the Fourth Week of Lent
Benson's Commentary of the Old and New Testaments Benson's Commentary
by Joseph Benson
GENERAL EPISTLE OF JAMES.
This the two epistles of Peter, the first epistle of John, and that of Jude, have been called catholic or general epistles, because, according to Œcumenius and others, they were all written, not to any particular church or churches, or to people dwelling in one place, as all St. Paul’s epistles were, but to the Jewish converts, dispersed through all the countries within the Roman empire.
That the author of this epistle was an apostle appears from the testimony of Eusebius, ( Eccl. Hist., lib. 2. cap. 23,) who declares concerning that James to whom the ancients ascribed this epistle, that he was the brother, or kinsman, of the Lord; and by the Syriac, Arabic, Vulgate, and Ethiopic versions, by all which he is styled, “James the apostle.” It is true, some have imagined that James the elder, the son of Zebedee, and brother of John, was the author of this epistle; “but in this they are evidently mistaken; for James the elder was beheaded by Herod, A.D. 44, whereas this epistle was not written till a very considerable time afterward. So early as A.D. 44 the gospel does not seem to have been propagated far beyond the bounds of Palestine, and it cannot be supposed there was any very large number of the Jews of the dispersion who were then converted to the Christian faith; and, though the epistle seems to have been intended, in some measure, for the general benefit of the twelve tribes, yet more especially for those among them who were converts to the Christian religion. Besides, it is intimated, in the epistle itself, that the Jewish Christians were at this time sunk into very remarkable degeneracy, both in doctrine and practice, which is not likely to have been the case while they were under the first impressions of their conversion. And, indeed, in this epistle there are some plain intimations that the destruction of Jerusalem was near at hand, (chap. James 5:1-8,) which event was accomplished about the year 70; and from this circumstance we may reasonably conclude the date of it to be about A.D. 60 or 61.” Doddridge. This epistle, therefore, could not have been written by James the elder, but must have been the composition of James the son of Alpheus or Cleophas, by Mary, the sister of the blessed Virgin. Now, it being thus shown that James the apostle was the author of this epistle, we cannot reasonably doubt the authenticity of it, especially if we consider that “it is cited by Clemens Romanus four several times, by Ignatius in his genuine epistle to the Ephesians, and by Origen in his thirteenth homily upon Genesis. Eusebius says it was known to most, and publicly read in most Christian churches; St. Jerome, that in process of time it obtained authority. Estius observes, that ‘they who before doubted of it, in the fourth century embraced the opinion of them who received it, and that from thence no church or ecclesiastical writer ever doubted of it; but, on the contrary, all the catalogues of the books of the holy Scriptures, published by general or provincial councils, Roman bishops, or other well- informed writers, number it among the canonical Scriptures;’ which proof must give sufficient certainty of it to any Christian.” Whitby. If any further argument were necessary to be advanced in proof of the divine authority of this epistle, it may be observed that while the second epistle of Peter, the second and third of John, the epistle of Jude, and the Revelation, are omitted in the first Syriac translation of the New Testament, which was made in the beginning of the second century for the use of the converted Jews, this epistle of James hath found a place therein; an argument this of great weight. For certainly the Jewish believers, to whom that epistle was addressed and delivered, were much better judges of its authenticity than the converted Gentiles, to whom it was not sent, and who, perhaps, had no opportunity of being acquainted with it till long after it was written.
In addition to the support which its antiquity gives to the authenticity of this epistle, may be mentioned the correspondence of the sentiments it contains with the tenor of the Christian doctrine. It is true, this was called in question by Luther, at the beginning of the Reformation; but deeper experience, a more perfect investigation, more extensive observation, and a maturer judgment, afterward induced him to change his opinion. As to the subjects treated on in this epistle, it must be observed that, as the author of it statedly resided at Jerusalem, (whence he hath been styled, by some of the ancient fathers, the bishop of that city,) it was very natural for him, while he confined his personal labours, to the inhabitants of Judea, to endeavour, by his writings, to extend his services to the Jewish Christians who were dispersed abroad in more distant regions. “For this purpose,” says Dr. Doddridge, “there are two points which the apostle seems to have principally aimed at, though he has not pursued them in an orderly and logical method, but in the free epistolary manner, handling them jointly or distinctly, as occasion naturally offered. And these were, to correct those errors, both in doctrine and practice, into which the Jewish Christians had fallen, which might otherwise have produced fatal consequences; and then to establish the faith, and animate the hope, of sincere believers, both under their present and their future sufferings.”
It may add some weight to the important advices, cautions, and exhortations, contained in this epistle, to observe that the author of it, for the remarkable holiness of his life, was surnamed “the Just;” and that our Lord so regarded him as to appear to him when alone, after his resurrection; (1 Corinthians 15:7;) and that about three years after Paul’s conversion, being resident at Jerusalem, he was considered as a pillar, or noted supporter, of the church there, Galatians 2:9. Hence the deference paid to his advice at the apostolic council, spoken of Acts 15:0. About A.D. 63, when Festus was dead, and Albinus his successor had not arrived at Jerusalem, the Jews being exceedingly enraged at the success of the gospel, Ananias II., high-priest of the Jews, caused him to be condemned, and delivered him into the hands of the people and the Pharisees, who threw him down from the stairs of the temple, when a fuller dashed out his brains with a club. His life was so holy, that Josephus considers the destruction of Jerusalem as a punishment inflicted on that city for his death.