The Book of James
The book of James was probably written by the brother of Jesus (cf. Matthew 13:55) who became a believer in Christ only after Jesus’ resurrection (cf. John 7:2-5). James waited for Pentecost (Acts 1:14), saw the resurrected Christ (1 Corinthians 15:7), became an apostle (Galatians 1:19; cf. 2:9-12), leader in the Jerusalem church (Acts 12:7) and chaired the Jerusalem council (Acts 15). James was a popular and respected person in the early Church (cf. Acts 21:17-26; Galatians 2:12), given the title of “James the just” or “James the righteous”, a pious, devoted Jewish Christian who was anxious to maintain good relationships with all Jews (Moo cited in Fruchtenbaum 2005:210-211). Although he was the half-brother of Jesus, as a sign of humility James chose to emphasize his spiritual and servant relationship to Christ (1:1), rather than his physical relationship (Fruchtenbaum 2005:211).
According to a second century report by Hegesippus, James was asked by the Jews, scribes and Pharisees to restrain the people who have “gone astray by belief in Jesus as the Messiah” (Allison 2015:8). However, James refused to renounce his faith in Jesus and instead preached the gospel before then being martyred (Fruchtenbaum 2005:209). According to Josephus, this happened in AD 62.
It is often thought that — like Galatians — James was written early, in AD 45-48. Hodges (2015:12) suggests an even earlier date, AD 34-35, shortly after the scattering of Jewish Christians mentioned in Acts 8:1, so that the “Epistle of James was a pastoral letter written to the dispersed Jewish believers of Palestine, probably at a time before Paul’s initial mission to the Gentile world”. James is often thought to be the first New Testament book to have been written (Bailey & Constable 1999:537).
The book is clearly directed to Jews: “To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion. Greetings” (1:1). Its first readers were meeting in synagogues (2:2). It uses an Old Testament title for God, namely the “Lord of Sabaoth [Host]” (5:4). The readers identify with the Jewish patriarch Abraham as “our father” (2:21). A minority view says James was written to all Jews, not just Jewish believers in Jesus (Allison 2015:8).
Content and Themes
Key words in James are “my brethren” (1:2; 2:1, 14; 3:1, 10, 12; 4:11; 5:7, 9, 10, 12, 19) or “my beloved brethren” (1:16, 19; 2:5). These may partially assist as structural markers to outline the book. Another feature of James is that its five chapters contain about 30 references to nature. For example, “wave of the sea” and “tossed by the wind” (1:6), “heavenly lights” and “shifting shadows” (1:17), the “crop” as well as the “fall and spring rains” (5:7), to name but a few examples. James also has 14 correspondences with the Sermon of the Mount (Matthew 5-7). For example, compare James 1:2 with Matthew 5:10-12, or compare James 1:4 with Matthew 5:48, or James 1:9 with Matthew 5:3. This helps to show that James is concerned with practical, every day Christian living. The book of James may be as much a lecture to “my brethren” — with 54 imperatives in 108 verses — as it is a letter (Blue 1983:816).
Blue (1983:818) also provides a compelling outline of the book: “James told his readers how to achieve spiritual maturity through a confident stand [Ch. 1: what a Christian is], compassionate service [Ch. 2: what a Christian does], careful speech [Ch. 3: what a Christian says], contrite submission [Ch. 4; what a Christian feels], and concerned sharing [Ch. 5: what a Christian has]. There is unity and purpose in James.
Purpose of the Letter
Many complain that James lacks unity or a clear goal, but this is not so. The purpose of James is to “exhort the early believers to Christian maturity and holiness of life” (Blue 1983:818) and to “live out Jesus’ ethical teachings” (Bailey and Constable 1999:538). Fruchtenbaum (2005:214) says the book was written to “strengthen the faith of Jewish believers in the face of persecution”. James is a lecture-epistle that exhorts faith to be at work.
After noting the introduction (1:1) and the endurance of faith (1:2-18), Fruchtenbaum (2005:x, 216) highlights six ways in which James says our faith will be tested, namely in how it responds to: the Word (1:19-27); social distinctions (2:1-13); works (2:14-26); the tongue (3:1-18); the world and worldliness (4:1-5:6); endurance and prayer in all circumstances until the Lord returns (5:7-18) before exhorting to help those who may have backslidden (5:19-20).
While our faith is being tested, James gives us 54 imperatives in 108 verses about active Christian living. But three times a blessing is pronounced on those who remain steadfast under trial (1:12, 25; 5:11). Doers of the Word are and will be blessed by the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory (cf. 1:1; 2:1; 5:11).
Allison, D.C., 2015, ‘The Jewish setting of the Epistle to James’, In die Skriflig 49(1), Art. #1897, 9 pages.
Bailey, M.L. & Constable, T.L., 1999, Nelson’s New Testament Survey, Thomas Nelson, Nashville.
Blue, R.B., 1983, ‘James’, in J.F. Walvoord & R.B. Zuck (eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament, pp 815-836, David C Cook, Colorado Springs.
Fruchtenbaum, A.G., 2005, The Messianic Jewish Epistles, Ariel Ministries, Tustin.
Hodges, Z.C., 2015, The Epistle of James: Proven Character Through Testing, 3rd printing, Grace Evangelical Society, Irving. (The Grace New Testament Commentary.)
Tenney, M.C., 1985, New Testament Survey, revised edition, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids.
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