JAMES, LETTER OF
An inspired letter of the Christian Greek Scriptures. It is one of the so-called general letters because, like First and Second Peter, First John, and Jude (but unlike most of the apostle Paul’s letters), it was not addressed to any specific congregation or person. This letter is addressed to “the twelve tribes that are scattered about.”—Jas 1:1.
Writer. The writer calls himself simply “James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Jas 1:1) Jesus had two apostles named James (Mt 10:2, 3), but it is unlikely that either of these wrote the letter. One apostle, James the son of Zebedee, was martyred about 44 C.E. (Ac 12:1, 2) As the contents of the letter itself indicate, it is very unlikely that it could have been written that soon after the forming of the Christian congregation. (Jas 1:1) The other apostle James, the son of Alphaeus, is not prominent in the Scriptural record, and very little is known about him. The outspoken nature of the letter of James would seem to weigh against the writer’s being James the son of Alphaeus, for he would likely have identified himself as one of the 12 apostles, in order to back up his strong words with apostolic authority.
Rather, evidence points to James the half brother of Jesus Christ, to whom the resurrected Christ evidently had made a special appearance, and who was prominent among the disciples. (Mt 13:55; Ac 21:15-25; 1Co 15:7; Ga 2:9) The writer of the letter of James identifies himself as “a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,” in much the same way as did Jude, who introduced the letter of Jude by calling himself “a slave of Jesus Christ, but a brother of James.” (Jas 1:1; Jude 1) Furthermore, the salutation of James’ letter includes the term “Greetings!” in the same way as did the letter concerning circumcision that was sent to the congregations. In this latter instance it was apparently Jesus’ half brother James who spoke prominently in the assembly of “the apostles and the older men” at Jerusalem.—Ac 15:13, 22, 23.
Canonicity. The letter of James is contained in the Vatican Manuscript No. 1209, as well as the Sinaitic and the Alexandrine Manuscripts of the fourth and fifth centuries C.E. The Syriac Peshitta includes it, and it is found in at least ten ancient catalogs before the Council of Carthage in 397 C.E. Early religious writers quoted from it, Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem, Jerome, and others recognizing the letter as authentic Scripture.
Date and Place of Composition. The letter gives no indication that Jerusalem’s fall to the Romans (in 70 C.E.) had yet taken place. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, a high priest named Ananus, a Sadducee, was responsible for bringing James and others before the Sanhedrin and having them stoned to death. This event, Josephus writes, occurred after the death of the Roman procurator Festus, but before his successor Albinus arrived. (Jewish Antiquities, XX, 197-203 [ix, 1]) If so, and if the sources placing the death of Festus at about 62 C.E. are correct, then James must have written his letter sometime prior to that date.
Jerusalem was the probable place of composition, for that is where James resided.—Ga 1:18, 19.
To Whom Written. James wrote the letter to “the twelve tribes that are scattered about,” literally, “the (ones) in the dispersion.” (Jas 1:1, ftn) He here addresses his spiritual “brothers,” those who hold to “the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ,” primarily those living beyond Palestine. (1:2; 2:1, 7; 5:7) James bases much of his argument on the Hebrew Scriptures, but this does not prove that his letter was only for Jewish Christians, even as one’s acquaintance with the Hebrew Scriptures in modern times does not prove that one is of Jewish descent. His reference to Abraham as “our father” (2:21) is in harmony with Paul’s words at Galatians 3:28, 29, where he shows that one’s being of the true seed of Abraham is not determined by whether one is a Jew or a Greek. Therefore, “the twelve tribes” addressed must be the spiritual “Israel of God.”—Ga 6:15, 16.
Purpose. James’ purpose in writing seems to have been twofold: (1) to exhort his fellow believers to display faith and endurance amid their trials, and (2) to warn them against sins resulting in divine disapproval.
Some had fallen into the snare of looking to those more prominent and rich and showing favoritism. (Jas 2:1-9) They failed to discern what they really were in God’s eyes and were hearers of the word but not doers. (1:22-27) They had begun to use their tongues wrongly, and their cravings for sensual pleasure were causing fights among them. (3:2-12; 4:1-3) Their desire for material things had brought some into the position of being friends of the world and therefore, not chaste virgins, but spiritual “adulteresses,” at enmity with God.—4:4-6.
James corrected them on the matter of being doers as well as hearers by showing from Scriptural examples that a man having real faith would manifest it by works in harmony with his faith. For example, one having true faith would not say to a brother naked and lacking food, “Go in peace, keep warm and well fed,” and not give him the necessities. (Jas 2:14-26) Here James was not contradicting Paul by saying that one could earn salvation by works. Rather, he accepts faith as the basis for salvation but points out that there cannot be genuine faith that does not produce good works. This is in harmony with Paul’s description of the fruitage of the spirit, at Galatians 5:22-24, and his counsel to put on the new personality, at Ephesians 4:22-24 and Colossians 3:5-10, as well as his admonition to do good and share with others, at Hebrews 13:16.
Style. James’ letter has a strong prophetic tone and contains many figures of speech and similes, giving it a certain resemblance to Jesus Christ’s discourses, such as the Sermon on the Mount. Like Jesus, James drew on physical things—the sea, vegetation, animals, boats, a farmer, the earth—to give colorful backing to his arguments on faith, control of the tongue, patience, and so forth. (Jas 1:6, 9-11; 3:3-12; 5:7) This, together with the use of pointed questions and more than 50 imperatives in this relatively short letter, made James’ letter dynamic.
Relationship to Earlier Inspired Scripture. James quoted or referred to the Hebrew Scriptures with regard to man’s creation (Jas 3:9; Ge 1:26); Abraham and Rahab (Jas 2:21-26; Ge 15:6; 22:9-12; Jos 2; Isa 41:8); Job (Jas 5:11; Job 1:13-22; 2:7-10; 42:10-17); the Law (Jas 2:8, 11; Ex 20:13, 14; Le 19:18; De 5:17, 18), and Elijah (Jas 5:17, 18; 1Ki 17:1; 18:1). There are many pointed examples of direct harmony with statements of Jesus Christ. To name a few: concerning persecution (Jas 1:2; Mt 5:10-12); asking for and receiving things from God (Jas 1:5, 17; Lu 11:9-13); being both hearers and doers (Jas 1:22; Mt 7:21-27); separateness from the world (Jas 4:4; Joh 17:14); not judging others (Jas 4:12; Lu 6:37); reliability of one’s word (Jas 5:12; Mt 5:33-37).
James 4:5 has presented a problem because there is uncertainty about the verse(s) James quoted (or perhaps only referred to). This text reads: “Or does it seem to you that the scripture says to no purpose: ‘It is with a tendency to envy that the spirit which has taken up residence within us keeps longing’?” It has been suggested that these words were drawn by James under divine inspiration from the general thought of such texts as Genesis 6:5; 8:21; Proverbs 21:10; and Galatians 5:17.
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HIGHLIGHTS OF JAMES
A letter emphasizing that faith has to be demonstrated by works
Written before 62 C.E., more than eight years prior to Jerusalem’s destruction by the Romans
Christians enduring faithfully under trial have reason to be happy (1:1-18)
God will generously give us the wisdom needed to endure if we keep asking for it in faith
Never does God try us with evil things; but a person may be enticed into a wrong course by his own wrong desire
Everything that Jehovah provides is good
Worship that is acceptable to God requires right works to demonstrate one’s faith (1:19–2:26)
Put away all badness and accept God’s word with mildness; be a doer of the word and not merely a hearer
Learn to control the tongue, look after orphans and widows, and keep without spot from the world
Favoring the rich while disregarding the poor is a violation of “the kingly law” of love
A living faith is revealed by works, as is evident in the examples of Abraham and Rahab
Teachers have a great responsibility before Jehovah (3:1-18)
They, and all Christians, must learn to control the tongue
They can do this if they manifest wisdom from above
Worldly tendencies will affect our relationship with God (4:1–5:12)
Those guilty of fighting to attain their selfish aims or those condemning their brothers need to repent
Friendship with the world is enmity with God
Materialistic planning that ignores Jehovah’s will is arrogant
Divine judgment is in store for rich, defrauding oppressors
A spirit of impatience and sighing under adversity must be guarded against while we wait for Jesus Christ to judge
To recover from spiritual sickness resulting from sin, the suffering one should call on elders for help (5:13-20)
An open confession of sin as well as prayers on behalf of the sinner by the elders will promote spiritual healing
To recover an erring brother is to save him from spiritual death