For the Intersection of the Everyday and the Sacred

Introduction to James (Lent day 1)

I’ll attempt to give a brief introduction on the book of James, going through the standard questions asked of a biblical book, today before diving into the text tomorrow. As such, this one may be a bit longer. It’s not really essential for understanding the reading either. So if you’re still trying to get your footing with a regular schedule you can skip it (or at least skip the Author section which gets a little technical).


The first question usually asked is one of authorship, in part because this helps to identify roughly the time period during which the letter was written. The traditional assumption is that this was written by 1) James who was raised the brother of Jesus. During the Gospel period it is clear that James did not follow Jesus, yet it seems, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians, that James converted after witnessing the resurrected Lord. There are lots of arguments for this, but for me, I don’t find any of them convincing. Perhaps if I lay out the other options, the reason for this will become clear.

People like to identify James with the one of the other three James mentioned in the bible: 2) James the Son of Zebedee (and brother to John), 3) James the Son of Alphaeus (sometimes James the younger), or 4) James who is the father of the apostle Judas who was not Iscariot (sometimes identified as Thaddeus). However, if we keep our options open, as there is no real reason to limit there, we have a few more options.

5) Some other James not otherwise mentioned in the bible, is another option.

6) Someone writing it pseudonymously (that is writing under the name of James in the hopes it gets accepted more quickly) is another

7) And someone who intentionally wrote it generally and kept his real name out of it.

I’ve numbered them to keep them straight. Let me explain the difference between 6 and 7 briefly. If one is going to be very strict in interpreting the name of the author, we should probably call it Jacob, not James. The Greek is much more clearly the Hebrew name Jacob transliterated (that means trying to take the sounds from one language and write them out phonetically into another) into Greek (Ἰάκωβος). It was translated “James” because of the sponsor of the most famous English translation of all time: King James. So, number 7 could be read figuratively of a “Jacob” writing to his twelve Sons (see James 1:1).

Now let me rule out some these options fairly quickly:

6) is unlikely because it would need to be fairly late by which time James would already have authority. And if you are going to try to get authority that is not yours, you would likely go with Paul or John, who had well accepted letters already, and not James. So I’m ruling that one out.

4) (The father of an apostle) is also not likely as there is no good reason to assume he would have ever been seen as having authority (the early church didn’t do nepotism).

2) (James brother of John, Son of Zebedee, part of Jesus’ inner circle) is also not very likely because he was killed fairly early in the book of Acts (chapter 12).

It is also not likely to be just some other James we simply never heard of before (option 5) because whoever is writing the letter has some authority already, and it seems to have been written fairly early. (Definitely before 70 AD, no mention of the temple being destroyed in a fairly Jewish book, and possibly as early as 40 AD).

So that leaves us with 1) James the brother of Jesus 3) James the son of Alphaeus (lesser known apostle) and 7) A letter written from a figurative authorship. Option 7) would be similar, then to the absence of an author in the book of Hebrews. However, aside from the first verse, there is not much that would make it fit that kind of model. It’s clearly written to the Church, not just Jewish people in the church.

The primary argument for it being James the brother of Jesus is that he is important in Acts 12 and Acts 15. However, the problem with that is that there is no attribution of which James is being mentioned in Acts 12 and 15 (in fact the one in Acts 12 may be the recently deceased James, showing either Peter’s ignorance of what had occurred, or his belief that James was already with God). Considering how the early church worked, it would be considerably more likely that this James (who is almost certainly the author of the letter from James) is more likely to have been an apostle, not a later convert (as would be the brother of Jesus). In actual fact, the attribution of authorship to this letter, as well as the James mentioned in Acts 12 and 15 to the brother (or rather the one considered the brother) of Jesus rests entirely on later church tradition. Simply put, there is no good reason to believe that the letter was written by the brother of Jesus rather than the James, the apostle, who spent time with Jesus during his ministry, particularly during the sermon on the mount, which shares some parallels with this letter.

Also, consider the source of authority for biblical texts. For those who are not Roman Catholic nor some form of Eastern Orthodoxy, the biblical texts are authoritative because they were written by those who witnessed the ministry of Jesus first hand, or were written by someone taking those firsthand accounts and organizing them (as in Luke and Mark). For the most part, and with all the other letters (except, possibly, Hebrews), this means they were written by an apostle. Thus I tend to go with James the son of Alphaeus, whom I believe took a larger role in the early church following its persecution of it.

Considering that the other son of Alphaeus was Matthew/Levi, who was a tax collector, it is altogether likely that these were thoroughly Hellenized Jews (which would explain why Matthew could work for the Roman government, yet also desire to keep his name Levi). This aspect explains why this is a fairly “Jewish” New Testament letter, yet also exhibits some of the best, most highly polished, and most formal Greek of the New Testament.

But how much does any of this matter?

Well, I suppose that if you accept that James is biblical regardless, then not much. If, however, you are making an argument for why it is authoritative, then quite a bit. Still, for interpretation or devotional reading, it makes little difference.

Time period

There are two lines of thought with this one. As I mentioned, given the sometimes Jewish nature of the letter, it is unlikely that it would have been written after the destruction of the temple and not have mentioned that rather historic event (for both Judaism and Christianity). So it would likely have been prior to 70AD. The question is whether it was written prior to the Gentiles entering into the Church in large numbers (sometime between 40-45 AD) or whether it was written significantly afterward, when Paul’s emphasis on grace might have been used as an excuse to act however one wanted (something Paul warned about, but which likely would have come back again), placing it in the mid-late 60s. The mention of wealthy people dragging members of the church to court, though, makes it more likely to have been in the persecution of the emperor Nero, when that sort of thing would have been encouraged, and I would tend to place it in the later period. This was written in a time of persecution, to be sure, and it’s not a far stretch to imagine it as being very pronounced.


All of Paul’s letter were written for a specific occasion, that is to address some problem or issue. So there is a tendency to assume that all New Testament letters were this way. I think that is a mistake. It seems likely that this was meant to be a “circular” letter, meaning it would be circulated among different churches and was not written to any one church in particular (the addressees are “scattered”). Hebrews, likely, was written in the same way.

Purpose and Theme

Often, the book of James is seen as a purely practical book. To be sure it is practical, but to say it is practical while other New Testament books are theological is to set up something of a false dichotomy. Indeed, one of the main points of James is that the intellectual component is inseparable from the active component.

Instead, it may be best to think of the purpose of the book of James as an exposition on his primary theme: Faith. James is seeking to give a picture of what faith is and what it looks like. What is it about faith that distinguishes it from simple belief in something. Thus I think it best to keep that in mind (an exploration of what faith actually is and means, and how it benefits us) than anything else.


What are you looking forward to out of this study?


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