us to identify the man, they are enough to make us grateful for the providence which eventually secured for his writing a place in the canon. We need his message. The New Testament would be significantly poorer without it.



To whom is this document addressed? The introductory verse reads: “To the twelve tribes in the dispersion” (1:1b). This is hardly less ambiguous than the self-disclosure of the author and likewise invites a variety of critical conclusions.

Those who regard James, the brother of the Lord, as the author tend to take this greeting rather literally and to identify the readers as Jewish Christians. As has been observed already, he was the leader of the church in Jerusalem and was associated with Peter and John in its mission to the Jews (Gal. 2: 19). Thus Joseph B. Mayor concludes that the letter was addressed to Jewish Christians of the eastern dispersion, i.e. in Babylonia and Mesopotamia. He finds corroborative evidence for this specification in I Peter 1:1, where the writer limits himself to the dispersion of Asia Minor, those less likely to be acquainted with the prior letter of James. By virtue of his prominent position in Jerusalem, James had opportunity to become acquainted with the needs of these people during their occasional visits to the city. Thus he addressed the letter to them.[19]Joseph B. Mayor, The Epistle of St. James ( 3d ed. rev.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 19.54), pp. cxxxiv-cxxxvii.

It is interesting to note that Ropes, who rejects the traditional authorship of James, likewise identifies the readers as Jewish Christians. Yet he differs from Mayor in locating them in Palestine rather than in the eastern dispersion. He cites several evidences in support of his contention that the readers lived among Jews and were not mission outposts scattered among the heathen, e.g., there are no references to idolatry or to the prevailing laxity in sexual morality.[20]Ropes, pp. 39-43.

There are many scholars, however, who insist that the greeting in James 1:1b is not to be taken literally. Rather it is a designation of all Christians, both Jews and Gentiles, as the true people of God on the earth (cf. Gal. 6:16; Phil. 3:3, 20-21; I Peter 1:1, 17; 2: 11). Thus, Scott writes: “The ‘twelve tribes’ cannot be understood in any literal sense, for the old tribal divisions of Israel had disappeared many centuries before. Nothing more is implied than that the new Israel corresponds to the old, and that the Epistle is meant for the church in its totality.”[21]Scott, p. 211. Also Enslin, pp. 331-32; W. C. van Unnik, The New Testament: Its History and Message, trans. by H. H. Hoskins (New York: Harper & Row, 1964 ), p. 152; Edgar J. Goodspeed, An Introduction to the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1937), pp. 292-93.

One observes that the contents of this writing do not reflect any specific historical situation. That is, most of the letters of the New Testament were written to a specific church or group of churches to deal with well-defined problems. In this sense they were occasional, i.e. evoked by some actual historical situation which is reflected in the letter. However, this feature does not prevail in James. It is a writing without definite historical points of contact. Not only is there a vagueness in the identification of the writer and his readers but also there is an impersonal tone to the contents of the letter, and it ends abruptly, lacking the usual epistolary conclusion. Such features have led Feine-Behm-Kummel to conclude that “the entire writing creates the impression of an essay in epistolary form, which is directed to a wide circle of readers, not to be sharply defined.”[22]Feine-Behm-Kummel, p. 287.



When was the book of James written? Again, it is to be noted that one’s view regarding the identification of the author has direct bearing upon the question of dating. Those who regard it as the work of James, the brother of the Lord, are bound to a comparatively early date, whereas others may date it late in the first century or early in the second.

Traditionalists may choose between two separate accounts of the death of James. One derives from Josephus late in the first century, who claimed that James was put to death by stoning under the high priest Ananas in 62 A.D. This happened following the death of Festus and prior to the arrival of Albinus, his successor as procurator, which was why he was able to carry out the execution. The other derives from Hegesippus late in the second century. He says that James was put to death during the Passover in 66 A.D. Having been asked to state his opinion about Jesus, he proclaimed him to be the Son of Man seated at God’s right hand; whereupon he was thrown down from the temple, stoned, and clubbed to death. Though these accounts differ in their description of the circumstances under which James met martyrdom, they agree in locating his death in the seventh decade. This constitutes the terminus ad quem for those who hold the traditional view.

However, there are some traditionalists who assign to James a date earlier than the seventh decade. For instance, H. E. Dana regards it as the earliest document in the New Testament, written about 50 A.D. He writes: “This epistle may safely be regarded as the most ancient Christian literature which is extant in its original form.”[23]H. E. Dana, New Testament Criticism (Fort Worth: The World Co., Inc., 1924), p. 289. In support of his conclusion he adduces five lines of evidence: (1) its primitive character; (2) its reflection of an early situation; (3) its literary connections; (4) its relation to Paul; and (5) its lack of the controversial element.

One observes, however, that the same evidences put forward by some in support of an early date are often claimed by others as support for a late one. Thus, the same ethical emphasis which leads Cartledge to date it in 45 A.D., before the controversy of Acts 15, leads McNeile to date it toward the end of the first century. He writes: “And the moralizings and aphorisms which are the principal feature of the book, while· they are natural from the pen of a Judaistic Christian, hardly seem to belong to the age of the Church’s first life and inspiration, marked by enthusiasm and charismata.”[24]Cartledge, p. 161 and McNeile, p. 204. Also, the same paucity of references to Jesus Christ which leads Mayor to suggest a date as soon as possible after the Day of Pentecost, anywhere from 40 to 50 A.D., leads Moffatt to date it toward the beginning of the second century. He scores ”the scanty allusions to Jesus which, in a primitive apostle, are almost incomprehensible.”[25]Mayor, pp. cxlvii-cl and James Moffatt, An Introduction to the Literature of the New Testament (3d and rev. ed.; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark 1918) p. 471. Moreover, the same literary affinities between James and other writings, both biblical and patristic, which lead Guthrie to argue the priority of James and an early date, probably 50 A.D., lead Goodspeed to assert the dependence of James and a date early in the second century.[26]Guthrie, pp. 87-88 and Goodspeed, p. 293.

All of this illustrates the inconclusiveness of these arguments. When the same evidences are capable of being pressed into the service of contrary viewpoints, the result is very close to a historical impasse. Thus in the absence of more specific internal evidences regarding the date of James, it will continue to be regarded by some as the earliest document in the New Testament and by others as one of the latest. One’s view regarding the authorship will likely be the determining factor. My own bias inclines toward a post-apostolic date near the end of the first century.



Even a cursory reading of this brief document will reveal its persistent emphasis upon the practical aspects of religion. It stresses Christianity primarily as moral behavior, underscoring obedience as intrinsic to saving faith.

Here one does not find the logical and extended development of a single theme but rather a series of paraenetic passages. They are arranged with no obvious sequence. Sometimes there is a succession of aphorisms loosely related to a general theme, e.g. trials-temptation (1:2-18), or suggested by a catch­ word, e.g. leipomenoi-lei petai (1:4-5), peirasmon- peirazomenos (1:12-13), logon-logou (1:21-22), proseuchesthe-deesis (5:16). At other times there are short treatises: against prejudice (2:1-13), dead orthodoxy (2:14-26), and abusive speech (3:1-12). This is why it is difficult to outline James, as one runs the risk of imposing upon these loosely-arranged passages a greater order than actually is there.

Nevertheless there are recurring themes in this material which bear a remarkable resemblance to the traditional themes of the Jewish Wisdom literature. This has been suggested earlier but here is elaborated in greater detail. Three examples will suffice to show this kinship.

First, the Jewish sages had much to say about the sins of the tongue: a man of iniquity walked with a perverse mouth (Prov. 6:12); he that uttered slander was a fool (Prov. 10:18); a soft answer turned away wrath; but a grievous word stirred up anger (Prov. 15:1); evil condemnation rested upon the double-tongued (Ecclus. 5:14); Hades was better than the evil tongue (Ecclus. 28:17; cf. also Eccles. 10:12-14 and Wisd. Sol. 1:11). James also emphasized the sins of the tongue: men need to be swift to hear but slow to speak (1:19); the religion which does not enable a man to control his tongue is vain (1:26); men are to speak as those who are about to be judged by God (2:12 ); men are commanded to stop slandering one another (4:11-12) and murmuring against one another (5:9); boasting is evil (4:16); and oaths are strictly forbidden (5:12). Indeed, one of the lengthiest passages in James is directed to certain would-be teachers who were guilty of the sins of injudicious speech (3:1-12). In all, about twenty of the 108 verses of James deal with this subject. This constitutes nearly one-fifth of its entire contents. It is interesting to observe that whereas the books of Jewish Wisdom had much to say about the good use of the tongue as well as its abuses, James did not. His counsels in this regard were either warnings or condemnations.

Second, the Jewish sages demanded justice and benevolence in behalf of the poor and disinherited: the one who stopped his ears at the cry of the poor himself would not be heard (Prov. 21:13); the one who shared his bread with the poor would be blessed (Prov. 22:9); one was to minister justice to the poor and needy (Prov. 31:9); Job pointed to his compassion for the poor as evidence of the integrity of his life (29:15-16; 31:16-23); one was to be like a father to orphans (Ecclus. 4:10). James also taught the necessity for ministering to the needy and oppressed: pure religion demands an active concern for widows and orphans (1:27); the contemptuous treatment of the poor and obsequious deference to the rich in Christian assemblies are an affront to God (2:1-7) ; a merely verbal concern for the destitute which does not act to alleviate their distress is worthless (2:15-16 ); the wages which the rich landowners fraudulently deny the poor who have reaped their harvest cry out in protest to the Lord of hosts, and he hears them (5:4); predatory economic practices and wallowing in sensual indulgences are fattening one’s heart in the day of slaughter (5:5); the perversion of justice is a great wrong (5:6).

Third, the Jewish sages emphasized the transciency of life, especially in connection with the folly of an obsession for wealth. In the book of Job life was described as a breath (7:7, 16), a shadow (8:9; 14:2b), and a flower (14:2a). Job saw himself as a driven leaf (13:25) and described his days as swifter than a weaver’s shuttle (7:6) or a courier (9:25). They passed by like an eagle swooping down upon its prey (9:26). Koheleth was particularly vexed by the power of death to foreclose on a man’s wealth (Eccles. 5:15-17), especially since it might fall into the hands of a fool (Eccles. 2:18-19; cf. Ecclus. 11:18-19). James also spoke of the transciency of life in connection with the folly of gaining wealth: the rich man is likened to the flower which withers under the scorching blasts of wind from the desert (1:10-11). Wealthy traders who lay careful plans for business expansion without acknowledging their dependence upon God’s providential care are re­ buked: “Whereas you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that'” (4:14-15).

Other themes which are prominent in the Jewish Wisdom literature may be found in James, e.g. patience under trial (1:2-18; 5:7-11), the virtues of self-control (1:19-20; 3:2) and humility (4:6, 10), and the perils of envy and strife (3:13-18; 4: 1-10). They underscore the intensely practical purpose of the writer and show his kinship with the Jewish sages, a feature which must not be overlooked while admiring the excellence of his Greek and his familiarity with Hellenistic literary forms.



Fortunately the value of this early Christian document is not entirely dependent upon our ability to resolve its baffling critical problems. Though unable to be certain about the identification of the author, his readers, and their exact circumstances, we may yet derive immense practical benefits from the study of his brief work.

For one thing, his insistence upon the vital relationship between religious faith and ethical practice is salutary (1:22- 25; 2: 14-16). What a splendid impatience he manifests toward the inane exercise of lip and larynx in such creedal utterance as leaves the life unchanged! He lampoons it as inferior to the faith of demons (2:19). A strong word on the shame of sham!

Again, his vivid portrayal of snobbery in church is unforgettable (2:1-13). What a powerful statement of the utter incompatibility of all forms of prejudice with the faith that is rooted in Jesus Christ!

It is to be hoped that those who hear him enthusiastically on the subject of prejudice will also hear him when he condemns slander (4:11-12 ); describes disorder as the expression of a devilish wisdom (3:14-16); charges that violence is rooted in selfish lusts (4:1-4 ); and affirms that man’s wrath cannot accomplish God’s righteousness (1:20).

Not only is an indifference to social concern a characteristic of meaningless religion but so is an unbridled tongue (1:26-27)! We need eyes to see both. It is a persistent human foible to exchange blindness in one eye for blindness in the other and then promptly claim “twenty-twenty” vision in both. Perhaps it is at this exact point that the study of James can give us some much needed perspective at this time.



Barnett, A. E. “Letter of James,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible.

Vol. II. New York: Abingdon Press, 1962.


Easton, Burton Scott. The Epistle of James (“The Interpreter’s Bible.”) New

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