[epistle of james] introduction

Written by Mark Lafler

B.A., Global University; M.C.S., Regent College I am currently serving as a youth minister at our church in Sarasota, FL. I am married to Tera (15 Years +) and we have 3 beautiful daughters.

April 25, 2011

james the less, brother of jesus

[serialposts]James is perhaps one of the most quoted texts in the New Testament.  It is well known for short-pointed phrases in the style of wise sayings.  For example: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (1:22) or “Submit yourselves therefore to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (4:7).

These phrases have led many scholars to suggest that the genre of the James is more like Jewish wisdom literature (i.e. Proverbs) than it is like a first century letter.  Although it comes to us a a letter (1:1) the usual markings of a Greco-Roman letter are missing (i.e. customary greetings, personal notes, future plans, etc.).  Therefore, it is hard to make a definitive determination whether the book is really an ancient epistle or a form of ancient wisdom literature.

Regardless, the book had an original audience with a particular occasion.  The more we can understand why it was written the better we will be able to understand the conent within its context.  There are a number of key areas that help us determine why it was written.

First, we must try to determine who wrote the book of James?  Tradition suggests the book was written by James the brother of Jesus (not to be confused with the disciple who was martyred in Acts 12:2).

Some modern scholarship has challenged the tradition suggesting that an unknown James wrote the book (or perhaps it is pseudepigraphical) because the book of James has an advanced Greek text.  James also fails to mention anything concerning the Apostolic Council (Acts 15).

However, there are also scholars who argue that these reasons are not enough to challenge the tradition.  Perhpas James was educated at an advanced level of Greek or he had a secretary write the text.  And it is certainly plausible that he wrote the book before the Apostolic Council (48-49 AD).  Therefore, it seems acceptable to trust the tradition that James, the brother of Jesus, wrote the book.

Second, we must try to determine when the book was written.  If James, the brother of Jesus and the leader of the church in Jerusalem was the author, then we know it was written before 62 AD.  The Jewish historian, Josephus, tells the story of James death, placing the event in 62 AD.

Also, it seems fair to suggest that because there is no mention of the Apostolic Council in the book the text must have been written before 48 AD, making it possibly the earliest book we have in the New Testament.  The text was most likely written from Jerusalem to the dispersed Jews (most likely Christian Jews) throughout the empire.

A third question we must ask is, “What does  the text itself suggest concerning why it was written?”  There are a number of theological motifs that are spread throughout the book that help us determine the motive for writing.  We will consider two here.

First, it seems clear when one compares the saying of Jesus next to James that the author relied heavily on Jesus teaching.  For example compare James 1:6 with Matthew 21:21, James 1:22 with Luke 6:49, and James 5:12 with Matthew 5:34-37.  James was clearly supporting his imperatives with sayings of Jesus.  This might suggest that his audience would be familiar with the teachings of Jesus.

A second theme throughout James concerns ethical living.  James instructs on both our actions (1:22) and our words (1:19).  James notes the power of the tongue, how works come from true faith, the importance of giving to the poor, and the need to be active in prayer.

Finally, as we assess the above analysis we are able to sketch an occasion for the book.  It seems reasonable that James wrote the book to encourage Jewish Christians in their faith toward spiritual wholeness.  That is not compromising with the world but going deeper in devotion to God through actions and words as Jesus own sayings require.   It also seems evident that the book is not at odds with Paul’s teaching on the law because the book was written before the Apostolic Council for reasons other than the content in Paul’s letters.

As we study this book we should consider this occasion by asking the following questions:

  • What does this passage say concerning a Christian’s spiritual wholeness?
  • What does the text suggest about my actions or words?
  • What does the passage suggest about ethics and decision making?
  • How does this chapter compliment the sayings of Jesus?
  • How does the chapter compliment Paul’s letters, which were written at least five to ten years after James?
  • Why did James, a leader in the Jerusalem church, write this chapter in this way?

20 Comments

  1. Victoria

    These are great questions to ponder as we study. I can’t wait to see what the Lord reveals!

    Reply
    • @bibledude

      i’m getting more everyday as i read through James… ponder these questions, and read it again (maybe in a different translation). it’s really a very powerful letter packed full of wisdom, and i think it can be really life-transforming if we really seek to apply what he teaches…

      Reply
      • Mark Lafler

        Read, Read, Read. Ponder, think, and pray. Listen and read and pray some more. I agree, this is the formula for hearing from God through His Word.

        This is good!

        Reply
    • Mark Lafler

      This will be a great study and God will guide us like he always does…

      Reply
  2. Katy

    awesome intro! love the history and scholarly way you tackled those questions and left us with questions to ponder as well. brings me back (in a good way!) to bible school =)

    Reply
    • Mark Lafler

      Thank you for the comments! Bible School – it is all good, right?

      Reply
      • Katy

        looked good to me! =)

        Reply
  3. nance|marie

    thanks for the intro., mark.

    Reply
    • Mark Lafler

      You are welcome.

      Reply
  4. Scott Rogers

    James is my favorite book in the Bible because of the “short-pointed phrases in the style of wise sayings”. It’s basically the Proverbs of the New Testament. Thanks Mark for the “who” and the “why” behind the book. For me knowing the timeline of the book and the “who” and “why” helps me to better understand the writings in the Bible.

    I have often imagined the little brother James looking up to big brother Jesus as he was growing up (like how my 2 year old son looks up to his 10 year old big brother). When James saw his resurrected brother Jesus, all those things he had seen and heard all of his life made sense (Jesus opened up their minds so they could understand the scriptures Luke 24:45) and were poured out into this book!

    Reply
    • @bibledude

      I love this perspective of ‘little bother James looking up to big brother Jesus,’ and when he saw Him resurrected how everything he heard Him say all those years suddenly made perfect sense… THAT’s a pretty powerful revelation, and certainly a great source of inspiration for his writings!

      Glad to see you here Scott! I look forward to tossing around more of James with you over the next two weeks!

      Reply
    • Mark Lafler

      It has interested me over the years to consider the brothers of Jesus. What was their relationship like? What did they think about him? How did people treat James when they found out that he was Jesus’ brother?

      Good thoughts! Thanks for the comments, Scott.

      Reply
  5. Keri

    I’m very excited for this series. I love digging deep into specific books of the Bible and taking them as a whole, rather just a passage or a specific verse. I also think the first 4 questions you suggested are useful for studying all of Scripture, not just James. Looking forward to tomorrow’s post. Thanks so much for doing this!

    Reply
    • @bibledude

      definitely agree that most of those questions are good for studying any portion of scripture. and i’m glad that you’re jumping into the conversation! i can’t wait to hear people’s thoughts on each of the chapters… what stands out the most… how do we apply it… how do we let that Word transform us…

      i love this stuff!

      Reply
    • @bibledude

      definitely agree that most of those questions are good for studying any portion of scripture. and i’m glad that you’re jumping into the conversation! i can’t wait to hear people’s thoughts on each of the chapters… what stands out the most… how do we apply it… how do we let that Word transform us…

      i love this stuff!

      Reply
    • Mark Lafler

      Thanks for the comments. You are so right to see that the first 4 questions may be useful for all the books of the Bible. Of course, their emphases are different. James, the author, might have wanted us to look at his text through these questions…

      Thanks for the thoughts!

      Reply
  6. Crystal

    I’m just now catching up on this project after a very busy Holy Week …

    I didn’t know that the book of James was possibly the earliest book in the New Testament! Thinking about it in that light already brings a clarity to this book that I never realized before … the focus on how to live would have been critical that soon after Jesus’ death.

    James often gets sideswiped as a book about “works” rather than grace … but it’s really about how faith changes us … how the grace of God changes us from the inside out.

    Thank you for this incredible introduction. God is going to change me through this project … I’m already sure of it.

    Reply
    • Mark Lafler

      Thank you Crystal. Look forward to seeing the discussion on the chapters…

      Reply
  7. Andy Carlson

    May I please have a short historical significance of the Apostolic Council? I have been searching for scriptural references and specific direction in how my conversations and interactions with others are to be…..there ought to be a pamphlet or other commentary which gather’s those scriptural passages together…with commentary…..James seems to be part of those considerations…Thank you Mark.

    Reply
    • Mark Lafler

      The Apostolic Council is what some folks call the meeting that took place in Acts 15. Paul, James and others met to discuss issues related to Jewish laws/rituals and Gentile believers. All we really know about this council is from Acts 15. The letter that is recorded in Acts 15 was the decision the group came up with. This set the tone and direction for the Gentile outreach and might have spurred on what we sometimes call the Judiazers.

      Reply

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[epistle of james] introduction

by Mark Lafler time to read: 4 min
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