The General Epistle of James, An Introduction
Understand the Book of James
The Epistle of James is called “The General Epistle of James” because it is written to all Christians in general. Unlike other New Testament epistles which are addressed to individuals (such as the pastoral epistles of Timothy and Titus or Paul’s personal letter to Philemon) or particular churches (such as Romans, Corinthians, etc.).
Listed in order of their appearance in the New Testament, the General Epistles are:
- Letter of James
- First Epistle of Peter
- Second Epistle of Peter
- First Epistle of John
- Second Epistle of John
- Third Epistle of John
- Epistle of Jude
The Author of the General Epistle of James
The author of this epistle simply identifies himself as James (1:1). Of the four New Testament persons of this name (four, if James the Less is different from the son of Alphaeus or the brother of Jesus) only the brother of the Lord seems to be the likely candidate. The Apostle James is ruled out by his early martyrdom (A.D. 44, Acts 12:2); and, neither James the son of Alphaeus (nor James the Less - if a different person) had the statue or influence demonstrated by the author of this letter. But, James the half-brother of Christ (Matthew 13:55; 27:56) rose to leadership in the Jerusalem community early on. Though not a disciple of Jesus during his ministry (John 7:2-5), he had become a believer before Pentecost, being one of the 120 that waited the outpouring of the Holy Ghost in the upper room (Acts 1:14). His conversion, most likely came when Jesus showed Himself to him after His resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:7). The writer of this epistle enjoyed the position of authority that only James the Lord’s brother could have had at this early date in the churches history. Notice the following:
- He was one of the select individuals to whom Christ appeared after the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:7).
- Paul, on his first post-conversion visit to Jerusalem, was granted an audience with James (Galatians 1:19).
- Paul called James a “pillar” of the church (Galatians 2:9).
- Paul, upon his last visit to Jerusalem, again, appeared before James (Acts 21:18).
- Upon being delivered from prison, Peter tells his friends to inform James of his release (acts 12:17).
- James was the president of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:13) A.D. 49.
- James authored the first canonical letter sent from Jerusalem to all the churches of Christendom (Ask 15:19-20 cf vv23-29).
- Jude, writing about A.D. 65, identified himself simply as a brother of James (Jude 1:1), so well-known was James.
- So righteous was James, that historians (religious and secular) called him, “James the Just.” (Hegesippus and Josephus)
James was most likely the first son born to Mary and Joseph after the birth of Jesus, because he’s the first name in the list of Christ’s brothers (Matthew 13:55). From Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 9:5 it is inferred that James was married. In spite of presiding over the mother church of Jerusalem (which was a Jewish church that remain closely associated with the law of Moses) James understood the law of grace and supported Paul’s ministry to the Gentile (Acts 15:13-21 cf 21:18-25). James was martyred in A.D. 62. Two accounts of his martyrdom are given:
- Josephus (Antiquities 20 .9 .1) writes that he was: Stoned under the high priest Ananus II;
- Clement of Alexandria (Hypotyposes VII) writes that: After giving a clear testimony of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, he was thrown from a speaking platform (a rampart of the temple) and clubbed to death.
Perhaps both accounts are somehow related.
The strongest evidence of James’ (the brother of Jesus) authorship is the coincidences of phraseology. Parallels between this Epistle and both the speech and letter from the Jerusalem Council authored by James (Acts ch 15) are indicitive of the same person. Examples of this similarity can be found in the following comparisons :
Compare Acts 15:23 with James 1:1;
Compare Acts 15:13 with James 2:5;
Compare Acts 15:19 with James 5:19, 20;
Compare Acts 15:17 with James 2:7.
Dating of the General Epistle of James
Once the authorship is assigned to James, the Lord’s brother, then a very early date (before A.D 50) is very likely for the following reasons:
- The nature and tone of the letter is very Jewish, indicating a readership that predates the influx of Gentile believers.
- The simple church order (3:1) where officers are call elders, or teachers, is indicative of the formative years of the church.
- James’ letter contains no mention to the Pauline debate over the Law of Moses and circumcision. This seems to argue for a date before the Jerusalem Council (A.D. 49).
- The parallel use of “synagogue” (2:2) and “Church” (5:14) for the Christian place of meeting is indicative of the earliest years of the Christian movement, i.e. before a clear and sharp distinction was made between Judaism and Christianity.
Given the above, it is probable that James is the earliest New Testament book (with the possible exception of Galatians).
Recipients of the General Epistle of James
James addresses his letter “to the twelve tribes” of the diaspora. Natural Israel had not been referred to as “the twelve tribes” for several hundred years at this time, so it is likely James is using the phrase to include all Christendom as spiritual Israel. The term “diaspora” is use by Peter (1 Peter 1:1) to include all Christians as pilgrims in this world. Paul, also, uses “diaspora” for Christians in general (Gal 3:29; Ro 9:6f). (When the word is used in John 7:35 it references natural Jews who are scattered.) Perhaps, James has the members of the Jerusalem church that were scattered (to Phoenicia, Cyrus, and Syrian Antioch [Acts 8:1; 11:19]) after the stoning of Steven, in mind.
It is best to understand the recipients of James’ letter as all Christendom as he viewed it as Spiritual Israel (cf Mt 3:9; 12:46-50; Ac 10:34-37; Ro 4:16; 9:6-8; Ga 3:7-9; 6:16; Ep 1:1 1 Pt 1:1 Re 7:4-7; 21:10-15).
The purpose of James’s letter is both practical and ethical: it calls its readers to action and obedience; it attempts to correct faults and instruct the wavering; it instills discipline, rebukes the backsliding and encourages godliness. Also, James writes to strengthen the faith and loyalties of Christians in the face of persecution from rich and overbearing Jews, who were defrauding and oppressing them. James addresses the age old struggle between capital and labor. Here lies a vivid example of the Bible’s appeal and influence, i.e. It’s unending ability to address current issues. Here, the earliest book of the New Testament presents a very modern message.
The Epistle of James clearly belongs to the genre of wisdom literature; in the class with Proverbs and extra canonical Jewish works such as the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Books of Enoch, and the Manual of Discipline found at Qumran. It represents the type of apostolic Christianity that emphasized sound doctrine and responsible moral behavior. The ethical norms presented by James derived from a concept of salvation that involves repentance (true conversion), water baptism, forgiveness of sins, and an expectation of judgment (1:17; 4:12). This letter is Hebraic in nature; which is seen by the use of the Hebrew title for God, i.e.”kyrius sabaoth” (“Lord of Saboath” 5:4). But, it is written in excellent Greek (Hellenistic), and does, in point of fact, employ the Hellenistic diatribe form of the address; e.g. an imaginary interlocutor (2:18f; 5;13f), and paradox (2:10; 2:5).
There is no discussion of the cross, nor of the resurrection of Christ. However, there is an allusion to the murder of Jesus (5:6) and His second coming (5:8). The Epistle demonstrates a close association with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
compare 2:5 with Mt 5:3;
compare 3:10-12 with Mt 7:15-20;
compare 3:8 with Mt 5:9;
compare 5:2-3 with Mt 6:19-20;
compare 5:12 with Mt 5:33-37.
Martin Luther called the Epistle of James “a veritable epistle of straw.” He was wrong.
☩ Jerry L Hayes
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