Book of James


Authorship, date, and background

The letter of James opens with the statement "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ" (1:1). This immediately establisher the author as James, unless the letter is pseudepigraphic (a spurious working purposrting to come from James), which it cannot be if the Bible is to be trusted. The James spoken of in the opening salutation is none other than the brother of the Lord Jesus. Some have asserted that James was really a cousin and that the word brother can be so understood. This is highly unlikely. Others think he was the son of Joseph by a former marriage, in which event he would have been Jesus' stepbrother. Most conservative protestants accept him as the son of Joseph and Mary and thus the half-brother of Jesus. He was converted after the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. He was among those who waited for the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of the Pentecost (Acts 1:14).

The letter best fits the period between A.D. 45 and 50. The city of Jerusalem had not been seized and destroyed. Jews from around the Roman empire returned to Jerusalem for feast occasions so that addressing the letter to "the twelve tribes which were scattered abroad" indicates that they had been dispersed before the fall of Jerusalem so that the letter need not be dated after the fall. The letter was not intended for Gentile Christians per se. It was written to Jews who had become Christians and who knew the Old Testament and were keepers of the law. James himself, according to Galatians 2:12, was well known for his strict adherence to the law. At this time in the history of the church, Jewish Christians had not fully understood their freedom in Christ. Indeed at the Council at Jerusalem, the question of circumcision as part of the salvatory process for Gentile converts and the requirement to follow all the Jewish customs and ceremonies was considered (Acts 15:5). The result was to break the yoke legalism and to set free both Gentiles and Jews.

James' letter was directed to Jews and had for its basic purpose setting forth the ethical standards of the Christian life. It was, therefore, an intensely practical letter and did not delve too deeply into other aspects of theology.

Characteristics and content

Many bible students have supposed that what James said about faith and works differs substantively from what Paul said. It was because of this notion that Martin Luther, who so strongly taught salvation by faith alone without works, could call the letter of James "a strawy epistle." He missed the point that James' letter makes. Basically there is no difference between the teaching of Paul and James. Paul taught that we are saved by faith alone, but saving faith is never alone; it is always accompanied by good works. In other words, the product of saving faith is a life that shows forth the fruit of the new birth. James 2:24 says, "Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only." But when this statement is seen in the light of its context, James is only saying that the proof of real salvation is to be seen in the life obedience, that is, of works commanded and ordained of God. James said, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?" (3:21). But Abraham had been saved long before he offered Isaac. Thus James can say, "Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect" (2:22). Thus it can be said, that faith without works is dead, but it cannot be said that works of any kind are necessary to salvation or that works can save anyone.

The letter of James should be understood within its larger context because he lays down ethical precepts about other matters like lawsuits, relations between employers and employees, giving rich men special places in houses of worship, the use of the tongue, peacemaking, slander, and evil desires. The concluding chapter is rich in its promises about divine help for the stick when they are anointed with oil and prayed over. And the illustration of the prayer prowess of Elijah stands as a monumental challenge to Christians of all ages.