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Introduction to the Book of James

Julian Spriggs M.A.


The author identifies himself as James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ (1:1). There are four or five different people with the name James in the NT.

There is James son of Zebedee, brother of John, one of the twelve apostles, a Galilean fisherman, called to be a disciple by Jesus (Mt 4:21). Peter, James and John were the three disciples closest to Jesus, who were present at the raising of Jairus' daughter (Mk 5:37), the transfiguration (Mk 9:2), the Olivet Discourse (Mk 13:3) and Gethsemane (Mk 14:33). James and John, had the nicknames 'Bo-anerages', meaning sons of thunder, and showed their fiery nature when they called Jesus to bid fire to come down from heaven to judge a Samaritan village (Lk 9:54). All three were waiting in the upper room for Pentecost (Acts 1:13). James was killed with the sword by Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:2) in AD 43, the first of the apostles to die.

There was another James, son of Alphaeus, who also one of the twelve apostles (Mt 10:3), is only mentioned in the list of the twelve. Another James, known as James the Younger, or James the Less, was with his mother at the cross and at the tomb (Mk 15:40, 16:1). It is uncertain whether these are two different people, or the same person. There was also an otherwise unknown James, who was father of Judas, (not Judas Iscariot), or Thaddaeus (Lk 6:16, Acts 1:13), but he is not mentioned anywhere else.

The other James was the brother of Jesus, who is the most likely author of this letter. He is only mentioned by name twice in the gospels. Both times are in the context of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth (Mt 13:55, Mk 6:3). People asked, "Is this not the carpenter's son?", and list his mother Mary and brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas and sisters. This means that Jesus' had four brothers and at least two sisters. The brothers of Jesus are also mentioned without being named in other places. They wished to speak to Jesus (Mt 12:46, Mk 3:31), and tried to seize Jesus thinking he was mad (Mk 3:21). Jesus knew what it meant to be a prophet without honour in his own house. (Mt 6:4), as his brothers did not believe in him during his ministry (Jn 7:2-10).

However after the ascension, the eleven apostles, together Mary and the brothers of Jesus were in the upper room before Pentecost (Acts 1:14). James had evidently been converted, along with his brothers, after the resurrection. When Paul listed the resurrection appearances of Jesus, he said the Jesus appeared to James (1 Cor 15:7), which is probably when he became a believer.

It appears that James quickly rose to prominence in the Jerusalem church. Peter, after his release from prison, told the household of Mary to go and tell the news of his release to James and the brethren (Acts 12:17). Paul, three years after his conversion, went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas (Peter) and James (Gal 1:19). James is identified as the Lord's brother, as the other James, son of Zebedee, would still be alive at this time. Cephas and James were probably the two leaders of the Jerusalem church at this time. Peter started to travel once the church began to spread, leaving James as the leader.

Fourteen years later, Paul went to Jerusalem again, to submit his ministry to the Gentiles and received their blessing (Gal 2:9). James is considered one of the pillars of the church, along with Peter and John. James, son of Zebedee, had now been killed. Paul also refers to certain men who claimed they came from James with his authority (Gal 2:12), even though that claim was false (Acts 15:24). Later James presided over the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), and passed the final verdict on the circumcision issue on behalf of the Jerusalem church.

On his return from his third Missionary Journey, Paul arrived in Jerusalem (Acts 21:18) with the gift for the saints in Jerusalem. He was uncertain what reception he would receive from the Jewish believers, who had reservations about his mission to Gentiles. James describes the believers in Jerusalem as being very zealous for the law (21:10). To make peace, James suggested that Paul pays the expenses for four men who were under a vow, probably a Nazarite vow, which Paul was happy to do. However this event led to Paul being arrested on a charge of bringing a Gentile into the inner temple (21:29), leading to several years in prison, the appeal to Caesar and the journey to Rome.

James was evidently very zealous for the law, although a believer, leading a very legalistic church in Jerusalem. He was known as 'James the Just' because of his righteousness and law-keeping.

External Evidence

Jerome wrote this about James and his letter. He evidently did not believe that James was a son of Mary, but of another wife of Joseph. He includes an earlier quotation from Hegesippus, “James, who is called the brother of the Lord, surnamed the Just, the son of Joseph by another wife, as some think, but, as appears to me, the son of Mary sister of the mother of our Lord of whom John makes mention in his book, after our Lord's passion at once ordained by the apostles bishop of Jerusalem, wrote a single epistle, which is reckoned among the seven Catholic Epistles and even this is claimed by some to have been published by some one else under his name, and gradually, as time went on, to have gained authority.

Hegesippus who lived near the apostolic age, in the fifth book of his Commentaries, writing of James, says, "After the apostles, James the brother of the Lord surnamed the Just was made head of the Church at Jerusalem. Many indeed are called James. This one was holy from his mother's womb. He drank neither wine nor strong drink, ate no flesh, never shaved or anointed himself with ointment or bathed. He alone had the privilege of entering the Holy of Holies, since indeed he did not use woolen vestments but linen and went alone into the temple and prayed in behalf of the people, insomuch that his knees were reputed to have acquired the hardness of camels' knees." He says also many other things, too numerous to mention."

Jerome also describes that James was mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, as ruler of the church in Jerusalem for thirty years: "He it is of whom the apostle Paul writes to the Galatians that "No one else of the apostles did I see except James the brother of the Lord," and shortly after the event the Acts of the apostles bear witness to the matter. And so he ruled the church of Jerusalem thirty years, that is until the seventh year of Nero, and was buried near the temple from which he had been cast down. His tombstone with its inscription was well known until the siege of Titus and the end of Hadrian's reign. Some of our writers think he was buried in Mount Olivet, but they are mistaken.” (Lives of Illustrious Men 2)

The Martyrdom of James

James was martyred in AD 62 at a time when there was no Roman governor in Judea. Festus had died, and Albinus had not yet arrived to replace him. The high priest was Ananus, son of Ananus, who was the deposed high priest during the trials of Jesus. He took advantage of this lack of Roman control to have James illegally brought before the Sanhedrin and condemned to death.

The death of James was described by Josephus. He also describes the ugly character of Ananus, the high priest. “And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. Now the report goes that this eldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests. But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a Sanhedrim without his consent." (Ant 20:9:1).

Jerome described his martyrdom as follows, "Josephus also in the twentieth book of his Antiquities, and Clement in the seventh of his Outlines mention that on the death of Festus who reigned over Judea, Albinus was sent by Nero as his successor. Before he had reached his province, Ananias the high priest, the youthful son of Ananus of the priestly class taking advantage of the state of anarchy, assembled a council and publicly tried to force James to deny that Christ is the son of God. When he refused Ananius ordered him to be stoned. Cast down from a pinnacle of the temple, his legs broken, but still half alive, raising his hands to heaven he said, "Lord forgive them for they know not what they do." Then struck on the head by the club of a fuller such a club as fullers are accustomed to wring out garments with-he died. This same Josephus records the tradition that this James was of so great sanctity and reputation among the people that the downfall of Jerusalem was believed to be on account of his death." (Lives of Illustrious Men 2)

Date of writing

If the letter was written by Jesus' brother James, then it must be before AD 62, when he was martyred. The earliest date would be around AD 40. There is no mention of the fall of Jerusalem, which would have surely been mentioned by the leader of the Jewish church in Jerusalem. The social conditions of rich and poor would indicate a date before AD 70, after which there were no rich land-owning Jews in Israel.

Who written to?

James addressed his letter, “To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion" (1:1). This could be understood in a spiritual sense, addressing the body of Christ generally, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles (as in 1 Pet 1:1). However, the dispersion was the name for Jews scattered all over the world after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC to Babylon. Some returned in 536 BC with Zerubbabel and later with Ezra, but most stayed where they were. On the Day of Pentecost, members of these Jewish communities came to Jerusalem, heard the gospel, some were saved and had returned to form Christian communities in their home towns. In Roman times, most cities had Jewish communities and synagogues. Otherwise James could be referring to the church that was scattered after the death of Stephen (Acts 8:1).

It is most likely that James was writing to a Jewish Christian audience, who met in synagogues (2:2), and claimed Abraham to be their father (2:21), and who were familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures.

Purpose of letter

Some people have suggested that it was written to correct extreme ways of interpreting Paul's letters, with their emphasis on faith. James is showing that faith must be applied to everyday life and relationships. A faith which does not result in a changed life is questionable as to its genuineness.

Structure of the book

The letter of James does not have the standard structure of a first century letter, unlike the other letters in the NT. It has been described as, 'a collection of sermon notes', 'a string of beads', or 'a string of pearls'. It is a general letter on general issues, with no greetings or list of names. It appears to break off suddenly at the end, with no final greeting or benediction.

Chapter one forms an introduction, mentioning each theme briefly, each of which is then expanded upon throughout the rest of the book.

Style of the letter

James uses repetition to link sentences and ideas, so one subject leads into the next. For example: steadfastness (1:3-4), lacking nothing, lacking wisdom (1:4-5), let him ask (1:5-6), no doubting, he who doubts (1:6), when he is tempted, I am tempted (1:13), God cannot be tempted, He tempts no-one, each is tempted (1:13), own desire, their desire (1:14-15), slow to anger, for your anger (1:19-20), religion (1:26-27), many mistakes, no mistakes (3:2), able to bridle, if we put bridles (3:2-3), and whole body, whole bodies (3:2-3).

He addresses people directly, like as sermon, including: brethren, my brethren, my beloved brethren (1:2,16,19, 2:1,5,14, 3:1,10,12, 4:11, 5:7,9,10,12,19), you rich (5:1), you shallow man (2:20), you men of double mind (4:8), and you sinners (4:8).

He makes extensive use of metaphor and simile, including: like a wave of the sea ... driven and tossed (1:6), like a flower of the grass ... pass away (1:9), the crown of life (1:12), desire conceived ... gives birth, sin fully grown ... death (personification) (1:15), Father of lights ... no shadow of change (1:17), faith is dead (personification) (2:26), able to bridle the body (like a horse) (3:2), the body and tongue are to be controlled like a horse with its bridle, like a ship with its rudder (3:2-5), the tongue is like a small fire that sets a forest ablaze (3:5), the mouth like a spring, can it pour forth fresh and brackish water? (3:11), the mouth like a fruit tree, can it produce figs, olives, grapes and figs?, The mouth like the sea, can it produce salt & fresh water? (3:12), your passions like an army at war in your members (4:1), you are a mist that appears ... and vanishes (4:14), riches, gold and silver have rotted (5:2-3), their rust will eat your flesh like fire (5:3), and be patient like the farmer who waits (5:7).

He also uses stories to illustrates his point, illustrating impartiality with a story of a rich man and a poor man (2;1-7), and justice with a story of labourers denied their wages (5:1-6).

Characteristics of the letter

The letter of James seems very Jewish, with a close relationship with Sermon on the Mount. There are only two references to Jesus (1:1, 2:1) and one to his second coming (5:7). Without these, it would fit neatly into the OT next to Proverbs or in the Apocrypha next to Ecclesiasticus, in the same style of short sayings and essays.

It is a very practical letter, with little or no doctrine, covering themes of temptation, pride, greed, strife, works, wisdom, speech, poverty, wealth, religion, prayer, selfishness, patience and faith. There is no mention of the Gospel, the Messiah, the incarnation, cross, resurrection or ascension, repentance, the Holy Spirit, eternal life, salvation, blood, hope, redemption or sanctification. It includes fifty-four imperatives, showing that it is a letter from a recognised leader.

James' use of the OT

James only quotes directly from the OT five times: 1:11 from Is 40:6-8 (also Ps 102:4,11), 2:8 from Lev 19:8, 2:11 from Ex 20:13-14 or Dt 5:17-18, 2:23 from Gen 15:6, and 4:6 from Ps 138:6 or Prov 3:34. There are also many allusions to the OT, from all the Pentateuch, Joshua, 1 Kings, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and seven of the minor prophets. He mentions Abraham, Rahab, Job and Elijah.

There are also fifteen allusions to the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus, and twelve to The Wisdom of Solomon.

James and the Sermon on the Mount

The following allusions to the Sermon on the Mount have been noted: joy in midst of trials (1:2-4, Mt 5:10-12), exhortation to perfection (1:4, Mt 5:48), asking for good gifts (1:5, Mt 7:7), riches like grass fade away (1:11, Mt 6:30), good gifts from the Father (1:17, Mt 7:11), against anger (1:20, Mt 5:22), hearers and doers of the word (1:22, Mt 7:24), the whole law to be kept (2:10, Mt 5:19), blessings of mercifulness (2:13, Mt 5:7), faith and works (2:14ff, Mt 7:21-27), blessings of peacemakers (3:10, Mt 5:9), fig tree yielding olives and fruit questions (3:12, Mt 7:16), blessing of the peacemaker (3:18, Mt 5:9), friendship with world being enmity against God (4:4, Mt 6:24), blessing of the humble (4:10, Mt 5:5), against judging others (4:11-12, Mt 7:1-5), the moth and rust spoiling riches (5:2, Mt 6:19-21), prophets as examples (5:10, Mt 5:12), and against oaths (5:12, Mt 5:33-37).

It is important to note that these are not direct quotations of Matthew's gospel, but rather James remembering his brother's teaching.

James and Acts

People have also noted that there is a close parallel between this letter and James' speech and letter from the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-29), including: greeting (1:1, Acts 15:23), listen, my beloved brethren (2:7, Acts 15:13), to visit (1:27, Acts 15:14), and to keep himself (1:27, Acts 15:29).

Themes covered by James

James covers the following themes, giving an introduction in chapter one, then expanding on them later in the letter: trials and testing (1:2, 12, 5:7), wisdom and faith (1:5, 3:13, 5:13), rich and poor (1:9, 2:1, 5:1), the tongue and works (1:19, 26, 3:1, 4:11, 5:12), faith and works (2:14), worldliness (4:1) and church discipline of backslider (5:19)