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Introduction to the Epistle of James

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General Info

The Epistle of James is likely one of the first (if not the first) books of the New Testament (NT) to be completed.  It certainly has an Old Testament “feel” to it, being one of the most Jewish letters in the NT, in part because it was addressed to Jewish believers that had been dispersed throughout the Mediterranean world due to persecution.  It has been called the “Proverbs of the NT”, and is considered wisdom literature characteristic of the OT Wisdom Books of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes.  Yet, it would also feel at home with the Pastoral Epistles such as Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus since it is written from a pastor’s perspective.  In our English NT Canon, it is found among the section known as the General Epistles, along with the letters of John, Peter and Jude.

The letter from James, like some of the other less circulated “general letters” such as 2 Peter, 2-3 John, and Jude, was not widely accepted as Scripture until late in the fourth century.  This was primarily due to the early church focusing primarily on the Gospels and the widely circulated letters of Paul.  In addition, because the author was not initially seen as having apostolic authorship, it remained less widely received at first (see “Author and Date” below for additional info).  By the Fourth Century AD, church councils meeting at Rome in 382AD and at Carthage in 397AD accepted the Epistle of James as inspired Scripture, leading to acceptance throughout the Christian lands.

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Brief Survey

James begins his epistle with greeting to his original recipients, the members of the twelve Jewish tribes who have been dispersed throughout the regions (Ac 8:1-3).  He then encourages them to seek God’s help when encountering testing and trials of their faith, including asking for His divine wisdom as required.  He also reminds them that all evil came as a result of the Fall (Gen 3), but all good comes from God.  He then instructs them to be doers rather than merely hearers of the Word.  In chapter 2, James cautions against being partial toward the well-to-do as opposed to the poor.   He then speaks of the relationship between faith and works, emphasizing that faith unaccompanied by works is not a saving faith.

In chapter 3, the author warns against a loose or uncontrolled tongue (speech), comparing it with a small spark that can set an entire forest ablaze.  Here we see many parallels to the OT Book of Proverbs, which contains many similar warnings.  He then draws a contrast between heavenly and worldly wisdom.  In chapter 4, he warns against infighting between believers, and making plans for the future that are outside of the will of God.  In the final chapter, James offers warnings to rich unbelievers who use their positions to defrauded their workers of their wages while wallowing in self-indulgence.  He also encourages believers to be patient while suffering, and to keep praying in faith.

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Key Verses

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.  Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.  If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.  But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.  That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. (1:1-7)

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.”  For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.  Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.  Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters.  Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says.  Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. (1:22-24)

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. (2:10)

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?  What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.  But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”  Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.  You believe that there is one God.  Good!  Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.  Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.  It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. (3:5-6)

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God?  Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.  Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us?  But he gives us more grace.  That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” (4:4-6)

Submit yourselves, then, to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Come near to God and he will come near to you...  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (4:7-8,10)

Is anyone among you in trouble?  Let them pray.  Is anyone happy?  Let them sing songs of praise.  Is anyone among you sick?  Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.  And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.  If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.  Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.  The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. (5:13-16)

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (5:19-20)

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Author and Date

The author identifies himself merely as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1).  The question then becomes, “Which James”.  James has been a very common and popular name throughout the centuries, and the First Century was no exception.   James is the English translation of the Hebrew name “Jacob”, or Iakōbos or Ya'aqov when it appears in the Greek New Testament.  There were at least four persons identified as James in the New Testament, including two of Jesus’ apostles (Mt 10:2–3).  We can eliminate the two apostles, James the son of Zebedee (also the brother of John, the author of the gospel, three epistles that bear his name, and the Book of Revelation).  The son of Zebedee could have claimed authority to write the book, however he was martyred under Herod Agrippa I in 44 AD, before the letter was likely written.  The other apostle named James (son of Alphaeus) was one of the most little-known apostles.  The only info given is that he was present with the other disciple in the upper room in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit descended (Ac 1:12-14).  Likewise, the third James, Father of the the apostle Judas (not Judas Iscariot the betrayer) is only mentioned in Luke 6:16, so the latter two had insufficient prominence to have commanded the authority necessary for writing the epistle.

That leaves only James, the half-brother of the Lord Jesus (Mt 13:55, who the Apostle Paul recognized as being a pillar and leader of the Jerusalem church (Gal 1:18-20; 2:9).  There is also wide support amongst early church leaders, such as Eusebius, Origen and others, for this James as the author of the letter.  Even though James initially didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah (Jn 7:5), he came to faith when Jesus made a post-resurrection appearance to him (1Cor 15:3-8) as He also did to Paul.  Of course, the appearance to James was likely less dramatic, but no less emotional than His appearance to Paul (Ac 9:1-19).  A few years later, James became a very competent first leader of the Jerusalem church and presided over the oldest known church council in Jerusalem ~49 AD  (Ac 15:1-35).

The author James was also known as James the Just because he was said to be greatly devoted to righteousness, as reflected in his writings and decisions related to his church leadership role.  Christian historians also say that his nickname was “camel-knees” because, due to spending so much time on his knees in prayer, his knees became hardened and calloused.  Ancient historians, such as the Jewish historian Josephus, record that James was martyred ~ 62 AD by being thrown from the pinnacle of the temple.  Some say he actually survived the fall and had to be stoned-to-death.

We can place the most likely date of writing the Epistle of James in the mid 40s AD.  The opening verse tells us that it is written “to the twelve tribes in the Dispersion”.  This dispersion likely happened under the reign of the aforementioned Herod Agrippa I (37 - 44 AD).  He died later the same year (44 AD) that he had Apostle James (the brother of John) executed.  Thus, the book would have to be written after the dispersion (likely early-to-mid 40s AD).  In addition, there is no mention of the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 (49 AD), so the letter almost certainly was written before the Council.  Thus, we can estimate the most likely writing date of the Epistle of James in the mid 40s AD.

The epistle of James was likely written to predominantly Jewish Christian house churches outside of Palestine, based on its mention of the “twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (1:1), its distinctly Jewish content, and its focus on persecution and poverty. This would mean it was sent throughout most of the ancient Mediterranean world.  Thus, the letter would have been widely circulated.  Perhaps some various scribes may have even copied a few notations from it before passing it to the next destination.

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Historical Background

The writing of the Epistle of James occurred approximately fifteen years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The church was thus experiencing some birth pangs.  Some Jewish believers were actually able to worship in a Jewish synagogue, but many were relegated to “house churches” meeting in individual homes.  Israel was under Roman jurisdiction, but the Jewish people had a certain amount of freedom.  The Jewish Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great, was in power and had great latitude.  Roman authorities typically would only step in if the peace was threatened.

Shortly after the birth of the Church at Pentecost, the Jewish leaders who still held to Judaism, began persecuting the Jewish Christians.  As the persecution became more intense, culminating with the stoning of Stephen (Ac 6-7), Herod undoubtedly became alarmed.  Although he was was sympathetic to his fellow Jews on both sides of the issue, he caused the aforementioned deportations in order to prevent the Romans from stepping in.  Yet, even when scattered, most Jewish Christians likely still considered themselves to be members of the Jerusalem Christian church with James as their pastor.  Thus, we could consider the Epistle to be a pastoral letter from James to his flock.

Moving forward to contemporary times, the Biblical Archaeology Society announced the uncovering of a limestone ossuary (a box with bones of the dead) dating back to the first century.  There is an inscription carved into one side that reads in Aramaic “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”.  The date of the box is not disputed, however the usual critics claim that it is a forgery.

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The Epistle of James was likely written in the mid forties AD.

30 or 33 (1) Last Supper (Passover), Passion Week, Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection
30 or 33 (1) Pentecost (birth of the Church in Jerusalem)
~ 44 - 48 Epistle of James written, probably in Jerusalem
~ 48 -49  (2) Paul writes his first epistle (Galatians) to the southern Galatia churches
~ 49 - 50 The Council at Jerusalem (presided over by James)
~ 62 James martyred in Jerusalem
70 Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem

(1)  These dates are either one or the other (Nisan 14 Passover falling between Thursday sundown to Friday sundown on the Jewish calendar).  The earlier date is the most popular, but there are good evidences and arguments to support either date.

(2)  A few scholars have suggested that Galatians was written in ~53-55 during the first half of Paul’s third missionary journey, but the earlier date remains the most popular.

~ Dates are approximated.

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

The main theme of James’s letter is that one should not just study the Faith, but also apply it to our daily lives, that is to be a doer and not just a hearer of the word.  Thus, there is a very strong emphasis on ethics that related to both personal morality and to social justice.  He appears to draw heavily from Jesus’s teachings at the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7), including over a dozen illusions to it.  James also taught that a faith without works was basically useless.  Another theme is that of wisdom, with an emphasis that true wisdom comes from God.

The primary purpose of the letter was to encourage and instruct the early Christians who were struggling with persecution from the outside and disagreements from within.  At this time, the Christian Church was still in its infancy.  Apart from the OT, very little written instruction was available.  As noted in the timeline above, Paul had not yet begun to write and circulate his epistles.

The primary purpose of the letter James was to give practical instructions to the new Christian exiles.  Evidently, some conflicts had arisen that was causing conflict among the various members.  Although there are some theological and doctrinal sections in the book, the emphasis is  on a encouraging, guiding and admonishing the members on how to lead Godly lives.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

The overriding challenge in the Book of James is his section on the relationship between faith and works or deeds (Ja 2:14-25).  Some have erroneously interpreted this section to mean that James was teaching that good works are required, or are the basis for salvation.  When compared to the writing of the Apostle Paul, particularly in Ephesians 2:8-9, some may claim to have discovered a conflict between the two divinely inspired writers of Scripture.  There has been much literature written on this subject over the centuries.  The sixteenth century Reformer Martin Luther did not reject the biblical authority of James, but he did believe the book carried less authority than that of the Epistles of Paul.  There’s not enough space here for a proper treatment of the subject, so we've written the separate article James and Paul on Faith, Grace and Works.

A second point of contention involves James 5:13-20 and the subject of healing.  Some understand this as an absolute promise of physical healing.  The Scripture reads, Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.  Upon examining the context, we find that the subject of healing is actually a secondary theme.  The overriding point that James is stressing is the power and efficacy of prayers by righteous men.

The anointing oil could be somewhat medicinal, but is very likely only symbolic.  It is God Himself who chooses to heal.    In addition, God may not answer our prayers in our preferred manner, particullarly if He has something better in mind.  For example, while the spiritual healing comes in this temporary earthy lifetime, the ultimate healing may be in our eternal lifetime.  About twenty-five years ago, the men of a church in central Texas (including myself) anointed and prayed over a young woman in her mid twenties that had been experiencing many health conditions, including suffering from intense physical pains for several years.  Two hours later, she was involved in a horrific vehicular crash and was killed instantly.  This obviously shook the entire church and many initially questioned how God could allow this to happen.  Yet, on reflection, we realized that God had totally healed her and she was completely pain-free with no more tears in heaven.  Even though we can’t understand why God responds a certain way, we can take comfort that He is working all things for good (Rom 8:28).

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1:1 - 2:26 True Faith in the Face of Trials; Works as a Demonstration of Faith
3:1 - 3:18 Personal Discipline - Taming the Tongue; Spiritual and Earthly Wisdom
5:1 - 5:20 Warnings against Worldliness; Submitting to God; the Power of Prayer

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