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Introduction to the Epistle of James

by Fred G. Zaspel, 1989


Note: Much of the information in this booklet may be found in the standard sources, such as NT Introductions, commentaries on James, and Bible encyclopedias. The material here is compiled largely from these sources and so is not copyrighted.

I. The Author

In keeping with the ancient custom, the author of the letter identifies himself at the very beginning. But in a sense, the author here is not very specific in his identification of himself. James 1:1 merely reads, "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ." This does tell us, though, that whoever this James was, he was well known to the readers. Further, only a cursory reading of the epistle reveals that he was a man highly esteemed among them, one who stood in a position of recognized spiritual authority, and one whom they were obliged to obey. Assuming that the critical view (namely, that the book was pseudepigraphal, written by someone who deceivingly took the name James) is in error, the following four men named James in the NT provide for us a list of the possibilities.

A. Survey of the Choices

1. James the son of Zebedee & brother of John

This man was the most prominent "James" in the gospels. He was one of the "sons of thunder," originally a fisherman with John (his brother), along with Peter and Andrew. He became a disciple of Jesus and was later martyred by Herod Agrippa I, as recorded in Acts 12:2 (circa A.D. 44). There is not much chance that this James could have written this letter before he was killed, and there is no tradition arguing that he did.

2. James the son of Alphaeus, another disciple

Very little is known about this James, the brother of Matthew (Levi). He was another disciple of our Lord, but again, there is no hint that he is the one who wrote this epistle.

3. James the father of Judas the disciple (Judas Thaddaeus)

This man is even more obscure. Not a likely candidate.

4. James the brother of Jude & half-brother of our Lord

This seems to be the author of our epistle. He is not so identified, but much about his character is revealed that is in keeping with what is known about him. This choice is also in keeping with tradition which tells us that he remained in Jerusalem and that Peter, James, & John chose James, the brother of Jesus to be the pastor of the Jerusalem church after the ascension of Christ (cf. Clement of Alexandria). The fact that he does not so identify himself (as our Lord's brother) may be an indication of his humility, but it also reveals the standing and personal authority he had in the opinion of his readers. He was a man well known and highly esteemed in the new Christian community. "James, a servant of God and of Jesus Christ" was an entirely sufficient identification to them. The brevity of it only makes the author obscure to the modern reader.

B. Biographical Sketch

James is first introduced in Matthew 13:55 as one of our Lord's brethren. John 7:5 relates the sad fact that even as late as six months before the crucifixion (the feast of tabernacles), James was still an unbeliever. I Cor. 15:7 tells us that in the midst of the resurrection appearances of Christ, "He was seen of James." A little later, a number of people are recorded as meeting for prayer with the apostles in the upper room, as they awaited Pentecost; among them were "Mary the mother of Jesus, and His brethren." In Gal. 1:18-19 Paul is describing the events of his life following his three years in Arabia after his conversion; at this time he spent two weeks with Peter in Jerusalem and also met another important church leader by the names of James, who "was the Lord's brother." By the time of Acts 12:17 James was evidently already a leader in the Jerusalem church, for Peter, released from prison, asks that the news be reported to James. In Acts 15:13 James is the one presiding at the great council of Jerusalem which met to decide the important question of the relationship of Christianity to the Mosaic law; his leadership role is evident. In Gal. 2:9 Paul refers to him as a "pillar" of the church—equal to Peter and John. So far James has come from his unbelief! The remaining references to James (Gal. 2:12-13 & Acts 21:18-19) reveal his zeal for the Mosaic law. He was evidently in firm agreement with the decision of the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:13-19), but he was also careful to keep peace between the Gentile believers and the more "legalistic"(?) Jewish Christians (verse 20). Perhaps he himself (as Peter, cf. Gal. 2:11) carried this matter too far; this does not minimize his standing as an apostle, however (Gal. 1:19). (Note: At least four other men beside the original 11 have apostolic status: Matthias [Acts 1:26], Barnabas [Acts 14:4, 14], Paul, and James.) He was "nicknamed" "James the Just" because of his recognized piety, and was said to have "knees like those of camels" because of his much time spent in prayer. Josephus records that James was martyred during an uprising against Christians while Ananus was high priest in 62 A.D.

II. The Date

Liberal scholars assign a very late date to the epistle of James (A.D. 85-130), but the evidence demands a much earlier date than that. It would seem that an event as important as the fall of Jerusalem (A.D. 70) would have been somehow evident in such a Jewish writing, had it yet occurred. Further, if we are correct in assigning this letter to James the brother of our Lord, the writing would obviously have been before A.D. 62, the time of his death. Moreover, the very elementary church order reflected in the epistle points to a very early date: there are no bishops or deacons mentioned at all, and the meeting place of the church is still the "synagogue" (James 2:2 "assembly," Greek, sunagoge). The opinion of the ancient church was also in keeping with an early date of writing, for in their arrangement of the books of the NT James is placed before the Pauline epistles. Added to all this, the obvious Jewish tone of the letter, the very thin line which appears to exist between Judaism and Christianity, the absence of developed Christian phraseology, the lack of elaborated Christian doctrine, no mention at all of the later conflict between the Jewish demands upon the Gentiles within the church or of circumcision or of the Jerusalem council of A.D. 49 (i.e., Christianity is still wearing its "Jewish diapers," and there is yet no Gentile prominence within the church)—all point to a date of writing sometime around A.D. 46. This, then, is the earliest of all the NT books, the "First Epistle To the Christians." But prepare yourself for the study of it—as it has been well said, while James is ancient, it is not musty!

III. The Recipients

The letter is addressed "to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad" (James 1:1b). "Twelve tribes," obviously, identifies the readers as Jewish, and "of the dispersion" (diaspora) further identifies them as those Jews living outside of Palestine. The fact that the letter was written in Greek (rather than Aramaic) seems further to specify those living in the Western area of the dispersion (e.g., Syria), which was an early center of Christian evangelistic outreach (Acts 11:19). James further identifies them as "brethren" having "the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2:1). Adding up the evidence specifies the recipients as early Jewish believers outside of Palestine. (James' influence was far-reaching!) The letter was written from an apostle in Jerusalem to the Christian Jews abroad.

IV. The Style

This epistle (letter) is in many ways very different from the other NT epistles. It often sounds more like a sermon preached and recorded by a stenographer! More than likely, the letter was intended to be read publicly at the meetings of the churches to whom it was sent. What follows is a brief sketch of some of its chief characteristics.

A. Literary Devices & Techniques

1. Duadiplosis (paronomasia)
This literary device is a subtle but effective method of emphasizing a point by linking together clauses and sentences or ideas by repeating its key words. For instance, in James 1:3-4 "patience" is emphasized—"the trying of your faith worketh patience, but let patience have its perfect work." Verses 4-5 emphasize the thought of maturity in the negative—"no lack." Verses 5-6 speak of "asking." See also "temptation" (verses 12-14), "lust" (14-15), "wrath" (19-20), etc. Remaining alert to these will often be an aid to interpretation.

2. Figures of Speech — chiefly metaphor & simile

Metaphors and similes are methods of comparison, speaking of one thing in terms of another. James employs these figures from all areas of life:

a. Rural Life

He speaks of earthly prosperity as a flower that withers (1:10), speech as a spring and a tree (3:11), righteousness as fruit (3:18), life as a fog that is soon gone (4:14), etc.

b. Marine Life & Astronomy

A man who cannot make up his mind to trust God is compared to a wave of the sea (1:6). God, the source of good gifts is unchanging as the sun (1:17). etc.

c. Domestic Life

The development and result of sin is likened to conception, birth, growth, and death (1:15). The careless listener is likened to the man who doesn't look into the mirror very well (1:23). In 4:4 unfaithfulness is compared to adultery. etc.

d. Public Life

The future bliss of believers is compared to receiving the victor's "crown" (1:12). Hedonistic pleasures are like a hostile army encamped in our body (4:1). etc.

3. Illustrations

Most of James' illustrations are taken from the normal experiences of every-day life. He often refers, to illustrate a point, to wind, flowers, sun, vapor, farming. There is more poetic imagery in James' short epistle than in all of Paul's epistles combined. (Maybe he learned it from his mother, cf. Lk.1).

4. Rhetorical Questions

James often asks questions which answer themselves. Few things are as effective in argument as forcing someone to answer an obvious question. James does this repeatedly (e.g., 2:4, 5, 6, 7, 14, 16, 20, 21 etc.)

5. Excellent Greek

Greek scholars agree that the Greek written in the original of James is the best in the entire NT, except for the book of Hebrews. He seems to have been a well-educated man.

6. Plain & Direct

The net effect of all this is that his letter comes across as plainly, vividly, and directly as any possibly could. With his fervency, poetical imagery, illustrations, questions, and superior use of language in general, there is never a reason for misunderstanding him. With James, the issues are never abstract but real and familiar and very personal.

B. Other Characteristics

1. Authoritative

James does not hesitate to tell you what you should do. You can't even read the letter casually without recognizing that James preaches to us from a superior position. He commands and even rebukes and never apologizes for it. No OT prophet ever spoke with more authority. In this brief letter of 108 verses there are 54 imperatives (commands).

2. Practical

It is evident that James' purpose is not to instruct us merely in what to believe but in what we should do because of what we believe.

3. Relevant

The personal issues which James deals with are as contemporary as tomorrow's news!

4. Jewish

Addressed to the 12 tribes of the dispersion, the whole mental atmosphere of the letter is Jewish. Almost every subject in the letter is emphasized in the OT, and there is almost no distinctively Christian teaching. The meeting place is the synagogue (2:1), Abraham is their father (2:21), God is called The Lord of Sabbaoth (5:4, only time in NT), His illustrations are often from the OT, and the whole approach is that of an OT prophet. It is the most Jewish writing of the NT.

5. Different from Paul

Much has been made of James' difference from Paul. The two apostles each begin their letters with a salutation, but the similarity seems, at times, to end there. This is true, to some extent, in regard to style as well as content. Martin Luther's opinions about James are well known (as are most of Luther's opinions!). "It is a right strawy epistle," he said, because of James' emphasis on works rather than faith. (In typical Luther fashion: "At the University of Wittenburg, we fire our stoves with the epistle of James.") This is simply a misunderstanding of James, and Luther is said to have moderated his views later in life. This misunderstanding stems from a failure to recognize the issues in focus in James and Paul—they are not standing face to face fighting each other but back to back fighting different enemies. Paul attacks the idea that a man can be saved by works and so emphasizes faith. James attacks the idea that a man's faith may be dead (i.e., unproductive) yet real, and so James emphasizes works. The two men are not contradictory but complementary to each other.

6. Identical to Paul

For the record, it should be understood that everything James says is also found in the writings of Paul. Compare Rom. 2:6-10 & Eph. 2:8-10 to James 2:1, 5, & 23. Also, it should be noted that the two often use the same terminology with different meanings. The "works" Paul attacks are those which pretend to save; the "works" James demands are those which demonstrate salvation.

7. Similar to Jesus

It has been said that if John rested on Jesus' bosom, James sat at his feet. James preserves more of Christ's teaching than all the other epistles combined. He never actually quotes his older brother, but he seems to constantly refer to his teachings as a basis for his own. There are at least 10 parallels to Jesus' sermon on the mount, and for almost everything we read in James we can recall some statement of Jesus which may have suggested it. This is so pervasive that even when the parallels fail, many are inclined to suspect that James may be repeating some unrecorded teaching of our Lord. This is all the more interesting seeing that James was an unbeliever until after Jesus' resurrection. (Cf. Mt. 5:48 & James 1:4, Mt. 7:7 & James 1:5, Mk. 11:23 & James 1:6, Mt. 7:24-26 & James 1:22, Mt. 7:1 & James 4:11-12, Mt. 23:12 & James 4:10, Mt. 7:16 & James 3:12, etc.)

V. Its Canonicity

When the ancient church sat to determine which writings were Inspired and so to be included in the "Canon" of Holy Scripture, the epistle of James faced some problems. It was a part of the antilegomena — books "disputed" by at least some section of the Church. The ancient church historian, Eusebius (265-340) records this for us, although he himself accepted James. The problems were provoked basically by two considerations, much later by a third. The first problem was its relative obscurity—the letter had remained for some time unknown to a good many churches, especially those in Africa. This problem was resolved by the consideration that the letter was addressed only to a specific locality and people; furthermore, it finally became evident that the letter was more widely recognized than previously thought. The second problem was its questionable authorship even after the book had become more widely known. They questioned who the writer was and what was his authority for doing so (i.e., his apostleship). With the author identified & its wide acceptance, these doubts were settled by the fourth century, and at the third council of Carthage (397) it became universally recognized. James suffered no further problems until Martin Luther questioned it on the grounds of a supposed conflict with Paul (see above).

VI. Its Position in the Canon

Although James was written before Paul's letters, it has been placed after Paul's for several reasons, perhaps the best of which is the fact that Paul's are a more complete and systematic presentation of Christian Truth, and James is therefore supplementary to Paul. It falls into a group of NT books called the General ("catholic") Epistles (Hebrews-Jude). They are called "General" because the authors & audiences are varied.

VII. Survey

The burden of James' letter is to exhort us to consistent Christian living. He does this by dealing with many dangers which face us (problems which can lead us into sin) and by exhorting us to proper Christian virtues. One by one these issues are handled, and we are instructed in regard to them. The subjects which James takes up are as follows.

       A. Trials
        B. Temptations
        C. Hypocrisy
        D. Partiality
        E. Empty Faith
        F. Tongue
        G. Worldly Wisdom
        H. Sin
        I. Slander
        J. Self-Confidence
        K. Injustice
        L. Prayer
        M. The Erring Brother

VIII. Summary

It often seems that any attempt to outline the book of James is futile. Discovering the major divisions of the letter is a task which has seen many give up. But however the book is divided, it must be kept in mind that James' purpose is simply to exhort us in matters of daily Christian living. The following is one humble attempt to summarize that exhortation.

A. The Christian Attitude
1. Toward Trials
                2. Toward Temptations
                3. Toward the Word
                4. Toward Others

B. The Christian Faith
1. The Demonstration of It
                2. The Illustrations of It

C. The Christian Life
        1. The Dangers
                        a. The Tongue
                        b. The World
                        c. The Flesh
                        d. Injustice

                2. The Virtues
                        a. Patience
                        b. Prayer

IX. Purpose & Theme

James is concerned to show us the proper "behavior of belief"; that is, his letter consists of a series of tests of our faith. What we profess to believe, he insists, must be evident by how we live. The issues he takes up, then, are not trivial—these things tell on us! A man is saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is not alone!

X. Key Verse

James 2:17 states the theme very well—"Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone."