Letter of James

JAMES, LETTER OF. This letter is among the last to become firmly established in the NT canon. While traces of it seem to be found in the writings of the apostolic fathers (a.d. 90-155), the oldest author to mention it by name is Origen (250), who considers it canonical, although he is aware that its canonicity is not universally acknowledged. Eusebius (323) lists it among the disputed books but says it is read in most churches. In the East the church accepted it from a very early period, but in the West it was not received into the canon until the end of the fourth century.

The author of the letter refers to himself as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Jas.1.1). The NT mentions five who bore the name of James. See James. Tradition attributes the authorship of the letter to James the brother of the Lord, who was probably favored with a special appearance of the risen Christ (1Cor.15.7) and who from a very early date occupied a leading position in the church at Jerusalem (Acts.12.17; Gal.1.19). Paul names him first among the three pillars of the church in Jerusalem whom he saw on his second visit there after his conversion (Gal.2.9). In Acts.15.1-Acts.15.41 he is described as the leader and chief spokesman of the Apostolic Council. All that is known of him shows that he was highly esteemed not only by Christians but by unbelieving Jews. According to Josephus, he was put to death by the high priest in the interregnum between the death of Festus and the arrival of his successor Albinus in a.d. 62.

All the characteristics of the letter support the traditional attribution of it to James the brother of the Lord. The author speaks with the authority of one who knew he did not need to justify or defend his position. There is no more Jewish book in the NT than this letter; and this is to be expected from a man whom both tradition and the rest of the NT show was distinguished by a greater attachment to the law of Moses than Paul had. The whole of the letter, moreover, bears a striking resemblance to the Sermon on the Mount, both in the loftiness of its morality and in the simple grandeur of its expression.

The scholars who consider this letter the work of James the brother of the Lord do not agree on the date when it was written. Two views are held, one that it was composed shortly before the death of James, in the early sixties; the other, that it appeared in the middle forties, before the Apostolic Council. In favor of the early date are the striking simplicity of church organization and discipline, the fact that Christians still met in the synagogue (Jas.2.2), and the general Judaic tone. All this is thought to suggest a time before Gentiles were admitted into the church in any large numbers. Scholars who prefer the later date say that the letter gives evidence of a considerable lapse of time in the history of the church, at least enough to allow for a decline in the spiritual fervor that characterized the church in early apostolic times. The readers are obviously not recent converts. The author has a position of long-established authority. The references to persecutions, moreover, fit a later date better than an early one.

The informal character of the letter makes a logical analysis difficult. It is not a formal treatise, but a loosely related series of exhortations, warnings, and instructions, all dealing with the moral and religious life. The author rules authoritatively on questions of church life and discipline that have been brought to his attention.

The section on faith and works (Jas.2.14-Jas.2.26) is not a polemic against Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith, but a rebuke of the prevalent Jewish notion that saving faith is mere intellectual assent to a set of doctrinal propositions. James points out that saving faith manifests itself in works, and that if the works are not there, the genuineness of the faith may be questioned. Paul and James are in perfect harmony in their views of the relationship of faith and works to salvation.

Bibliography: J. B. Mayor, The Epistle of St. James, 1897 (on the Greek text); B. Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter and Jude (AB), 1964; C. L. Mitton, The Epistle of James, 1966; J. B. Adamson, The Epistle of James (NIC), 1976; S. S. Laws, The Epistle of James (HNTC), 1980; P. H. Davids, The Epistle of James (NIGTC), 1982 (on the Greek text).——SB