Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

- James

by Various Authors



Historical and Literary Problems


Since early in the third century the Church has traditionally held that the "James" (Hebrew and Greek "Jacob") named here was the brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3). He was for many years the head of the church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21), and should not be confused with the son of Zebedee who was put to death under Herod Agrippa I, about a.d. 46 (Acts 12:1-2). The name, however, was a common one and it is notable that the author merely describes himself as "a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ" (James 1:1). This has led to speculation that the work is either pseudonymous (that is, written in the name of the Lord’s brother by someone wishing to issue the letter under the cloak of his authority — an unlikely theory, since in such case the real author would certainly have been at pains to indicate more specifically who the James intended was!) or else is by an unknown James who was no more than he claims to be.

When certain characteristics of the book itself are examined, these appear to many to be damaging to the traditional theory of its authorship. For example, the author never quotes from the Old Testament save in the form it assumes in the Greek translation (Septuagint) — a fact not too damaging in itself, since he was writing for Greek-speaking readers. But when to this fact is added another — namely, that the Greek of this letter is some of the best vernacular Greek to be found in the New Testament — it would seem either that the author was quite familiar with Greek, or else that he employed an amanuensis, and of this latter there is no evidence. It is even thought that 1:17a is a hexameter line quoted from a Greek author. It scarcely needs saying that James the brother of Jesus, a Galilean by birth, would have spoken Aramaic as did all Palestinian Jews in his day and would not likely have been bilingual to the extent required by such evidence as this.

There are, however, certain facts to be placed on the other side of the ledger: (1) the very lack of any attempt to designate his status in his salutation (James 1:1) argues for the author’s being someone well known for his prestige and authority; (2) the only "James" so qualifying was the Lord’s brother, head of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15) and a man no doubt of real ability, as his high station would suggest; (3) numerous passages (James 1:2-11; James 2:5; James 2:9-13; James 3:5-10; James 3:18; James 4:7-12; James 4:17; James 5:1-6; James 5:12) suggest that the author was well acquainted with Jesus’ teaching in the form it early assumed, before the Gospels were written; indeed, 5:12 probably represents an accurate knowledge of the Aramaic idiom used by Jesus, as Matthew 5:37 does not; (4) the stress on the ethical implications of the gospel and the fact that it is termed "the perfect law ... of liberty" (James 1:25) are in accord with what we should expect from a Hebraic-Jewish Christian like the head of the Jerusalem church, as is the combination of prayer and forgiveness of sins with anointing and healing (James 5:13-15; see Mark 2:5); (5) numerous parallels have been pointed out between the contents of the letter and the texts of the Qumran community (James 1:2-8; James 1:17; and others), a fact which would accord with the writing of the letter in the context of the influence of and interest aroused by the Qumran community settled so near to Jerusalem.

In the light of these considerations we may well assume that the traditional authorship remains the best hypothesis proposed to date. Exact knowledge is thus far unobtainable as to how far a native of "Galilee of the Gentiles" like James may have been acquainted with the Greek language. If he wrote it even passably, assistance from another who knew it as his native tongue would have made it possible for him to eliminate Semitisms from his manuscript, as the like authorship on a joint basis by "native" and "foreigner" in modem languages serves to demonstrate.


If, as is suggested in the comment on 1:2-8, this piece of literature was first delivered as a sermon and afterward sent out to a wider audience as a letter, it may well be that James’ hearers were Christians in Jerusalem. It is likely, however, that "the twelve tribes in the dispersion" to whom it was sent out later included all in the "new Israel of God," whether Jews or Gentiles.

This double reference of the letter in its final form, together with the character of the hearers whom James at first had in mind, would account for certain features that otherwise appear puzzling. Thus, while the letter is written in excellent vernacular Greek which at times approaches the literary style of the day and betrays little if any evidence of being "translation Greek," the condition of the church(es) addressed seems more applicable to those established among Jews in Jerusalem than among Gentiles. For their "assembly" the Greek word "synagogue" is employed (2:2), a term used of Christians nowhere else in the New Testament; and the presence of a rich man at the worship service is sufficiently rare to occasion considerable flurry — a phenomenon likely in Jerusalem where the early Jewish Christians were notably poor (Acts 24:17; Romans 15:25-27; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; see the comment on James 2:6-7). Certain cultural features, too, suggest that a Jewish group was addressed, especially the injunctions relative to the treatment of the sick (5:13-15). As already mentioned, certain features of the teaching also suggest contact with the Qumran community. This would, of course, be the natural lot of the Jewish church in Jerusalem.

On the other hand, the statement that it is the rich "who blaspheme that honorable name" by which the readers are called (2:7) is reminiscent of the fact that "the disciples were for the first time called Christians" at Syrian Antioch (Acts 11:26; see 1 Peter 4:16). This verse might, therefore, represent a touch added for the wider circle of James’ readers. These and like features of this little sermon-letter suggest a dual character of Jewish and Gentile hearers and readers such as might have been addressed by a Christian writer at any time after the inception of the Gentile mission of Paul.


The letter has been assigned a very late date by interpreters who do not believe it to be the work of James the Lord’s brother. By others it has been thought perhaps the earliest New Testament book, written even as early as a.d. 49. The late date is suggested largely by reason of the scarcity of evidence for its use. It is possible, however, that 1 Peter 1:1-2 contains the first turn of a phrase to show any leaning on James (1:1), in which case the letter might have been written shortly before a.d. 67 or even during that year. It could, however, be cogently argued that both letters draw upon the common stock of Christian phraseology employed by the Early Church in Jerusalem and might, accordingly, be given an identical date.

Accepting the authorship by James, we would place the composition of the letter in Jerusalem sometime before the opening of the First Jewish War (a.d. 66-70), possibly about a.d. 65. This would allow for James to have heard of the Judaizing objections to Paul’s doctrine of justification by grace through faith (Romans 3, 4; Galatians 3) and for a desire on his part to correct the misinterpretation of Paul’s writings (particularly Romans) thus involved (see 2:14-26).

The early center of the Christian faith had been Jerusalem (Acts 1-12), and the head of the church there would continue to think of it as the hub of all things Christian, with every other part of Christendom resulting from the Gentile mission qualifying as "dispersion" to his mind! Peter, following in Paul’s steps to Rome, would have learned to see matters rather differently (1 Peter 1:1-2). Perhaps we should see a hint of this attitude in the lack of any address in the letter attributed to James in Acts 15:23-29 (see also 15:13, 19-21).


The theme of the letter, despite much writing to the contrary, appears to be salvation in several of its aspects. These include: salvation from the trials and temptations presented by life to the believer in Jesus Christ, the ethical implications for Christian living which such salvation entails, and the eternal aspects of salvation which one can either see or foresee on the historical plane.


Salutation. James (James 1:1)

Salvation from Life’s Trials and Temptations. (James 1:2-27)

Faith — the Means or Way (James 1:2-8)

Salvation (the Crown of Life)— God’s Gift (James 1:9-18)

God’s Word— the Power (James 1:19-27)

Salvation’s Implications for Social and Personal Living. (James 2:1 to James 5:6)

Inconsistency of Faith with Partiality (James 2:1-13)

Relation of Faith to Works (James 2:14-26)

Opposition Between God’s Word and Man’s Word (James 3:1-18)

Opposition Between Passion and Humility (James 4:1 to James 5:6)

Salvation in the Light of Eternity. (James 5:7-20)

Endurance Until the Lord’s Coming (James 5:7-11)

Oaths and the Judgment (James 5:12)

Prayer and Healing (James 5:13-18)

Conversion of the Sinner (James 5:19-20)