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Epistle of James - Study Guide

Updated on January 13, 2015

Authorship and Historical Background

With some four or five early church figures named James, identifying the author of the epistle James initially proves a daunting task. Luckily, biblical scholars from a myriad of times and backgrounds have concluded that “James the Just” (named for his advocacy of piety and righteous living) is the mostly likely candidate for authorship. Students of the Gospels are apt to recognize this James as the earthly brother of Jesus Christ.

The consensus among the majority of biblical scholars regarding James’ authorship derives from several factors. Foremost, church traditions unilaterally point to Jesus’ sibling as the author of the epistle. Next, the letter “fits” what is known about the personality and pedigree of James. The text exhibits a refined Greek that would have been required of a Christian Jew who preached to Gentiles entering Jerusalem for sundry festivals and holy days.

Most importantly, the epistle’s traits match those of James as found in Luke’s records of the early church leader. According to the book of Acts, James showed particular concern for instructing young Christians, especially Gentile converts, in Godly practices. As the epistle concentrates on applying the principles of Christianity to everyday life, James proves an ideal contender for authoring the work. Finally, if the work had been scribed by a follower or other figure merely adopting James’ name, it is likely they would have given themselves more “pomp” or status than the epistle’s actual salutation (“servant”).

Discerning an exact audience for the work proves a thornier issue. As the style of the epistle is deliberately “encyclical” (intended for wide circulation to a number of diverse congregations), no precise locale or addressees can alone be divined from internal evidence. However, it is safe to assume the readers and listeners of the epistle were familiar enough with Jewish practices to recognize references to the “Diaspora” and other Semitic ideas.

One last historical note: the book of James long received a “second class citizenship” due to its facile contradiction with Pauline teachings concerning salvation by faith. Martin Luther explicitly rejected the epistle for its lack of cohesion with established Pauline doctrine. Recent studies in James have endeavored to reconcile the mistakes of such readings and have even begun to champion the epistle’s subtle but no less sophisticated literary style. Regardless, the book of James remains a vibrant work to both young and old believers.

TheEpistle of James

Form and Style

The tone of James betrays a singularly “oral” composition. This means that the letter has clearly been written to be read aloud for congregations of believers. Given the premise that “James the Just” authored the work, this technique should come as no surprise. James was known to have been a preacher of the Gospel and his prior understanding with Gentile Christians points to some experience as a fervent orator.

Those interested in the literary pedigree of the work should pay careful attention to the text’s rich exploitation of alliteration and word play. Where such devices become lost to translation, it is still possible to uncover the epistle’s use of “kinship” language in regards to Christian community. Terms like “Lord,” “servant” “brothers” and other phrases signify a clear tie to early Christian doctrines concerning community and faith.

Of course, most students of Old Testament or other Semitic works will recognize the tradition of Jewish Wisdom literature within the book of James. In particular, some have made comparisons between the epistle and the Old Testament Proverbs. This relationship primarily derives from the emergence of practical guidelines for holy living in both works. While many Jewish religious works concentrated on ritual observance and cultic practice, Proverbs and James describe ways that the faithful can exude their righteousness through everyday acts of prudence and mercy.

One thing the epistle does have in common with the Pauline epistles—diatribe. For first century readers, this was more than mere “rant” on a particular topic. Rather the primitive diatribe was an extended argument that evolved over several topics. The durability of the argument among several examples demonstrated its importance to the reader. After all, the monetary value of parchment often required authors to demonstrate concision; concentrating on a single argument for a protracted duration represented its value in more than one way. Examples of diatribe in James include Christian faith, trials and brotherhood.

An Understanding of "Desire" in The Epistle of James

Why would a gracious and loving God want to test his own children? Many seekers have trouble reconciling the temptations believers face with a benevolent creator even though James cautions against this very sentiment. To appreciate the emergence of temptations in our lives and God’s role in overcoming such “lusts” it may help to investigate James’ understanding of sinful desire.

One of the corner stones of progressive Jewish theology in the first century AD was the teaching of yeser or “inborn desire.” Yeser, according to rabbis and Jewish wisdom literature, represented the legion yearnings to be found in every person. These desires included simple and everyday needs in addition to complex aspirations. For Jews, a well observed, righteous life found ways to pursue these desires within the boundaries of the law.

Unchecked, such desires could lead individuals to pursue unhealthy “lusts” to gross proportions. Satisfying one’s desires apart from the will of God ran counter to the religious precept of Judaism. To do so proved that the individual was “unfit” for a sanctified life; the wayward believer had out their desires before those of God.

But without the capacity to choose between our own desires and righteous living, one could never achieve “perfection” (a word found more in James than any other epistle). Refinement required “testing.” Certainly the most well-known examples of faithful living—Abraham, Job, Jesus Christ—used personal trials to wait upon God for strength.

Readers of the epistle of James would also have been aware of those in Jewish tradition who failed to find their yeser in God’s plans. It is perhaps no accident that James refers to his listeners as the “Diaspora,” the rebellious Israelites who were handed into captivity for following their idolatrous and sinful desires.

Legacy of Wisdom

Which of the following scriptures offers the most durable teaching from the Epistle of James?

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Brother and Saint

Know any other online resources for studying the Epistle of James? I look forward to your comments and thank you in advance for any kind words. Check out my other Hub Pages for additional suggestions for navigating college assignments by working smart instead of merely working hard.


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