The Epistle of James is a book of the New Testament, best known for its teaching that "faith without works is dead" (James 2:26 KJV).
The author identifies himself in the opening verse as "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ". Of the several people named James in the New Testament, three have garnered support as being this James:
- From the middle of the third century, patristic authors cited the Epistle as written by James the Just, the brother of Jesus. This James was not one of the Twelve, but Paul described him as "the brother of the Lord" in Galatians 1:19 and as one of the three pillars of the Church in 2:9. But there is reason to doubt this attribution. The fact that the epistle is addressed in 1:1 "to the twelve tribes scattered abroad" indicates that it was written after the Diaspora of AD 70. But according to the historian Josephus, James the Just was martyred in Jerusalem during the time when Albinus was procurator of Judea, in AD 62.
John Calvin and others suggested that the author was James, son of Alphaeus, apparently the brother of Matthew, aka Levi. It is feasible that James of Alphaeus is the same person as the author of Mark 15:40. Since very little is known about this person, this proposal does not tell us very much about the author.
- It is rarely but occasionally argued that this James was the apostle Saint James the Great, brother of John, son of Zebedee. However, most conclude that the author was not the apostle James, because he died too early. Specifically, James must have been killed before 44, but the Epistle of James seems to be written in order to clear up misconceptions about Paul's teaching on justification by faith in the 50s.
Many modern, critical scholars consider the epistle to be pseudepigraphical and so the author could have been anyone, but they generally agree that "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ" was intended by its author to refer to James the Just, the patriarch of the Jewish Christians at Jerusalem.
Date and place of composition
If written by James the Just, the place and time of the writing of the epistle would be Jerusalem, where James was residing before his martyrdom in 62. If pseudepigraphical, then any time from 50 to 200 is possible. It was first definitely quoted by Origen, and possibly a bit earlier by Clement of Alexandria in a lost work if Eusebius is to be believed.
In the first centuries of the Church the authenticity of the Epistle was doubted by some, and amongst others by Theodore, Bishop of Mopsuestia in Cilicia; it is therefore deuterocanonical. It is missing in the Muratorian fragment, and because of the silence of several of the western churches regarding it, Eusebius classes it amongst the antilegomena or contested writings (Historia ecclesiae, 3.25; 2.23). St. Jerome gives a similar appraisal but adds that with time it had been universally admitted.
Its late recognition in the Church, especially in the West, may be explained by the fact that it was written for Jewish Christians, and therefore not widely circulated among the Gentile Churches. There is some indication that a few groups distrusted the book because of its doctine. However, it was included among the 27 New Testament books first listed by Athanasius of Alexandria and eventually confirmed by a series of councils in the fourth century.
In Reformation times a few theologians, most notably Martin Luther, argued that this epistle was too defective to be part of the canonical New Testament. This is probably due to the book's specific teaching that faith alone is not enough for salvation, which Luther saw appeared to contradict his doctrine of sola fide (faith alone).
Most denominations of Christianity today consider this book to be a canonical epistle of the New Testament. See Biblical canon.
The epistle was addressed to the Jews of the dispersion, "the twelve tribes scattered abroad."
The object of the writer was to enforce the practical duties of the Christian life. The vices against which he warns them are: formalism, which made the service of God consist in washings and outward ceremonies, whereas he reminds them (1:27) that it consists rather in active love and purity; fanaticism, which, under the cloak of religious zeal, was tearing Jerusalem in pieces (1:20); fatalism, which threw its sins on God (1:13); meanness, which crouched before the rich (2:2); falsehood, which had made words and oaths play-things (3:2-12); partisanship (3:14); evil speaking (4:11); boasting (4:16); oppression (5:4). The great lesson which he teaches them as Christians is patience, patience in trial (1:2), patience in good works (1:22-25), patience under provocation (3:17), patience under oppression (5:7), patience under persecution (5:10); and the ground of their patience is that the coming of the Lord draweth nigh, which is to right all wrong (5:8).
"Justification by works," which James contends for, may be contrasted with the doctrine of "justification by faith", which Paul contends for in his own New Testament epistles. One way that Christians reconcile these perspectives by viewing that of James as a justification before others, that is to say the justification of a Christian's profession of faith by a consistent life; while Paul's emphasis was a justification before God, being regarded and accepted as just by virtue of the righteousness of Christ, which is received by faith. Another way that some Church fathers reconciled the two was to view true saving faith as faith that is energized by love, and that therefore is accompanied by good works, as opposed to a faith that is only intellectual assent to a set of beliefs. An interesting cross-reference is Acts 26:20, where Paul says that he has been preaching "that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance" (NASB, emphasis added). Some use this passage as evidence that Paul agreed with James that all true (or "living") faith is accompanied by works.
With this in mind, James should be considered didactic rather than kerugmatic. The writer does not attempt to present the Gospel kernel (I Corinthians 15:3-8, Acts 10:38-43), but rather a system of ethics, affirmatives and negatives. Other early parallels that illlustrate this dualistic paradigm (the two ways, light & darkness, right & wrong) appear in the teachings of Jesus, the Qumran documents, and the first part of the Didache. This observation places the audience, and this epistle, within an early Jewish context, before 70 C. E. The meeting place is still the Synagogue (2:2).
James' epistle is also the chief biblical text for Anointing of the Sick (sometimes, misleadingly, called "Last Rites"). James writes, "Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. And their prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make them well. And anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven." (5:14,15).
Online translation of the Epistle of James:
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