The Book of James
Fast Facts on the Book of James
|Author:||Self-identified as James, who is probably James the brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem church.|
|Date:||Possibly before 50 AD, or early 60s. May be the earliest of the NT writings.|
|Place of Origin:||Unknown|
|Recipients:||Jewish Christians ("the 12 tribes scattered among the nations")|
|Purpose:||Possibly to encourage former members of the Jerusalem church who had scattered after Stephen's death|
|Characteristics:||Jewish nature, excellent Greek, authoritative tone, simple organization|
|Emphases:||Good works a result of genuine faith, wisdom, teachings of the Sermon on the Mount|
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Summary of James
Characteristics of the Epistle
The Epistle of James is the most Jewish writing in the New Testament. The Gospel according to Matthew was written for the Jews. The Epistle to the Hebrews is addressed explicitly to them. The Apocalypse is full of the spirit of the Old Testament. The Epistle of Jude is Jewish too. Yet all of these books have more of the distinctively Christian element in them than we can find in the Epistle of James.
If we eliminate two or three passages containing references to Christ, the whole epistle might find its place iust as properly in the Canon of the Old Testament as in that of the New Testament, as far as its substance of doctrine and contents is concerned. That could not be said Of any other book in the New Testament. There is no mention of the incarnation or of the resurrection., the two fundamental facts of the Christian faith.
The word "gospel" does not occur in the epistle There is no suggestion that the Messiah has appeared and no presentation of the possibility of redemption through Him. The teaching throughout is that of a lofty morality which aims at the fulfillment of the requirements of the Mosaic law. It is not strange therefore that Spitta and others have thought that we have in the Epistle of James a treatise written by an unconverted Jew which has been adapted to Christian use by the interpolation of the two phrases containing the name of Christ in 1:1 and 2:1.
Spitta thinks that this can be the only explanation of the fact that we have here an epistle practically ignoring the life and work of Jesus and every distinctively Christian doctrine, and without a trace of any of the great controversies in the early Christian church or any of the specific features of its propaganda. This judgment is a superficial one, and rests upon superficial indications rather than any appreciation of the underlying spirit and principles of the book. The spirit of Christ is here, and there is no need to label it.
The principles of this epistle are the principles of the Sermon on the Mount. There are more parallels to that Sermon in this epistle than can be found anywhere else in the New Testament in the same space. The epistle represents the idealization of Jewish legalism under the transforming influence of the Christian motive and life. It is not a theological discussion. It is an ethical appeal. It has to do with the outward life for the most part, and the life it pictures is that of a Jew informed with the spirit of Christ.
The spirit is invisible in the epistle as in the individual man. It is the body which appears and the outward life with which that body has to do. The body of the epistle is Jewish, and the outward life to which it exhorts is that of a profoundly pious Jew. The Jews familiar with the Old Testament would read this epistle and find its language and tone that to which they were accustomed in their sacred books. James is evidently written by a Jew for Jews. It is Jewish in character throughout.
This is apparent in the following particulars: (1) The epistle is addressed to the 12 tribes which are of the Dispersion (11). The Jews were scattered abroad through the ancient world. From Babylon to Rome, wherever any community of them might be gathered for commercial or social purposes, these exhortations could be carried and read. Probably the epistle was circulated most widely in Syria and Asia Minor, but it may have gone out to the ends of the earth. Here and there in the ghettos of the Roman Empire, groups of the Jewish exiles would gather and listen while one of their number read this letter from home.
All of its terms and its allusions would recall familiar home scenes. (2) Their meeting-place is called "your synagogue" (2:2). (3) Abraham is mentioned as "our father" (2:21). (4) God is given the Old Testament name, "the Lord of Sabaoth" (5:4). (5) The law is not to be spoken against nor judged, but reverently and loyally obeyed. It is a royal law to which every loyal Jew will be subject. It is a law of liberty, to be freely obeyed (2:8-12; 4:11). (6) The sins of the flesh are not inveighed against in the epistle, but those sins to which the Jews were more conspicuously liable, such as the love of money and the distinction which money may bring (2:2-4), worldliness and pride (4:4-6), impatience and murmuring (5:7-11), and other sins of the temper and tongue (3:1-12; 4:11,12). (7) The illustrations of faithfulness and patience and prayer are found in Old Testament characters, in Abraham (2:21), Rahab (2:25), Job (Jas 5:11),and Elijah (Jas 5:17,18). The whole atmosphere of the epistle is Jewish.
The writer of this epistle speaks as one having authority. He is not on his defense, as Paul so often is. There is no trace of apology in his presentation of the truth. His official position must have been recognized and unquestioned. He is as sure of his standing with his readers as he is of the absoluteness of his message.
No Old Testament lawgiver or prophet was more certain that he spoke the word of the Lord. He has the vehemence of Elijah and the assured meekness of Moses. He has been called "the Amos of the New Testament," and there are paragraphs which recall the very expressions used by Amos and which are full of the same fiery eloquence and prophetic fervor. Both fill their writings with metaphors drawn from the sky and the sea, from natural objects and domestic experiences.
Both seem to be countrybred and to be in sympathy with simplicity and poverty. Both inveigh against the luxury and the cruelty of the idle rich, and both abhor the ceremonial and the ritual which are substituted for individual righteousness. Malachi was not the last of the prophets. John the Baptist was not the last prophet of the Old Dispensation.
The writer of this epistle stands at the end of that prophetic line, and he is greater than John the Baptist or any who have preceded him because he stands within the borders of the kingdom of Christ. He speaks with authority, as a messenger of God. He belongs to the goodly fellowship of the prophets and of the apostles. He has the authority of both. There are 54 imperatives in the 108 verses of this epistle.
The epistle is interested in conduct more than in creed. It has very little formulated theology, less than any other epistle in the New Testament; but it insists upon practical morality throughout. It begins and it closes with an exhortation to patience and prayer. It preaches a gospel of good works, based upon love to God and love to man. It demands liberty, equality, fraternity for all. It enjoins humility and justice and peace.
It prescribes singleness of purpose and stedfastness of soul. It requires obedience to the law, control of the passions, and control of the tongue. Its ideal is to be found in a good life, characterized by the meekness of wisdom. The writer of the epistle has caught the spirit of the ancient prophets, but the lessons that he teaches are taken, for the most part, from the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha.
His direct quotations are from the Pentateuch and the Book of Proverbs; but it has been estimated that there are 10 allusions to the Book of Proverbs, 6 to the Book of Job, 5 to the Book of Wisdom, and 15 to the Book of Ecclesiasticus. This Wisdom literature furnishes the staple of his meditation and the substance of his teaching. He has little or nothing to say about the great doctrines of the Christian church.
He has much to say about the wisdom that cometh down from above and is pure, peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, without hypocrisy (Jas 3:15-17). The whole epistle shows that the author had stored his mind with the rich treasure of the ancient wisdom, and his material, while offered as his own, is both old and new. The form is largely that of the Wisdom literature of the Jews. It has more parallels with Jesus the son of Sirach than with any writer of the sacred books.
The substance of its exhortation, however, is to be found in the Synoptics and more particularly in the Sermon on the Mount. Its wisdom is the wisdom of Jesus the son of Joseph, who is the Christ.
These are the three outstanding characteristics of this epistle In form and on the surface it is the most Jewish and least Christian of the writings in the New Testament. Its Christianity is latent and not apparent. Yet it is the most authoritative in its tone of any of the epistles in the New Testament, unless it be those of the apostle John. John must have occupied a position of undisputed primacy in the Christian church after the death of all the other apostles, when he wrote his epistles.
It is noteworthy that the writer of this epistle assumes a tone of like authority with that of John. John was the apostle of love, Paul of faith, and Peter of hope. This writer is the apostle of good works, the apostle of the wisdom which manifests itself in peace and purity, mercy and morality, and in obedience to the royal law, the law of liberty. In its union of Jewish form, authoritative tone, and insistence upon practical morality, the epistle is unique among the New Testament books.
Author of the Epistle
The address of the epistle states that the writer is "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ" (Jas 1:1). The tradition of the church has identified this James with the brother of our Lord. Clement of Alexandria says that Peter and James and John, who were the three apostles most honored of the Lord, chose James, the Lord's brother, to be the bishop of Jerusalem after the Lord's ascension (Euscb., HE, II, 1). This tradition agrees well with all the notices of James in the New Testament books.
After the death of James the brother of John, Peter was thrown into prison, and having been miraculously released, he asked that the news be sent to James and to the brethren (Acts 12:17). This James is evidently in authority in the church at this time. In the apostolical conference held at Jerusalem, after Peter and Paul and Barnabas had spoken, this same James sums up the whole discussion, and his decision is adopted by the assembly and formulated in a letter which has some very striking parallels in its phraseology to this epistle (Acts 15:6-29).
When Paul came to Jerusalem for the last time he reported his work to James and all the elders present with him (Acts 21:18). In the Epistle to the Galatians Paul says that at the time of one of his visits to Jerusalem he saw none of the apostles save Peter and James the Lord's brother (Gal 1:18,19). At another visit he received the right hand of fellowship from James and Cephas and John (Gal 2:9). At a later time certain who came from James to Antioch led Peter into backsliding from his former position of tolerance of the Gentiles as equals in the Christian church (Gal 2:12).
All of these references would lead us to suppose that James stood in a position of supreme authority in the mother-church at Jerusalem, the oldest church of Christendom. He presides in the assemblies of the church. He speaks the final and authoritative word. Peter and Paul defer to him. Paul mentions his name before that of Peter and John.
When he was exalted to this leadership we do not know, but all indications seem to point to the fact that at a very early period James was the recognized executive authority in the church at Jerusalem, which was the church of Pentecost and the church of the apostles. All Jews looked to Jerusalem as the chief seat of their worship and the central authority of their religion. All Christian Jews would look to Jerusalem as the primitive source of their organization and faith, and the head of the church at Jerusalem would be recognized by them as their chief authority. The authoritative tone of this epistle comports well with this position of primacy ascribed to James.
All tradition agrees in describing James as a Hebrew of the Hebrews, a man of the most rigid and ascetic morality, faithful in his observance of all the ritual regulations of the Jewish faith. Hegesippus tells us that he was holy from his mother's womb. He drank no wine nor strong drink. He ate no flesh. He alone was permitted to enter with the priests into the holy place, and he was found there frequently upon his knees begging forgiveness for the people, and his knees became hard like those of a camel in consequence of his constantly bending them in his worship of God and asking forgiveness for the people (Euseb., HE, II, 23).
He was called James the Just. All had confidence in his sincerity and integrity, and many were persuaded by him to believe on the Christ. This Jew, faithful in the observance of all that the Jews held sacred, and more devoted to the temple-worship than the most pious among them, was a good choice for the head of the Christian church. The blood of David flowed in his veins. He had all the Jew's pride in the special privileges of the chosen race. The Jews respected him and the Christians revered him. No man among them commanded the esteem of the entire population as much as he.
Josephus (Ant., XX, ix) tells us that Ananus the high priest had James stoned to death, and that the most equitable of the citizens immediately rose in revolt against such a lawless procedure, and Ananus was deposed after only three months' rule. This testimony of Josephus simply substantiates all that we know from other sources concerning the high standing of James in the whole community. Hegesippus says that James was first thrown from a pinnacle of the temple, and then they stoned him because he was not killed by the fall, and he was finally beaten over the head with a fuller's club; and then he adds significantly, "Immediately Vespasian besieged them" (Euscb., HE, II, 23).
There would seem to have been quite a widespread conviction among both the Christians and the Jews that the afflictions which fell upon the holy city and the chosen people in the following years were in part a visitation because of the great crime of the murder of this just man. We can understand how a man with this reputation and character would write an epistle so Jewish in form and substance and so insistent in its demands for a practical morality as is the Epistle of James. All the characteristics of the epistle seem explicable on the supposition of authorship by James the brother of the Lord. We accept the church tradition without hesitation.
The Style of the Epistle
The sentence construction is simple and straightforward. It reminds us of the English of Bunyan and DeFoe. There is usually no good reason for misunderstanding anything James says. He puts his truth plainly, and the words he uses have no hidden or mystical meanings. His thought is transparent as his life.
It is somewhat surprising to find that the Greek of the Epistle of James is better than that of the other New Testament writers, with the single exception of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Of course this may be due to the fact that James had the services of an amanuensis who was a Greek scholar, or that his own manuscript was revised by such a man; but, although unexpected, it is not impossible that James himself may have been capable of writing such Greek as this.
It is not the good Greek of the classics, and it is not the poor and provincial Greek of Paul. There is more care for literary form than in the uncouth periods Of the Gentile apostle, and the vocabulary would seem to indicate an acquaintance with the literary as well as the commercial and the conversational Greek "Galilee was studded with Greek towns, and it was certainly in the power of any Galilean to gain a knowledge of Greek .... We may reasonably suppose that our author would not have scrupled to avail himself of the opportunities within his reach, so as to master the Greek language, and learn something of Greek philosophy.
This would be natural, even if we think of James as impelled only by a desire to gain wisdom and knowledge for himself; but if we think of him also as the principal teacher of the Jewish believers, many of whom were Hellenists, instructed in the wisdom of Alexandria, then the natural bent would take the shape of duty: he would be a student of Greek in order that he might be a more effective instructor to his own people" (Mayor, The Epistle of James, ccxxxvi). The Greek of the epistle is the studied Greek of one who was not a native to it, but who had familiarized himself with its literature. James could have done so and the epistle may be proof that he did.
James is never content to talk in abstractions. He always sets a picture before his own eyes and those of his readers. He has the dramatic instinct. He has the secret of sustained interest. He is not discussing things in general but things in particular. He is an artist and believes in concrete realities. At the same time he has a touch of poetry in him, and a fine sense of the analogies running through all Nature and all life. The doubting man is like the sea spume (1:6). The rich man fades away in his goings, even as the beauty of the flower falls and perishes (1:11).
The synagogue scene with its distinction between the rich and the poor is set before us with the clear-cut impressiveness of a cameo (2:1-4). The Pecksniffian philanthropist, who seems to think that men can be fed not by bread alone but by the words that proceed magnificently from his mouth, is pilloried here for all time (2:15,16). The untamable tongue that is set on fire of hell is put in the full blaze of its world of iniquity, and the damage it does is shown to be like that of a forest fire (3:1-12).
The picture of the wisdom that comes from above with its sevenfold excellences of purity, peaceableness, gentleness, mercy, fruitfulness, impartiality, sincerity, is worthy to hang in the gallery of the world's masterpieces (3:17). The vaunting tradesmen, whose lives are like vanishing vapor, stand there before the eyes of all in Jerusalem (4:13-16). The rich, whose luxuries he describes even while he denounces their cruelties and prophesies their coming day of slaughter, are the rich who walk the streets of his own city (5:1-6). His short sentences go like shots straight to the mark.
We feel the impact and the impress of them. There is an energy behind them and a reality in them that makes them live in our thought. His abrupt questions are like the quick interrogations of a cross-examining lawyer (2:4-7,14,16; 3:11,12; 4:1,4,5,12,14). His proverbs have the intensity of the accumulated and compressed wisdom of the ages. They are irreducible minimums. They are memorable sayings, treasured in the speech of the world ever since his day.
Sometimes James adds sentence to sentence with the repetition of some leading word or phrase (1:1-6,19-24; 3:2-8). It is the painful style of one who is not altogether at home with the language which he has chosen as the vehicle of his thought. It is the method by which a discussion could be continued indefinitely. Nothing but the vividness of the imagery and the intensity of the thought saves James from fatal monotony in the use of this device.
Figures of Speech
James has a keen eye for illustrations. He is not blind to the beauties and wonders of Nature. He sees what is happening on every hand, and he is quick to catch any homiletical suggestion it may hold. Does he stand by the seashore? The surge that is driven by the wind and tossed reminds him of the man who is unstable in all his ways, because he has no anchorage of faith, and his convictions are like driftwood on a sea of doubt (1:6). Then he notices that the great ships are turned about by a small rudder, and he thinks how the tongue is a small member, but it accomplishes great things (3:4,5).
Does he walk under the sunlight and rejoice in it as the source of so many good and perfect gifts? He sees in it an image of the goodness of God that is never eclipsed and never exhausted, unvarying for evermore (1:17). He uses the natural phenomena of the land in which he lives to make his meaning plain at every turn: the flower of the field that passes away (1:10,11), the forest fire that sweeps the mountain side and like a living torch lights up the whole land (3:5), the sweet and salt springs (3:11), the fig trees and the olive trees and the vines (3:12), the seed-sowing and the fruit-bearing (3:18), the morning mist immediately lost to view (4:14), the early and the latter rain for which the husbandman waiteth patiently (5:7).
There is more of the appreciation of Nature in this one short epistle of Jas than in all the epistles of Paul put together. Human life was more interesting to Paul than natural scenery. However, James is interested in human life just as profoundly as Paul. He is constantly endowing inanimate things with living qualities. He represents sin as a harlot, conceiving and bringing forth death (1:15). The word of truth has a like power and conceives and brings forth those who live to God's praise (1:18).
Pleasures are like joyful hosts of enemies in a tournament, who deck themselves bravely and ride forth with singing and laughter, but whose mission is to wage war and to kill (4:1,2). The laborers may be dumb in the presence of the rich because of their dependence and their fear, but their wages, fraudulently withheld, have a tongue, and cry out to high heaven for vengeance (5:4). What is friendship with the world?
It is adultery, James says (4:4). The rust of unjust riches testifies against those who have accumulated them, and then turns upon them and eats their flesh like fire (5:3). James observed the man who glanced at himself in the mirror in the morning, and saw that his face was not clean, and who went away and thought no more about it for that whole day, and he found in him an illustration of the one who heard the word and did not do it (1:23,14). The epistle is full of these rhetorical figures, and they prove that James was something of a poet at heart, even as Jesus was. He writes in prose, but there is a marked rhythm in all of his speech. He has an ear for harmony as he has an eye for beauty everywhere.
Unlikeness to Paul
The Pauline epistles begin with salutations and close with benedictions. They are filled with autobiographical touches and personal messages. None of these things appear here. The epistle begins and ends with all abruptness. It has an address, but no thanksgiving. There are no personal messages and no indications of any intimate personal relationship between the author and his readers. They are his "beloved brethren." He knows their needs and their sins, but he may never have seen their faces or visited their homes. The epistle is more like a prophet's appeal to a nation than a personal letter.
Likeness to Jesus
Both the substance of the teaching and the method of its presentation remind us of the discourses of Jesus. James says less about the Master than any other writer in the New Testament, but his speech is more like that of the Master than the speech of any one of them. There are at least ten parallels to the Sermon on the Mount in this short epistle, and for almost everything that James has to say we can recall some statement of Jesus which might have suggested it.
When the parallels fail at any point, we are inclined to suspect that James may be repeating some unrecorded utterance of our Lord. He seems absolutely faithful to his memory of his brother's teaching. He is the servant of Jesus in all his exhortation and persuasion.
Did the Master shock His disciples' faith by the loftiness of the Christian ideal He set before them in His great sermon, "Ye therefore shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48)? James sets the same high standard in the very forefront of his ep.: "Let patience have its perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, lacking in nothing" (1:4). Did the Master say, "Ask, and it shall be given you" (Mt 7:7)? James says, "If any of you lacketh wisdom, let him ask of God ....; and it shall be given him" (1:5).
Did the Master add a condition to His sweeping promise to prayer and say, "Whosoever .... shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that what he faith cometh to pass; he shall have it" (Mk 11:23)?
James hastens to add the same condition, "Let him ask in faith, nothing doubting: for he that doubteth is like the surge of the sea driven by the wind and tossed" (1:6). Did the Master close the great sermon with His parable of the Wise Man and the Foolish Man, saying, "Every one that heareth these words of mine, and doeth them, shall be likened unto a wise man. And every one that heareth these words of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man" (Mt 7:24,26)? James is much concerned about wisdom, and therefore he exhorts his readers, "Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deluding your own selves" (1:22).
Had the Master declared, "If ye know these things, blessed are ye if ye do them" (Jn 13:17)? James echoes the thought when he says, "A doer that worketh, this man shall be blessed in his doing" (1:25). Did the Master say to the disciples, "Blessed are ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God" (Lk 6:20)? James has the same sympathy with the poor, and he says, "Hearken, my beloved brethren; did not God choose them that are poor as to the world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he promised to them that love him?" (2:5). Did the Master inveigh against the rich, and say, "Woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you, ye that are full now! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you, ye that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep" (Lk 6:24,25)?
James bursts forth into the same invective and prophesies the same sad reversal of fortune, "Come now, ye rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you" (5:1). "Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye doubleminded. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness" (4:8,9). Had Jesus said, "Judge not, that ye be not judged" (Mt 7:1)? James repeats the exhortation, "Speak not one against another, brethren. He that .... judgeth his brother .... judgeth the law: .... but who art thou that judgest thy neighbor?" (4:11,12).
Had Jesus said, "Whosoever shall humble himself shall be exalted" (Mt 23:12)? We find the very words in James, "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall exalt you" (4:10). Had Jesus said, "I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by the heaven, for it is the throne of God; nor by the earth, for it is the footstool of his feet. .... But let your speech be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: and whatsoever is more than these is of the evil one" (Mt 5:34-37)? Here in James we come upon the exact parallel: "But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by the heaven, nor by the earth, nor by any other oath; but let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay; that ye fall not under judgment" (5:12).
We remember how the Master began the Sermon on the Mount with the declaration that even those who mourned and were persecuted and reviled and reproached were blessed, in spite of all their suffering and trial. Then we notice that James begins his epistle with the same paradoxical putting of the Christian faith, "Count it all joy, my brethren, when ye fall into manifold trials" (1:12, the American Revised Version margin). We remember how Jesus proceeded in His sermon to set forth the spiritual significance and the assured permanence of the law; and we notice that James treats the law with the same respect and puts upon it the same high value.
He calls it "the perfect law" (1:25), "the royal law" (2:8), the "law of liberty" (2:12). We remember what Jesus said about forgiving others in order that we ourselves may be forgiven; and we know where James got his authority for saying, "Judgment is without mercy to him that hath showed no mercy" (2:13). We remember all that the Master said about good trees and corrupt trees being known by their fruits, "Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?" (Mt 7:16-20). Then in the Epistle of James we find a like question, "Can a fig tree, my brethren, yield olives, or a vine figs?" (3:12). We remember that the Master said, "Know ye that he is nigh, even at the doors" (Mt 24:33).
We are not surprised to find the statement here in James, "Behold, the judge standeth before the doors" (5:9). These reminiscences of the sayings of the Master meet us on every page. It may be that there are many more of them than we are able to identify. Their number is sufficiently large, however, to show us that James is steeped in the truths taught by Jesus, and not only their substance but their phraseology constantly reminds us of Him.
Date of the Epistle
There are those who think that the Epistle of James is the oldest epistle in the New Testament. Among those who favor an early date are Mayor, Plumptre, Alford, Stanley, Renan, Weiss, Zahn, Beyschlag, Neander, Schneckenburger, Thiersch, and Dods.
The reasons assigned for this conclusion are: (1) the general Judaic tone of the ep., which seems to antedate admission of the Gentiles in any alarming numbers into the church; but since the epistle is addressed only to Jews, why should the Gentiles be mentioned in it, whatever its date? and (2) the fact that Paul and Peter are supposed to have quoted from James in their writing; but this matter of quotation is always an uncertain one, and it has been ably argued that the quotation has been the other way about.
Others think that the epistle was written toward the close of James's life. Among these are Kern, Wiesinger, Schmidt, Bruckner, Wordsworth, and Farrar.
These argue (1) that the epistle gives evidence of a considerable lapse of time in the history of the church, sufficient to allow of a declension from the spiritual fervor of Pentecost and the establishment of distinctions among the brethren; but any of the sins mentioned in the epistle in all probability could have been found in the church in any decade of its history. (2) James has a position of established authority, and those to whom he writes are not recent converts but members in long standing; but the position of James may have been established from a very early date, and in an encyclical of this sort we could not expect any indication of shorter or longer membership in the church.
Doubtless some of those addressed were recent converts, while others may have been members for many years. (3) There are references to persecutions and trials which fit the later rather than the earlier date; but all that is said on this subject might be suitable in any period of the presidency of James at Jerusalem. (4) There are indications of a long and disappointing delay in the Second Coming of the Lord in the repeated exhortation to patience in waiting for it; but on the other hand James says, "The coming of the Lord is at hand," and "The judge standeth before the doors" (5:7-9).
The same passage is cited in proof of a belief that the immediate appearance of the Lord was expected, as in the earliest period of the church, and in proof that there had been a disappointment of this earlier belief and that it had been succeeded by a feeling that there was need of patience in waiting for the coming so long delayed.
It seems clear to us that there are no decisive proofs in favor of any definite date for the epistle. It must have been written before the martyrdom of James in the year 63 AD, and at some time during his presidency over the church at Jerusalem; but there is nothing to warrant us in coming to any more definite conclusion than that Davidson, Hilgenfeld, Baur, Zeller, Hausrath, von Soden, Julicher, Harnack, Bacon and others date the epistle variously in the post-Pauline period, 69-70 to 140-50 AD.
The arguments for any of these dates fall far short of proof, rest largely if not wholly upon conjectures and presuppositions, and of course are inconsistent with any belief in the authorship by James.
History of the Epistle
Eusebius classed Jas among those whose authenticity was disputed by some. "James is said to be the author of the first of the so-called Catholic Epistles. But it is to be observed that it is disputed; at least, not many of the ancients have mentioned it, as is the case likewise with the epistle that bears the name of Jude, which is also one of the seven so-called Catholic Epistles. Nevertheless, we know that these also, with the rest, have been read publicly in most churches" (Historia Ecclesiastica, II, 23).
Eusebius himself, however, quotes Jas 4:11 as Scripture and Jas 5:13 as spoken by the holy apostle. Personally he does not seem disposed to question the genuineness of the epistle. There are parallels in phraseology which make it possible that the epistle is quoted in Clement of Rome in the 1st century, and in Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, the Epistle to Diognetus, Irenaeus, and Hermas in the 2nd century. It is omitted in the canonical list of the Muratorian Fragment and was not included in the Old Latin version.
Origen seems to be the first writer to quote the epistle explicitly as Scripture and to assert that it was written by James the brother of the Lord. It appears in the Peshitta version and seems to have been generally recognized in the East. Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ephraem of Edessa, Didymus of Alexandria, received it as canonical. The 3rd Council of Carthage in 397 AD finally settled its status for the Western church, and from that date in both the East and the West its canonicity was unquestioned until the time of the Reformation.
Erasmus and Cajetan revived the old doubts concerning it. Luther thought it contradicted Paul and therefore banished it to the appendix of his Bible. "James," he says, "has aimed to refute those who relied on faith without works, and is too weak for his task in mind, understanding, and words, mutilates the Scriptures, and thus directly contradicts Paul and all Scriptures, seeking to accomplish by enforcing the law what the apostles successfully effect by love. Therefore, I will not place his Epistle in my Bible among the proper leadingbooks" (Werke, XIV, 148).
He declared that it was a downright strawy epistle, as compared with such as those to the Romans and to the Galatians, and it had no real evangelical character. This judgment of Luther is a very hasty and regrettable one. The modern church has refused to accept it, and it is generally conceded now that Paul and James are in perfect agreement with each other, though their presentation of the same truth from opposite points of view brings them into apparent contradiction.
Paul says, "By grace have ye been saved through faith .... not of works, that no man should glory" (Eph 2:8,9). "We reckon therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law" (Rom 3:28). James says, "Faith, if it have not works, is dead in itself" (2:17). "Ye see that by works a man is justified, and not only by faith (2:24). With these passages before him Luther said, "Many have toiled to reconcile Paul with James .... but to no purpose, for they are contrary, `Faith justifies'; `Faith does not justify'; I will pledge my life that no one can reconcile those propositions; and if he succeeds he may call me a fool" (Colloquia, II, 202).
It would be difficult to prove Luther a fool if Paul and James were using these words, faith, works, and justification, in the same sense, or even if each were writing with full consciousness of what the other had written. They both use Abraham for an example, James of justification by works, and Paul of justification by faith. How can that be possible? The faith meant by James is the faith of a dead orthodoxy, an intellectual assent to the dogmas of the church which does not result in any practical righteousness in life, such a faith as the demons have when they believe in the being of God and simply tremble before Him.
The faith meant by Paul is intellectual and moral and spiritual, affects the whole man, and leads him into conscious and vital union and communion with God. It is not the faith of demons; it is the faith that redeems. Again, the works meant by Paul are the works of a dead legalism, the works done under a sense of compulsion or from a feeling of duty, the works done in obedience to a law which is a taskmaster, the works of a slave and not of a son. These dead works, he declares, can never give life. The works meant by James are the works of a believer, the fruit of the faith and love born in every believer's heart and manifest in every believer's life.
The possession of faith will insure this evidence in his daily conduct and conversation; and without this evidence the mere profession of faith will not save him. The justification meant by Paul is the initial justification of the Christian life. No doing of meritorious deeds will make a man worthy of salvation. He comes into the kingdom, not on the basis of merit but on the basis of grace.
The sinner is converted not by doing anything, but by believing on the Lord Jesus Christ. He approaches the threshold of the kingdom and he finds that he has no coin that is current there. He cannot buy his way in by good works; he must accept salvation by faith, as the gift of God's free grace. The justification meant by James is the justification of any after-moment in the Christian life, and the final justification before the judgment throne. Good works are inevitable in the Christian life. There can be no assurance of salvation without them.
Paul is looking at the root; James is looking at the fruit. Paul is talking about the beginning of the Christian life; James is talking about its continuance and consummation. With Paul, the works he renounces precede faith and are dead works. With James, the faith he denounces is apart from works and is a dead faith.
Paul believes in the works of godliness just as much as James. He prays that God may establish the Thessalonians in every good work (2 Thess 2:17). He writes to the Corinthians that "God is able to make all grace abound unto" them; that they, "having always all sufficiency in everything, may abound unto every good work" (2 Cor 9:8). He declares to the Ephesians that "we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God afore prepared that we should walk in them" (Eph 2:10).
He makes a formal statement of his faith in Romans: God "will render to every man according to his works: to them that by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and incorruption, eternal life: but unto them that are factious, and obey not the truth, but obey unrighteousness, shall be wrath and indignation, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that worketh evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Greek; but glory and honor and peace to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek" (Rom 2:6-10). This is the final justification discussed by James, and it is just as clearly a judgment by works with Paul as with him.
On the other hand James believes in saving faith as well as Paul. He begins with the statement that the proving of our faith works patience and brings perfection (1:3,1). He declares that the prayer of faith will bring the coveted wisdom (1:6). He describes the Christian profession as a holding
"the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory" (2:1). He says that the poor as to the world are rich in faith, and therefore heirs to the kingdom (2:5). He quotes the passage from Genesis, "Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness" (2:23), and he explicitly asserts that Abraham's "faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect" (2:22).
The faith mentioned in all these passages is the faith of the professing Christian; it is not the faith which the sinner exercises in accepting salvation. James and Paul are at one in declaring that faith and works must go hand in hand in the Christian life, and that in the Christian's experience both faith without works is dead and works without faith are dead works. They both believe in faith working through love as that which alone will avail in Christ Jesus (Gal 5:6). Fundamentally they agree. Superficially they seem to contradict each other. That is because they are talking about different things and using the same terms with different meanings for those terms in mind.
Message of the Epistle to Our Times
To the Pietist
There are those who talk holiness and are hypocrites; those who make profession of perfect love and yet cannot live peaceably with their brethren; those who are full of pious phraseology but fail in practical philanthropy. This epistle was written for them. It may not give them much comfort, but it ought to give them much profit. The mysticism that contents itself with pious frames and phrases and comes short in actual sacrifice and devoted service will find its antidote here. The antinomianism that professes great confidence in free grace, but does not recognize the necessity for corresponding purity of life, needs to ponder the practical wisdom of this epistle.
The quietists who are satisfied to sit and sing themselves away to everlasting bliss ought to read this epistle until they catch its bugle note of inspiration to present activity and continuous good deeds. All who are long on theory and short on practice ought to steep themselves in the spirit of James; and since there are such people in every community and in every age, the message of the epistle will never grow old.
To the Sociologist
The sociological problems are to the front today. The old prophets were social reformers, and James is most like them in the New Testament. Much that he says is applicable to present-day conditions. He lays down the right principles for practical philanthropy, and the proper relationships between master and man, and between man and man. If the teachings of this epistle were put into practice throughout the church it would mean the revitalization of Christianity. It would prove that the Christian religion was practical and workable, and it would go far to establish the final brotherhood of man in the service of God.
To the Student of the Life and Character of Jesus
\The life of our Lord is the most important life in the history of the race. It will always be a subject of the deepest interest and study. Modern research has penetrated every contributory realm for any added light upon the heredity and the environment of Jesus. The people and the land, archaeology and contemporary history, have been cultivated intensively and extensively for any modicum of knowledge they might add to our store of information concerning the Christ.
We suggest that there is a field here to which sufficient attention has not yet been given. James was the brother of the Lord. His epistle tells us much about himself. On the supposition that he did not exhort others to be what he would not furnish them an example in being, we read in this epistle his own character writ large. He was like his brother in so many things. As we study the life and character of James we come to know more about the life and character of Jesus.
Jesus and James had the same mother. From her they had a common inheritance. As far as they reproduced their mother's characteristics they were alike. They had the same home training. As far as the father in that home could succeed in putting the impress of his own personality upon the boys, they would be alike.
It is noticeable in this connection that Joseph is said in the Gospel to have been "a just man" (Mt 1:19 the King James Version), and that James came to be known through all the early church as James the Just, and that in his epistle he gives this title to his brother, Jesus, when he says of the unrighteous rich of Jerusalem, "Ye have condemned and killed the just" man (5:6 the King James Version).
Joseph was just, and James was just, and Jesus was just. The brothers were alike, and they were like the father in this respect. The two brothers seem to think alike and talk alike to a most remarkable degree. They represent the same home surroundings and human environment, the same religious training and inherited characteristics. Surely, then, all that we learn concerning James will help us the better to understand Jesus.
They are alike in their poetical insight and their practical wisdom. They are both fond of figurative speech, and it seems always natural and unforced. The discourses of Jesus are filled with birds and flowers and winds and clouds and all the sights and sounds of rural life in Palestine. The writings of James abound in reference to the field flowers and the meadow grass and the salt fountains and the burning wind and the early and the latter rain.
They are alike in mental attitude and in spiritual alertness. They have much in common in the material equipment of their thought. James was well versed in the apocryphal literature. May we not reasonably conclude that Jesus was just as familiar with these books as he? James seems to have acquired a comparative mastery of the Greek language and to have had some acquaintance with the Greek philosophy. Would not Jesus have been as well furnished in these lines as he?
What was the character of James? All tradition testifies to his personal purity and persistent devotion, commanding the reverence and the respect of all who knew him. As we trace the various elements of his character manifesting themselves in his anxieties and exhortations in this epistle, we find rising before us the image of Jesus as well as the portrait of James. He is a single-minded man, steadfast in faith and patient in trials. He is slow to wrath, but very quick to detect any sins of speech and hypocrisy of life.
He is full of humility, but ready to champion the cause of the oppressed and the poor. He hates all insincerity and he loves wisdom, and he believes in prayer and practices it in reference to both temporal and spiritual good. He believes in absolute equality in the house of God. He is opposed to anything that will establish any distinctions between brethren in their place of worship. He believes in practical philanthropy. He believes that the right sort of religion will lead a man to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world. A pure religion in his estimation will mean a pure man. He believes that we ought to practice all that we preach.
As we study these characteristics and opinions of the younger brother, does not the image of his and our Elder Brother grow ever clearer before our eyes?
Bible Commentaries on James
Bible Commentaries on James (link goes to Amazon)
Outlines of the Book of James
From bible.org click here.
From catholicdoors.com click here.