Chapter 16: The Epistle of James

An Introduction to the New Testament
by Richard Heard

Chapter 16: The Epistle of James

Authorship of The Epistle

The writer of this epistle names himself ‘James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ’ (1:1 ), and tradition has generally identified him with the brother of Jesus, who appears from Gal.2:9 and Acts 15 to have been the leader of the Jerusalem church.

The traditional view has been challenged on a number of grounds, of which the most important are the language of the epistle, which is in good Greek, the absence of references to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the slowness with which the epistle was received as canonical.

The argument from the language of the epistle is a weak one. Whether James could speak and write Greek or not, the epistle is addressed to ‘the twelve tribes’ which are of the Dispersion (i.e. outside Palestine), and Greek would be the language which they would most easily understand, especially if, as appears likely, the term is meant to include not only Jewish Christians but Gentile converts as well. There were in Jerusalem Christians fully capable of translating James’ words into fluent Greek, as can be seen from the procedure followed in composing a letter to the Gentile Christians of Syria and Cilicia after the Council of Jerusalem in A.D. 49 (Acts 15).

The lack of any appeal to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, whose name is mentioned only twice in the epistle (1:1, 2:1), is at first sight hard to reconcile with the authorship of James, the Lord’s brother, and has led to speculation as to the possibility of the first verse being a later addition based on an erroneous conjecture as to its authorship. (Streeter, The Primitive Church, p. 191. 164) On the other hand the very absence of theological interpretation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus tells against any theory that the epistle is the work of a later anonymous Christian, and it is better to take the silence of James, like that of Jude, as an indication of the way in which the brethren of Jesus proclaimed their faith. The epistle of James is primarily one of teaching on conduct, and the teaching is often couched in words so reminiscent of the words of Jesus, yet in a form which tells against use of the later gospels, that the simplest explanation remains authorship by one whose knowledge of the Lord’s teaching was first-hand.

The comparative slowness of the epistle in acquiring canonical recognition also requires some explanation. It was possibly known to Clement (c. A.D. 96) and to Hermas (c. A.D. 145) at Rome, but it is not included in the Muratorian Canon, a Roman list of the end of the second century A.D. In the east, both Clement of Alexandria (c. A.D. 200) and Origen quote from it as an apostolic writing, but a century later Eusebius, although he himself accepts it, says that others do not, and that not many of the ancients mentioned it. Even after his time some of the Antiochian fathers did not include it among the books which they regarded as canonical.

The reasons for such hesitation in its acceptance must be sought in the limited circulation which it enjoyed in the early period, and in the untheological nature of the epistle which led many later Christian teachers to regard it as inadequate. The original prestige of James, so potent in the earliest days of the church, soon waned when the church of Jerusalem lost its position of leadership, and James became a shadowy figure, known only from a few references in the Pauline epistles, from the Acts of the Apostles, a work which for a considerable time seems to have had limited currency, and from the legends of later Jewish Christians, notably in the Gospel according to the Hebrews, Hegesippus, and the Clementine Recognitions. The very simplicity of the epistle, and its lack of historical data, helped to diminish its importance. It was only with the passing of time and the rise of a general tendency to extend canonicity to such minor works as Jude and 2 and 3 John that James also came into its own. While the cumulative force of the objections against the traditional authorship must be admitted as considerable, they cannot be regarded as decisive, and it remains probable that we have in this epistle the teaching of the acknowledged head of the early Jerusalem church.

The Teaching of The Epistle and the Circumstances of its Writing

The message of the epistle is a practical one of encouragement in the face of temptations, and of moral exhortation. The basis of this exhortation is that we are all sinners and therefore worthy of death (1:14-15), but that God of his own will has given us a hope of salvation (1:18, 21), and that the end is near, ‘behold the judge standeth before the doors’ (5:9). So far James goes with Paul, but he interprets the means of salvation in terms of keeping ‘the perfect law, the law of liberty’ (1:25), and his conception of faith is radically different from Paul’s. For James faith can exist without works (2:18-24), and can indicate only a belief in God insufficient to change a man’s actions (2:19 ‘the devils also believe, and shudder’), although at times he uses the word in a much deeper sense (1:6, 5:15).

It has been thought by some scholars that James, in part of his epistle (2:14-26), is attacking the Pauline doctrine of ‘justification by faith’, or a perverted interpretation of Paul’s teaching, but it is far more likely that his target is not a theological doctrine, but the reluctance of Christians in general to live up to their responsibilities. The emphasis is throughout on Christian conduct, as involving both action (e.g. 1:27, 3:13, 4:17) and abstinence from sin (e.g. 2: 9-11, 4:11, 5:12), and the references even to prayer are practical ones (5:14-18).

The absence of theological interest is in striking contrast to the other epistles, with the significant exception of Jude. There are two references to Jesus as ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ (1:1) and ‘our Lord Jesus Christ of glory’ (2:1), with a possible allusion to his death at the hands of the rich (5:6), but James says nothing of his redeeming power or of his relationship to the Father.

On the other hand the language of the epistle reminds us continually of the teaching of Jesus as it is recorded in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount especially, but also in Luke and John. Among the most striking examples are the contrast between living and doing (1:22-23 cf. Mt.7:21, Lk.6:46), the command against judging (4:11 cf. Mt.7:1), and that against swearing (5:12 cf. Mt. 5:34 ff.), but it has been estimated that nearly half the verses in James find a parallel of sorts in the gospels. The form of the resemblances is such as to suggest not a literary relationship, but that James was well acquainted with the teaching of Jesus as it was remembered in the earliest days of the church.

The date of the epistle and the readers to whom it was addressed are much disputed. On the whole it seems best to accept an early date, c. A.D. 45, and to assume that the epistle is a general one destined for Christians outside Palestine, who at this time would be for the most part Jews, or Gentiles who had come under the influence of Judaism (cf. the reference to ‘your synagogue’ 2:2). This would account for the absence of any reference to the controversies connected with the admission of Gentiles into the church, which seem to have come to a head a few years later, and seems to suit the ‘non-theological’ teaching of the epistle better than the assumption that it dates from a much later period.

The Importance of The Epistle

The authorship and early date of the epistle are matters of probability and not of certainty. Yet if James, the brother of Jesus, is accepted as the author of the epistle, it becomes our best witness to the beliefs of the earliest Jerusalem church. While it is unwise to build too much on the negative evidence of one short letter, there are striking differences between the presentation of the Christian gospel here and in the other great epistles. Some of these differences may well be attributed to James’ personality; there are some striking affinities between the epistle and Luke’s account of James’ speech at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15: 13-21). Yet we cannot ignore the fact that James was apparently the unchallenged leader of the early Jerusalem church, and no theory of the teaching of the ‘apostolic’ church can fail to take into account James’ interpretation of the gospel as being at least one of the ways in which the earliest Christians passed on their faith.