Introduction to James

James A. Brooks  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 43 - Fall 2000


During much of Christian history, James has been one of the most neglected books in the NT. It did not become widely known until the third century, and then its authorship and canonicity were disputed for two centuries. During the Reformation, Erasmus and Cardinal Cajetan questioned its authorship, and Martin Luther relegated it (along with Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation) to an appendix in his German translation of 1522. Nineteenth and twentieth-century scholarship widely denied its authenticity.[1]Peter H. Davids, Epistle of James in New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 4, gives an extensive list of commentators and other schol­ars categorized according to their position on authorship. Recently, however, because most Christians have become more socially conscious, and because James is probably the most socially conscious book in the NT, it has acquired a measure of status and prestige.



The initial consideration is the identity of the James who is presented as the author in 1:1. There are at least four persons in the NT named James: James the son of Zebedee and one of the apostles, James the son of Alphaeus and one of the apostles (who is apparently the same as James the younger or smaller of Mark 15:40), James the father of Judas the apostle (not Judas Iscariot), and James the half-brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church. The first of these was martyred in 44 (Acts 12:2), which is probably too early for the writing.[2]The book is nevertheless attributed to him by the tenth century Latin Codex Corbeiensis (Jf/66 ) and several Spanish writers including Isidore of Seville (d. 636). The second was not, despite being an apostle, the person of authority and prominence the author of the writing seems to be. There is no evidence the third was even a Christian. There is widespread agreement, therefore, that 1:1 refers to James the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church.

Mark 6:3 and its parallel Matt. 13:55 indicate Jesus had a brother named James, and these are the only passages in the Gospels which mention him by name.[3]These passages also indicate that his mother’s name was Mary and that his brothers were named Joseph (Mark has Joses, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name Joseph), Simon, and Judas (see also Jude 1). From Mark 3:21 and John 7:3 and 5, one may infer that he, along with other members of his family, thought Jesus was a fanatic, did not believe in him, and challenged him to display his miracles. Outside of the Gospels, the New Testament relates the following about him. He was the recipient of a resurrection appearance (1 Cor. 15:7), which presumably was the occasion of his conversion. He appears to have been present at the upper room prayer meeting (Acts 1:14 which indicates that Jesus’ brothers were there). And he was the leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 12:17, 15:13; 21:18; and Gal. 1:19; 2:9, 12). There are two non-biblical accounts of his death. Josephus described him as the brother of Jesus and says that he was stoned about A.D.62 at the instigation of the high priest Ananus who took advantage of the absence of a procurator between the death of Festus and the arrival of Albinus.[4]Antiquities, 20.9 (197-203). Hegesippus claimed that he was thrown down by the Jews from the pinnacle of the temple about 66 when he refused to deny Jesus.[5]As quoted in Eusebius Church History 2.23.18. He repeatedly called him James the Just. He also said that he lived as a Nazarite and prayed so much in the temple that his knees became callused like those of a camel. The Pseudo-Clementine writings (4th cent. but employing earlier sources) call James “the bishop of bishops” and set him in opposition to Paul. The Coptic Gospel of Thomas 12 (date most uncertain) has Jesus tell his disciples that heaven and earth have come into existence for James. Four apocryphal books are attributed to him: Protevangelium of James, First Apocalypse of James, Second Apocalypse of James, and Apocryphon of James.[6]None of these reflects any knowledge of the canonical James. The second, third, and fourth are part of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Library. Obviously James was held in high regard by the Pachomian monks who inhabited the area in the middle of the fourth century and who first collected the books and then hid them near ancient Chenoboskion, possibly because their metropolitan Athanasius condemned apocryphal books in 367.

Although contemporary scholarship mostly agrees that 1:1 refers to James the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church, it does not agree he actually wrote the book. In fact the vast majority of liberal scholars, and even some who otherwise would be classified as conservative are convinced the book is pseudonymous, i.e., was falsely attributed to James by a later writer. There are a number of things which need to be taken into consideration in an attempt to determine authorship.


External Evidence

The first item of consideration is the external evidence (i.e., early Christian tradition), the patristic evidence, and the opinion of early Christian writers.[7]There are two extremes in treating patristic evidence. During much of its history, the Roman Catholic Church has looked upon tradition ( another name for the same thing) as being almost as authoritative as the Bible itself. Many Protestants, however, both in the liberal and conserv­ative traditions, have written it off as worthless. The proper approach is to evaluate tradition critically and to accept that which is supported by other evidence and to reject that which is not. The first writer to exhibit certain knowledge[8]Some argued there are allusions to James-and thus a knowledge of its existence-in various second century writings. Probably the best case can be made for the Shepherd of Hermas (ca. 140), but whether Hermas reflects the book of James or common Christian teaching is uncer­tain at best. Neither the Shepherd nor any of the second century writing quotes directly, refers to the book, or mentions an author. Some have argued that, although no one allusion is con­vincing, there is a cumulative effect of many possible allusions. Probably the opposite is true. If James was known by and influenced various second century writers at various places in their writings, why would none of them refer to or directly quote the book? There is an extensive   list of possible allusions (and direct quotations) prior to 400 in Joseph B. Mayor, Epistle of St. James, 3rd ed. (London: MacMillan, 1913; reprint Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954), lxix­ lxxxiv (these are in the original Greek and Latin without translation). Also Eusebius (Church History 6.14.1) claimed that Clement of Alexandria (ca. 190) wrote a commentary on all the Catholic Epistles, but this too is doubtful. There is no quotation from or probable allusion to James in any of Clement’s extant writings, and the surviving portion of the commentary (the Hypotyposes or Outlines) contains nothing on James. Furthermore, there is a papyrus fragment (P 23) from the first half of the third century which contains seven verses of James 1. It is probably contemporaneous with Origen. Also P 20 contains James 2:19-3:9 and is perhaps a little later in the third century. Because of their fragmentary nature, neither of these has a title indicating the name/author of the book. There is certainly a quotation of James 3:1-2, intro­duced with the formula “the Scripture says,” in the Pseudo-Clementine tractate Concerning Virginity 1.11.4, but it does not identify the author, and its date is uncertain (probably some­ time in the 3rd cent.). The present writer is compelled to conclude there is no convincing evi­dence for the existence of the book of James-not to mention its authorship-before Origen. of the book, to quote it verbatim, to refer to it as Scripture, and to associate it with somebody named James was Origen, whose ministry began in 203 with his appointment as head of the Catechetical School in Alexandria and ended with his death in 254 following imprisonment and torture in the persecution of Decius.[9]There are about two dozen quotations plus other allusions in Origen’s extant works (only about half of his voluminous writings have survived). They are introduced by such formulas as “it is written,” “the Scripture says,” “James writes,” and “the apostle James says.” Note well that, with the possible exception indicated below, Origen did not explicitly attribute the book or a passage in it to James the brother of Jesus. His reference to James the apostle, which is found in six citation formulas, has often been understood to be a reference to James the son of Zebedee or James the son of Alphaeus, but the person could be James the brother of Jesus. Whether Paul actually called James an apostle in Gal. 1:19 is disputed by serious exegetes, but that passage has often been interpreted to mean that he did. Origen could have so interpreted it. It is also true that the early church sometimes failed to distinguish properly James the brother of Jesus and James the son of Zebedee, and Origen himself may have been confused   on occasion. The only citation attributed to James the brother of Jesus is in Rufinus’s Latin translation of Origen’s Comm. on Romans 4:8. Most of Origen’s works are preserved only in Latin translations, including the Commentary on Romans by Rufinus. It is well known that Rufinus sometimes “doctored” Origen’s writings to correct them and make them more ortho­dox. Therefore, one cannot be certain in this instance what Origen himself wrote. He implied, however, that its authorship was disputed.[10]Comm. on John 19:23 refers to “the letter bearing the name of James.” In his Comm. on John 20:10 he indicated that he was one who accepted as Scripture James 2:26—-thus imply­ing that some did not, probably because of questions about authorship. There has been some speculation that Origen did not become acquainted with the book until he moved to Caesarea about 231.[11]Sophie Laws, Commentary on the Epistle of James in Black’s – Harper’s New Testament Commentary (San Francisco: Harper, 1980), 24. It is difficult to date all of Origen’s works, but considering the large number of his quotations of James and the large number of his works in which these are found, and considering the willingness of the Alexandrian church to accept fringe books as authoritative, it is probable that he knew and used James fairly early in his ministry. Also, he visited Caesarea as early as 215, and, if that is where he first encountered the book, he could have done so then.[12]Before leaving Origen two anomalies should be mentioned. Eusebius’s Church History 6.25 quotes from two of Origen’s works in order to indicate his position on NT books. James is   not mentioned in the passage dealing with “epistles of the apostles.” This is probably not sig­nificant. Neither is Jude mentioned. Origen’s purpose in the passage was to treat only the works of the well-known apostles Paul, Peter, and John. If there is any problem here, it is alle­viated by a passage in Origen’s Homilies on Joshua 7.1 where James, Jude, and all the other books of the NT (with the possible exception of Revelation) are mentioned. Also in Comm. on Matt 10.17 Origen stated that Jude wrote an epistle and that James was his brother, but he made no mention of James writing anything. This is curious, but in view of the many times Origen quoted James as Scripture, it is not significant. Therefore one may conclude there is evidence of the existence of the book and attribution of it to somebody named James as early as the first or second decade of the third century, but in comparison with most other New Testament books, this is late attestation.[13]Only 2 Peter is attested as late. Origen is also the first to reveal a knowledge of it and to ascribe it to Peter.

The dispute mentioned by Origen, which had to do with both authorship and canonicity, continued for the next two centuries, although in the case of some writers it was not a case of denying authorship or canonicity, but ignoring the book. There is probably one quotation without attribution of authorship in the scant remains of the writings of Dionysius of Alexandria (d.265).[14]Brooke Foss Westcott, General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament, 6th ed. (Cambridge: Macmillan, 1889), 366. According to James Hardy Ropes, James was certainly known to Methodius of Olympus (d. ca. 311).[15]Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle of St. James in International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1916), 94. The next significant testimony, however, is that of Eusebius (ca. 325). In his Church History 3.25.1-7, there is a list of biblical-type books which is divided into three categories: recognized, spurious, and disputed. James is placed in the last of these. In 2.23 at the conclusion of his account of the life of James the brother of Jesus, he elaborated: “To him is attributed the first of the General Epistles. Admittedly its authenticity is doubted because few early writers have referred to it. …but [it has] been regularly used in many churches.” Eusebius himself frequently quoted from the book and attributed it to James. About 350, Cyril of Jerusalem included James in his canon list.[16]Catechetical Lectures 4.36. James is found among the other New Testament books in the great fourth century Greek manuscripts Vaticanus/03/B and Sinaiticus/01/א dating from about 350.[17]There is no title in א, but the subscription is “Epistle of James.” The title in B is “Epistle of James,” but it is not by the original scribe. Whether the latter indicates any doubt on the part of the original scribe is uncertain. About 363 a local synod at Laodicea discussed the canon, but what it decided is uncertain. There is indeed a list of New Testament books, including James, at the end of its decrees in later manuscripts, but the earlier manuscripts do not contain this list.[18]The text of this decree may be found in English translation in Bruce M. Metzger, Canon of the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 312. Metzger’s volume also has the texts of the canon lists of Origen, Eusebius, Codex Claromontanus, Cyril of Jerusalem, the Cheltenham Canon, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Amphilochius oficonium, and the Council of Carthage which are referred to in this article. Therefore it is not safe to claim that the synod of Laodicea approved James. Very significant is the inclusion of James without reservation in the canon list in the 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius.[19]This is the first canon list to correspond exactly to the twenty-seven book canon which has been widely accepted since the fifth century. And the book is found in the canon lists of Gregory of Nazianzus (d.390)[20]Poems 1.12.5ff. and Amphilochius of Iconium (d. ca. 394)[21]Iambics for Seleucus lines 289-319. and is frequently quoted by Chrysostom (d. 407), but it is totally ignored by Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394).

Not until the early fifth century was James included in a Syriac Bible, namely the Peshitta version. The same is true, however, for 1Peter and 1 John which were never disputed elsewhere. The other General Epistles did not gain a measure of acceptance until a century later.

With the exception of the Syriac church, which was still an Eastern church, all of the above is evidence from the Greek/Eastern church. Use and canonization of the book came even later in the Latin/Western church. Prior to Origen there is no reference to it in the Muratorian Canon List (Rome ca. 180), the writings of Irenaeus of Lyons in Gaul (southern France) about 180, or Tertullian of Carthage in North Africa about 200-220. There is an amazing statement in the Arabic translation of Hippolytus’s Commentary on Revelation: “…as is demonstrated by what Jude [sic] says in his first letter [sic] to the twelve tribes: ‘who are scattered in the world.'”[22]Cited by Martin Dibelius, Commentary on the Epistle of James, rev. Heinrich Greeven, trans. Michael A. Williams, in Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), 33-34. Hippolytus is included here in the discussion of evidence from the Western church because of his connec­tion with the church at Rome, but he wrote in Greek. He was, in fact, the last prominent Roman Christian writer to do so. The biblical quotation is obviously of James 1:1, but it is attributed to Jude in his second letter! Because Hippolytus’s quotation is available only in an Arabic translation, and because either Hippolytus or his translator was confused, it is not safe to conclude that Hippolytus knew the book. It is absent from the writings of Cyprian (d. 258). In fact, the first Latin writer to quote from and show a certain knowledge of it is Hilary of Poitiers (d. 367), but it is in a collection of passages he said were misused by Arians.[23]Concerning the Trinity 4.8. Pilaster (or, more commonly but less accurately, Philaster) of Brescia in northern Italy (d. ca. 397) included James in his list of biblical books.[24]Concerning Heresies 88. A Latin text may be found in Alexander Souter, Text and Canon of the New Testament, rev. C.S.C. Williams (London: Duckworth, 1954), 201-3. Jerome (ordained 379, died 420) said that James the brother of the Lord wrote the book, but he admitted that others thought it was pseudonymous.[25]Illustrious Men 2. Cf. Letters 53 (To Paulinus). James must have been in the Old Latin manuscripts Jerome revised to produce the New Testament of the Latin Vulgate about 384 and following. The fact that Jerome placed James in the Vulgate had enormous influence in obtaining its acceptance in the West. Augustine (bishop 395–430) quoted it frequently and placed it in his list of New Testament books.[26]Concerning Christian Doctrine 2.13. The Latin text is in Souter, Text and Canon, 204-5. Augustine’s influence was even greater than Jerome’s, and it assured the book’s acceptance. The book was confirmed as canonical­ and presumably authored by James-by the Councils of Hippo in 393 and Carthage in 397. It is missing, however, from the writings of Ambrose (d. 397).[27]It is best not to include the following because of questions about date and provenance. A canon list in Latin containing James has been inserted into Codex Claromontanus/D/06. The manuscript itself, which has Greek and Latin texts of the Pauline Epistles only on facing pages, is sixth century, but the canon list is thought to be early fourth century from     Alexandria. There is not much evidence for this claim, however. James is missing from the Cheltenham or Momsen Canon list in Latin which is probably from North Africa about 360.

It is very difficult to evaluate the external evidence. Certainly it does not support authenticity to the extent it does most other books of the New Testament.[28]External evidence unquestionably supports the traditional authorship of the four Gospels, Acts, the thirteen letters of Paul, 1 John, and 1 Peter, even though the authorship of many of these is disputed by contemporary scholarship. It possibly supports the authenticity of 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. It supports the authenticity of 2 Peter as little as it does James. (Hebrews is anonymous in ride and text.) There were just too many doubts in the early church. Yet tradition never suggests any other author,[29]With the possible exception of James the son of Zebedee, the apostle. See note 2. and to the extent that it favors any known person, that person is James the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church. One is struck by how little discussion there was about authorship per se. Most of the discussion had to do with acceptance of the book as Scripture-although as indicated above authorship and canonicity were interdependent. Authorship was a criterion of canonicity.


Internal Evidence

The second kind of evidence which must be considered is internal evidence, i.e., things in the book itself which substantiate or refute the external evidence. First, the simplicity of the indication of authorship favors authenticity. A pseudonymous writer would likely have identified James as an apostle and/or brother of Jesus and/or leader of the Jerusalem church and have praised him in various ways. Such things are typical of pseudonymous writings in the category New Testament apocrypha.

Second, the writing seems to reflect Jewish Christianity, and James was the leader of Jewish Christianity. However, it also reflects a hellenistic atmosphere, and this would not be expected from James. That, however, could be due to a hellenistic assistant who may have composed the booklet at James’s direction. At this point it needs to be said that the traditional view, in order to be viable, needs to be combined with a secretary hypothesis. It is unlikely that the James who grew up in a poor artisan’s home in the tiny Galilean village of Nazareth either dictated every word of the letter or wrote every word with his own hand. It was a common practice in antiquity for a person to explain to a scribe what he or she wanted to say, have the scribe compose the letter, and then correct it and give approval to the final copy before dispatch. There is no reason why the real James would not have employed this procedure. Even Paul may have done so on occasion.[30]Paul probably dictated word-for-word Romans, 1and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon. Note Rom. 16:22, 1 Cor. 16:21, Gal. 6:11, and 2 Thess. 3:17. The language of these is uniform. The language of Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastoral Epistles, however, is different. A common explanation is that these five letters are pseudonymous, but a better explanation is that Paul employed two or three different assistants to compose them on his behalf. Considering his age and health and the fact that he was in prison when three of them were written, one can well understand why he would adopt the practice. There is nothing dishonest or deceptive about the practice.

Third, the writing has a tone of authority-there are fifty-five verbs in the imperative mood in the 108 verses.[31]According to the computer search program Accordance 1.0. James the leader of the Jerusalem church was the only person of that name known to be a man of prominence and authority.

Fourth, there are some striking correspondences between the book and the speech and letter of James in Acts 15.[32]Mayor, James, iiiiv. This argument is not worth much, however, because of the unlikelihood the speech or letter in Acts 15 is a verbatim report or that James wrote every word of the letter that bears his name.

Fifth, the book echoes the teaching of Jesus, especially as it is found in the Synoptic Gospels and more particularly in the Sermon on the Mount.[33]Davids, James, 47–48, gives an extensive list of allusions. The synoptic tradition, however, was available to many Christians within and outside of Palestine so this fact proves nothing about authorship. The value of this claim is more than offset by the absence of any reference to James’s personal relationship to Jesus. On the other hand, James would not have to refer to his personal relationship and experience in every writing.

Sixth, the good quality Greek, the quotations from the Septuagint,[34]The Septuagint (abbreviated LXX because of the tradition that it was made by seventy trans­lators) was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures made in Alexandria, Egypt, between about 250 and 150 B.C and the hellenistic – even philosophical­ atmosphere favor the pseudonymous view. Despite growing indications of the widespread use of Greek in first-century Palestine, it is still difficult to believe that an uneducated Galilean could have composed the book. This is true, but most contemporary traditionalists claim no more than that a Jewish Christian of the dispersion wrote it at the direction of and under the supervision of James. The above matters can be attributed to that person. As for the use of the LXX, if in fact the book was written to Jewish Christians of the Dispersion, it was highly desirable to use their Bible for supporting Scripture, even if it was not the Bible of the author.

Seventh, the book’s treatment of the law does not clarify the issue. On the one hand, emphasis upon the law is what one would expect from James of Jerusalem. On the other, from what is known elsewhere of this person one might expect that his primary concern was with the ritual law, but there is no trace of that in the book where concern is for the moral law.

Eighth, many who hold the pseudonymous view think the decisive argument is that the discussion of the relationship of faith and works in 2:14-26 is a refutation of a later perversion of the teaching of Paul. Others, however, see in 2:14-26 a condemnation of some early Jewish Christians who were content with their orthodoxy, especially their belief in one God, and who failed to see the necessity of ministry to the physical and material needs of others. Whether 2:14-26 reflects any knowledge of Paul is most uncertain, and no theory about authorship should be built upon it.

And ninth, it is difficult to find a motive for a pseudonymous writing. As already indicated, the writer does not in any way exalt the one to whom he attributes the book. He promotes no heresy. He advocates a kind of Christianity that was not popular outside of early Jewish-Christian circles. Is it likely that a Gentile writer, at a time when Jewish Christianity had ceased to be an important factor, would have appealed for authority to the leader of Jewish Christianity?



Today there are three views about authorship, or at least nothing more than variations of three views.[35]In the past two other views were occasionally advocated. One was that the book was written by an otherwise unknown James. This view apparently goes back to Erasmus and Luther. In recent times it has been advocated by James Moffatt, General Epistles: James, Peter and Judas in Moffatt New Testament Commentary (New York: Harper, n.d. [1928?]), 2; and A. M. Hunter, Introducing the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1957), 164-65. This view is possible but not very likely because of what appears to be the prominence and authority of the author. Only a person such as James the leader of the Jerusalem church could introduce himself by name only and then give a host of commands to his readers. The other view was  that James was originally a Jewish work, that the word Iakobos in 1:1 refers to the patriarch Jacob, and that a Christian editor made a few minor changes to “Christianize” it. This view goes back to L. Massebieau, “L’epitre de Jacques-est-elle !’oeuvre d’un Chretien?” Revue de l’Histoire des Religions 32 (1895): 249-83; aud F. Spitta, Zur Geschichte und Litteratur des Urchristentums (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1896), 2:382-391. It is true that Jesus Christ is explicitly mentioned only in 1:1 and 2:1, but today it is realized that a thor­oughly Christian atmosphere pervades the book. They are the traditional view that the book was written by-or at least at the direction of-James the half­ brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church, the pseudonymous view that a late first or early second century writer has attributed his work to James either to honor his memory or tap his authority, and a mediating view that James is a two-stage work. There have been two recent expressions of the third of these. Peter Davids has suggested the first stage consisted of a group of homilies by the leader of the Jerusalem church. The second consisted of compilation and editing by a hellenistic Christian, perhaps during James’s lifetime, perhaps later.[36]Davids, James, 12-13, 22. Similar, but more specific, is the view of Ralph Martin. Portions of James’s teaching were taken from Jerusalem to Syrian Antioch by some of his disciples who edited and published them in letter form to meet the pastoral needs of some community in that region.[37]Ralph P. Martin,James in Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word, 1982), lxxvi-lxxvii. Martin does not suggest whether the teaching of James which he thinks was transported to Antioch was in oral or written form. Nor does he suggest whether the community was com­ posed of Jewish or Gentile Christians. Yet he seems to think his theory explains the combina­tion of Jewish and hellenistic elements in the letter. He thinks it explains the points of contact between James and Matthew and the Didache, both of which he associates with Antioch. These are possible explanations and would give James a significant place in the composition of the tract, but they are unprovable.

A decision about authorship is very difficult. Both the external and internal evidence are divided. As a result, it is difficult to decide between the traditional and pseudonymous views on the basis of rational evidence. This makes the mediating view of Davids and Martin an appealing alternative, but one must confess there is not much hard evidence for either form of this view. Again, rational evidence fails to decide the issue. Probably a decision must be made in larger part on the basis of theological or philosophical presuppositions. This is most unfortunate,   but in the present instance it probably cannot be avoided. The conservative, because of his or her commitment to the inspiration and authority of the Bible, will probably opt for authenticity because the text of the book claims that somebody named James was the author. The liberal, who has no concept of inspiration and inerrancy, who is very much aware that there are a host of undoubtedly pseudonymous writings in early Christian literature, and who looks upon the Bible itself as a collection of early Christian literature, will in most cases choose the pseudonymous view. The present writer is quite willing to confess bias and place himself in the first group. Certainly the evidence in favor of the traditional view is much stronger than many contemporary scholars are willing to admit. Nor is there any decisive argument against the traditional view.

One question remains. If the book was in fact written by the brother of Jesus and august leader of the Jerusalem church, why did it not become known until the early decades of the third century? The most likely answer, which one must admit is a conjecture, is that it was preserved by a small, Jewish-Christian church which was outside of main­ stream Christianity. If the letter was sent to Jewish-Christian communities, it was likely preserved by one of them. After A.D. 70, Jewish Christianity greatly declined, more and more turned in on itself, and sometimes drifted into heresy. If the letter was preserved by such a Jewish-Christian church, and if it did not come to the attention of main- stream Gentile Christianity until about A.D. 200 or a little after, it is no wonder that many were suspicious of the book and that it had to struggle for about two centuries to gain acceptance. One of the criteria of canonicity was antiquity, i.e., a book had to be known and used in earlier generations. Therefore the late appearance of the book is not an insuperable difficulty for the traditional view.



A decision about date will depend in part on a decision about authorship. If James is pseudonymous it was probably written late in the first century or early in the second, well after the death of James himself. Some have dated it as late as 150. Aside from questions of author­ ship, some think a late date is supported by the absence of reference to the Judaizing controversy, the worldliness of the Christians addressed, and the references to oppression of the poor by the wealthy. It is doubtful, however, that such things reveal anything about date. Several of them have actually been cited in favor of an early date. For example, the oppression of the rich is said to reflect the deteriorating economic conditions in Palestine between 44 and 66. On the other hand, some things favor an early date. The Jewish-Christian outlook of the book does because Jewish Christianity ceased to be important after 70. The absence of any reference to the catastrophe of 70, the designation of the Christian meeting place as a synagogue in 2:2, the reference to many teachers in 3:1, and the identification of Christian leaders as elders in 5:14 may also.

If James was written by the leader of the Jerusalem church, it must have been written between his assumption   of leadership probably a little before 44[38]Because of information provided by Josephus, Antiquities 19.8.2 (343), the death of Herod Agrippa I can be accurately dated in 44. Peter was imprisoned by Herod shortly before the latter’s death (Acts 12:3, cf. 20-23). Upon his miraculous release Peter gave instructions for James to be informed (12:17)-no doubt because by this time he, rather than Peter, was the leader of the church. and his death probably in 62. Those who accept authenticity are divided between a date early or late in this period. Some think the absence of reference to the Judaizing controversy requires a date before its origin (about 49) following his first mission to Gentiles (Acts 13-14); others think 2:14 ff involves a dialogue with Paulinism and requires a later date.[39]Not many claim that James 2:14-26 is a refutation of Paul himself. Many will allow that it is a polemic directed toward a later misunderstanding or misapplication of what Paul taught. A novel view is that the passage reflects secondhand information about Paul before James   became well acquainted with his position at the Jerusalem Council about 49 (Douglas J. Moo, James in Tyndale New Testament Commentaries [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985], 33-34). If this were true, it would favor a date in the mid 40s. If, however, Paul was converted about A.D. 35, James first met Paul about 38 (cf. Gal. 1:18-19). Would not James then have learned firsthand something about Paul’s theology? There is no decisive argument for either position, although most contemporary students who accept an early date lean toward 60-62. If James were written about 45, it, rather than 1 Thessalonians,[40]Some, mostly British scholars, argue that Galatians is the earliest book. would be the earliest book in the NT.


Place of Writing

If written by James, the book was almost certainly written in Jerusalem because it was his headquarters and because there is no evidence he ever left Palestine. There are other possible indications of a Palestinian origin: much concern for the poor and the references to the scorching heat in 1:11 and the early and late rain in 5:7, although these phenomena of Palestinian cli­ mate could be due to knowledge of the Old Testament rather than actual residence in that land. Even if James had nothing to do with the writings, its provenance could still be Palestine. In the decades after his death, he may still have been revered there. The devastation of Palestine during those decades, however, does not favor literary activity or a thriving church. As indicated above, some have suggested that Origen was introduced to the letter only after he moved to Caesarea about 231. If this could be established, it might favor a Palestinian origin and preservation. Some think the high quality Greek and the use of the LXX point away from Palestine, but it is more and more being recognized that Greek influence was pervasive in first-century Palestine. Also, these may be due to the assistant who com­ posed the tract under James’s direction.

Syrian Antioch has been posited by Ralph Martin as the place of final editing and publication (above)[41]Martin acknowledges two earlier writers who argued for Antioch without the details of his theory.

Rome has been suggested by a recent commentator who denies Jacobean authorship,[42]The Greek word Iakobos and the English word James are the equivalent of the Hebrew word Jacob. but the only evidence consists of some very tenuous points of contact with 1Peter, 1 Clement, and the Shepherd of Hermas – all of which are associated with that city.[43]Laws, James, 25-26.



The recipients are described in 1:1 as “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” The word diaspora is a technical term which usually refers to Jews living outside of Palestine. The book, however, was not written to Jews. It has no evangelistic concern. The reference, therefore, must be to Jewish Christians living outside of Palestine. It is quite conceivable that the leader of the Jerusalem church and thus the leader of Jewish Christianity would have written to them. Someone has suggested it was written to those who were scattered during the persecution that followed Stephen’s death (Acts 11:19).[44]R.V.G. Tasker, General Epistle of James in Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 39. This thesis is possible, but probably 1:1 suggests a larger group and area. Some, however, have claimed the term refers to Christians generally as it does in 1 Pet. 1:1 (1 Peter was almost certainly written to Gentile rather than Jewish Christians). There is too much of a Jewish element in the book, however, for this to be probable. The book represents a combination of Judaism, Christianity, and Hellenism. Those who best represent the combination of these elements are Jewish Christians living outside of Palestine. A more exact location is impossible.


Type of Literature[45]A good treatment of this subject is Harold S. Songer, “Literary Character of the Book of James,” Review and Expositor 66:4 (Fall 1969): 379-89.

James is one of the so-called General or Catholic Epistles and has often been described as an epistle or letter.[46]The terms ‘epistle’ and ‘letter’ are often used synonymously, but some scholars have tried to make a distinction by claiming that a letter is an informal, personal writing never intended to be circulated beyond the recipient, and that an epistle is a formal writing in the form of a let­ter which was intended to be circulated widely. It is difficult to apply this distinction to NT books, but certainly James is a carefully written work for widespread circulation and therefore has more in common with the epistle category. Nevertheless it is a poor example of an epistle for the reasons given above. The only epistolary element in it, however, is the introduction in 1:1. It has no thanksgiving or prayer in the introduction,[47]The introductions of most ancient letters written in Greek had three elements: identification of the writer, identification of the recipient, and a greeting. James has these. Most letters also had either a wish or prayer for good health or fortune and/or a thanksgiving for some favor. James does not. no personal greetings or references, and no epistolary closing; and the content is not typical of letters. It is a tract dressed up as an epistle by the introduction.

In the past James was often described as wisdom literature, it does indeed have some affinities with the Old Testament wisdom genre: concern with practical morality, frequent exhortation, proverbial style, and gnomic character. Today, however, it is usually described as paraenetic literature. Paraenesis (from the Greek word parainesis meaning ‘exhortation, address, advice, counsel’) is a type of Greek literature which deals almost exclusively with moral and ethical matters in a very general and practical way, usually in terms of brief exhortations on various subjects which have little connection with one another so that the literature has little structure or organization.[48]In the opinion of the present writer, James cannot be outlined in terms of major divisions, subdivisions, and sub-subdivisions. One can only describe and number the topics. Several recent commentators, however, have made a determined effort to outline James in the tradi­tional way: Davids, James, 22-28; and Martin, James xcviii-civ. The latter surveys other attempts at outlining. Although paraenetic literature in general and James in particular do not have logical development, there is some loose organization. One device which connects sec­tions is the use of catchwords or key words. A key word in one section is repeated early in the next. Then brief individual exhortations which have something in common are gathered under a topic. Sometimes there are lists of virtues and vices (cf. James 3:13-18). The paraenetic teacher was an exhorter, not an indoctrinator; he assumed his readers already knew the doctrines of their faith. Certainly this is true about James. Whereas the Pauline letters combine doc­trine and paraenesis,[49]Paul’s stock outline is: I. Doctrine and II. Ethics. It is found in Romans, Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians, and, with the addition of a historical or personal division, in Galatians and 1 Thessalonians. James has paraenesis alone. He should not be denigrated for this. He is not inferior to Paul for this reason. He had the right to so limit himself. Likewise James reflects didache rather than kerygma. In the past scholars made a sharp distinction between the two. The term kerygma (literally ‘the thing preached’) was used to refer to the saving message of the early church, to the indispensable elements of the gospel. The term didache (literally ‘teaching’) was used to refer to the much more extensive instruction of those who had been saved. It is now realized, however, that there is much overlapping between the two.

Another type of Greek literature which is reflected in James is the diatribe. Its main characteristic is the use of rhetorical questions and answers. Often there is a debate or at least a conversation with an imaginary opponent. Note   for example 4:13, “Come now, you who say….” There is also a sermonic element in James, but certainly because of the many subjects which are treated, it is not a single sermon. It may still incorporate material from various sermons of James.


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