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?

[epistle of james] introduction

by Mark Lafler time to read: 4 min