The letter of James has not always been appreciated in the church. In fact, Martin Luther called it ‘a right strawy epistle’ (referring to 1 Cor. 3:12), because it did not sound like Paul nor mention Luther’s chief concern, salvation by grace. However, the letter of James is extremely important to the church today.
The first point to note is that it was written to a church under pressure. Christians were not being martyred, but they were suffering economic persecution and oppression and the church was breaking under the pressure. There are two ways in which church members may respond to extreme pressure. They can either pull together and help each other or they can compromise with the world and split apart into bickering factions. James wanted his readers to do the former but it was the latter that was actually happening as people struggled to ‘get ahead’ in the world. These problems make the letter very relevant for the church today.
Secondly, the letter is filled with the teaching of Jesus. No other letter of the NT has as many references to the teaching of Jesus per page as this one does. It is not that James quotes Jesus directly, although he sometimes does (see in 5:12), but he normally simply uses phrases and ideas which come from Jesus. His readers would have memorized much of the Lord’s teaching, so they would recognize the source. Most of these phrases come from the teaching of Jesus now in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5–7) or Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (Lk. 6). There is no better example in the NT of a church leader taking the Lord’s teaching and applying it to church problems. The letter of James, then, becomes a model for the modern church on how to apply the teaching of Jesus.
The letter claims to be written by ‘James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ’. There are several Christian leaders to whom this could apply. James the son of Zebedee, however, was executed between ad 41 and 44 (Acts 12:2) and James the son of Alphaeus (Acts 1:13) is so unknown that if he was the author he would have surely identified himself more clearly. In truth there was but one James in the early church who was well enough recognized to be able to use such a simple greeting and that was James the son of Joseph, the brother of the Lord. This is the man who was personally visited by Jesus after the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:7), and it was probably at this time that he was converted. He was with the apostles at Pentecost (Acts 1:14), and soon rose to leadership in the church, being the major leader of the Jerusalem church by ad 50 (Acts 15:13–21; the fact that he spoke last indicates that he was viewed as the main leader) and continuing until after Paul’s last visit (Acts 21:18). While James led the Jerusalem church, Acts portrays him as concerned for church unity, being willing to negotiate compromises among Christian groups (i.e. those for and against Paul). The reference in Gal. 2:12 does not contradict this picture, for it does not indicate that James knew anything about either Paul’s activities or those of his messengers; it only shows why the messengers were seen as important. James was reportedly martyred after the death of Festus in ad 62, the high priest, Annas the Younger, taking advantage of the absence of a Roman governor to carry out the execution.
Many scholars do not believe that James the son of Joseph wrote this letter, either because it appears to address a church too settled for the mid-first century or because the quality of its Greek is too good. Furthermore, Jas. 2:14–26 appears to be contradicting Paul in Rom. 4 and Gal. 4. We can only respond briefly to these issues, but we note first of all that by ad 50 the church in Jerusalem was 20 years old, fully old enough for any of the problems noted in the letter of James. The problems themselves are not those of physical persecution and martyrdom, which happened more towards the end of the first century, but those of economic persecution and the oppression of the poor, which fits the period in Jerusalem before the war of ad 66–70. As for James and Paul, we will argue in the commentary that because they use terms differently the contradictions between them are more apparent than real. James may, however, be arguing against a distortion of Paul’s teaching, which means that the letter must have been written before Galatians (c. ad 50) and Romans (c. ad 56) were circulating widely, or else James would probably have quoted Paul’s own teaching against those misusing Paul’s slogans.
The quality of the Greek in the letter of James presents a real problem. A Galilean peasant like James would certainly have known Greek, but it is unlikely that he would have been able to write the high quality Greek of this letter. Perhaps the clue is to be found in two facts. First, the letter is addressed to ‘the twelve tribes scattered among the nations’. James was looking on the church as a whole as ‘the Israel of God’ (cf. Gal. 6:16), but an Israel scattered in the world. It is not to the Christians gathered in Jerusalem that the letter was written, but to those scattered outside. The form James used was that of a literary letter rather than an actual letter. Actual letters were written for a particular church or person and sent to them. A literary letter was published like a book or tract and intended for a much broader, general audience. Therefore, the letter of James reflects more the church in Jerusalem than the churches who would receive copies of the letter.
Secondly, there are several places in which different Greek words are used for the same idea (e.g. ‘patience’ in 1:3 and 5:7; ‘desire’ in 1:14 and 4:3). Also several parts of the letter appear to be carefully structured outlines for sermons like those preached in Jewish synagogues (e.g. 2:1–13; 2:14–26). In other places we find short sayings used to join parts together. It looks, then, as if sermons and sayings of James (and perhaps of Jesus as well) were edited together to form the letter. Unlike, for example, Galatians the letter of James does not look like a work dictated at one time.
The letter, then, is probably a collection of the sayings of James edited together into a unity. James himself may have requested someone with good Greek to put the letter together, perhaps to have something to share with the many Christians from the Greek-speaking world who were visiting Jerusalem, or else after his death the church had the letter written in order to preserve some of the central teaching of this major figure. The latter picture is the more likely. This must have been done soon after James’s martyrdom, for the letter uses James’s simple self-designation, not the fancier titles used for him later in church history.
The letter is basically in five parts. Part one is a two-part introduction which brings up three themes. The first is testing or trials and the reason why people fail when tested. The second is wisdom and the control of the tongue. The third is wealth and its use in acts of charity. As in 1 Jn. 1:1–4, James discusses each of these ideas and then goes over them a second time.
Part two takes up the theme of wealth and charity and presents two sermons, one discussing discrimination on the basis of wealth and the other pointing out that any faith that does not result in good works, especially charity, is not saving faith at all.
Part three discusses the use of the tongue, particularly in relation to teachers who seem to have been gathering groups around them and criticizing others. James attributes this to demonic influence, while pointing out that God’s wisdom or Spirit produces peace and unity in the church.
Part four returns to the theme of testing. The wealthy in the church community are tested by their wealth. Will they use it just the way that the world does, or will they go to God and seek his direction? The wealthy outside the church are condemned to hell, not just for their persecution of the poor, including Christians, but also for their heaping up of treasure on earth and living in luxury while others are starving.
Finally, James has a concluding section to his letter. His summary calls his Christian readers to patience. He then takes up the topics which were thought to be necessary at the end of Greek letters: oaths and health (see the Introductions to the articles on Colossians and Philemon). Finally, he tells his readers why he has written: it was to turn Christians who have erred back to the truth. He does not want to criticize, but to cover sins by bringing people to repentance. This call to repentance characterizes the letter and unifies the church, for it was James’s goal to speak to a church under pressure and call it to stand together against the force of the wagging tongue within and the pressures of the world without.
See also the article on Reading the letters.
J. A. Motyer, The Message of James, BST (IVP, 1985).
D. J. Moo, James, TNTC (IVP/UK/Eerdmans, 1985).
P. H. Davids, James, NIBC (Hendrickson, 1989).
———, The Epistle of James, NIGTC (Paternoster/Eerdmans, 1982).
J. A. Adamson, The Epistle of James, NICNT (Eerdmans, 1976).
R. P. Martin, James, WBC (Word, 1988).
NT New Testament
c. circa, about (with dates)
BST The Bible Speaks Today
TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentary
NIBC New International Bible Commentary
NIGTC New International Greek Testament Commentary
NICNT The New International Commentary on the New Testament
WBC Word Biblical Commentary
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Stg 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Intervarsity Press.